Monday, 5 October 2015

A Journey Through the 80s: Asia-Asia (1982)

Born in 1964, Gentle Reader, I started to get seriously into music in late 1977. I am, therefore, in a very key way a Child of Punk. By this I don't mean that Punk was all that I listened to or even that Punk was my first Musical Love. In fact, I found quite a lot of punk hard to digest. Whisper it quietly but to this day I still don't own a copy of "Never Mind The Bollocks", I prefer "London Calling" to "The Clash" and the less said about the bands that trailed in at the arse end of punk (Angelic Upstarts, UK Subs, The Anti-Nowhere League etc.) the better (And don't even get me started on the wretched Oi Movement- the Exploited, Cockney Rejects, Peter and the Test Tube Babies and so on, forever).

No, I was a Child of Punk in that I swallowed Hook, Line and Sinker, the Punk Year Zero Theory. This stated that PROPER MUSIC started in 1976 when Punk came along. anything made before that was the work of ROCK DINOSAURS and HIPPIES or both and therefore had to be consigned to the Dustbin of History.

Now of course, as with any dogmatically held theory, it was, first and foremost, BOLLOCKS and didn't stand up to any thorough scrutiny, The question "What about the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks?" would be dismissed with a wave of the hand and the flimsy aside that such bands were listened to by OLD PEOPLE (i.e. Anyone 10 years older than you). The hand grenade marked "David Bowie" would be ignored amidst muttering that "The Laughing Gnome" was shit! However, just because you were on the flimsiest of thin ice didn't mean that you still couldn't hold to the belief religiously and shout it to the rooftops. With the exception of a couple of Greatest Hits, I didn't buy my first pre 1976 record until the late 90s!!

Where Year Zero theorists did feel on safe ground was in decrying the genre known as "Progressive Rock" or "Prog Rock" as it is imaginatively abbreviated to. And this was because Prog Rock was everything that Punk set out to abolish. The list of perceived Musical CRIMES was endless
  • It was the plaything of MUSOS
  • Many of the songs went on for well in excess of 10 minutes (or 10 years if it wasn't your bag)
  • CONCEPT albums abounded
  • It was the work of HIPPIES (who Punks hated with a passion)
  • It was made under the influence of the wrong sort of drugs
  • Public Schoolboys were rumoured to be involved
  • The lyrics were at best impenetrable and at worst vastly pretentious (Exhibit A: March of the Giant Hogweed by Genesis, in which a giant plant marches across Russia, well obviously!)
  • Everyone involved, both musician and purchaser read TOLKIEN (This was in the pre Peter Jackson days)
Just to colour the picture in further, these were the days of the Musical Tribes: Punks, Mods, New Romantics, New Wavers, Rockabillys (Honest, more later), Heavy Metallers, etc. Most though would adhere to the Year Zero Orthodoxy. True, Heavy Metallers got away with Black Sabbath (There was something "Punk" about Ozzy's bat head biting antics) but if they tried to bring Led Zeppelin into the argument, they would get short shrift. 

However, despite the Punkish Spanish Inquisition, The Prog Rock Heretics stood firm, particularly out in the sticks in Folkestone where I lived. Most of them were a couple of years older than me and so had reasonably well established musical tastes and certainly weren't going to have them influenced by Malcolm McLaren or some spotty herbert gobbing in the gutters with a rubbish mohican. I recall Sixth Formers, with their hair just slightly longer than school rules would allow (Oooh the dare of it all), prowling the school corridors with carrier bags containing Barclay James Harvest albums, the result of a lunchtime foray to the local record emporium. I also remember one of them having some form of nervous collapse when Genesis released "Turn It On Again" which to all intents and purposes (despite the lack of a recognisable chorus) appeared to be a POP SINGLE (The Horror, the Horror). I had lost contact with him by the time that Genesis released "Invisible Touch", which was probably for the best and he would have spontaneously imploded upon hearing it! The fact that their music was both unfashionable and unpopular was more of a badge of honour than anything. For being popular inevitably meant SELLING OUT, which was a thought that was beyond the pale.

And then in the early summer of 1982, something odd happened. I was listening as was my wont to the American Chart Show on Radio 1 when they mentioned that there was new Number 1 album on the Billboard Hot 200 and they then proceeded to play the lead single off it and it was this

"Heat of the Moment" by Asia" off the self titled debut album. No alarm bells rang particularly. The American Charts in those days were often full of what the suits called AOR (Actually stands for "Adult Orientated Rock", Wags said it stood for "Any Old Rubbish"). Only a few months before "4" by Foreigner had bagged the Top Spot, an AOR band if there ever was one. I found myself liking "Heat of the Moment" (But then I have always been a bit of a sucker for a slice of AOR as future blogs will make clear), it was catchy, lyrics were a bit odd but other than that, it was a fair shout.

However, I was in for a rude awakening. On Monday lunchtime I was dossing around in my form room when one of the PRB (Prog Rock Brigade) came bounding up to me, looking excited. Both of these things were alarming as PRB members never "bounded", merely ambled, and excitement was a state that I thought they were unfamiliar with as their natural mode was"somnambulist". He then thrust an album into my hands and muttered "NUMBER ONE". Upon staring at the sleeve in front of me (Pictured above), I almost stumbled backwards over a stray 1st former who was acting as a foot rest.

I could see quite clearly that this was indeed "Asia" by "Asia". However what made the eyeballs bulge was that the cover clearly featured artwork by Roger Dean! If you were in the presence of Dean artwork, you knew that the vinyl contained within the sleeve was of the PROG ROCK genre. Dean designed the Yes Bubble Logo and his designs were usually drawn from the world of fantasy.

"You have to listen to it, it's great!" He muttered (To be fair, he may have been speaking clearly but in FLAGRANT contradiction of School Rules, this particular specimen has hair resembling that of a Highland Cow, so he was speaking through a hirsute veil) and with that he hurried away, leaving me holding the baby (Or Dragon in this instance). Holding a Prog Rock record in a public space was akin to shouting "I am wearing Rupert The Bear Boxer Shorts and my mum still ties my shoe laces" so I shoved the thing in my desk and made good my escape. I stayed late after school and smuggled the offending article into two Woolworths carrier bags (A re-definition of the phrase "Double Bagger"). I vowed that if asked I would swear to God that I was carrying a copy of "Combat Rock" by the Clash!

Fortunately I made it home without mishap and taking the tongs that my mother used to put coal on the fire. I placed the debut album by Asia on the turntable!

At this juncture a digression is necessary. Upon perusing the sleeve, it became apparent as the Dean artwork indicated, if not the first single, that Asia were NOT American but they were in fact British (As the decade unfolded there were a number of British bands who had far more success in the US than back in Blighty: After The Fire, The Fixx, Naked Eyes). Furthermore, it became apparent that they were a veritable Prog Rock Supergroup (And I can think of few phrases more designed to install FEAR into the heart of a child of Punk). John Wetton played in Wishbone Ash and King Crimson amongst others; Both Steve Howe and Geoff Downes were in Yes (Possibly the archetypal Prog band, their albums lasted several days even though they only consisted of 5 songs tops!) whilst Carl Palmer was in Atomic Rooster and God Help Us All, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, makers of the Prog Rock Piece De Resistance "Brain Salad Surgery"

It was a BAD Business all round.

Fearing that I was about to plunge into a nightmare world of Giant Plants, Arthurian Knights and NOODLING, I dropped the needle.

As will become apparent in my journey through the 80s, I have considerable fondness for 1982. It saw the release of many excellent albums: "Too Rye Ay" by Dexys, "Upstairs at Erics" by Yazoo, "Imperial Bedroom" by E.Costello, "Tropical Gangster" By Kid Creole, "Lexicon of Love" by ABC amongst many. I have to freely confess that I would include "Asia" by "Asia" in that list. It was/is a GREAT record and, like those listed above, didn't really sound like anything else released that year. Whilst both "Heat of the Moment" and the follow up single "Only Time will Tell" could have passed for Great American AOR (And let's face it, both had Cheesy 80s videos), the rest undoubtedly moved into a different territory, it had a greater sense of drama and grandeur, both things that were very much sourced from the world of prog. It certainly wasn't an album that Foreigner or Toto could have made or any other British band of that time for that matter.

That said, we weren't in Yes territory. Whilst most of these songs are circa the 5 minute mark (HERESY again in the days of the 3 minute single) and undoubtedly saw the strutting of Musical Chops (Hellooooo Guitar Solos, a cheeky keyboard noodle here and there but thankfully Mr Palmer, the drummer, was told that he could beat the tar out of the skins but ONLY when everyone else was playing), all had recognisable song structures and (Hallelujah and pass the Tomato Ketchup) TUNES.

"Soul Survivor" is a cracking "Punch the Air when you get to the Chorus" song (Arse knows what the lyrics are about but when the song is that great, who cares?). "Wildest Dreams" is an Apocalypse Song, soldiers on the streets, world in danger of being wiped out, all accompanied by a driving synth, crunching guitar and choral vocals. PREPOSTEROUS nonsense and, of course, TREMENDOUS FUN!! "Here Comes the Feeling" was the perfect album closer. The verses stray a bit close to Foreigner ballad territory (albeit with chunkier instrumentation) before bursting into another "Punch that air" anthemic chant and a BIG SYNTH SOLO, which says both "80s" and "But who gives a shit?"

Now to be fair, I could have done without "Without You" which I suspect is intended to be the Big Ballad but the record doesn't need it and, in any case, it's a bit STODGY. However, matters are more than compensated by my two favourite tracks. At the time of playing said album, I was in the depths of UNREQUITED LOVE (I loved her, she thought I needed new glasses and plastic surgery, you know the score) and "One Step Closer" became one of my TEEN ANGST records. I would play it and imagine that I too was drawing One Step Closer to winning her over. Bollocks, of course. I had more chance of pulling the cows on her fathers farm but such is the way of the world. Of course whether Messrs Wetton and Downes knew that their song would be used as such by a badly dressed teenager I know not. It's a cracking song, punch the air defiant chorus, guitar solo here and there, some very interesting percussion. You know the score by now!

As I am sure you will have guessed, as I listened to the album for the first time, I had two voices in my head. One said "This is GREAT" and the other said "Marsh, get a Grip, it's a Prog Rock Supergroup". Given my previous aversion to all things Prog and my religious adherence to Year Zero theory, it is perhaps even more remarkable that my favourite track on the album is the most obviously Prog inluenced and longest track, "Cuttting It Fine". It has the least cohesive song structure, guitar and syth solos a go-go and then after 3 minutes 25 seconds the song suddenly drops out and a piano takes over and we are treated to a 2 minute musical coda! If lengthy guitar solos, rambling song structures and choral vocals were to be avoided, musical codas were a sign that pretension had won the day and the 4th Horseman of the Apocalypse was making his rounds.

Yet, those two minutes are the highlight of "Asia" by Asia are sum up what makes it great. Preposterous, probably silly, definitely great and oddly moving.

As much as I had enjoyed the experience and clearly needed a copy of the thing myself, I was in a quandary as to how I would respond to my hairy friend when he asked me what I had thought of it. If I let on that I liked the ruddy thing, word might get round and I would be cast out of the school Jam Fanclub and the next thing I know people would be assuming I liked "Love Over Gold" by Dire Straits (More of which in a later blog) and my hair would find its way mysteriously over my collar.

In one sense I needn't have worried, the album (plus Woolworth Double Bag) was removed from my clutches with nothing more than a "You better not have got any Marmalade on this" (A reference to an unfortunate incident when someone had lent me "Out of the Blue" by ELO and it had had an unpleasant encounter with the Golden Shred. I had to buy a replacement!)

Over the next few days and weeks though, a bizarre phenomenon started to occur. A bit like a rather virulent stomach bug, it transpired that the bloody album was going round the school like wildfire. No one openly admitted it at first but the symptoms started popping up all over the place, People were seen drawing the Dragon from the cover in their rough books; "Cutting It Fine" got played in Assembly and people were seen mouthing along to the chorus and sighing as the song moved into the coda! You would be in trap two of the bogs and hear someone outside singing "Only Time Will Tell". As soon as you opened the door, the singing would stop and there would be no sign of the culprit. Like some kind of bizarre secret society, you KNEW several members of your Class owned it, they had that look in their eye but they would never admit it!!

4 years later I found myself at University. After a night of drinking local Kentish Scrumpy, I decided that confession was good for the soul and I declared that I thought "Asia" by Asia was a classic album and, fortified by the alcohol I said that anyone who thought otherwise was welcome to have a word outside. Ignoring the (frankly feeble) threat of physical violence, everyone in the room (except for the odd cove who didn't seem to like any music except Jean Michel Jarre and Classical) rushed to join me in lauding the self titled mastework to the skies.

As I mentioned at the ouset of my musical journey, many of my CDs don't (due to time pressures) get played that often but this one always has and it hasn't changed. Still over the top, still unlike anything else of it's time, still preposterous and still brilliant!

Friday, 2 October 2015

A Journey Through the 80s: Australia Part 1: INXS/Midnight Oil

Now I think it is fair to say that Abba and anything emanating from the Emerald Isle apart, the majority of music that I grew up listening to originated from the UK or the US of A. However as the 80s progressed my horizons started to widen (Unlike these days when it is just my waistline that broadens, ho ho) and I discovered that one of the countries that was producing great music was the land of Oz (And I ain't talking about Dorothy here). So much good stuff in fact that it'll take a few blogs.

I appreciate that I often come across as a lover of the wilfully obscure so I thought I would kick off matters Antipodean with two of their most commercially successful exports, INXS and Midnight Oil. I only own two of INXS' Six 80s albums, 1985's "Listen Like Thieves" and 1987's Planet Eating Monster "Kick", the albums which marked both INXS' mutation from a more New Wave act into a more traditional Rock band and their achievement of huge commercial success beyond Australia's shores.

INXS' career may seem strange in these days when a Band is listed as a "BBC Band to Follow in 2015/16/17 ad infinitum for ever" before they've even released an album in anger and then sells a shedload simply because they're deemed as fashionable irrespective of the records' merits. The first two INXS albums did bugger all outside of Australia. The next two albums started to make inroads into America and then they broke big Stateside with their 5th album "Listen Like Thieves". And it was at this point that I discovered them. I will no doubt come back to this fact in later 80s blogs but I was a regular listening to Paul Gambachini's American Top 30 show on "The Nation's Favorite" Radio 1 at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon (As a Burnley fan, I was scarcely going to listen to Radio 2's football coverage, we were as likely to feature as Ian Duncan Smith is to be mistaken for Mother Teresa) and it was here that I encountered "What You Need", a Top 5 hit. When I encountered a copy of the album for £2.50 in a secondhand shop (I was a student at the time!!) , I'll thought I'll have a bit of that!

To my mind, "Listen Like Thieves" is INXS' finest album and still stands up as a cracking record playing it now. Taste makers are the same whatever year you live in, they are always trying to foist the next "insert name of popular artist in here" on the masses. I have lost touch of the number of "next Adele's" I've run away screaming from (And, of course, Amy herself was the "Next Amy Winehouse"). When INXS started to breakthrough in the States, I can recall that they were immediately lauded as the "New Duran Duran". This was at a stage when any band that was remotely photogenic and good looking was lauded as the "New Duran Duran" (A-ha would suffer the same fate a little later in the year). INXS fitted that bill, particularly in the form of the ridiculous handsome Michael Hutchence. Musically, the taste makers were trying to make a comparison with the funk-rock (should such a hybrid exist) of "Wild Boys" or "View to a Kill" rather than the more New Romantic material of Yore.

Certainly listening to "What You Need" and the title track, you can see they have a point. However from thereon in the album to my mind is more new wave influenced than Duran Duran and certainly, at its best, more melodic. The strongest part of the album is the next 5 tracks. Just great Pop/Rock. "Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain)" is, in my view, INXS finest hour. The 80s were full of singles that should have been massive but weren't and here's another one. "Shine Like It Does" wasn't far behind. "Good + Bad Times" feels Stones influenced (something that would come out even more on "Kick", "Biting Bullets" has a great straight ahead rush to it and "This Time" is the closest thing that the album has to a ballad (and it ain't that close) and another "hit that wasn't".

To be honest, the album tails off a bit after that, "Three Sisters" in particular is a quirky instrumental that feels out of place. But overall it's still a cracking record.

Next up came "Kick" which took INXS into the stratosphere and finally broke them in the UK. It contained 3 Top 5 US Singles "New Sensation" "Devil Inside" and "Need You Tonight" which also went Top 3 in the UK. The album went 6 times platinum in the US and 3 times platinum in the UK. and it took them into the stadiums.

Personally (the contrary old bastard that I am) I have always thought that "Kick" was a lesser album than it's predecessor. It was both much funkier in places and more Stones influenced in others. It seemed less subtle and less melodic. I could never work out why it succeeded in lieu of "Listen Like Thieves". who knows? The late 80s were certainly a time that rewarded the obvious and acts that aimed for the stadium were certainly de jour. All I know is that prior to embarking on my 80s journey, I hadn't played "Kick" for years!

What struck me though is that it's a fine record, actually quite varied and not really a duff track thereon, although I never really "got" "Never Tear Us Apart". "Calling All Nations" is probably the best track and should have been a single, although frankly they had a good return from the ones they released.

Listening to both records, there were a number of things that struck me. Firstly in the UK, INXS have been largely forgotten. You occasionally hear "Need You Tonight" on the radio but in musical histories of the period they rarely merit a mention, not even a derogatory one (Although the lack of criticism is probably linked in with the sad fate of Michael Hutchence). That could be down to the fact that, for all their merits, they were quite a derivative act and they didn't really influence any one in turn. In addition, listening to these two albums, they don't really sound as if they are from the 80s. Leaving aside any proustian rush that goes "Ooh I snogged to "Never tear us apart"" you would be hard pressed to exactly date these albums, particularly "Kick"

Lastly, I think it is fair to say that neither record sounds particularly Australian. In fact I once had  an argument with someone who swore blind they were from New York!! Now, this is not a charge you could label against Midnight Oil and the album "Diesel and Dust". Midnight Oil released a number of records in the 80s but this is the only one I own. I have heard both "10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1" and "Red Sails in the Sunset" but both are too spiky for my tastes and lack enough strong tunes.

"Diesel and Dust" however has tunes in spades and is a great record. For once the general public agreed as the album broke Midnight Oil outside Australia and was a hit in both US and UK, spearheaded by "Beds are Burning".

Now, I have heard INXS and Midnight Oil lumped together (as of course they have been in this blog!) but whilst they are both Australian guitar bands who were successful at round about the same time and both have hugely charismatic frontmen, that's where the comparisons end. To all intents and purposes, INXS were a good time rock and roll band but Midnight Oil were a deeply political concern. Indeed "Diesel and Dust" is one of the most political albums of the second half of the 80s and certainly one of the most successful. Largely concerned with Aboriginal rights, it is direct and pulls few punches, especially on "Beds are Burning" and "The Dead Heart".

Of course, you mention politics and most people roll their eyes and think "Arrgh! Worthy Alert!". However "Diesel and Dust" comes armed with the tunes to carry the message and the whole album bristles with vitality and energy. Again, betraying true perversity, I actually think "Beds are Burning" isn't the best track on the album. That's "The Dead Heart", a staggeringly brilliant track that's both anthemic and mesmerising. It's one of my Top 30 songs of the 80s.

That may be the best track on "Diesel and Dust" but there's some other crackers on there to, "Sometimes", "Dream World" and "Wakaruma" are all personal favourites but there isn't a duffer in sight.

Again, outside of Australia, Midnight Oil have been written out of Musical history, brushed aside as the "Band fronted by that angry bald bloke who went into Australian politics and sold out". Inside Australia "Diesel and Dust" is still rated as one of the best Australian albums of all time". My knowledge of Australian music is not as great as it should be but there is no doubt that "Diesel and Dust" is hideously under rated. Again it doesn't sound like an 80s record and has a timeless quality.

All three records well worth investigating. !

Monday, 28 September 2015

A Journey Through the 80s- The Icicle Works

For those that regularly read my blog (or if you are unfortunate enough to know me) , it will come as a no surprise to know that I have vast numbers of CDs. The other day I was staring at a section of them and thought "You know I haven't played many of these for ages! That seems wrong! And with that I made an impromptu decision, I would play, in its entirety, every CD that I own from the 80s. Why the 80s, you may ask? Well for a start you have to start somewhere. For another, I think the 80s were on my mind as I have just finished a rather excellent book by Andy Beckett "Promised You A Miracle- UK 80-82" (About early 80s British History NOT Simple Minds). And then there's the fact that whilst I started listening to Music in the 70s, the 80s were my formative years, musically speaking. I was seriously into it all the way through the decade and many of the bands and albums from that decade were my first love and you never lose your first love, do you?

Prompted by a good friend, I thought I would use my blog page to report back on my findings so here we go! Now, I fully appreciate that the Icicle Works may seem an odd place to start. Well, for one thing I am shortly going to see them live (For the first time, better late than never) in Southampton so I thought I'd better reacquaint myself with their back catalogue. Moreover, one of the key features of my CD collection is that I have always had a fondness for under rated artists who I thought never got their rightful reward commercially and in that regard, The Icicle Works seem very typical of the kind of artist I liked back in the day (and still do!)

Formed in 1980, they were part of the so called neo-psychedelia wave that emanated out of Liverpool in the early 80s and that included bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. They first came to prominence in 1983 when they had a Top 20 hit "Love is a Wonderful Colour". Although they soldiered on until 1991, they never had another hit!! I'm not actually going to comment on said single or its parent album, "The Icicle Works" because I don't own it!!

Now, and this probably says more about me than the band, but I first became interested in the Icicle Works when they released the single "All the daughter's (of her Father's house)" in 1985. The single absolutely stiffed but I loved it. It was a different beast to their earlier album, being an upbeat track, actually quite Motown influenced and boasted a fine horn section (A huge Dexys fan at the time, I was a sucker for anything with a horn section!). I therefore tracked down the parent album "The Small Price of a Bicycle" (Rubbish title, lads) which had shot to No 55 in the super soaraway album chart!

Chiding the masses for their (usual) ignorance, I thought that "The Small Price of a Bicycle" was one of the best albums of 1985. Listening to it now I would still place it in my Top 50 albums of all time. To use a cheesy phrase, it's small but perfectly formed. 10 tracks and not a duffer amongst them.

If one is honest though, one can see why "The Small Price of a Bicycle" sold the square root of bugger all, it just didn't fit in. I have mentioned before that 1985 was an ODD time for music. The big pop acts that had dominated the early part of the years were very definitely on the decline; they were either in the dumper (Adam Ant, Culture Club), dumper bound (Spandau Ballet), albeit slowly (Duran Duran). The pop which replaced it was largely of the pale imitation variety (Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Go West) or from the ersatz soul school (Simply Red, Paul Young). As a result British Pop's dominance was largely replaced by either Big American Acts (Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince)  or Resurrected Dinosaur Acts, propelled forward by the newly emerging CD format and/or Live Aid (Queen, Sir Philip of Collins and above all Dire Straits). Meanwhile young (ish) guitar acts that sold fell more or less in two camps: Bands that were stadium bound (U2, Simple Minds) or bedsit bound (The Smiths).

Frankly the Icicle Works fell into none of those camps, they were just three Liverpool lads who played  straightforward, slightly psychedelic rock, with BIG choruses, underpinned by Ian McNabb's powerful, passionate voice (which one critic once described as "plummy"- he was trying to be helpful). They released two further singles "Hollow Horse" and "Seven Horses" (possibly should have used a different animal?). Both divebombed. Personally I would have given "Rapids" a shot, as I think it is a tremendous song (although I acknowledge that the masses had clearly had made up their minds up about the Icicle Works by this point and a cover version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" featuring a 5 minute Ukulele solo would have been greeted by public indifference too)

Undeterred The Icicle Works ploughed ahead and in 1987 released the somewhat verbosely entitled "If You want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song" (There is a separate blog to be written about why Artists insist on calling their albums by titles that are guaranteed to leave the masses as cold as 10 day old Rice Pud). It was largely produced by Ian Broudie, who was later to achieve fame as part of the Lightening Seeds and writer of "Three Lions".

Listening to it now, it's not a bad record by any means, there are plenty of good songs, strong choruses are the order of the day, there are signs of more musical variety that "Small Price of a Bicycle"(But you ain't seen nothing yet, baby). However to my mind, it is let down by a series of plodders. All the critics and their mums seemed to love "Understanding Jane", I just thought its punky guitar rush (Something which was very much de nos jours in the shape of Jesus and Mary Chain, Husker Du, Replacements et al) lacked a melodic punch "Up Here in the North of England" boasted some fine sentiments in search of a tune whilst "Truck Drivers Lament" and "When You Were Mine" were, to be blunt, a tad turgid. Any of these should have been replaced by a song that popped up as a bonus on a CD re-release a few years later "Don't Let It Rain on my Parade"

However, the shining lights of "If you want to defeat your enemy" were the other two singles, both of which in any other world where the masses had an iota of taste would have been huge hits. "Who Do You Want for Your Love?" is just a GREAT pop song. It reached number 54!

Even better though was the final single off the album and to my mind one of the great lost singles of the 80s "Evangeline". An unashamed, anthemic, "punch the air when you get to the chorus" song, I still grin like a loon every time I hear it and want to play it again as soon as it's finished. It reached number 53 in the charts as the British Public preferred "I want to dance with somebody " by Whitless Houston and "Star Trekkin" by the Firm...............GAH!

Frankly if I had been McNabb and the lads I would have chucked it in there and then. But once again, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, headed off into the studio and re-emerged in 1988 clutching their 4th album "Blind". And it was apparent that they were responding to the comparative commercial failure of the previous two records by chucking the kitchen sink into proceedings.

To describe "Blind" as a "varied album" would be doing the word a disservice. Frankly it's batshit crazy (and I actually mean that as a compliment!), veering from Led Zeppelin-esque RAWK (the opener "Shit Creek") to calypso pop of "What Do You Want Me To Do?" to "Starry Blue Eyed Wonder" which starts out as a organ driven ballad and then mutates to a guitar wig out, to the Acapella (Yes, you read that right) "One True Love" to the Prince-a-like "The Kiss Off" to the Scott Walker tribute that is "Here Comes Trouble". And that's just for starters!! Frankly no two tracks were the same, it sounded more like a compilation album than one by the same artist!

It was only really McNabb's recognisable voice and the fact that guitars were still very much in evidence, although not entirely dominant, that linked "Blind" with the proceeding two albums. The only track that would have fitted comfortably on either was the 60s influenced pop rush of "High Time", a close cousin of "Who do you want for your love?"  I seem to recall that it was either ignored by critics at the time or damned with faint praise but I genuinely think it is an incredibly ambitious record and deserves both some of your time and a reappraisal. Not all of it works, granted, I wasn't overly fond of "Kiss" by Prince so its tribute, "The Kiss Off" I can do without. "Shit Creek" writes its own review whilst "One Two Three" is what CD skip buttons were made for! However, the rest is very fine indeed and clearly the work of a band pushing the boundaries and showing what they were capable of.

Of course, this being the UK in the late 80s, the commercial results were sadly predictable. The album reached an underwhelming 40 whilst the highest of the singles released was the lovely "Little Girl Lost" at 59. Arse knows why. Maybe in a year still dominated by the conveyor belt pop of Stock Aitken and Waterman (which largely sounded the same just with interchangeable lead singers)- "Kylie" by the pop pixie was the best selling album of the year- the variety on show was just too much. Whilst there was a burgeoning "Indie " scene, the Icicle Works were probably considered too mainstream to fit in with the likes of the Wonder Stuff and not hip enough to fit in with the emerging Baggy Groups like the Stone Roses.

It falls outside of the remit of my 80s journey to talk about the last Icicle Works album "Permanent Damage" (which I actually don't own). The album in any case received a critical shoo-ing and the band split up shortly after. McNabb then embarked on a solo career which resulted (bizarrely) in a Mercury Prize Nomination with the HEAVILY Neal Young influenced album "Head Like A Rock". McNabb reformed a version of the Icicle Works in 2011 and they sporadically tour the UK , such as their appearance in Southampton for which i am very grateful.

Meanwhile, I would suggest that the three Icicle Works albums referred to above remain ripe for rediscovery and would grace any record collection.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Happy Blue- Jones (2015)

When it comes to seeking to praise an artist's musical output, you rarely see the word "Consistent" used. For one thing, if you're aiming for consistency in music, it doesn't feel at first glance as if you've set the bar very high and it can become a byword for lack of adventure. I have actually nothing against Chris Rea, for example, and throughout the 80s, he was a consistent artist. But I probably would score all of the albums he made in that period 6.5-7 out of 10 and they all felt like they were from the same mould. Good, solid but that was about it. At the other end of the scale, the word "Consistent" can be used in the sarcastic sense. take Status Quo for example. For many years, they could be termed as consistent in that they effectively made the same record, just called it a different name!

However, if you start talking about an artist being "Consistently Excellent", then that's a different kettle of fish altogether. Be honest for a minute, think of your favourite singers and groups. If you made a list of your Top 5 albums, how many of your favourite artists would make that list every time they released an album. I would venture to suggest very few. Most artists at best make an average record every now and then, at worst, they may chuck in an absolute clunker. Furthermore, let's be honest, many of our favourites tend to go off the boil as the years advance.

Looking back over the past ten years, only one artist has made my Top 5 with each of the 6 albums he has released, indeed 5 made my Top 3. Only Miranda Lambert in that period would have come anywhere near close. That artist is Trevor Jones, both as part of the Miracle Mile with the multi talented Marcus Cliffe or as a solo artist, Jones (albeit again aided and abetted by Mr Cliffe).

I appreciate that the reaction from many may be "I'm sorry, who?" because sadly, Trevor, in my view, is the most criminally overlooked artist off recent times. Scandalously deprived of both airplay and coverage in the music press, he continues to produce stunning album after stunning album but he remains an unnecessarily well kept secret. I am frankly at a loss to explain why this is, apart from descending into a rant about how the media in all its myriad forms continues to foist soulless dreck and arty drivel on us while real talent ploughs a lone furrow unnoticed. It's not as if these records aren't commercial in the best sense of the word, in that they contain all the ingredients that should make an album attractive to people, lovely melodies, strong tunes that stick in the mind, memorable lyrics, wonderfully and skilfully played and clearly and appropriately produced. All the Great Stuff!

Anyway, leaving the injustice aside for one moment, from a personal perspective, "Happy Blue" was my most eagerly anticipated record of 2015. However, whisper it quietly, I had started to wonder if Trevor could maintain the extremely high standards that he had set himself. In all seriousness this level of consistency was unheard of in my experience. Surely soon or later the level had to dip surely and an album pop out that wasn't quite "there". Two things made me wonder if "Happy Blue" was going to be "That One" before I had even heard a note. Firstly, his last two albums were the best of his career, which was saying something. 2013 "In Cassidy's Care" by the Miracle Mile was a sumptuous record which told the story of the titular Cassidy who met the love of his life and then tracked the relationship as it fell gradually apart and left Cassidy reflecting on his life. If that sounds heavy (or alarmingly like a concept album) rest assured, it was not. Trevor's music is both happy and sad, melancholic and uplifting at the same time. It felt like a career highlight which was then matched by 2014's "To The Bone". I have to admit I was surprised that Trevor followed up "In Cassidy's Care" so quickly. Surprised but also delighted. "To the Bone" was a completely different record. Stripped down (as the name implies) both musically and emotionally, it was a wonderfully intimate record and contained in my mind Trevor's finest two songs to date, the opener "Phil The Hat" and the stunningly beautiful "Fireworks"

The other reason why I wondered if Trevor would hit the bar was that 2015  has been a very strong year for new albums. Scarcely a week goes by without another fine record being released. Old Marsh favourites doing the business, new acts making a mark and long forgotten artists coming back strong. If Trevor was going to make an impression in amongst all this, he would have to bring his "A Game"

When the album dropped through the letterbox, I was away on holiday with the family.The time away had been great but I have to admit that I was keen to get home solely so I could hear the album! It has to be said that I always lock myself away with a new Jones record, accompanied by a bottle or two of ale. His records always demand and indeed deserve ones complete attention. Acknowledging that this sounds sad, I initially sat, holding the album, worried that it wouldn't meet my hopes (because you always want your favourites to make another great record!).

I needn't have worried!

I shall cut straight to the chase and state that "Happy Blue" is a truly magnificent album. Having lived with it for a month, I think it is fair to say that it is Trevor's best record to date. Which is clearly saying something. Far from letting standards slip the bar had been raised again.

In my view Trevor Jones is one of great writers of human emotions in song, both through lyrics and melodies. He writes about the things that matters, love, loss, memories, how the past shapes us and so on and he wraps it up in tunes that are often both melancholic and yet at the same time hopeful. "Happy Blue" is not only an apt title for this album but could sum up the his music as a whole. What gives this record additional weight and emotional resonance is that recently Trevor's father passed away. This event and memories of his father is a key theme of the record and contribute to its overall shape, particularly through the bookending opening and closing pieces "First" and "Last" (The titles something of a giveaway) and the Track "Battersea Boy", more of which later.

One thing I have found with a lot of albums recently is that the sequencing of tracks is often bizarre and the resultant record often fails to hang together. By contrast "Happy Blue" is one of the best sequenced records in recent memory. It flows from one track to the next. Furthermore, it hangs together as a piece and is a record that demands to be played all the ways through; rare of course in these days on i-tunes and being to purchase a few tracks here and there. What also assists in this regard is that the quality of the songs is consistently high, there is not one track that you would wish to skip here.

The end result is a record that you can truly emerse yourself in. In that  sense it draws comparison with the Blue Nile's "Hats" and in particular songs off that record like "Downtown Lights" and "Headlights on the Parade". This is not an album that you can just put on in the background, it demands (albeit very gently) your attention and draws you in. For fear of repeating myself, much credit here has to go to both the quality of the playing which is at a tremendously high level throughout and the extraordinary production which is both crystal clear and sensitive. Hats of to both Trevor and Marcus for a fantastic job in that regard.

Given the fact that this is such a complete album, it feels almost contradictory to single out particular tracks, especially as my favourites are already changing regularly so I am sure that I will look back in a few weeks and go "No...........I missed out (insert track here)". However, I feel I should mention the following:

The first two tracks proper, "Ghost of Song" and the title track "Happy Blue" itself set the stall out for the record and make it clear about the very high standard that we are looking at here, both musically and lyrically. If we lived in an age when anyone other than mainstream commercial dance pop acts released singles, both would be strong contenders!

"Naked As Adam" is a change in mood, in that it is almost playful, something which is drawn out by the inventive use of brass and is a clear indication that there will be no let up in quality.

If somebody said to me "So why should I listen to Trevor Jones, then?" I would play them "Weakness and Wine". Frankly, it's 2 minutes, 53 second of pure perfection! Backed largely by Marcus on Piano and some delightful Pedal Steel , Trevor's lyrics are superb throughout. If, by the time Trevor quotes James Joyce "They lived and laughed and loved and left" and you don't have a lump in your threat, there is a chance that you are either Simon Cowell or clinically dead!

Again, many recent albums have tended to be front loaded and tail off towards the end. Here though, if anything, the quality is even higher in the second half (Vinyl's making a come back, I can refer to second half's!). "Cartwheels" jumps out because musically and structurally it's quite unlike anything Trevor has ever done before. I'm not sure if it's the sparse instrumentation or Lucinda Drayton's lovely backing vocals but it reminds me of "Don't Give Up" by Peter Gabriel!

And coming back to the subject of singles, I would love to hear "St Celicia" on the radio (Heck, I'd love to hear any of this album on the radio but you know what I mean). A beautifully simple and sweet (in the best senses of the term) song.

Which brings us to "Battersea Boy", which is both a tribute to Trevor's dad and a reflection of his impact on Trevor's life. It is at this point that I am in danger of going over the top in my praise!! Quite simply, this is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. As someone who has lost both parents, the song rings clear and true. Furthermore, the instrumentation which is subtle and exquisite complements the song perfectly. When it reaches the end you want both to cry and applaud, it's a wonderful achievement.

The danger after such a high is that the record could tail off because "Battersea Boy" could overshadow it. Whilst neither of the two remaining songs are a match for "Battersea Boy" (Few songs are!), they are still of a very high quality and culminate the album, along with the closing coda "Last" perfectly. "Misbegotten Moon" is underpinned by some more delightful pedal steel guitar and what sounds like a steel drum (but, apologising for my musical ignorance, I appreciate probably isn't!!). "My Muffled Prayer" is a beautiful, wistful final song. The lyrics reflective and lovely. the instrumentation again subtle and delightful. The musical coda at the end, particularly when the hammond comes in reminds me of the end of the "Days before rock and roll" by Van Morrison. Finally we have "Last" which is an extended echo of "First" with some beautifully spoken words by Trevor over music by (I believe) Marcus and Gustaf Lunggren.

And then we're done! And I simply want to go and put the record on again!

Coming back to my original point, I can only stand and marvel at the extraordinary consistency that Trevor has shown in his career, this records are stunning and each release brings fresh treasures and pleasures. I would recommend "Happy Blue" wholeheartedly and unreservedly. Buy a copy, pour yourself a glass of something pleasurable. put the album on and prepare to lose yourself in some of the finest music you will hear!

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Country Music!

My dad died when I was 8 years old (which I appreciate isn't the most cheerful way to start a post). As a result, whilst my mum clearly told me a lot about him, there a number of gaps in my knowledge of the man. And, from a personal perspective given my love for music, probably the most glaring omission, was that I had no idea what kind of music he liked!

Fortunately that question was answered quite by chance when I was chatting to my cousin, Fred, in New Zealand via Skype early last year. Fred lived with my dad for a few years before I was born and he was reminiscing about him when he commented that my dad used to spend many years listening to country music on the radio. I think he was quite taken aback when I fell on the comment like you'd grab a beer during prohibition. I wanted to know which artists, which songs etc etc. As far as Fred could recall we were talking Hank Williams Snr, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell. "I'm pretty sure" he remarked "that when you were little, you would have had a lot of country music playing in the background.

I never knew! I certainly didn't recall country music in the background as a soundtrack as I played endless games with my stuffed toys and Matchbox cars. In fact, I don't recall hearing any music at all in the house, apart from the theme tune to Z Cars. The first record I can remember hearing was "Lily The Pink" by the Scaffold (Not the most auspicious start to a lifelong love of music) at a neighbours party. However, in hindsight, it did make an awful lot of sense. For one thing, I do distinctly recall that my father loved Westerns, particularly the TV programme The Virginian and anything with John Wayne in it. So it seemed a logical extension that he'd like country and western.

Moreover, it also seemed very logical given my own relationship with country and western. Although to be fair, it's been something of an "on, off" relationship. As with most teenagers in the late 70s/early 80s my exposure to country was limited to odd (in both senses of the term) tracks: "Stand by your Man" Tammy Wynette, "Coward of the County" Kenny Rogers, "Blanket on the Ground" Crystal Gayle and the terrifyingly unspeakable "No Charge" by JJ Barrie (easily one of the worst Number 1s ever). Clearly none of these songs were an attractive advert for the wider genre, which from a distance appeared to be populated by Men with BIG HATS, Women with BIG GRINS (and in the case of Dolly Parton, Big something else - I was a teenager after all- but let's not be crude here) singing twee and twangy songs about subjects that meant bugger all to a lad from East Kent: The Bayou (The what?), Riding horses across the wide open plains (If there were any fields round near where I lived some bugger would drop a motorway on em), knocking back whiskey (I was more a cider man in those days) and eating stew n beans off a tin plate (Sod off). Plus the fact remained that country appeared to be essentially a cheese fest, targeted towards "Old People" (A Generic Term used by teenagers in those days to denote anyone over 20)

So safe in my prejudices and preconceptions, I gave the whole thing a wide berth. Until I rocked up at the University of Kent and met a girl called Michelle. Now, it wasn't just Country that was off my radar. Up until that point in my life, my musical taste had been more or less entirely confined to pop and rock music albeit in its myriad forms. In my defence, this was because this was all I had been exposed to both through Radio and TV and the written music media (The various "inkies"). True, there was some coverage of Reggae (Largely Bob Marley and UB40) and Ska (Largely the late 70s ska revival stuff as opposed to the original artists) but of Country, Blues and Folk there was no sign.

Then, from my perspective, in 1986 along came Q Magazine. Now a lot has been written about Q Magazine (along with the other Music monthlies that followed in its wake) down the years and not all of it good: How it (ALLEGEDLY) led to the demise of the weekly Music Press, How in its early years it focused on CD product and therefore (ALLEGEDLY) contributed to the rise of MOR coffee table music, How it focused on established acts and dinosaur acts to the detriment (ALLEGEDLY.....actually no that's one definitely true- STOP putting U2 on the cover for heavens sake!) of new music. However, there is no doubt that as far as I was concerned it was Q that opened my eyes to the fact that the likes of Blues and Folk were not dead genres but were hale and hearty and alive and well in 80s Britain (As much as anything was alive and well in 80s Britain).

However whilst I raided local record emporium for discs by John Lee Hooker, Oysterband and The Men They Couldn't Hang, Country still looked a step too far because the prejudice still gripped like a vice. And this was despite a significant development in the world of country music for the mid 80s saw the advent of "New Country". In summary, this was a group of artists who were looking to strip the cheese away from the music and take country back to its roots and they included Steve Earle, Randy Travis, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Nanci Griffith (And more of Miss Griffith in a moment). However given my atrocious prejudices and my extremely limited exposure to the genre, I assumed that Old Country, New Country, Flush it down the Loo Country and gave it all a miss.

Which brings us on to Michelle. They say that going to University broadens your horizons. Well possibly, although I had already encountered alcohol, dodgy educational establishment food and lack of sleep before I rocked up on Campus. What I was now encountering for the first time though was people with broader musical taste than I. by and I large my schoolday contemporaries shared my adherence to pop (There was one lad who in the same day bought albums by Beethoven and Crass but he was very distinctly a one off!). Michelle, however, was a firm disciple of the ways of country and could not believe that someone such as I who claimed to be a music lover had never heard anything by the likes of Hank Williams.

The berating in this regard was virtually constant to the point where I thought it was worth splashing out a fiver just to shut her up! The question was which record did I choose, which is where Q comes into the tale once again as they had just published a glowing review of the latest Nanci Griffith album, "Little Love Affairs". This is not the place to wax endlessly lyrical about the magnificence of "Little Love Affairs" but suffice it is to say that I was blown away, albeit very gently. From the pastel pink cover, to the many songs about love in its myriad forms, it was unlike anything I had ever bought before. This is a man, remember, who had been bought up on "London Calling", "Setting Sons", "Searching for the Young Soul Rebels", "The Specials". All superb records of course but I had never encountered anything quite as delicate and downright lovely as this.

And in one fell swoop, my misconceptions about country were blown away. I plunged back into Nanci's magnificent back catalogue, went to see her at the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone (which remains one of the best gigs I have ever seen) and headed off to explore the works of Messrs Yoakam, Earle, Lovett etc. The penny of course had finally dropped that whilst Country music may be American down to its bootstraps and up to to the tip of its Stetson, the themes it addresses are universal, life, travel, love, DRINK, death- you know, the Good Stuff (Well, maybe not the last one but you get my drift). The only downside was that Michelle's nagging had been replaced with a highly irritating smugness but twas a price worth playing.

Country albums then featured heavily in my albums of the year for the next few years and it's influence reached a peak in 1994 when Ms Griffith's "Flyer" album fought a titanic battle with Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Stones in the Road". To this day I can't choose between them, largely because they are SO different. "Flyer" is Nanci's most commercial record by some distance and features collaborations with sundry members of Counting Crows, REM and U2 (Not Lord EGO, thank Goodness). "Stones in the Road" meanwhile is possibly the most emotionally draining and moving record I own. Both are amongst my favorite records ever.

From that point on, though, the influence of country in the Marsh CD racks began to wane. Sadly, in my view, "Flyer" was Nanci's last great record; Conversely Mary Chapin Carpenter has continued to make superb records more or less consistently ever since and is one of my all time favorite artists but has largely moved away from country into broader singer-songwriter territory; Steve Earle headed off into prison and upon his return from chokey never really made a record that engaged me, although Uncut Magazine will have an orgasm at the very mention of his name; Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts and divorced Mister Tune and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, from my perspective, the quantity of great new country artists basically dried up, although perversely the quantity didn't. If you are reading in America, I appreciate that this is a controversial statement but I blame Garth Brooks (And if you're reading in the UK, this isn't a typo, I didn't mean Garth Crooks, the gormless TV soccer pundit). As indicated, Country music has always been popular in the USA but in the early 90s, it became a commercial juggernaut and this was spearheaded by G.Brooks esq. His second album "No Fences" sold 17 million copies in the States alone (It, of course, sold 10 copies here in the UK). This was certainly no one off as he was a massive commercial force throughout the 90s, has sold over 190 million records worldwide and is the second most successful US solo artist ever behind E.Presley.

I acknowledge and bow before these staggering statistics but I have never "got" Garth Brooks. To my mind Randy Travis (STOP tittering at the back) did what Garth did much better. It wasn't that his records were bad, they just lacked the rebel spirit of a Yoakam or an Earle, the outsider heart of a Chapin Carpenter or the beauty of a Griffth. Above all, they lacked subtlety and heart. I have no issue with a record being commercial but blandness is something I need to have a word with.
However I might have thought that (and for all I know, you might think that) but 17 million US sales say that there's gold in them there stetsons and in a development that only a cretin would call unsurprising the country music market was flooded out with Brooks soundalikes, Big, Commercial sounding records that bypassed your heart and went straight for the wallet.

Now I have followed the American Music Charts down the years but fully appreciate that many people in the UK do not so the commercial domination of Country Music stateside may have passed many British chappies and chappesses by. However they would get a rude awkening. One day circa 1996 when Britpop still dominated the airwaves here in the UK, I can imagine the wife of one Robert "Mutt" Lange (Producer of such rock opuses as Brian Adams' "Reckless" and Def Leppard's "Hysteria"stuck her head round her hubbie's recording studio door and said "Hey Darlin'! Ya don't fancy producing my next album, do ya?" (Or words to that effect) to which the lad Lange thought "Sounds like a laugh" and so was born Shania Twain's "Come on Over".

If "No Fences" was Huge, "Come on Over" (which it most certainly did to the UK) was the size of Antarctica. It sold 40 million copies worldwide and is the biggest selling country album ever and the biggest studio album by a female artist. These days, many people will openly deride this record but the chances are that they own it. Now, there's a whole blog to be written about why "Come on Over" didn't open the doors for a country music avalanche but the succinct answer is that in many ways it probably wasn't country at all, it was certainly a long way from Johnny and Hank. A new phrase was born, "Country Pop" and lo, just as hordes of Garth soundalikes has come cascading onto the airwaves, so enter stage left onto the American Stage, a veritable wave of country pop.

It was at this point that I decided to close the door on Country Music once again but this time I felt it was through well informed choice rather than blind prejudice. I had as little time for Ms Twain and her ilk as I did Brooks and the Brookettes. I put my arm around Mary Chapin Carpenter, said "You don't belong with all this razzmatazz, Mary" and headed off.

Over the years, as one should and must, I have cast a weather eye of the Country pastures but found little to grab me. I admired the Dixie Chicks views on George W Bush but found their music of less interest. And on the subject of matters political, Steve Earle had developed into the conscience of a nation, grown an alarming beard but had become an artist far easier to like than admire, Alison Krauss had a lovely voice but I couldn't quite get there even when she dragged that old rock God, Bob Plant, into try and convince me. Finally a young lady called Taylor Swift ran up to me saying "You might like these "Speak Now" and "Red" records" but at best I thought she was Shania's kid sister and at worst I worried that she might be BIEBER's girlfriend and told her to be about it.

I appreciate that at this point, someone may grab me by the elbow, shove their grizzled face into mine and growl "Americana"!" at me through yellowed teeth. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that one of the features of the late 90s and 00s was the rise of Americana (Wilco, Lambchop, Jayhawks etc) and that Americana is no doubt strongly related to Country, in my mind it is still a separate genre (Although there is no doubt that musical pedants can and indeed do argue for hours as to which genre the likes of Lucinda Williams and Roxanne Cash fit into, keeps 'em off the streets)

Anyway, back to the matter in hand. 2013 dawned when suddenly I started tripping over albums which suggested that something good might be growing in the country garden again. First up was "No way there from here" by Laura Cantrell. I'm not sure where I first encountered mention of Ms Cantrell but I was intrigued by the fact that a) She was being likened to Nanci Griffith b) She'd been going for well over 10 years and I had never heard of her and c) John Peel stated that her debut album "Not the tremblin kind" was possibly his favorite album of all time (I never knew that Lord Peel was at all interested in country!). So I hunted down "No way there from here" and was immediately smitten (No 3 in my Top 10 albums of the year). Yes, there were certainly overtones of Nanci but Laura was undoubtedly her own artiste. What sold me was the strength of the songs, they were lovely things, fragile yet feisty, full of regret and hopeless romanticism. Timeless. I immediately purchased the back catalogue (And John, you are spot on- "Not the Tremblin Kind" is a thing of beauty).

This is a live recording of Starry Skies from "No way there from here!"

However, it still seemed like Laura Cantrell was something from of an exception and not really representative of what was going on in country as whole (which seemed to me to be not much). Whilst being born in Nashville, she moved to New York and certainly didn't seem to be part of the Nashville establishment. The same also be true of the next artist I stumbled over and that was Caitlin Rose and the album "The Stand-In" and this was where I encountered a curious phenomenon, the American country artist who appeared to be getting more exposure over here than Stateside. For the British music press (such as it is these days) seemed to have taken her very much to their hearts. To be fair, she was musical catnip to Uncut, who have always not just flown the flag for Americana but made the ruddy flag and the pole as well, and they took her under their wing.  But to my ears, "The Stand In " was not a pure Americana record (And lo and behold, we're back in that "Where does one end and the other start?" argument) even though there was a cover version of a Felice Brothers song thereon along with songwriting credits for Gary Louris, he of Jayhawks fame, it was too bold, too bright (I tend to find some Americana very murky), too feisty. To be fair, it wasn't a pure Country record either as parts of it were very Fleetwood Mac influenced. Again then, it was evidence that something was going on, albeit, once more, away from the mainstream.

This is "Only a Clown", the first single from "The Stand In"

It was then that the mainstream stuck his head above the parapet and said a very vigorous "Hello!" in the form of "Same Trailer, Different Park" (One of the Great Album Titles of recent years) by Kacey Musgraves. Like Caitlin Rose, Kacey came to my attention through widespread coverage in the British Media (What's going on? Don't they have a reality TV show to cover). But unlike Caitlin Rose, "Same Trailer, Different Park" had already done brisk business in the States (Half a million sales, No 2 in the Billboard charts, the debut single "Merry Go Round" sold a million copies) so commercially this was the real deal.

So intrigued I rushed out (well rushed to the computer) and bagged a copy. The first thing that struck me that, unlike "The Stand In", this was a pure country record, largely acoustic. The second thing that struck me was that Kacey was young (Born in 1988). Along with all the other myriad prejudices listed above, I had the idea that country was largely made by "old people" and largely listened to by them too (The writer of this is 50, I rest my case) but here was a young talent coming to the fore. And there was no doubt that Kacey was undoubtedly a talent. She was involved in the writing of all the songs on the album. And they were great songs, the majority of them struck through with a vein of melancholy and regret remarkable for someone in their 20s. The most striking thing though was the lyrics, intelligent, sharp, with great one liners ("Jack and Jill went up the Hill, Jack got hooked on booze and pills"). She reminded me of Aimee Mann, which is high praise indeed.

Here's the first single "Merry Go Round"

What particularly intrigued me was that reading through the articles it appeared that she was not alone. Reference was made to a wave of great female country singer songwriters from Nashville. Brandy Clark (who had helped write 3 songs on the album), Ashley Munroe (who apparently was in a band called the Pistol Annies along with Angaleena Presley and a woman called Miranda Lambert who the article implied everyone had heard of, except I clearly hadn't) and Sunny Sweeney. I vowed to check these people out straight away.

Except I then found myself "in between jobs" and therefore the album checking went on to the backburner. However when I came back "on line" in late summer 2014, one of the first albums I encountered was a country record but a VERY different beast from the ones referred to above. I had asked my good friend Gareth Williams if I had missed much whilst I had been away so to speak and he recommended that I check our Eric Church's album "The Outsiders". He advised that we were in the territory where Outlaw Country met 80s heavy rock. I was frankly unaware that such a territory existed. I was also completely unaware of Eric Church as this was not a name (or an album) that I had encountered in the pages of Q, Mojo or even Uncut. Initially I was somewhat alarmed as I thought that Eric was the country singer who had publicly supported George W Bush's re-election in 2004 and got involved in a public feud of the Dixie Chicks over matters political. However that was Toby Keith (Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks famously wore a T shirt at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2003 with the letter FUTK thereon. She claimed that it stood for Friends United in Truth and Kindness. Virtually everyone else thought it stood for F@@k U Toby Keith!) and not Mr Church.

So I purchased said album! I don't often say this but this is genuinely one of those albums that you need to hear for yourself as I don't think my words can do it justice. Certainly no genre tag can. I have heard it described as Country Rock. However to my mind that label conjures up images of The Eagles, whereby one imagines something mellow and laid back. This record is about as laid back as a kick in the nuts (And more about gonads in a minute). It is certainly a country record, particularly in the slower tracks. Songs like "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young" and "Dark Side" are the purest of country, particularly in the manner of delivery and lyrical content. But "The Outsiders" is also a Rock record. In fact, the Title Track  and "That's damn Rock N' Roll" are the most straightforward, fist pumping ROCK AND ROLL songs that I've heard for many many years (I can see where the 80s heavy rock references come from). And right from the sleeve (which is GREAT), you can see that Eric sees himself as a Rocker, the leather, the dark Glasses.

But let's move on from waffling about genres (which Eric himself has denounced in any case). This is an extraordinary record. I listen to loads of albums, some good, some an absolute dog's breakfast. One thing, though, that all the great ones have in common is that they grab your attention, some immediately, some take a little longer but in the end they mesmerise and they enthral. And that's what "The Outsiders" does, it part of course it's the quality of the songs (That's a given on a great record) but in particular the thing that strikes me about it is the sheer chutzpah and scale of ambition. The record sounds huge and often treads that fine line between magnificent and waaay over the top (Helloooo "Devil, Devil (Prelude Prince of Darkness)" which is the hitherto unchartered area where country meets Ozzy Osbourne meets Rush) People often describe ambitious artistes as having balls, well the man who made "The Outsiders" has the most enormous pair of Cojounes! Since listening to the record I purchased Eric's previous album "Chief", it's a fine record but "The Outsiders" is a leap into the stratosphere. It's as if Eric has gone "Right, now I'm going to make the album I want to make, all bets are off". This may not sound remarkable until you look at the state of much mainstream music over the last ten years Amy begot Duffy begot Adele begot Emile. All those identikit bedwetting bands from the 00s: Travis/Starsailor/Snow Patrol. The interchangeable Sheeran/Smith/Ezra axis. Monstrously refreshing to see a mainstream artist taking risks. And monstrously refreshing it was a success that paid off commercially with "The Outsiders" ending up as the 10th best selling album of the year in the USA.

Here's my favorite track "Talladega"

At last the penny dropped that if I was going to go hunting for great new albums by great new artists (to me, anyway), and trust me, I always am, then Country was a place worth looking. So, where next? I then resorted to old mate, Allmusic, went on Eric Church's page and looked at the "Artists Similar to" link.

Miranda Lambert!

Her again! It was here, gentle reader, that my brow slightly furrowed as the link showed the cover of Ms Lambert's latest album "Platinum" (See picture above), which showed an undoubtedly attractive blonde lady and brought to my mind the concern that we were either looking at ANOTHER Shania Twain clone or Lee Ann Rimes circa "How Do I Live", neither of which appealed frankly. However Allmusic gave the album 4.5 stars, which was high praise and the review sounded tempting so in for a penny...........

Those of us that plough the furrows of the musical wastelands searching for new treasures dream of what happened to me next, that moment when amongst all the chaff, the droning and those bloody awful troubadours who think they're Bob Dylan circa "Blood on the Tracks", you discover a new Favorite Artist and as an added bonus, your album of the year!! Yes indeed, 20 years on from the titanic MCC/Nanci struggle, Country was back at the top of the Marsh charts!

And indeed, this was a COUNTRY record, probably the purest country record referred to here. It was as if it turned up in the room wearing a "Country and Proud (Oh and if you don't like it, you can piss off)" T Shirt. Indeed the first thing that struck me was what a confident record this is. Bearing in mind the amount of information there is about music these days, it is rare to first encounter an artist when they're on their fifth album (which is what "Platinum" is) but then I suppose I had been away from Country for almost 20 years, there was a lot to discover. Anyway I was unaware of Miranda's back catalogue, how she had developed as an artist, how this record compared to her others etc. But even coming at things cold, it sounded like she was in a similar position to Eric in that she was making HER record and damn the consequences. Although the consequences have been very pleasant indeed, 500,000 albums sold, No 1 in the Billboard chart for 4 weeks, featured in numerous critics "Best of 2014" lists (including No 5 in Rolling Stone and a Top 20 placing in Spin Magazine where she rubbed shoulders with arty bobbins like Flying Lotus, FKA Twigs and the inevirtable War on Drugs).

The confidence manifested itself in a number of ways. Firstly it immediately struck you as a big, bold, brassy (Not as in brass section!) record, it jumps out of the speakers and it swings and swaggers, it's an incredibly alive record. Then you notice that although it is clearly a Country record, there is an amazing variety to the tracks, there's honky tonk, there's country swing, there's bluegrass, there's a country style arena song with a chorus the size of a Aerodrome (The Magnificent "Automatic"), there's a distant relation to Queen's "We Will Rock You"("Somethin' Bad) (which makes sense of the fact that she covers ZZ Top's Gimme All Your Lovin' live), there's swaggering rock and roll ("Little Red Wagon"), It's a record that never stays in one place from one track to the next.

The record is also incredibly confident in that it defies all conventional wisdom about how an album should be structured these days. For a start it's an hour long. In them old days, it would have been a Double Album (Oh, the Horror, etc)!! To be fair, conventional wisdom has a point. I tend to find that anything over 40 minutes usually contains filler at best or noodling bollocks at worst. Amazingly, this has neither (although I would be fascinated to hear what the country version of noodling bollocks would sound like, Hank Williams meets the Aphex Twin perhaps?), there is not a duff track here. Secondly, it appears to have been sequenced by a madman! Conventional wisdom dictates that you start with your strongest songs, smuggle anything half-arsed in the middle and then finish on a bang. This starts with probably one of the most conventional songs on the record "Girls". As a song, it's fine and dandy but not a starter, that was surely the title track. And then it finishes with "Another Sunday in the South" which is lovely but not the big finish (which is probably "All That's Left"). But it still works!!

The next thing that strikes me (and this is something I particularly love about this record) especially after having heard all of Miranda's other records is that at this stage of an artists career (particularly in country), there is normally the temptation to do something completely different or write a massive commercial smash, a crossover hit which often means a saccharine ridden ballad. The recent career of Taylor Swift is a classic example of the first situation. Now one should stress that I am sure it was entirely Taylors decision to make "1989", a pure pop record through and through with nary a trace of Nashville, rather than some faceless suits forcing her down that road (Indeed I imagine that said suits went somewhat pale upon hearing the opening strains of "Welcome to New York" which sounded more like OMD circa "Architecture and Morality" than anything that's come out of Nashville in the last 50 years), it's also an excellent record.

Whilst there are slower songs on "Platinum" (The beautifully reflective and wistful "Smokin' and Drinkin'", "Automatic" and the lovely "Holding on to You"), there's nothing here that could be mistaken for Whitney Houston. Moreover, rather than go crossover, it's as if Miranda has decided to dive deeper into Country. In particular there is a stupendous middle section to this album that consists of three songs that could have been written before the advent of Rock and Roll "Old Shit" (which starts with the sound of a needle being put on a record and crackles all the way through), the wonderful Bluegrass of "All that's left" (I defy you not to sing along) and the rollicking honky tonk "Gravity is a Bitch".

The next extraordinary thing about this record is that it is so fully of character and personality. Clearly I have never met Miranda Lambert and only know her through her records but it strikes me that there is a lot of her in these songs. She is from Texas and proud of it, clearly hasn't forgotten her roots, has had her heart broken and got back up again, doesn't suffer fools gladly (especially those of the male persuasion and Lord knows there's enough of them), respects the past and likes a beer (Hooray!). And that's just for starters. "Hard staying sober" is both brutal in its honesty but wonderful in its defiance, when you listen to it, you know many of us have been there! Leading on from that, she is a magnificent lyricist. The title track "Platinum" contains the best line I heard in 2014 "Whatever kill you, only makes you blonder, my heels and my hotels, they just got taller" plus it contains the word "irrefutably" as more songs should, More than any other album I heard in 2014, the album is shot through with a fantastic sense of humour (As a brief aside, why are so many records these days so self important and staggeringly po-faced?). "Priscilla" likens Miranda's lot (Her husband is fellow Country superstar and US The Voice presenter, Blake Shelton) with that of Elvis Presley's Missus whilst the afore-mentioned "Gravity is a Bitch" is a hilarious depiction of the ravages of the ageing process.

And here it is

And for Good Measure, here's "Automatic"

In short, it's the best collection of songs I heard in 2014 and the most entertaining (And despite what PJ Harvey fans would have you believe, "Entertainment" is a"Good Thing" when it comes to a record) album encountered last year. It's wonderful and made me desperate to hear more Miranda. So, as stated I went out and bought the back catalogue which is a thing of joy and beauty forever and lo and behold, a Marsh Favorite Artist was born (And they don't come along very often, let me tell you)

Furthermore, it finally blew the doors right off the barricades (Yes, yes, I know that barricades don't have doors but bear with me here, OK?) of any lingering preconceptions that I had about Current Country Music. If I had been paddling in 2013 and waist deep with Eric, once I had heard Miranda, I wanted to go Skinnydipping in those Country waters, which I acknowledge is an image that no one wants to entertain! All I have really listened to over the last 2 months has been Country and so far I have unearthed the following treats:

"The Big Revival" by Kenny Chesney. Apparently Kenny has been going for years so I've got a bit of catching up to do. This is his 2014 album and it's the musical equivalent of being confronted by a giant cute puppy, It's BIG, it's fun and it really wants to be liked. The ghost of John Cougar Mellencamp circa "American Fool" hangs around and I cannot hear without grinning like a Buffoon.

"Provoked" by Sunny Sweeney. I can't get into "The River and the Thread" by Roseanne Cash (It probably needs more time than I have been able to give) but I can't for the life of me work out why that record has been lauded to the skies whilst (over here in the UK at least), no one outside me, my 5 year old son and the weird bloke from down the road who keeps lurking outside my house and peering through the windows has heard of this wonderful record. A truly gifted songwriter, who deserves wider recognition

"American Middle Class" by Angaleena Presley. This record is the classic slow burner. When I first heard it, my CD players were still swamped by Miranda Lambert. This is a far less immediate record than most of hers so it got overlooked. However it reveals it's charms over time. Again a great songwriter (Country really does have a lot of them at the moment) and this is a fascinating look at life in C21 Middle America.

"From Where We Stand" by Ward Thomas. This record is unique amongst all of the above because this band are from Hampshire (NOT New Hampshire). Yes, it's that rarest of beasts, UK Country and it quite, quite lovely. Wonderful harmonies, some great 70s singer songwriter influences and I can't wait to see them live in a couple of months

And that's just the top of the iceberg. The following are sitting waiting to be listened to "Like a Rose" Ashley Rose, "Painkiller" Little Big Town, "12 Songs" Brandy Clark, Both Pistol Annies records arrived today, 10, 000 Towns- The Eli Young band, "Riser" Dierks Bentley. And who knows what delights remain undiscovered in the country fields or what treats 2015 may bring. Seriously there aren't enough hours in the day!

Which brings us back full circle I guess. Quite my Dad would have made of Eric Church when he cranks it up to 11 (and possibly beyond) on "That's damn Rock and roll" I don't know but I'm sure he would have liked the cut of his jib! Everything else here, I'm sure he would have loved! When I listen to and love all this wonderful music, I can only wonder whether all that country that my Dad had on the background as I was hurtling Matchbox cars down a racetrack is now revealing it's subliminal influence. Who knows but if it is, Cheers Dad. I owe you a beer when I get to Heaven!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

London 0 Hull 4- The Housemartins (1986)

I often think that time plays tricks on the memory. Case in point: I was chatting to someone the other day who was at University the same time as me and he said "Everyone I was at University with had a copy of "The Queen is Dead" by The Smiths". And to be fair, this is not the first time that I have heard people implying that the campuses of the United Kingdom in the years 1984 to 1987 were awash with the sounds of Steven Morrissey esq, the guitar god, Johnny Marr and the other two whose names escape me.

The fact is though that whilst indeed one did trip over Smiths acolytes (I remember an encounter with an oddly attractive but frankly over zealous disciple who thrust a vinyl copy of Meat is Murder into my face so vigorously she almost gave me a nosebleed), the music taste of students in those days was far broader than just the afore-mentioned Mancunians. If you take my circle of friends as an example, I think it is fair to describe their taste as broad! Amongst the albums they owned I would include the following:

Songs from the Big Chair- Tears for Fears
Suzanne Vega- Suzanne Vega (Much loved by my many female students and therefore a must purchase by many male students trying to impress said female students)
Brothers in Arms- Dire Straits (There's been a Stalinist revision of history that has tried to make out that no one under the age of 25 brought this but that is a LIE!)
American Fool- John Cougar Mellencamp (And the gentleman in question was not from mid west America either)
Reckoning- REM
Rattlesnakes- Lloyd Cole plus Commotions
Zoolook- Jean Michel Jarre (Computer Scientist student, nuff said)

However if you were to force me to name one album which did remind me of my student years, it would the debut album from another band from the north of England "London 0 Hull 4" by the Housemartins.

Much has been written about the state of  music during the mid 80s. There is a lazy history that says that initially you saw the domination of bands that had started out in the late 70s, Madness, The Jam, Specials, The Police, Adam and the Ants- all great. Then you saw the Synth domination and New Pop (Human League, Soft Cell, ABC, Haircut 100, Duran Duran, Culture Club). Then came the years 1984 to 1988 which were dominated by swathes of dross:
Middle of the Road "Coffee Table" acts- Sir Philip of Collins, Level 42, the afore-mentioned Dire Straits, Sade, Paul Young (Unspeakable), Tina Turner, Bryan Adams and so on and so forth.
Hair Metal: Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Poison
Dinosaurs that seemed to have risen from a primeval swamp: Genesis (It's bloody Phil Collins again), Queen, Marillion, ZZ Top, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac
Music that appeared to be written by five year olds for five year olds: Five Star, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Bros, Wet Wet Wet (Rarely has a band been so aptly named), anything produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, all those bloody awful medley records (Enter stage left Jive Bunny with his Mastermixers in tow)
Makers of POWER BALLADS: (which is where some of the worst singles of the period and indeed of all time come into view) W.Houston esq, Chris De Burgh, Phyllis Nelson, Jennifer Rush, Berlin, Peter Cetera, Robin Beck, bloody T'Pau and so on forever

According to this history, the only thing that saved music in this dark, dark period and British music in particular, was the previously referred to Mancunian giants, the Smiths. Hence of course why you have people saying that all students of the period were walking around clasping "The Queen is Dead" to their collective bosoms (This statement in itself implies that students were magnificent arbiters of good taste, which I suggest is at best questionable- I refer you back to the previous reference to Zoolook).

Now this is not the place to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Smiths but it is definitely the place to say that this is a gross over simplification. For a start of course music is a matter of taste and for many people out there, the days that drove down the M3 in a battered 2CV listening to Level 42, the furry dice swinging from the dashboard were amongst the best of their lives. For another I know of an awful lot of people who would rather french kiss a skunk than spend any quality time listening to a Smiths record.

Furthermore, if you did want to move away from all the dinosaurs, plastic pop and tooth rotting LURVE songs in those years, there was an awful lot more going on than just the outpourings of a man with gladioli sticking out of his bum. In the mainstream you had acts such as Madonna, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Prince and Bruce Springsteen producing critically acclaimed work that had huge commercial success. You had the flowering of the New Country movement with Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, which some would argue paved the way for Americana. In the pop arena, you had fine work from A-ha, Erasure and, of course, the Pet Shop Boys. It wasn't my bag but in the rap arena, you had groundbreaking albums from Beastie Boys (The scamps), Run DMC and Public Enemy. And of course, as always, if you looked off the beaten track there were always great records to be found. Some of my favorite records of mine came from these years including  "Boat to Bolivia" Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, "Walk on the Rooftops" Blue Nile, "Calenture" Triffids, "Welcome Home" Til Tuesday etc.

However even in the mainstream itself, the Smiths weren't the only so called alternative act having a measure of success. Whilst Echo and The Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain" may not be the greatest album ever made (as the lead singer Ian "Mac" McCulloch in a typical act of immodesty claimed) the Bunnymen were a commercially strong alternative presence in those years as were the Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode (who mutated from a tinkly plonk synth combo to leather wearing gloom merchants). The albums "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash" and "If I should fall from Grace with God" by the Pogues revealed Shane Macgowan to be one of the decade's finest songwriters. Meanwhile China Crisis, Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti continued to fly the flag for the New Pop.

Outselling all of these, though, was the self proclaimed fourth best band in Hull, the Housemartins, with their debut album "London 0 Hull 4". For those of us of a particular musical (and indeed political) disposition, the Housemartins were an absolute godsend. As readers of previous blogs will know, one of the formative bands of my youth were Madness. Apart from the fantastic records and superb videos, both wonderfully entertaining and full of character, I loved the fact that they were successful. This probably makes me the antithesis of an indie kid who as soon as "their" band becomes successful immediately deserts them. Me, as a teenager, I wanted people to like my bands. It validated my taste (These days I don't give a toss if people like what I like or not!) and also if they were successful it was less likely that they would split up. However, as time went on, Madness' records became more introverted and less successful (whether the two were interlinked is a matter of debate). When Uncle Sam became the first Madness record to fail to reach the Top 20, the writing was on the wall. We therefore needed a replacement and we needed one fast.

In addition, these were the middle years of Thatcher's reign of horror. Again this is not the place for an analysis of the politics of Britain in the 80s but my phraseology at the start of this paragraph should hopefully have given you a slight glimpse of my views of the insane old harpy. Suffice it is to say that events such as the Riots of 1981, mass unemployment, The Falklands War and the Miners Strike had politicised and divided Britain in a way not seen since. Included very firmly in the anti Thatcher camp was the music community. Whilst many acts were making shedloads of cash, it was a foolhardy soul who came out and proclaimed that they thought Maggie was Top of the Pops. The only two acts that leap to mind are Gary Numan, whose career went down the dumper shortly after, and Sir Philip of Collins, whose career was strangely bullet proof at this time.

However overly political acts who were also successful were few and far between at the start of 1986. There was the Style Council but to be honest Paul Weller had such a swathe of acolytes that he could pronounce that he has become a Buddhist and thought Nancy Reagan was sexy and people would still have bought his records. Most political acts at that time were struggling to make a breakthrough, The Redskins, The Faith Brothers and the Men They Couldn't Hang were making fine records and even getting the odd radio play but that was about it. Otherwise the most successful political act was this big nosed bloke from Barking. Armed initially only with an electric guitar, an amp and some John Peel exposure, Billy Bragg was, let's be honest, one of the most unlikely success stories of the mid 80s. His appearance on Top of the Tops with Between the Wars, coming as it did immediately after "Pie Jesu" by Sarah Brightman  and Paul Miles Kingston was one of the most memorable of the decade. The fact was though that at the start of 1986, Bragg's fame was in excess of his commercial achievements. He stood out from the crowd because with his guitar and an amplifier and (ahem) rudimentary singing style, he was the very antithesis of the well (over) produced CD friendly fare and stadium swallowing acts that were dominating the market. A lot of people knew of Billy Bragg but only a small proportion of them had actually brought his records.

It was therefore down to the Housemartins to take political pop into the charts and to capture the hearts of all those Madness fans who had jumped ship when Madness released the self fulfilling prophesy "Yesterdays Men". They formed in 1983 as a busking duo consisting of Paul (who insisted throughout the life of the Housemartins as referring to himself as "P.d") Heaton and Stan Cullimore. After a few line up changes, they then added Norman Cook and Hugh Whittaker. As with many alternative bands of the time, their first steps on the ladder of success came via a session on the John Peel show. This in turn brought them to the attention of the afore-mentioned Sir Billiam Bragg and the Housemartins were duly signed to Go Discs, Billy's own label. Their first single "Flag Day" was released in November 1985 and reached a less than spectacular 124 in the charts. However given the fact that the subject matter was the futility of charitable endeavours to change a system that was permanently weighted in favour of the rich, it clearly wasn't radio friendly fare (Peel, ever the exception, not withstanding), particularly as 1985 was the year of Live Aid and charitable endeavours were very much the order of the day.

The Housemartins then embarked on their first national tour. It is one of my lasting regrets that I never saw the Housemartins live as apparently they were superb. The end of the act used to involve dismantling the drum kit and playing the separate parts as percussion instruments. These were the days when bands usually had to tour their backsides off around the toilet venues of the UK before coming to prominence and that was certainly the case here. The tour went down a treat and the next single "Sheep" reached the dizzy of number 54. It was at this time that the Housemartins developed a lovely (and at the time almost unique) line in self depreciating publicity with T Shirts and badges such as "The Housemartins are quite good" and "If liking them is wrong, I don't want to be right" as well as the previously mentioned "The 4th best band in Hull". Self depreciating it might be but it made them stand out from the masses. If you couldn't imagine Dire Straits, Genesis and U2 publishing such merchandise, then you couldn't see The Smiths or The Cure doing it either. You could have imagined Madness doing it though!

If their profile was rising, the question just remained, did they have the material in the armoury to break through into that Top 40? The answer was a massive, resounding "Oh Yes Indeed!" "Happy Hour" was released in June and, aided and abetted by one of the finest videos of the 80s (and, yes, there was a clear Madness influence) reached No 3, kept only from the Top Spot by the mighty forces of Wham and Madonna.

The album "London 0 Hull 4 followed rapidly after and again reached Number 3 in the charts (This time kept from the top by Madonna (Encore une fois) and the unavoidable Sir Phillip and Genesis) and it sold over 500,000 copies which was impressive.

Even more impressive was that London 0 Hull 4 was a superb album, full of character and great songs. I bought it the first day that it was released and played it to death over the summer. The first thing that struck me was The Housemartins brought into play a number of influences that an English Pop Band hadn't used for some time. Just as Madness (Them again) had utilised Music Hall influences, The Housemartins drew on Soul, Gospel and early Rock and Roll and in places Skiffle. Whilst no one would mistake them for the Temptations or the Beach Boys, a lot of their singing was very harmonious and drawn to the fore by a very clear and basic (in the best sense of the term ) production by John Williams (NOT he of Star Wars fame). Indeed in many of their concerts and on their B sides, The Housemartins sang Acapella. This was virtually unique amongst British bands and would yield their biggest hit (Not on the album) at the end of 1986, a cover version of the Isley Brothers "Caravan of Love".

Leading on from this, it struck me and still does, that these were simple and straightforward songs (And that's intended as compliment) in sharp contrast to a lot of the records doing the rounds then which were complex  ( e.g. "Hounds of Love", Peter Gabriel's "So") or glossily produced (Too many to mention). In the best possible sense of the word "London 0 Hull 4" sounded innocent and sweet and reminded me from that perspective of the Undertones debut album. Both records are extremely easy to love (as opposed to admire, which is much easier to achieve).

The album kicks off with "Happy Hour". One pub debate amongst sad music fans like me is where on the album you put the Big Single. Some say you never start with it as then it's all downhill from there. Others say, kick off with it as you've then grabbed everyone's attention. In my mind, that argument depends on whether the Big Single is the Best Thing On The Album (Because you should definitely NEVER start with the Best Thing On The Album because then it really is downhill from there). As it happens here, as fine a single as "Happy Hour" is, it isn't in my view the best track. What it is though is a fine example of what was to become Paul (or pd) Heaton's trademark, a barbed lyric wrapped up in  a sprightly tune. In fact I wonder how many people who have bopped along to "Happy Hour" at an 80s themed disco (Lord Help Us All) realise that it's actually an attack on the hypocrisy and sexism of young upwardly mobile business types (The mid 80s being the heyday of the Yuppie).

The lyrics become even more barbed on the next track, "Get Up Off Our Knees" which is where the politics really kick in. However before I go any further when I say "politics" the songs are not awash with anti Thatcher sloganeering (Although be in no doubt that the "Thatch" would have been in for a good kicking had she turned up chez Housemartins) but be in no doubt that this is a Socialist album (Note: For anyone aged under 25 who is confused by what the hell the S word means, google it or stick "Tony Benn" into a search engine). The following is from the original sleeve notes:

"A Christmas Message from the Housemartins: "For too long the ruling class have enjoyed an extended New Years Eve Party, whilst we can only watch, faces pressed up against the glass". The Housemartins say: "Don't try gate crashing a party full of bankers. Burn the house down"

Subtle it wasn't! Passionate and outspoken it certainly was! And as stated in 1986 The Housemartins were almost unique in taking blatant socialism into the charts. Of course one could debate until the cows came home how many of the 500,000 people who bought the album actually listened or understood the lyrics or indeed how many people were converted to the socialist cause because of it. But that's a debate for another day.

Coming back to "Get Up Off Our Knees", this is the Housemartins coming out fighting and demanding that people stop fulminating against the injustices perpetrated by the ruling class and do something about it, in the most direct manner imaginable "Don't shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today". Again it is wrapped up in a great tune, driven by a great piano (played by Pete Wingfield, producer of "Searching for the young soul rebels" by Dexys). It's my favourite track on the album and given it's strength one wonders why it wasn't a single..............until you realise that it was highly unlikely that Gary Davies (plus his Bit in the Middle) or any of the other buffoons at daytime Radio 1 were unlikely to A list a record advocating shooting the rich!!

Almost all the other songs are similarly politically driven: Anxious speaks of the ambivalence of the rich and the powerful to the plight of the poor ("And they're raising all their eyebrows to the raising of the pound whilst they raze another city to the ground"), "Sitting on the Fence" hits out at wooly liberals who won't get actively uninvolved in political issues, "Sheep" unsurprisingly is about how easily people are led ("They've never questioned anything, they've never disagreed", "Over There" is about the life the rich live which is unobtainable to the vast majority without their resources", "We're not deep" is about how people look down on the unemployed (Unemployment at the time was over 3 million) and "Freedom" was a vigorous attack on the Right Wing press ("From the Front Page to the Interviews, it's sink the Reds and Lift the Blues. They pretend it's differing points of view but it's only different shades of Blue").

Of course, to those who have not heard the album, this may all sound like been preached at for 40 minutes. However for one thing, the lyrics are political but they're also well written, they're partisan but also thought provoking. Moreover, they are accompanied by fine and robust tunes so you're being entertained whilst being told something.

Of course it should be said that it is not a perfect album. "Sitting on a Fence" sounds tired and slightly laboured musically whilst the instrumental "Reverends Revenge" is unnecessary and if they were going to include an instrumental, they should have opted for "The Mighty Ship" which was a B side and included on the CD as a bonus track.

Whilst most of the album is fast paced, there are three slowed down songs. I would call "Flag Day" a ballad but the word "Ballad" tends to be synonymous in most people's minds with love songs, which "Flag Day" undoubtedly isn't. Almost thirty years after it was written, it still strikes me as an extraordinarily brave (and indeed controversial) song. Having been involved in many a charitable endeavour over the years, I'm still not entirely sure I agree with it but I can see his argument. Again looking back it's amazing that the Housemartins didn't get in considerable hot water with the Press (apart from a short kicking from the Sun for dissing the Queen (God Bless Ya Ma'am) in an interview). However at the time they were seen as cheeky chappies as opposed to revolutionaries. Mr Heaton would only become a far more controversial figure during the career of The Beautiful South (especially when he dared attack such venerable institutions as Page 3).

"Think for a Minute" was released as a single in a stripped down (and more effective) format but is still a solid song, calling on people to stop and realise how society has changed and not for the better. The last of the slower songs is, to my mind, the most remarkable song on the album "Lean on Me". Not the Bill Withers song, but for years I thought it was a cover version! However it was written by Heaton and Wingfield. It's a beautiful Gospel style song driven by a great piano and featuring a terrific vocal from Heaton. Of course in these days it is almost de rigeur for pop and rock bands to be influenced by a cornucopia of musical styles. Back in the mid 80s influences away from older pop and rock tended to be restricted to soul and reggae. The idea of a group of white lads singing a song influenced by Gospel was almost unheard of!

Listening to the album again now, it still strikes me as remarkable that it was as successful as it was, Not because it wasn't a great record because it was but because both musically and lyrically it was out of kilter with what else was popular at the time. Of course what happened next is well documented. The Housemartins made a follow up album "The People who grinned themselves to death" which although it had some good songs on, sounded tired overall. They then went their separate ways. Paul Heaton (no longer pd) went on to become one of the most successful songwriters of the 90s with The Beautiful South (and as at the time of writing his latest album, which sees him reunited with ex Beautiful South chanteuse, Jacqueline Abbott, is poised to go Top 5), Norman Cook became Dance behemoth Fatboy Slim, Stan Cullimore became a successful children's author and Hugh Whittaker went to prison for six years in the 90s for assaulting a business partner with an axe (According to Wikipedia, he's now in a band called "Pocketful o'nowt!).

One final sobering thought on the album. I still play it a lot. partly because it reminds me of my University years, which were good times. Partly because, conversely, it still sounds great today. Musically it hasn't aged, largely I think because it's influences (Soul, skiffle, Gospel, early rock and roll, acapella)  were not from the 80s but an earlier time and have acted as a preservative!. What is scary though is, given the fact that it's lyrics addressed contemporary concerns (The impact of Thatcherism on society and so forth), it is marked that many of the songs (addressing subjects such as bankers greed, inequality between rich and poor, injustice, apathy) sound like they could have been written anytime since 2008. It's a just a shame that we don't have bands these days in the charts articulating such concerns like the Housemartins did.