Sunday, 21 October 2018

Big Country

The Crossing (1983)


In A Big Country/Inwards/Chance/1000 Stars/The Storm/Harvest Home/Lost Patrol/Close Action/Fields Of Fire/Porrohman         

It has always puzzled me why Big Country have often got such a bad press. When discussing music, if you say you like Tom Waits, Neil Young or The Smiths, people will nod sagely in agreement with your great taste. If you say you like Big Country they either laugh or shake their heads. Quite why, I just don't know - a) this is a great debut album; b) their first four/five albums were all both competent and credible; c) they were superb live; d) their sound was unique; e) Stuart Adamson is much missed and was a much underrated songwriter and indeed singer/guitarist.
                           
As I said, this is truly one of the great debut albums. Released in 1982 it contained a sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard. Yes, the band were Scottish, but the guitar sound really did sound like bagpipes. 

 

The album's two iconic upbeat hit singles, Fields Of Fire and In A Big Country (Chance was also a hit) hit you between the eyes and ears like a chill wind from the North. The latter's Edinburgh tattoo military-style drums kick in to start the album as it means to go on. It absolutely blows away any cobwebs, announcing itself big time.


"....In a big country dreams stay with you, like a lover's voice across the mountainside..."

The album is full of Jacobean imagery (aided by the inner sleeve drawings) and the skirl of rabble rousing calls to arms. Just listen to the opening riff of Harvest Home or the energy of some of the lesser-known rockers - the pounding, early U2-esque InwardsClose Action and Lost Patrol. Or the Celtic soul on the heartbreaking lament and in concert crowd favourite, Chance -

"....He came like a hero from the factory floor
With the sun and moon as gifts
But the only son you ever saw
Were the two he left you with...."

What great lyrics they were. Full of characterisation. What a wonderful, immense song it is too. So much sombre emotion in it, so much empathy. 

1000 Stars has an absolutely killer riff and a huge rolling drum sound, Inwards also rocks riffily, while the folky guitar-driven The Storm is overflowing with Scottish historical ambience. 

Then there is the mighty closer, Porrohman, which sounds great on this remaster. Some stonking guitar. Watching them perform this live was an experience. Big Country's audiences were always passionate, involved and enthusiastic. Singing along to Chance, bouncing along to Fields Of Fire. Great memories. 

A true Caledonian masterpiece. 

Incidentally, the "deluxe edition" contains several excellent tracks that did not appear on the album, notably the lively rock of Angle Park and The Crossing, the latter being particularly impressive.

Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder described the arrival of Big Country on the scene in these glowing, and very apt, terms-


"...Here's a big-noise guitar band from Britain that blows the knobs off all the synth-pop diddlers and fake-funk frauds who are cluttering up the charts these days....Big Country mops up the fops with an air-raid guitar sound that's unlike anything else around anywhere..like the young Irish band U2, with whom they share a producer in Steve Lillywhite, they have no use for synthesisers...."

I couldn't have said it better myself, hence my utilising this excellent quote. 



Harvest Home by John Linnell 1858

Steeltown (1984)


Flame Of The West/East Of Eden/Steeltown/Where The Rose Is Sown/Come Back To Me/Tall Ships Go/Girl With Grey Eyes/Rain Dance/The Great Divide/Just A Shadow        
Big Country's second album from 1984 followed their impressive debut. Again this is packed full of Scottish imagery and hard as nails tales of Caledonian life. On this album, lyricist Stuart Adamson comes down from the rain-blasted Highlands to the factory floors of the industrial heartlands of Scotland. He tells slightly mythologised, romantic tales of tough steel workers, steadfast, loyal wives and heroic soldiers, all part of an industrial nation from a time rapidly going by. Scotland was full of "steeltowns", but ironically, Adamson's inspiration was Corby, in Northamptonshire, England, albeit a tough town populated by emigrant Scottish steelworkers.

Other themes on this highly politicised album, as well as the decline of traditional industries with no replacements in mind, was the mid-eighties obsession with nuclear war and armed conflict in general, and strong romantic orthodox male and female characteristics. The archetypal Big Country male character is square-jawed, flinty-eyed, hard-working but taciturn, his female partner is pretty, but stoic and stronger than you would believe.

  
                            
The sound is a little heavier, a little more introspective and a little less tub-thumping than on the previous album. There are still some great anthems on there though - the powerful and pounding SteeltownWhere The Rose Is SownThe Great Divide and the impressive, anthemic but very sad Just A Shadow.

Come Back To Me is both maudlin (about a girl waiting for the return of her soldier lover) and singalong, simultaneously. Both East Of Eden and Flame Of The West are solid, muscular rockers with great hooks. 

Tall Ships Go, inspired by Adamson's mariner father, is packed full of riffs and a great rock refrain, while Rain Dance also possesses an easy to grab melody. Composer Adamson and his band mates had a great knack for finding a hook in a melody that meant you could sing a snatch of the song almost as soon as you had first heard it.

Adamson was also a very underrated lyricist. Check these out from Girl With Grey Eyes-

"...Just like Josephine, it will not be tonight
Still I have the dream, still I have the sight
Will you and I always be like this, will you and I always have this
I only see those sad grey eyes, I only hear you singing
I am the ticket, you the prize, when begins the winning..."

Great stuff. Adamson wrote it for his wife, apparently. 

I have always had a problem with the sound on this album, though - it is muffled, indistinct and decidedly lo-fi. Some critics reacted negatively towards the album, calling it muddled and overly dense, in many ways I have to agree, however, this latest "deluxe edition" has finally remastered it acceptably, although I believe there will always be limitations from the original recording sessions. Just the way it was recorded at the time. No amount of remasterings can change that.

Maybe the slightly dulled sound was intentional, like the crashes and thumps of a Glasgow sheet metal foundry. Maybe therein lies its appeal. The music somehow mirrors the intended ambience. Check out the dull thump of the title track's intro. Somehow this album has to be listened to on a cold wet, winter's day. It is certainly not a "sunny day album". 

"...Where will we find the newborn year as the winter crashes down?...". 

That line from Rain Dance acts as a leitmotif of the whole album. 

Love the cover image too. This was still good album, despite the murky recording. Let nobody say otherwise.



Corby steelworks.
 


The Seer (1986)


Look Away/The Seer/The Teacher/I Walk The Hill/Eiledon/One Great Thing/Hold The Heart/Remembrance Day/Red Fox/Sailor  

This, Big Country's third album, harked back to their debut with its traditional Scottish ambience, cloaked in mythology and folklore. In some ways it is their most obviously Caledonian album with is references to Scottish history, landscape and landmarks.
                               
In its sound, the album was just as powerful and rocky as its predecessor, Steeltown, and also introduced some folky elements into the mix, particularly on The Seer, which features Kate Bush on backing vocals. Other highlights are the rousing opener, Look Away, the singalong One Great Thing, the evocative, anthemic Remembrance Day and the two closers Red Fox and Sailor, both of which start slowly and have extended rocking guitar conclusions, which never fail to inspire.

Eiledon and I Walk The Hill provide the afore-mentioned Caledonian feel and Hold The Heart has a tuneful, sad refrain. The Teacher is a chunky, solid rocker.

I always find this album is very much a winter one. I always tend to play it in November (because of Remembrance Day, no doubt ). Apart from that, it just seems to have a winter feel about many of the songs and images. It must be noted, though, that the track was actually written about the late 18th century Highland Clearances, when many Scots were deported against their will to New Zealand and Canada. 

  

There was a much better, clearer sound quality after the murk of the previous album and evidence here of the band beginning to diversify a little, instrumentally. There were more acoustic guitars and a bit less “bagpipe” sound. Again, this is another album that shows just what an underrated band Big Country were.

The lyrics to this verse from The Seer give a taste of the historical, Celtic feel of much of the material on the album- 

"...Long ago I heard a tale I never will forget
The time was in the telling on the bank the scene was set
The sky was rolling blindly on, the daylight had not gone
She washed her hair among the stones and saw what was to come
All this will pass
There will be blood among the corn and heroes in the hills
But there is more to come my boy before you've had your fill
Men will come and rape the soil as though it were their own
And they will bathe their feet in oil as I have bathed my own...."

Good stuff.



Eildon Hills, Scottish Borders.


Peace In Our Time (1988)


King Of Emotion/Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)/Thousand Yard Stare/From Here To Eternity/Everything I Need/Peace In Our Time/Time For Leaving/River Of Hope/In This Place/I Could Be Happy Here/The Travellers     

Peace In Our TimeBig Country’s fourth album, from 1988, was very unfairly given a critical panning. I have absolutely no idea why, for me, it is their best album. It has some excellent rock numbers, but, more appealing to me are some genuinely moving and sensitive songs. As opposed to releasing another similar album to their first three - skirling guitars, rousing Caledonian anthems and a rock feel, they decided to diversify slightly and go down the more folky, melodic route.
                                 
Not that there weren’t a few tub thumpers on the album, though - the album kicks off with the Honky Tonk Women Stonesy riff of the pop rock of King Of Emotion, an excellent, rousing anthem. The two next songs are both quiet, understated, melodic and thoughtful songs - the  attractive, Celtic air of Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys) and the gentle, but also rocking and Celtic in places Thousand Yard Stare. How anyone can put these songs down is beyond me. They are fine folky rock songs, lyrically astute, evocative and well-delivered. Broken Heart has a rocky, upbeat drum-dominated chorus part anyway. It also has an excellent “pan-pipe” fade -out instrumental bit. The band are diversifying, good for them. Nevertheless, the Celtic influence is still clearly there. Also, I have to say that the sound quality on this album is the best on any of the band’s albums so far, despite contemporary criticisms of it, some from within the band itself. Have they not listened to Steeltown’s muffled-muddy sound? The instrumentation n this album is excellent, the best I have heard from the band so far, it really is. They do use a fair few other guest musicians though, to be fair. This adds to the improved, more diverse sound.

 

From Here To Eternity is also a solid piece of guitar rock, with a hook of a chorus and a killer swirling, lyrical intro, while Everything I Need is another subtle, quite folky ballad, with some crystal clear acoustic guitar. Eternity would certainly not be out of place on the much-vaunted previous album, The Seer.

Peace In Our Time is an excellent, inspirational rocker, again with an addictive, singalong, fist-pumping chorus. Like King Of Emotion, a live concert favourite. 

Time For Leaving was not a popular song with some critics. I have no idea why, it is a vibrant historical tale of emigrants from Scotland in search of work, with some great guitar and another fine chorus.

River Of Hope has a catchy drum sound to the whole track and a general upbeat feel, it is a powerful, pounding rocker, while the final two tracks are two of my favourites. The moving and beautiful In This Place -

All the years I lived in this place
The people I knew here
I loved every face
I loved the parties, the funerals, and fights
The supermarket needs my land
I have no rights.
..”


Those are heartfelt, socially conscious lyrics. People may try to put them down. Not me. Not for one second. Stuart Adamson should have been given far more credit. Some of his songs are genuinely moving.

I Could Be Happy Here is from a similar mould, but ends an album tied up with historical leaving of Scotland on an optimistic note, although the general feel of the album is one if sadness. I truly feel this was Big Country’s best album. Not a bagpipe guitar riff in earshot though, but in many ways it was their most Scottish album. The Caledonian/Celtic airs, ambiences and references are all still there, just as strongly as on many of the other albums, if not more. Whatever anyone says, this is a good album, in my opinion.

Finally, the Celtic-flavoured instrumental The Travellers is included at the end on some releases not on others. Among the bonus material on the “deluxe edition” is a typical old-style Big Country rocker in When A Drum Beats and another solid one in Age Of Man. Both are worth checking out.



Melrose. Scottish Borders


Big Country Live At The BBC

  

These BBC Sessions/concerts box sets are all excellent. I have recordings by The Jam, Paul Weller, Thin Lizzy, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Thin Lizzy and Free. The sound quality on all are, on the whole, excellent. This Big Country one is no different. It covers sessions at the BBC from 1982-84, a full concert from The Hammersmith Odeon in 1989 and some live cuts from, unusually, The Russian Embassy in London from 1989.

The BBC Sessions from 1982 just hit you straight between the eyes with an absolutely storming Harvest Home from David Jensen’s show, with those bagpipe guitars to the fore. It is full of youthful energy and vigour. Marvellous. Just listen to that guitar bit at 2m 30s. All the material on these sessions is derived the debut album, The Crossing, which for many, is still the band’s best album. It is all delivered with real vitality and confident attack. The sound of a band that really felt they had something. Nice to hear comparative “rarities” Heart And Soul and the post-punk sounding Angle Park given an airing. What an atmospheric song Close Action is too. Other highlights are the rocking Inwards with its pounding drum sound and the anthemic, evocative Porrohman. The apocalyptic warning of A Thousand Stars is a bleak reminder of the early eighties too.

The live cuts from 1983-1984 are all high quality too, from various venues. They also feature material from the first album. I would have liked some songs from Steeltown in there too, but I won’t complain too much. Crowd pleasers like the skirling Fields Of Fire and In A Big Country are exhilarating. The rarity, the chugging, bluesy "Balcony", is a welcome inclusion. Again, the sound quality on these live cuts is excellent. They miss a few guitar notes at the beginning of Reading Festival's Harvest Home, however!

The Hammersmith Odeon concert from 1989 covers material from the first four albums and shows just what a great live band Big Country were. Rabble rousing and tub thumping.

The Russian Embassy material is excellent, too. In particular a rousing King Of Emotion, and a bassy, pounding version of the folky Broken Heart (13 Valleys).




Saturday, 20 October 2018

Alice Cooper


Before becoming the theatrically ghoulish figure that everyone is familiar with, Alice Cooper had two "pre-grisly fame" albums, they were - 

Pretties For You (1969)


Titanic Overture/10 Minutes Before The Worm/Sing Low, Sweet Cheerio/Today Mueller/Living/Fields Of Regret/No Longer Umpire/Levity Ball/B. B. On Mars/Reflected/Apple Bush/Earwigs To Eternity/Changing Arranging

This was an eminently forgettable, nigh on unlistenable attempt at a psychedelic rock album, featuring snippets of songs in places and a poor sound quality. It contains nothing particularly memorable at all. A few moments, here and there - the grinding Living and the psych guitar swirl of Fields Of Regret -  but nothing that gets me wanting to return to it anytime soon.

Easy Action (1970) 

 


Mr & Misdemeanor/Shoe Salesman/Still No Air/Below Your Means/Return Of The Spiders/Laughing At Me/Refrigerator Heaven/Beautiful Flyaway/Lay Down And Die, Goodbye

The second of these early albums is by far the better of the two, having a much heavier, attractively riffy rock approach, a deeper, warmer bass sound and a bit more of Cooper's personality making itself known (but nothing approaching how he would develop over subsequent years). I can listen to this, at a push, and can hear small signs of what The Alice Cooper Band would become, but the debut album was pretty much dispensible.

The best tracks are Mr. & Misdemeanor, the Beatles-esque Shoe Salesman, the groovy, rhythmic Below Your Means, the beautifully bassy Laughing At Me and the grungy Refrigerator Heaven. After this, everything started to change, with the release of...


Love It To Death (1971)


Caught In A Dream/I'm Eighteen/Long Way To Go/Black Juju/Is It My Body/Hallowed By Thy Name/Second Coming/Ballad Of Dwight Fry/Sun Arise              

Alice Cooper’s first two albums were sort of late sixties psychedelic/acid rock trippy stuff that felt a bit unfulfilled, not quite sure of what direction to go in, despite a few hints on the second album. This is their third offering and it is the one which saw the band start to develop their true rock identity. It is a mixture of short, sharp three minute impressive riff-driven rock numbers with two longer, slightly indulgent exercises and one somewhat bizarre cover.  A bit like Doors albums, in that "couple of long tracks/mostly short tracks" respect.
                                   
Caught In A Dream is an excellent, riffy, rocking opener, sort of Rolling Stones meets Mott The HoopleI’m Eighteeen continues the quality rock with one of Cooper’s best early tracks. It is full of great guitar, bluesy in places and rock in others and Cooper’s vocal is starting to show that leery quality he traded on for so many subsequent years. 

Long Way To Go is a fast-paced punky number five years before punk. The guitar and bass runs are pure punk, however, even before The New York Dolls. Check out that punky drumming too. I’m sure The Vibrators and Eddie & The Hot Rods had listened to this. Both The Ramones and The Sex Pistols latterly cited I’m Eighteen as highly influential.

 

Black Juju is nine minutes long, very Doors-like in places (Alice’s menacing vocal) and mysterious too. All a bit prog-rock in places, particularly in the swirling organ breaks, but it is certainly not without its good points. The quiet, whispered bit half way through is unneccessary and indulgent, the track could do without it, to be honest.


The riffy rock is back with the Cooper classic Is It My Body. It has airs of Free and Led Zeppelin about it, plus Cooper’s own unique stamp. 

Hallowed Be Thy Name sees Cooper deliver one of his supposedly sacreligious songs that so vexed parents back in the early seventies. It is once again very Doors-influenced. It has some excellent percussion on it near the end too. 

Second Coming starts with Cooper sounding just like Paul McCartney against a piano backing, before the huge clunky guitar kicks in. It is another quasi-religious questioning rant. It segues via some classical-influenced piano into the epic and unusual Ballad Of Dwight Fry that belies description. there are all sorts of things mixed up in it, heavy guitar riffs, singalong refrains, madcap ranting, melodic piano, strange sound effects, countless changes of pace. It is a bit of a difficult listen, but also a quite intoxicating one. What is was about, though, I guess only Alice and co-writer Michael Bruce knew.

The track morphs into the strange cover of Rolf Harris’s Outback-inspired Sun Arise. Funnily enough it sort of works, with its tribal drum sound and pulsating bass rhythms. This was a little-mentioned, but highly-influential album and one well worth checking out.


 

Killer (1971)


Under My Wheels/Be My Lover/Halo Of Flies/Desperado/You Drive Me Nervous/Yeah Yeah Yeah/Dead Babies/Killer
                                                        
After an underrated rock album in early 1971’s Love It To Death, Alice Cooper was back at the end of the year with another solidly impressive offering.

The first two tracks are superb Stonesy, riffy rockers - Under My Wheels, enhanced by some saxophone for the first time and the barnstorming Be My Lover, which is absolutely packed full of, dare I say, “killer” riffs. 

Halo Of Flies is one of those mini-rock opera type songs that Cooper specialised in at the time - eight minutes plus of all manner of changes of pace, great guitar riffs, bass lines, hooks and weird noises. It appealed to those fans who wanted a bit of “prog-rock” type organ and indulgent drawn-out instrumental passages, while the short, sharp rock numbers kept the burgeoning “glam rock” market happy.

I remember at the time that us boys at school who loved BowieMott The Hoople and Roxy Music liked the riffier Cooper material, but were a bit wary of him when he went “prog”-ish. That was for the boys who wore greatcoats and ike ELP. Cooper sort of crossed over between the two. A track that sort of summed that up was Desperado, which had a rock attack to it, but also some noodling orchestration and a few vaguely pretentious bits. The final track, Killer, was also a bit directionless in places (despite its atmosphere), in contrast with the two openers, which were both beautifully succinct in their rock perfection.


You Drive Me Nervous was back to riffage on a searing proto-punk song in whch you can hear The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols

Yeah Yeah Yeah is another guitar-driven one than wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1976-77. In fact, I read that Johnny Rotten called this album the “greatest rock album of all time”.

Alice liked to shock, of course, and duly comes up with the menacing, creepy Dead Babies which has echoes of both The DoorsTelevision and the sort of thing Siouxsie & The Banshees would do several years later. Parts of it of are even “post punk”, would you believe. Throw in a few lyrics about graveyards and the like and the song was guaranteed to appall the older generation. That was the intention at the time, long before punk. Funnily enough, under all the shlock, the song’s message was an anti-child abuse one. Nobody saw that, however. The tabloids and some MPs (both Tory and Labour) had a field day warning of this artist who was “out to corrupt our children”. Cooper was thoroughly despised by the “respectable” elder generation in the early seventies, for a while, at least.

Unfortunately, in some ways, all that messing around with snakes and guillotines on stage detracted somewhat from the fact that Alice Cooper, in this era, put out some seriously good rock albums.




School's Out (1972)


School's Out/Luney Tune/Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets/Street Fight/Blue Turk/My Stars/Public Animal #9/Alma Mater/Grand Finale               

Now starting to build a solid reputation as a rock band, after two impressive albums in Love It To Death and Killer, Alice Cooper and his band now found themselves crossing over into the gaudy world of “glam rock” as well. This suited a showman like Cooper fine and they full embraced it all. This is by far the most “theatrical” of the Cooper albums so far, almost playing like a sort of concept album, with some very “stagey” songs. In that respect it was a bit of a strange album, but it sort of set the tone for the grandiose glam theatre of Billion Dollar Babies. As you can see below, the original album came complete with a pair of see-thru pink (or sometimes white) panties.
                 
The album still has some of their naturally instinctive rock sound, however, kicking off with the massive number one riffy glam single School’s Out. It sticks out against the rest of the album somewhat, it has to be said. It is one hell of a track too.

Luney Tune is a sort of Doors meets T.Rex over a riffy but also orchestrated backing, with some superb rock guitar in the middle. It is a marvellous piece of glammy, showy fluff. 

Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets is like something from the New York stage, a madcap mini rock opera. It paraphrases lines from West Side Story. To be honest it doesn’t really work for me. It is all a bit messy. I would rather they stuck to their straight ahead rock, but they always liked to put a few tracks like this on every album. The track merges straight into the short bass workout of Street Fight

The old “side one” ended with the soulful, mysterious ambience of Blue Turk, with its slightly jazzy and funky stylings. It ends with a trumpet solo, some jazz guitar and sumptuous bass/percussion. All very Broadway. The campness is just a little overdone at times, and I sort of miss the outright rock of Love It To Death and Killer, but I also admire them for trying something slightly different.

  

My Stars is another mini-epic with some of that almost “prog rock” indulgence that always separated Cooper from the BowiesT. RexsMott The Hooples and Roxy Musics, catering to his different fan base. It is full of inventive guitar, crazy vocals, mad pace at times but desite its vibrant appeals, I am never sure what the point of it was. Again, despite that, it is enjoyable and well delivered, instrumentally. The Cooper band were underrated musicians. 

Public Animal #9 is rhythmic and full of some trademark riffs and returns to the proto-garage rock sound so appealing on their previous two albums. 

Alma Mater has Cooper sounding like Paul McCartney (not for the first time). At the end Cooper asks his old scholmates to “remember “The Coop”…”. I’m sure they did, probably as Vincent Furnier, however.

Grande Finale is an excellent slice of funky, horn-driven instrumental rock to end things off. It is like the finale of a stage musical, as the cast all get ready to take their bows. It has been an odd album, but a strangely fun, experimental one.




Billion Dollar Babies (1973)


Hello Hooray/Raped And Freezin'/Elected/Billion Dollar Babies/Unfinished Sweet/No More Mr. Nice Guy/Generation Landslide/Sick Things/Mary Ann/I Love The Dead         

1973's Billion Dollar Babies was the only really big album for Alice Cooper, every parent's bete noire in the early seventies. The supposed corruptor of the nation's youth crammed the album full of largely upbeat rock songs predictably covering taboo subjects like rape, necrophilia, blasphemy, horror and even fear of the dentist's drill. Forgetting all that over the top, showy schlock for a while, this was actually a very good rock album - heavy enough to keep the hard rockers happy but catchy and commercial enough to appeal to the chart rock and "glam" fans. I remember myself and at least three other of my friends had this album, along with Aladdin SaneMott and Free's Heartbreaker. It was extremely popular among teenage boys, it seemed.




The opener, Hello Hooray, is actually a cover version of a musical show-type song that Alice wanted as a sort of overblown intro to his latest creation. It works too - dramatic and featuring an over the top vocal and some great guitar. 

Raped And Freezin' is tasteless lyrically - "hey I think we gotta live one..." but its Latin-tinged rock rhythms and verses are impossibly catchy. One of my favourites on the album.

 

My all-time favourite, though is, the first 45rpm single I ever actually went out and bought - Elected. I can still remember my excitement as I put it on the turntable, lowered the stylus and my father, surprisingly, allowed me to listen to it on his stereo system. It was late 1972, not many people had access to a stereo system. The sound of that introductory guitar riff and the drums booming out was incredible. I was hooked on amplified rock music ever since. I also loved the fact that various media commentators and stuffy Tory MPs loathed Cooper. He would do for me, if only for that. He was pictured on the inner sleeve holding up a distinctly uncomfortable-looking baby complete with Alice Cooper eye make up and a leering Cooper and his band looking as if they are about to indulge in some shocking ritual. Even at fourteen, I knew it was all for show. I couldn't understand why the older generation got so uptight about it.



Billion Dollar Babies is another suitably bad-taste song about eating babies or whatever. Never mind, it had a barnstorming drum sound. 

Unfinished Sweet features some agonising "dentist drill" guitar, a powerful heavy riff and traditional rock vocal. It is also has a lengthy instrumental part that features some James Bond Theme fashion guitar bits and also a fabulous, dramatic rock finale. It is an enjoyable, preposterous romp, to be honest.



No More Mr. Nice Guy was a hit single - a Stonesy/Mott The Hoople riff-dominated rocker about a preacher laying into Alice for his hypocrisy. 

Generation Landslide is probably the most credible, "serious" rock song on the album. Thereafter, though, it is back to shock and show. 

Sick Things plays up the "I'm one evil, sick, twisted whatever" thing for all it's worth, as indeed does the necrophiliac anthem I Love The Dead, again, all hammed up for shock value. Alice was a bit of a weird artist, but he had an unorthodox, anti-establishment appeal. A sort of punk before punk.



Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Pretenders

Pretenders (1980)


Precious/The Phone Call/Up The Neck/Tattooed Love Boys/Space Invaders/The Wait/Stop Your Sobbing/Kid/Private Life/Brass In Pocket/Lovers Of Today/Mystery Achievement     

The Pretenders were late arrivals on the "punk" scene, and were far more of a "new wave" band, with guitarists and a drummer who had been around a bit, one with a bit of a rockabilly image and a hard as nails female singer who had also been around the block a bit, so to speak. Ex-rock journalist Chrissie Hynde added her unique, rather odd, not particularly strong voice to a 60s-influenced rock/new wave sound to make them a very recognisable band and one that successfully cross-over into the mainstream charts and daytime radio air-play. Hynde also had a strange habit of enunciating  her "w's" and "v's" (like "world as "vurld" on Precious). She also does it on "your place in this vurld" on the next album's Talk Of The Town. Never quite understood why, she is from Akron, Ohio, not Germany, India or Pakistan.
            
The album's opener, the frantic, punky riff-driven
 Precious is something that is pretty hard to categorise, to be honest. Hynde mumbles out some of her lyrics, blathering on about "shitting bricks" before that quite unique guitar sound breaks back in. 

Her vocals are even more incomprehensible on the similarly frenetic and infuriatingly catchy The Wait. If anyone can tell me what the song is all about I would love to know. Either way it has a great, infectious sound to it with some excellent drums from Martin Chambers

The Phone Call has a bit of a Siouxsie & The Banshees riff sound about it throughout, and the drums too, thinking about it. 

Up The Neck has a laid back, middle ground rock sound and a strong guitar riff mid-song. Again, that "post punk" guitar riff style is used quite a lot. 




Space Invaders is a chugging, slightly unnecessary instrumental tapping in to the contemporary trend for playing the titular video game in pubs complete with noises from that game at the end.

 

There are four hit singles on here - the cover of The Kinks' singalong 60s number, Stop Your Sobbing; the tuneful Duane Eddy guitar-influenced Kid; the number one and ever-so-slightly irritating Brass In Pocket and the fast, rocky Tattooed Love Boys. All these were worthy hits and are memorable within the context of this album, as indeed is Private Life, six minutes of reggae-influenced moaning at her lover from Hynde. It was later covered, memorably, by Grace Jones with a "proper" reggae backing by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and this version met with Hynde's enthusiastic approval. She felt it far bettered her original saying that it was how she originally wanted it to sound.



Lovers Of Today is a lengthy, beautiful new wave rock ballad with Hynde's best vocal from the album. 

Mystery Achievement is another five minute track with a seductive guitar/drum intro and another convincing vocal. Again, it has that new wave rock ballad style typical of the era. Funny how, after the supposed punk ethos of nothing over a frantic two and a half minutes long, bands went back to recording five and six minute mid-paced rocky workouts in no time at all. Nice bass, guitar and drum instrumental part in the middle that would have been unheard of at punk's height three years earlier.

An impressive debut from a band who would, however,  go on to produce several competent, but rarely truly outstanding albums. It never actually got any better than this in terms of overall album quality.


 

Pretenders II (1981)


The Adultress/Bad Boys Get Spanked/Message Of Love/I Go To Sleep/Birds Of Paradise/Talk Of The Town/Pack It Up/Waste Not Want Not/Day After Day/Jealous Dogs/The English Roses/Louie Louie                   

After a pretty impressive and successful debut album, as was often the way in the fast-paced era of punk/new wave, the pressure was immediately on to come up with a second album. So many bands suffered from this and ended up with a hastily-released second album that would have been better if they had waited a while and upped the quality control a little. The Pretenders certainly suffered from this malaise, as did The Jam and The Police.
                               
The Adultress is a chugging, uninspired start to proceedings. It sounds muffled, with tired guitar riffs and a lazy vocal. All the vigour of the previous album seems to have been lost. Even the production sounds half-baked. Poor sound, indistinct guitar and drums. 

Bad Boys Get Spanked tries to recreate some of the vitality of a few months earlier, but again the production leaves some thing to be desired. A punky attack and some embarrassing "saucy" lyrics are not enough to save it really. 

Message Of Love lifts things up a little, an energetic drum intro and guitar riff but again, this is a track that I have always felt never quite makes it. It was released as a single but was only an average seller. It is ok, though, certainly better than the first two tracks. It sounds more like the sort of material that was so successful on the first album. 

The cover of The KinksI Go To Sleep is a good one, though. Slow and romantic, with a nice horn part and Parisian-sounding guitar note after the title line is sung.

 

Bird Of Paradise is a nice song, with an attractive ambience and delivery, but it jus sounds so dense and muffled. The production on this album is really extremely poor. It spoiled what was potentially a good track here, I feel. 

Talk Of The Town was a good single. A snappy melody and 60s style guitar sound, together with a strong vocal from Chrissie Hynde. A classic early eighties new wave single. Takes me right back hearing it. Chrissie's voice is back to its seductive timbre that so characterised the first album. Instantly recognisable. She still enunciates her 'w's" as 'v''s though!

Pack It Up quotes tennis bad boy (and a friend of Hynde's) John McEnroe at the beginning - "you guys are the pits of the world" and accompanied by a hard rock riff, Chrissie tells of live on the road in and out of hotels and living out of a suitcase. It has a rock appeal if you just turn it up and forget the bad sound. (By the way, this is supposed to be a remastered edition. Maybe it is simply that nothing can be done with the album, so poorly was it recorded in the first place). The final rant by Chrissie at her departed lover are quite amusing.



The white reggae of Waste Not Want Not is my favourite track on the album. It sounds good, in comparison to much of the rest of it, has a great vibe. bass and drum sound and a beguiling vocal from Chrissie. It is this album's Private Life

Day After Day is back to the realms of just ok and not much more. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either. Actually, listening to it again,  I quite like it, but it just doesn't have that "something" about it. 

The same applies to Jealous Dogs, with its trite lyrics about "rolling over and begging". Come on Chrissie, you can do better than this. All pretty lazy. After a few more listens, though, I feel I have been a bit harsh and these two tracks are not too bad, I just can't get away from the bad sound.

The English Roses, with some nice bass, and the frantic, horn-driven Louie Louie (not a cover of The Kingsmen's hit) bring it back up a bit to end on a high point, but as I have mentioned again and again throughout this review the poor sound on the album simply affects one's whole outlook on it. It just feels half-cooked to me in many ways. I felt that way in 1981 when I first bought it and time hasn't changed my opinion, unfortunately. 

** The "bonus material" "demo" version of Talk Of The Town is, pointedly, far superior in sound quality. This is how the whole album should have sounded. Also, the "guitar version" of I Go To Sleep is a better version, in my opinion.

 

Learning To Crawl (1983)


Middle Of The Road/Back On The Chain Gang/Time The Avenger/Watching The Clothes/Show Me/Thumbelina/My City Was Gone/Thin Line Between Love And Hate/I Hurt You/2000 Miles   

After the tragic loss of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott from the band’s original line-up, Chrissie Hynde hired some more musicians and somehow got herself together and, remarkably, came up with this impressive album. Personally, I find it much superior to the muffled, patchy Pretenders II.
                                                    
Middle Of The Road kicks off the album with a real power and rock vibrancy. The first thing you notice is how much improved the sound is on this album from the muffled one on Pretenders II. Due to this and the level of attack on the song, you feel The Pretenders are back, alive and kicking. 

The hit single, the appositely-titled Back On The Chain Gang is also truly excellent, with an addictive, catchy riff and a singalong chorus. It is one of their best ever singles. It sounds awful to say, but this line up sounds much better than the original one (maybe it is just the production).

If any further proof were needed about the fuller, warmer sound on this album it comes with the rocking Time The Avenger with its excellent pounding drums and rumbling bass. It has to be said, however, that Watching The Clothes (about sitting in a launderette) is not the best song they ever did. Its lyrics are wryly amusing though, about “delicates” and “final rinse”. Show Me is melodic and solid, though, and gets things back on track.

 

Thumbelina is a quirky, upbeat rhythmic rockabilly/zydeco beat song that appears to be written for Chrissie Hynde’s daughter in places, but there are darker parts to it as well, as is often the case with Pretenders songs, a cynicism about the human condition is never far from the surface. 

This is continued in the bleak outlook of My City Was Gone, about Hynde returning to Ohio, sung over an insistent bass and drum chugging rhythm. It is one of the best cuts on the album. The bass and drum connection is taut and solid here from original drummer Martin Chambers and new bassist Malcolm Foster.



The Atlantic soul classic Thin Line Between Love And Hate is covered impressively. Hynde’s voice is excellent on this one. 

I Hurt You is a heavy chugger with a muscular riff. 2000 Miles has been somewhat hijacked as a Christmas song, due to its mentions of the festive day, so, for that reason I never play it outside of that time of year. Chrissie Hynde actually wrote it after the loss of Honeyman-Scott.

You know, I think I prefer this album and the next one, Get Close, to the more critically-acclaimed first two. They are both excellent albums and sound much better too.




Get Close (1986)


My Baby/When I Change My Life/Light Of The Moon/Dance!/Tradition Of Love/Don't Get Me Wrong/I Remember You/How Much Do You Get For Your Soul?/Chill Factor/Hymn To Her/Room Full Of Mirrors      
The Pretenders went through more trauma and changes in a few years than many bands go through in a lifetime. Chrissie Hynde, of course, was the one constant. It was her band. Despite losing two talented guitarists from the line-up that recorded their first two new wave/rock albums, she recovered, hired some more gunslingers and produced an excellent album in Learning To Crawl in 1984. By 1986, she was without even loyal old drummer Martin Chambers for this album, who she fired after his drumming deteriorated, and had a new guitarist in Robbie McIntosh and various session men like bassist Bruce Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. She had grown up by now and some of the material was mellower, more drawn from the voice of experience, but it was still very much her unique sound. The album is just slghtly blighted, as all mid-eighties albums were, by contemporary musical trends - basically synthesisers all over the place. They do appear on quite a few of the tracks, but the album is still guitar-driven and also runs on proper rock sounds, thank goodness. It was probably the last album from The Pretenders as a relevant band, to be honest, though. Anything produced after this would have a tinge of nostalgia about it.
                         
Anyway, to the music. My Baby has an acoustic beginning but soon merges into a classic Pretenders slowed down rock groove. Full of drums and bass and, thankfully, few eighties stylings, despite some ubiguitous synthesisers in the background eventually. At least the drums are “proper” drums. There is a classic Pretenders guitar riff near the end too. 

When I Change My Life has a Byrds-style jangly riff and a wistful, floaty vocal from Hynde. It has a nice subtle, melodic bassy feel to it.

 

Light Of The Town is a mid-paced, slow riffy number with more genuine drums and a nice laid-back but solid feel to it. 

Dance! sees the first of the funky tracks that would characterise this album. It is a real departure from the band’s trademark new-wavey sound. To be honest, it is refreshing to hear a change in their sound. I love this track. There is some great guitar on it too.

Tradition Of Love is another slow burner, with some distinct innovative Eastern tones to its vocal inflections, while Don't Get Me Wrong was a big hit single. It is lively, melodic and catchy. 

I Remember You has slight echoes of earlier Pretenders in places, but has a gentle Motown/reggae style beat and a sensual vocal.



As mentioned earlier, funkiness was a feature of this album compared to the three previous ones. How Much Did You Get For Your Soul? is an insistent, funky, clavinet and guitar-driven number that sounds great and shows the group diversifying somewhat. Eighties synthesisers unfortunately make an appearance, but that was, as I said earlier, a sign of the times. Hip/hop sampling vocals are in there, as if it were a Style Council track, along with some Talking Heads-style guitar. 

Chill Factor is a solid, organ and drum driven more archetypal Pretenders song, with hints of Elvis Costello & The Attractions.

Hymn To Her is a beautiful, uplifting, gently anthemic (as the title suggests) hymnal song. For me, it has influences from Dylan’s Forever Young (a song the group covered). Something about the phrasing, the grandiose rise at the end of the verses, the majesty of it. It is a truly great track. It contains one of Chrissie Hynde’s best ever vocals. Great stuff. 

Jimi Hendrix's Room Full Of Mirrors is covered funkily and convincingly.

A thing that hits you about this album is just how much better the sound quality is compared to, say, the muffled mess that was Pretenders II. It really is a most underrated album.