Saturday, 27 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 120 - Björk 'Debut'

I love trees. They're brilliant - they act like the world's lungs, apparently. They suck up all the oxygen and convert it into carbon dioxide. Or is it the other way around? And they bring with them some brilliant word - like sap, and my own personal favourite, arboretum.
I understand that in Iceland there are very few trees. It's difficult to imagine - what on earth they do for carbon monoxide (or oxygen?). Don’t look at me, I don’t know the answer.
It's enough to make you want to dress up like a swan and ply your trade spouting beautiful and unusual pop tunes, which coincidentally, as luck would have it, is precisely the career path taken by our cassette experiment subject today, Icelandic songbird, Björk*, with her 1993 solo debut, 'Debut'.
Only the 'ticky-tish ticky-tish' sensibilities of 'Violently happy', brilliant though it is, betray the 20 year age of this album - otherwise it sounds exactly the same today as it always has, like it's just landed from outer space. Which of course is appropriate, because the opening track 'Human Behaviour' reads like an open letter from an alien mother to her little bug-eyed progeny on the idiosyncrasies of the occupants of a far-off planet.
Production values here are extremely high, with Nellee Hooper, knob-twiddler to the legendary Soul II Soul, among other notable artists, fundamental in the shaping and steering of the sound.
It's where the sound is stripped back to basics that this album works best, such as on the harp-driven Van Heusen and Burke classic 'Like someone in love ' or the otherworldly 'Anchor song'. Fans of forgotten 1980s heroes of mine, Leisure Process, may or may not be interested to hear that the legendary Gary Barnacle pops up on this album too.
And tucked away rather quietly at the halfway point on side 2 there’s a fabulous, soaring tune called ‘Come to me’, it's a hidden treasure that, in a parallel universe (possibly the one that Björk lives in) would have been a world-beating Bond theme. Fans of Canadian disco diva France Joli (probably quite a small circle, but it does include me) should note that this is not a cover version of Ms. Joli’s minor disco classic – I for one would be overexcited to hear Björk tackle a version of that little 1979 beauty.
In conclusion, ‘Debut’ is an album that still sounds fantastic – it’s innovative and (please forgive me) extremely quörky.
*Rather excitingly (to me at least), Björk actually means 'birch tree'. Spooky.
Label – Baps! Ltd./One Little Indian

Year – 1993

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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 119 - Fairground Attraction 'The first of a million kisses'

Way back in 1988 we had a family holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. One car full and one van full (my 1983 ex-gas board Morris Ital bought for £595 at Sunderland Motor Auctions still painted 'gas board blue' and in full base level spec with cardboard door panels and no hub caps), we all travelled down to a cottage in Leyburn unaware of the fortnight that lay ahead.

Within a day or two of our arrival, one of our number had to be taken to Scarborough general hospital and the rest of the fortnight was spent 'commuting' from Leyburn to Scarborough via the notorious but beautiful 'caravans not allowed' Sutton Bank.

As so often happens on holidays like this, one album tends to become your unofficial soundtrack, and our 1988 hospital run tape is our cassette of the day today - 'The first of a million kisses' by Fairground Attraction.

It's a little while since we've had a cassette from the 'dreadzone' (the pile of cassettes that I fear may not have stood the test of time), so I approached this particular one with some trepidation, worried that the intervening quarter of a century may have placed a metaphorical layer of dust over its charms.

And of course, as has been the case many times before, my fears turned out to be totally misplaced, as this 25 year-old album sounded as fresh and full of vitality as it did on those struggles between machine and nature on Sutton Bank.

The best known tune here, of course, is the big summer No. 1 hit, 'Perfect' - nigh on ubiquitous in 1988 and as an upbeat, life-affirming chunk of pure pop it's pretty much unbeatable.

There are many other pop classics here too though, in fact side 2's 'Station Street' is the only real misfire. 'Find my love' and 'Clare' are both chirpy and fabulously cheerful, however the album's two best tracks by a country mile are the closing tunes on both sides. Side 1's closer is 'The wind knows my name' which doesn't have a single word or note that's out of place and side 2's closer is the wonderful, haunting 'Allelujah', which is the track from which the album's title is hewn.

Fairground Attraction shone only briefly but very brightly at the time - however, this is one of the 1980s most overlooked pop classics.   

Label - RCA

Year – 1988

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Cassette experiment day 118 - Rain Tree Crow 'Rain Tree Crow'

Apparently there's a 'boutique hair salon' in Durham (Ascend hairdressing if you must know! - other boutique hair salons are available) that offers, for the princely sum of £68, a Brazilian Blow Dry. I have absolutely no idea what a Brazilian Blow Dry is, but I'm trying very hard not to get a mental picture.

Our cassette experiment subject today also includes 'treatments' - a word that always makes me shudder when I see someone credited with it on an album. It's the long threatened/promised featuring of the one and only album by Rain Tree Crow, which goes by the imaginative title of ‘Rain Tree Crow’. To many, this was the long-awaited return album by Japan. But not to everyone, it would seem. David Sylvian decided that he didn't want this to be called a Japan album, thereby possibly denying it at least 75% of the sales it might have otherwise achieved.

In many ways David was right, because despite the presence of Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri, this isn't really the long-awaited ‘return of Japan’ album. The fact that the insert explains 'The majority of the material on this album was written as a result of group improvisations. There were no pre-rehearsals.........' seems like a device for deliberately down-playing expectations.

Which all means that it comes as a pleasant surprise that the album is rather better than you might expect - it's true that it seems to act as a musical repository for all of the unusual musical instruments that the boys picked up on their many trips eastwards (at one point Richard plays a water wheel - presumably a name for a musical instrument rather than an actual water wheel, but you may find it difficult to determine with any real certainty).

Many of the tunes here tend to just wash over the listener in a not unpleasant manner, but the standout tunes are the seven minute rhythmic opening track, 'Big wheels in shanty town' and the wonderful 'Blackwater' which, among the other relatively un-commercial fare on offer sounds completely and wonderfully out of place.

There are some (not entirely unexpected) pretentious titles here too, you know you're not going to get a catchy three minute pop single from a track called 'New moon at red deer wallow' or 'Blackcrow hits shoe shine city'. And one of the strangest titles of all, 'Scratchings on the bible belt' sounds not unlike the whole kit and caboodle is played on a (very comprehensive) set of pans.

On this same track David plays a banjo. For some reason I find that very difficult to imagine. And someone called Michael Brook shows up with 'treatments', which presumably doesn't mean a Brazilian Blow Dry. Maybe it does involve hot stone massage. Or, and I hesitate to use the word, ‘cupping’.

Label - Virgin

Year – 1991

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Monday, 22 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 117 - Phranc 'Positively Phranc'

Saturday 20th July was ‘Newcastle Pride 2013’ (Headline acts – Amelia Lily, Steptastic (‘The UK’s definitive tribute to the nation’s best loved pop group Steps!’) and Toyah) so I thought that it would be only right and proper today to choose an appropriate album in response.

So our cassette today is ‘Positively Phranc’ by Phranc, the Jewish Lesbian former folk singer and now Tupperware seller and cardboard artist of some renown. And there aren’t many people who can say that.

Sadly, Phranc pretty much stopped making music when she took up with Tupperware (documented in the award-winning 2001 documentary ‘Lifetime guarantee: Phranc’s adventure in plastic’) and music’s sad loss was many a kitchen’s happy gain.

‘Positively Phranc’ was Phranc’s third album, released in 1991, and the insert features Phranc on the beach wearing red, yellow and white striped pyjamas and sporting her customary ‘flat-top’ hairstyle. The album includes barely 30 minutes of pop tunes, all of which are probably unlike anything you’ll have ever heard before.

For example, ‘Hitchcock’ is a warm love song, written for someone (un-named) who reminds Phranc of many of Alfred Hitchcock’s stunning leading ladies. And the closing track on side one, the wonderful ‘Tipton’ is a tribute to jazz musician and bandleader of some repute, Billy Lee Tipton. When Billy passed away in 1989, aged 74, it was discovered that he wasn’t a man at all, but a woman originally known as Dorothy – and without Phranc I’d never have known this.

On side two Phranc bravely tries (but struggles a little with, and who wouldn’t) Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’. If you’re going for a Beach Boys track then you’re bound to live or die by the harmonies and in this case Phranc and her harmonisers don’t quite cut the mustard.

Where Phranc does hit the spot beautifully is with ‘Gertrude Stein’*. I’ll explain, but you’ll have to concentrate. ‘Gertrude Stein’ is Phranc’s re-imagining of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Pablo Picasso’, but instead of Gertrude’s friend Pablo never being called an asshole, Phranc’s version has the inventor of ‘the lost generation’ avoiding the same insulting fate. All I can say for certain is that Pablo and Gertrude obviously never pulled out of a junction suddenly in front of a boy-racer.

The album closes fittingly with the heart-wrenching ‘Outta here’, 2 minutes and 21 seconds dedicated to ‘Patrick Kelly, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and all those suffering in the AIDS crisis’.

Having said all that, I’m sure Steptastic would’ve been brilliant. And Toyah and Amelia.

Label - Island

Year – 1991

*my favourite Gertrude Stein quote - “If you can't say anything nice about anyone else, come sit next to me.”

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Sunday, 21 July 2013

'California Star' by Martin Stephenson & the Daintees

When Tom Watson MP recently resigned as Ed Miliband's election coordinator he sent an open letter to Ed giving his reasons and offering some brotherly advice. He told Ed that it was a shame that a leader of Her Majesty's opposition couldn't go to Glastonbury. He also recommended that Ed should check out an awesome band, Drenge.
Now I don't really know Drenge very well, although I will do soon because I'm going to see them live in October, largely as a result of Tom's nod. But this started me thinking that if I were to write an open letter to Ed, who would I recommend as musical mentors to the potential future PM? (Gordon Brown of course once famously and implausibly declared his love for The Arctic Monkeys. David Cameron, even more implausibly told us he was a Smiths' fan.)
My imaginary open letter to Ed would recommend that he go away for the parliamentary summer break and listen to Martin Stephenson & the Daintees. I'm absolutely certain he'd come back a more effective leader of the opposition and a more rounded human being to boot.
I was extremely lucky recently to be able to listen to an advance copy of ‘California Star’ the latest album by the pork-pie hatted poet and his friends. I’m pleased to report that it finds the boys in customary fine form.
As usual, Martin’s winning combination of vulnerability and humour are well to the fore, and the album’s high points are many and scattered liberally throughout.
I’d particularly point you in the direction of ‘Long way to go’, which begins with Martin asking for a ‘cornet with a flake in the top’ and progresses via a very good line in mouth organ (I’d usually refer to it as a harmonica of course, but pop the word ‘organ’ into a blog and you just get more readers. Don’t ask me why). It’s a track that’s bound to become a great live favourite.
‘Sweet Cherwine’ is a Daintees’ song as only they know how, which conjures up mental pictures of dungarees and porch swings. And ‘Boy to Man’ is a tremendous campfire type song (not to be confused with ‘The Crazy world of Arthur Brown’s camp ‘Fire’ song).
The best is saved ‘til last though. ‘I’m in love for the first time’ is white reggae which even boldly and successfully strays toward ‘dub’. There are one hundred reasons why it shouldn’t work, but it does work and it works wonderfully and it’s a very fitting high point on which to end the album.
So, Ed, if you find yourself with some time on your hands this summer then why not grab yourself a copy of ‘California Star’. You might like to recommend it to Tom Watson too.
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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 116 - Pet Shop Boys 'Nightlife'

I love regional accents. I think they’re our own little rebellion against the ruling elite and I just love to see the look of disdain on certain people’s faces when confronted with an accent that falls just the slightest bit short of ‘cut glass’.

Earlier this week, BBC Breakfast presenter Steph McGovern revealed that she regularly receives abuse as a result of her Teesside accent. In fact if you type the words ‘Steph’, ‘McGovern’ and ‘accent’ into a well known search engine (I think you know the one I mean) you’ll receive approximately 141,000 results*. In fact Steph herself says that after one BBC job interview she was told, ‘I didn’t realise people like you were clever’.

It may sadden you further to know that if you type the words ‘Steph’, ‘McGovern’ and ‘legs’ into the same search engine you’ll find around 31,600 results. Apparently. So I’m told.

Our cassette of the day today features perhaps two of the best regional accents in popular music – the wonderful Blackpool tones of Chris Lowe and the fabulous and (let’s be honest) slightly posh North Shields via Gosforth lilt of Neil Tennant. Collectively they’re the Pet Shop Boys and they’re the artists behind the most recent album to be featured on the cassette experiment, 1999’s ‘Nightlife’.

Because this is such a recent album (in 1999 cassettes seemed to be only stocked by music shops to appease the luddites who hadn’t made the inevitable transition to CDs or, in my case still only had a car with a cassette player) I will have to be honest and admit that when it was consigned to the loft it was still relatively fresh and I hadn’t really had the chance to make its proper acquaintance. Gradually, over the last few weeks, we’ve grown to know each other again.

Now as we know, ‘visuals’ have always been very important to the boys, so I’d better let you know that this is the album that features them on the tube (or possibly, I like to think, the Tyneside Metro) wearing wigs made from the kind of inflammable fur that was last seen upholstering the seats of a Vauxhall Viva (HC if you’re interested) that my Mam bought from a boy-racer in the early 1980s.

The album was recorded using five different producers (if you count the boys themselves as two, and I know that I do) and this gives it either a varied or disjointed sound, depending on your point of view. However, when I tell you that the other producers are Craig Armstrong, Rollo and David Morales you’ll start to appreciate the quality of the assembled personnel here.

Kylie Minogue appears to great effect on the touching ‘In denial’ in which a man comes out to his daughter. It’s only the second recorded instance of Kylie in my collection – the first being alongside Nick Cave.

Other highpoints are the single ‘You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk’ which is a far more thoughtful tune than its title would suggest and ‘Happiness is an option’ which features Neil’s ‘posh Gosforth’ spoken lyric accompanied by a disco beat and a musical theme by Rachmaninoff - and a very impressive combination it is too.

And ‘New York City Boy’ is the kind of crunching disco track that could only be contemplated by a band equally acquainted with The Village People, Dan Hartman, Donna Summer’s (and Brooklyn Dream’s) ‘Heaven knows’ and the complete back catalogue of messrs Stock, Aitken and Waterman. If that makes ‘New York City Boy’ sound big and camp and flamboyantly wonderful then my work here is done!

Label - Parlophone

Year – 1999

*141,001 once this post is published

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Friday, 19 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 115 - Mick Karn 'Titles'

Stage presence - some people have it, some people don't.

Julian Cope definitely has it - I once feared for his life when I saw him climb to the top of an extremely wobbly speaker stack at Newcastle City Hall. Julian seemed nowhere near as concerned about his health as I was.

Andy McCluskey has it too, in a highly unusual soft toy in a tumble-dryer kind of way.

And the artist behind our cassette of the day certainly had it too. Our album is 'Titles' and our artist who had bucketloads of presence was the late Mick Karn. If you were ever lucky enough to see Mick live (and we were fortunate to see him twice when performing with Japan) then you'll never forget his performance. For a little while Mick and his famous fretless bass stood virtually immobile at the side of the stage - then he'd give a little shrug and start to glide across the stage in his silk chinese slippers. Imagine a cross between a moonwalking Michael Jackson and a flymo (other hover mowers are available) and you'd be somewhere close, only Mick made this seem far more graceful than I've made it sound!

Recorded and released in 1982, with all of the members of Japan present (with the exception of David Sylvian, perhaps needless to say) and augmented by a number of special guests, including the ubiquitous David Rhodes who also appeared on our cassette of the day yesterday (Blancmange's 'Happy families'), 'Titles' may well be the best album that I don't actually own. I've got to come clean here, this cassette and all of the other Mick Karn albums in the house actually belongs to my wife, Suz. We do have a musical arrangement in our house though - I'm allowed to listen to all of the Mick Karn albums and Suz can listen to any of my Jonathan Richman albums. Admittedly this arrangement is a little one-sided, because Suz never wants to listen to any of my Jonathan Richman albums. To redress the balance I'm thinking of throwing in access to my Bathers albums too, but I'm not sure how this will go down. 

'Titles' is, in many ways, an 'otherworldly' album, with many of the instruments played by Mick and his mates proving difficult to pin down. All four tracks on side 1 are instrumentals, with the pick of the crop for me being the slightly pretentiously titled 'Lost affections in a room' which seems to feature an instrument that sounds for all the world like a tuba being sucked rather than blown - it's not unpleasant all the same. Side 1 also features the atmospheric 'Weather the windmill' which cropped up recently, unexpected but very welcome nonetheless on Metronomy's edition of the wonderful 'Late night tales' series - they're like mixtapes from the stars!

In contrast, all of the tracks on side 2 come complete with Mick's slightly wobbly but wonderful voice. The album's only single, 'Sensitive' is, not surprisingly, the most commercial tune here and it's unquestionably one of the best pop singles of the early 1980s, regardless of its relatively modest success. A slight word of caution here - side 2 track 2 'Trust me' finishes by slowing gradually to a dead stop and after 31 years I still get fooled into thinking my cassette player's batteries are running out.

If you haven't got it and you get a chance to pick this one up, then I heartily recommend it, and while you're on you might like to pick up 'The waking hour' by Dalis Car (Mick and Pete Murphy from Bauhaus) because it's pretty wonderful too.

And I've threatened this before, but sometime within the next 7 days we're definitely going to feature Rain Tree Crow as part of the cassette experiment.

Label - Virgin

Year - 1982

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Thursday, 18 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 114 - Blancmange 'Happy families'

Have you ever been to a restaurant, paid for a starter and a main course but only eaten the chilli con carne and left the prawn cocktail? Some people do this with concert tickets all the time - paying to see two acts but staying in the bar and missing the support. There's no excuse for this in my book*.

I've seen some great support acts over the years, the first time I saw The Divine Comedy was as support act to Tori Amos in 1994 (the same day we moved house, incidentally), and I only ever saw the group who produced our cassette of the day as a support act (twice - once to Depeche Mode and once to Yazoo, if my memory serves me well, and it doesn't always ('I'm 49 you know')).

So our cassette of the day is the first released by one of the most consistently overlooked acts of the 1980s, 'Happy families' by Blancmange.

Neil (Arthur) and Stephen (Luscombe) were a 'synthpop duo' as only the 1980s could muster and their first three albums are a textbook case of the law of diminishing returns, with the first being the strongest by at least two seriously long chalks.

There are no poor tracks on 'Happy families', however three stand head and shoulders above the rest. The first of these is 'Feel me', which I'm sure has deeper meaning than the most obvious one, but musically it's such an urgent, 'dirty' track that the lack of a ban by the ban-obsessed BBC Radio 1 (275-285 fm - the nation's favourite) still seems baffling.

'Feel me' also has a tremendous polar opposite here too, the uplifting and overwhelming 'Waves' - a track that builds and builds to the point where Neil's last magnificent 'goodbye' just takes your breath away.

I love the slow instrumental 'Sad day' too, but that's because it reminds me of the 'Some Bizarre Album' featured back on day 22.

In an age when you can 'obtain' music for nothing, many people will try to convince you that buying music is too expensive. Take a look at the low cost of Blancmange's recent 'The very best of' double CD on Amazon (other online music retailers are available, but nobody ever uses them!) and you'll see that only poor music is too expensive - the good stuff is always good value.

Label - London

Year - 1982

*unless you've been unavoidably detained at work, or you couldn't find a clean shirt

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Monday, 15 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 113 - Hindu Love Gods 'Hindu Love Gods'

Like many music fans I love a good ‘side project’. In fact, in many ways the cassette experiment (and the bestselling kindle book that will hopefully follow in its wake) is my own little ‘side project’. It’s not actually my main source of income – I know that many of you will be deeply relieved to hear that.
‘Side projects’ at their best are a way for creative musicians to keep themselves fresh and at their worst are bolt-holes for commitment-phobes.
Damon Albarn has a pretty mean line in side projects, and over the years he and his bandmates have proved helpful to other ‘side projecters’. Thom Yorke loves a good ‘side project’ too, with his performance on Unkle’s ‘Rabbit in your headlights’ being one of my favourites. But for me the ‘side project’ to end all ‘side projects’ (and if you know me this will come as no surprise) is Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’s self titled 1985 masterpiece (which unfortunately, search as I might in the spare room, I can’t seem to find).
One of the major delights of the cassette experiment has been rediscovering the many albums that entered the loft as caterpillars (not all ugly, hairy caterpillars mind) and have emerged as extremely attractive butterflies (but not the ones who have wings that look like big eyes to scare birds away – they’re just creepy). One such caterpillar is our cassette of the day, a 1990 ‘side project’ for 75% of R.E.M. and 100% of Warren Zevon, ‘Hindu Love Gods’ by, well, Hindu Love Gods.
It’s an album that used to be a very likeable caterpillar, but after a few listens in good old 2013, it’s emerged as a rollicking, rocking, bluesy butterfly.
It’s an album of great covers, many, but not all, are blues classics and it sounds convincingly like it was recorded in one take by four obsessive fans who just so happen to be able to play and sing just a little bit.
Initially, as with all cover albums, I loved the tracks where I knew the originals best. So a brilliantly breakneck ‘Raspberry Beret’ and a scorching version of The Georgia Satellites’ ‘Battleship chains’ stood out. As did the boys’ version of the age-old classic ‘Junko Partner’, which I knew best by The Clash, which is here rendered in the extremely listenable style of a drunken Elvis by Warren, who is on top form throughout.
But the more you listen, the more the other tunes start to rise to the top. The opener, a version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’ sets the tone magnificently. The opening track on side 2 ‘Mannish Boy’ is a corker too. But when push comes to shove it’s on the double entendre laden ‘Crosscut Saw’ that the album impresses most. It’s a brilliant version of the track, with everyone apparently belting out a different tune and a different rhythm that somehow come together to form a wonderful, raucous, classic whole.
Listen too for what seems to be a giant biscuit tin used to augment Bill Berry’s drum kit, which he uses to spectacular effect.
Label – Giant records
Year – 1990

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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 112 - Jean Michel Jarre 'Rendez-vous'

When the New Town of Washington (that’s Tyne and Wear, not D.C.) was planned and constructed, somebody, somewhere, took the decision that the districts wouldn’t only have names but they would have numbers too. In itself this would have presented no great problem, but then it was further decided that the new road signs on the new roads in the New Town would display the district numbers rather than the district names.
This was all well and good if you knew the number of the district you were aiming for, but for all others, reaching your destination in Washington became a bit of a living nightmare with successful navigation largely dependent on pure dumb luck.
Writing about a Jean Michel Jarre album can present similar problems as Jean Michel has a barely wavering penchant for track numbers rather than track names.
For example, our cassette of the day, Jean Michel Jarre’s 1986 release ‘Rendez-vous’ has six tracks* named ‘First rendez-vous’, ‘Second rendez-vous’ etc., with only the ‘Last rendez-vous’ bucking the trend by virtue of its appendage ‘Ron’s piece’.
‘First…’ and ‘Second….’ are essentially two sides of a very similar coin, with a downbeat front-end and an excitable back-end, the tracks feature a dominant church organ and what seems to be an angel’s choir. I have a vision of Rick Wakeman in a cape when I hear these two.
‘Third….’ Seems to be an unremarkable 1986 re-imagining of a track from the soundtrack to a 1950s spy film.
Things ‘hot-up’ considerably on side 2 with ‘Fourth….’ being the kind of upbeat, uplifting electronic instrumental that would cause fans of Daft Punk to wet themselves. I turned this particular tune up to such a volume in the car that the windscreen almost popped out (just like they used to in 1970s Allegro’s when you changed a wheel).
‘Fifth….’ is a messy mish-mash that starts reasonably strongly with what sounds like a 1980s nuisance telephone call (when nuisance calls meant heavy breathing rather than repeated offers to secure a PPI payout on your behalf) but then seems to borrow variously from
1.    the previous track
2.    a tune from a 1980s computer game
3.    a little piece similar to a Depeche Mode b-side (you know the ones – experimental, but not a great deal in the way of melody)
‘Last rendez-vous “Ron’s piece”’ was written for the astronaut Ron McNair to play on his saxophone while in the Challenger space shuttle. As we now know, Ron and his colleagues were killed in the Challenger tragedy soon after take-off. Musically, as you would probably expect, it’s a very sombre affair and the album is actually dedicated to the memory of Ron and his fellow crew members.
Incidentally, in recent years the Washington road signs have gradually been replaced by new signs that show district names rather than district numbers. Progress of sorts, I guess. It’s certainly easier to find your way to Donwell, Usworth, Concord, Crowther, Blackfell, Mount Pleasant, Sulgrave, Albany, Glebe, Barmston, Biddick, Columbia, Oxclose, Ayton, Lambton, Fatfield, Harraton and Washington Village now.
Label – Polydor/Disques Dreyfus
Year – 1986
*which is always a good thing.

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Friday, 12 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 111 - Ready for the world - 'Ready for the world'

Apparently, ‘sex’ sells. It’s a theory that’s difficult to argue with. Book shops certainly seem to be flogging loads of copies of ’50 shades of Grey’ and the Durham branch of Ann Summers has seen off the combined high-street regulars of Woolworths, HMV and Blockbuster. I do know, however, that they weren’t in direct competition. I’ve even been encouraged, by someone who will remain nameless for the sake of their own modesty, to spice up the blog with a ‘sex scene’ to attract the potential mass of readers out there who now seem to be gagging for ‘that type of thing’.
You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve decided to resist the temptation to court the erotic literature brigade, but our cassette today, ‘Ready for the world’ by Ready for the World certainly contains, as TV continuity announcers love to say, ‘scenes of a sexual nature’.
A 1985 album which fits nicely into the vaguely broad category of ‘R&B’, made by six Prince fans with skinny ties and wet-look perms who seem to have ‘one track minds’.
It’s great fun in a slightly nondescript kind of way, with nine tunes that manage to somehow navigate the extremely fine line between romantic and sleazy. With titles like ‘Deep inside your love’, ‘Slide over’ and ‘I’m the one who loves you’ it’s a fair bet you’re going to be in for some very smooth (and what used to be known in more innocent times as risqué) mid 1980s soul.
On the opening track ‘Tonight’ Mr Melvin Riley Jr. describes what he would like to do to you tonight. It’s a fairly straightforward premise. Incidentally, in this song when Melvin describes the object of his affection as being ‘so wet’ it doesn’t seem to carry the same stinging criticism as it did when Margaret Thatcher said the same thing about Geoffrey Howe.
‘Digital display’ bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Prince’s ‘Automatic’. It also includes the immortal line ‘excuse me if I start to play with your digital display’.
Best tunes here are undoubtedly ‘Oh Sheila’, which was almost (but not quite) a hit single in the UK and ‘Out of Town lover’.
It’s a little bit of fun, in a naughty way. I also have (on vinyl) RFTW’s second album, the evocatively (and provocatively) titled ‘Long time coming’.
Label – MCA records
Year – 1985

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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 110 - World Party 'Bang!'

You may not realise this but I suffer from a musical condition known hereabouts as ‘Songs from Northern Britain syndrome’.
The syndrome manifests itself when a long-awaited follow-up to a favourite album arrives, disappoints and ends up not being appreciated for years. Named specifically after the feeling experienced when Teenage Fanclub’s epic ‘Grand Prix’ was followed by the only very slightly less epic ‘Songs from Northern Britain’. I liked the latter, but I preferred the former, so ‘Songs from etc…’ remained criminally under-rated for way too long.
If you’d like another example, how about The Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ which is fantastic, but suffers by comparison with their wonderful self-titled first album. Or the fantastic 2004 offering by The Blue Nile, ‘High’. It’s brilliant, but not as good as its predecessor ‘Peace at last’ so it’s been ignored for the best part of nine years. Maybe if I’d been more than 3 years old at the time I would have dismissed ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ as ‘not a patch on ‘Revolver’’.
Our cassette experiment cassette of the day suffers as a result of ‘Songs from Northern Britain syndrome’ too. It’s World Party’s 1993 album ‘Bang!’. And it’s the follow-up to ‘Goodbye Jumbo’, which is one of my favourite albums.
‘Bang!’ starts with a very decent approximation of Bob Dylan (‘Kingdom come’) and ends (unless you count reprises, and I generally don’t) with a sublime approximation of ELO (‘All I gave’). In between you’ll experience a reasonably good pop album with an intermittent tree-hugging theme.
With track 4 ‘And God said……’ (tellingly not credited on the back of the insert) we experience an extremely brief, operatic track where God asks Man to ‘look after the planet’ and Man responds, in language not suitable for minors, very clearly in the negative. This is what can happen if you listen to too many Prince albums. And believe me, I know.
Quality dips just a touch at the beginning of side 2 – the opening track, ‘Hollywood’ featuring a predictable play on words that very quickly wears thin.
Interesting album credits include God, Bob Geldof, Carl Jung, Peter Gabriel, Kirsty MacColl, Diana Rigg, Terry-Thomas (how come he gets a hyphen?) and Greenpeace.
It’s not ‘Goodbye Jumbo’, but it definitely doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Label – Ensign
Year – 1993

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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 109 - Billy Bragg 'Life's a riot with Spy vs Spy'

For a dyed-in-the-wool waffler like me, the concept of ‘less is more’ can be a bit of an anathema. I know that there’s a reason why we have one mouth and two ears, but if there’s an option to go with ten words or one I always tend to favour the former.
There was a time of course when even the ‘three minute pop song’ was considered to be at least a minute too long and many of the greatest songs ever recorded clock in at just under or just over the two minute mark. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Prog which tends toward the ‘there’s no such thing as ‘too long’ when it comes to drum solos’ theory when it comes to the concept of brevity.
Many Punk bands appreciated the concept of not overstaying their welcome and in many ways our cassette today may just be the last great album of the punk era – Billy Bragg’s tribute to the joys of brevity, his 7 track, 16 minute debut ‘album’ ‘Life’s a riot with Spy vs Spy’.
As we discovered back on day 73, this cassette was one of the great triumvirate on heavy rotation on my Sanyo personal stereo as I walked to work at Laws Stores in Southwick in the 1980s (the other two being (the now sadly snapped) 'Forever now' by The Psychedelic Furs, and 'The Smiths' by The Smiths).
I’m sure I heard that Billy got his big break by appearing with an Indian takeaway for John Peel when he said he fancied one on air. I’m not sure how true this is, but it’s definitely a lesson in never under-estimating the power of a curry.
From the first jangling guitar on ‘Life’s a riot’s’ first track (‘The milkman of human kindness’) this is an album that never stops for breath, sounding for all the world like it was recorded in Billy’s bathroom*. The best known track is ‘A New England’, an unconventional love song that subsequently achieved great success when brilliantly covered, with help from Billy himself, by Kirsty MacColl. I was shocked when I found out years later that ‘The big-nosed boy from Barking’ (his description, not mine!) had ‘borrowed’ the iconic opening lines word-for-word from Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Leaves that are green’. All credit to Billy for his breadth of musical knowledge though.
Other tracks lurch from the political to the romantic (often in the same song), with the spiky ‘To have and to have not’ passing scathing comment, in what would become Billy’s trademark style, on education and opportunity, and on my favourite on the album, ‘The man in the iron mask’ which takes mournfulness to previously unplumbed levels.
At 16 minutes I could listen to this twice on my walk to work almost thirty years ago. When I drive to work in 2013 I can still fit it in twice if I choose to go by a slightly longer route than usual!
Label – Go!/Utility
Year – 1983
If you’re a fan of music in bathrooms, as I am, then why not check out this little beauty by The Lake Poets -  The Lake Poets - Windowsill 
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