Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Music Room - Twerking my way back to you (or 'Sex and the CD')


Sex and music have been splashed all over the news recently. From the implausibly named Robin Thicke with his unsavoury lyrics and scantily clad friends to someone who used to be teen heroine Hannah Montana brazenly 'Twerking' with implausibly named Robin at the MTV awards. At this point, for readers over the age of 22 I'd better explain that 'Twerking' is defined in the indispensable Urban Dictionary as, 'basically a slutty dance'. In fact the delightfully named triple album 'Twerk It' is currently riding high in the UK hit parade. It features the aforementioned Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus and, it probably goes without saying, Little Mix. 60 tunes, old and new, tailor made for twerking to.

This preponderance of sex and music made me (and Sinead O'Connor and Annie Lennox) wonder whether it’s a new phenomenon. Is music any more sexually explicit now than it was when we were all knee-high to grasshoppers?

'Absolutely not' I hear most of you shout. Sex and music have been inextricably linked ever since Adam realised that being in a band was the fastest way to get into Eve's fig leaf. Of course it was a while before he found any bandmates, and when he eventually did they were brothers, and everyone knows what happens when you have brothers in a band.

If you don't believe that sex and music have been inextricably linked since the very dawn of time then here’s the proof. 22 years ago the UK number one single was ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’. And what do you think Marvin, to whom Robin has been implausibly linked, was singing about on ‘Let's Get it on’? Do you have any idea what Bill Haley, and Big Joe Turner before him, was referring to when singing, 59 years ago, about a one-eyed cat in ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’?
And what about Tommy McClennan’s 72-year old blues (and carpentry) classic ‘Cross Cut Saw Blues’, which opens with the immortal lines;

‘I’m a crosscut saw, drag me ‘cross your log,
I’m a crosscut saw, drag me ‘cross you log,
Babe I’ll cut your wood so easy,
You can’t help say “hot dog”’!

There have admittedly been recent subtle changes, however. Changes that were set in motion by Madonna and carried forward by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Changes that resulted in the more explicit becoming more mainstream. I’m also thinking at this point of Britney Spears video for ‘Toxic’. As I often do.

Ultimately though, popular music is all about rebellion, about shocking adults. In many ways that’s the whole point of it. Consider Little Richard’s lyrics and sexual ambiguity. Or maybe Elvis Presley’s hips. Or how about the ‘in your face’ attitude towards drug taking that pervaded the late 1960s (and the club culture of the late 1980s). Or possibly the long hair and make-up so beloved of the finest proponents of glam rock. Or David Bowie, not sure if he’s a boy or a girl. Even the anti-establishment stance and lack of accepted musical talent of Punk, so shocking that ‘God Save The Queen’ wasn’t allowed to reach the top of the charts.


Hopefully you’re starting to get the picture now. Miley and Robin’s antics are designed, and even literally choreographed to shock. So if you feel outraged by their attention-seeking behaviour, then their plans have well and truly worked.

Originally published in the very wonderful NE:MM magazine
Blog - nemmonline.blogspot.co.uk
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Twitter - @NEMusicMonthly

Still available for Kindle - 'The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy Of Cassettes', the perfect Christmas gift (typed without a hint of irony).

Just head to http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00FN7XQT2

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Music Room - of Montreal 'Lousy with Sylvianbriar' review


We all know that there are musicians out there, some of them extremely and, let’s be honest, inexplicably successful, who are happy to trot out barely differing versions of the very same mundane albums over and over again. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are the sometimes less commercially successful artists who like to take a risk, to go out on a limb even, to constantly entice and sometimes even challenge the boundaries of music. of Montreal’s founder and frontman Kevin Barnes has pitched his very brightly coloured tent firmly in this second camp. Kevin recently recalled the very deliberate process of stripping back the layers to come up with their swiftly written and briskly recorded new album, Lousy With Sylvianbriar.
Kevin told me that he went to San Francisco around a month before he was due to start recording, where he spent three weeks writing most of the material before returning to his home studio in Athens, Georgia. There he gathered together an exciting group of new musicians, some of whom he’d never even met before, and recorded the album in just two weeks to an analogue 24-track tape machine. “It all happened in this really organic way’ Kevin explained, ‘it could have been a disaster but it worked out really well.”
“The inspiration was definitely bands from the late sixties and early seventies” Kevin continued, before quoting a list of the albums that acted both as an inspiration for the back to basics recording process and the overall theme. If I tell you that this list included Bring it All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead by Grateful Dead, Beggar’s Banquet and Let it Bleed by The Rolling Stones and the solo recordings of Gram Parsons then you’ll get a very good idea of the tradition in whose footsteps this album follows.
“I like the fact that you can’t hide behind anything with analogue recording” Kevin continued,”you can feel the energy of the people in the room. What appeals to me is the immediacy, you have to make quick decisions that you have to live with.”
“So, with influences like that”, you’re asking yourselves, “is it any good?”
If you’ve never heard of Montreal before then this is a great place to start. And if you have heard them before then this is every bit as good as, but very different to, their considerable previous body of work.
To Kevin’s credit it is certainly an album that succeeds in capturing the immediacy of the recording process. The influences of Dylan, The Stones and Gram Parsons inform but don’t overshadow any of the tunes here. Another of Kevin’s musical heroes, David Bowie is also strongly felt and there are a number of tracks here of which David himself would be extremely proud.
I’ve lived with this album for a few weeks now and none of its charms are wearing off. My favourite track during week one was ‘Belle Glade Missionaries’, which has such a nagging, lolloping hook that it’s difficult not to be totally drawn to it. Week two saw the rise of ‘Raindrop in my skull’ a beautiful, largely acoustic number on which Kevin shares vocal duties with Rebecca Cash to devastatingly tuneful effect. Week three was the week when ‘Obsidian Currents’ stepped forward to volunteer for the ‘top tune’ slot. It’s the last of these three that will undoubtedly be regarded as Lousy With Sylvianbriar’s finest tune once the dust finally settles.
Excitingly, for me at least if no-one else, the album is released not only on the usual dull CD and mp3 formats, but also in limited numbers on 180 gram sea glass green vinyl and, wait for it…, cassette tape.

When the end of year ‘best of’ lists are written I would love to think that Lousy with Sylvianbriar will feature very prominently in many of them. It’ll certainly be riding very high in mine.


Originally published in the very wonderful NE:MM magazine
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Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Joy Of Cassettes - available now on Kindle


Available now for your Kindle - The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy Of Cassettes

Just head to http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00FN7XQT2

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you only listened to cassettes for six months? I thought not. But I can tell you what happened when I did.

On day 1 I discovered that not all DJs go to heaven.

On day 9 I visited the very soon to be defunct HMV store in Durham and resisted the temptation to buy a CD.

I laid a 29 year old grudge to rest on day 18.

On day 23 I decided on the colour for my (proposed) music room.

Following the choice of a new Pope I made a musical confession on day 29.

By day 37 I was pondering life as a bit of a hellraiser.

On day 47 I mulled over the similarity of Bryan Ferry's moustache and the one sported by Private Walker in Dad's Army.

Day 56 saw me nailing my colours to the mast of the greatest hip-hop album ever made (and by day 81 I'd changed my mind).

Day 64 found me thinking of Edie Brickell's bra.

On a trip to South Bank, Cleveland (UK not USA) on day 74 I was pleasantly surprised by an album I'd been dreading.

On day 88 I spent some quality time with David Bowie's second best album and on day 93 I spent some less than quality time with one of his poorest.

Day 95 introduced the concept of the game-changing album in the company of a group of very talented Germans.

My favourite album of all time showed up on day 100.

My cherished 1985 Mini Mayfair returned to the road on day 105 and ushered in a short spell of 1980s classics by way of celebration, including the opportunity to ponder some very clunky lyrics indeed on day 107.

Al Gore's wife (the wonderfully named Tipper) popped up on day 122 and on day 125 I considered the potential perils of handing over creative control of your album to two of the world's most respected producers only to see the whole shooting match go totally tits up.

Finally on day 130 the entire experiment shuddered to its final destination just like it started, with a brilliant six track electronic classic from the late 1970s.

Oh, and did I mention that I spent a very enjoyable day in the company of a lesbian Tupperware seller?





The music room - Vinyl vs Cassette vs CD vs MP3


Recently I bought a new album. That’s not really unusual, but the next bit is. I bought it on vinyl. For the first time in almost 30 years I bought a new vinyl LP. It was Love your Dum and Mad by Whitburn’s finest, Nadine Shah, if you’re wondering.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought loads of ‘mint-unplayed’ LPs since CDs threatened to take over the world (I wonder how that plan’s going), but they’re not really new. An LP is only really new if you’re the first person to own it. Newness isn’t a question of condition, it’s a question of ownership.

Most ‘advances’ in musical formats have been almost entirely about miniaturisation, to the extent that mp3s are completely invisible to the naked eye and the collection that used to fill your spare room now fills a device that’s not much bigger than a postage stamp. Unfortunately as collections have become physically smaller they’ve also become less significant. No longer do you have to choose in advance the music that you think you’ll need to get you through your day, because you’re carrying your whole collection with you.

I’ve also been experimenting recently with listening to lots of music on cassette. It’s a part of my collection that had been neglected for years. Cassettes are under-rated (even sneered at by some) as a musical format, but they were the first truly successful attempt to bring portable music to the masses and therefore the first step on a journey that led to mp3 players. Cassettes now seem like they were made for simpler, slower times and in many ways they were. There was no automatic jumping to a specific track, if you wanted to listen to ‘Neuk├Âln’ on David Bowie’s Heroes then you’d have to go on a journey, because it’s tucked away at track four on side two and on a cassette that takes some finding.

Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think mp3 is a real music format. Real music formats can be bought and sold at car boot sales, they can be carried under your arm, they can be damaged by exposing them to dust or moisture or sunlight. Real music formats take up room, they need to be cared for and sorted. They can be stacked in piles and put on shelves. They can be sniffed. Mp3s have no smell.

I find CDs a little bit difficult to love too, even though I’ve got thousands of them. They never really came through on their promise of indestructibility for one thing, and when they’re badly scratched they don’t crackle warmly like vinyl does – they skip in a way that threatens to raise blood pressure when crackling old vinyl has absolutely the opposite effect. CDs are too clinical. They have no warmth. They don’t ‘sigh’ when you press the play button. They’re too convenient. In 100 years they’ll be remembered only as the 25-year halfway house between analogue music and music that doesn't really physically exist. That’s not much of a legacy.

So although it’s the music rather than the method of transportation that’s ultimately important it’s vinyl’s trumpet that gets my ‘toot’. If you’re still unconvinced I’ll leave you with one final parting shot. The 7” vinyl single is popular music in its purest form.


Originally published in the very wonderful NE:MM magazine

And available now for your Kindle - The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy Of Cassettes

Just head to http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00FN7XQT2

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Music Room - Vinyl shopping in Durham and Houghton-le-Spring

Here's a concept I've briefly touched on before - even though I have lots of records, I don't really think I'm a collector. In many ways I'm much more of an accumulator.

On Saturday me and my little brother became way too excited (for grown men!) about the one-day-only opening of a pop-up record shop in Durham. Ever since the closure of our beloved HMV (I shopped there regularly so it wasn't my fault) we've been cut adrift, so, cash in hand, off we popped.

And what a strange experience it turned out to be. For a start there were no second-hand records there, even though the publicity said that there would be. Then (and this was the frightening bit) we noticed that we were the only customers over the age of 25. In some ways this was heartening; maybe the future of vinyl is safe in the hands of these young whippersnappers. If we're all hoping for a vinyl revival as a result of purchasers over the age of 40 then our plan could be fatally flawed.

So we looked briefly through the new vinyl, while someone sitting on a stool played a guitar in the front of the shop. The performance was very much appreciated by the young customers in their woolly hats (in 30 years they'll laugh about wearing woolly hats all year round just like we laugh about flares or ankle-warmers now).

To cut a long story short, we looked briefly through the new LPs (most priced between £18 and £22) for what we felt was a respectable length of time, then left with the plan to go hotfoot to the brilliant ‘Just the sound’ second-hand record shop in nearby Houghton le Spring (which opened at about the same time as the Durham HMV closed, strangely enough), where we spent a much longer time poring (and pawing) over the thousands of records on display. We were offered a cup of tea and even allowed a brief look into the legendary back room!

Around an hour or so later we emerged with an armful of vinyl apiece, me £11 lighter but with eight LPs (including two doubles) to show for it. A pretty diverse selection it was too, I think you’ll agree;

Donna Summer - On the Radio: Greatest Hits volumes 1 & 2 (£4)
I already own this collection on slightly mangled cassette so I know how good it is. It also comes with the major advantage of a Giorgio Moroder production that includes the full 'Moroder-style' segueing of the tracks, which is worth the cost of admission alone.

The Cars - Heartbeat City (£1)
I haven't listened to this one yet, and am generally of the opinion that The Cars earlier albums are the most exciting, but for only £1 I thought I should give this a chance.

Al Stewart - Past, Present and Future (£1)
In common with most Radio 2 disc jockeys, I absolutely love the work of All Stewart (don't ask me why but I fear nostalgia plays a large part)

Gerry Rafferty - Night Owl (£1)
In the early 1980s, driven by the fear that my tastes were becoming too middle-of-the-road, I sold some albums. Gerry Rafferty's 'City to City' was one and 'Night Owl' was another. 'A farewell to kings' by Rush was another if you must know!

Art Garfunkel - Scissors cut (£1)
I've had a few twitter conversations recently with the legendary Dave Stephens about 'Phonebook voices' - singers who have voices that are so good that you'd happily listen to them singing their way through your Yellow Pages, or even Thomson's Local. Art has such a voice and I have most of his solo work. On some of his albums the song writing on display is wonderful - on others the phonebook option could be preferable.

Simon and Garfunkel - The Concert in Central Park (£1)
Paul's 'American Tune' is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and here performed in tandem with the guy with the funny hair, it's even better. 95% of live albums are pretty ropey – this is one of the 5% that isn’t.

Prince - Purple Rain (£1)
I'm not a 'completist' as you know, but if there are any artists that I'm prepared to make an exception for it would be Jonathan Richman and Prince. I have owned 'Purple Rain' on cassette for around 30 years now, and I just thought it would be nice to have a vinyl copy too.

Harry Belafonte - Belafonte returns to Carnegie Hall (£1)
Harry is the proud owner of another 'Phonebook voice' - as long as they're not too pricey I always buy any Harry that I come across. I do the same with Nina Simone and Ken Boothe.

I then brought all of my wonderful purchases home and put them with the rest of my record accumulation in the music room (of which I'll be writing more in the forthcoming weeks).

Soundtrack to this post - Spiritualized 'Songs in A&E'


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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 130 (The final day!) - Kraftwerk 'The Man Machine'


As we finally reach the end of ‘the great cassette experiment’, in which I exclusively listened to music on tape in my car for a whole six months, you might be forgiven for thinking that I’m one of those people whose musical tastes are firmly and forever rooted in a bygone era of mullet haircuts, 12” remixes and embarrassing clothes. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – I love new music. In fact I think that the current era is something of a golden one for music if you only know where to look and who to listen to.
I also happen to believe that electronic music particularly is experiencing a hey-day not experienced since the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you still don’t believe me then can I suggest that you take the following albums home, all from 2013, listen to them as homework, and tell me what you think of them next week;
·         John Grant      Pale Green Ghosts
·         Phoenix           Bankrupt!
·         Karl Bartos      Off the Record
·         Daft Punk        Random Access Memories
In an experiment that was dominated by music from the 1980s (which, for a while at least, was dominated by electronic music), I consider that most of the real classics of electronic music were actually made in the 1970s. And for our final cassette experiment subject we turn today to one of the greatest of the 1970s electronic albums, the iconic and achingly influential ‘The Man Machine’ by Kraftwerk.
Released in 1978, ‘The Man Machine’ (in conjunction with its older sister ‘Trans-Europe Express’) was an album that caused musical shockwaves throughout the following decade and beyond in a long-term way that punk could have only dreamed of. Clinical without being cold, repetitive without ever becoming boring, all six tracks* have justifiably become classics, with the three tunes on side 2 standing tallest and proudest after 35 (!) years.
‘The Model’ is perhaps the best known track and proved it was way ahead of its time by reaching the top of the UK singles charts three years after the album’s 1978 release. Even though it hails from 1978 it couldn’t be more representative of 1981 if it jumped into an XR3 and drove around all day on £5’s worth of 4-star petrol.
But above all it’s ‘Neon Lights’ that’s my favourite – always was and always will be. Who would have thought that an emotionless vocal with icy electronic backing could be so emotional and beautiful?
Take a look at the fabulous red and black dominated cover and you’ll also realise that while they were never really considered fashion icons, Kraftwerk influenced 1980s fashion too.
Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read ‘the cassette experiment’ blogs over the last 6 months and for all of the encouragement I’ve received along the way. I hope you’re not too disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to talk about Dr. Calculus or The Critterhill Varmints and I sincerely hope you’ve had as much fun reading as I have writing. I’ll be putting together all 130 posts over the next month or so, checking the spellings and grammar and correcting any inaccuracies, and ultimately releasing the whole lot (with a few extra surprises) as a Kindle book in September. Please keep your eyes peeled – although I will remind you again when the book appears.
I’ll be taking a few days of blog leave now (not too many though!) and will return with…..’The Music Room Blogs’
Watch this space!
Label – Capitol

Year – 1978

*Remember, six-track albums are always a good thing!

Available now for your Kindle - The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy Of Cassettes

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Thanks for reading!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 129 - The Pale Fountains '...From across the kitchen table'


Since the very beginning of the cassette experiment one tape has haunted my thoughts more than any other, ‘…From Across the Kitchen Table’ by The Pale Fountains.

My memory told me that this was a very fine album, and it’s one of the ones that I was most looking forward to re-discovering after around 20 years since my last listen. You’ll know if, like me, you’ve been around since day 23 that on listening again, I felt that another tape had been substituted for the one that I remembered so fondly.

Encouraged by my little brother, whose love for this album is beyond question, I listened again and again and have continued to do so for almost the whole six months. I'm pleased to report that even though this is not a great album (it's not in the same league as The Pale Fountains' masterpiece, 'Pacific Street'*) it's certainly a very good one and I'm here to tell you why.


Following the relative poor sales of ‘Pacific Street’, an album that came with high expectations, Ian Broudie was brought in to produce ‘…From Across the Kitchen Table’ and his ‘sound’ dominates the whole album; it’s not so much Lightning Seeds, but much more Care’s wonderful, soaring forgotten classic ‘Flaming Sword’.

After months of careful consideration, I’m here to tell you that the best tunes here are ‘Jean’s not happening’, ‘These are the things’ and, undoubtedly the album’s high point for me, ‘Bicycle thieves’, which builds and builds as only Ian (and Phil Spector (and Ian McNabb on ‘Head like a rock’)) know how.

I’ve also grown to love the closing track on side 1, ’27 ways to get back home’ and the Teardrop Explodes ‘Reward’-flavoured horns on ‘Bruised arcade’

Strangely though while most of the other 128 cassettes so far have been pleasant to drop in and visit again after so long away, there are only a very small number that I’m happy to continue living with when the experiment finally fizzles out tomorrow. And this is one of them.

Label – Virgin

Year – 1985

*I haven't listened to 'Pacific Street' for years - I hope it's still as good as I remember.

You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle – Just look up 'For the love of vinyl (….and cassettes!)’ and sign away 99p a month and it’s all yours, or…
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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 128 - Roxy Music 'Flesh + Blood'

In the 1980s cassette tapes were primarily bought for playing on car stereo systems. So unless you spent an awful lot of time in a car by yourself, the cassettes that were played most frequently tended to be the ones that everyone agreed about. Even though I loved The Teardrop Explodes and John Foxx and The Human League I had a hard time convincing all of my fellow passengers of their obvious merits. I seemed to have no such problems with Spandau Ballet's 'True' or Roxy Music's 'Flesh + Blood' so we played these two cassettes to within an inch and a half of their respective lives.
Now I know that 'Flesh + Blood' is not the greatest album ever made, and God knows it's certainly nowhere near Roxy Music's best offering, but the sheer number of plays that it received in the presence of friends makes it quite a special one for me. It's also our cassette of the day today. Sadly the age of this tape, combined with frequent, repeated plays results in Bryan sounding slightly more 'warbly' than nature (or co-producer Rhett Davies) originally intended.
It's fair to say that the process started on 'Manifesto' which sees Roxy Music morphing into Bryan Ferry and his band continues apace here, with all of the rough edges that were so gloriously present on earlier Roxy Music albums deliberately sanded down, french-polished and buffed to a very high gloss. For the first time on a Roxy Music album there are a couple of cover versions, Wilson Pickett's 'In the midnight hour', which opens the album, and The Byrds' 'Eight miles high' tucked away on side 2. Both are pleasant re-workings that add nothing to the originals, and I don't think I'm doing anyone an injustice to consider them as filler.
Elsewhere, however, there are some very fine (if slightly over-polished) tunes, and if the slow, lingering closers on side 2 'No strange delight' and 'Running wild' might have struggled to make the first two Roxy albums I don't think I'm overstretching it to suggest that they might have held their own on 'Siren' or 'Stranded'.
But the best, and most crowd-pleasing to a 1980s car-full, are the brilliant 'Over you' and the Radio 2 favourite 'Oh yeah', which is a track about a track (which could also be called 'Oh yeah') being played on the radio.
Many doubted at the time that it was possible to make an album that was slicker, more polished, more grown-up, more dinner party with a hostess trolley than 'Flesh + Blood'. The release of 'Avalon' two years later just goes to show how wrong many people can be.
Listen out too for Gary Tibbs just passing through on his way to fame, fortune and make-up with Adam and the Ants..
Label – Polydor/EG

Year – 1980

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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 127 - The Buggles 'The Age of Plastic'

It's a little known fact that musical genius and knob-twiddler extraordinaire and yours truly have a number of things in common. Little Trev was born just a few miles from where I now sit, on the same day as me (although he arrived a few years before I did) and we were both at Newcastle City Hall in 1980 for a concert by a group called Yes (you might have heard of them). Of course I was in the audience and Trevor (and fellow Buggle Geoff Downes) were on stage with some hippies to perform the buggliest Yes concert that was ever heard. It was one of the most unusual gigs I've ever been to.
When the definitive history of electronic music is finally written, Trevor's production career will no doubt feature prominently. And, most likely, the career of his first band, The Buggles, will hardly merit a footnote. Today I'm hoping to redress this potential future injustice by featuring as cassette of the day a hugely influential (but now for some reason considered slightly embarrassing) album, 'The Age of Plastic' by The Buggles.
Not so much a concept album, more an album with an underlying concept (admittedly the difference is very subtle!), it's awash with futuristic visions of robots and disposability. Veering from the concept, there's also the brilliant, nostalgic, 'Elstree', about the golden age of British B-movies. It boasts one of the best beginnings and endings in electronic pop.
'Video killed the radio star' is the best known tune here of course, and the fact that this piece of classic pop is now unfairly perceived as a bit of a novelty hit tends to overshadow the album's reputation. Other tracks of note are the almost title track 'The Plastic Age' and the powerful tale of little known double act, Pogo and Johnny in 'Clean, Clean!'
One further item of note: Trevor Horn wasn't the only performer on this album to go on to become a hugely successful record producer. Drummer Richard James Burgess very shortly found further fame as producer of Spandau Ballet (and, lest we forget, Five Star), and members of electropop royalty, Landscape.
If, like me, you're a fan of this album then please keep an eye open for 'English Garden' by Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. Bruce co-wrote some of the tunes on 'The Age of Plastic', including 'Video killed the radio star' and you'll find his own band's very slightly punkier versions of these numbers on 'English Garden'. If you're still unconvinced then the fact that The Camera Club include within their ranks both Matthew Seligman and Thomas Dolby might just tip your balance.
Label – Island Records

Year – 1980

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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 126 - The Human League 'Octopus'

 
Yesterday we discussed how one of the biggest bands of the 1980s (The Human League) handed over creative control of their 1986 album ('Crash') to two of the biggest producers of the decade (Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) and ended up with a right royal dog's breakfast. I thought it only fair to let Sheffield's finest get straight back on their horses today and consider their next-but-one album, 1995's 'Octopus'.

Just like 'Crash', 'Octopus' is another Human League offering that wasn't universally well received. In fact, in one review in The Chicago Tribune it was criticised as lacking the 'poisoned dourness' that gave 'Dare' its heart. In fairness to The Tribune and to the band that's probably accurate, but there's actually a lot to like about 'Octopus' even if it doesn't quite match up to their early '80s best.

I've always thought that The Human League harboured a not so well-hidden wish to be ABBA, and it's in the shape of this album's high point, 'One man in my heart', with Susan wonderfully stepping up to take the lead vocal, that they get closest to realising their ambition.
'Words' is a little beauty too, with its minimal arrangement, deadpan vocal delivery and fantastically clunky League lyrics (fabulously rhyming propaganda, Alexandra and memoranda at one point) it could quite easily be a lost track from the sessions that resulted in the classics 'Reproduction' or 'Travelogue'. And unlike the other tracks it does have that elusive 'dourness'.

And if upbeat Human League is your personal preference, then the chirpy closing track on side 1, 'Filling up with heaven' might just be your bag, baby.

Label - EastWest

Year - 1995


Available now for your Kindle - The Great Cassette Experiment - The Joy Of Cassettes

Just head to http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00FN7XQT2

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you only listened to cassettes for six months? I thought not. But I can tell you what happened when I did.

On day 1 I discovered that not all DJs go to heaven.

On day 9 I visited the very soon to be defunct HMV store in Durham and resisted the temptation to buy a CD.

I laid a 29 year old grudge to rest on day 18.

On day 23 I decided on the colour for my (proposed) music room.

Following the choice of a new Pope I made a musical confession on day 29.

By day 37 I was pondering life as a bit of a hellraiser.

On day 47 I mulled over the similarity of Bryan Ferry's moustache and the one sported by Private Walker in Dad's Army.

Day 56 saw me nailing my colours to the mast of the greatest hip-hop album ever made (and by day 81 I'd changed my mind).

Day 64 found me thinking of Edie Brickell's bra.

On a trip to South Bank, Cleveland (UK not USA) on day 74 I was pleasantly surprised by an album I'd been dreading.

On day 88 I spent some quality time with David Bowie's second best album and on day 93 I spent some less than quality time with one of his poorest.

Day 95 introduced the concept of the game-changing album in the company of a group of very talented Germans.

My favourite album of all time showed up on day 100.

My cherished 1985 Mini Mayfair returned to the road on day 105 and ushered in a short spell of 1980s classics by way of celebration, including the opportunity to ponder some very clunky lyrics indeed on day 107.

Al Gore's wife (the wonderfully named Tipper) popped up on day 122 and on day 125 I considered the potential perils of handing over creative control of your album to two of the world's most respected producers only to see the whole shooting match go totally tits up.

Finally on day 130 the entire experiment shuddered to its final destination just like it started, with a brilliant six track electronic classic from the late 1970s.

Oh, and did I mention that I spent a very enjoyable day in the company of a lesbian Tupperware seller?





Monday, 5 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 125 - The Human League 'Crash'

For a little while in the early 1980s a small, experimental electronic band from Sheffield ruled the pop world. Serving their musical apprenticeships with a few scorching singles and EPs, The Human League produced two of the best electronic albums ever made ('Reproduction' and 'Travelogue'), then promptly divided, amoeba-like, to sprout forth a mark II version of The League, and the equally impressive Heaven 17.

In 1981, The Human League released their classic third album, 'Dare' and world domination became a real possibility.

But by the time they released their 1986 album, 'Crash' they were starting to languish in the metaphorical musical doldrums. Their 1984 album ‘Hysteria’ had received the dreaded 'mixed reception', which of course is music industry speak for 'not particularly entertaining' and what turned out to be an ill-fated change of production team was suggested. The gang were to jet off to Minneapolis and work with one of the hottest production teams of the era, knob twiddlers and slider pushers to no less than Janet Jackson, the two and only Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, truth be told, with the exception of the tremendous 'Human', a brilliant pop single with a trademark Human League monologue, almost everything. 'Human' aside, this is an absolute, solid gold (please say this with me in your best Sunderland accent) 'clunker'. Imagine a Janet Jackson album with Phil Oakey singing lead vocals and Susan and Joanne on backing vocals and you're only halfway towards appreciating how misconceived this whole thing is. Apparently the band themselves were even sent home part way through the recording process to allow Jimmy, Terry and their friends to push this stuttering jalopy over the finish line.

Special mention has to go to 'I need your loving', the opening track on side 2 which appears to be a Phil-fronted remix of 'What have you done for me lately' made famous by the Janet, the aforementioned ‘Queen of wardrobe malfunctioners’ and extra special mention to the lowest point on the album, and probably also their careers, the atrocious ‘Swang’. It's a track that's only four and a half minutes long, but if you'd still like to take a listen after all that I've said then I guarantee it'll probably be the longest four and a half minutes of your life!

In the interests of fairness, and by way of a right of reply of sorts, tomorrow we’ll be featuring The Human League’s 1995 album ‘Octopus’ as our experiment subject.

Label – Virgin Records

Year – 1986


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Sunday, 4 August 2013

Cassette experiment day 124 - The Art of Noise 'In Visible Silence'

There are some artists (only a very small number I would suggest) that you can listen to no matter what your mood.

My ‘regardless of mood’ list is pretty much restricted to the following;

·         Ken Boothe
·         Al Green
·         Teenage Fanclub
·         Patsy Cline
·         Stevie Wonder

Nina Simone only narrowly misses out because the quality of some of her recordings is woefully poor and because, on around 1% of days, ‘Sinner man’ and ‘See-Line woman’ (or ‘Sea Lion Woman’ if you prefer) just become a little too repetitive for me.

I listened to our cassette of the day, ‘In Visible Silence’ by The Art of Noise back in the cassette experiment’s early stages. At the time I was neither in the mood to listen to or write about it, so I popped it back on the pile and moved on.

Last night, however, I picked it up again, for a late night drive through the meandering revellers in Durham and heard it in a completely different light (if it’s technically possible to hear something in a different light).

Like all music that was achingly modern in the 1980s it now has a tendency to sound achingly dated, but there’s no doubting its significance and, in some places at least, its ground-breaking brilliance.

‘Peter Gunn’, the very 1986 remake of Duane Eddy’s classic, featuring Duane himself, is probably the best known of the tracks here and it’s also probably the album’s most unrepresentative.

Most of the quality to be found exists on side 1, with the opening track ‘Opus’ being a clever repetitive scene-setting aperitif for the likes of the pre Max Headroom makeover version of ‘Paranoimia’* and the glorious ‘Legs’.

The closing track on side 1, ‘Backbeat’ is a bit of a hidden treasure too, but not to be confused with the closing track on side 2, ‘Beatback’ which is fairly unremarkable in comparison.

I sometimes worry that in their less inspiring moments The Art of Noise seem to be more fixated on ‘The Art’ than the ‘Noise’, but when they’re at their best they’re unique – and they’re unique quite a few times on this, which, let’s not forget is only their second album.

Label – China Records

Year – 1986

* years ahead of Peter Andre’s ‘Insania’ please note

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