Thursday, September 22, 2016

Classic Album Review: Various - F**K Art Let's Danse / 28 Classic & Rare Tracks (2007)

I've been thinking quite a bit this week about the 40th anniversary of the infamous Punk Festival held at London’s 100 club. About how that momentous event is often considered a defining or pivotal moment in wider pop culture or rock music history – heralding as it did, the arrival of an exciting new phenomenon. Or that’s how the story has been told, and it’s certainly the narrative we’ve been fed in one or two published articles this week. And then I recalled this album, one of the most treasured compilations in my possession, a comprehensive collection of tracks which serve to highlight the roots of the genre, and an album that throws a rather different light on the evolution of punk. I reviewed it for another site not long after its 2007 release:

If asked to come up with a list of bands or artists most influential in the rise of the UK’s late Seventies “punk” scene, the majority of self-respecting music historians would doubtlessly look first and foremost to the USA and its late Sixties/early Seventies “underground” scene. Indeed, any quick perusal of Jon Savage’s seminal book ‘England’s Dreaming’ (a history of the Sex Pistols and Punk) or Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’ (which covers the post-punk era) would reveal the massive debt owed by UK punk bands to their anti-establishment cousins from across the Atlantic.

It is a debt however, seldom fully acknowledged by compilers of punk collections; they’re more often than not very UK-centric, with mere lip service being paid to the influence and momentum provided by a wide variety of US-based bands – usually with the inclusion of an obvious track from The Ramones, and maybe something from um, Blondie. This is where F**k Art Let’s Danse differs from the large majority of the many so-called “punk” compilations … and as a 28-track, double CD compilation, it is all the better for not only acknowledging the transatlantic link, but actively celebrating it.

40 years ago this week ...

Take a look at this list of names: The 13th Floor Elevators, the New York Dolls, Iggy & The Stooges, Patti Smith, MC5, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, Suicide, Television, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Kennedys. Oh, and just for good measure, The Ramones.
That list represents a veritable Who’s Who of the Seventies US underground scene, and all of the above bands feature prominently on F**k Art Let’s Danse. Only the addition of material from the Velvet Underground and/or Talking Heads would have made it something close to definitive in terms of US contributions to the scene. In fact, the album digs deep and travels even further back in time to the decadent mid-Sixties with the inclusion of garage and psychedelic tracks from the likes of The Sonics, The Seeds, Fugs, and The Creation.

But, similarly, if you think F**k Art Let’s Danse is all about those damned yanks and the template they provided, then you’d be wrong. The UK is represented by the not insignificant likes of The Damned, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, the UK Subs, The Slits, and The Adverts.
Hell, we even get a couple of notable “hit” singles from Ian Dury (‘Sex And Drugs …’) and The Only Ones (‘Another Girl Another Planet’) … neither track being particularly authentic “punk” but the inclusion on here of each nonetheless pays tribute to the role pub-rock played in the development of the genre, and both bands flirted with the fringes of the movement without becoming completely consumed by it.

It could be argued that the album is weakened for the fact that it doesn’t include anything at all by the Sex Pistols, The Clash, or early Buzzcocks, but you can find that stuff practically anywhere, or at the very least on one of the other many compilations on the market. Clearly, the compilers of this album were wholehearted in their commitment to avoiding the bleedin’ obvious, and in truth that is one of its best features.

Overall, F**k Art Let’s Danse is a superb collection, and worthwhile alone for the sheer variety on offer. Punk is often viewed through ill-informed ignorant eyes as being a short-lived entirely British phenomenon; a scene that lasted three years max (between 1976 and say, 1979), but this collection begs to convince you otherwise.

CD1 Highlights: X-Ray Spex – ‘Identity’, Dead Kennedys – ‘Too Drunk To F**k’, MC5 – ‘Kick Out The Jams’, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Roadrunner’, and Department S – ‘Is Vic There?’.

CD2 Highlights: The 13th Floor Elevators – ‘Slip Inside This House’, New York Dolls – ‘Looking For A Kiss’, Patti Smith – ‘Piss Factory’, Pere Ubu – ‘Heart Of Darkness’, and The Slits (live cover) – ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Classic Album Review: Joy Division – Permanent (1995)

Speaking of compilations masquerading as classics … and because it seems timely to revisit this album, coinciding with the release of Peter Hook's latest book (out October 6) ...

Although Joy Division managed just two studio albums during its time as a going concern, there’s now a raft of material out there to choose from if you're looking for a wider overview of the band’s career – from Peel Session(s) to live sets to box sets, and all manner of compilation album in between. This one, Permanent, from 1995, is one of the better collections on offer.
Joy Division were most famously associated with Factory Records, but Permanent is a London Records release after that label snapped up chunks of Factory’s catalogue when the Manc-based label hit the skids. I’m not sure whether or not that’s the reason Permanent always seems to get bad press, but early accusations that this was merely a cash-in and an unnecessary release by a predatory label might now appear a little churlish when you consider all of the subsequent compilation releases of Joy Division material across the past two decades.  

Whatever the case, for casual fans of the band, Permanent definitely has its place. It may not be anywhere near as comprehensive as Heart And Soul (the extensive box set) or delve quite as deep as Substance (which included more early demos and B-sides), but it does feature all of the band’s key singles, and many of the best tracks from the two studio albums and the posthumous odds and sods, Still.

I think I prefer Permanent over Substance because it contains Closer’s ‘Isolation’, and because we also get two versions of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (including the 1995 remix). And of course there’s ‘Transmission’, ‘She's Lost Control’, ‘Shadowplay’, ‘Heart And Soul’, ‘These Days’, ‘Novelty’, and naturally, the wonderful ‘Atmosphere’.

Permanent can therefore be considered a fairly concise – if not particularly complete – overview of Joy Division’s best work … which is really all any non-anally retentive casual fan will want, surely?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Classic Album Review: The Mockers – Woke Up Today (2008)

News this week that The Mockers are about to reform for a one-off festival gig in Christchurch in January 2017 had me reminiscing about the band, and reminded me that I had a CD copy of Woke Up Today, a collection of the band’s finest moments. I thought I’d take a quick sneaky peek at that album:

(And yes, it is a bit of a stretch to call a “best of” album a “classic” album, but I’m doing it anyway – my blog, my rules) …

Fronted by extrovert composer/vocalist Andrew Fagan, The Mockers were an atypical early Eighties Kiwi pop band in the sense that they were one of the few pub-touring acts to enjoy consistent (local) singles chart success. New Zealand bands from that era had enough difficulty getting locally produced music played on commercial radio, let alone being able to enjoy the luxury of watching that minimal airtime morph into something resembling sales success.

It helped, of course, that Fagan had a knack for writing radio-friendly songs full of delightful synth-laden hooks, but the key element to that success was undoubtedly the band’s capacity for sheer hard work and regular gigging.

Neither mods, nor rockers ... the Mockers

Through much of the era, say 1980 to 1987, The Mockers could lay claim to being one of New Zealand’s most prolific bands, releasing a series of highly enjoyable saccharine pop songs, the vast majority as singles, pretty much all of which are included on Woke Up Today.

As such, the album includes gems like ‘Forever Tuesday Morning’ (probably the band’s biggest hit), ‘Good Old Days’, ‘Swear It’s True’, ‘My Girl Thinks She’s Cleopatra’ (so did mine!), ‘Trendy Lefties’, ‘One Black Friday’, and of course ‘Woke Up Today’ … plus a dozen or so more.
The collection was long overdue by the time it eventually arrived (released in 2008), and it works as a fairly comprehensive career-spanning overview; the only other career retrospective for The Mockers being a particularly tardy, cheaply compiled, and poorly distributed album covering the first five years only.

One of the best things about Woke Up Today is the CD’s inlay/booklet, which includes photographs, promo posters, and media clippings about gigs and releases from that period.

And who doesn’t love a little bit of nostalgia?

Ps … on that note, I was lucky enough to see the band play live at Wellington’s now defunct Terminus venue in the summer of 1983/1984, when right at the peak of its powers. Fagan’s charismatic performance that night was a stand-out, and at his pomp he was unquestionably one of New Zealand’s most eccentric and more lovable front men. That, of course, was something of a hometown gig for The Mockers, the band having started life as local high school new wavers, the Ambitious Vegetables, and I’ve a feeling the support that night came from the now long forgotten fellow locals, Jungle Mice.

Ps2 ... I’m more certain that weekend represented one of those life-affirming pivotal moments for me – having travelled the 100-odd miles south from smalltown Palmerston North with my girlfriend Jude, spending (perhaps) up to a week crashing at her older sister’s Mt Victoria flat, I think it was about that point I decided Wellington was somewhere I wanted to live. It took another two years for me to make that actually happen – sans Jude, sadly – but I remember being blown away by the vibe of the city, and the many possibilities it held for me as a naïve but open minded thrill-seeking 19-year-old.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Me And Miss Simone ...

This is a story about something and nothing really, but the recent publication of yet another Nina Simone biography, Alan Light's ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’ had me recalling a rather terrifying encounter I had with the singer in Glasgow back in May of 1994 ... okay, so it wasn't strictly "terrifying" in the purest sense of that word, but it was certainly prickly enough to remain memorable more than two decades later.

Latest Simone bio
It was the occasion of Simone's appearance at Mayfest, which meant a live performance at Glasgow Green, and her presence as a guest at the city's central Forte Crest Hotel, where I was employed as the night duty manager. As such, it was my job to close the restaurant, cash up the bar, deal with late guests, and generally supervise all late night or early morning staff.
During my 18 months or so in the role, at two separate large accommodation hotels in Glasgow, I'd met a few "celebs" like Billy Connolly, Boney M, Sister Sledge, and a few rock bands of varying degrees of repute. Plus a few top flight footballers - easily the most famous of which was the Manchester United legend Denis Law. The Forte Crest also hosted live televised boxing nights, which usually wound up with little old me trying to keep any number of shadowy Glasgow gangland figures in check during the wee small hours ... and yes, that task was usually as forlorn (and amusing) as it sounds. But there were none so famous, nor quite so fearsome as Nina Simone.

It happened as much by design as it did by accident; as much as you'd imagine someone like Simone coveting her privacy, apparently she didn't like to eat alone, and had requested upon check-in that the most senior manager on duty accompany her pre-ordered room service breakfast. At that early hour on that particular late spring Glasgow morning, right at the end of my shift, that lucky individual just happened to be me.

Given that I delivered the breakfast precisely at the pre-arranged time, I was admittedly a little startled when Simone appeared dressed only in a bath robe, but less surprised to see her head wrapped in a towel to replicate what is something of a trademark Simone look. It's fair to say I was somewhat in awe of her all-consuming powerful presence, and barely able to retain any sense of poise when she asked if I'd stay while she ate.

Over the next five to ten minutes, I couldn't help but reveal that I was a big fan of her work, doing the whole fanboy thing a little too keenly perhaps. Yet she still seemed genuinely interested in me, clocking my (distinctly non-Glaswegian) accent, asking a little bit about my own journey, before we moved back - rather fatally - to the topics of music, performing, and touring. Cue my regular life-worn ability to underestimate how easy it is to offend some people - without actually realising it:

When she asked if I knew of any major concert promoters in New Zealand - after initially touting Paul Dainty, solely on the basis of having heard of him, without having any real idea of the size or scope of his operation - I made the purely innocent, well intentioned, and remarkably naive suggestion that she would be popular at any number of our regular "jazz festivals" ... at which point she grimaced, and scolded, with a very distinct and deliberate change of tone, "I'm much more than just a jazz singer, young man" ...
Immediately the room temperature dropped like a stone, I'd somehow managed to upset her, and any sense of goodwill between us instantly disappeared. I'd been witheringly corrected and effectively dismissed, and the remaining frosty five minutes of our acquaintance was all about me desperately trying to reconcile just how it could all have turned out quite so badly. In my mind's eye, by "jazz festival" I'd more or less meant "arts festival", but it seemed hopeless to labour the point, and I decided not to complicate matters further by keeping my mouth firmly zipped until she thanked me for the breakfast service and I was allowed to leave.
Not just a jazz singer ...
So whenever I hear stories or read excerpts of articles where Simone is referred to as something akin to a "prickly character" or mentioned in the same breath as the word "diva", I always allow myself a wry smile and offer a knowing nod to that Glasgow hotel room encounter. The day I had the audacity to try to stick a label on an artist who made a career out of refusing to accept or be limited by the boundaries imposed upon her by those of us who really should know better.
And for all that it’s easy for me to recall this incident as Simone getting hung up on semantics, citing it as an example of how contrary or difficult she could be, it’s also worth remembering that as a black American woman of certain generation, Nina Simone grew up with nothing but limitations and labels being forced upon her. She fought all manner of prejudice to become one of the leading civil (and equal) rights campaigners of her generation, so of course it was only natural that she’d react the way she did if she felt slighted in any way.

I look forward to reading the new bio, safe in the knowledge that while my own encounter with her definitely won’t rate a mention, there will doubtlessly be plenty of other similar stories to sit back and marvel at … ;- ))

Rather appropriately, here’s Simone with ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’…

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Album Review: Crystal Castles - Amnesty (I) (2016)

With the departure of vocalist Alice Glass two years ago, there were serious concerns about what her absence would mean for Crystal Castles. And more generally, somewhat less amicably, quite a lot of debate around the true extent of her contribution to the duo's work across three albums.

Let me deal with that bit first: Ethan Kath is the brains behind the project - and it's essentially his beast to do whatever he wants with - but there's no question he'll miss the raw energy and pure anarchy of Alice Glass when it comes to a live setting. A more extraordinary front-person or on-stage presence he'd be hard pressed to find.

That part is true, but on the evidence of the just released album number four, Amnesty (I) - the first post-Glass outing - the music of Crystal Castles has lost none of its studio clout, and new vocalist Edith Frances is a more than adequate replacement. Even if the jury will remain out on the live show for the time being.

And so while Amnesty (I) essentially represents a new phase for Crystal Castles, it's business as usual in terms of Kath's approach, and it's his production genius that dominates the latest work in the same way it did all previous full-length offerings. That means an updated variation on the warped synthpop that Kath specialises in, multiple rave-style loops, and more trademark layers of distorted and chopped vocal FX. Most of all, Amnesty (I) maintains the prevailing sense of organised chaos and melodrama we saw across the three previous Crystal Castles albums. I personally find it a thoroughly intoxicating formula, and already this album has enjoyed high rote on my pod.

If there's a criticism, it's exactly that. It’s that we’ve been here before - three times - and the onus may have been on Kath to take more risks this time out. To perhaps offer up something quite different. Amnesty (I) is unlikely to win any new followers, but it'll certainly keep existing fans happy - reassured as they'll undoubtedly be that, Alice or no Alice, Crystal Castles is still very much a going concern.

Highlights include 'Fleece', 'Char' - probably the most mainstream radio friendly tune Kath has ever made, 'Frail', and the closer, 'Their Kindness Is Charade' (clip below).


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Album Review: The Beths - Warm Blood (EP, 2016)

The Beths are a small part of a much greater Auckland-based collective whole, a group of musical projects that include the likes of Sal Valentine & The Babyshakes and others. Long-time friends Elizabeth Stokes, Jonathan Pearce, Benjamin Sinclair and Ivan Luketina-Johnston seem intent on using this project to revive and celebrate the increasingly lost art of high energy guitar pop. Starting with the bouncy ‘Whatever’, which combines hooks, crooks and guitar solos, Warm Blood is a whirlwind 19-minute blast across five high tempo tracks. Each pays homage to a bygone era in one form or another, and all contain a distinctly retro post-punk fraying around the edges. Pearce recorded, mixed and mastered the EP, and while for the most part Stokes is the lead vocalist, the band embrace girl/boy vocal exchanges and clever harmonies, and use catchy backing vocals to provide genuine Beths’ signature moments. Stokes also wrote the majority of the material for Warm Blood, the only exception being Luketina-Johnston’s ‘Rush Hour 3’, which perhaps owes the biggest debt of all to the retro styles of the ’60s beat groups a lot of this music recreates.

This review originally appeared in the August/September 2016 edition of NZ Musician Magazine:

You can purchase the EP on Bandcamp, here:


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Classic Album Review: The Stranglers – La Folie (1981)

The Stranglers are unquestionably one of the bands always most heavily associated with the hype and excitement of the late Seventies punk movement in the UK.

Yet there’s a school of thought which dictates that The Stranglers were merely “punk” by association, or part of the scene only by default. A Johnny-come-lately pub-rock band that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. For example, getting the nod to support The Ramones on the American band’s first UK tour.

It was said they were too old to be true punks – and to be fair, drummer Jet Black was nearing 40 at the time. It’s also true the band’s street cred was compromised by its wider professionalism, and the fact that they actually knew how to play their instruments. But then again, a couple of years playing live in London pubs will tend to do that to a band … prior to the arrival of the post-1976 DIY ethos, knowing how to play was pretty much a prerequisite for survival, let alone getting regular gigs. And it’s worth recalling that The Stranglers were very much established as a going concern long before that whole King’s Road thing took off in 1976.

Whatever the case, by 1981, and album number six, La Folie, the evidence would suggest The Stranglers were anything but punk, and you’d just as likely stick the dreaded synth-pop label on the band. Some five years after achieving prominence on the back of a scene which was all but dead on its feet, virtually all of the harder edges had been smoothed over, and the grittier, almost rough and ready approach of the band’s earlier stuff had gradually been replaced by something resembling a polished euro-disco chic. That’s the version you’ll find on La Folie, light years on from the band’s pub-rock heyday. The Feline album of 1983, continued the process, taking things to another level entirely. Though, not necessarily in a good way.

An increased reliance on programming and synths certainly helped to move The Stranglers into a more commercial realm, and in production terms, La Folie oozes an era-defining glossy faux-electro-sophistication, very much of and for its time. And of course, the fact that La Folie’s title-track was practically whispered in French, probably only added to the band’s newly acquired windswept-and-interesting cosmopolitan mystique.

As much as that track is one of the highlights on La Folie, the album’s masterpiece is ‘Golden Brown’, a chart hit (reaching no.2 in 1982) which has weathered well across several subsequent generations, despite its rather gruesome subject matter (heroin addiction) being completely at odds with its surface gentle beauty. Other highlights include ‘Non Stop’, ‘Pin Up’, and ‘How to Find True Love and Happiness in the Present Day’ … albeit the last one isn’t nearly as helpful as it might claim to be.