Monday, 24 January 2011

Album Review: Magnum - The Visitation

2011 is off to a great start musically with this album, Magnum’s 16th studio effort overall, and their 5th since reforming around a decade ago. The first album of the reunion, 2002s Breath of Life had a somewhat mixed reception, but since then the reformed band have gone from strength to strength, with recent albums – particularly 2007s Princess Alice and the Broken Arrowproving songwriter/producer/guitarist Tony Clarkin’s muse is well and truly on form.

Paradoxically, while the previous album, 2009’s Into the Valley of the Moonking contained more straight-out rockers (All My Bridges, Feels Like Treason, Blood on Your Barbed Wire Thorns, etc) this effort feels heavier overall, dominated as it is by some very aggressive riffs courtesy of Clarkin, and Harry James’ thunderous (oh dear) drumming.  Excruciating puns aside though, James really is on fire throughout and it feels as though he has truly found his niche within the band. He and bassist Al Barrow certainly reach the bar in terms of making this configuration every bit as vital as the ‘definitive’ Magnum line-up of Clarkin/Catley/Stanway/Lowe/Barker.

The album opens with Black Skies, a mid-tempo, but still aggressive, number that ably sets the tone for the whole album. Bob Catley’s voice is at its raspiest here, but this adds to the ominous feel of the song as a whole. A fine opener, but the best is yet to come.

Doors to Nowhere follows, and this is classic Magnum from start to finish, with multiple tempo changes throughout, climaxing in an irresistibly catchy chorus, the first of several on the album to fight for ‘airplay’ in your head once you’ve finished listening. The instrumental break towards the end of the song also gives the band members ample room to demonstrate their considerable chops. Lyrically the song deals with the innocence of childhood being irretrievably lost to us all, a theme Clarkin has looked at before, notably on Princess Alice’s opener, When We Were Younger. This song is also the inspiration for the Rodney Matthews’ version of the cover art, and would have been a strong contender for a single release in the band’s late 80s (commercial) heyday.

The title track features some of Clarkin’s best lyrics, featuring stunning imagery such as the concept of reaching out in desperation ‘like somebody’s lost child’.  What the ‘visitation’ itself actually entails is open to interpretation; on first reflection it seems clear to be religious, or at least faith-based, but there is the possibility of it being something darker than this, and the music seems to point in this direction. An initially slower instrumental break allows Mark Stanway to build the tension nicely, before those BIG guitars come crashing back into the mix.

Wild Angels adds to the ‘memorable chorus quota’ of the album, there’s a real anthemic feel to this track, making this (hopefully) a dead cert for the forthcoming tour. I can already ‘hear’ the audience singing along in places! It has also reportedly been receiving airplay on Planet Rock (Sorry, Magnum getting airplay? Just how chilly is it in Hell these days?!)

No Magnum album is complete without an absolute epic of the highest order, and Spin Like a Wheel meets that criteria here. The song deals with a relationship in its dying gasps, and all of the hurt that goes with it. I’m not sure if this is written from personal experience, but it feels too real not to be, especially the line, ‘Couldn’t look past your face into your eyes’. Such raw honesty in the lyric is driven home by one of Bob Catley’s finest vocal performances.

The Last Frontier taps once again into our ability to look back on our own pasts through rose-coloured spectacles. Whether you’ve ever experienced ‘England’s warm sunny days’ or not you’ll find the music conjuring up rich, vivid, images of simpler days gone by, in what might just be Magnum’s finest slow number since The Last Dance. The music and lyrics are certainly perfectly matched (although the same is true of basically everything on the album!), culminating in a stirring string arrangement that adds to the sense of peace and innocence that the song engenders.

Magnum have always focussed on the needs of the individual song over the abilities of the players, and for this album it does feel that Mark Stanway’s keyboards are a little more in the background than usual. On Freedom Day he gets his chance in the spotlight, however, beginning with some fabulous interplay with Al Barrow. Yet another big chorus, featuring some excellent vocal harmonies (another important aspect of Magnum’s sound that is all too easy to overlook due to powerhouse Catley’s vocal dominance), and providing some optimism in what is otherwise a fairly dark track.

It’s blatantly impossible to find an absolute favourite song on an album this full of greats, but if pressed I think I might go for Mother Nature’s Final Dance, Tony Clarkin’s elegy to our planet and our seeming inability to notice it falling apart right in front of us. This is a tune laced with mournful regret, but it’s  a questioning, non-judgemental, piece, again rich with imagery, such as that of ‘Sweet ruby wine’ pouring, ‘like blood to the floor’.

I remember my first stereo system had a function wherein you could preview the first ten seconds of each track on a CD to give you a ‘feel’ for what lay ahead. For some reason this album brought that back to mind, by virtue of it proving just how useless it was. You simply don’t know from the beginning of any of these songs where they’re going to take you and Midnight Kings is a case in point. It begins as an out and out rocker, but slows right down for the verses, before exploding back to full pace for the choruses. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it the final chorus fades into a beautifully orchestrated outro.  I want to say it has a Baroque flavour, but given my knowledge of classical music has faded significantly in recent years I may be out by a century or two. In any case I’d be happy for it to last twice as long as it does.

On the album’s final track, Tonight’s the Night, Bob Catley goes full circle vocally, taking us back to the raspy tones with which he opened the album. The most notable aspect of this track is the sudden change of styles as a barrage of layered vocals comes forth in sheer doo-wop style. On a first listen this seemed incongruous, but I have to say it now seems to fit quite well – although I may just be getting used to it. In any case it’s quite brief, so even if you hate it (as I’m sure some will) it’s gone before it can cause too much upset! Overall the song isn't quite as strong as the others on offer, but still forms a fitting conclusion to the album, particularly with the slow, majestic guitar solo that rings out at the end.

Overall then – a masterpiece. Yes, I’m heavily biased towards all things Magnum, but I do not feel that I’m overstating anything by labelling it as such. Certainly if their recent efforts have hit the spot for you this one is bound to do the same, but even if you’re still harking back to the Storyteller/Wings of Heaven days you will find a lot to love here. Very pleasingly the album has already made a respectable showing in the UK charts, entering at #55 (higher than any Magnum album has been since 1992!) and a staggering #3 in the UK rock album charts, not bad at all for a band the average man in the street will claim never to  have heard of (I do feel sorry for the average man in the street, he doesn't know what he's missing!). As is usual with this band repeated listening is the key to fully appreciating the album -  while it certainly sounds fine on a first listen, there is an awful lot to be gained from repeated, close listening. Right throughout the music and lyrics are married together with exquisite precision, and once the songs have gotten under your skin you’ll do well to avoid having your head become a veritable Magnum jukebox. My only wish is for more keyboards next time around, but that is the only quibble I can scrape up.

Eyes Like Fire, which didn’t make the album, but is included in video form on the DVD (for those with the special edition) is an excellent song, but I do feel that leaving it off was the right decision. As it stands the playing time of just under an hour is perfect, and while it can be tempting to throw everything you’ve got at an album there comes a point where all you do is dilute the impact of the individual songs. Hopefully though, if there are two or three unreleased gems of this quality from each of the reunion album sessions we may get a special release containing them all in the future. Tony Clarkin is not known as one too keen to delve into the past unnecessarily, but if the material is there we can only hope he’ll agree to it being released. If you want to make this happen make sure you write to your local the meantime, I have no hesitation in announcing that at least one unkool person rates this album 10/10.

Haven’t got it yet? What on Earth are you waiting for?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

We're losing everyone...

Another untimely death in the rock world this week, as Cold Chisel’s drummer Steve Prestwich died from a brain tumour on Sunday, aged just 56.  While I’m not a huge Chisel fan, no one can deny that they were/are one of the great Australian bands of all time, and deserved greater recognition than they ever achieved outside of Australasia. Prestwich wasn’t their main songwriter, but did contribute some significant numbers to their catalogue, most notably the stunning When the War is Over.

Following Chisel’s split in 1983 Prestwich soon joined another key Aussie group, the Little River Band, joining for two thirds of their all-too-brief (and sadly overlooked) John Farnham-fronted era, appearing on Playing to Win (1985) and No Reins (1986).  The latter album includes a remake of When the War is Over, which features an absolute tour de force of a vocal performance from Farnham. It’s no surprise that it has been a mainstay of his concert performances ever since, below is a performance from 2007 that I bring to you in tribute to it’s writer,– enjoy (oh, and skip most of the audience banter at the start and go to approx 2.40…). Sadly No Reins was completely ignored upon its release and both Prestwich and Farnham were long gone from LRB by the time of 1988’s patchy Monsoon album. 

Don Kirshner also passed away this week, albeit at a more respectable age of 76. Most famous for his work with the Monkees and The Archies, Kirshner had a long and varied career in the music industry. His signing of Kansas to his own Kirshner label (with whom they recorded from 1974-1984) will forever remain his greatest contribution to my collection and I can’t thank him enough for it.

RIP Don, RIP Steve, RIP it up Mr. Farnham…

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

First impressions: Magnum – The Visitation (2011)


First things first – this is NOT a review. Call me mad, but I like to actually digest an album thoroughly before subjecting it to critique, but that’s simply not the way the world (or more specifically, the internet) works in 2011, so here are some thoughts, based literally on my first time of hearing Magnum’s brand new album, The Visitation.

In short it’s clear that Magnum’s recent form (their previous two albums, Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow and Into the Valley of the Moonking, are on a par with anything they’ve ever released – no mean feat) was no fluke. As with those the new effort is entirely written and produced by band founder Tony Clarkin, a man who epitomises two terms that are bandied about with far too much regularity and little regard to fact: underrated and genius (He plays a mean guitar as well). As ever, vocalist Bob Catley instinctively brings Clarkin’s material to vivid life, seemingly effortlessly – it’s as if Clarkin/Catley were once a single entity somehow split into two, the symbiosis between them is so staggering. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a comparable relationship in rock history, only that between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel springs to mind, and that only works if you actually like Garfunkel.

The above is not to denigrate the contributions made by the other band members; Magnum stalwart Mark Stanway (keyboards), Al Barrow (bass) and Harry James (drums) are almost as adept as Catley at adding further depth to the material. Barrow also does double duty, being primarily responsible for the layout and artwork of the entire package. While Clarkin is clearly the leader and Catley his 2IC, this is a band in the truest sense.

On a first listen, opener Black Skies didn't leap out at me like a good opener should, but with Doors to Nowhere and the title track following in quick succession, we're quickly in very comfortable territory. That might make it sound as though the band are resting on their laurels, but what I mean is they just scream 'MAGNUM!!!!" in the way only a band with a style all their own can manage. (Classic British rock, with shades of prog is accurate but doesn't do it justice). They certainly aren't afraid of trying new things, as the bluesy intro to Spin Like a Wheel proves, and as for the mid-section of album closer Tonight's the Night...lets just say it seems on the verge of going into doo-wop (or was it barbershop?!) before returning to 'normal' (the sudden burst of 'doo-doo-doos' sounded incongruous on first listen, but I suspect it's purpose will become clearer after repeated plays!). 

There's a nice range of styles and tempos, sometimes within the same song (Midnight Kings for one), another Magnum trademark. Vocally, Catley sounds noticeably raspier than usual in places, with a few more listens I’ll probably work out whether or not this was deliberate.

Clarkin’s lyrics have always been several cuts above standard rock fare, and he handles subjects from ecology (Mother Nature's Final Dance) to human rights (Freedom Day) with his usual panache. The lyrics come across as being written by a deep man who thinks things over, rather than as hollow preaching, as can so often be the case.  The only complaint I have lyrically is the absence of any ‘yeahs’ (Catley can make such a frivolous word ripple with meaning and intensity; hearing him sing ‘yeah’ is one of life’s minor pleasures…but I digress…)

When the time comes for a rating to be given I’d be highly surprised if I could go any lower than 95%...suffice to say that if you’re brand new to Magnum this is as good a starting point as any, so why not get yourself right up to date and work backwards from there (It’s what I did when Princess Alice… was released, hard to imagine that I’ve only been listening to Magnum for a little under 4 years…you see, it’s never too late!). I can't wait to get to know it better and see where it grows (and as soon as I've posted this I'll be off to start that process with spin number 2!). No doubt I'll come to wonder why I didn't love Black Skies instantly and why I've not managed to otherwise mention Wild Angels and The Last Frontier as though they made little impression on a first acquaintance.

The former is actually the first single, so have a listen to it yourself right here:

The album is available in three formats; the album and nothing but the album (featuring the Rodney Matthews cover art), a deluxe special edition containing the album plus DVD (housed in the ‘brooch on black’ artwork, but also featuring the Rodney Matthews art, so no, you don’t have to buy both!) and a super-special, over-the-top box with the CD/DVD package, plus the album in coloured vinyl and an LP-sized 48 page history of the band. (Anything I’ve forgotten? A do-it-yourself heart replacement surgery kit perhaps?)  No doubt your own particular level of devotion to Magnum will determine the edition you go for, but while I consider myself to be a very big fan indeed, I settled for the CD and DVD combo, or the ‘middle-sized Mummy Bear’ version, as I’ve now deemed it should be called, so I can offer thoughts on that aspect of the release as well.

Whereas Princess Alice (definitely) and Moonking (I think!) had bonus DVDs centred on a ‘making of the album’ type documentary, here there are only a couple of slight, but interesting featurettes dealing with the album’s artwork, while the bulk of the DVD is taken up with performance material. Eyes Like Fire (a track that didn’t make the album) is here in a largely in-the-studio style video, but put together by the ever-reliable Tim Sidwell in such a way that it feels like something much more interesting than that suggests. Oh, and (again, based solely on a first view/listen) it’s an absolute cracker. I can only speculate as to why it didn’t make the album and who knows…perhaps it will make the next one.

The centrepiece of the DVD though is a 4-song performance culled from last year’s High Voltage Festival in London. So, half of that set then (yes, it was way too brief). Oh, and it’s in a different order on the DVD than listed on the packaging, running Brand New Morning, When We Were Younger, Les Mort Dansant, All My Bridges. It remains a fantastic performance and When We Were Younger even features lots of ‘yeahs’ to keep me happy…

Obviously, given that I was there, I do crop on on screen from time to time, but I promise that I won’t detract from your enjoyment, in fact I’m happy to guarantee you won’t even notice me at all. (I can also announce that I’ll be appearing as myself once again in Magnum’s next full concert DVD, due to be filmed at the end of April…so look forward to that!)

Somewhat oddly (although this was also the case for Moonking) the DVD also contains something the booklet doesn’t, namely  the lyrics for the album, which, if you prefer to have a physical copy to refer to you can download in PDF form here: (note that an earlier version was in a smaller font and repeated the lyrics for Black Skies twice, while leaving Doors to Nowhere out entirely; this was quickly corrected).

Right, so it's too early (in more ways than one) to start naming 'albums of the year' but if this isn't a contender at year's end 2011 will have been a VERY good year for music indeed...

Magnum beginner's guide:

My personal top 5:

Chase the Dragon (1982)
On a Storyteller’s Night (1985)
Wings of Heaven (1988)
Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow (2007)
Into the Valley of the Moonking (2009)

Missing from my own collection: A handful, mostly from the early 90s, of which Sleepwalking (1992) is probably the most highly-regarded.

Compilations: There are a tonne of them, and all have their merits, but the fact is Magnum is a band that if you like, you’ll love, so you’re going to want everything anyway, you might as well just buy the original albums in the first place.

Avoid: Paying attention to any idiot who uses the phrases 'Magnum' and 'dull mid-tempo plod' in the same breath…!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Classic Album review – Chicago XI (1977)

At least one unkool person rates this album…88%

Several ghosts haunt this album and it is the end of an era in more ways than one. Around the time of the recording sessions the band elected to sack James William Guercio as their manager – he’d managed (and produced) the band from the beginning, and while he completed the sessions (or did he…Robert Lamm once posted that this was more or less a self-produced set, sorry Robert, but I don’t actually buy that!) this was the last time they would work together.

Perhaps  even more significantly – and certainly more tragically – it was, of course, the last album recorded with guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath, prior to his untimely death in 1978.

To some degree Chicago were able to overcome these losses and soldier on, but I’ve always felt their reputation and integrity could have been better maintained had they not had to deal with both in quick succession (for many reasons I’d opt for the non-JWG album with Kath on board rather than a JWG-produced Kath-less Chicago album). While it wasn’t to be, the final collaboration between JWG and the original line-up did at least prove to be one of the highlights of the entire Chicago catalogue.

Song by song then:

Mississippi Delta City Blues kicks things off in fine style. Originally pegged for inclusion on Chicago V and actually issued on Live in Japan this old Terry Kath tune finally made it to an official (international) release just in the nick of time. The arrangement didn’t change much over time, but with all the elements in place – Kath’s guitar prominent (although not dominant) and some fine playing from Peter Cetera on bass, and one of Pankow’s best horn arrangements – not to mention Kath’s own fiery lead vocals – this is as fine an album opener as the band had provided listeners with since the first two albums.

Baby What a Big Surprise was, of course, the albums first (and only major) hit single, peaking at #4. An obvious follow-up to If You Leave Me Now I’ve always preferred it to its more famous predecessor – possibly in part because it hasn’t suffered the extreme overplaying of the earlier ballad. Cetera’s only writing contribution to the album, but far more notably also his only lead vocal – by comparison he would handle 12 lead vocals over the course of the next two albums alone. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane is rarely heard outside of the three-piece horn section; here he gets to demonstrate his talent, playing piccolo trumpet while Parazaider and Pankow sit the song out.

Till the End of Time is another ballad, but bears little resemblance to your ‘typical’ Chicago ballad; this one features swagger and a bluesy feel – oh, and a weak lead vocal courtesy of writer James Pankow. I’m not actually knocking it, as it actually fits the song quite well, but at the same time there’s a good reason Pankow’s vocals were never heard on a Chicago album again. Also, the song is structured to build to a satisfying climax with some great vocal interplay towards the end.  The horns are used throughout, but mainly for colouring rather than as an integral part of the arrangement (much as they would be in the 80s – when they were used at all), strange given the song was written by the band’s horn arranger.

Robert Lamm, up to this point the band’s primary songwriter, contributes his first of only two compositions here. Policeman is vaguely Chapin-esque (lyrically at least) although it lacks Lamm’s former childhood acquaintance’s deftness for storytelling. His other contribution, Vote For Me, which opened side two of the original LP, is a fun, up-tempo piss-take on the promises politicians will make in order to get elected; unfortunately not much has changed since 1977 and this tune is unlikely to ever become dated. Both songs are solid, and while not amongst Lamm’s best, are light years ahead of his contributions to the previous record.

In between Lamm’s writing contributions, he provides a rare lead vocal on another band member’s song – Danny Seraphine’s Take Me Back to Chicago, the first of several tunes the drummer would co-write with David ‘Hawk’ Wolinksi over the next few years. There’s some nicely understated flute on the early part of the track, courtesy of woodwinds player Walt Parazaider. I’ve always felt this aspect was underused; Parazaider to my ears is a far better flautist than saxophonist, (particularly when it came to soloing  - check out his terrific solo on the title track of the follow-up album, Hot Streets for an example of this). As with Till the End of Time this track starts slowly, before building to a crescendo dominated, in this case, by vocals from guest Chaka Khan.  I have to confess that apart from (I think) ‘south side’ I can’t make out any of the Chicago-area place names she’s reeling off in the preach section, but it sounds great just the same. Still, it doesn’t sound like a song with hit potential, so it’s not particularly surprising that it only crept up to #63 when released as the third single – not helped, I’m sure, by the fact the album was already gone from the charts.

The last few tracks on the album are the best, starting with Kath’s Hendrix-inspired rocker Takin’ It on Uptown. As with many of Kath’s songs over the years the horns do not feature at all (actually online speculation maintains that Kath is the ONLY member of the band performing on this cut) but it doesn’t matter, this is simply terrific, and like Lamm, Kath has delivered something that blows his songs on Chicago X out of the water, only more so. Love that cowbell too… (Check out a live performance of this cut below – and notice the difference in the drumming between the studio and live versions – is that Danny Seraphine on both? I really don’t have a clue…)

This is followed by Lee Loughnane’s This Time, the song that should have been the second single – if not the first! Like Pankow, Loughnane sings his own tune, unlike Pankow he actually pulls it off with some aplomb. A mid-tempo rocker, this features a fantastic Kath solo, but listen to what he plays under the horn section when they take over at the end of the solo, now that is truly outstanding. Following the instrumental section the song actually runs out of steam for a few seconds, as the final verse kicks in with a whimper (it’s pitched at the same intensity as the opening verse, but given where the song had gone since then needed to be much stronger). Thankfully momentum is quickly regained, and you probably wouldn’t have noticed this minor quibble if I hadn’t pointed it out, so apologies for that…

Finally, the album closes with the first musical suite the band have offered since, depending on your point of view, III or VII. The entirely orchestrated The Inner Struggles of a Man is the perfect introduction to another Seraphine/Wolinski piece, Little One. Now, something strange happens here. Normally songs dedicated to band members’ children make me come out in a rash, but this is every bit as beautiful and heart-warming as it was intended to be, thanks primarily to Kath’s extraordinarily emotional vocal. Of course, Kath also had a young daughter, so perhaps it wasn’t a stretch for him, but it proves that his vocals were just as integral to the original Chicago sound and spirit as his guitar playing.

From the opening track, with his ominous laugh, to the closing track with his heartfelt vocal capable of making a grown man cry, this album belongs to Terry Kath, and would have done, even had senseless tragedy not been just around the corner. If looking for a silver lining at least we can say that he went out in style and Chicago XI serves as a fitting tribute to his many talents; something the ghastly Chicago X would not have done had it proved to be his swansong. Fans of the early albums need to have this one in their collections as well, regardless of what they think went wrong with Chicago after Chicago V. Strangely, and against all the odds, Rolling Stone actually gave this one a largely positive review…but don’t let that put you off!

In terms of chart stats, the album was Chicago’s first since their debut to miss the top 5 (albeit only just, peaking at #6) but more significantly its chart run was severely reduced, managing only 20 weeks on the chart; it’s immediate predecessor had lasted for 44 weeks; most earlier albums had spent well over a year in the charts. Also, that big (non-surprise) single spent 17 weeks in the Hot 100, so the album lasting in the Billboard 200 for only a few weeks longer than that is nothing short of shocking. Still, a top 10 platinum album can hardly be considered a flop, but it was far less than the album deserved given its quality, and pointed the way to Chicago’s declining (commercial) fortunes in the late 70s, regardless of the other issues they had to face at the time.

(Note that the 2003 Rhino reissue contains two bonus tracks, Pankow’s Wish I Could Fly and Lamm’s Paris. It’s pretty clear why the latter wasn’t developed further, but it would be interesting to hear Pankow’s effort with lyrics and a horn arrangement; perhaps the band would like to revisit this for a new release instead of doing yet another Christmas album? No? Oh well, just a thought…)

Thursday, 13 January 2011

January's first 5: Fools never learn...

Right, so (probably) once a month I’ll be setting my phaser to ‘stun’ (okay, make that my i-pod to ‘shuffle’)  and saying as much or as little as I feel like about the first 5 songs it decides to randomly spit out at me. Typically I expect to concentrate only on one or two of them each time, but I guess we’ll see…

Okay, for January 2011, the first 5 songs out of a possible 10196 are:

  1. Toto – Out of Love
  2. James Taylor – Millworker (Live)
  3. Dave Mason – So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away)
  4. R.E.M. – I’ve Been High
  5. The Tubes – Keyboard Kids

Toto – Out of Love (from Past to Present – 1990)

One of four new songs included on Toto’s first compilation, all of which featured the shortest-lived of all their short-lived vocalists, one Jean-Michel Byron. I’d love to say that Byron was completely devoid of talent, but life is rarely that black and white. Suffice to say he did not fit the band at ALL – the songs he didn’t murder with his singing he slaughtered instead with his ‘dance’ moves – urgh! This was a minor hit in Europe, and was revived by Toto for their acoustic set on the Mindfields tour (1999), with co-writer Steve Lukather taking over on vocal duty.  (This was captured on the Livefields album from said tour). More recently it was one of only two Toto songs included in Lukather’s solo setlist, in support of his lastest album, All’s Well That Ends Well (quite possibly the best album of 2010, BTW!). Regardless of who sings it though, this is not one of Toto’s best songs, or even best ballads. See the official video for it below, if you must...(5/10)

James Taylor – Millworker (from James Taylor Live1993)

Originally written for the Broadway musical Working (JT’s spoken introduction reminds you just what a smash this show wasn’t…) and first included on Taylor’s patchy 1979 effort Flag. This version easily beats the studio original, even if it’s female POV first-person narrative continues to disconcert slightly at the moment when Taylor sings about being an ‘only daughter’ (see also Harry Chapin’s Dogtown). A moving piece nonetheless. (7/10)

Dave Mason – So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away) (from Let it Flow – 1977)

Goddamn this is a fine song! There’s nothing too deep going on lyrically, but it’s hook-laden feel-good, infectious fun. The opening cut and first single from what would eventually become Mason’s biggest selling album (certified platinum a mere 20 years after release) it somehow failed to crack the charts in a big way, only making it ‘so high’ as #89 – still, that was a better showing than any single from Mason’s previous 3 studio releases, and paved the way for the genuine hit follow-up, We Just Disagree (#12). For those who don't know Mason was a co-founder (with Steve Winwood) of Traffic, and penned Feelin' Alright (amongst others) for said band before spending the 70s as a solo artist.(10/10)

R.E.M. – I’ve Been High (from Reveal – 2001)

I’ve only heard this one a couple of times, and can’t recall a thing about it on such brief acquaintance. (unrated)

The Tubes – Keyboard Kids (from The Best of the Tubes – 1992)

Following an interesting, but commercially disastrous stint on A&M The Tubes made 3 moderately successful albums for Capitol in the first half of the 80s. All three of those albums (The Completion Backward Principle, Outside Inside and Love Bomb) are worth having; this non-LP rarity is not, but good on Capitol for including it anyway, so we could decide that for ourselves, I’d only have complained if they’d left it off. (3/10)

Well, that was a mixed bag, wasn’t it? Fun though…

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

You can buy a name, but not a legacy…

Last month Burton Cummings posted a request on his blog ( - well worth perusing if you can cope with him SHOUTING AT YOU IN CAPS THE WHOLE TIME!; the relevant post is currently on page 6) asking to be kept informed of any instances of Guess Who gigs being advertised on the radio, with the original records playing as promotion.

The simple reason is he’s plainly had enough of his legacy being tarnished. Cummings and Randy Bachman were, of course, the brains behind the Guess Who. Between them they wrote virtually every Guess Who song (These Eyes, Laughing, No Time, Share the Land to name a handful of the biggest), and it was Bachman’s guitar and Cummings extraordinary vocals that formed the basis of their sound. At number three in the Guess Who Hall of Fame would be Bachman’s replacement, the late Kurt Winter, who became Cummings new writing partner upon Bachman’s sudden exit from the band in 1970 and contributed major songs of his own (Bus Rider, Hand Me Down World). The remaining (often rotating) cast of characters that rounded up the various Guess Who line-ups were all talented, certainly, but never indispensable.

The Guess Who, as it stands in its current configuration, is essentially a tribute band, albeit one led by original bass player Jim Kale. It seems Kale has owned the name since 1977 (2 years after the band originally split, 5 years after Kale himself had been fired), registering it for himself when he became aware that nobody else had ever done so. Well, you’ve got to admire such blatant opportunism, I guess. He’s been using it off and on ever since, and these days his line-up includes original GW drummer Garry Peterson in the ranks, giving it a slightly greater air of legitimacy than it has had in the past (barring the brief periods where the whole (i.e. real!) band genuinely reformed of course!); Peterson was actually the sole constant member from the band’s inception, to their dissolution in 1975.

But it’s still not enough - while two of the 5 current members were in The Guess Who, and played on most of their hits, the line-up as it stands remains an insult to the creative forces in the band that gave said band a *name* (not to mention hits) in the first place. As Cummings says, you can buy a name, but not a legacy. Methinks they should do the decent thing and rename themselves The Guess Why (‘Cause we need the money).

They’re not the only rhythm section from that era trading on a band’s name and reputation; Stu Cook and Doug Clifford (i.e. the ‘who the hell are those guys’ part of Creedence Clearwater Revival) have been performing since 1995 as Creedence Clearwater Revisited, much to John Fogerty’s chagrin. They may be using a slightly different name, but given that everybody refers to the original band as either ‘CCR’ or ‘Creedence’…well, you do the maths…these guys should perhaps have gone for CPR (Creedence’s Past Regurgitated) as their moniker…

And don’t even get me STARTED on the Little River Band!

My recommendations: The Guess Who 

Top 5 albums:

Wheatfield Soul (1969)
Canned Wheat (1969) (Features the original version of No Time; see youtube clip below)
Share the Land (1970)
Live at the Paramount (1972)
Road Food (1974) 

Compilations: Too many to list, The Guess Who had the perfect number of charting singles to fill a single disc, so most compilations have virtually identical tracklists anyway.  Good for introductory purposes, but by no means the full story.

Missing from my own collection: A few, most notably So Long Bannatyne (1971) and Flavours (1974).
Avoid: Anything with the Guess Who name that doesn't have Burton Cummings involved!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Introduction to me and this 'ere blog!

This isn’t quite my first blog post, but it is the proper introduction for it, so if you have somehow stumbled upon it, welcome, I hope you’ll find something of interest and, who knows, maybe you’ll even manage to make me feel less alone in some of my opinions on all things music-related.

Music has been my favourite thing ever for as long as I can remember – the only two memories I have of the house I first lived in (we left when I was 2) are of records being played; specifically John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane (from his first Greatest Hits album) and Burton Cummings’ Dream of a Child. Bizarrely, both Denver and Cummings share/d the same birthday as my brother – December 31st. Spooky, eh?

I received my own first record (Neil Diamond) for my 4th birthday, while the first album I ever bought with my own money was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I don’t remember what it cost (probably around NZ$12; this would have been early 1986) but it seemed like it took forever to save. Thankfully I wasn’t expected to save the $36 needed to see him in concert the following year, which saw me attending my first gig aged 7. (I paid $222 to see him again in 2008 – talk about inflation!) The first gig I bought my own ticket for was Paul McCartney ($55 in 1993), possibly the only artist I’ve significantly cooled to over time, although Wings Over America still holds a special place in my heart.

So, as you can see I completely failed to be cool right out of the box. But I don’t care, I’m still having a great time building the collection, even if these days it mostly goes straight onto the ipod (a sad, but necessary state of affairs). In terms of stuff that made significant headway in the charts, with a few exceptions ‘my’ error spans Beatlemania through to the rise of grunge (i.e. 1963-1991), which isn’t to say that the last 20 years have been barren – nothing could be further from the truth.

The key aspect of great music is, for me, melody. Without melody you don’t have a song, it really is as simple as that. Once you’ve got that box ticked it doesn’t matter if it’s a 2-minute 60s pop song from Gene Pitney or the Hollies, or a near-80 minute prog epic from progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic or anything in between, you’re dealing with something that is the purest expression of art known to man. Musicianship and (usually) intelligent lyrics are also common threads connecting most of the music in my collection. Of course, the emotional aspect is paramount as well (and if it’s emotion you want you need look no further than Marillion).

I don’t set out to be deliberately contrary, but over the last 30 years I’ve developed my own tastes, some of which are not compatible with ‘perceived wisdom’. For example I greatly prefer Simon sans Garfunkel, Lennon to McCartney (possibly not quite as contentious), Stills to Young, and Poco to the Eagles. Or Don Henley solo to the Eagles, for that matter. While I like/love some ‘cool’ music (Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, Hendrix, R.E.M., etc) it somehow doesn’t excite me in quite the same way as the stuff that either gets ignored outright, or severely snubbed (Chicago still aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – I mean, really?) by those in the ‘critical elite’.

Anyway, you can expect to read far more about things I like, than things I don’t here, although there’s bound to be a little of the latter as well, after all even my favourite artists have managed the odd duff track along the way, and some have even made covers (eek!) and (worse) CHRISTMAS (urgh!) albums, unforgivable as that may seem.

So reviews of gigs and albums old and new will feature, as will random delvings into my ten thousand-plus strong itunes library, and basically anything else I feel like mentioning. As I’ll likely be talking to myself for the most part (to start with at least) I can do what I like anyway, right?

One final point – the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ is not to be spoken here, if a song gives you pleasure then that is a great thing, and stuff anybody who disagrees with you – trust your own ears and you can’t go wrong.  

Monday, 10 January 2011

Do it on the microphone, thank you Gerald!

Last week saw the untimely passing of one of my all-time favourite artists - Gerry Rafferty. Rafferty was never particularly prolific, and indeed his output in the past ten years was limited to a half-dozen recordings (mostly hymns and other non-originals) which saw official release on 2009's sadly ironically-titled compilation Life Goes On. Despite, or perhaps, because of this, his catalogue is one of the most consistently excellent in rock. A shame then that he will forever be known solely for two hit singles, Stealers Wheel's Stuck in the Middle With You and, of course, his post SW solo smash, Baker Street. Not that either is a bad thing to be remembered for (both are true classics and deserve all the attention they get), but to me it just seems a tremendous shame that most people will never know of the other hundred or so equally brilliant songs he penned, from his days with Billy Connolly in the Humblebums, right through to his last proper album, 2000's Another World.

Most of his solo albums are out of print, but all are worth tracking down; if pressed to do so I would name 1988's North and South (see clip below) as my personal favourite. For me, while the Humblebums and Stealers Wheel albums contain their fair share of fine material, only the second SW album, the criminally overlooked Ferguslie Park, matches the quality of his solo output. Many obituaries have made the somewhat startling assertion that the quality of Rafferty's albums declined along with their sales; I would be shocked to learn that anybody writing such nonsense had ever heard any of those later albums (and if by any chance one of them had, and had an unwanted copy of 1994s extremely tricky to find Over My Head to pass on to a more appreciative set of ears I'd be glad to relieve them of it!).

In addition to falling into the trap of including such blatantly lazy generalisations and focusing too heavily on Rafferty's personal problems in later life, most reports of his death have mentioned that Baker Street alone was still generating an annual income of approx £80, 000 - while I'm sure royalties kept him more than comfortable I've yet to see this substantiated, so it looks like another one of those 'facts' that has been proven merely by the number of people reporting it. In any case the song has certainly generated income for somebody this week - death has always helped sales, and already Baker Street is back in the UK singles chart at #55, only two places lower than it managed when re-released (in remixed fashion) in 1990. Time will tell how long it sticks around, but I'd bet on it rising on next week's chart...if only downloading the song still got you the brilliant non-LP B-side Big Change in the Weather as featured on the old vinyl single I'd be purchasing it myself in a heartbeat! I can only hope that at least some of those buying the song for the first time will be encouraged to dig deeper - they will certainly be rewarded if they do.

Now, if only we die-hards could also be rewarded with a release containing Big Change...and his other B-sides and rarities we'd have something 'new' to remember Gerry by, something he was sadly unable or unwilling to provide himself in his last decade of time spent on Earth. Gerry, time may have caught up on you, but 'if ever we should meet in another life, I will recognise your soul' - rest in peace.

My recommendations - Gerry Rafferty: 

Top 5 albums:

Can I Have My Money Back? (1971)
Ferguslie Park  (with Stealers Wheel, 1974)
City to City (1978)
North and South (1988) (Features Shipyard Town; see video below)
On a Wing and a Prayer (1992)

Compilations:  There are many, but none can truly be called definitive, probably the best to date is One More Dream: The Very Best of... (1995)

Missing from my own collection: Over My Head (1994)

Avoid: Erm, nothing!