Friday, December 17, 2010

Three Albums by The Kinks (1969-71)

For a band mostly remembered for their novelty songs, and for not being quite as good and influential as their contemporaries, the Kinks were remarkably prolific and consistent from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. Managing to escape from early hits like “You Really Got Me” and “Sunny Afternoon”, songs like “Waterloo Sunset” showed a true depth and artistic clout. By the time The Village Green Preservation Society came out in 1968, the band had hit its stride. That album would prove to be a blueprint for its immediate successors. Singer-songwriter Ray Davies’ pet themes were brought to the fore in a concept album for the first time. These themes can largely be classified as “nostalgic”, although “naively conservative” might be a more accurate label for his creative persona in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, many of the big British bands were going through changes in style, sound and content. The Rolling Stones had given up psychedelics and resigned to giving new grit and muscle to their earlier R&B sound (1969’s Let it Bleed, 1971’s Sticky Fingers), The Who released a hard-rocking live album (1970) and took rock to new ballsy heights on Who’s Next (1971), and Led Zeppelin set off to rule the 1970s through a series of eponymous albums. The Beatles might have disbanded in the face of the new decade, but their slightly younger peers were keen to keep breaking new ground. The Kinks were no different. In 1969, they released Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), a more ambitious retread of The Village Green, followed by the flawed but more passionate Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One (1970) and finally Muswell Hillbillies (1971), an understated, less pretentious effort (and certainly less pretentiously-titled) that marries the themes of Arthur and the tone and soul of Lola.

[Work in progess...]

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Grand Don't Come For Free by The Streets (2004)

It’s difficult to imagine a hip-hop album that covers such mundane subject matter as A Grand Don’t Come For Free. At the same time, its narrative drive and “concept album” credentials make it stand out from other albums in that genre, in the mid 2000s. Mike Skinner’s sophomore album was almost universally acclaimed upon release, ending up in many “Best Of” lists, including Pitchfork’s Top 200 albums of the 2000s. It’s not hard to see why- never has the dull and petty lifestyle of an English youth been soundtracked with such grace and insightfulness.

The opening track is perfectly bombastic, if only because it is juxtaposed with the failure of the narrator/protagonist to even accomplish the simplest of his chores. In bored and agonising detail, Mike lists his “to do” list as he sets about. Bringing back a DVD to the rental store to avoid a fine proves too much: the disc is still at his house. Having waited in line at the ATM, he cannot withdraw any cash due to insufficient funds. Even calling his mother to tell her that he won’t be there for tea is a long-drawn out affair: can he even find his phone in his pocket? In the end it’s all academic as the battery dies the minute he tries to call.

Today I have achieved absolutely nowt

In just being out of the house I've lost out

If I'd wanted to end up with more now

I should've just stayed in bed like I know how

At the end of this song (self-awarely titled “It Was Supposed to be so Easy”), the album’s title is explained: the thousand pound savings (in cash) that he left on his broken television set has gone missing.

Over the next few tracks, Mike meets a girl (“Could Well Be In”) and we are privy to his inner narrative, which is well-observed and instantly recognisable to any hot-blooded male who’s been on a date or two. The soothing piano hook and lush backing vocals are a pleasant break from the fumbling failure of the first track. A brief detour to the casual gambling culture of urban England (“Not Addicted”) leads to the clear highlight of the album, “Blinded By The Lights”.

The video of Blinded By the Lights tweaks the concept of the original by setting it at what seems to be a wedding reception, but is largely faithful to the lyrical content.

With a rave-y sample used to create an off-rhythm soundtrack to a night out clubbing, the atmosphere it creates is one of numbing claustrophobia. The narrator describes a lonely night in a packed club, waiting for his friend and girlfriend to turn up. As he waits, pacing around to get reception on his phone, he takes pills he’d smuggled in earlier. Underestimating their potency, he trips out once they kick in. At this point his friends show up, and he sees his girlfriend’s infidelity. He does not acknowledge it though, as he’s “mashed”.

The story continues with ups and downs, notably “Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” and “Fit But You Know It”. The former is another mellow exploration of his girlfriend’s living room, a cocoon of spliffs and TV dinners. The backing vocals are Michael Jackson and The Flight of the Conchords in equal measures, serenading this scene of domestic bliss. “Fit But You Know It”, probably the most well-known song that this album would produce has a glammy, “Jean Genie” riff, but Mike Skinner is no David Bowie. Loutish, shouty and confrontational; the song perfectly captures a drunken visit to a chip shop. It celebrates the culture of playing “hard to get”, not allowing oneself to pay attention to an attractive female who is all too aware of her own beauty.

Holiday indiscretions, mistakes about “being on a break”, regret, paranoia and the eventual breakup in the beautiful “Dry Your Eyes” follow. Sounding like a mix between a Coldplay ballad and “I’ll Be Missing You”, the track was another popular song. The album ends where it starts, with Mike pissed off, but continuing with his life. In a novel move, the final song is a “choose your own ending” of sorts. The first choice is a downward spiral into self-destruction and antisocial behaviour. The second tells largely the same story, but with optimistic musical queues. The story diverges when the narrator allows a friend to fix his television to make amends. They eventually find the missing thousand pounds jammed into the back of the broken television set, giving the whole narrative a happy ending.

A Grand Don’t Come For Free elevates the dullness of daily live into art, giving a grandeur to the trivial proceedings of an English youth. This particularly British take on hip-hop and bling helped raise the profile of “chav” culture, the working class, Burberry-capped and golden-chained subculture with its casual alcohol and drug abuse. Coming from Birmingham himself, Mike Skinner adopts a London/Estuary English “mockney” accent when in character. This surely paved the way for the affected Lily Allens and Kate Nashes we all know and love today. Another artist known for affecting a more working class accent is Damon Albarn, and A Grand Don’t Come For Free feels like a Blur album of the 21st century. Just as Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995) combined character songs with perceptive observations of 1990s British subcultures, The Streets’ work takes a sideways look at urban life for the young.

There was a renaissance for Britpop in 2004 and 05, with the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and eventually the Arctic Monkeys all finding a wide audience. A Grand Don’t Come For Free epitomises this rejuvenation, but with more character, wisdom and wry comedy than the jaunty, knees-up pastiche of guitar pop the other artists produced. An album that is both timely and timeless, as entertaining as it is artistically sound.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (1982)

Forget the fist-pumping, flag-saluting, blue jean-wearing, stadium-rocking, truck-driving, Bud-swigging and wife-beating connotations usually associated with the man known as “The Boss”. Yes, he wore bandanas without a glimpse of irony, but Mr. Springsteen deserves some credit for more than a few bits of his career. The grand Born to Run (1975), for instance, with its iconic cover and dramatic narrative contents. That album was his breakthrough, with epically arranged rock songs that sound like a tribute to working class New Jersey. Another clear standout is Nebraska.

Like Born to Run, its two successors were bold, richly layered albums that were sonically very similar, and not particularly exciting as a result. It would be the titular song from The River (1980) that would form the blueprint for Nebraska, Springsteen’s first real left-turn of his career. The album’s sound is as stark, stripped down and raw as anything put to tape by a post-war artist, and its songs are expectably influenced by the tone. Each song is a story from America’s vast hinterland, a storyboard that begins only a few miles from each coast. [note: since publishing, I have come across the term "Heartland Rock" as a genre.] The largely acoustic accompaniment makes Nebraska a near-unplugged album, with a refreshing and humble honesty that was sorely lacking in Springsteen’s late 1970s output. It would also prove to be rather unique in this respect, as the bombastic, anthemic Born in the USA was a mere two years away.

The unusual tale of the actual recording of the album is included in Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever on its technical merits. Condensed for the sake of readability, it is presented below. Springsteen and his guitar technician recorded some demos at the former’s home, with neither being terribly competent at operating the portable recording system. To down-mix to a cassette, they used a Panasonic boom box that had previously fallen into a muddy river, been hosed down, dried out and still worked. The tape was then carried around in Springsteen’s jean jacket (you weren’t seriously expecting anything else, were you?) for weeks without a case. Returning to the studio, full-band renditions of the songs were found lacking the je-ne-sais-quoi of the rough demos. Eventually, it was decided to release the original recordings as the finished album, although transferring the poorly recorded and mastered tape to vinyl would prove a challenge.

This Teac Tascam 144 was the portable mixing desk used for recording Nebraska. The story laid out in Perfecting Sound Forever is based on an engineer's recollections on this site.

The finished album sounds exactly like something made by a man at home, laid down on a hosed down consumer-grade portable stereo. There is notable hiss, noise and a distinct “flatness” in the simple recordings, but it all adds to the charm and complements the subject matter. The sparse soundscapes form a folky, “American Gothic” that sounds like a less sappy, more gruff Simon and Garfunkel. The antiproduction is reminiscent of Neil Young’s more uncompromising albums (particularly 1975’s Tonight’s the Night), as is the singer-songwriter nature of the album. The cover of the album is shot from the front seat of a car, and lyrically, the album is a trip. The landscape is littered with tragic deadbeats, policemen (the haunting “State Trooper” and “Highway Patrolman”), and landmarks like “Atlantic City”, the most rousing and radio-friendly song on the album. Not many songs by mainstream artists mention the ever-dropping price of wheat, but the effects of the transformation of the American economy in the 1970s did not escape The Boss.

From beginning to end, Nebraska is a special album. Its bleak honesty, simple sound and vignettes of different rural characters make for an engaging late night listen. It would prove to be the peak of Springsteen’s artistic integrity before the onslaught of Born in the USA had him filling stadiums of reactionary Americans.

"Atlantic City" lost all of its charm when Springsteen couldn't resist adding 1980s drums, synthesizers and bandanas on his 1985 tour.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Amnesiac by Radiohead (2001)

With the tenth anniversary of Kid A occurring this month, a lot of reflection is happening around the web, analysing what has been voted the best album of the last decade in several critics’ lists. Kid A was a drastic departure for Radiohead, coming three years after OK Computer, then already their definitive album and one of the best of the 1990s. It stripped away the band’s three-guitar sound, and took the experimental electronics that merely provided garnish on OKC and put them center stage. Kid A’s sound was as bleak as the icy landscape on its cover; a barren, minimalist electronic exercise with very little in the way of actual songs. It was hailed as a post-rock, deconstructionist record, which largely abandoned traditional song structures and took rock to its limits through electronica.

Kid A was released in October 2000, some four months after the band had started touring the material that it had recorded all through 1999. When the album was finally released, many of the more memorable of the new songs were conspicuously absent from that record. Kid A also spawned no singles, so these songs remained unreleased. A mere eight months later, Amnesiac was released, containing many of the “lost” songs from the 2000 tour. Originally intended to be released as a series of singles, or EPs, the songs from the Kid A sessions that did not make its parent album were spun into a second album. The songs on Amnesiac say more about what Kid A is not, than what Amnesiac is. Far from being a collection of b-material, Amnesiac has a distinct character, and a paradoxically disjointed cohesion of its own.

True, it lacks the (admittedly very loose) concept of its older brother, and the songs form less of a suite, but the strength of each song, as well as the notion of being an anti-Kid A gives Amnesiac a lot of clout by comparison. The range of genres tackled by the band on this album is a fascinating peak into the sessions for Kid A, as the band strained to distance itself from its rock roots and recent commercial success. On Amnesiac, cacophonous minimalist electro (Pulk/Pull) sits next to rootsy, jazzy piano-led songs. The warmth of the latter songs goes a long way to announcing the direction the band would take some seven years later on In Rainbows.

“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” might open with the same synthesizers that defined Kid A, but the tone is immediately more upbeat. That’s more than can be said about the paranoid lyrics [“After years of waiting/nothing came […] I’m a reasonable man/get off my case”]. Struggling to tour the Kid Amnesiac material as a live five-piece band, many songs received “rockier” makeovers to translate to the live scene. This is especially the case with “Crushd”, which is almost unrecognisably transformed by ways of a fuzzy bass riff.

Unrecognisably transformed: "Crushd" in its live incarnation, 2001

Next, “Pyramid Song” is without doubt one of Radiohead’s single greatest achievements as a band. It was the lead single, known during the 2000 tour by its working title “Egyptian Song”, and this piano-driven ballad is indescribably beautiful. Its odd time signature is accentuated once the shuffled drum beat kicks in, and the Ondes Martinot start adding their haunted, swaying lines. The orchestra swells to take the song to a cathartic climax, a feature lacking on the deconstructed, post-rock songs on Kid A, but a classic Radiohead trait. There are certain sonic similarities between “Pyramid Song” and “How To Disappear Completely”, from the earlier album, but the latter is much more sparse. Both songs received their orchestral dubbing in the same session.

Note the intricate duet of the Ondes Martinot. "Pyramid Song", 2001

The use of an upright bass, undistorted piano and a distinctly “live” drum is a clean break from Kid A, and is the first instance of a new genre appearing on Amnesiac. “Pyramid Song” shows’s Radiohead’s post-OK Computer forays into jazz, and it wouldn’t be the last song on this album to do so.

“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is an almost unlistenable anticlimax after the glorious majesty of “Pyramid Song”, showing strong shades of Aphex Twin. In its final seconds, it is revealed that a sample of the final few seconds of “Pyramid Song” actually forms the basis of this “experiment”.

Thankfully, it soon transitions to “You And Whose Army?”, which is almost “Pyramid Song” pt. II. Ostensibly a dig at the Blair administration, it references the Holy Roman Empire (some sort of first for mainstream rock) and shows even more of a rootsy influence in its olde time distorted croon. The “rootsy”, black musical tradition is continued in the almost blues song “I Might Be Wrong”. Yours truly finds it a bit of a grating, repetitive yarn (bar its breakdown in the last minute), but it remains a fan favourite.

“Knives Out” is vintage Radiohead, and could sonically be a The Bends (1995) outtake. It is one of the oldest songs on the album, possibly stretching back to the OK Computer tour as documented on Meeting People is Easy (1998). The lush, layered guitars make it stand out among its turn-of-the-century peers, and is easily one of the most commercial songs from these sessions. The remarkable Michel Gondry video redeems it somewhat, making it a fine single. The next track is “Morning Bell/Amnesiac”, a different take of a song previously released on Kid A. Its inclusion does add weight to the assumption that Amnesiac is little more than a collection of outtakes, but it could also be interpreted as a way of illustrating its irrevocable conceptual ties to its predecessor. The Amnesiac version was actually recorded before the Kid A version, and initially dismissed only to be embraced after the latter’s release. “Dollars and Cents” is majestic in its own right, but not remarkable as a song, and neither is “Hunting Bears”, the following brief instrumental guitar piece.

“Like Spinning Plates” is one of the most interesting songs on Amnesiac, both sonically and through its back-story. It is very closely related to “I Will”, a song that would surface on Hail to the Thief (2003), but was already demoed as early as 1998. By the time of the Kid Amnesiac sessions, in 1999 and 2000, “I Will” had mutated into the haunting electronic version that forms the basis of “Spinning Plates”. Dissatisfied with “I Will” in this guise, the song was presumably played backwards, and this formed the music for a new track, “Spinning Plates”. The words were partly sung backwards and then flipped to create the backwards-sounding regular lyrics. This process is demonstrated and further clarified on the excellent and exhaustive website Citizen Insane. “Spinning Plates/I Will” would receive yet another makeover when it was played live. Like “Sardines”, the electronic arrangement had to be adapted for the live band. In this case, it became a piano ballad that was also released on the live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001).

Another transformation: "Like Spinning Plates" live, 2003

From the peak of unconventional songwriting to the most “organic” of all the songs on the album, “Life in a Glass House” also finds its origins in the OK Computer era. However, this final version was actually recorded after Kid A was released, making it one of the few songs on Amnesiac not to be mere “leftovers” from that album.

The only live performance of "Life in a Glass House", 2001

Probably the most outright “jazz” song the band would release, its inclusion on Amnesiac is crucial to showing the great variety in the material the band was contemplating in its follow-up to OK Computer.

The fact that Amnesiac was the first album in four years to generate singles meant that some real B-sides were included as well. This is yet another opportunity to look at the wealth of material the band was sitting on. Many of these tracks, compiled on the re-released “Deluxe” editions of the EMI albums in 2009 are outstanding, and could have conceivably improved Amnesiac upon inclusion. “Fog” and “Cuttooth” are as good as anything from these sessions, and could have easily taken the place of “Pulk/Pull” or “Morning Bell”. With these tracks on board, Amnesiac might have rivalled Kid A or any other Radiohead album to date. But it wouldn’t have been as interesting as it is now. Amnesiac is essential Radiohead, an unmissable companion piece to Kid A.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Animals by Pink Floyd (1977)

Every artist’s back catalogue has one or two “overlooked” albums; albums that fall between bigger hits, or albums that were the result of an ill-fated side path in a new direction. Radiohead has its drawn-out, “organic” Hail to the Thief (2003), the Chili Peppers went dark on One Hot Minute (1995), even the exact worth of Lodger (1979) is still hotly debated. The fact that all these albums are overshadowed by more popular or critically acclaimed neighbours in their respective discographies doesn’t help either. (Amnesiac and In Rainbows, Blood Sugar Sexx Magik and Californication, and “Heroes” and Scary Monsters respectively.) These albums are snowed under, though not necessarily through any fault of their own. Their qualities are inevitably compared to their predecessors and successors. Animals is the metaphorical “black sheep” of Pink Floyd. The album came two years after the critical and commercial triumph of Wish You Were Here (1975), which contained some of the Floyd’s most well-known and loved songs, not least of which is the title track. In 1979, The Wall was unleashed on the world: a double LP of epic proportions. Big-selling single “Another Brick in the Wall pt 2”, with its catchy disco chorus, “Comfortably Numb” with its guitar solo to end all solos, the overall concept: a highly iconic, some would say definitive album for the group.

The Battersea Power Station in 2008. This is the reverse
side of the album cover. Author's own picture.

The cover of Animals alone already indicates that it’s not to be ignored in the Floyd canon. The iconic building, in the apocalyptic lighting, with a touch of absurdity: a flying pig in between the four smokestacks. London’s Battersea Power Station was built incrementally throughout the 1930s. Its distinct style is shared with that of the Bankside Power Station (the current Tate Modern), through a common architect. By 1977, the building was in the process of being decommissioned. Today, it remains a hollow shell, and its future is uncertain. For the shoot, an actual inflatable pig was hoisted on the building. It came free and drifted off, however, and the final result is a simple composite shot. The power of the building’s aura, as well as Pink Floyd’s surrealism is used very effectively in the 2006 film Children of Men, where the building has become a top-security museum of all the near-apocalyptic world’s masterpieces. The flying pig would be the most recognisable symbol for the band for decades to come, appearing as a prop, in promotional materials and as an object of parody.

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Like the cover, and fittingly for a “black sheep”, Animals is dark, possibly the darkest material that the band would record. The Wall might deal with drugs, traumatised children, fascism, paranoia and ego, but it has occasional spots of levity and a slick, commercial sheen. Animals is almost impenetrably monolithic in its doom, a perfectly symmetrical concept album. Despite being released in 1977, it can’t be considered “punk” by any stretch of the word. The three main tracks are all well over ten minutes long, with a layered intricacy that punk’s three-chord aggro will never touch. Some of its anti-establishment anger is certainly visible in the themes of some of the songs, particularly in bassist Roger Waters’ lyrics. Conceptually, the album is very loosely based on Orwell’s Animal Farm, playing with some prior associations the listener might have taken from that book. Rather than critiquing the USSR, Animals takes aim at Britain the late 1970s. Thatcherism was looming, social unrest was widespread and the unions were flexing their considerable muscle with strikes. Mostly, it critiques the upper classes (ruthless dogs, hypocritical pigs), and the passivity of the masses (sheep). As the son of well-off communists, Waters’ upbringing and current status as millionaire rock star gave him plenty of food for thought.

Bookending the album are two very short, very tender acoustic ballads, both called “Pigs on the Wing”. The first song acts a gentle scene-setter, welcoming the listener in with a simple song.

If you didn't care what happened to me,

And I didn't care for you,

We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain

Occasionally glancing up through the rain.

Wondering which of the buggers to blame

And watching for pigs on the wing

It does little to prepare the listener for the second track, “Dogs”, which builds with a manic acoustic guitar riff and atmospheric organs. Guitarist David Gilmour sings the first half of this song, his only vocal appearance on this album. Clearly the better singer, this is symptomatic of the shifting dynamic within the group. Since 1968, Waters had increasingly been taking the reins, and Animals is a clear turning point. In a way, it would represent the last Floyd album of its time as a proper group: all four members have a clear musical role on the album, which has a lot of room for the long instrumental passages the band is famous for. Keyboardist Rick Wright would not contribute any writing to this album, and Gilmour’s input is largely reduced to his virtuoso guitar playing, but Animals is spared the deeply personal, semi-autobiographical material of The Wall. Waters’ imprint is clear, but the album is closer to the spacey Floyd of the early 1970s than the vehicle for Waters’ neuroses it would become after 1979.

Lyrically, “Dogs” is concerned with a Gordon Gekko-type businessman, who seeks out the weak to “pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed”. “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to/so that when they turn their backs on you/you’ll get the chance to put the knife in”. The song predicts a sad end for the “Dog”, continuing the metaphor with drowning with a stone around one's neck, but also literally addressing the human “Dog”, unable to lose weight that was needed to throw around, and dying alone, of cancer. Sonically, the song is a triumph, despite its grim subject matter. Several pieces make up the seventeen-minute suite, with extensive guitar work, shared vocal duties and haunting synthesizer work. It is a frantic, evil twin to “Echoes” from Meddle (1971).

The second side of the LP starts with “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, portraying the self-serving, hypocritical moral crusaders, or leaders of men. Each “Pig” is pointed out and laughed at with the memorable phrase “Ha ha/Charade you are!” The first pig is some sort of undefined leader, perhaps a higher up to the “Dog” that was kept on a chain. The second verse is probably the most hate-filled tirade to ever come out of Waters’ mouth, even taking into account his solo career, which is one long excuse for spewing hate on anyone who deserves it.

Bus stop rat bag, ha ha charade you are.

You fucked up old hag, ha ha charade you are.

Presumably, this is directed at no one other than Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, preying on power. Waters’ assertion that she was “good fun with a handgun” would prove to be prophetic: a mere five years later he would be attacking her lyrically again about her militarism during the Falklands War.

Thatcher and a fresh-faced William Hague (16, now Foreign Minister), 1977

The final “Pig” is referred to by name: Mary Whitehouse, the Tipper Gore of her day. Her attempts to censor the BBC, moral crusading and mission to preserve the purity of the nation’s media consumers are awarded with Waters calling her a “House-proud town mouse […] trying to keep our feelings off the streets.”

Whitehouse and the acceptable face of British pop: Cliff Richard

“Pigs” is the most contemporary song to appear on the album. “Dogs” and track four, “Sheep” were already played to the public as early as November and June of 1974, respectively. Titled “You Gotta Be Crazy” and “Raving and Drooling”, these tracks were leftovers from the Wish You Were Here sessions. That is to say the songs were recorded anew, but written and performed much earlier. By renaming them, slightly tweaking the lyrics and using the new track “Pigs” to tie the concept together, Animals was born. As a result of this two year gap, “Pigs” has a rather unique sound. It is more laid back than the older tracks, grooving along menacingly on an almost funky (fretless) bass line written and played by David Gilmour (Waters was never an accomplished player). The use of ice-cold synthesizer effects has echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot about it, but that album would only be released some two months later. Also notable is the use of a so-called “talk box” during one of the guitar solos, recreating porcine squealing.

The last of the trilogy of prog rock songs, “Sheep” concerns itself with the masses. Far from being innocent and victimised, Waters holds that they ignore their condition, ignore the danger from the Dogs and blindly follow the Pigs. Inevitably, the course of the Sheep’s lives ends down “well-trodden corridors, into the valley of steel”, presumably an abattoir. A keyboard-led interlude also has a bible verse beginning with “The Lord is My shepherd” (Psalm 23), spoken through a vocoder and with altered lyrics. The psalm shows the Sheep’s loyalty to their shepherd, who “maketh me to hang on hooks” and “converteth me to lamb chops”, until a revolution breaks out. The “Dogs” are killed in an uprising by the Sheep who, “through quiet reflection and great dedication master[ed] the art of Karate”. Gilmour again plays bass on this track, although the part had been written and played by Waters as “Raving and Drooling” since 1974. The track ends with a signature Gilmour guitar riff, a germ that would later grow into the guitar part for “Run Like Hell”.

The carnage of the three main songs comes down with another rendition of opener “Pigs on the Wing”. This second part is unusually frank and personal for Waters, who generally keeps to metaphors, political moaning or conceptual character songs. Directed at a new love, the questioning lyrics of part one are turned upon themselves, affirming:

You know that I care what happens to you,

And I know that you care for me.

So I don't feel alone,

Or the weight of the stone,

Now that I've found somewhere safe

To bury my bone.

And any fool knows a dog needs a home,

A shelter from pigs on the wing.

Waters is uncharacteristically candid, even conceding to his own raging insecurities and his own ruthless reputation. He reuses metaphors from “Dogs” (the weight of the stone, the bone, the dog) to show a self-awareness and vulnerability that is otherwise sorely lacking in his later work. And so the most aggressive and abrasive of all Pink Floyd albums ends on a positive note of humanity.

Animals on The Road: In The Flesh and The Wall

Animals would be taken on the road in the first half of 1977, as part of the In The Flesh tour. The entire album was played, as well as Wish You Were Here. Choice cuts from Dark Side of the Moon or earlier works would sometimes be played as an encore. The tour was one of the largest the band had done up to that point, covering most major Western European countries as well as some twenty-five dates in the US. The scale of the performances (as well as the grim subject matter, presumably) caused some problems for the band, and particularly for Roger Waters. Whereas Pink Floyd was never known for intimate gigs and connecting with an audience, the people who flocked to see the band in the 1977 tour’s stadiums were disinterested and disruptive up to the point of affecting the band’s performance. Gigs could be tense affairs, with Waters scolding the audience, the crew and generally struggling to get his more personal songs across.

Roger Waters in 1977, during the In The Flesh tour

Arena gigs would claim more victims in the 1970s: Neil Young had manfully struggled with the audience’s expectations following the huge success of Harvest (1972). The result of that particular tour can be heard on the grim, abrasive audience-baiting of Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975), and something similar would happen to Roger Waters during, and in the wake of, the In The Flesh tour. The nature of the concerts and their reliance on projected imagery on a backdrop meant that the band had to play to a set rhythm, limiting their show to reproducing the album almost note for note. Waters had headphones on for all the gigs, playing along to a click-track, though also signifying a certain introversion and distance from the crowd. Every concert, he would yell out a number, signifying the number of shows played in a macabre countdown of personal suffering. In a famous incident in Montreal, Waters taunted a certain member of the audience throughout the show, luring him up to the front row. Finally, he would spit in the boy’s face, an (unintended?) ironic echo of the “Dogs” lyric “who was trained not to spit on the fan?” Morale within the band had hit a low. Outshined by their own spectacle, a reviewer prophetically stated: “the next logical step for them is to hire a bunch of puppets to stand on stage with Floyd masks on.” [Melody Maker, March 1977. Cited in Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey p 189.]

David Gilmour and Roger Waters in Montreal, July 6th, 1977. An account of the infamous concert and more pictures can be found on Brain-Damage.

Waters’ disillusionment with the scale of the new audiences and the dehumanizing aspects of the In The Flesh tour gave him plenty of food for thought for Pink Floyd’s next project. He would write and record two demo albums: one intensely personal and one a grand, sweeping statement. The former was turned down by the band, and would eventually become The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (1984), Waters’ first solo album (arguably his third). The latter would gestate over a period of time, and emerge as the double-LP The Wall, released in late 1979. The Wall and its subsequent tour would largely be a reaction to the In The Flesh tour. The first track was even called “In the Flesh?”, and it would be reprised near the end as “In the Flesh”. Both songs take place during a concert as it takes the shape of a (Neo-) Nazi Rally with a dictatorial singer picking out members of the audience and “putting them up against the wall”. The stage show of the The Wall started with a “surrogate band”, four musicians wearing Pink Floyd “life masks” that fooled the audience until the real band would appear behind them. Throughout the show, which concerned a rock star losing his mind and finally putting himself on trial, a physical wall was built between the audience and the band, fulfilling Waters’ dreams of completely distancing himself from the unpleasantness of stadium touring. The audiences would cheer as they were “bombed” by a full-scale Stuka replica and other instruments of torture. The second half of the show took place almost entirely behind the wall, on which grotesque cartoons were projected. Occasionally, a band member would appear through or above the wall. The grand finale would tear the wall down, nearly crushing the audience with huge cardboard bricks.

The cover of Is There Anybody Out There?, a live album documenting the The Wall tour of the early 1980s. It shows the life masks of the band that the "surrogate band" wore to fool the audience and fully disassociate the band from their fans.

Animals’ dark subject matter would have ramifications for Pink Floyd for years to come, nudging the band into a terminal phase that would only end in 1983, with the release of the ominously titled The Final Cut (1983). That album was a band effort in name only, essentially being a Roger Waters solo album “performed by Pink Floyd”. Keyboardist Richard Wright, so important to the band in its first fifteen years had already been fired during the recording of The Wall. That album was arguably a Roger Waters solo album as well; David Gilmour made only a few contributions, and Waters has taken almost complete credit for it ever since. Animals was the onset of Waters’ dominance, though the vast soundscapes (it was the last of the Floyd Albums to feature songs that extended past ten minutes) gave the group space to breathe and improvise. The fact that these tracks came from earlier tours also kept them lively, having been honed live before being committed to tape. This is the antithesis of The Wall, which would require much effort to be reproduced in all their glory for a live audience. Animals sonically grabs the listener from the first seconds of "Dogs", and doesn’t let up until the second part of "Pigs on the Wing" leaves the listener in some form of resolution. It would be a last hurrah for Pink Floyd as a functioning, complementary unit, but the cracks were starting to show. For the next two albums, the Floyd would be The Roger Waters Experience in all but name, and since 1984 it would be reduced to a mere charade.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Blue Mask by Lou Reed (1982)

Since the 1960s, rock music was reliant on an air of danger, youth and glamour. Can “dangerous” artists still deliver at forty? Lou Reed was part of the first generation of rock musicians crossing that barrier. John Lennon’s life was cut short at forty, but Dylan, assorted Stones and their contemporaries were reaching uncharted territories in the early 1980s. Does maturity end interesting rock? Are tales of rebellion, revolution and debauchery still convincing from someone old enough to be your father?

Lou Reed is unique in this respect, as he was wise (and cantankerous) beyond his years before even hitting thirty. His intellectual, adult-oriented content, sunglasses and leather trousers had stood him in good stead for some fifteen years with several peaks and an equal amount of valleys in his musical career throughout the 1970s. A glammy makeover by collaborator David Bowie (1972’s Transformer) had made Reed a household name, and since then, his career had coasted along with a few highlights along the way.

Right off the bat, The Blue Mask references Transformer. The cover reuses the iconic high-contrast Mick Rock photograph that graced the earlier album, but in blue instead of white. Was this the titular “Blue Mask”? Were Transformer and its immediate successors masks that hid the true artist? In any case, it’s an unusual choice for an album to use a photograph of the artist from ten years earlier, although his saggy-eyed and powdered visage make age an indeterminate quality anyway.

Sonically, The Blue Mask is a large step ahead for Reed. Remarkably “flat” compared to earlier albums, Reed and his band keep it simple, with twin guitars, fretless bass and drums forming the core of the album. The two guitars, played by Reed and Robert Quine (right and left stereo channels, respectively) duel, duet and complement each other beautifully, in a way reminiscent of the dual guitar attack of Neil Young’s Zuma. In fact, this latter album is specifically mentioned in The Blue Mask’s reissue liner notes as another example of nicely separated guitar work. The rest of the band are pure session musicians, giving the chaos of Reed’s artistic expression a very solid base. Occasionally, these seasoned professionals let rip like the Velvet Underground’s amateur upstarts, but also keep time and a groove like no other. Almost all the album was recorded “live”, with only most vocal takes and one single solo dubbed on top. All these factors make the album a listener’s delight, with very clear definition of the instruments and a beautiful collaboration that you can only get from musicians interacting face to face.

All of this would be of only minor interest if the songs themselves were in any way weak. Thankfully, they are not. The album is taut (at ten songs, forty minutes), with each song bringing something unique and essential to the album. Lyrically, middle age dominates, along with some very self-referential and autobiographical songs. Reed had become newly domesticated: married (after having lived together with a transsexual for several years), “clean” (see: “Underneath the Bottle”) and looking forward.

Three songs are clearly indebted to the Velvet Underground, mostly due to their frenetic, discordant guitar workouts. The title track is the most abrasive on the album, providing a chugging riff and howls of feedback. “The Gun” is almost a sequel to the Underground’s “Heroin”, with the sparse and ominous jangly guitar that builds to a climax. The references to “shooting with a gun” are also a lyrical echo to the ode to opiates. “Waves of Fear”, with its paranoid, frantic lyrics and powerful guitars also raise memories to Reed’s earlier band. The swooping fretless bass work and the tight drum breaks that appear on this song are something unique to Reed’s contemporary band, however.

"Waves of Fear" performed in New York, 1983. (from A Night With Lou Reed)

The influence of new wave music, especially other NYC stalwarts Talking Heads can also be felt on some tracks. The funky riffs and catchy ironic lyrics abound on “Average Guy”. Here, the two guitars are most clearly separated, with a distorted rhythm track courtesy of Reed and a Knopfleresque slick and sparse tone giving lead flourishes. Reed plays down his freaky past, proclaiming himself average in about every single way you could classify a person, including body temperature. A genuinely funny reference to a “reverend cripple from the right” raises a smile in a largely serious album. Another way of distancing himself from his controversial past, the luscious “Women” plainly states “I love women” in lieu of a chorus (another funny lyric: “I used to look at women in the magazines/I know that it was sexist, but I was in my teens”). Iggy Pop did something similar three years earlier, although his “I love girls” sounds more juvenile than Reed, eight years his senior at the time of authorship. A man loving women may be quite average, but having “a choir of castrates” “sing a little Bach” as they make love keeps Reed kinky.

"Women" performed in New York, 1983. (from A Night With Lou Reed)

A final upbeat and ironic song, despite its rather grim subject matter, deals with Reed’s attempt to “give up drugs by drinking”. “Underneath the Bottle” is an ode to alcoholism, a socially and legally acceptable way of being a shitfaced addict. A hint of The Velvet’s “Sweet Jane” in the guitar riff, and Reed’s confession gets started. Falling down stairs, ordering Scotch together with beer, hoping to rediscover pride hidden underneath the bottle: all symptoms of Reed’s “cleaned up” lifestyle since quitting drugs. “Liquor set me free!” The “Average Guy” might worry about his hurting liver, but Reed drinks five days and sleeps on two.

The Blue Mask also contains much soul-searching, an inevitable by-product of reaching forty and settling down. “My House” paints a domestic picture, albeit of a romantic haunted mansion with Ouija boards and the ghost of Reed’s former mentor. Nevertheless, who’d have guessed that the man who revolutionised singing about smack and blowjobs would one day sing the line “Canadian geese are flying above the trees”? “The Heroine” is a tender solo song, with Reed simply playing along with his own singing. The song is quite straightforward, despite the homonymous connotations of Reed’s past subject matter. Autobiographical elements are brought to the foreground on the final tracks: “The Day John Kennedy Died” is a sober recollection of Reed’s experiences on that day in late 1963, a twenty-one year-old still in college in upstate New York. The album ends with the rousing “Heavenly Arms”, a typical Reed ballad in the style of “Satellite of Love” (Transformer) and “Sad Song” (Berlin, 1973). Reed wails an ode to his newlywed wife at the full force of his usually talk-singing voice.

Reed would tour with these musicians, spawning several live releases. The movie “A Night With Lou Reed” provides a concert experience in the intimate Bottom Line Club in New York, 1983. A confused-looking Andy Warhol can be seen in the audience (see the beginning of "Women", above), as the band plays a greatest hits collection. Fernando Saunders’ virtuoso bass playing on “New Age” is enough to make Reed grin like a maniac, but it is the few songs from The Blue Mask where this band truly shines. Another release from this tour is the album Live in Italy (1984).

So, does middle age mean less credible sex, violence and debauchery? No, just more (commendable) self-awareness, and outstanding musicianship. The Blue Mask strikes an excellent balance between the almost unlistenable grinding freak-outs of The Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat (1968)) and the poppy Transformer songs, while leaving ample space for intricate songs of contemplation. This kind of artistic maturity, an intuition as to what works and what doesn’t on a single album is something that only comes with age and experience. Reed had entered his forties with an artistic highlight. In live performances, he seems at ease, and dignified, which is more than can be said about his former mentor at forty:

So much for dignity: Bowie at 40 in his ill-fated “Athletic Superstar” period, The Glass Spider tour of 1987

Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Values by Iggy Pop (1979)

In 1979, Jim Osterberg had something to prove. He had just released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of his solo career, but they were overshadowed by his creative collaborator, a certain D. Bowie. Keen to ditch the training wheels that his celebrity pal had provided, New Values was to showcase Iggy’s ability to make his own luck in life. The cover alone shows off the strength of the solo artist; this was not a man who needed crutches from anyone.

In the mid-1970s though, Pop needed all the help he could get. Washed up physically, commercially and creatively, he had checked himself into an insane asylum to try to kick heroin. The Stooges had broken up in 1974, after 1973’s last stand Raw Power. Having produced that album, David Bowie continued to support Iggy Pop while he was locked up (by smuggling in drugs, for instance), and finally took him on the road for the 1976 Isolar tour, supporting Station to Station. The two also fostered a creative relationship. Their “Berlin Years” are stuff of legend, spawning several in-depth articles and even an entire book devoted to their output between 1976 and 1978. In an effort to escape LA, where Bowie had spent his own annus horribilis locked in his home, coked out of his mind, subsisting on milk and peppers, storing his urine in the fridge and drawing pentagrams on the floor, the two decamped to Berlin to live a more sober life. The albums they recorded there (and in France) were all released in 1977 and arguably represented the peak of their respective careers.

The 1977 output of Messrs. Pop and Bowie, clockwise from top left: January, March, August, October

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, he had been cast as a “sweating lunatic”, but The Idiot showed a side to Iggy Pop that had largely been lost on the public; the experimental raconteur, the son of an English teacher, the well-read Europhile. It was also on this album that Bowie’s fingerprints were most obvious. It proved to be a dry run for the latter’s Low, but it was released after Low so that it wouldn’t look like Bowie was aping Iggy. Billed as a cross between James Brown and Kraftwerk, the desolate musical landscape was lightened by some funk and soul workouts courtesy of Bowie’s backing band. This album also included a menacing “China Girl”, slickly covered years later by Bowie partly to provide royalty revenues for Pop. Lust For Life would be a more typical Iggy record: guitars dominate, the tempo is higher and the rhythm section of the Sales Brothers was reminiscent of The Stooges’ Asheton Brothers.

Having David Bowie with him for the 1977 promotion for The Idiot took Iggy Pop to some unusual places, including this daytime chat show. Iggy's natural wit and charm towards the older generation would win over his hosts. This video also shows a brief clip of the Pop/Bowie dynamic onstage.

This career rejuvenation was very much overshadowed by Pop’s patron, who had broken through in the US with Young Americans and Station to Station. Much was made of Bowie’s keyboard work in Pop’s touring band, attracting as many concert-going fans as the singer himself. The release of Lust For Life also coincided with the death of Elvis Presley. When the first pressing sold out, RCA’s record plants were churning out Elvis’s old albums, and the well-received Lust for Life disappeared off the shelves, never becoming the hit it deserved to be. Iggy was at the top of his game, but somewhat frustrated by his second-fiddle status and lack of support by his record company. Keen to put more distance between himself and Bowie, he used his new critical and commercial clout to negotiate a new recording contract and prove himself.

Right off the bat, New Values delivers. Demonstrating a cleaner, slicker production than its immediate predecessors, “Tell Me A Story” has female backing vocals, a few new wave synth sound effects, a laid-back guitar solo and a mix that puts Iggy Pops vocals front and center. “New Values” features a vocoder, and has a punky riff that drives the song, without sounding as apocalyptic as Raw Power. In fact, the Stooges’ guitarist from that album, James Williamson, produces the album, and along with Scott Thurston on lead guitar New Values picks up where Raw Power and Kill City (1975) left off. “Girls” has simplistic lyrics, a parody of a love song, crooned by Pop’s excellent singing voice. Providing much character throughout the sessions is Klaus Krüger, drummer of Tangerine Dream. His tight, dry and rhythmic drumming makes a welcome addition to Pop’s sound, having replaced Hunt Sales’ loose thudding on Lust For Life. Practising with a so-called click-track, Krüger’s Teutonic precision gives the album a solid base and a good start to the crisp production. Williamson’s production has been criticised for being unnecessarily, even harmfully elaborate, being more of a production showcase than facilitating Pop’s songs. Arguably, the album’s clearly “produced” nature adds distinct character without overshadowing the strong songs.

The two men who defined the sound of New Values: Drummer Klaus Krüger and producer James Williamson

Strong opening tracks aside, it’s the two singles (that is to say, promo videos were made for them) that stand out. “I’m Bored” and “Five Foot One” are possibly Iggy Pop’s best solo songs, definitely the best without the Stooges or Bowie. “I’m Bored” has a catchy angular riff, a fantastic drum part and funny lyrics. Proclaiming himself to be “chairman of the bored”, the whole song is a funny tirade against “stiffs, dips[omaniacs]” and his own “kicks”. “Five Foot One” is a beefy rocker in the vein of Motörhead, with lots of horns, animalistic howling and ironic lyrics thrown in. “I wish life could be/Swedish magazines” is the nihilistic slogan.

“Hiya Dogface!” A buzzing/buzzed Iggy Pop literally jumps out of his chair, fends off questions about his reliance on David Bowie, ridicules Australians and mimes to “I’m Bored” with full devotion.

Two other tracks that stand out from the rest are “Don’t Look Down” and “The Endless Sea”. These experimental tracks are somewhat of a departure for Pop, and prove to be exciting listening. “Don’t Look Down” is a smooth, mid tempo song that’s organ driven, super slick and choir-drenched. It’s beautifully light-hearted, quite a novelty from the rage of the Stooges or the experimental nihilism of the Bowie collaborations. “So why be bored?” asks the track that immediately follows “I’m Bored”. “The Endless Sea” starts as a synthy mood piece, introduced by spot-on drum loops from Krüger. It gradually builds to a climax, and must be heard to be appreciated in all its tonal glory. Needless to say it represents some kind of experimental highlight of pop’s 70s output, rivalling some of the soundscapes on The Idiot.

Other tracks on the album are sadly mere filler, including the naively racist “African Man” with stereotypes that could only have been acceptable in the 1970s (“I live in the jungle/I eat with my fingers/go home you dirty white man”). A few soppy love songs give way to “Billy Is A Runaway”, a new-wave freak-out that’s instantly forgettable. Nevertheless, New Values is essential listening, and proof that there is more to Iggy Pop than fronting proto-punk Stooges or eating bratwurst in Berlin as David Bowie’s test subject. His solo career was off to a promising start with The Idiot, Lust For Life and New Values under his belt. Sadly, his luck would not hold up and he would, like so many huge 1970s artists in the 1980s, crash and burn quite spectacularly. Only since reforming the Stooges in the early 2000s would Iggy Pop receive more credibility and popularity. Since Ron Asheton’s untimely death in 2009, Iggy’s tour would convince James Williamson out of retirement and some songs from New Values are being heard all over the world again for the first time since the early 1980s.