Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Gig Review: Radikal Guru, Laundry, Wellington, 26 October 2018

This is a not-particularly-complete review of Radikal Guru’s gig at Wellington’s Laundry last Friday night as I missed (maybe) half of it, but I still want to share a few words about the event given that I’d waited the best part of a decade to see the artist perform live. 

With the last train to the wilds of the Kapiti Coast locked in at just after 1am, and with the only later option being a $150-odd taxi fare, I was desperate for the main act to begin his set as soon as possible so I could make that train. That meant sitting through three or four local DJs before Radikal Guru announced his presence to a packed bar around midnight.

The build up was an enjoyable enough excursion into all facets of bass music - heavy dub, one drop, glitchy dubstep, some higher bpm stuff - with Ras Stone’s set of mostly rootsy material, plus some voiceover/toasting, being the best of a pretty good support bunch. 

Radikal Guru opened with a tribute to King Tubby, which seemed like an appropriate way to kick off a set which was, for the not-quite-hour or so I was there, drenched in the roots reggae flavours championed by the late great Jamaican producer. 

From there, non-original material was mashed together with original Radikal Guru stuff, and tunes like ‘Warning’ (off his Subconscious album) went down a treat with a crowd that was generally much younger than I had anticipated. 

You never know quite what you’re going to get when it comes to DJ “gigs”, but the Polish producer was in top form, which was an achievement in itself given his gruelling touring schedule. It also won’t have been particularly easy translating a lot of his original material into a live setting, especially at a small venue like Laundry, reliant as that work surely is on exploring space and sonic possibilities with all manner of in-house studio technology. 

But it was all too brief, all over in a flash really, and the bar was absolutely heaving by the time I was tasked with flying out the door to make that last god-forsaken train. 

No complaints, at just $10 on the door, as brief as it was, I felt a little humbled to be sharing the same rarefied air as an artist I’ve long admired from a distance. Thanks to Nice Up, Laundry, and the man himself.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Classic Album Review: The Clash - Combat Rock (1982)

Another guest contribution from Craig Stephen (thanks Craig) ... helping to fill in another glaring gap in the classic album ranks:

Of the 1977 punk crowd, only The Clash and The Jam were still standing by 1982, albeit neither would last long in their original line-ups. The Sex Pistols, The Adverts, Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned, et al, had either split up or had reached the peak of their talents.

The Clash’s longevity was largely due to the protagonists’ chameleon-like tendencies and their ability to latch on to new and old styles and make them their own. By the (British) spring of 1982 they were ready for what would be the final episode in the Westway Story: the combative Combat Rock. 

It would follow the double album London Calling and the triple Sandinista, but Combat Rock wrestled away the expansive (some say bloated) nature of those twin classics, with a strict two-sided, 12-track album. No dub versions nor any kids in the studio. It wasn’t how Mick Jones wanted it, but his plan for an 18-track double with the working title Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg was overruled.

A 2013 Bootleg only

The first half dozen tracks feature the radio-friendly lovelies: ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, ‘Straight To Hell’ (they were fused together on a double A-side), ‘Rock the Casbah’, and ‘Know Your Rights’ (the first song to be issued in single format and a monumental flop in the UK). 

It is ‘Know Your Rights’ that opens the album, the buzzsaw guitar reminiscent of Duane Eddy accompanying Joe Strummer’s mischievous rather than angry vocals on the three fundamentals we are permitted. But, as he notes, in an impish manner, there’s a hook to each of them. 

“Murder is a crime ... unless it is done by a policeman – or an aristocrat.”

“You have the right to free speech … as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Which brings us nicely to ‘Sean Flynn’, the song of the actor turned photojournalist, taken by insurgents in Cambodia and never seen again. Like the album as a whole (the focus on the Vietnam war, the cover shot taken on a rural rail track in Thailand), the song has an Asian feel about it, with Japanese or Korean-style drumming. There are only two verses and if the name of the protagonist wasn’t in the title you’d be hard pushed to figure out what the central figure was doing. 

From south-east Asia to the Middle East. ‘Rock the Casbah’, one of the genuine classic rock tracks of the early 80s without reeking of chauvinistic and outdated rock notions, is a critique of the banning of music in Iran: “By order of the prophet/ We ban that boogie sound/ Degenerate the faithful/ With that crazy Casbah sound.” 

To really appreciate it, listen to the version, in Arabic, by Rachid Taha. 

During the touring of the album, Strummer sported a mohawk, just like the one Robert de Niro had in Taxi Driver, and what’d’ya know but ‘Red Angel Dragnet’ is a paen to vigilantes and borrows from the film itself. Long-time Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl even mimics Travis Bickle in the film (“Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets"). 

Written by guitarist Paul Simonon, it was inspired by the killing of one of the Guardian Angels on a New York subway earlier that year. Nevertheless, it’s easy-on-the-ear homage to a bunch of well-meaning but perhaps misguided people might give some the impression vigilantism is a bona fide way of protecting the streets. 

As well as Vinyl, there are guest appearances by beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and graffiti-artist extraordinaire and sometime performer, Futura 2000 – the latter on ‘Overpowered by Funk’, whose title very much gives the game away. 

Ginsburg’s contribution to ‘Ghetto Defendant’ is in the form of a “voice of God” narrative. He begins the track and thereafter peppers it with a few words here and there, and while it seems as if his contribution - more of a mantra - is limited, his lines work well with Strummer’s narrator/ heckler routine. 

As with Sandinista, The Clash straddle and explore a world of music: ‘Overpowered By Funk’ delves into the burgeoning hip-hop scene of New York and 70s funk; ‘Straight To Hell’ and ‘Know Your Rights’ dabble with rockabilly, while ‘Car Jamming’ again highlights the band’s long-held love of reggae and dub.

Going back to Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg – while some of those tracks became B-sides the bulk has largely been unheard. So, given the time since its release now stretches to 36 years, it would seem appropriate to give the entire album an honorary release.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Album Review: Darren Watson - Too Many Millionaires (2018)

A few months back, Wellington bluesman Darren Watson made an honest and heartfelt social media confession about how mentally and physically exhausted he felt in the wake of his most recent New Zealand tour. 2018 has been a big year for Watson. A new album, Too Many Millionaires, recorded and duly self-released, followed by the obligatory promotional treadmill, capped off by a series of gigs hot-footing it around the country. To paraphrase Watson, there wasn’t much left in the tank. Which is perfectly understandable. It’s the musician’s equivalent of a sportsman fronting a post-match interview with the requisite “I left everything out there on the pitch” … 

As is so often the way for blues artists of a certain vintage, Watson just keeps getting better with age. Even if Watson himself is unlikely to buy into that type of lazy cliche or stereotype. After all, he’s been breaking through barriers for the 30-plus years he’s been doing this stuff. As a passionate student of the genre, living at the bottom of the world, plying his trade thousands of miles beyond the heart of the Mississippi delta, forging a career playing a brand of music that many would claim to be the sole preserve of black America. 

Which of course it isn’t. Watson proves that. As have others. But it can sometimes feel that way. Particularly for anyone craving any amount of authenticity beyond the barely palatable blues-rock crossover fare which frequented mainstream radio in the Seventies and Eighties. 

In terms of the album itself, critics far more knowledgeable than myself - especially when it comes to blues music - have been swift to label Too Many Millionaires as Watson’s best work yet. And from all accounts it rates as his most commercially successful album to date. 

It’s certainly one of the more stripped back and less complicated albums he’s ever released. Something that not only serves to highlight the quality of the lyrics on offer, it also brings the work of Watson’s band into sharp focus. In particular, the tight rhythm section, and Terry Casey’s artistry on the harmonica. 

As with past work, Watson is not shy about mining New Zealand’s rich - yet mostly unheralded - blues heritage, breathing fresh life back into a Bill Lake number on the title track, and paying tribute to local legend Rick Bryant on ‘That Guy Could Sing!’

On ‘National Guy’, Watson unrepentantly explores similar themes to one that got him into some hot water with the electoral commission a few years back … 

“If you wanna share some of mine, well, get to the back of the line” … 

Opener, ‘Hallelujah (Rich Man’s War), and ‘Un-Love Me’, appeal as the best of the rest, and but you’ll not find a dud track anywhere on Too Many Millionaires. 

The only reservation for me, is that after the closing strut of ‘Past Tense’, I’m still left wanting more, and at just eight tracks, running its full course at a few ticks over 32 minutes, the album is perhaps a little too short. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Classic Album Review: OST - Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Often primarily thought of as a Bee Gees album, the Saturday Night Fever OST is right up there as one of the most important soundtrack releases of the Seventies (if not beyond). 

Important, not only because it revived – in no uncertain terms – the flagging career of one of the best vocal groups ever heard around these parts, and not only because it includes three of the decade’s biggest-selling singles in ‘Night Fever’, ‘Stayin’ Alive’, and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, but important because it was the album that finally moved the disco genre out of a few select and exclusive New York clubs to transport it firmly into the (global) mainstream. And let’s face it, despite John Travolta’s best dance moves, the movie itself was always unlikely to achieve such a feat on its own. In fact, seldom can any soundtrack have sold so many movie tickets.

The three aforementioned singles are obvious highlights, and the Gibb brothers culled a couple of tracks from earlier albums – such as ‘Jive Talkin’ off Main Course (1975), and ‘You Should Be Dancing’ off Children Of The World (1976) – to completely overshadow the best of the rest and effectively claim the album as one of their own. 

Other disco-era luminaries like Kool & The Gang, KC & The Sunshine Band, Tavares, Yvonne Elliman, and The Trammps all feature here, with varying degrees of quality control. 

For all of that, listening to the album in its entirety without resorting to the skip button can be extremely hard work indeed. Mainly on account of some of the symphonic tat sprinkled liberally throughout – the David Shire stuff and the like, cheesing us out in much the same way watching an old episode of the Love Boat would. But hey, it is a soundtrack, and those instrumental interludes are surely right there in the movie, so that is what we get. 

However, none of the negative points can detract from the fact that Saturday Night Fever remains a landmark release, even today, more than 40 years later. Not so much critically, but certainly commercially, and as much as I’ve tried to shake them, many of my own high school memories remain inextricably linked with this album, and that of the Grease OST a year or so later. 

Yeah, I know, I know … but there’s not much I can do about it now is there?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Terrorball's Cluster Funk

This blog’s favourite Hamiltonian, Terrorball, returns with more electro-funk goodness in the form of an album called Cluster Funk. Once again it is available as a name-your-price download on the Bandcamp platform. For this listener, the highlights come near the end, with ‘Lagoon’ and ‘2 Bit’ hitting all the right spots. The rest of it is not too bad either …

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Album Review: Death and The Maiden - Wisteria (2018)

Wisteria is the second full-length outing for Dunedin three-piece Death and the Maiden, and it propels the band along the same dark melodic-pop path first explored on the self-titled debut of 2015 ...

Only this time out there’s a level of self-assurance not immediately obvious on the debut, and it feels as though there might be a little more polish on offer. Perhaps that’s merely a natural progression for a band now more comfortable in its own skin, but it might also be the result of extra gloss added by Danny Brady and Bevan Smith during the production and mastering processes.

Whatever the case, there’s an additional sprinkling of fairy dust on this one, and a sense that subtle changes made to a core formula have worked well on Wisteria. Crisp, pulsing, synths, bounce off and push hard up against dense, intoxicating guitars, to produce a heady blend of post-punk and trip-hoppy electronica. 

Nine tracks of the stuff, each one evidently keen to carefully exploit the delicate art of repetition, and all of them fair dripping with requisite levels of melodrama.

If there’s a small reservation to be had, it’s that the vocal delivery is occasionally a little too thin, or maybe just buried too deeply in the mix.

But that’s a minor complaint, all things considered, and Wisteria is another worthy addition to an ever-expanding list of top notch releases from the deep south’s Fishrider Records.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Guest Post ... Party Fears Ten: How Scottish post-punk saved the world (sort of)

Following our hugely popular (no need for the BS – Ed) list of Aussie bands that weren’t shit, the bard of Montrose, Craig Stephen - the contributor formerly known as Porky - removes his porcine disguise to uncover 10 of the finest Scottish post-punk bands …

But, what, no Altered Images? Gasp.

The Scars

This Edinburgh band was formed in early 1977 by brothers Paul and John Mackie. A window ad in a record store roped in idiosyncratic vocalist Robert King and drummer Calumn Mackay and away they went. Long after their first gig at Balerno Scout Hall, the four-piece signed for fabled local label, Fast Product, which was notable for issuing early releases by The Human League, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Joy Division. Their debut album, Author! Author!, arrived in 1981 and earned five stars in Sounds and a rave review from the NME’s Paul Morley. I can’t disagree with either of those writers: it wasn’t always an easy listen but it was a magnificent piece of work; a kind of post-punk goth menagerie. Ahead of their time some say, and despite leaving a back catalogue of excellent singles and the album, The Scars were gone by 1982. 

Josef K

They lasted two years (if that), released one album during their existence, and scrapped another - a decision that is almost universally regarded as one of the biggest mistakes in pop history - but Josef K are one of the most feted and cultist bands to emerge from the post-punk era. Franz Ferdinand, for instance, love ‘em. Josef K were formed in 1979 and after one single on the obscure Absolute label signed to Alan Horne’s Postcard Records. Two singles were released on the legendary label and in late 1980 they were preparing to issue their debut album, Sorry For Laughing, when it was suddenly shelved, apparently because it was “too polished”. It wasn’t till July 1981 that a Josef K album came out. The Only Fun in Town featured reworked versions of five of the songs on the Sorry for Laughing album. A month later they broke up. You can get both albums on a combined release and make up your own mind which should have been issued first.

The dizzyingly esoteric Associates

The Associates

Anyone who had had the pleasure of visiting this writer’s previous enterprise, Porky Prime Cuts, will be familiar with my love of The Associates, who were responsible for the most lavish and extraordinary album of the entire 1980s, Sulk. It was a hugely ambitious effort, in terms of sound, attitude, and lyrics, with Billy MacKenzie’s spellbinding octave-scaling voice to the fore. It even spawned some hits – Party Fears Two, Club Country, and Love Hangover, leading to some fantastically over-the-top TV appearances. Other contemporary former indie-experimental bands like the Human League and Scritti Politti achieved success but they did so by embracing a commercial sound and swanky clothing/dashing hair-dos. In contrast, The Associates told the world through their third studio album: this is us, take it or leave it. Sulk was both opulent and strange. MacKenzie's lyrics were dizzyingly esoteric, with Skipping’s infamous couplet "ripping ropes from the Belgian wharfs / breathless beauxillious griffin once removed seemed dwarfed", baffling everyone. Their year of magnificent triumph was also their last as MacKenzie and Alan Rankine parted ways before Christmas. MacKenzie revived The Associates two years later, but other than the operatic pop opus of Waiting For the Love Boat it was never quite the same.

Simple Minds

Clearly we’re not talking of the Don’t You Forget About Me-era Minds, or frankly any version of the band after 1983. In the cavalcade of mediocrity that Jim Kerr et al have subjected the world to over the past three decades, it’s easy to forget how sublime the Glaswegians were in a frighteningly glorious spell from 1979 to 1983, with seven albums running the gamut from euro electronic to proto-stadium rock. Empires and Dance (1980) is long forgotten but is memorable for the futuristic single I, Travel. A couple of albums released on the same day in 1981, and effectively siblings, developed the prog rock meets new romantic sound. The zenith was New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), released in the second of those years. Margaret Thatcher was in power and there was war, mass unemployment, and inner city decay, but there was a feeling that music shouldn’t be dragged down by it all. Kerr’s vocals are masterly, bridging the great divide between the new romantic era and crooners. Three singles from New Gold Dream became unlikely hits, including Promised You A Miracle, but it was the lumbering, neo-experimental tracks like King Is White and In the Crowd and the title track that shone brightest. By 1983, the Minds were moving in new directions and while that would end in U2-esque stadia glitz, there was life in the old dog yet, and Sparkle in the Rain straddled the synth pop Minds with a beefier sound.

The Cocteau Twins

They weren’t twins nor they were from one of the main centres. They hailed from the unlikely oil refinery town of Grangemouth. Initially, they were dismissed as dour, sun-hating goths, which wasn’t entirely dispelled by their opening records. They cast out a spiky, dissociative sound with Liz Fraser’s ethereal, high-pitched vocals and nonsensical lyrics. A committed fanbase propelled them into the UK top 30 in 1984 with Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops, and there was plenty of critical acclaim (one tale is that Prince ordered their entire back catalogue), but they remained very much an acquired taste until 1990’s Heaven Or Las Vegas opened them up to a new audience. There is now a massive reissue project taking place so there’s no excuse for not seeking them out.

An early Orange Juice line-up

Orange Juice

A Glasgow mob that had a monster hit in 1983 in the shape of Rip It Up, which broke free from the synth coterie of New Romanticism to smash into the UK’s top 10. Orange Juice were founded in the ever-so-pleasant suburb of Bearsden, originally as Nu-Sonics by Edwyn Collins, Alan Duncan, James Kirk and Steven Daly, with a name that immediately eschewed the macho posturing and pseudo rebellion of punk. They released a handful of promising singles, including Blue Boy and Simply Thrilled Honey, during 1980 and 1981 on Postcard. Polydor Records snapped them up and released the You Can't Hide Your Love Forever album in 1982, but Kirk and Daly left that same year. There would be a few more line-up changes before they split in 1984. Edwyn Collins went solo and would record a Northern Soul tinged epic A Girl Like You that was so huge it could only be avoided in the UK during the summer of 1995 by hiding in a cupboard.

The Skids

The finest thing to come out of Dunfermline since steel tycoon and public libraries proponent Andrew Carnegie. The Skids were formed around the nucleus of Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson, who would go to form Big Country, a band that, for very good reasons, were never going to get onto this list even if it was expanded to 97. They had several top 20 hits - Into The Valley and Working For The Yankee Dollar, as well as Masquerade, and there was the excellent album, The Absolute Game, released in 1980. And there was The Saints Are Coming, which was so good it had to have the tag team of U2 AND Green Day to cover it. They had songs about the conflict in Ireland and signing up to the British army because Fife’s traditional industries had been decimated. And there was also a song about Coronation Street’s uber curmudgeon Albert Tatlock.

That Desperadoes compilation you've probably never heard of ..

Jesse Garon and the Desperadoes

A little twee, perhaps, but no list should ever be fundamentally entrenched in their ideals, and therefore this Edinburgh act, formed in the mid-80s sneak their way in on account of their slightly subversive singles and for being, well, damn fucking good.  Their sound was typical of the mid-80s, with scratchy guitars, melody, and a male-female vocal dynamic. A string of singles and EPs, such as Splashing Along and The Adam Faith Experience, saw the light of day, but no studio album emerged – although there was certainly enough material for one. That would be rectified in 1989 through the compilation, A Cabinet of Curiosities, which reunited their early singles and EPs to splendid effect. It was not all love and lust and breaking up: a later single, Grand Hotel referenced the IRA’s bombing of the Brighton building that nearly killed Mrs Thatcher. And there was no Jesse Garon in the band: the name was appropriated from Elvis Presley's stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley. Ain’t that just sick? But brilliant.

The Fire Engines

Ingrained in that same Caledonian post-punk movement of Postcard Records, The Skids, and a smattering of short-lived but no less brilliant acts, the Fire Engines, irrespective of their seemingly squeaky clean name, were more abrasive and discordant than their peers. The Engines (named, in fact, after a 13th Floor Elevators’ track), packaged their debut album, the manic Lubricate Your Living Room (Background Music for Action People!) in a plastic carrier bag. A subsequent non-album single, Candyskin, was an about-face that accentuated Davy Henderson's nasal vocals and introduced a string section. They had ideas aplenty, but despite another illuminating 7-inch, Big Gold Dream, disbanded in late 1981. Henderson and Russell Burn would seek chart success and world domination (neither succeeded) in Win which this blog has explored in the very recent past.

Cartoon punks, The Rezillos
The Rezillos

Their cartoon punk sound earned them a tour with The Ramones and a deal with Sire, but after only two years and one album, they were gone-burger. That was some album and they even featured on Top of the Pops, with the cheekily named single Top of the Pops. Guitarist and songwriter Jo Callis helped the Human League achieve mega-success, while co-singers Eugene Reynolds and Fay Fife formed the Revillos, a sort of continuation of the Rezillos, but with a bigger 60s pop sound. The Rezillos have recently reformed and unlike many of their contemporaries, aren’t being laughed at. The Rezillos are alluded to twice in The Bridge by the well-known Scots author Iain Banks. So there you go.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Who’d have thought a new town could spawn such a magnificent monster. The Jesus and Mary Chain were formed in East Kilbride, a Glasgow overspill. Their coruscating debut single, Upside Down, scared children and grannies alike. They played notorious gigs at which pissing off the audience wasn’t an issue, and unleashed Psychocandy, one of the most anti-pop but brilliant albums of the 80s. Brothers Jim and William Reid and two mates made a record that was one part bubblegum pop and three parts lacerating guitar feedback. It sounded like Abba covering The Birthday Party while locked in a mineshaft. They never did quite match those feats thereafter, but a sensible move towards the mainstream resulted in a good few pop albums, like the follow-up, Darklands. They’re still going and are still very potent.

And with that final inclusion, Craig offers up not 10, but a distinctly OCD-defying 11 great Scottish post-punk bands. Let’s be honest, he’s done well to stop there. Thanks Craig.