Sunday, November 26, 2017

Album Review: Peter Perrett - How The West Was Won (2017)

The miracle isn’t that Peter Perrett has made a comeback album. The miracle isn’t that he’s making music. The miracle is that Peter Perrett is still alive. And functioning.

Nearly four decades on from ‘Another Girl Another Planet’, the minor hit record that defined his career as the frontman for the Only Ones, Perrett returns with How The West Was Won, a rather fascinating album that defies all odds.

I say ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ was a “minor” hit, only because that’s how it started out, in the relative infancy of its first couple of years. But as the decades passed, long after Perrett disappeared from public view, the track grew legs, and it is now universally recognised as one of its era’s seminal “new wave” tunes. 

The Only Ones made just three albums, over three years, from 1978 to 1980, before Perrett slid into a pit of serious drug addiction and self-imposed isolation. He briefly emerged from seclusion in the mid Nineties to make a new album with a band called The One (see what he did there?), which mostly went unnoticed, before he again disappeared from view.

Somewhere along that journey, Perrett managed to become a father, and it’s with the help of two sons – Jamie (guitar, keys) and Peter junior (bass, ex-Babyshambles) – that the now 65-year-old rocker has returned with this debut “solo” release.

So it’s probably fair to say that How The West Was Won is one of this year’s biggest surprises. For all of the reasons noted above, and because it’s actually a bloody good album.

Perrett possesses a voice that could be best described as “lived-in”. Unspectacular, overly nasal, cracked, and somewhat grizzled. But it works. It works because – aside from the obvious Lou Reed comparison – it’s perfect for the songs he’s written. Songs about his struggle with addiction, songs about celebrity and fame (or infamy), songs that veer into the realm of politics, and songs about his relationship with long-time partner, Zena … just look at some of the song titles: ‘An Epic Story’, ‘Hard To Say No’, ‘Living In My Head’, ‘Man of Extremes’, and ‘Something In My Brain’ … you get the picture.

And the album works because, first and foremost, Perrett is completely honest about his journey. Which is a sure sign he’s getting beyond the addiction issues that have plagued his story. The song-writing is raw and at times, quite brutal. There is also the odd morsel of humour, most of it self-deprecating, but some of it at the expense of Kim Kardashian (who he mock-claims to be in love with, without ever wanting to see her from the front).

Musically, Perrett keeps things simple and relatively uncomplicated – two guitars (he plays rhythm himself), bass, keyboards, and drums (courtesy of Jake Woodward). It’s an ethos completely aligned with the production. The message seems to be that, often, the most precious diamonds are those left unpolished.

Flaws and all, this feels like a very complete album, one that only Perrett could have made, and I for one, am thankful that he did.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Classic Album Review: U2 - October (1981)

This is perhaps yet another one of those "classic" albums that isn’t really all that much of a classic. But in relative terms, when you ponder the sheer loathing the band tends to attract today, this one might be worth revisiting …

U2 were big news in 1981. Not quite the sort of big news they were to become over the course of the next quarter of a century, but big news nonetheless. Following the success of the band’s debut album, Boy, in 1980, expectations were high for the Dublin band’s second album, October, one year later.

Despite the excitement further generated by the lead-off single ‘Gloria’, which is all wailing and edgy guitar (yes, appalling pun intended), and something of a mini epic, the album itself is a largely disappointing body of work – coming across as slightly rushed, a little sparse in places, and it generally lacks the pure adrenalin rush of the band’s debut.

There were, of course, a few mitigating circumstances; from all accounts the band were left ill-prepared due to a series of unfortunate circumstances – short on studio time, short on a full set of lyrics, and still very much feeling their way as a unit.

All of the future stock standard U2 trademarks are present and accounted for on October however – impressive vocals, that familiar chiming guitar, tight rhythms, and loads of echo-infused atmospheric percussion. It’s just that none of the tracks are all that memorable – certainly not relative to the rest of the U2 catalogue – and beyond ‘Gloria’, nothing really reaches out to grab you by the scruff.
Themes are similar to those found on Boy – boredom, rebellion, isolation, and oppression. The most predominant theme though, is one that U2 would continually return to over the years – faith/religion.
The band earn full marks for the raw energy levels evident on October, and you can still detect the prevailing sense of hunger, plus a determination to get some kind of message across. In that context, October does at least match its predecessor. Steve Lillywhite again offers a deft hand with production.
‘Gloria’ is quite rightly the album’s flag-bearer, but ‘Rejoice’, ‘Fire’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’, and the dreamy near instrumental ‘Scarlet’, are all at the very least half decent album tracks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Goneville, a memoir, by Nick Bollinger

Goneville: "it's a place you could almost find on a map, but not quite" ...

In Nick Bollinger's preface for Goneville, the author describes the two New Zealands he grew up in – the one where males worshipped rugby and beer, and a rather more free-spirited bohemian one, where art and music was at the centre of everything. No prizes for guessing which version Bollinger found himself more comfortable in. In fact, Bollinger embraced the latter with such ease, he'd eventually go on to become not only an accomplished musician, but something of a highly influential tastemaker in his role as an arts critic, columnist, and music reviewer for the NZ Listener, and more recently, with Radio NZ.
Goneville, nowhere near Wanganui
Goneville works on a couple of different levels. Firstly, it’s Bollinger's memoir, his account of growing up in Wellington during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Secondly, it’s a detailed – if not quite complete – history of the capital’s music scene throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, as seen through the eyes of a man who was very much at the heart of that particular scene. There’s also a natural crossover into all things social and political, and it provides a genuine snapshot of a world – or of a fledgling nation – that we’ve, for better or for worse, long since left behind.

Things jump around a little bit to begin with, but much of the early part of the book deals with Bollinger's childhood – with stories about growing up in 1960s Wellington, attending Onslow College, discovering music, and an acknowledgement of the hugely positive role his free-thinking, academic father (who died while Bollinger was still in his teens) had in shaping his own worldview.

From there we move into the core of the book, covering off Bollinger’s formative musical experiences; sneaking into gigs whilst still underage, playing wild-west-type gigs with school friends in the Hutt Valley, and being inspired by bands like Mammal, Blerta, Space Waltz, and early Split Enz (Split Ends), to name just a few. 

During his time at university, Bollinger was recruited as the bass player for Rick Bryant’s blues and soul-based collective, Rough Justice, and much of the book deals with his weed-ravaged experiences on the road, something of a hand-to-mouth existence, travelling in what might loosely be described as a “hippy bus”, as the band traversed the nether regions of New Zealand’s live music circuit.

Bryant features heavily throughout, along with local promoter-come-Dragon manager Graeme Nesbitt, plus there’s a fair bit about the late great Bruno Lawrence. Bollinger writes passionately and at length about each man. He clearly reserves a special affection for Bryant in particular, and the much-travelled rocker is the key protagonist in several of the more humorous anecdotes on offer.  

“He (Bryant, whilst driving the bus) starts telling me about the soul singer Joe Tex. This leads into an analysis of Tolstoy and winds up with the history of the New Zealand labour movement. It feels as though I have stayed at university, although it's hard to say what paper I have enrolled in.”

Onetime Lion Breweries promoter Richard Holden also features prominently, and there’s real insight into just how difficult it was for local bands to find the right balance between being able to earn a living, and fulfilling a wider ambition to produce original work. 

Richard Holden, on bands looking for work in brewery-owned establishments: “There has been some good original music but a lot of original rubbish. They will have to realise that we're not in the musical genius business. We're in the entertainment business.”

There’s also some interesting stuff around the breweries' attempts to control or monopolise nightlife and the live music circuit, with nepotism and licensing restrictions making it near impossible for venues like Wellington's Last Resort and Charley Gray's Auckland club, Island of Real (just two examples of many), to become fully licensed. Bands and promoters were forced to play a game imposed upon them by the beer barons if they wanted any level of exposure – beyond, by dint of some miracle, landing a “hit record”.
Rough Justice, 1978, Bollinger - bottom right
Later in the book, Bollinger deals with the demise of Rough Justice and writes extensively on just how much the landscape had changed by 1980, due in part to the arrival of punk on these shores. Near the conclusion, coinciding roughly with Bollinger travelling overseas to expand his musical horizons, he looks at the hugely divisive Springbok rugby tour of 1981, and his own involvement with the protest movement.
In some respects, Bollinger completes a full circle by the end. The counter-culture that took him under its wing in the early-to-mid 1970s had, according to all other accounts, supposedly died by the early 1980s. Yet in the form of punk and the protest movement, here it was again, reinventing or manifesting itself in a remarkably similar way.

Writing about the ultra-conservative Robert Muldoon gaining a third term in office as Prime Minister in 1981: “He (Muldoon) often talked about ‘the ordinary bloke’, a notional person on whose behalf he was fighting. The ordinary bloke seemed to be a New Zealand male who just wanted to be able to do a day’s work, go home, drink beer, and watch rugby. Anyone with progressive views on education, environment, or equality, was the Prime Minister’s natural enemy.”

Which is pretty much where we came in.

There’s a generous helping of black and white photos scattered throughout the book, all meticulously documented in the closing pages, multiple sources (of quotes and other content) are noted and acknowledged in great detail, and as you’d expect from someone of Bollinger’s pedigree, there’s even an extensive “selected discography” referencing the work of many of the bands covered in the book.

It’s an important book. Not just for fans of the Wellington music scene of yester-year, but for anyone keen on the social history of New Zealand. You simply won’t find anyone else more qualified to write about this stuff. Recommended.