Friday, 15 September 2017

Forty Years On... Queen - News Of The World

Hitting the 'big time' as they did with the phenomenal success of Bohemian Rhapsody in Christmas 1975, it was about that time that I became acquainted with the music of Queen in a proper way. I'd been aware of stuff like Killer Queen previously, but never really explored the band further until then. A Night at the Opera was an eye-opener for me, and demonstrated the breadth of the band's song-writing talent, from neo-operatic to almost vaudeville. A Day at the Races followed the following year, but that left me a little cold, as it seemed to me to be almost a repeat of 'Night...'.

As we moved into the autumn of 1977, a new Queen album was mooted. Would it be more of the same or not? Perhaps as a taster for what was to come (isn't that what singles were?) the band released the opening two tracks as a double-A side single, which gave a big hint of what we were to expect.

'News of the World' appeared on 28 October. There were intimations of what had gone before - this was definitely Queen - but new directions were evident too. It would be fair to say that the opening two songs: 'We Will Rock You' and 'We Are The Champions' have gone on to become anthemic, and at the time they were different and exciting - though '...Champions'  is perhaps more 'Bo Rhap'-ish with its operatic trills in the 'on and on and on' sections. 'Sheer Heart Attack' was, I thought at the time, a rebuttal to the raw energy and simplicity of punk (though it had been around in some form since the band made the album of the same name in 1974). All the band were involved in song-writing here: May produces some wonderful quirky blues with 'Sleeping on the Sidewalk', and something approaching the prog of 'The Prophet's Song' with 'It's Late'; and John Deacon again showed himself to be a fine exponent with 'Spread Your Wings' - on a par with his 'You're My Best Friend' from 'Night...' (maybe 'Who Needs You' is more akin to 'You and I' on 'Day...'). Taylor's 'Fight From The Inside' and Mercury's 'Get Down Make Love' also show a new direction in the band's music which proved to be innovative, if a little confusing to a pubescent rock fan: was this rock or not?

To my mind this was the band's last really good album, ending a sequence that began with maybe their debut and definitely their sophomoric offering: I never really 'got' their material from 'Jazz' onwards. But this is a fitting end (for me) to an excellent run at the start of what was to become a glittering career.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Forty Years On... Pink Floyd - Animals

Animals is one of those albums that can be easily missed, which is a great shame. Coming as it did in that time of great flux for the UK music scene, it is an interesting album. For many at the time, particularly in the pro-punk media, this was a perfect example of what they were fighting against: long, ponderous songs with seemingly endless guitar solos, lacking the immediacy and energy of the new bands. Coming as it did, though, at the start of 1977, it caught me on the cusp, and still was able to thrill this then young rocker with its complexity and dexterity.

The album sleeve, the work of Aubrey Powell and the team at Hipgnosis, has become iconic, with the inflatable pig tethered over what was then Battersea Power Station. It is hard not to see this landmark and not think of the album.

For the band this album is, it seems to me, a transitional one. It draws on many of the musical ideas in the 'big' albums, and there's a particular hark back for me to the title track of Wish You Were Here in the 'book-end' acoustic tracks, 'Pigs on the Wing 1 & 2', just perhaps a little simpler as a song. But between these short songs come the three epics, each in their way pointing to what the band would become over the next two to five years.

'Dogs' is for me the stand-out track, and the only one that Roger Waters lets anyone else have a part in writing. It seems to be a prophetic statement of how the UK would develop over the coming decade under the influence of Thatcherism and rampant capitalism, and its inevitable consequences. In 'Pigs' and to a certain degree in 'Sheep' too, Waters is starting to get his angry head on. Maybe not yet as outspoken as he would be in The Wall and to a greater degree in The Final Cut and his solo material that followed, but it is still there. His targets are greed, hypocrisy, censorship, and that fact that perhaps you can only keep people down for so long before they take back what is theirs.

This may well be seen as a coming of age album for the band, as they graduate from the spacey, psychedelic soundscapes of their early days, and the grand symphonic swathes of their pomp, to a more outspoken protest rock, almost. Perhaps it began to sow the seeds of the band's transition to stadium-filling mega stars and the inevitable self-destruction of the old order that accompanied it.

This is, for me, one of the band's best works: different from what preceded it and what followed, but transitional and perhaps seminal for the band's ultimate direction.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Forty Years On... Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell

There are certain events in history that imprint themselves into the psyche in such a way that, so they say, you can remember where you were when something happened, or you heard of its happening. The death of John Lennon, and of Diana, and 9/11 are such events for me - they will always be associated with certain places in my mind.

 And so is Meat Loaf's album, Bat Out Of Hell: not his debut - that came in 1971, but his major label debut. Forty years on (as the title says) I can still remember where I was when I first heard this record. It was in a small club in the centre of Harrogate, upstairs in a back street just near the bus station, that went by the name of 'PG's' (the club moved to another venue, nearer the Royal Hall, a short while later). PG's was a wonderful club, named after its mainstay, Paul Gerrett, the former keyboard player with local band 'Wally', and it catered for a wide range of rock styles in its live and recorded music. And it was here, as I have said, that I first encountered the delight that was Meat Loaf's 'Bat Out Of Hell.'

What can one say about this album? Firstly, the album cover is stunning and iconic: Richard Corben's biker emerging from the grave, the lush red of the sky, and the enormous bat standing atop the mausoleum, is rightly judged to be one of the best album covers of all time. The music is principally the work of Jim Steinman, acknowledged on the cover after some contentious wrangling with the label, and owes much to Todd Rundgren's production for finding the sound. In fact, the combination of Steinman's writing, Rundgren's production and Meat Loaf's vocals seem to have found the perfect fit here.

For a teenager in the 1970s, this album brought a wonderful amalgam of motorcycles, excitement and the fumblings of pubescent sexual encounters. The album begins with a road accident in which the unnamed 'hero' of the songs is dying, and the rest of the album sees him reliving some of the formative scenes of his young life. These are played out in a heat of heavy guitars and emotive string arrangements, both of which add depth to Meat Loaf's expressive vocals. This is a heady mix of good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll (Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and the last part of All Revved Up...), ballad (Heaven Can Wait, Two Out Of Three... and For Crying Out Loud), and even some very progressive elements in the title track.

After 40 years, and around 500 weeks on the UK charts, this album still has the power to thrill me: perhaps not in the same way it did to a bike-riding, rock-loving 16 year-old, excited by the new music that was around, but as one who looks back on those days with a certain nostalgia and an equally certain longing. I was wondering whether there has been an album in recent years that has had the same (lasting?) effect on me, and although there is so much good music around at the moment, I'm struggling to find one which has had a similar emotional reaction: perhaps it's my age...

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Forty Years On... Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus

There were a number of factors that attracted me to reggae back in the 1970s. I think, like punk, it was something different and to some extent anti-establishment, particularly with its connections with drug culture. Then there was John Peel, who played quite a bit of reggae - and sometimes some of the dub that was a little harder to grasp. At its more accessible end, this was fun music, too, which was another factor in its favour.

Marley, and his fellow band mates from The Wailers, had brought their version of Jamaican roots music to the UK earlier in the 1970s, and had had some critical success (if not commercial) with Catch a Fire and Burnin', getting a slot on The Old Grey Whistle Test - their first UK TV appearance. But it was Exodus which brought them the commercial success, and the album produced 5 singles which all made the Top 30 in the UK, between 1977 and 1980.

One thing is clear when listening to this album, and that it that it is a spiritual piece of work. Rooted in Marley's embracing of the Rastafarian faith, it draws on Old & New Testament images and ideas, linking them to the struggle of the Afro-Caribbean people. Songs such as 'Natural Mystic', 'Guiltiness', 'The Heathen' and 'Exodus' all blatantly fly the rasta flag - the album is subtitled (on the back cover at least) Movement of Jah People - but other songs too have a strong spiritual element too. As a Christian minister I find many resonances with Marley's lyrics and the Bible, particularly, but not exclusively, the Old Testament. This is an album that continues to thrill me, entertain me and challenge me. A true classic!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Forty Years On... Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood

As an aficionado of modern Progressive music as well as the 'classic' material, I'm no stranger to songs which draw on the rich folkloric history of England - Big Big Train have been mining that particular vein to wonderful effect for a number of years now. But they were not the first. When Ian Anderson made the move from London to the countryside in 1975 he was soon immersing himself in the characters and stories of country culture, and these tales would provide grist for the creative mill in the production of one of their outstanding albums, Songs From The Wood.

This was, in fact, my introduction proper to the band, and I was drawn to the album by the 'hit' from it - a Christmas hit, no less - 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'. I think it was a combination of the quirky nature of the tune, and the obviously slightly manic demeanour of Anderson on Top of the Pops, that drew the then 16 year-old me to explore more of the band.

This is, on first impressions, quite a different record from what I was otherwise listening to: the arrogant noise of punk; the bluesy bombast of Zepp; and the psychedelic trippy-ness of the Woodstock generation. The opening title track starts with a capella harmonies before flute and acoustic guitars, piano, drums and bass, and electric guitars & keyboards all enter the fray, and soon it is transformed from folk to full-blown Prog. Not unduly heavy, there's such a lot going on here, and it quickly has you wanting more. 'Jack-In-The-Green' is a song written and performed solely by Anderson: according to the sleeve notes (to the 2003 remaster) he wrote it before lunch one Sunday, recorded it after lunch and mixed it that evening! But it doesn't have any sense of being a rushed song. There is a marvellous richness to it, despite its simplicity - essentially an acoustic guitar & flute song, with some bass and drums  added to give it a little depth, but a great song. 'Cup of Wonder' follows, with rich acoustic arpeggios to begin, echoed by Martin Barre's electric guitar. There's a strong driving beat to the song, with Anderson's vocals to the fore, though with a good break in the middle for Barre to do some intricate solo work, albeit briefly. 'Hunting Girl' has a long instrumental introduction with piano, flute & electric guitar vying for dominance before the guitar brings in the melody riff with distorted power. This is a song laced with not subtle innuendo about a chance meeting between a 'normal low-born so-and-so' and a 'high-born hunting girl', the former of whom seems to spurn the advances of the lady - to be greeted by an almost choral refrain at the end: divine intervention? Side One closes with the Christmas hit - or rather a pre-Christian seasonal song, 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'. Again vocal harmonies are to the fore, as are bells, and although perhaps a little twee, it is a good end to the first side.

'Velvet Green' opens Side Two, and immediately there is the nostalgic air of harpsichord in the keyboards, transforming to flute as the pace picks up with some intricate drum patterns. An upbeat couple of verses then becomes a more ponderous tune, as tales of intimate dalliances in the Summer evening are related. An instrumental break gives the feel of a dance, with Anderson's flute skipping along merrily, before the night ends and we return to the opening verses to bring to song to an end. 'The Whistler' has a kind of ponderous opening, which carries on onto the verses, but the chorus is a joyful (and joy-full) romp with whistles a-plenty (naturally). Great fun, and probably the folkiest song on the album! 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)', by contrast, is probably the rockiest, with a stirring electric guitar introduction becoming full band before the vocals slow things down a little. After a repeat of the guitar motif following the second verse, we are then treated to a kind of jig on mandolin & flute, then things slow down again for the final denouement. The album closer is 'Fire at Midnight', a fitting end for this fine collection of songs, a short, snappy song which celebrates the end of the day, and the end of the album.

Perhaps not work of the fine Progressive pedigree of albums like Thick as a Brick or Aqualung, this is one which I love to go back to. Like the album that followed it, Heavy Horses, this is a lot more accessible than some of the band's earlier work yet still retains a credibility which some of the other 'accessible' rock & prog albums seem to miss. 'Songs From The Wood' still has a prominent place in my musical education, and still ranks as one of my Top 20 albums of all time.