Archive for July, 2008

Live: Wooden Shjips, The Heads, Freebutt Brighton

July 19, 2008

I’m typing this with my ears still ringing and my head still cloudy from last night’s show: the penultimate date of the psychedelic package tour of the year, a double header of west country gonzo stalwarts The Heads and hotly-tipped (some say hyped) San Francisco drone brothers Wooden Shjips, on their first full-length outing across the UK. The Shjips in particular have excited and divided opinion with a string of extremely limited vinyl singles and a debut album at the end of 2007 that drew on such perhaps now over-familiar influences as The Velvets, The Doors, Spacemen 3, Krautrock, The Stooges, Hawkwind and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, but crucially to those of us who were converted (and many weren’t), managed to make the combination sound fresh, edgy, unexpected and sinister all over again.

Moved to the Freebutt after the mysterious and sudden closure of the Brighton Barfly a couple of months ago, the show was surprisingly not a sellout, but felt packed enough as temperatures rose with the volume levels and the Butt went into its usual summer impersonation of one of those sealed windowless sweatboxes used for punishment purposes in old prisoner of war camps. Whatever other improvements the Joiners have made since they took over and renovated the venue, air conditioning ain’t one of them.

The bands weren’t exempt from this torture and The Heads in particular seemed to be suffering from the heat. After a strong start the Bristol quartet seemed to wilt somewhat in the middle of their set, drummer Wayne slowly losing the will to live and their loose and heavy, murky space rock jams becoming somewhat turgid and directionless in places as a result. Having said that, when they did pull it all together The Heads tonight were thrilling, a Frankenstein’s Monster of Stooges/Mudhoney raunch and Loop/Hawkwind noise ragas, wrapped in a tattered black leather jacket and strapped to a hotwired Norton rocketing up the A46 to oblivion.

Keepers of the psych-rock flame since the early nineties, The Heads have mostly existed well below the critical radar, releasing their own records and, due to the need to maintain day jobs, rarely venturing far from their Bristolian heartland. Nevertheless they’ve built up a deserved cult following, remain hugely under-rated and will one day receive due recogntion when the history of the contemporary underground scene is truly written. Though I have several of their albums, this was the first time I’ve seen them live and they didn’t disappoint. But at times, during the less riveting passages, I yearned for a shamanic frontman in the Iggy mould; Simon’s vocals (you couldn’t call it singing) are an afterthought and, live, an unwelcome distraction even from the real business at hand. That business is a sonic bludgeoning of mind and body into grateful human lentil-mush, and when they achieve it The Heads scrape nirvana, as when against all odds their set rose to a sublime, shuddering and triumphant climax, the band locked into a series of descending churning riffs that each time bottomed out into a subconscious pit of clamouring freakish insect life before rising up to the heavens to do it all again. Finally, the foursome transcended their human frailty to serve the cruel, demanding god of their groove, and it was good. 

If The Heads set out to level the walls of Jericho and slice open the top of your heads with great solid slabs of unbroken guitar blast, then Wooden Shjips in contrast put the boogie back into space rock. Though hardly undemanding it’s an altogether mellower, more subtly rhythmic groove, drawing in parts on the motorik pulse of Neu! or Harmonia, but more so on the funk-derived rhythm guitar of the Velvet Underground, the gospel-tinged inner shimmer of Spacemen 3 or The Doors’ decadent roadhouse blues. In fact, one could make a case that in some degree Wooden Shjips are at least acknowledging the black music roots of what has become an overwhelmingly caucasian genre of experimental noise-drone music, Jason Pierce’s endless references back to gospel and blues tradition excepted.

Another amusing contrast between Wooden Shjips and The Heads is how comparatively healthy the Californian combo look. The Heads’ grey English pallor befits Brit rock veterans no doubt used to a diet of greasy chips and speed-cut acid, Ginsters’ pasties and cheap lager, Whereas Wooden Shjips in their hand-stitched moccasins look young and alert on San Francisco organic wholefood diets, warm sunshine and the finest pure grass joints. This comes over in the music, too: where The Heads are seeking merciful, brain-blitzed oblivion, Wooden Shjips seek to open up, to become more alive and awake to the world around us, behind the lazy facade of consensual reality. There’s a darkness in their songs, certainly, particularly in the echoed-to-indecipherability vocals of cultishly-bearded guitarist and band leader Ripley Johnson, but there’s an optimism too, a Kerouac-like sense that it’s in the mystery and the shadows that the diamond truly shines.   

The mantra of interlocking guitar and organ is constantly broken up by chattering maracas, and bassist Dusty Jermier’s trumpet solo towards the end is a highlight. I’ve got a tape somewhere with Miles Davis on one side and The MC5 on the other, and for a moment it was like I was listening to that tape but I could hear the 5 with Miles pushing through. Tonight was like that; a recognition that the droning one chord OM contains multitudes, that the obsessive worship of feedback and repetitive guitar noise can be inclusive and innovative still, and that rather than approaching a dead end, psychedelic rock in the 21st Century can still open up to the entire universe.

The Rolling Stones- Goat’s Head Soup

July 15, 2008

 

The original, unused album cover artwork

The original, unused album cover artwork

 

 

  Conventional wisdom has it that Goat’s Head Soup was a disappointment after the Stones’ supposed career-best triumph of Exile on Main Street, and the start of their 1970s decline. In fact it’s their most under-rated album; a classic record with a completely different feel to its admittedly hard-to-follow predecessor.

  A melancholy, autumnal LP with echoes of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Goat’s Head Soup is a hungover comedown record for the end of the 1960s party, blinking in the cold grey light of the 1970s. Maybe the hostility towards it was partly because nobody at the time wanted to be told that the party was over, least of all by the Rolling Stones. But viewed objectively there’s not a bad song on it, and some great ensemble playing when the band- augmented by session players including Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards- get stuck into a groove.    

  It opens with the sinister, loping groove of ‘Dancing with Mr D,’ in which Mick meets Death in the graveyard and asks him in what manner he’ll meet his eventual end. Later he hooks up with a beautiful woman, “wearing boxing gloves and a black top hat,” only for the flesh to fall from her bones and for her too to be transformed into the Grim Reaper. You don’t need to be a Freudian psychologist to guess that Mick’s got some issues to deal with here, to do with growing older, facing his mortality and the fate of all flesh. I’m reminded of Jack Kerouac’s Oedipal obsession with the “meat wheel” of birth, desire, sex, procreation and death, a hang-up that saw casual sex become something that just brought him closer, mentally and physically, to the grave. Guitars and piano intertwine like tendrils of vine around an ancient tomb.

  The Van Morrison-esque ‘100 Years Ago’ is one of the great forgotten Rolling Stones numbers, a song of regret and loss with the hookline, “sometimes don’t you think it’s wise not to grow up.” The laid-back funk of Billy Preston’s clavinet playing gives way to a strident wah-wah guitar solo and a brilliant, double-time, heart-quickening jam session coda. ‘Coming down Again’ is a sorrowful piano-led ballad, with wah-d guitars chiming like distant bells. “Where are all my friends? The sky fell down again,” Keith sings plaintively, like Johnny Thunders never quite could.

   ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’ struggles free of the world-weary torpor however, animated by genuine anger at the injustices of the world and the corruption and unfairness of society. It’s a powerful, city-smooth rocker, driven by a blaring brass section, which has a similar feel to Dylan’s later ‘Hurricane’ in its rage at the shooting of an innocent black kid by New York cops. But the song’s anger is ultimately impotent and frustrated, offering no hope of restitution, of justice being done or the world ever becoming a better place. Indeed, the sense of regret and hopelessness in the classic ‘Angie,’ which follows- ostensibly about the end of a love affair- could as well be about the failure of the idealistic 1960s and the dawning of a new, harsher decade. “All those dreams we had, they all went up in smoke… where do we go from here?” But still, “they can’t say we never tried.”

  ‘Silver Train’ is a rolling blues driven by Ian Stewart’s piano and a combination of harmonica and slide guitar, that’s all about travelling across some state line to have sex with a prostitute: “I did not know her name, but she laughed and took my money.” Mick plays piano himself on the equally bluesy ‘Hide your Love,’ which also features a great guitar solo and a powerful, rock-gospel conclusion that Primal Scream have ripped off more than once. ‘Winter’ is wonderfully evocative of a dirty, freezing London and Withnail-esque hippies huddling in their greatcoats after they’ve put their last sixpence in the gas meter, and dreaming of the California sun. “I’ve been burning my bell, book and candle, and the restoration plays have all gone around,” is a great line, whatever it means. The influence of Astral Weeks is particularly apparent on this track, especially when the strings swoop in. Meanwhile, ‘Can You Hear the Music’ is a psychedelic jam that builds from eastern-sounding atmospherics into a chanted, communal but ambiguous celebration that finds Mick admitting “sometimes I’m dancing on air, but then I get scared, when I hear the music.” It’s a track that I would say Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre has heard more than once. 

   The LP ends with the controversial ‘Star Star,’ originally titled ‘Starfucker.’ In a career filled with paeans to meaningless sex with underage girls, this is the most blatant and cynical. “Your tricks with fruit are pretty cute, I bet you keep your pussy clean.” Yet the band are aware that this girl only wants them because they’re famous, and that they’re essentially anonymous trophy-objects to her. Their macho bluster fails to disguise their need for what she has to offer, and they’re powerless in the face of her rapacious sexuality. Musically, the song is raunchy Stones-by-numbers, the sort of strutting, crowd-pleasing riffs that have been largely absent from this album, replaced in the main by something more fragile and uncertain. Goat’s Head Soup- it’s title suggesting darkness and decadence, but more likely referring to the catering at the Jamaican studios where it was recorded- strips away the groupie-attracting, strutting machismo of the Stones myth to reveal a band growing older, beset by doubts and regrets, acutely aware of loss and at a crossroads in both their careers and their personal lives. Altamont loomed large in their immediate past; disco, Ronnie Wood and self-parody were soon to come. But Goat’s Head Soup stands both as a tantalising glimpse of the more honest, less aggressive direction they could have taken, and as the last great Stones LP; the end of an era, a final gathering of energies and a brave stare into the mirror before the long darkness draws in.

David Bowie- Hours

July 15, 2008

 

 

 

Alongside the earlier Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, Hours is the largely unheralded beginning of Bowie’s 21st Century renaissance. Following on from his bold, partly-successful but ultimately trying-too-hard dabblings in drum n’ bass on Outside and Earthling- which have dated badly and now sound more like a mid-life crisis than anything else, the musical equivalent of buying yourself a flash sports car for your fiftieth birthday (or, ahem, marrying a gorgeous young model)- and coming before his acclaimed “return to form” with Heathen, Hours is the album where Bowie finally shook off the creative malaise that had dogged him since Scary Monsters, stopped worrying about keeping up with all the other Joneses, gave up on twenty years of role-playing and delivered a batch of strong, traditional, heartfelt songs that played to his strengths as a singer and songwriter, that drew on his own musical and personal history but came out somehow sounding clean, uncluttered, and, most paradoxically of all- young.

  Admittedly, by comparison to his previous couple of albums, Bowie is playing it safe on Hours. It sounds like the kind of album you’d expect a 52-year-old millionaire rock legend to make- tasteful, sedate, well-tailored synthesised rock moving at a stately pace, with lyrics largely about looking back and wondering what it was all about. But, crucially, it’s far better than you expect it to be. As someone who grew up with ‘80s Bowie, got into Ziggy and, especially, the Anthony Newley-influenced World of David Bowie album in my teens, and became obsessed with all his ‘70s personas in my mid-twenties, I nevertheless saw Bowie as a legendary figure from some mythical past- rock’s long-gone, pre-punk golden age of the sixties and early seventies- and had no interest in him as a current performer until I saw him at the Glastonbury Festival in 2000. Suddenly I saw him as still active, not remote and legendary- alien- but someone here and now, flawed, human, approachable, and still capable of good work. So I borrowed all of his recent albums from Brighton library when I got back, and taped them. And Hours, then his most recent, was the one that I kept coming back to. Before Glastonbury I had thought that Bowie, like all rock stars, had it for a time when he was young, and then lost it, as was inevitable. Maybe I was becoming a bit more forgiving as I approached thirty myself; maybe, God forbid, my tastes were mellowing. But Hours certainly struck a chord; it sounded honest, elegiac, and real.

  As the title suggests, this is an album all about the passing of time, almost relentlessly so.  And as Bowie cradles his dying self on the cover, all dressed in white, so on the back sleeve he appears in triplicate, all in black and sat round a coiled black serpent. The figure on the left has his head in his hands. The exact symbolism of all this escapes me, but I’d guess we’re talking about death and rebirth, temptation and regret. The album is co-written with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie’s right-hand man since the arguably unfairly reviled Tin Machine, and the pair also handle production duties.

  “All of my life I’ve tried so hard,” it begins, on ‘Thursday’s Child,’ before continuing “nothing much happened all the same.” The mood seems similar to another turn-of-the-decade identity crisis, in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ twenty years earlier, when Bowie sang, “I’ve never done good things; I’ve never done bad things…” Melancholy waves of synthesiser and fretless bass wind round a laid-back shuffle beat, and when the girlie backing vocals come in on “throw me tomorrow,” even the hardest punk heart melts in the face of such smooth perfection. If the lyrics seem a touch self-pitying then at least the sentiments seem sincere, and ultimately the mood is positive: “Seeing my past to let it go… Everything’s falling into place… I don’t regret that I was Thursday’s Child.”

  The dramatic ‘Something in the Air’ finds Bowie the old showbiz pro singing in his trademark tense, closed-mouth style from back in his throat, allowing for maximum impact when he opens up just a bit more on the chorus, restraint being everything you see (always leave them wanting more… always keep something up your sleeve). The lyrics tell of a love affair that’s gone on far too long, the moment of realisation that the feeling has gone, a metaphor doubtless for Bowie’s broader sense of ennui.

  The shrugging regret of ‘Survive’ finds Bowie singing in his native, though somewhat affected, cockney accent, which always suggest a heartfelt nakedness and autobiographical content to the lyrics. It could just be another calculated device, but as he sings of “Beatle Boys all snowy white, razzle dazzle clubs every night,” it’s hard not to believe him. And ultimately, if it works, does it really matter? He shifts into his alienated Bing Crosby-in-space croon for ‘If I’m Dreaming my Life,’ with its suggestive, haiku-like lyrics and effective time changes, Bowie floating, disconnected, into the void at the end with Reeves Gabrels sounding more than ever like a digital age Mick Ronson. On ‘Seven’ he plays slide guitar like George Harrison, over acoustic strumming and Bowie ruminating carelessly on mortality and loss. It’s a beautiful, simple song and a reminder that beyond all the concepts and what-not, Bowie just has an amazing, expressive voice, which has carried him through more lean material than many would admit.

  The big questions- complex yet dreadfully simple- continue to recur on ‘What’s Really Happening?’ and ‘The Pretty Things are going to Hell,’ which references both one of Bowie’s favourite ‘60s beat groups and a song from Iggy’s Raw Power (which Bowie of course produced), in a song about the excesses and ecstasies of doomed, or damned, youth, and where they leave you in the end. “The pretty things are going to Hell, they wore it out but they wore it well.” Of course, all us flaming teenage existentialists knew how it had to end- you might die, or you might even live- but we Did It, and we knew it counted for nothing, because doesn’t everything count for nothing, isn’t it all just bravado and the angle that you turn your collar, but isn’t that everything too?

  And suddenly, on ‘New Angels of Promise’ it’s like we’re listening to a lost track from Low, albeit with conventional late-nineties production values. It’s those odd scales he’s singing, and the cut-up sounding lyrics. ‘Brilliant Adventure’ is even more so, one of those ominous, eastern-sounding instrumentals, all minimalist synthesiser, woodblocks and windchimes. After these late treats, the relatively tuneless ‘The Dreamers’ is a slightly disappointing, anticlimactic ending, Bowie murmuring apocalyptic imagery in self-parodic vocal style. “So it goes, just a searcher, lonely soul, last of the dreamers.” These are the final lines; resigned, philosophical, world-weary.  

  Apparently Bowie intended this album to be a dialogue between a middle-aged man and his younger self. While the lyrics are often as cryptic and ambiguous as ever, there’s certainly a strong existential theme running through the record, and no masks or characters- just an aging rock star / artist wondering if it’s all been worth it. Definitely melancholy and autumnal, but uplifting and empowering in the end, this is the best late-period Bowie album- his most consistent record since Scary Monsters, and better than the still-fine albums that came after. At Glastonbury, I realised that David Bowie was human after all; Hours is the recorded proof.

 

 

Ghost Dance- Gathering Dust

July 2, 2008

 

 Ghost Dance: still waiting for the last train…

 

 

Another one from the archives…!

 

 

Found in a Kemptown charity shop for 99p, this is a compilation of Ghost Dance’s first three EPs, and I already have everything on here, but I’m a completist aren’t I. Plus it’s nice to have everything on one album as my original singles are all quite worn by now, and there are brilliant Spinal Tap worthy sleevenotes from appropriately-named producer Bill Spectre, though the tracks he didn’t produce are the ones that have the best sound on this album.

  What can I say about Ghost Dance? They were I think probably the first band I fell in love with, though I swiftly fell out of love with them after the period represented here, which is only one year. Their second single was one of the first that I bought, early in 1986, and it was definitely a major part of the soundtrack to my early teenage years. It is a source of major regret that I never managed to see them live, though I nearly did twice, but I stupidly gave in to my parents’ 10.30 curfew and so missed them both times. But I painstakingly copied out their logo in felt tip pen, intending to have it painted on my leather jacket if I ever managed to get one, and had a considerable crush on lead singer Anne-Marie Hurst. She had previously been in first generation second-string goth band Skeletal Family, and had left them in 1985 when they signed a major label deal- her replacement was named Katrina I believe, she was blonde and they went rubbish shortly afterwards. Gary Marx- surely the unsung and unassuming ur-guitarist of gothic rock- had meanwhile just left the Sisters of Mercy, and had a load of songs he’d written for that band left lying around. They hooked up with Paul ‘Etch’ Etchell, former bassist with the Citron Girls (no, me neither), and a drum machine called Pandora, Dr Avalanche’s kid sister by the sound of things. Operating out of Keighley, they surfed the second generation goth wave alongside the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim, but were overtly a pop band from the start. Exhilaratingly uncomplicated and shallow, they gave the kids what they wanted- anthemic, catchy tunes you could dance to- and had just enough of a melodramatic, melancholy edge in their music to satisfy the sorrowful, romantic stirrings of the adolescent soul. 

  This collection starts with the lead track of their first single, ‘River of no Return.’ It’s classic autumnal goth-pop, from the high-in-the-mix chiming guitar riff to Anne-Marie’s curiously strident vocals, which almost recall the chick from Shocking Blue, another band I loved around this time. She mutters marvellously meaningless gothic clichés over a minimal bassline, and on the line “I can see you’re getting scared,” a scream rings out in the background. There’s a breakdown section after the second chorus; my copy jumps on this track too.

  ‘Celebrate’ was later re-worked for Ghost Dance’s debut LP proper, the disastrous major label, mainstream-pop crossover bid Stop the World. Here it’s another great combination of, er, chiming guitar riffs, low-in-the-mix vocals saying absolutely nothing and a relentless, less-is-more drum machine beat. There’s a 2-bar distorted bass solo after the second chorus that then gradually builds up again, and the whole song has a perfect chicken-dancing goth two-step rhythm.

  ‘Heart full of Soul’ has a classic chorus-plus-distortion guitar sound and is far better than the Yardbirds’ original in my highly subjective opinion. Everything is deconstructed down to its bare essentials, in a way that owes more to lumpen glam than punk, and as a result is ten times as powerful. Anne-Marie’s straining, yelping vocal is very sexy in a goth girl next door, Kim Wilde kind of way. ‘Can the Can’ is more perfect gothic bubblegum, but done completely straight and deadpan in spite of the absurd “eagle meets the tiger” lyrics- no more absurd than Ghost Dance’s own though, I suppose. Again, Anne-Marie comes over very sexy on the breakdown section, and does a fine scream, though she’s definitely more Joan Jett than Suzi Quatro.

  ‘Last Train’ is taken from the third EP, and a change of producer definitely shows in the clearer, crisper sound. This album is generally quite muffled all the way through, and I’m not sure if that’s due to the quality of the vinyl or the recording. Anyway, there’s a single-string Sisters of Mercy guitar riff, a four-square, bass-driven verse, and then the riff kicks back in for the chorus. The “last train” itself works both as mythic archetype and a social-realist reference to the actual last train from say, Leeds to Sowerby Bridge that your average Ghost Dance fan may find himself running for after the show. Indeed, he’ll probably be worrying about missing it while they’re playing this song, and may have to leave early to catch it, cursing his parents- so the hookline “take me anywhere but home” resonates particularly strongly. Going to gigs by train is probably an experience quite particular to growing up in small northern valley towns; incidentally, the Sisters wrote quite a few train songs as well, making it something of a classic northern gothic theme.

  Also from the third EP, ‘A Deeper Blue’ is built around a descending, circular riff and a surprisingly melodic chorus, probably stolen from ‘Blue Turk’ by Alice Cooper, providing more evidence of Ghost Dance’s glam rock roots. The hardcore punk-goth bridge section is definitely more Skeletal Family than Sisters derived. There’s also a fine, almost FM-rock guitar solo, and a neo-psychedelic fade-out.

  Side two opens with two of the band’s earliest numbers. ‘Yesterday Again’ is an old Skeletal Family song, also covered by Jude the Obscure. It’s a classic minimalist goth ballad, built on a pulsing, one-note synthesiser bassline that recalls the Sisters’ ‘Afterhours,’ a heavily echoed, minor-key guitar riff set on repeat and a ‘China Girl’ glam descend chorus. A break-up song that positively wallows in glorious self-pity, it’s wonderfully simplistic, even though by the end you expect it to turn into the Sisters’ ‘Some kind of Stranger’ at any moment- you can easily sing one song over the other… Roxy Music’s ‘Both Ends Burning’ is rendered as a straight-ahead rocker, with the drum machine set on autopilot and Marx playing the same three chords repeatedly over the top, the glam descend once again. It works though, and perfectly illustrates Ghost Dance’s seductive naivety. Despite the various members’ past experience in several successful groups, there’s a local-band amateurishness throughout proceedings, a DIY, primitive ethos that’s almost Billy Childish-like in theory, if not in actual sound. I guess that you could get away with that kind of thing in the 1980s, in a way that you certainly couldn’t now.

  Some- but not all- of that innocence had evaporated by the time of the band’s third single. ‘Grip of Love’ may be the band’s finest moment, a perfectly-conceived pop song with a great galloping rhythm and cleaner production than the previous two EPs. By now Richard Steele had joined on second guitar, and so the chorus-distortion main riff is underpinned by chiming 12-string. Yet its b-side, ‘Where Spirits Fly’ is a curiously charmless affair; driving and dynamic, it’s effective but formulaic. Of course, all of Ghost Dance’s songs are formulaic, but this one is too slick so as to sound almost cynical. It’s not a bad song- it was an old Sisters number that they never recorded- but it’s not one of my favourites. The album ends with ‘Radar Love,’ another cover that surpasses the stodgy original. There’s a driving bassline, a cute squeal from Anne-Marie, a top flight drum machine solo and then one of the great low E down the neck guitar scrapes on record. It jumps at the end though.

  After this, Anne-Marie went blonde, they replaced Pandora with a mere mortal (John Grant), and produced one last great EP- though I disliked it at the time- before signing to Chrysalis and re-emerging in 1989 as an AOR pop-rock outfit denying any gothic connection whatsoever. They lost all their old fans, failed to gain any new ones, flopped miserably and split up- though goth was dead in the water by the beginning of the 90s anyway, killed by the double-whammy of grunge and acid house. Etch briefly joined the Mission, and Richard Steele ended up in big-in-America ‘90s glam-rockers Spacehog, alongside members of cult Leeds fellow travellers the Dust Devils. Anne-Marie has recently been singing with a reformed Skeletal Family, having apparently spent the intervening years living the normal life, having kids and so on. And of the whereabouts of the great Gary Marx, I know nowt.

  This stuff has aged surprisingly well. It owes more to Kim Wilde, Joan Jett and the Sweet than Joy Division, and could still show the likes of The Killers a thing or too. It’s just classic pop music, gothic bubblegum indeed that still has me in the grip of love.

 

(edit: Etch also played in minimally-monikered and mightily-mulletted, but actually quite good on their day Bradford Metallers Loud, while Gary Marx can be found here: www.garymarx.com

And see also: www.ghostdance.co.uk )