Rē Records 1984. Rē 1984
My mid teens were dominated by a scarcity of music. I couldn’t afford to buy much and hadn’t discovered Peel, so my subscription to Birmingham Record Library was pretty important. The trouble was they had a buying policy dominated by snobbery. There were huge quantities of dry classical music which didn’t appeal, some jazz which I mostly didn’t understand, vast quantities of what was called “Easy Listening” back then – the likes of Bert Kampfaert. They thought that the people who liked pop music would damage the records, so there was precious little of that. The diminutive Rock section though occasionally had some gems. I hadn’t heard of most of it, so I used to borrow records based mainly on whether I thought the cover looked interesting. It led to some pretty awful music, but also some discoveries which have stayed with me since. One day I borrowed a Soft Machine retrospective, Triple Echo and was completely mesmerised by everything on which Robert Wyatt appeared, an obsession which has never left me. There’s been none of it here so far because most of what he recorded is still available, but this is an exception.
Robert Wyatt has always been profoundly political so it was no surprise to see him on this benefit EP for the Miners’ Strike. It’s short, but is an absolute gem. The project was put together by Chris Cutler who wheeled in a bunch of mates, including Wyatt to perform the two jazz based tracks on side 1. They’re beautiful songs sung wonderfully as alway by Wyatt. Side 2 includes two spoken word pieces by poet Adrian Mitchell. I don’t normally go for that sort of thing, but these two work well. The first is a bit of a rant about how horrible school is, performed as a kind of spoken blues. The second is a post apocalyptic tale. Sandwiched between them is a remix of an old track from Henry Cow – a band Wyatt has worked with and who were consistently interesting.
Blast First! 1989. BFDJ 1 – 10
Ripping this boxed set of 10 7″ singles was a job for a rainy day, and since it rained yesterday, it got done at last. It’s a compilation from the heyday of Paul Smith’s consistently excellent Blast First! label, containing mostly exclusive tracks from bands which are too important to ignore. Detailed info is hard to come by, but there’s only one track here (by Sun Ra) which I know is definately available elsewhere. To add to the confusion, this also came out on CD, cassette and LP as Nothing Short Of Total War with a different tracklisting on each format.
Sonic Youth are at their chaotic best, mixing the fairly conventional rock sound they perfected on Daydream Nation with the more experimental material they were better known for back then. They also appear as their bizarre Ciccone Youth alter ego. For me though, Steve Albini’s contributions; 2 tracks as Big Black and another as, well, I can’t bring myself to type it, are the highlight here. There’s an electrifying version of Kerosene, a truly depressing track about small town nihilism and a surprisingly laid back take on He’s A Whore. Dutch Courage by the unmentionable band is a shockingly badly recorded live version, but oddly, all the better for it. Big Stick contribute a version of their classic Drag Racing, which frankly is the only thing they did really worth hearing. UT, the all women New York noise monsters are here with a re-recording of Evangelist, the stand-out from their In Gut’s House album which I’ll post another time. Dinosaur Jr. are reliable as always, and there’s a suitably unhinged live version of a track from Locust Abortion Technician by the Butthole Surfers, slightly ruined by being way too long to fit on a 7″.
Blast First! was known as a noise label, and so this boxed set is predictably noisy. There was more to Paul Smith than that though, and like Alan McGee over at Creation, he used the label as a platform for his own musical interests. That side of him appears on disc 9, which has a rare 60s recording from Sun Ra paired with a Glenn Branca piece from his orchestra of electric guitars project.
As you might imagine, the box is a bit inconsistent in places, but overall the quality of the music is remarkably high. The essential tracks more than make up for the filler; this was a compilation the label made a real effort with, and it shows.
Urban 1988. URBX24
The James Taylor Quartet are a bit of a one trick pony, but what a trick it is – funked up Hammond driven jazz. This single is their finest and turns the theme from Starsky & Hutch into something you wouldn’t think was possible, with the help of a fair chunk of James Brown’s brass section.
They’re fantastic live as you might imagine from listening to this, but it does start to get rather samey after a while. I’ve seen them play twice, once in around 1987 just after their first single Blow Up had come out (at Sinatras in Birmingham if anyone remembers it?) and again last year. A 24 year gap, but things had remained pretty static – superb funkiness for a while followed by me wishing they could diversify a bit. In fact it was a carbon copy of a festival performance by Booker T Jones I saw last year, that other Hammond maestro who suffers from exactly the same problem. For both, the solution is the same: buy singles.
Play this loud and dance around the room. It’s compulsory.
Bingo Records 1999. BIN004
This is one of a pair of releases in which guitar improv legend, the late Derek Bailey improvises over material sent to him by a range of artists. The other one, Guitar, Drum ‘n’ Bass I’ll post another time. It also works as a reverse of Thurston Moore’s Root project, where it was Moore who sent the music out.
I generally don’t find Bailey’s work that accessible, but in this context it’s much easier to deal with. Oddly, I once saw him play live and it made much more sense – maybe it needs more concentration than I can muster at home.
It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t play on two of the tracks. John Oswald’s contribution was, as you’d expect, a cut-up of many older Bailey performances, which Bailey felt was complete when it arrived, and the hilarious last track where he talks (but doesn’t play) about his obsession with the name George.
Most of the other contributors, including producer Sasha Frere-Jones are luminaries of the 90s alt-rock scene, particularly people involved with Tortoise, although John French used to play with Captain Beefheart. Even when the backing track is rather uninspiring, Bailey rescues the project – he seems to be able to play along to more-or-less anything.
Balgier 1984. SWAN1
Exit International 1984. EXT312
Back when I was 18 I thought Swans Way were the height of sophistication, and I had a point. Yes it’s very 80s, what with the overblown vocals and arrangements, but the cool jazzy vibe still works really well and combines better than you’d think with the poppy aspects of their sound. Their sophistication was something that many bands of the time aspired to, but few delivered.
Soul Train is their classic single; a really great song which suits their style very well. I’ve included the 12″ single which is a much longer version – it merits the extended treatment but it suffers more from 80s arrangements than the album version does.
The album is much more consistent than you’d expect from a band who really didn’t stick around for long. A daft number of album tracks were released as singles (5 I think), which made no sense but does reflect the quality of the individual tracks.
The live 12″ B sides are a mixed bag. I love the idea of them playing Gershwin’s Summertime at Birmingham’s beautiful Botanical Gardens, but the reality falls rather short. Gloomy Sunday is much more successful.
Postscript: It seems Andy was actually at the Botanical Gardens gig; while I was dreaming of sophistication he was living it…. Amazingly he still has a couple of photos, which I’ve posted below. It all looks very civilised. Thanks Andy.
Pye Records Command, 1960. PCLS 808
This has to be my favourite ever charity shop purchase. I used to hope for some rare gem which might complement music I already have, but the real joy of charity shops is the completely insane music they’re often full of, and which, unless you’re in Oxfam, are rarely more than a quid.
In one of my rants on this blog I moan about MP3s and the curse of music for people who don’t like music. This is also music for people who don’t like music, but from a different and less cynical era. The sleeve notes give the game away. There’s nothing there at all about the music or the musicians, just a marketing blurb about how great it sounds and absurd technical data no-one could ever possibly want to know or even understand. We’re even told the manufacturer and model number of the lathe used to cut the master disc! This record was made in the early days of hi-fi, when an expensive stereo was essential for the upwardly mobile business executive to display alongside his G-Plan furniture, swirly orange carpets, nylon shirts and trophy wife. The problem for said executive was that he needed something to play on his absurdly expensive gear, but knew as much about music as the average X-Factor viewer does today. That lead very quickly to a lucrative market in music aimed at the clueless middle classes, of which this is a very good example.
It needed to have several features to work in this market. The cover was really important; the front had to look good with contemporary interior decor, and the sleevenotes had to flatter the buyer’s knowledge of hi-fi. It also had to sound good – and often they really did. This album is one of the best sounding LPs I’ve ever heard which is amazing when you consider that it’s over 50 years old and isn’t in pristine condition. It had to have as many wacky stereo effects as possible – stereo was very new back then, and it was necessary to be able to show off to the neighbours when you’d spent the money on something so exotic. Finally it had to sound sophisticated. This meant jazz, or at least a dumbed down kitsch version of it with instrumental pyrotechnics, but remaining at all times conservative and undemanding.
So why might you want to listen to this music, cynically produced and marketed for a particularly nauseating section of the population? Well partly because it is an amazing period piece – it takes you right back to 1960 more powerfully than anything else I can think of. What it lacked in authenticity at the time it now has in spades as a cultural artefact from 1960. But it’s also worth listening to because despite all the hideous marketing that went on to shift this record, the actual business of making the music was left to, well, musicians. So underneath all the kitsch, a lot of this stuff is actually pretty inventive and very groovy. This is what sets it apart from X Factor – on that show and many like it, the marketing guys control the music, but here, while the musicians have to work within parameters set by the marketing guys, they were left to their own devices, so if you like music, there’s something for you here.
STIM Records 1991. STIM002
Very few people cover Fall tracks, and with good reason; getting egg on your face is almost inevitable. However, doing something completely off the wall can work, and this is an example – Terry Edwards does jazz/ska versions of some of their early classics which work surprisingly well. They’re funny, funky and very unexpected. Despite deservedly positive reviews at the time, and not just in the music press, this didn’t sell at all.
Bingo Masters Breakout
The Dice Man
More strange Fall covers to follow….
Science 1996. QEDCD1
Photek had been producing great drum n bass for a while when this, his major label debut was released. I bought it on the back of a rave review in Wire magazine; in fact I seem to remember it figuring highly in their end of year round-up.
It has the rhythmic complexities you’d expect, but it has a fantastic sinister jazzy feel which makes it sound as good now as it did back in ’96.
Photek is still active and has a new album out on his own Photek Productions imprint, available from his web site, together with a few free downloads and some delicious heavyweight vinyl.
Virgin Ambient 1996. AMBT12
I’ve loved compilations since the dim and distant days when I would spend hours making compilation cassettes for friends, probably aimed more at showing them how great my taste in music was than anything else – maybe that’s also why I do this blog. Anyway, it was never enough to put great music on a compilation. You had to think about a theme and how each track related to the next one so that it hung together as a coherent whole. This album is part of a short but truly excellent series put out by Virgin in the 1990s, some of which are the best compilations I’ve ever heard, and of that series, this is one of the best.
To me the album explores what electric era Miles Davies led to, both in terms of what most jazz fans would recognise as jazz, but also from other genres which show an obvious debt to Miles, and music which predated his electrification. You don’t need to look at the tracklisting to guess that there are people like Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock and Alice Coltrane featured, but less obviously, and perhaps more interesting to folk likely to stumble on this blog are bands like Ui (quite like Tortoise) and post-punk/industrial artists like 23 Skidoo, Slab and The Pop Group. Finally, there are cutting edge (in 1996) artists like Bedouin Ascent and Divine Styler. As you’d expect there’s less familar material too – best of them for me the Tony Williams Lifetime and Roland Kirk – both jumping off points for more musical explorations.
All of this means that this is one of the best structured compilations I’ve ever heard, and probably my most played too. It’s not always an easy listen, but it rewards the effort. It’s a double, but as usual I’ve ripped it as one very long disc because it’s a better listen without the break in the middle. I’ll post more of the Virgin Ambient albums in the future.