Friday, 7 June 2019

Michael Chapman

A few albums here from a folk rock veteran....

Fully Qualified Survivor (1970)

I recently heard Michael Chapman's 2017 album of bluesy Americana, 50. This was the first of his many albums I had ever listened to. Indeed, until that point, I had, shamefully, never heard of him. Inspired by that album, I decided to check out his earlier work and have found that this is a most interesting album - a sort of Roy Harper meets early David Bowie. It is folky but with definite rock leanings, particularly on the tracks that feature the relatively undiscovered guitar talents of Mick Ronson, before he took up with David Bowie full time.
The first track, Aviator, begins with a very Bowie-esque strummed acoustic guitar and some seriously delicious bass lines (played by Steeleye Span's Rick Kemp). It is eight minutes long and has a real air of mystery about it. There are similarities to the sort of lengthy folk-rock material that Al Stewart was putting out at the same time, both musically and lyrically. Chapman's voice has definite echoes of Bowie from the same period, but it has a sort of whiny grittiness that made it somewhat unique. There are hints of Dylan from John Wesley Harding as well, in places. The violin floats around in Van MorrisonAstral Weeks fashion, giving the track a haunting quality. Paul Buckmaster's strings are recognisable, particularly from the Elton John album from the same year. This is very much the sort of earnest, melodic and lyrically profound, meaningful music that was so de rigeur in 1970.

Another thing typical of the time was the guitar-picking instrumental, which we get here with the brief, pleasant tones of Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime. There is actually nothing electric about it, by the way, it is all acoustic. Stranger In The Room introduces electric guitar and some Beatles-esque drums, a Bowie vocal and another throbbing bass line. It is an impressive track, and somewhat surprising that this album, or Chapman's career, never really took off. This is up there with The Width Of A Circle. Ronson provides some searing guitar lines throughout. Much as I love Circle, however, this is just as good. It really is a bit of a revelation, actually.

Postcards Of Scarborough has a lengthy acoustic intro before some solid drums kick in and Chapman's voice and delivery arrives in a downbeat Leonard Cohen way. 
Fishbeard Sunset is forty seconds of pretty pointless guitar picking before we are launched straight into the muscular thump of the rock-ish Soulful Lady. It features more excellent guitar and impressive drums. Despite the folky, wordy dreaminess of some of the album, Chapman also likes a bit of solid rock power. There is an appealing blues rock feel to this. Rabbit Hills reminds me of some of Mott The Hoople's early Ian Hunter slow rock ballads. The bleak, evocative March Rain finds Chapman sounding slightly different vocally - gruffer but a tiny bit slurred, as if he's just got up. He actually changes his vocal style several times, slightly, throughout the album. 

Kodak Ghosts is a mysterious Cohen-esque number with some sumptuous, subtle electric guitar from Ronson, a change from his trademark full-on riffery. Andru's Easy Rider  is a slide guitar-driven blues instrumental that is another slight change in style, showing that there really is all sorts of stuff on this album. Another change arrives with the funky bass and bongo intro to the intoxicating Trinkets & Rings. Chapman's voice has a mournful, haunting Jim Morrison feel to it, albeit with a throatiness. This is a quality, adventurous number. Quite why this album wasn't huge, I don't know.

It is said that Mick Ronson got the Bowie gig on the back of his work on this album. Maybe that is somewhat apocryphal as Bowie knew his work anyway. Either way he was off to slam out glam rock riffs. Great as they were, perhaps his better work was to be found here. This certainly was a really good album and I highly recommend it.

Coming up are three mid-seventies releases from Chapman, whose reviews I have sort of lumped together in comparatively abridged style, something I sometimes do when dealing with groups of similar-sounding albums from the same period.

Deal Gone Down (1974)

This album featured Rick Kemp and Nigel Pegrum from Steeleye Span on bass and drums respectively, as well as Maddy Prior from the same group on backing vocals. It is a fine mix of gentle acoustic, atmospheric contemporary folk and folk rock with some blues and great riffy electric guitar added in for good measure. 

There is a tenderness to be found in places as Michael waxes lyrical about seeing his lady's naked body in the morning sunlight on the folky and atmospheric Stranger Passing By and some observationally amusing moments popping up occasionally as well, such as on the jaunty fun of Used To Be. There is an impressive, full sound to the album too, as you would expect from such musicians. I have always liked Pegrum as a drummer. Chapman's guitar virtuosity comes into its own on here too, he really was/is most underrated. 

Deal Goes Down showcases Chapman's intrinsic bluesiness, as indeed does the excellent and robust Party Pieces, while Rock 'n' Roll Jigley and Theme From The Movie Of The Same Name are both enjoyable and different instrumentals, the first one rocking, the second more acoustically evocative.

The solid, riff-driven rock of the pair of The Banjo Song and the Pink Floyd-esque Goodbye Sunny Sky are probably my outright favourites while Another Season Song is sleepily but grittily soulful. Journeyman is an atmospheric slow paced closer with a deep warm sound to it and an autobiographical theme to the lyrics. For me, there are occasional hints of nineties group The Verve and somebody else from that period - possibly Ocean Colour Scene (on Party Pieces) - cropping up throughout the album, leading me to surmise that it was definitely quite influential. On a more general note, I came across a review on the All Music site by one Brian Booth that had this to say about Chapman as an artist :-

"....he was an art and photography lecturer in Bolton before deciding to give up the day job. This happened after a summer vacation spent in Cornwall where he made equally good money as a working musician. The word "troubadour" perfectly describes Michael’s lifestyle in the four decades since then - a world-class guitarist who has spent big chunks of his life out on the road drawing on ordinary life in order to create extraordinary music....."

I have reproduced that paragraph because I couldn't have expressed it any better. Thanks Brian.

What an uninspiring cover the album had, though. Stick a bit of proggy-style artwork or something bucolic on it and it may have caught the public's imagination more.

Savage Amusement (1976)

This album was considerably more robust and rockier, with solid bass and drum backing and a more upbeat, less folky feel. Chapman's voice is stronger and grittier, less folky. On this and the next one you can really hear hints of the sort of sound that Paul Weller would use on his Wild Wood album and subsequently. Overall, though, this is the most punchy and rock of the three albums. I enjoyed the enthusiastic female backing vocalists as well. 

Shuffleboat River Farewell is a catchy, upbeat and rocky opener, Secret Of The Locks is folkily appealing, Lovin' Dove quirky and enjoyable while It Didn't Work Out is a superb slice of energetic rock and Devastation Hotel is a lyrically strong number with a distinctive guitar riff that Paul Weller used in his early solo work but for the life of me I can't put my finger on which song it was..

Crocky Hill Disaster is a muscular serving of grinding, mid-pace Chapman rock and Stranger is an extended, seven minute-plus dramatic and brooding number. It has atmosphere by the bucketload. Hobo's Lament has a spoken intro from (seemingly) an old bluesman and it goes on to be suitable Delta-inspired. How Can A Poor Man is a convincing cover of another blues standard (also covered by Bruce Springsteen and UB40 in later years).

In many ways, Chapman was considerably ahead of his time, for much folk-influenced material from the 1990s and beyond into the next millennium owes quite a lot to this. It doesn't stand up for comparison with too much music from its time, not being full on folk or out-and-out rock. I really like it, though, there is a strong but sensitive and melodic feel to the material that appeals to me now, but would not have done in 1976. I was not aware of Chapman's work then, not discovering him, amazingly, until two years ago.

The Man Who Hated Mornings (1977)

Totally at odds to and completely incongruous with the bristling punk-new wave spirit of 1977 was this also solid, comparatively rocking, Americana-influenced offering which is a thoroughly enjoyable listen from beginning to end (indeed all of these three albums are). 

Michael Chapman is really hard to categorise - he is folk but not always folk, he can rock but he is not really a proper rocker. The result is reviews like these where I struggle to do more than sum up the ambience of the albums as opposed to trying to compare each track with work of other artists. 

Basically, the first of the three is folkier than the rockier next two. 

There are hints of Jethro Tulls' late seventies work in this, for me anyway. That had a similar feel to it. There are bits of early Dire Straits guitar in there too, particularly on the excellent Dreams Are Dangerous Things they were quite probably influenced by this. 

Northern Lights is a really good narrative-style folk rock extended opener and Bob Dylan's Ballad In Plain D doesn't come across half as sour as Dylan's vituperative original. Dogs Got More Sense is more of a typical Chapman rocking blues, such we find scattered around many of his albums' tracklists. I'm Sober Now is a perfect example of acoustic guitar merging with a solid drum sound as too is the attractive and moving The Man Who Hated Mornings. There is a pleasant instrumental to be found in this vein as well in Steel BonnetsThe pedal steel guitar country-esque groove of Falling Apart is most pleasant.

Amusingly, too, the already-balding Chapman tells girls how he wants them wear their hair (most definitely not in a bob) on the bubbly Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls?. Not his wisest move, I should imagine.

As I have said several times (I think) in my reviews of Chapman's work, I am amazed that it took me so long finding it and how much I appreciate it, having done so. The strong guitars, the robust bass, the punchy drums and the gritty, gruff vocals all add up to a fine mix. Add to that sometimes wry, sometimes sensitive lyrics and an appealing Americana vibe and you have something worthy of considerable attention. I guess the problem for Chapman was that his persona-appearance was just sort of non-descript - bearded, folky looking guy in everyday garb walking his dog. The sort of bloke you would see in a country pub. He was never going to catch huge swathes of people's attention, was he? He duly didn't, which was a shame, but I reluctantly understand why.

Also an admirer of Chapman is fellow reviewer-blogger Mark Barry. Check out his excellent review of these three albums here :-

50 (2017)

I have to shamefully admit that, until I heard Memphis In Winter on a compilation from "Mojo" magazine, I had never heard of Michael Chapman. He has been putting out music for fifty years and this album is released on that landmark, hence the title. Chapman is a UK singer-songwriter-guitarist who worked with a pre-Bowie Mick Ronson on one of his early albums. He has a gruff folky voice and, reading about him, he has garnered a fair amount of respect over the years. How he slipped under my radar for all these years is a mystery.

So there we go, I am reviewing this album "cold", so to speak. Apparently, it is described by Chapman himself as his "American album". So, maybe it is slightly different to his many other works. Some of the songs are re-recordings of earlier songs, though.

Anyway, it is certainly a very "Americana" sounding piece of work. When I heard
Memphis In Winter I presumed Chapman to be an American. I am familiar with some of the work of US guitarist Steve Gunn, and he plays guitar on this album, so the ambience therefore is no surprise. Chapman was 75 when he recorded this, and, while his voice sounds suitably aged it also has that experience to its tone and a fetching world-weariness.
A Spanish Incident (Ramón And Durango) is a beguiling Dylan meets Tom Waits sort of growler, with some catchy piano parts and a Leonard Cohen-esque vocal from Chapman. It has some country style banjo-mandolin? and a rich powerful drum sound. Sometimes You Just Drive is a haunting, country blues-ish number with a classic Americana gruff vocal. It is marvellously evocative in a slow, sleepy way. The Mallard has huge echoes of Chris Rea in its bluesy/folky vocal delivery and indeed in the tune's slow burning melody and bucolic lyrics. It has a killer bass line and subtle guitar near the end. The song that attracted me to Chapman, Memphis In Winter, is a wonderfully gritty, mysterious bassy grinder. Chapman's voice is again Cohen-influenced. It is packed full of atmosphere and cynical, observational lyrics. Great stuff. The guitar near the end (presumably from Steve Gunn) is superb. 

The Prospector is a story song about a gold prospector, featuring some excellent, industrial guitar. Falling From Grace has an acoustic intro similar to some of Bruce Springsteen's acoustic work. Indeed, the whole song sounds a bit Springsteen-esque. Money Trouble is a Band-influenced slice of country rock with some infectious guitar-picking backing. The main riff reminds me of something but I can't put my finger on what, which is infuriating. Something off Led Zeppelin III I think. Friends - that's the one. Funny how several songs over the years have hints of that riff in them, notably CSNY's Carry On

That Time Of Night is movingly, sleepily beautiful. It has the feel of a Keith Richards solo number. There is a lovely gentle bass on it. Rosh Pina is the album's only instrumental - a laid-back acoustic and bass piece of aural relaxation. It is augmented perfectly by Steve Gunn's electric guitar half way through. Navigation is a dreamy,  walking pace acoustic guitar  and prog rock-sounding organ number to close this impressive album. Now I have to check out more of Chapman's work. I've only got fifty years to catch up on.

Related posts :-
David Bowie
Steve Gunn
Jake Xerxes Fussell

No comments:

Post a Comment