Friday, 30 November 2018

Cat Stevens




Mona Bone Jakon (1970)


Lady D'Arbanville/Maybe You're Right/Pop Star/I Think I See The Light/Trouble/Mona Bone Jakon/I Wish, I Wish/Katmandu/Time/Fill My Eyes/Lilywhite                 

Cat Stevens had suffered from tuberculosis in 1968 and after considerable recuperation, he returned in early 1970 with this highly impressive album. Always a sensitive lyricist, the slightly pop styled songs he had released a few years previously had developed into some seriously reflective, spiritual and wise material. This was going to be his most productive and fecund period as a recording artist.
                      
Lady D'Arbanville is just gorgeous. Haunting and mysterious. Who was she, I wonder? His ex-lover, apparently. When listening to the song I always imagine her as some historical character. It is a supremely atmospheric song. Maybe You're Right is a mid-tempo rock-ish ballad with hints of Bob Dylan from the same era about it. Not sure which song. I Threw It All Away, I think.

Pop Star is blues rocky and sees Stevens already cynical about the pitfalls of fame and the music industry. I Think I See The Light is very early Elton John in style, full of vocal attack and a rocking vibe. This is Stevens at his effervescent, spirited best. His spiritual quest is beginning to be given expression.



Trouble is a laid-back, beautiful acoustic ballad. Again, Stevens did this sort of thing so well. Mona Bone Jakon is a short song in praise of Stevens’ penis, apparently. This was his name for it. Coming from the gentle, sensitive Stevens, it sits somewhat incongruously. I am sure the Lady D’Arbanville enjoyed it, though. I Wish, I Wish is a rocky, vibrant number with a ending drum and piano sound and Stevens ruminating on the pace of the modern world an hoping for a better future. A great guitar solo passage in the middle of it too.

Katmandu is a wistful, airy acoustic and sublime bass-based ballad, with a bit of folky flute thrown in there too. It is a truly beautiful piece of music and vocals. A bit Crosby, Stills and Nash in places. Tapping in to the relaxing, chilled-out folky trend of the era. It is perfect. Time is an almost psychedelic ballad, although it is still acoustic, with some sweeping string orchestration. It sounds like mid 1990s Paul Weller. He must have listened to this. It segues seamlessly into the similarly beguiling Fill My Eyes, another razor-sharp acoustic ballad. Lilywhite is a beautifully orchestrated song, its backing almost classical. A lovely end to a thought-provoking and meaningful piece of work.

 

Tea For The Tillerman (1970)


Where Do The Children Play?/Hard Headed Woman/Wild World/Sad Lisa/Miles From Nowhere/But I Might Die Tonight/Longer Boats/Into White/On The Road To Find Out/Father To Son/Tea For The Tillerman    

This is a melodic and effortlessly appealing album from an artist who was about enter the best few years of his career. Cat Stevens, as you would expect, from his later development, was beginning to express spirituality in his songs, but many of them were also simple tender, romantic and sensitive love songs. Stevens sung also of the conflict between young and old, the search for spiritual satisfaction and he expressed a dissatisfaction with a world he found increasingly soulless and at times abhorrent. However, at the same time as expressing all this angst that found so many eager listeners in student bedsits, Stevens never lost his skill in creating a perfect pop song, honed in the sixties. This was always with him. He had an ear for a melody, for sure.
                     
Where Do The Children Play? questions technological progress and builds up slowly and acoustically, with razor sharp guitars reproduced in wonderful remastered sound quality and ends with a solid rock beat. Just as it starts to up its beat, it comes to an end. Enjoyable though. Hard Headed Woman is tender and sensitive, immaculately sung and played, and Wild World is the incredibly catchy hit single well known to many. Maxi Priest released a credible reggae cover of it, as also did Jimmy Cliff.

Sad Lisa has hints of Elton John’s Sixty Years On, full of sweeping string orchestration and a stark but melodious piano and a typical articulate, gentle vocal from Stevens. There is a darker side to the song, however, as it explores Lisa’s psychosis. Miles From Nowhere is pounding vibrant almost rock song with some stirring piano and drums and a vocal of power and conviction. But I Might Die Tonight explores the same generation gap/advice themes that occur later in Father And SonLonger Boats is a lyrically incomprehensible mystery of a song, but it has a catchy refrain. Stevens said at the time it was about flying saucers. Yeah, ok Cat. Into White is quiet, introspective and folky. Nick Drake-ish. On The Road To Find Out is a lengthier song about setting out on a spiritual quest, all delivered very tunefully.

Then there is Father To Son. The original, so wise and sensitive. What a song. Maybe Cat Stevens’ finest song ever. It is uplifting, inspiring, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Tea For The Tillerman ends this beguiling and interesting album with a minute’s worth of semi-song that breaks into a bit of gospel and then ends. You are left wanting more from that one, but not from the album as a whole. It is a good one, and so very 1970-71.



Teaser And The Firecat (1971)


The Wind/Ruby Love/If I Laugh/Changes IV/How Can I Tell You/Tuesday's Dead/Morning Has Broken/Bitterblue/Moonshadow/Peace Train        

Cat Stevens released a series of phenomenally good albums in the early seventies. This is possibly the best of them. Back then he had the image of a wandering minstrel/troubadour and delivered wise, soothsayer-style lyrics in that reassuring voice of his.
                                   
The Wind is a beautiful, melodic acoustic opener. Ruby Love features the Greek string instrument, the bouzouki, and Stevens singing one verse in Greek (he was born to Greek parents). It is captivating, summery and lively. The Greek feeling makes it really evocative. If I Laugh has a lovely, deep and tuneful bass line and yet another wistful, haunting vocal from Stevens. Yet more crystal clear acoustic guitar and some mesmeric drum work introduces the staccato Changes IV which has Cat rocking out somewhat in his vocal in that stride, strong voice that he could use on such upbeat songs. There tend to be two types of Cat Stevens songs - gentle, tender softly-sung ballads and more aggressive, stop-start acoustic attached songs that usually include pounding drums. Changes IV is one of the latter. The next track, How Can I Tell You is one of the former. It has hints of Elton John’s Elton John album in its almost medieval keyboards. Lyrically, Stevens was either romantic in a child-like, starry-eyed and fascinated sort of way or else he was proselytising on the state of the world or else searching for spiritual fulfilment.


Tuesday's Dead has an upbeat, calypso-style infectious rhythm that sounds very Paul Simon-ish. This album has far more livelier moments than the previous Tea For The Tillerman album, which was more reflective in feel. Cat rocks out a lot more on this album.

Morning Has Broken is maybe my favourite, inspirational hymn of all time. Against a beautiful piano (played by Rick Wakeman of Yes), Stevens delivers in a lovely, gentle, sincere voice that makes it clear just what a beautiful song this was/is. Simply heart-warming, but sad too, in many ways. Just when you are feeling a bit sad and emotional, one of those punchy numbers is back with the rocking Bitterblue. I have to say at this point that the remastered sound is superb on this latest edition.

 

Moonshadow is one of those almost nursery-rhyme songs that Cat did so damn well. It is just totally entrancing. For me, Cat Stevens’ recordings from the early seventies bring so much joy, so much innocence, yet so knowing and wise at the same time. Peace Train continues in that wise vein - it is upbeat, vigorous and uplifting, full of gospelly handclaps and a vocal full of passionate conviction. Cat tells it as it is. Fantastic stuff. It is probably my favourite album of his.

Catch Bull At Four (1972)


Sitting/The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head/Anglesea/Silent Sunlight/Can't Keep It In/18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/Freezing Steel/O' Caritas/Sweet Scarlet/Ruins        

This was Cat Stevens' final folky album before he bravely attempted to experiment with the following year's Foreigner. He was at a bit of a crossroads, and he was definitely still trying to put the world to rights. He was never comfortable with being a "pop star" yet he seemed to be able to put out regular, appealing albums that always contained a killer hit single. This was not a "bedsitter" album of poetic tenderness, however, there was far more attack, disillusion and religious undertones to be found in its tracks. Were the old studenty fans still with him? Maybe not.
                                             
Sitting is an Elton John-influenced, piano-driven solid ballad with Stevens on customary dominant vocal form. There is an impressive rolling drum passage half way through the song. The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head has a T. Rex-inspired title and a very America-style acoustic guitar backing. It has a plaintive, poetic hippy-inspired lyric, as one had come to expect from Stevens in this period. It actually is a rather lovely song. however. Anglesea has a rapidly-strummed acoustic backing that reminds me of some of Neil Diamond's late sixties material. The track is energetic and committed and includes some wonderful keyboard riffs and some Greek folk music choral backing.

Silent Sunlight is a plaintively sung ballad with some lovely strings and a moving vocal. Yes, Stevens' voice has always brought accusations of melodrama, but one could never doubt his sincerity or indeed, his ability to move the soul. The jerky, catchy Can't Keep It In was the album's hit single, and deservedly so. It has a captivating organ riff and a typically uncompromising vocal.

18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare) also has echoes of Elton John about it. Surely Billy Joel was influenced by this too. Great orchestration on it and inspirational piano. Freezing Steel is in the same vein, but more quirkily energetic. O' Caritas is sung in Greek (until right at the end) and borrows completely from the Greek folk tradition. It is most atmospheric. Sweet Scarlet is a gentle, tuneful, sparsely-backed ballad. Ruins is slightly reminiscent of David Bowie's acoustically-driven rock from the same period. The thoughtful lyrics and instinctive sincerity that characterised Stevens' late sixties/early seventies work is still here. This is still a good album.



Foreigner (1973)


Foreigner Suite/The Hurt/How Many Times/Later/100 I Dream        

After four folky, sensitive, acoustically-driven, wordily titled albums in Mona Bone JakonTea For The Tillerman, Teaser And The Firecat and Catch Bull At FourCat Stevens decided to change direction somewhat. Possibly inspired by contemporaries in the prog rock genre, he went experimental, releasing an album containing only five tracks. The original "side one" was one continuous "suite" lasting eighteen minutes. All very ambitious. The problem with ambition is that it can over-reach, and to a certain extent that was what happened here. The concept didn't really work and, tellingly, the next album, Buddah And The Chocolate Box saw a return to the previous blueprint.
                           
In many ways, the Foreigner Suite's content could have been divided in to four four minute-something songs, as opposed to an amalgam of tempting, teasing vignettes. Stevens also employs a group of New York session musicians in the place of his regular ones and the quality is good, powerful but it loses some of the previous albums' homely, folky appeal. This is muscular, solid stuff. Much of the sound is keyboard-based (as opposed to acoustic interplay) and there are sweeping string passages, Beatles-esque brass sections and even some funky, rhythmic parts straight out of a blaxploitation soundtrack, plus some Jethro Tull-influenced flute. Some Elton John piano is in there too. I remember at the time that the whole "concept" of this didn't really catch on with the public.

The "second" passage at about five minutes in, the "freedom calling" passage, would have made a fine Elton John-ish track. Each singing bit is linked by some impressive instrumental breaks. Stevens' voice, when it arrives, is strong and committed, the lyrics concerning his feelings about being considered something of a "foreigner" due to his Greek heritage, or so it sounds to me anyway. Stevens himself says it is about feeling a foreigner in attempting to play material influenced by black music. I'm not convinced by that, to be honest. While it has soulful aspects, it is certainly no exploration into black music.

 

The "there are no words" passage is evocative and Stevens' vocal is moving. This would have made a good track too. It is uplifting and inspiring, in a gospelly way at times. As I said earlier, there are several winning parts to this suite. The final piano part is infectious too. The whole suite is listenable, its eighteen minutes do not drag, due to its many changes of pace. Fair play to Stevens for attempting this.

The Hurt is a staccato rock tune with lots of female backing vocals and a strong vocal. How Many Times is a yearning ballad, with a solid bass, piano and drum backing. It is another emotive song. Later is probably the most "black music"-influenced number, with some funky wah-wah guitar and a pounding funk drum rhythm. It is a distinct change in style from anything Stevens had recorded previously. 100 I Dream has a catchy, almost country rock feel to it, the one throwback to his previous material. It is instantly recognisable as Cat Stevens and is a fetching track. It also has a few subtle soulful/funky touches as well.

This album is currently available very cheaply, particularly to download. It is well worth it.



Buddah And The Chocolate Box  (1974)


Music/Oh Very Young/Sun/C79/Ghost Town/Jesus/Ready/King Of Trees/A Bad Penny/Home In The Sky   

After the experimental five track only album in Foreigner that perplexed critics and fans alike, Cat Stevens returned with an album that was far closer to his previous ones. It proved to be one of his most successful and fondly-remembered offerings.

This is slightly less of a folky album than its predecessors,  though, carrying more of a rock thump to it in places. The old Stevens subtlety and unassuming beauty is omnipresent, however.
                               
The opener, Music is a vibrant, drum, guitar and piano driven number. Very “rock”. Even Oh Very Young, the melodic hit single, has a catchy, mellow rockiness to it when it kicks in. The tune is just so typical Cat, though. So mellifluous. The piano is sumptuous. The song is simply beautiful. Sun/C79 has an intoxicating rhythm and pulsating attack from Stevens vocally and with his firmly strummed trusty acoustic guitar. Ghost Town is almost bluesy in places, with a harmonica backing and resounding drum sound.

  

Jesus is a short rumination upon the character of Christ and Buddha that unfortunately ends before it has truly got going. Many of the songs on the album were full of religious imagery, however.

Ready is another short but catchy number. King Of Trees is longer - a lovely piano-led melody, full of cadence and harmonious backing vocals, a full minute or so before Stevens arrives. It seems allegorial about the environment. These songs are so sincere, so intense, so serious, but so appealing too.

That familiar medieval-style keyboard is used on A Bad Penny to great effect, as it always is. Cat’s vocal is excellent on this one, as is the backing. Home In The Sky starts with some a capella vocals before a churchy piano and organ lead us into an infectious slow and beautiful closer. Beautiful is a word I have used a lot. “Music is a lady that I still love” sings Cat. Yes, and she is beautiful.



Thursday, 29 November 2018

Out Came The Freaks!: Island Post Punk Anthology


  

This is a most enjoyable but ever so slightly flawed box set. A "post punk" compilation should surely include material by Magazine, Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Gang Of Four, Doll By Doll, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Public Image, New Order and early Simple Minds amongst others? (More on that later...). Furthermore, wonderful as though the Roxy Music, Nico, John Cale and Brian Eno tracks are and how they definitely fit the musical tone, they date from several years before punk, let alone post punk. The reggae tracks do not really fit, either, let's be honest. Or the funk ones. For me, "post punk" was largely about moody keyboards, "industrial" somnolent ambience, evocative, dark guitar riffs, reflective, doom-laden lyrics. We don't get much of that here, it has to be said. Here, we get all sorts in the box - reggae, punk, funk, hip hop, rap, dance....

All that said, yes, I know that obviously there are restrictions in that they can only use what was recorded on the Virgin label or its subsidiaries. So this is not a criticism, really, the box set is truly outstanding in both content and sound quality. It throws up lots of interesting material that I may not have even come across, otherwise. I really enjoy listening to it, but when I do, I don't feel I am having a "post punk" session. Anyway, here are my personal highlights (with their genres in some cases) :-

Re-Make Re-Model - Roxy Music (glam)
Baby's On Fire - Brian Eno (glam-ish)
Teenage Depression - Eddie & The Hot Rods (more punk but there you go)
Do Anything You Wanna Do - Eddie & The Hot Rods (ditto)
Typical Girls - The Slits (punky reggae)
Ku Klux Klan - Steel Pulse (reggae)
Hiroshima Mon Amour - Ultravox!
Rock Lobster - B-52s (new wave)
Broken English - Marianne Faithfull (post punk? hmmm)
11 O'Clock Tick Tock - U2
Warrior Charge - Aswad (reggae)
Television, The Drug Of The Nation - The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy (hip hop)
Busting Out - Material & Nona Hendryx (more dance/funk?)
Nasty Girl - Betty Davis (funky but not really post punk)
World Shut Your Mouth - Julian Cope (new romantic)
How Much Are They? - Holger Czukay & Jah Wobble (dance)
Dr. Mabuse (First Life) - Propaganda (dance/synth pop)
I'm A Wonderful Thing, Baby - Kid Creole & The Coconuts (dance/pop)
Wild Thing - Tone Loc (dance/hip hop)
No Sell Out - Malcolm X (hip hop)
Big Powder Dust - Bomb The Bass (rap)

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Gladys Knight & The Pips




"We all have a responsibility, and since I've been so wonderfully blessed, I really want to share and to make life at least a little better" -Gladys Knight

EVERYBODY NEEDS LOVE (1967)


I Heard It Through The Grapevine/I'll Be Standing By/Just Walk In My Shoes/Since I've Lost You/Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone/Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me/He's My Kind Of Fellow/My Bed Of Thorns/Yes I'm Ready/Everybody Needs Love/Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey/You Don't Love Me No More    
              
This was Gladys Knight & The Pips’ first album, from 1967, and it is not a bad first outing at all. It is full of Motown originals, as opposed to the covers of middle of the road “standards” that appeared on many Motown albums of the period.

It kicks off with what actually was the original version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Gladys’s version is upbeat and soulfully delivered, but Marvin Gaye’s version is now so iconic that you can’t help but compare it unfavourably to his one. I'll Be Standing By is a confidently sung, mid-pace soul ballad from the pen of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie SimpsonJust Walk In My Shoes is funky, vibrant shuffling pot-boiler of a track that has become quite an appreciated “rarity”, garnering some popularity in the seventies on the Northern Soul circuit.

Since I've Lost You is a sweet soulful number with a killer hook that was also covered successfully a couple of years later by The Temptations. Another song done by them was the funky, driving down ’n dirty soul of Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone, which features a thumping, urgent drum backing and one of Gladys’s best vocals. She commands this song from the very start. Still a young girl, she had a vocal attack that belied her age. This track cooks.

Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me is her finest moment on the album. It is another supremely confident vocal over a solid backing with an instantly recognisable keyboard part. Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua’s He's My Kind Of Fellow is a melodic, pretty conventional piece of standard soul, while Smokey Robinson’s My Bed Of Thorns is delivered in a very Aretha Franklin style by Gladys.

Yes, I'm Ready is a beautiful, well-sung ballad, but not one that sticks in the memory. Everybody Needs Love is a sumptuous typical mid-sixties Motown slowie, great backing, orchestration and soulful vocals. Mary Wells did this earlier and you can tell how it suited her. Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey is another very laid-back slice of classic soul. The real catchy tunes are in the old “side one” of the album. The latter half of it is more highly competent but unremarkable soul (comparatively). You Don't Love Me No More was also subsequently covered by The Temptations, probably slightly more convincingly. Nice bass line underpinning this version, though.

The sound on this release is a full, bassy stereo mix. Overall, this is a solid sixties Motown album.

FEELIN' BLUESY (1968)


The End Of Our Road/That's The Way Love Is/Don't You Miss Me A Little Bit Baby/The Boy From Crosstown/Ain't You Glad You Chose Love/I Know Better/Don't Let Her Take Your Love From Me/It Should Have Been Me/Don't Turn Me Away/What Good Am I Without You/Your Old Standby/It's Time To Go Now               

Feelin’ Bluesy was an excellent Motown album from Gladys Knight, full of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong material, as opposed to covers of standards. Not all sixties Motown albums cut the entirety of the mustard, but this one did.
                            
The End Of Our Road is a bass-driven, funky slice of Franklin-esque blues with a great, soaring vocal from Gladys and the boys on back up. That's The Way Love Is has a killer, upbeat horn intro that Southside Johnny would have loved, a thumping beat and, of course, a superb vocal. Some wonderful vocal harmonies again. Gladys own this track, though, her vocal riding high over the Stax-y backing. Don't You Miss Me A Little Baby is a bassy, rumbling piece of Motown blues. I just love this album, it is one of the best Gladys did for Motown. There is no filler on the album, in comparison with several other Motown albums of the time, which often suffered by a desire to reach an “adult mainstream” audience. Not this album. It is solid bluesy soul from beginning to end.

My favourite track is the red hot Boy From Crosstown - killer percussion, horns, bass, drums and voice. Wonderful stuff. Motown was not all about its excellent singles. Stuff like this stayed in vaults for years. God knows why. Ain't You Glad You Chose Love has a sumptuous bass line and a real Northern Soul beat. A classic “rarity”. I Know Better has some typically beautiful Motown strings orchestration. To think all these tracks were, in many ways, rejects, is incomprehensible. There are some corkers on here. Don't Let Her Take Your Love From Me has another big, rumbling bass line and, my God, Gladys’s vocal does it. One of the great soul voices of all time. Diana who? Such a shame Gladys was so far down in the Motown pecking order.

It Should've Been Me was, of course, a huge hit for Yvonne Fair in 1976. This was the original that nobody paid much attention to for years. The hit version had that sparse, metronomic backing that isolated the vocal. This one, however, has an absolute belter of a bass line and some great harmonies. Don't Turn Me Away has that guitar sound used a lot on Temptations recordings at the time. A superb piece of soul across the board. The final three tracks pretty much follow the same pattern of high quality. This is simply an outstanding bluesy soul album.

Once again, as on her debut album, the stereo sound is excellent.

SILK 'N' SOUL (1968)


I Wish It Would Rain/The Look Of Love/Goin' Out Of My Head/Yesterday/Groovin'/You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'/Theme From "Valley Of The Dolls"/Baby I Need Your Loving/Together/The Tracks Of My Tears/You're My Everything/Every Little Bit Hurts   

This is an excellent album of covers of other artists' soul/Motown songs from the rapidly developing, but still contemporarily underrated voice of Gladys Knight. Recorded in excellent Motown stereo sound (for 1968), it is an eminently listenable album. Gladys makes every song her own, to an extent. They are not just note-for-note covers, far from it.
                    
The TemptationsI Wish It Would Rain is marvellously soulful, and features a big, rumbling bass underpinning the whole thing. Gladys's Aretha/churchy soulful vocal is sublime. The Look Of Love is sumptuous, of course, and has become one of her best known songs. Going' Out Of My Head is upbeat, horn-driven and slightly funky, while The BeatlesYesterday is given a soul makeover. Groovin' also becomes quite funky, while You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' has a bit of a Latin feel in its intro, and Gladys's vocal is awesome, as it is too on Smokey Robinson's The Tracks Of My TearsThe TemptationsYou're My Everything and The Four TopsBaby I Need Your Loving are both excellent too.

As I said, this is a really enjoyable album, with great sound and Gladys's voice is just superb throughout. She got a bit of a rough deal from Motown. At this time, she was firmly in Diana Ross's shadow. For me, she was by far the better singer.



NITTY GRITTY (1969)


Cloud Nine/Runnin' Out/Didn't You Know (You'd Have To Cry Sometimes)/(I Know) I'm Losing You/The Nitty Gritty/Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone/All I Could Do Was Cry/Keep An Eye/Got Myself A Good Man/It's Summer/The Stranger/I Want Him To Say It Again/Billy, Come On Back as Quick As You Can/Friendship Train    

In 1969, psychedelic, funky, conscious material was where Motown was at. The Temptations led the way, followed by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Even Diana Ross & The Supremes had put out the controversial Love Child single. Here, another of Motown's most competent, and comparatively underrated at the time, vocalists did the same, produced by the master of that genre, Norman Whitfield.
                                            
This is Gladys Knight & The Pips' heaviest, funkiest, most "aware" album. It kicks off with their powerful, funky take on The TemptationsCloud NineRunnin' Out is a big, thumping bassy number, while Gladys's vocal on Didn't You Know (You'd Have To Cry Sometimes) is positively Aretha Franklin-esque. This is just a monster of a soul song, just perfect. Their version of The Temptations'  I Know I'm Losing You has the most pulsating, powerful backing (great stereo sound,  by the way) and, again, Gladys' vocal is peerless. Any of these tracks that have been covered by her, you have to say that she does them superbly. Just listen to her voice (and those horns) on the impossibly funky, cookin' Nitty Gritty. Many people know Gladys for her seventies work on the Buddha label (Midnight Train To GeorgiaThe Way We Were etc), but this is where Gladys really cut her teeth. Some of the stuff she did for Motown was superb, and it never really got the credit it deserved.

Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone is another slice of pure funk. This is, in my opinion, up there with Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You as one of the great sixties female soul albums. All I Could Do Was Cry is not quite as good as the others, but it is certainly more than acceptable. Keep An Eye is a soaring, upbeat punchy, pugnacious number as, too, is Got Myself A Good Man, with Gladys in Aretha mode once more. The TemptationsIt's Summer is covered soulfully.

The Stranger has a real Northern Soul feeling about it, with a pounding beat and killer saxophone in the middle. I Want Him To Say It Again is jam-packed with funky organ breaks and piledriving bass and drums. This really is a vibrant, energetic album, dripping with Motown pumping down'n'dirty funk. Billy, Come On Back As Quick As You Can is a bit of a Cloud Nine re-write, but it is still hot, and the social consciousness of Friendship Train, with its searing guitar intro is both rousing and uplifting. "This train stands for justice..." Gladys hollers - her voice on this is great, she is in total command. Singers like this had such a gift. She was definitely up there with the very best and should duly be acknowledged as such.


IF I WERE YOUR WOMAN (1971)


If I Was Your Woman/Feelin' Alright/One Less Bell To Answer/Let It Be/I Don't Want To Do Wrong/One Step Away/Here I Am Again/How Can You Say That Ain't Love/Is There A Place (In This Heart For Me)/Everybody Is A Star/Signed Gladys/Your Love's Been Good For Me   

Gladys Knight's time at Motown still had a few years left and she was going to carry on putting out solid, quality soulful albums.
          
If I Was Your Woman (this time using "was" in the title instead of the "were" of the album's title) is an excellent, bassy piece of slow-burning soul. Some great stereo sound and percussion ushers in a muscular cover of Traffic's Feelin' Alright. Great piano break near the end too. One Less Bell To Answer is another cover, from The Fifth Dimension, but it is done so soulfully, with Gladys's vocal on top form, that you feel it is her own song. Covers of The BeatlesLet It Be are not always what one needs, but in the hands (and voice) of Gladys you simply can't go wrong. It is superb. I Don't Want To Do Wrong is one of those typical Gladys soulful ballads. The bass is outstanding on it as well. That and the title track were the two big soul singles that made this a popular album.

One Step Away is horn-driven, Gladys soul-by-numbers. She can handle songs like this in her sleep. You can pretty much say the same for the rest of the numbers on the album. They don't really need analysis, other than that the class of Gladys, her Pips and her quality Motown backing band raises standard soul songs to a higher grade than maybe they are. How Can You Say That Ain't Love shows that Gladys can handle faster material as well. It is one of the better of the second side of songs. Check out her voice on Everybody Is A Star  too. It is a nice album, I have to say, and the sound quality is excellent.

NEITHER ONE OF US (1973)


Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)/It's Gotta Be That Way/For Once In My Life/This Child Needs Its Father/Who Is She (And What Is She To You)/And This Is Love/Daddy Could Swear, I Declare/Can't Give It Up No More/Don't It Make You Feel Guilty  

After seven impressive but underrated years with Motown, Gladys Knight & The Pips decamped to Buddah Records. This was their last official studio album for Motown (late in 1973 the label released All I Need Is Time, made up of unreleased material). It is a good album, with excellent sound quality as well. It was a shame Motown never seemed to push the group forward as much as they may have done. All the material they recorded for Motown was of high quality.
                        
Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye) is a classic and needs no introduction, with superb vocals from both Gladys and The Pips. It's Gotta Be That Way is a supreme soul ballad of the style that would be so successful in subsequent years. Lovely bass and orchestration on it. Gladys has always been great at interpreting other Motown artists' songs (and all artists for that matter), and she does it here with a slowed-down, soulful cover of Stevie Wonder's For Once In My LifeThis Child Needs Its Father is a socially aware, Temptations-style slow piece of "message" funk/soul. The vocal is once again top notch.

Bill WithersWho Is She (And What Is She To You) is covered in full, bassy, kick-ass funky fashion. Great stuff. And This Is Love is a heartbreaking, muscular, punchy soul number which again delivers a solid message. Daddy Could Swear, I Declare saw Gladys in full-on funky attack in praise of her pugnacious father. It is three minutes of pounding soul. "Daddy couldn't read, daddy couldn't write, but one thing he could do right was swear... Lord have mercy....". You tell 'em how it was, Gladys. Can't Give It Up No More is another wonderful slice of classic seventies soul. Don't It Make You Feel Guilty ends the album and says goodbye to Motown with another high quality slow tempo soul groove. Things would get better and better for Gladys Knight in the next few years. This album should be viewed as up there with the best of her seventies work.



ALL I NEED IS TIME (1973)


I'll Be Here (When You Get Home)/All I Need Is Time/Heavy Makes You Happy/The Only Time You Love Me Is When You're Losing Me/Here I Am Again/There's A Lesson To Be Learned/Oh! What A Love I Have Found/The Singer/Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)   

After Gladys Knight left Motown in 1973, the label released this album of previously unreleased material.

I'll Be Here (When You Get Home) is a big, brassy ballad typical of Gladys Knight's subsequent Buddah Records work, as indeed is the slow tempo, romantic All I Need Is Time. As always, her voice is superb on these recordings. She is impressive on these soulful ballads, just as she is on the upbeat percussion-driven funk of The Staple SingersHeavy Makes You Happy and Sly & The Family Stone's Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again). She really was a most versatile soul singer. The unfortunate thing about her future Buddah material was the while the big, soul ballads remained, she cut back on the funky stuff, which was a pity as she did a great job on those numbers.

The Only Time You Love Me Is When You're Losing Me is a big production, orchestrated, Philadelphia-sounding ballad. Again, this is a pointer to the type of material that the Buddah years would yield. The same applies to Here I Am Again. The remaining tracks apart from Thank You are similar, grandiose ballads. Personally, I prefer Gladys when she gets funky, so, while this is a good album in many ways, I much prefer her last "proper" Motown album in Neither One Of Us. This is still worth a listen, though, and the sound quality is excellent.



GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: GOLD


This excellent Motown compilation covers all of Gladys’ Motown career and has the usual fantastic sound quality that all these “Gold” releases have.

It stops in 1973, when she switched to Buddah Records, but it is often forgotten just what great material she put out on Motown and she was often unfairly overlooked. Highlights are Just Walk In My Shoes, Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me, Since I’ve Lost You, the original of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Neither One Of Us and The Nitty Gritty. There are also Gladys’s versions of Cloud Nine, I Wish It Would Rain, It Should Have Been Me, The Tracks Of My Tears, (I Know) I’m Losing You and For Once In My Life.

It was quite amazing just how many songs there were that came out of the Motown songwriting factory, many of which didn’t get much attention. Invariably they are all top quality. You could take any of the tracks on here and make a case for them. There really isn’t a duff track on here. You can hear the progression from gospelly beginnings through catchy pop/soul to smooth, polished ballads as the album plays. It is certainly a fine listen.

THE BEST OF GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS (BUDDAH YEARS)


Make Yours A Happy Home/The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me/I Feel A Song In My Heart/Part-Time Love/The Going Ups And The Going Downs/Midnight Train To Georgia/On And On/Where Peaceful Waters Flow/I've Got To Use My Imagination/I Can See Clearly Now/Try To Remember/The Way We Were   

This was the first post-Motown Gladys Knight compilation, containing material from her immediately post-1973 output on Buddha Records. It was the first compilations of hers that I bought. I soon followed it up with a collection of her earlier Motown singles, but this one had very much the sound of 1977 on it. Gladys had considerable chart success at this time and seemed to be a constant fixture in the singles charts.

It is a typical seventies "best of" album in that it contains only eleven tracks, but it was very successful and all the tracks are top class examples of polished, well-produced, catchy soul. It is a very nostalgic album for me and was the first one I played after receiving my first pair of big hi-fi round ear headphones for Christmas 1976, along with Motown Gold and Queen's A Day At The Races, it became my soundtrack for late December/early January 1977. Just looking at the cover takes me right back.
                  
It kicks off with the sumptuous, laid-back brassy disco soul groove of Make Yours A Happy Home. Gladys's voice soars on this one, rising above the smooth, quality easy listening brass backing. The Pips are on top harmony form behind the "we can do it" refrain. The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me is simply a beautiful example of a sophisticated soul ballad. It was a huge hit and has a great chorus and a lovely deep, melodic bass line too. It is a classic example of quality seventies soul. The same can be said for the slightly funkier but still soulful I Feel A Song In My Heart which features another killer chorus.



Part-Time Love is a short but typically seventies Gladys sort of number - slow build up, big belting chorus, you know the sort of thing. The Going Ups And The Going Downs is a beautifully harmonious, slow burning piece of sweet late night soul. Then we get the glory of Midnight Train To Georgia, with its iconic drum intro followed by that brass riff. Gladys's vocal is wonderful and, along with Help Me Make It Through The Night, is probably her most famous song. There is no praise high enough for it, it is simply magnificent. The vocals, the brass, the rumbling bass, everything. Just listen to Gladys's vocals on the fade out for proof.

Gladys's funky cover of Curtis Mayfield's On And On is impressive and shows a different side to her delivery - she can do gritty funk too. It is by far the funkiest cut on the album. Another fine Jim Weatherley song (there are four on the album) is the lovely Where Peaceful Waters Flow. It was always a favourite of mine.

A thumping, Native American type drum and brass introduces Goffin/King's I've Got To Use My Imagination. It is a rhythmic soul stomper. Johnny Nash's pop reggae hit I Can See Clearly Now is given a soul makeover with a reggae lilt to the backing and one of The Pips on lead vocals. The final track is another well-known one - The Way We Were/Try To Remember. Gladys covers the song made famous by Barbra Streisand most impressively, although it was never as much of a favourite of mine as some of the others. You have to love that spoken intro though. It has some live crowd noise on it, but I am not sure if it was a live recording. It may have been of those strange superimposed "live" things that were quite popular in the seventies.

Overall, it is a short collection, but one of top quality.

Blondie






 

"She performs with utter aplomb and involvement throughout: even when she's portraying a character consummately obnoxious and spaced-out, there is a wink of awareness that is comforting and amusing yet never condescending" - Rolling Stone

Blondie (1976)


X Offender/Little Girl Lies/In The Flesh/Look Good In Blue/In The Sun/A Shark In Jets Clothing/Man Overboard/Rip Her To Shreds/Rifle Range/Kung Fu Girls/The Attack Of The Giant Ants      

"Harry is the possessor of a bombshell zombie's voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song" - Rolling Stone

An odd but strangely attractive little album, this, from a band who nobody quite knew what they were, at the time. They weren’t punk, they weren’t rock. They had a few 50s/early 60s style rock n roll stylings. They weren’t “new wave” yet, because it hadn’t been conceived of, similarly “power pop”. Maybe that was why, initially, this album slipped under the radar, only selling retrospectively once they became famous. Indeed, I only bought it in 1978, after first buying the album's follow-up, Plastic Letters. It has a beguiling appeal, however and is worth the occasional listen. It helped to set trends, although is never really acknowledged in those terms, probably because it was initially somewhat overlooked. It was initially released on Private Stock Records but I bet most people bought it when it was re-released on the Chrysalis label. That certainly applied to me.

Dominated by keyboard player Jimmy Destri’s fairground sound Farfisa organ and drummer Clem Burke, funnily enough, blonde bombshell vocalist Debbie Harry was not the most notable thing about the band’s sound. What was clear, was that, embryonically, they had something, music and an image. Harry, for sure, had a sort of Lower East Side tough girl with a romantic side image and a 60s girl group sensibility. It was built on the traditions of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las - ostensibly hard housing project girls but with a sweet, loving vulnerability and a desire to find that perfect dream boy. Many punks in the New York scene at the time didn't go for this at all, preferring their female singers to be like Patti Smith, full of confrontational street grubbiness as if they have just spent the night in a seedy squat. A track like the swooning girl pop of In The Flesh was anathema to many punks. For me, I always found it quite deliciously sexy. Debbie was making it quite clear what her intentions were - she wanted her boy - in the flesh. As a late teenage boy at the time, I loved hearing her sing this sort of thing. So, girls did get as hot for it as we did. It was an expression of female lust that those sixties girl groups would never have dreamt of. It is a beautifully sensual little song.
       
  

Musically, the fifties diner fashion sound was there all the way on the catchy and appealing Little Girl Lies, the afore-mentioned rock 'n' roll ballad of In The Flesh, the "West Side Story"-influenced keyboard-driven rock of A Shark In Jets Clothing and the new wave sound in waiting arrived on the joyous blast of X Offender, the frantic, punky drum-driven In The Sun and the uber-bitchy Rip Her To Shreds. These latter three are the best tracks on the album. Indeed, X Offender is an underrated, little-mentioned Blondie classic. It was on this track that the trademark organ sound was first heard at its best. Just check out those rolling drums and swirling organ breaks. Together with Debbie's soaring, sexy vocal it blew me away back in 1978 upon first hearing it, playing it endlessly. There is a fair case for it being the quintessential Blondie track. In fact you can put Rip Her To Shreds up there with it. Two all-time Blondie classics on one overlooked album. Not bad, huh?

Another little-mentioned but impressive song is Look Good In Blue, with its intoxicating organ sounds and seductive melody, not forgetting the saucily intentional double entendre of "I could give you some head...and shoulders to lie on...". Naughty Debbie. Listening to to this and A Shark In Jets Clothing again after a while has been enjoyable, they are both surprisingly good tracks. I love the letters slightly Parisian feel.

  

Debbie Harry said of the New York scene that it was "tough but it had a lot of affection as well" describing Rip Her To Shreds as "dirty and menacing" but "just something we do when we get catty" as if there was a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek about it. I always got the impression that the whole Blondie image was a bit of a send-up, done with a comic-book sense of fun. The track is, I guess, what would come to be described as "camp".

Anyway, back to the rest of the album - the lively Kung Fu Girls is probably the album’s punkiest number, Man Overboard, with its vaguely white reggae feel and Rifle Range are very much what would come to be known as "new wave", while the quirky Attack Of The Giant Ants showed the band’s liking for 50s horror “B” movies, but, unfortunately, little else. Not the best track they ever did. It does feature some killer drums from Clem Burke, though. Incidentally, the sound quality and production on this album is much better than on the follow-up album. On this track it is particularly good.

There is some really good stuff on here, but, to be honest, it is all over before it has started. Not much for your money, but that was the way it was then, thirty minutes was the norm, and had been for years. I still enjoy it, however, on its occasional re-appearances on my sound system. Back in 1976 upon release fans of supposedly "real" New York punks like Richard Hell and The Ramones despised Blondie and everything this album was all about, which was somewhat unfair and a shame. Never mind, give it eighteen months and new wave would be here and they would briefly rule the world. In many ways, this was an album ahead of its time, quite ground-breaking in its little-noticed way. Nothing much else sounded like this in 1976, you have to say.



The bonus tracks included the expanded release of the album are the dreamy, fifties/early sixties girl group pop-influenced Out In The Streets; the vituperative The Thin Line with its echoes of Rip Her To Shreds but this time with Debbie's contempt aimed at a man and Platinum Blonde with its piano-driven bar-room rock'n'roll feel. As the original album was so short, it really could have accommodated these three with ease.

Plastic Letters (1978)


Fan Mail/Denis/Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)/Youth Nabbed As Sniper/Contact In Red Square/(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear/I'm On E/I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No/Love At The Pier/No Imagination/Kidnapper/Detroit 442/Cautious Lip               

"That was about these paranormal experiences I was having with my girlfriend at the time. We were in telepathic contact with each other when I was on tour. We would discover we’d be having the same dreams and we always seemed to know what the other was doing, which sometimes proved uncomfortable!" - Gary Valentine

In early 1978, when Blondie’s second album was released, fourteen months after their first quirky, comparatively ignored debut, they were still comparatively unknown. Indeed, many, including myself, bought their 1976 debut album AFTER buying Plastic Letters, now that they were familiar with the band. They had been knocking around gigging in the UK in 1977 ( I missed seeing them in November 1977 at Friars, Aylesbury due to having a heavy cold, to my eternal regret. I didn't get to see them live until 1999, unfortunately). For more information on Blondie at Friars, Aylesbury, check out https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.

However, It was the hit single Denis that earned singer Deborah Harry a legion of teenage male fans and girls who admired her chutzpah too. Blonde hairdos emerged all over the place. Regular girls found a way into punk via Blondie too, which previously had been difficult, unless they wanted to go down the Siouxsie Sioux route, which many didn’t. Here, by looking like Debbie Harry, they could get their punk kicks while not going the whole gothic hog.

I remember seeing them perform Denis on Top Of The Pops. Everybody was talking about them/her the next day. That was when Blondie really arrived. February 1978. 

  
                                     
Punkier than the 50/60s-influenced debut, to be honest, Plastic Letters is a bit of a mish-mash of short, frenetic, organ-based guitar pop songs that often finish before they have even got going - classic examples are the otherwise impressive, urgent Fan Mail, the similarly exhilarating Contact In Red Square, the bizarrely-titled Youth Nabbed As Sniper, the intense, mysterious Bermuda Triangle Blues and the short, sharp shock of I'm On E (not written about the drug ecstasy, for it was twenty years before its 1997 heyday). Just when you are getting into these songs, they end. The sound is also quite lo-fi. Enjoyable, but nowhere near as accomplished as the songs that appeared a few months later on Parallel Lines. There again, two minute thrash punky pop songs were the order of the day, so nobody really complained at the time, thinking that indeed Blondie had their finger on the punk pulse. In many ways they had. In early 1978, this album fitted the prerequisites perfectly. The old “side one” contains the shorter, faster songs, while “side two” saw some longer, more introspective material. Listening to it now, I have to say, it all sounds perfect. Better than I remembered it. Kidnapper starts out sounding like Elvis and ends up just like Suzi Quatro, though. It is a slightly odd glam rock throwback that sits a bit strangely on the album.

The two hit singles from the album are top notch, however - the delightful power pop of Denis and the more mysterious (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear (written by bassist Gary Valentine for his girlfriend (who he claimed to be in telepathic contact with) and Detroit 442 is a more complete rocky closer to the album, featuring some great drums. My goodness, though, all these years later and I still love Denis. The track was a cover version of a sixties doo-wop song by Randy & The Rainbows and was originally titled "Denise". Debbie decided to add a somewhat improvised verse in French, for some reason.

  

An underrated, rarely mentioned gem is to be found in Presence’s “B” side, the drug-referencing but also tender ballad Poets Problem - proof that punky ballads could be created. Retrospection has slammed this album as “the difficult second album”, but at the time myself and my peers and many others loved it. We heard tracks like Fan Mail (the first on the album) and were more than satisfied. Songs like the surprisingly good and singalong I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No, the powerful "Beatles-styled lyrics meets hard rock” of No Imagination and the rousing, drum-powered Love At The Pier contain hints as to what the next few months’ songwriting would yield from the band, however. Blondie were now one step from their period of brief greatness. Like their first album, this was an underrated and subtly influential piece of work. I always quite enjoy listening to it again. 



Photo by Norman Seeff

There are some interesting extras on the latest CD/digital release - Once I Had A Love (aka The Disco Song), which is an early prototype of Heart Of Glass. It is an attractive, melodic version with acoustic guitar featured and some pleasing, understated rhythms. As someone who was never a huge fan of the original, I have to admit that I prefer this version. It would not have been the huge hit its eventual incarnation was, however. Cautious Lip is a menacing, Velvet Underground-influenced, brooding number with a breakneck, Patti Smith-style ending. Scenery is a poppy and appealing number with slight Talking Heads vibes that would have been a nice addition to the album, possibly in place of No Imagination or Kidnapper. Then there is the afore-mentioned Poets Problem which was also deserving of an album place. Finally we get a storming live version of Detroit 442, Blondie were never the best of live bands, but they nail this one.

Parallel Lines (1978)


Hanging On The Telephone/One Way Or Another/Picture This/Fade Away And Radiate/Pretty Baby/I Know But I Don't Know/11.59/Will Anything Happen?/Sunday Girl/Heart Of Glass/I'm Gonna Love You Too/Just Go Away  
                                           
"The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough. None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie, and there was so much animosity. They were really, really juvenile in their approach to life—a classic New York underground rock band—and they didn't give a fuck about anything. They just wanted to have fun and didn't want to work too hard getting it" - Mike Chapman

Released in September 1978, only seven months after Plastic Letters, this was the album that everyone remembers Blondie for. It was of those albums that contained multiple hit singles - the power pop of Picture This, the punkier kick-ass rock of Hanging On The Telephone, the disco groove of Heart Of Glass and the melodic radio-friendly singalong pop of Sunday Girl. Added to that, everyone seemed to know One Way Or Another too, or at least they do now. Incidentally, Hanging On The Telephone was a cover of a 1976 song from a short-lived Californian punk band called The Nerves. I have to freely admit that I had gone all these years completely unaware of this original version of the song. Blondie's cover is virtually note for not, even down to the telephone ring at the beginning, although The Nerves' version has an appealing Duane Eddy-style guitar backing and some convincing punky sneering vocals. Actually, you know what - I may just prefer it. It has a rockabilly/punk appeal compared to Blondie's power pop anthem. Blondie had the image, though, and the song always seemed tailor-made for them. 

The other tracks contain some gems too, 11.59 and Pretty Baby are very appealing upbeat power pop numbers, while, conversely, the spooky Fade Away And Radiate had a post-punk mystery about it, full of imagery about cathode rays and sci-fi. This song was one of the album's underrated numbers and it showed that Blondie weren't simply new wave preeners but had a taste for the bleak demi-monde too. Robert Fripp plays guitar on it too, giving it a link to the bleak soundscapes of David Bowie's "Heroes". I would always put it in any "best of Blondie" playlist. 


  

The lively Buddy Holly cover I'm Gonna Love You Too is another “get up, join in” number. Even the lesser-known tracks like the brooding I Know But I Don't KnowWill Anything Happen and the understated but tuneful closer, Just Go Away are impressive. Not really a duff track on the album. They also managed to subvert the mainstream impassively by doing what so many other artists were doing by 1978 and went full on disco with Heart Of Glass. It made them many new fans who were certainly not punks or even new wave fans but people who enjoyed the commercial sounds of this mega-selling single as well as Sunday GirlPicture This and Hanging On The Telephone. Ironically, by doing a disco song to be deliberately uncool, by their own admittance, Blondie had made new wave cool. They were not part of the cultish CBGB sub-culture anymore, they were firmly part of the mainstream.

The whole album is perfectly created and suited the power pop/new wave trend perfectly. Indeed, it is probably the quintessential power pop album. The band never sounded better on this one, either. Clem Burke’s drums, Jimmy Destri’s keyboard, Chris Stein’s guitar. The blend was perfect for what they were looking to achieve at the time. Later output would reveal limitations, but certainly not here. Apparently, producer Mike Chapman said they had less ability as musicians than any band he had ever worked with and he had to work really hard to get Burke, Destri and Stein to sound remotely competent. He obviously managed it. Bass guitarist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante were said by Chapman to be the best of the band’s musicians. The opinions Chapman expressed were possibly a pointer as to why Blondie were generally considered a pretty poor live band. Amazingly, the album was recorded in only six weeks. Also, what is surprising, is that the band all hated each other, apart from lovers Stein and Debbie Harry.


  

Personally, maybe I have just heard it too many times, but I prefer dipping into Plastic Letters or Eat To The Beat these days. That is just a personal listening choice, however. It can't be denied that this was by far Blondie's finest album.




Included as bonus tracks on the expanded release of the album are a frantic, extended bluesy groove of a live cover of T. Rex's Get It On; a grungy, dense live version of I Know But I Don't Know and a suitably energetic live cut of Hanging On The Telephone

Eat To The Beat (1979)


Dreaming/The Hardest Part/Union City Blue/Shayla/Eat To The Beat/Accidents Never Happen/Die Young Say Pretty/Slow Motion/Atomic/Sound A-Sleep/Victor/Living In The Real World            

"The more drugs, the more fights. It was becoming a real mess. ... The music was good but the group was showing signs of wear and tear. The meetings, the drugs, the partying and the arguments had beaten us all up, and it was hard to have a positive attitude when the project was finally finished. ... Was this the record that the public was waiting for, or was it just the waste of seven sick minds?" - Mike Chapman

After the phenomenal success of Parallel Lines that saw Blondie move from being a “cultish” power pop/punky band to being a darling of mainstream radio and seemingly permanent fixture in the charts, they tried, in many ways, to return to a spiky, punky sound for this, their fourth album. 


The pop, hook-laden singalong sounds of that stream of hit singles from the previous album was replaced by a more industrial, almost grungy, “post-punk”-ish tone to the sound on many tracks, as if they were trying to say “hey, we’re punks after all, guys…”. In a lot of ways, I prefer it to Parallel Lines. It is definitely the most punk/new wave of the group's albums. Yes, there are still a couple of disco-rock dabblings, but overall it is a album of harsh riffs and clashing soundscapes.
        
The album kicks off with a true power pop classic, however, DreamingClem Burke’s drums roll into an addictive guitar riff and Debbie Harry’s laconic vocal about “when I saw you in a restaurant…”. It has a killer chorus as well. Blondie at their very best. It was a big hit single, unsurprisingly. Forget Heart Of Glass, this blows it away. The punky The Hardest Part sees the disco-ish rock thing that had begun with Heart Of Glass continued, as indeed it was on the album’s other really big hit single, the irresistibly catchy Atomic, which was packed full of hooks, designed to hook-in, so to speak, the mainstream disco-obsessed audience that had been gained by Heart Of Glass. Union City Blue was a mid-paced piece of new wave rock which was also a hit, but a lesser one. Once again, though, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s instinct for a captivating chorus was clear.

 

Shayla sees Debbie in classic torch-song influenced new wave ballad territory, a bit like Fade Away And Radiate on the previous album. Her voice is beautifully haunting on this. Eat To The Beat is a wired-up, frantic punky drum-driven rocker. Accidents Never Happen has that typically 1979 guitar intro, like something by The Police or Joe Jackson, a great rumbling bass line and one of those effortless Harry vocals and more great Clem Burke drums. Die Young Stay Pretty has vague reggae hints that were so de rigeur at the time and an instantly appealing chorus. There is also a quirky keyboard intro riff.


Slow Motion has an ethereal vocal from Debbie and a 60s-style backing but a little bit of a muffled production. There is a bit of mystery to these songs, though, which was somehow lacking on Parallel Lines. This is where I find myself liking this album more. There is a strange sadness to this track, under the surface. The afore-mentioned Atomic, with its thumping beat, magnificent bass hooks and hypnotic guitar riff is just superb, let’s be honest. It soars. Disco rock at its finest. Sound-A-Sleep is another of those airy, dreamy Fade Away slowies that Debbie did so well. Her voice floats effortlessly over a pounding bass note. Very atmospheric and evocative. Victor, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, a raucous mess, if I’m brutally honest. Bizarre backing vocals and a shrieking nonsense of a vocal from Debbie. The album and its ambience could have done without it.

  

In conclusion, though, this was Blondie's last really good album and, although Parallel Lines was obviously the best one, this definitely had its positive points. I have read some reviews dismissing it out of hand, which I feel is ill-considered. It was not bad at all. Despite that, though, it would never be as good for Blondie as it was in those glory years of 1978-1979. 



The bonus tracks are all live cuts - the appealing white reggae of Die Young Stay Pretty; an impressively urgent cover of The Four TopsSeven Rooms Of Gloom; an ethereal, sensual cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" and an enthusiastic, unexpected cover of Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire.

Blondie Live At The BBC (1979)


Recorded live on New Year's Eve 1979 in Glasgow

A live album catching "power pop" favourites Blondie at the height of their chart success in 1979. Unlike many of the At The BBC releases, this is not a collection of "recorded live in studio sessions" recordings, but a full live gig, from Glasgow's Apollo Theatre. The sound quality is not 100% perfect, but it is perfectly acceptable.

Blondie were never the greatest live band around at the time, a little bit messy at times (maybe it's just me though), but this is an enjoyable New Year's Eve romp. I remember watching it live on the TV that very evening (remember live gigs were extremely rare back then).

Although the set list concentrates a lot on their latest release, Eat To The Beat, (actually every track except for Sound Asleep), all the hits are played (a disappointing, slowed-down, lazy opener in DenisAtomicDreaming, Hanging On The Telephone, Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl) plus some of my favourites in X OffenderPretty BabyDie Young Stay Pretty and a surprisingly good cover of The Four TopsSeven Rooms Of Gloom. Some searing lead guitar on The Hardest Part that also sees Debbie Harry at her sneering punky vocal best. Accidents Never Happen is also well delivered too, another piece of outstanding guitar/organ interplay. The cacophonous, discordant Victor is actually more tolerable on here than on the original Eat To The Beat album.

There is a strange bit at the end of Atomic when the band launch straight into Eat To The Beat (which has already been played) and it ends abruptly and they go straight into Picture This which is a bit confusing. Should Atomic have come before Eat To The Beat? But the earlier Eat To The Beat starts differently, so who knows!

Good memories. Every now and again I put it on and it's New Years' Eve 1979 again.


The Ghosts Of Download/Blondie Redux (2014)


Sugar On The Side/Rave/A Rose By Any Name/Winter/I Want To Drag You Around/I Screwed Up/Relax/Take Me In The Night/Make A Way/Mile High/Euphoria/Take It Back/Backroom/Put Some Color On You/Can't Stop Wanting/Prism               

This is a double album release from Blondie, a group synonymous with the new wave era of 1977-82 who are no still plugging away, trying to adapt their music to fit in with contemporary trends and styles. Fair play to them for doing that and trying to stay relevant, although the music they are currently putting out does not appeal to me in the way their output did back in the late seventies/early eighties.

There are sixteen new tracks on the Ghosts Of Download new material section of the album It is quite difficult to analyse each and every one of them on an individual basis, as I usually do with albums, because, for me, an awful lot of them are very similar. A pounding, digital, contemporary backbeat underpins all of them and electronic keyboards are far more prominent than guitars. I feel when you have a great rock drummer like Clem Burke then you should use him a lot more than this music allows. Listening to the whole album, a swathe of electronic keyboards and programmed drums sweeps all over you. A few selected tracks is quite enjoyable, but all sixteen of them gets a bit samey. Maybe I am just showing my age. A clubber I never was. That said, several listens in and I am warming to it, which is always a good sign. Beneath the booming backing there are some subtleties. As with all contemporary recordings, you need to turn the volume down a bit to fully appreciate it, and I am someone who likes their music loud. I have two hi-fi systems. One is far more bassy than the other. This album sounds better on the less bassy system. It is normally the opposite. Basically, this is an electro-pop album, certainly not a new wave one, but this is what Blondie do now and I can accept that.

 
                               
Sugar On The Side has a Spanish spoken intro and some vaguely Santana-esque rhythms before the track settles into an appealing, mid-pace disco-ish groove with a strong vocal from Debbie Harry . It has some Spanish hip/hop style interjections that add atmosphere to it. Rave has a searing guitar intro and another confident vocal, with a slightly Heart Of Glass beat before the thumping dance beat kicks in. The stabbing guitar bits retain a bit of a new wave vibe. A Rose By Any Name has a catchy chorus refrain although again the beat is unadventurous. It is still quite a good track.

Winter is a favourite of mine, with a late seventies riff powering it on and a good vocal. It sounds a bit Stonesy in places. Not in its sound but its construction and basic melody. You could imagine them doing their own version of it. Well, I can anyway. Particularly the “never think twice” bit. It has a Robert Fripp on “Heroes”-style guitar solo too. Good track. I Want To Drag You Around has a quirky little rhythm to it, swirling keyboards and a plaintive, mysterious vocal. I Screwed Up has a bit of a Cajun-style accordion sound and a Latin-ish groove to it. Burke’s drums sound more “proper” on this one. It features more Hispanic hip/hop vocal enhancements, which are again positive ones.

The cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax is pretty pointless, to be honest. For the first time on the album, the beat disappears and the whole tempo is slowed down. Really, this is the track that needed that “da-da-da” riff and sladegehammer drums. No, half of it is done at walking pace with ghostly, ethereal vocals. It doesn’t work for me. That trademark riff comes in half way through, but really slowed down. No. Sorry. The last couple of minutes save it just a bit. Only just, though.

Take Me In The Night has a Kraftwerk-style vocal and echoes of some of The Phenomenal Handclap Band’s output. It is actually quite an addictive track. The tuneful, lively Make A Way is as close to early eighties Blondie as the album gets. Mile High just washes over you in its electronic way, although it has some subtle guitar parts in places. Euphoria has a slight reggae vibe to it and is ok, but I’m starting to tire by now. Eleven tracks - fine. Sixteen - too many.

As for the remaining tracks  - Take It Back is lively, beaty and appealing with an impressive vocal; Backroom is a lyrically-odd number about “drinking all night in the backroom”; Put Some Color On You may have sounded better at the beginning of the album; the same applies to Can't Stop Wanting, athough Prism closes things on a bit of a Fade Away And Radiate slow vibe.

Now for the re-recordings of the greatest hits…

BLONDIE REDUX

Heart Of Glass/Dreaming/The Tide Is High/Maria/Sunday Girl/Hanging On The Telephone/Rapture/One Way Or Another/Call Me/Atomic/
Rip Her To Shreds                                        
While these classic hits have all been re-recorded, it is not an exercise in re-interpreting them. To the last, they are played straight, with just the occasional added sound effect here and there, such as on Heart Of Glass. Debbie Harry's voice sounds older (obviously) and carries less of the languid but vibrant tones of when she was much younger. Clem Burke's drumming, though, is as good as it ever was. The overall sound is bassier and warmer which is not surprising considering the advances in recording techniques, but, other than that, it is nothing more than an interesting listen every now and again. Debbie's new rap on Rapture sounds, unsurprisingly, less vital and new than it did. Strange to think that this, upon release, was one of the first times anyone had heard rap. Apparently, Maria is the original 1999 recording. No wonder it didn't sound any different!




© Edo Bertoglio