Van Halen: Quantized

Harry’s Records, right next to the bus stop on my way home from sixth-form college, was a real institution for me in the late 1980s (I’ve only recently discovered that it was actually a UK-wide chain of music stores).

Many a trip home was enlivened by looking at the covers of, off the top of my head, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis or Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

And Van Halen, the superb 1978 debut album. From the opening backwards car horns and Michael Anthony’s fuzzy bass to the manic closer ‘On Fire’, it was a total stunner.

It’s a brilliant mix of Cream, Led Zep, The Sex Pistols, Kinks and Who, featuring a talented vocals/guitar/bass/drums lineup with a striking audio imprint (producer Ted Templeman’s mastery of the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber, with Eddie’s guitar flying across the stereo spectrum: Rick Beato and Warren Huart have put together superb musical analyses of the album).

The band ‘breathed’ and grooved, and it sounded like they played live in the studio (they did, pretty much). It certainly wasn’t ‘perfect’. Perfection is an interesting concept for rock, one of the legacies of the post-Nirvana 1990s. Everyone recorded with a click track, and everyone seemingly looked for ‘perfection’.

The 1970s were different. So it’s a great jolt to hear VH’s ‘Running With The Devil’ quantized and placed on ‘the grid’ by this wacky music surgeon below. Judge for yourself if you prefer the ‘perfect’ version or original, ‘wrong’ version – it’s a fascinating, sometimes amusing project:

P.S. Check out this amazing soundboard recording of VH’s Hammersmith Odeon support show with Black Sabbath in June 1978.

Bruford: One Of A Kind Revisited

In the late 1980s, some ‘long-lost’ cult tracks took on almost mythical status amongst my musician friends and I.

There was Frank Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’, Rush’s ‘YYZ’ and ‘La Villa Strangiato’, UK’s ‘In The Dead Of Night’ and Bill Bruford’s ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself And Someone Else’.

Guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who died four years ago today, of course featured on the latter three tracks (he originally came to my attention when It Bites’ Francis Dunnery waxed lyrical about him in a 1989 Guitarist magazine interview).

Pre-YouTube and Spotify, the problem was that you just couldn’t get hold of this stuff (even though it was barely ten years old!).

So it was a thrill when I finally tracked down a copy of Bruford’s One Of A Kind album – featuring ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself’ – sometime in the mid-1990s.

And now this landmark collection has received the posh reissue treatment, as part of a box set or as a double CD set featuring a new stereo remix, carried out by Bruford and Level 42/King Crimson guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and a DVD containing the remastered original mix and a new surround-sound mix.

You could argue that the album is the most complete work by all of the participants. Recorded at Soho’s Trident Studios, One Of A Kind was released on the cusp of the 1980s and pointed to where all the four members’ music would take them in the new decade.

There’s no quantizing here – it’s music that breathes (check out the ‘bendy’ time on ‘Hells Bells’, ‘Travels’ and the title track) played by empathetic, truly virtuosic musicians.

But is it rock, jazz, prog or fusion? Who knows, but it’s some of the greatest British instrumental music of all time.

Bruford stuns with one of the tightest drum sounds on record – whipcrack snare, cutting Rototoms – with great phrasing and ideas, some fantastic tuned percussion (marimba, xylophone) and excellent compositions. Bassist Jeff Berlin is an astonishing talent – logical, inventive, technically perfect but never boring.

Dave Stewart (not to be confused with David A Stewart of Eurythmics) is a revelation, layering superbly with his new Prophet 5 synth and adding some effective solos. The liner notes report Holdsworth returning to the studio after a break, hearing Stewart overdubbing on ‘Travels With Myself’ and finding himself in tears.

For his part, Allan was by all accounts rather unhappy during the recording, but delivers brilliant, moving solos, particularly on ‘Travels’ and ‘Sahara Of Snow Part 2’. He also contributes the excellent composition ‘The Abingdon Chasp’, apparently named for a beloved brand of real ale.

Then there’s the resplendent ‘Fainting In Coils’, complete with the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ excerpts and tricky time signature which sounds completely natural in Bruford’s hands.

But how does the new remix sound? First, the good news: the title track, ‘Fainting In Coils’ and ‘Hells Bells’ sound fresh and thrilling; it’s like hearing them for the first time.

But now the bad news: ‘Travels’ inserts some new Stewart solo licks, inaccurately mutes some of his synth pads and then inexplicably mixes his acoustic piano way down and drenches it in muddy reverb (though Holdsworth’s comping is brought forward in the mix).

Then there’s ‘Five G’ – it’s mixed totally dry, with all reverb removed, again with Stewart’s keys too low and Berlin’s bass too high and too ‘middly’.

And the packaging? Sid Smith’s liner notes are excellent, with some lovely, previously-unpublished photos from rehearsal rooms and pub gardens (both in Kingston, Surrey!).

But there’s no sign of the tracklisting or song/composer credits on the digipack – you have to search around for the inner pamphlet to find the details printed in the middle, so quick reference while listening is not easy.

Still – even if the remix is patchy (I can’t comment on the surround mix), the whole package is well worth getting. Any excuse to celebrate a classic album and brilliant band, and a rich voyage of discovery if you don’t know this music.

One Of A Kind Expanded & Remixed is available at Burning Shed.

Fairport Convention: Sloth (1981)

What is ‘feel’, in terms of musicianship?

It’s something to do with the way the best players always give every note its full value, and never sound rushed.

The term is usually reserved for American musicians. But, to paraphrase jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, we had a few who could play some aces too.

Apparently folk/rock pioneers Fairport Convention had long split up when they reconvened for a one-off Granada TV special in August 1981. They delivered a beguiling version of ‘Sloth’, originally from their 1970 album Full House.

It’s a killer performance from drummer Dave Mattacks, adding to some classic tracks of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Chris Rea’s ‘On The Beach’ and XTC’s ‘Books Are Burning’ (Andy Partridge discussed Mattacks and XTC’s other drummers in this great interview). There’s also a whiff of US players Andy Newmark, Richie Hayward and Jim Keltner, not to mention Ringo.

Despite the slow tempo, the whole performance is kind of raw and ‘post-punk’, with some spikey Richard Thompson solos and excellent, ‘artless’ vocals from Linda. It easily transcends the folk-rock cliches.

Another band this writer needs to investigate further. And, despite the serious faces, maybe it was a relatively happy reunion – Fairport reformed properly four years later.

12 Angry Men: The 1980s Midlife Crisis Collection (Part One)

Here they come, these days about as welcome as turds in a jacuzzi, a collection of white, male, middle-aged ‘rockers’.

Then again, by the time of Live Aid, anyone over 30 was deemed a ‘veteran’, one of the funnier legacies of punk and New Pop.

Let’s survey the ages of some of the ‘rock legends’ who appeared at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985: Pete Townshend (40), Paul McCartney (43), Freddie Mercury (39), David Bowie (38), Bob Dylan (44), Keith Richards (41), Bryan Ferry (39), Mick Jagger (41), Elton John (37), Brian Wilson (43).

It’s interesting surveying the output of rock’s ageing alpha males during the ‘80s: angst, anger and lust were apparently their main drivers, alongside an interest in psychoanalysis and politics. Let’s take a look at some of their most coruscating work. For our purposes, we’ll define ‘mid life’ as 30 years old and above…

Peter Gabriel: ‘And Through The Wire’ (1980)

Upon hearing the early mixes of Peter Gabriel III, the US arm of his record company reportedly wondered if 30-year-old Pete had recently spent time in a mental asylum. But no, he was just letting off some steam, inviting Paul Weller along to supply raucous guitar, and unleashing a newfound, barely-concealed sexual energy: ‘Prowling the water hole/I wait for the kill/Pressure’s building/Overspill/I want you’. Ding-dong!

Richard Thompson: ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ (1988)

The folk/rock guitar/songwriting hero (38 at the time of recording) employed a killer US drums and bass team (Mickey Curry/Tony Levin) to carry off this pile-driving, piss-taking portrait of male jealousy and ‘little man’ syndrome. Note that he’s only ‘halfway’ out of his seat… Superb.

The Police: ‘Mother’ (1983)

Andy Summers (40 at the time of recording) takes some inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for this monstrosity, a hysterical, Oedipal blues in 7/4 time, very much inspired by his pal/guitar partner Robert Fripp. It’s quite funny to think that it was a contractually-obliged inclusion on the enormous-selling Synchronicity album, listened to by millions of unsuspecting teenagers before the emergence of the ‘skip’ button.

The Police: ‘Synchronicity II’ (1983)

Sting (31 at the time of recording) filters a Carl Jung concept through the story of family discord, a father’s paranoia and disquiet literally spawning a monster (in a Scottish loch!). Along the way, there’s also a barely concealed hatred for the common sprawl, ‘packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes’ during the morning commute, and the protagonist’s secretaries who ‘pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red-light street’, while Sting, Summers and Stewart Copeland lay down one of the most aggressive grooves in the band’s history. Scary, strange, midlife stuff.

David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part One)’ (1980)

33-year-old Bowie is jolly well peed off about…everything. There was certainly a lot to be angry about in 1980, and accordingly his Scary Monsters album dealt with some of the fears he felt for his son, from the increasingly bold tabloid press to the ever-present right-wing bully boys. In surely the most histrionic vocal performance of his career, he sounds terrified of the ‘fascists’ and violent revolutions on his TV screen.

Robbie Robertson: ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1987)

From the classic self-titled album, Robertson (43) sounds seriously teed off about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and more specifically, The Battle For Cu Chi of 1965/1966 (‘Down on Hell’s half acre/Shakin’ with fever/Rumble in the jungle’). Tony Levin and Manu Katche make for an appropriately barnstorming rhythm section and Robbie’s guitar is almost Clash-like in its viciousness.

More 1980s musical midlife crises soon.

Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies.

But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month.

A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984.

There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’.

What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long.

A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish.

However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?.

There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never.)

Lou Reed: The Best Of The 1980s

Lou’s gallows humour has been giving me a lift recently, a tonic for these troubled times.

There’s just something very apt about his cast of characters ‘that just squeak by’, with no hope of salvation.

His marriage of rock’n’roll music with the language of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Chandler and Tennessee Williams also seems totally timeless, and it’s barely believable that we’re approaching seven years since his death.

The predictable critical narrative is that Reed had a dodgy 1980s, not releasing a decent album until New York.

But I’d throw in ’82’s The Blue Mask and ’84’s New Sensations too; by my reckoning, his only dog of the decade is 1986’s Mistrial. He also seemed to develop, slowly leaving behind the drugs/booze and moving towards higher climes by ’89.

Here’s a selection of the good stuff, often featuring such quality players as Robert Quine, Fernando Sanders, Fred Maher and L Shankar. He put a lot out there, addressing jealousy, addiction, violence, ecological issues. A cliché though it may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with some of this these days.

Check out the playlist here and lyrics below. Keep calm and listen to Lou…

‘The Power Of Positive Drinking’ (1980)

Some like wine and some like hops
But what I really love is my scotch
It’s the power, the power of positive drinking

Some people ruin their drinks with ice
And then they ask you for advice
They tell you, I’ve never told anyone else before

They say, candy is dandy but liquor makes quipsters
And I don’t like mixers, sippers or sob sisters
You know, you have to be real careful where you sit down in a bar these days

And then some people drink to unleash their libidos
And other people drink to prop up their egos
It’s my burden, man
People say I have the kind of face you can trust

Some people say alcohol makes you less lucid
And I think that’s true if you’re kind of stupid
I’m not the kind that gets himself burned twice

And some say liquor kills the cells in your head
And for that matter so does getting out of bed
When I exit, I’ll go out gracefully, shot in my hand

The pow-pow-pow-pow-power of positive drinking

‘Average Guy’ (1982)

I ain’t no Christian or no born-again saint
I ain’t no cowboy or a Marxist DA
I ain’t no criminal or Reverend Cripple from the right
I am just your average guy, trying to do what’s right

I’m just your average guy, an average guy
I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place
You wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face

I worry about money and taxes and such
I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch
I worry about my health and bowels
And the crimewaves in the street

I’m really just your average guy
Trying to stand on his own two feet
Average looks, average taste, average height, average waist
Average in everything I do
My temperature is 98.2

‘Turn To Me’ (1984)

If you gave up major vices
You’re between a hard place and a wall
And your car breaks down in traffic on the street

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

If you father is freebasing and your mother turning tricks
That’s still no reason that you should have a rip
Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When your teeth are ground down to the bone
And there’s nothing between your legs
And some friend died of something that you can’t pronounce

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

You can’t pay your rent
Your boss is an idiot
Your apartment has no heat
Your wife says maybe it’s time to have a child

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When it’s all too much
You turn the TV set on and light a cigarette
Then a public service announcement comes creeping on
You see a lung corroding or a fatal heart attack
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

‘Doin’ The Things We Want To’ (1984)

The other night we went to see Sam’s play
Doin’ the things that we want to
It was very physical, it held you to the stage
Doin’ the things that he want to
The guy’s a cowboy from some rodeo
Doin’ the things that we want to
The girl had once loved him, but now she want to go
Doin’ the things that we want to
The man was bullish, the woman was a tease
Doin’ the things that we want to
They fought with their words, their bodies and their deeds
Doin’ the things that we want to
When they finished fighting, they excited the stage
Doin’ the things that we want to
I was firmly struck by the way they had behaved
Doin’ the things that we want to …
It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant
Doin’ the things that we want to
‘Fool For Love’ meet ‘The Raging Bull’
Doin’ the things that we want to
They’re very inspirational, I love the things they do
Doin’ the things that we want to
There’s not much you hear on the radio today
Doin’ the things that we want to
But you still can see a movie or a play
Doin’ the things that we want to
Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s to Johnny Boy
Doin’ the things that we want to
Growing up in the mean streets of New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand
Doin’ the things that we want to
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had
Doin’ the things that we want to