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It’s big news around these parts that Prefab Sprout, now reduced to main man Paddy McAloon, have just released their first album of new material since 2001’s ‘The Gunman (and Other Stories)’ ( ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ from 2003 was a McAloon solo record and 2009’s ‘Lets Change the World With Music’ a rejected 1993 demo).  Early records ‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’ remain much loved benchmarks for quality song writing, the sort of  intelligent guitar pop that has largely disappeared from our airwaves in the intervening 25 years or so.  While the Sprouts have had the odd slip in quality control along the way (‘Let’s Change the World with Music’’s misconceived attempt at a Balearic house album was understandably rejected by CBS in 1993) each of the other albums has produced enough to hold the interest of the faithful if not the wider public.

The good news though is that McAloon’s commercial fortunes  should be about to take a turn for the better – ’Crimson/Red’ is a joy,  a simpler, more melodic, work whose songs have been drawn from McAloon’s considerable stockpile of old songs. For instance ‘The Old Magician’ apparently dates back to the late 1990s while ‘List of Impossible Things’ is reportedly 10 years old – and lest we forget this is a trick our Paddy reputedly pulled with 1985’s ‘Steve McQueen’ itself mostly written in the late 70s. As always with the Sprouts the meticulous attention to detail in terms of performance, phrasing and production only reveals itself after multiple listens – give it some time and songs like ‘Billy’, ‘Best Jewel Thief in the World’ and ‘Mysterious’  show a sparkle and charm that will cement them in your sub-conscious.  Indeed four or five of the album’s ten tracks could easily make it onto a Sprout ‘best of’ retrospective – not something many acts 30 years into a recording career can boast. Sample ‘Mysterious’ here:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?=9usNVXfpPyI&feature=youtu.be

This need to let a work grow on you is fine for the committed of course, but has doubtless been a problem in gaining McAloon the wider recognition that his talent merits.  Interviews for ‘Crimson/Red’ suggest he now feels an understandable distance from those early albums, yet equally trapped by fan expectations wanting him to repeat his past.  Talking to Mojo, McAloon reasonably described his dissociation from his early work in terms of representing another, lost, younger self but by talking of the ghosts of his song structures in a way that echoed his own ‘Prisoner of the Past’:  ‘I’m a ghost to you now… someone you don’t really wish to see… a shadow since you turned your back on me…’. Hard to say whether this pressure is perceived or real, but he does have a justifiable gripe regarding the indifferent critical and commercial reception to his main attempt to step outside of the ‘Prefab Sprout sound ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’.  A recent Guardian interview suggested that this still rankles:

“That record was so important to me,” he sighs. “I was disappointed – extremely – that the Guardian never even reviewed it. That stayed with me. I kept waiting week after week: ‘Come on, if you’re thinking they don’t make records like they used to, if you’re looking for personal vision, something unusual – I’m your guy!’ But it never came.”

Full interview at:  http://ow.ly/pLLyk

Which brings us to ‘Crimson/Red’’s most intriguing track, the ‘Devil Came A Calling’, originally slated as the album title when it leaked onto a band message board in early summer.  In the song the ‘articulate’ and ‘urbane’ devil offers McAloon a deal for his ‘immortal soul’: ’For 50 years I’ll spoil you …with power, wealth, a mansion on ‘Fellatio Drive’’. The narrative ends with the devil producing a signed contract that McAloon is ‘sure that I declined’.   The tone is faultless blending the Robert Johnson Crossroads myth, Dennis Potter’s ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ and the camp of the Charlie Daniels Band – wonderful yet slightly troubling if it indicates the writer’s state of mind.

[Hear it on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oC5J4jf9vS8]

It’s hard to see how McAloon could feel doubt over his engagement with the industry though – there is no conceivable way that Prefab Sprout could be accused of selling out. While it’s true that their records increasingly acquired a more commercial radio-friendly sheen by the time of say ‘Jordan: The Comeback’(1989)  and ‘Andromeda Heights’(1997) – they always appeared too eccentric, too music focussed to ‘compete’ in the mostly unpleasant mainstream pop marketplace.  The late eighties were full of promising bands who would, you’d think, be much higher on Satan’s ‘to do’ list  – the likes of Deacon Blue, for example, gave away so much between the honesty of ‘Raintown’ and the empty fist clenching of ‘When the World Knows Your Name’ that an ‘immortal soul’ would appear but a trifle.  McAloon, by contrast, seemed instinctively to know that credibility is easily lost and near impossible to regain, initially at least seeking  to take his indie fan base with him as the band got used to better studios, producers and quite possibly mansions…

The best example of this was the lead single of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (2008) – the Springsteen skewering ‘Cars and Girls’. The lyric famously took issue with the then ubiquitous purveyor of stadium rock cliché’s restricted world view, before slightly retreating into the more conciliatory conclusion of ‘maybe life needs its dreamers…’.  As the late John Peel once commented the song certainly broke new lyrical ground, being the only rhyme of ‘cool chick’ with ‘car sick’ in recorded history before or since!  The sleeve was great too – a matchstick Springsteen in full ‘Born in the USA’ regalia on fire.  Arguably Bruce had the last laugh though – ‘Cars and Girls’ was bewilderingly placed by CBS on the 1995 ‘Top Gear 2’ drive time compilation, a mis-hearing as spectacular as calling 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ a love song!  Remind yourself of it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEJdfDD4dVg

Although released in 1988, ‘Cars and Girls’ was actually doing the rounds in 1985 on a Peel session recorded immediately after the issue of Steve McQueen, that also included the otherwise unreleased ‘Rebel Land’.  Such was their creativity, and backlog of McAloon originals, at this time that they also recorded the enigmatic collection ‘Protest Songs’, originally intended to be a quick lo-fi follow up to Steve McQueen as a thank you to the fans. The project had no producer simply using noted engineer Richard Digby-Smith, and was explained thus by McAloon to Chris Heath of ‘Jamming!’ in late 1985:

“The original tactic was ‘let’s surprise everybody who’ll be expecting us to go for the big producer and deliver the killer punch, to be like Spandau Ballet’. I just thought ‘let’s go and do a bunch of songs’. Some of them are off-the-wall and recorded cheaply…  just me and guitar… banged them down in the spirit of ‘The Basement Tapes’.”

For reasons that are not entirely clear the album wasn’t released as planned, emerging in the summer of 1989 as a 10 track collection with the addition of ‘Life of Surprises’ to the track listing McAloon gave ‘Jamming!’ in 1985. The eventual collection certainly remained stripped down though,  a collection of exquisite, thoughtful, concise  pop songs that come as close to perfection as anything in the band’s catalogue – bettered only perhaps by the acoustic re-recording of ‘Steve McQueen’ for its 2007 ‘Legacy’ edition.  Among the delights are the briefly notorious ‘Diana’ and its rumination on the cult of the late royal celebrity “some calming apparition, you bet she is…  creation of the editor…” and, my personal favourite, ‘Dublin’ where poetic lyrics and a breathy vocal combine to juxtapose  the gentle beauty of phrases like “Who does not adore the sound, of music in the names of towns…” or “Behind the soft and peachy skin, where DNA or God begin…” with the “myths and less exalted forms”  that reinforce the division of Ireland . Other highlights included “’Til the Cows Come Home”’s evocative thoughts on escaping working class roots, or “Pearly Gates”’ near hymnal contemplation of mortality – both wonderful miniatures that rank among their finest work.  If there is a criticism it is only that some of the more up-tempo songs like ‘Tiffanys’ or ‘Wicked Things’ could have been improved by a full band treatment, as indeed they later were in concert. Nowadays the internet makes it relatively easy to remedy this and hear what might have been on a number of good quality bootlegs from the period.  One such example is this BBC ‘In Concert’ recording from Reading University (which appears to have a slightly different track listing to that originally broadcast, compared with my C60).  Particularly splendid are the versions of ‘Cars and Girls’ and debut single ‘Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’.

Find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpLYnFWI6po

So it seems unlikely that Paddy McAloon has much to reproach himself for. Most of his remaining fan base would wish him only the freedom to follow his muse with, perhaps, a slightly more frequent check in with the world outside his studio and, just maybe, putting out some of those unreleased gems too.  I fear that, given his perfectionism and poor health of the last ten years, this is all rather unlikely.  In the meantime though we have the gift of Crimson/Red and for that much at least let’s be grateful.

Phil Barnes

14 October 2013

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Following a major critical and cult success sucks doesn’t it? If you try and change the winning formula too much your fans hate it (think post-Screamadelica era Primal Scream) or, if you keep a similar sound, the press yawn and move on, their need for incessant novelty unsatiated.  Worse still you end up trying to second guess what your audience want, based on the extensive touring that has been your only contact with the real world since your debut.  This can mean turning everything up to eleven (Stone Roses ‘Second Coming’), just not fully developing the ideas for the songs (‘Rope’ era Clash) or simplifying your music to get it on the radio losing any subtlety or rough edges (House of Love).  Yet every now and again an artist manages to evolve the sound of a successful debut and walk that tightrope between evolution and quality control – Anna Calvi step forward.

Calvi’s 2011 Mercury nominated debut was a rare beast indeed – a masterclass in how to build and release tension over 40 lurid minutes of raw, operatic, vocals and remarkable guitar.  It had an unusual combination of darkness and acoustic space that has sadly slipped from popular culture in this age of auto tune and light entertainment karaoke covers. Think of the darkness that enveloped some of those old Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash or Elvis records and try to think of anyone now who could pull that off convincingly in these Seroxat, Cipramil and stage school times.  Trust me it’s a short list: Nick Cave, PJ Harvey for sure, Marc Almond, Lisa Gerrard and Siouxsie at their peak, and maybe even Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife and Fever Ray -  but far too few to offset the talent show automatons who dominate our airwaves.  That Calvi managed it on a debut album was nothing short of extraordinary – try this video of ‘Blackout’, it’s best known track, if you need a reminder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0U6b_xlJ2w

Which brings us to the new collection ‘One Breath’, apparently informed Calvi has said by the loss of a family member during the intervening period.  So its fair to say that the debut’s darkness is still there – but often with a sense of transition such as opener ‘Suddenly’’s  “We stand on the edge, it tastes like I’m leaving…”. The sound palette has changed however – this time around it is more modern, more compressed, even where the material is not a million miles from the debut as on lead single ‘Eliza’. Much more interesting are the little touches like the way Calvi uses controlled, distorted bass notes to disrupt ‘Piece by Piece’s mantra-like calm or the way that ‘Cry’ sounds like passing rapidly by a room where Adrian Belew is playing the solo from Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ very loud… The use of orchestration over ‘Carry Me Over’’s filmic instrumental section is also extremely effective, paving the way for the emotional release of Calvi’s closing wordless vocal intervention.

Vocally Ms Calvi has broadened her range of styles too – from the close mic-ed breathy Ingrid Chavez vocal style used on the title track and ‘Piece by Piece’  to the genuine beauty of the choral section on closer ‘The Bridge’. Even where the material is more of a straightforward (alt)rocker like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets PJ Harvey of ‘Love of My Life’, the talent for the unexpected comes through again in the softened middle eight. The wonderful orchestral section in the latter part of the title track works in a similar way – acting as a reminder of the debut’s striking grasp of modern classical dynamics emphasised by that ‘classical mixtape’ that she selected for the early Rough Trade copies.

The biggest difference between ‘One Breath’ and the debut though is probably that this time around the build and release of tension happens quicker, often within the same track rather than accruing over the course of several songs as before.  It still works beautifully, of course, and having cleared the  ‘difficult follow up album’ hurdle so comprehensively  serves notice of a substantial talent, potentially a major artist, who looks like she will be with us for the long haul.

Watch the video for lead single ‘Eliza’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO6e4oAfXC0&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLE_QPNuG35Go_xhXPWanG0vaTZjMOd_2u

Phil Barnes

07.10.13

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Down in the suburbs of Cowley, Uxbridge, something extraordinary is happening. That most unfairly maligned of genres – C86, or indie pop, has not only been given a wash and brush up for the 21st Century but come out sparkling in the work of two bands: Colour Me Wednesday and the Tuts.

The former have recently released one of the great surprises of the year in their debut album ‘I Thought It Was Morning’ on Discount Horse records (see http://discounthorse.limitedrun.com/products/517074-colour-me-wednesday-i-thought-it-was-morning). Lead single ‘Shut’ is glorious, like some parallel universe where the Undertones and the Sundays actually wrote Terry Hall and Jane Wiedlin’s ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’. Vocalist Jennifer Doveton is spot on in capturing that pure, melodic, vocal sound that the likes of the Shop Assistants and the Flatmates perfected in the mid-80s, yet getting the balance with the textural roughing up of what we used to call ‘Buzzsaw’ guitars just right. The video is great too with Ms Doveton filmed lip syncing on a roundabout – while presumably trying to hold down her breakfast… Watch it in full here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkni5QYgcvE .

But why is this sound returning now? Back in the eighties the whole point of C86 was defining itself against everything that mainstream pop stood for – whether that be consumerist acquisition, slick surface sounds/clothes or competitive sexuality. Music journalist Simon Reynolds summed this up in his Melody Maker article of June 1986:

“Rock rebellion was based in the censored ‘truth’ of adolescent desire, but this form of misbehaviour is not just allowed now, its enforced as a prescribed model… the Situationists and radical psychoanalysis proposed the recovery of play as the crucial component of cultural revolution; they used play as a political strategy and as a critique of Western consumer passivity… The flirtation with… camp, the prevalence of love songs with genderless love objects… the defence of sensitivity… all these connect not just with feminism…  [and] faced with the infinite accommodation of consumer capitalism the radical response is to abstain, to cling stubbornly to the will to misfit.”

Full Article in “Bring the Noise” by Simon Reynolds [Faber & Faber 2007] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bring-the-Noise-ebook/dp/B002ZODPS8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378710280&sr=8-1&keywords=bring+the+noise+reynolds

Now, of course, these ideas have periodically surfaced in the counter culture both before and since the C86 era (e.g. in the 1960s Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, or the late Kevin Ayers in Soft Machine, in the 1970s Jonathan Richman, through to the 1990s Riot Grrl movement of Huggy Bear or Le Tigre) but it is interesting that they have reappeared now when youth unemployment and the treatment of the under 25s in society is such a concern. Colour Me Wednesday’s album absolutely nails the C86 sound from the quality lyrics of, for example, “Shut”’s near camp opening lines “It’s like I failed my teens, now I’m failing my twenties…” to “Bitter Boys” resigned ‘I kind of liked you (‘til you said that), you seemed okay to me…’ or “BBQ”’s commendably arch vegetarianism ‘You’ve got the populist view… supermarket shelves are stacked in your favour…’. There’s even time for the odd political sideswipe in the likes of “Purge Your Inner Tory”, but it’s the balance between the lyric, the rawness of the guitars and the sweetness of the vocal melody which is so hard to pull off convincingly.

Most bands tend to either go for a softer acoustic sound, think Belle and Sebastian or Camera Obscura, or fundamentally misunderstand the oppositional nature of the music and go the traditional rock guitar route (think any US ‘pop punk’ band of the last 20 years). While the softer option can work, what Colour Me Wednesday have done is much more difficult to pull off over the length of an album. This is a sound that works best when bands are better songwriters than technical musicians – which is why many of the stalwarts of the past (e.g. Girls At Our Best, the Primitives, Darling Buds, Echobelly even) tended to produce one or two superb records before looking to ‘develop’ their sound. So if this is Colour Me Wednesday’s time we should cherish them in their current state of grace – their future will hopefully hold many great things, yet it might just as easily lead to a hitherto unsuspected love of death metal, AOR mediocrity or even power ballads…

Sister band the Tuts have only the one physical release to date, their debut eponymous EP from July 2012, but this can be augmented with a few more recent bandcamp downloads at their site (see http://thetuts.bandcamp.com/). Harriet Doveton, guitarist in Colour Me Wednesday, also plays bass in the Tuts who on the evidence of the 4 EP tracks are not quite as spiky, yet rattle along in an engaging early Blondie meets Talulah Gosh sort of way. New download ‘Worry Warrior’ shows some development, while hinting at greater ambition with its sleeve’s homage to the genius of X-Ray Spex’s ‘Germ Free Adolescents’. This feels like a band worth keeping an eye on, confirmed by the Tuts forthcoming support slot with Kate Nash at the Shepherds Bush Empire on October 12th. This should be a sympathetic crowd, given that Ms Nash has herself drawn on ‘Riot Grrl’ influences on her last couple of albums, and tickets are available here at the time of writing: http://www.seetickets.com/event/kate-nash/o2-shepherds-bush-empire/715040.

Whether this turns into something beyond a couple of great records is a moot point but the signs are good and both of these young bands deserve our support.  It’s really not good enough to complain about modern pop and the impotence of the current counter culture if, when presented with a viable alternative, you refuse to back it.  So which is it to be?

Phil Barnes

09 September 2013

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It wasn’t meant to be like this. The Clash were the band who at the peak of their fame pulled all kinds of strokes on record company CBS to give their fans better value. For instance their 1979 masterpiece ‘London Calling’ was meant to be a single album with a giveaway 12” single, that mysteriously morphed into a second LP.  They made its excellent follow up ‘Sandinista’ into a treble album retailing at £5.99, when new release single albums typically cost c£4, agreeing to CBS’ condition that they waived UK royalties on the first 200,000 copies. Given that ‘London Calling’ only sold at roughly that level at the UK in 1979/80 this effectively meant that they knew that they would make no money at all from UK sales.

On 09 September, nearly 11 years after Strummer’s untimely death in December 2002, CBS release the ‘Sound System’ box set, available at an eye popping £93.99 from Amazon UK (as I write this on 12/08/13).  And a lavish box it certainly is – remastered versions of the first 5 albums split across 8 CDs, plus 3 CDs of ‘extras’ and a DVD.  The promotional material suggests that all previous versions missed some of the music recorded due to a mal-functioning tape head – so this would be the way to best hear what the band actually recorded. Early reviews seem to agree that the mastering is a step up in quality – although it is worth remembering that there are separate album only boxes and yet another new singles compilation available, that should work out around half the cost of this box. In terms of unique features the extras for the full box include the usual single and EP tracks, early demos, and live tracks from the Lyceum in 1979 (some of which were included in the 1991 ‘Clash on Broadway’ box). That said the Clash were not the sort of band to leave a huge trail of outtakes or unreleased material – what they completed was almost always released (eg “Train In Vain”’s late, unlisted, addition to the original vinyl of “London Calling”) and they released so much in their short, turbulent, lifespan that there is no great reservoir of previously unavailable gems.  So what exactly are we getting here for our £93.99?

If this were just the record company reissuing and repackaging back catalogue it would matter less but this set has been designed by bassist Paul Simonon and appears to have the approval of the surviving members. In truth the design has a playful, pop art, feel – from the ghetto blaster shaped box to the huge cigarette included along with the stickers, badges and Clash dog tags (no I’m not making this up). There are even facsimiles of the ‘Armagideon Times’ fanzines and I’m sure all concerned enjoyed putting it together – but to charge £93 is outrageous and shows a lack of understanding of what the band stood for, if not it appears what they stand for now. Not one of the band members and most of their audience would have been able to afford this back in the day, and at this sort of price point the uncommitted are unlikely to be tempted either. In consequence its hard to escape the conclusion that this is just a cash call on the pockets of the faithful and, frankly, it stinks.

So why does this matter? Why should we judge the Clash to a higher standard than the likes of Pink Floyd and their disgraceful ‘Immersion’ versions of their key 1970s albums – presumably so called because you’d want to drown yourself after paying c£70 for a single 40 year old album stretched over 5 discs? The Clash were about not selling out, trying to move forward artistically and not taking the money just because you could. They could easily have repeated ‘London Calling’ ad nauseum throughout the 1980s and been stadium huge by the time the world caught up with what they were doing. For sure they did allow “Should I Stay…” to be used for that Levi’s advert in the early 1990s, but somehow that felt different – no-one who had the original would have bought the reissue since the track was the same and it did, arguably, break the music to a wider younger audience. This time around there is only the spurious rarities and demos to tempt the completist into a substantial purchase for what is effectively 1 to 2 CDs of new material.

As the market for music collapses in the face of dodgy downloads, it seems to be the latest industry wheeze to milk the faithful, older, audience who wish to support creative artists by providing ever more expensive rip offs. Look at the forthcoming Dylan bootleg series reissue of ‘Self Portrait’ – the two main CDs are available at a reasonable price (c£14), but a deluxe version adding a single live CD and a remaster of the original album (memorably reviewed by Greil Marcus, in 1970, as ‘What is this shit?’) weighs in at an eye watering £76.99. Even the Velvet Underground tried to tempt us to part with upwards of £60 for 6 discs of largely previously available material, augmented with a few bootlegs, last year. And if you venture into the live arena Rolling Stones tickets will set you back over £100 a person a night. I don’t think it’s good enough to say no-one is forced to buy – music works on an intangible emotional level, making people who are fans of an artist ripe for exploitation and the best artists know this and don’t abuse their audience.

In the early days of sampling the great cliché was that pop would eat itself, feasting on its own recycled entrails and it seems that we are finally approaching that point.  Perhaps you disagree, perhaps you will say you gladly support former heroes recycling their past, playing on the emotional connections that the music has to your memories. But look me in the eye and tell me that you don’t feel ripped off and empty as you place this absurd, ridiculously priced, folly onto your bookshelf and I won’t believe you.

Phil Barnes

12 August 2013

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On You Tube there’s a video from 2008 of Chrissie Hynde explaining to an autograph hunter respectfully, but in no uncertain terms, why he has no right to her time just because he’d ‘heard me on the radio’.  About a minute into the clip she says “If I saw a great author… I would not go over… I’ve already read his book, to me that’s fair play… I’m an ordinary person who sings in a rock band, I’m not a celebrity…”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzUyACTkdfo

While I’m sure the fan was mortified afterwards, it’s hard to disagree with Hynde’s logic as for more than 30 years there has been little about her that can’t be found in the music – from “Back on the Chain Gang”’s poignant reflection on the deaths of original Pretenders Pete Farndon and Jimmy Honeyman-Scott to the lyric of “Never Do That”:

“You’re a master of illusion

You say you do – but you don’t

You think I will – I know I won’t”

Pretenders ‘Never Do That’, From ‘Packed’, WEA 1990

It’s that last line which is critical – it could only be written by someone who operates to their own clear moral code, one that’s not negotiable irrespective of your opinion. That strength of character is probably the reason that Hynde has been able to carry on following the loss of the band’s original guitarist and bass player in 1982 and 1983 respectively. That original Pretenders line up was one hell of a band – an impossibly tight rhythm section that played odd time because of Hynde’s ‘unique’ sense of rhythm, drummer Martin Chambers once commenting “…we had to reinterpret the counts. But once we made the adjustment …it became… the bedrock of Pretenders music”. The other key instrumental element was the interplay of Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s lead guitar with Hynde’s thrashier rhythm. Scott’s style was unique, distinctive and melodic and a direct influence on the Smiths Johnny Marr, later a Pretender himself, who is on the record as saying that he used the solo from ‘Kid’ as a warm up for years.  Hynde acknowledged in interview that the band sound developed by the four of them together was so much a collaboration, ironically enough, that “…if one of us left the band …we’d have to change the name… the four of us [was] such a unique sound… it wasn’t just me… I didn’t sound anything like that before I met those guys…”. If you need a reminder here’s the video for ‘Kid’ from 1979.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvrXFKpQjIc

And what a fantastic record that first Pretenders album was. Chris Thomas produced it sequencing the tracks to give the impression of a chronological narrative – opener ‘Precious’ deals with Hynde leaving Ohio in 1973 through to final track ‘Mystery Achievement’ a sort of ‘where next’ finale, commenting on the ridiculous need of the music industry to churn out awards as barely disguised marketing events.

Hynde’s vocals too are amazing, like a more conversational Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love singing with a band sound somewhere between melodic 60s beat group pop and late 70s punk aggression. It’s that yin/yang of the forthrightness of say ‘Tattooed Love Boys’ or ‘The Wait’, contrasting with the clear vulnerability in something like ‘Lovers of Today’. The songwriting quality never drops throughout from ‘Up the Neck’, through their first number one ‘Brass in Pocket’ to ‘Private Life’ memorably covered by Grace Jones.  Jones found a rather different, campy, menace in Hynde’s plea for an escape from a destructive relationship, but this ability to accommodate different treatments is a measure of the song’s quality. ‘Kid’ too was slowed down by Everything But the Girl to an almost hymnal pace, Tracey Thorn emphasising the sadness in the lyric through the change of pace.

As a debut album it’s surely right up there with ‘Horses’, ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’, ‘Velvet Underground & Nico’ and ‘the Ramones’ in that select group of near perfect opening statements where a band arrives with its sound in place. Released in January 1980, the album was followed a mere 4 months later by the single ‘Talk of the Town’ b/w ‘Cuban Slide’ surely one of the best arguments for the 7-inch single ever. The A-side somehow managed to capture the innocence and longing for the unattainable of the best of the 60s girl group records, showcasing a softer singing style for Hynde. Honeyman-Scott’s chorus guitar and the point where the band drop out leaving just the lead riff were also particularly effective. Garbage’s Shirley Manson has said that “During my adolescence Chrissie Hynde possibly saved my life” and given her quote of this song over the fade of ‘Special’ this is presumably one of the key pieces of evidence. Flip side ‘Cuban Slide’ is very different, but almost as good, harnessing a gritty ‘Bo-Diddley’ style riff overlaid with an abrasive guitar break and an ironic twist on the generic dance craze lyric, Hynde being unable to master the steps! Watch the band play ‘Talk of the Town’ on Top of the Pops here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4Aalho4_Qo

Second album, Pretenders II, followed a year later and while not as consistent as the debut it still managed to touch the heights on the likes of ‘Message of Love’, ‘English Roses’, ‘Birds of Paradise’ and the Ray Davies song ‘I Go To Sleep’. It remains a good record, but its finest moments tend to be more reflective, melancholic even, than the debut with Hynde’s singing voice settling into a now familiar softer, more conversational style. If the energy levels feel lower, then that is probably inevitable given the band’s touring schedule and the age old problem of your whole life to write your debut album and 18 months to produce a follow-up. The routines of touring had also increased the temptations from drugs that by 1982 were starting to become a problem. Hynde is understandably reluctant to dwell on the past but in 2000 gave an interesting interview to Canadian TV that touched on this period:

“Pete had really got strung out on smack… we had a band meeting and decided that Pete had to go, in fact Jimmy said that if Pete didn’t go he was going… and then two days after… I got a phone call… and Jimmy Scott was dead…”

Scott was 25 and Farndon himself was dead around 8 months later at the age of 28.  In the ‘Pirate Radio’ box set Hynde is quoted as saying that Scott’s death was pivotal:

“I felt I couldn’t let the music die when he did. We’d worked too hard to get it where it was. I thought I had to keep it going or it would seem like it was Jimmy’s fault that it had all ended.”

 To keep the band going Hynde hired session musicians for third album ‘Learning to Crawl’. Its troubled gestation meant that it felt too slick, too produced, the sheen tending to obscure the quality of some of the songs – including the likes of ‘Middle of the Road’ and ‘Show Me’. In truth ‘Learning to Crawl’ established a pattern – while all of the Pretenders albums can boast a few great tracks and that voice, the consistency of the early days did not completely return until 2008’s ‘Break Up The Concrete’. This fantastic record, insultingly marketed with a Greatest Hits collection in the UK, marked a surprising left turn into raw Americana and, on ‘Boots of Chinese Plastic’ rockabilly. If a ‘band du jour’ such as the Alabama Shakes had made it the critics would have rejoiced – but perhaps it is the burden of greatness from those perfect early records that makes it hard to accept an artist in a different musical context. Whatever the reason it’s a shame as ‘Break Up the Concrete’ suggests that Hynde has much left to say.

You can find the video for ‘Boots of Chinese Plastic’ here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6T_c7HEHHc

Phil Barnes

03 May 2013

forster210413

The Aussie eighties indie scene produced a number of artists as good as the finest that the rest of the world had to offer.  Presumably we all know Nick Cave in his various guises, but in spite of the time that has passed the likes of the Triffids, Dead Can Dance, and best of all the Go Betweens sound as fresh to me as the day the needle first hit the vinyl.

The fulcrum of the Go Betweens throughout their various incarnations was the two principal songwriters Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan. They met at the University of Queensland in 1976 and their friendship endured some 30 years through various band line ups, and a decade long solo intermission, right up to McLennan’s tragically early death in 2006.  Each was excellent in their own distinctive way – Grant’s songs initially the more immediate (eg Cattle and Cane, Bye Bye Pride, Streets of Your Town), but Robert who latterly had the greater hit rate (eg 121, German Farmhouse, Here Comes a City, Born to a Family etc). Their songs were typically literate, sun-drenched pop lifted by the interplay between the two songwriters guitars and some wry, pin sharp, lyrics. Take, for example, the first lines of Forster’s ‘Baby Stones’:

“You say you want to take a lover

Although you’re satisfied with me

We have to open our horizons my love

We can, but you’ll do it without me…”

(Robert Forster ‘Baby Stones’ from ‘Danger in the Past’, Beggars Banquet 1990)

If you’ve never heard it a recent solo live performance video can be found at the below link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yooYbRLje8

In the seven years that have passed since Grant’s death Robert has continued to play live occasionally but has produced only a single solo album – 2008’s ‘The Evangelist’.  Much of his time seems to have been spent as the resident music critic on Australian magazine ‘The Monthly’ and this book showcases the best of his writing on music up until 2011. The immediate hook for Go Betweens fans will be two articles: the first Robert’s raw, heartfelt, tribute to Grant published just two months after his death, the second a piece on the making of ‘The Evangelist’ and how it came to include completed versions of a couple of songs that McLennan had been working on when he left us. The first of these pieces is particularly strong in getting across the empathy that, in spite of their differences and occasional geographical separations, kept their friendship strong to the end. For example take this section on Grant’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts:

“I knew I could ask him anything on any artistic frontier and he’d have an answer… Erudite, logical, authoritative and never condescending… the person you can go to who is so much on your wavelength, stocked with shared experience… who, as a fellow artist, you can go toe to toe with and always come away totally inspired by. Well that’s a great thing.”

As for the rest of the book, well Forster writes as precisely and insightfully as his lyrics would lead you to expect. This allows him to pass on a musician’s insights, often so successfully that on a couple of occasions it sent me scurrying to find that old, long filed away, CD or record for another spin on the stereo.  The article where he sets out to debunk the myth of the Monkees lack of authenticity is excellent, balanced and reasonable on a subject where much nonsense has been written down the years. While there are many other highlights, the pieces on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Show Your Bones’ and Vampire Weekend’s debut also stood out.  Even where a critical kicking is called for, as in the review of AC/DC’s ‘Black Ice’, he manages to be constructive, empathetic and engaging. For example on Angus Young:

“That schoolboy uniform… is still there, although it’s been subtly altered over time… as if the significance of the costume is slowly being bled out of it… as rock ’n’ roll gimmicks go it’s a great one. But it’s also a trap, and the older Angus gets, the sillier it looks. A black T-Shirt and a pair of jeans are waiting: so is the next great AC/DC album”.

If there is one minor quibble it is that some of the artists reviewed are little known outside of Australia – but then again if one of these turns out to be the next David McComb or Nick Cave, I don’t see how we can reasonably complain.

But what of the ten rules of rock and roll? Well some are better than others: ‘#1 Never Follow an artist who describes his or her work as ‘dark’’ is clearly sound advice and ‘#5 The band that has the most tattoos has the worst songs’ is obviously true, but ‘#8 Every great artist hides behind their manager’? Yet not every artist who hides behind their manager is great so…? The answer is that the point of these pieces is not to start or win an argument but to make you feel as though you are hearing the music in the company of a compassionate, erudite and likeable friend. Somehow I think Grant would have approved and that, Mr Forster, is a great thing indeed.

Phil Barnes

20 April 2013

rafa&robbie

When Roberto Di Matteo was sacked on 21 November 2012 after just 262 days in charge, most Chelsea fans were bemused.  This was the man who had won the Champions League and FA Cup a mere six months earlier, who had coaxed an aging squad to one last triumph with improbable wins against Bayern Munich and Barcelona – surely he had earned the time to rebuild the squad?  The day after the bemusement turned to anger when Rafa Benitez was announced as the new ‘interim’ manager – Benitez had previously said that he would never take the Chelsea job during his time at Liverpool and had also implied that blues fans lacked passion by criticising the flags given away to add to the atmosphere of one of many titanic clashes with his Liverpool team during the Mourinho era.  Add to this his embarrassingly gauche press conferences, think of the ‘facts’ attack on Ferguson and Manchester United in his latter days at Liverpool, and the hostility of the reception that Rafa received at his first match in charge  at home to Manchester City should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

But time passes and the best way to win over unsympathetic fans is clearly by winning games – so how has the Benitez (RB) era measured up? When Di Matteo (RDM) was sacked Chelsea were third, 5 points behind Manchester City and 4 behind Manchester United, after the Arsenal game on 20.01.13 they were still third but 11 points behind United and 6 behind City. They have also been eliminated from the League Cup and held to a draw by Brentford in the FA Cup 4th round.  But these bald facts do mask some positives. Under RDM Chelsea scored a goal just under every 45 minutes and conceded roughly one every 84 in the premier league – Benitez has tightened this with a marginal improvement in the scoring rate to every 43 minutes and has noticeably improved the defence, which now concedes only every 110 minutes.

Part of this has been achieved by trying Luiz in the holding midfield role – under RDM we conceded a premier league goal every 89 minutes Luiz was on the field, under Benitez this figure has risen to every 162 minutes.  Ivanovic too seems to have benefitted from playing more regularly at centre half, with Terry out injured, the team conceding every 129 minutes he is on the field in this role as opposed to every 95 minutes under RDM.

Of more concern has been the recent deterioration in Torres’ Premier League form – probably the result of the number of games he has played  with Sturridge injured and Demba Ba not arriving until January. Under Benitez the team scored every 58 minutes that Torres featured as opposed to every 42 minutes under RDM.  The effectiveness of the team scoring goals with Mata, Hazard and Oscar playing all worsened under Benitez – perhaps reflecting the general and infuriating inconsistency that, while plaguing both managers, appears to have worsened of late (e.g. QPR home defeat, Southampton home draw, followed by Arsenal home win).

If we compare the average goals for & against for each of Chelsea’s opponents under both managers, and exclude the 8-0 pre-Christmas thrashing of Aston Villa, the differences are not so great.  RDM achieved an aggregate 24-13, against a par 19-17 – roughly 25% above par while Rafa scores 15-9 against a par of 13-13, 13% above par on attack and 33% above on defence.

So it looks like the Benitez effect has been to make the balance of the team more defensive at the expense of some of the flair that the Blues hinted at in the early part of the season. While the deterioration in results in late autumn under RDM showed that an adjustment was necessary, it is doubtful that Benitez’s organisational tinkering will long satisfy Mr Abramovich’s desire for the team to play expansive attacking football.  There have been flashes of this under Benitez, the win in the FA Cup at Southampton and the thrashing of Aston Villa, but the team has if anything become more inconsistent – if plan A does not achieve a clear lead in the first hour of games they appear too rigid tactically to change their approach.  Stamford Bridge has become accustomed to the team steamrollering the opposition over the last ten years and prolonged poor home form can only harm Rafa’s chances of making his interim appointment permanent in the summer.

Of course there remains much to play for in the FA Cup, Europa League and the hunt for a Champions League berth next year, so perhaps it is too soon to judge the impact of the Benitez appointment on our season definitively. That said, the club must have been looking for a rapid positive boost, like when  Guus Hiddink replaced Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009, and this has clearly not happened. Whatever your opinion of Benitez’s merits as a coach, you have to ask whether all the turmoil, angst and compensation payments have been worth the marginal adjustments in performance achieved.

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