Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Great Pomp Rock Conspiracy

Ohio's Strongbow and Southern California's Emperor, despite their geographical separation and a gap of two years between their respective eponymous albums, have their feet planted in the same musical ballpark, both bands offering up a tasty concoction of vaguely proggy pomp rock. 

Strongbow (1975)

Emperor (1977)

An inexplicable synchronicity, a raft of similarities between these two groups of musicians suggests to me that in a pre-internet world where 'scenes' are generated and bandwagons boarded worldwide in an instant, there must have been other forces at work to cause this disconcerting affinity, some kind of shared, dark secret. The evidence for this synchronicity? Strongbow and Emperor each comprise five members, all of whom contribute vocals. Each band features one clean shaven face, three moustaches and one full-on beard. 

And, perhaps spookiest of all, one member of each group wears a brocade-edged velvet waistcoat (or strictly speaking, a 'vest', as they're American) which suggests participation in the black arts, or at least, membership of the Magic Circle. Coincidences? I don't think so. Look closely at the Strongbow band photo. See anything strange? Look again. Do you notice the thumbs hooked nonchalantly into pockets and over waistbands? What these thumbs are actually doing is steering the eye downwards where, out of shot, each band member has his bare feet firmly planted on a zebra crossing. What are they trying to tell us? Are they all doppelgängers? Had all five original band members been wiped out in an automobile accident prior to recording their  album? Emperor too may well be made up of stand-ins for the recently deceased original members. The evidence is staring us in the face. Look at the front cover: to the left a ghostly band ascends a staircase (to heaven?) and a fit as fiddles fivesome of lookalikes stands to the right ready to step into their shoes. What does it all mean? What it means is that Shelf-Stacker has got a bit carried away after reading an excellent book on the 'Paul Is Dead' rumour that pursued the Beatles in 1969, namely Turn Me On, Dead Man by Andru J. Reeve. And it also means that there are probably a couple of organ grinders in the USA whose pissed-off monkeys want their waistcoats back.

Enough of that nonsense. Let's get to the music. Strongbow's album features electric trombone, an instrument that is a new one on me. I'm guessing that this is a regular trombone with a microphone attached which is fed through various effects pedals. That's certainly what it sounds like. The first time I heard The Only One Around my ears immediately pricked up at this bizarre sound and had me scurrying to read the musicians credits in the sleevenotes. The Only One Around is a slow-burner, barely upping the languid pace of its Supertramp-like electric piano intro through an unhurried vocal and the aforementioned trombone solo until a tasteful but insistent guitar solo provides an understated climax. The musicianship throughout is superb, but special mention must go to John Durzo whose constantly evolving Fender bassline I find totally enthralling. How Can I Be Loving You comes on like a pomp rock Steely Dan with Fender Rhodes piano and that Fender bass locking into some jazz-inflected grooves. A Herbie Mann-style flute solo adds to the jazzy texture before making way for an organ-underpinned guitar solo that's accomplished without being overly histrionic. As for Emperor, they are quite typical of many bands of their era in that they can't resist bunging the occasional bit of bar-room boogie into the mix when an album of pure soaring pomp would surely have been more satisfying. I'm indulging in  pure speculation here, but I expect that Emperor had played their fair share of bars and the diversity of their repertoire no doubt reflected the demands of an often hard-to-please audience. Dreamer is very reminiscent of Uriah Heep in the latter stages of David Byron's tenure with the band, full of impressive multi-part harmonies and even a Mick Box-apeing wah-wah guitar solo to give the song an even greater whiff of Heepness. I'm Alive, not the Electric Light Orchestra song of the same name, is as proggy as Emperor's album gets, clocking in at nearly eight minutes, with time changes aplenty, a vocal that brings to mind Jon Anderson and keyboard flourishes that owe something to Rick Wakeman. That's not to say that Emperor are Yes clones, far from it, but the influence certainly makes itself felt on this track.

The Face Fungus-Ometer was created for bands like Strongbow and Emperor.

A joint eight out of ten! Even if the Face Fungus-Ometer can't differentiate between them, I think Strongbow just edge it for that crop-top, chiffon scarf and 'tache combo. Very brave.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Plastic Wax Records

It had been a while since I pointed the jalopy down the M4 but, a couple of weekends ago, the Shelf-Stacker clan headed to the West Country. Aside from good wine, great company and a very competitive late night Guitar Hero session on the PS3, we found time to visit one of my favourite haunts in Bristol, that is, Plastic Wax Records. This is an absolute goldmine of a second-hand record store crammed with a huge variety of chaotically arranged vinyl and CDs. The owner completely ruins the prevailing image of record shop owners as miserable misanthropes by being friendly and charming with a ready smile. The stock is reasonably priced and, with the Plastic Wax loyalty discount card, I am invariably pleasantly surprised to find that I don't have to lie to my wife about how much money I've spent.

 My modest haul consists of LPs by Tandy & Morgan, Stackridge, Groundhogs, Birtha, Ray Gomez, Pentangle and Camel. Some of them are caught up in a backlog of yet-to-be-played vinyl, but the big surprise is just how good the first Stackridge album is.

On the subject of Stackridge, I've never quite understood the attitude of some of the more po-faced Prog Rock fans who criticise progressive albums that have a light-hearted, quirky or, whisper it, commercial feel to the material. Don't like them? Then don't listen to them. Simple. My musical life has been thoroughly enriched not only by the likes of King Crimson but by accessible, song-based Progressive Rock by Kayak, Supertramp, Ambrosia and latter-day Genesis. Do I prefer 'Invisible Touch' to 'Nursery Cryme'? No. Do I wish that Genesis were a bunch of robots churning out facsimiles of Supper's Ready ad infinitum? Definitely not. Why do fans get so bent out of shape when, in the course of their careers, bands change, adapt and, dare I say, 'progress'? One man's selling out is another man's progression. And, if you'll allow me to head off on a slight tangent, what is the point of wasting your energy willing a Led Zeppelin reunion into being? Robert Plant is constantly pushing boundaries and challenging our perception of who he is with his solo albums and collaborative projects. Do we really want a predictably pedestrian reunion album to sully the amazing body of work that Led Zep produced when John Bonham was still powering the band? Similarly, how about leaving Ritchie Blackmore alone! So what if he wants to dress as an elf and make lute music for comely wenches and morris men. He's bloody well deserved the right to disappear up his own backside into whatever parallel universe takes his fancy. What could possibly be worse than the man who had a hand in creating In Rock and Rainbow Rising succumbing to pressure and strapping his syrup on for a final money-grabbing Deep Purple or Rainbow reunion tour? Do you really want the man in black to 'treat' us to a grudging rendition of Smoke On The Water when his heart is really in Camelot? Careful what you wish for! The alternative to leaving the artists to decide what direction their careers go in is to follow Ozzy Osbourne's lead. Recently he changed the proposed title of his album prior to release because a bunch of fans online said they didn't like it. Boo-hoo! Art by committee? Love you Ozzy, but give me strength!

Sorry, I'm not sure what came over me. Let me put my soapbox away and get back to the Plastic Wax haul. The Ray Gomez LP is one I've been after for some time, his guitar playing being highly praised by those in the know. Volume, his debut and, as far as I know, only album, is an interesting amalgam of sophisticated west-coast AOR and jazz-rock fusion with some scorching guitar work. Let's put it this way, Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow graced the turntable immediately after Volume, and Gomez certainly wasn't left embarrassed by his proximity to the great man. The Groundhogs LP I had to have as the CD copy I own just seems lacking in some way. On vinyl Split really comes alive, putting the listener in the studio with Tony McPhee's blues rock mob. Somehow the CD manages to stick the band in a perspex box, preserving the performance but shielding the listener from all the sweat and fireworks that are so much a part of the original vinyl. I've yet to give the Birtha LP a spin as it needs a good clean, but if it's anything like their debut effort, it'll be a gem. Their self-titled debut is certainly better to my ears than anything that Fanny, The Runaways or Girlschool ever released. In fact, I shouldn't fall into the trap of comparing them to other all-girl groups as they are the equal of many a hairy-chested, testicle-enhanced, hard-rocking outfit. The Tandy & Morgan LP is another that's been high on my 'want list' for some time, purely for the Electric Light Orchestra connection. I'm always hungry for an ELO fix in whatever form it takes. Check out this selection from my Bristol digging expedition and, by way of a bonus, a track from that first Birtha LP. Don't expect any Groundhogs though: if the sweat and fireworks didn't survive the transfer to CD, MP3 has no chance!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

High Fidelity With A Northern Accent

On BBC Breakfast this morning I chanced on an interview with film director Jeanie Finlay and the owner of Sound It Out Records in Stockton On Tees, Teesside. 

Jeanie has a documentary film out, Sound It Out: The Very Last Record Shop In Teesside, UK, which has been described as "High Fidelity with a Northern Accent". On the official website at you can watch a trailer for the film, check to see if there is a screening anywhere near you and request one if not. Do what you can to support Jeanie's heartwarming documentary and make it this year's The Story Of Anvil.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Re-imagining The Beatles #2 - Richie Havens

Richie Havens had the honour of opening the Woodstock Festival on 15th August 1969. Or perhaps he just pulled the short straw as he had to extend his set and improvise new material to keep the crowd entertained while other artists on the bill struggled to get to the besieged festival site. No pressure then! This wasn't Altamont: I imagine that the blissed out Woodstock crowd was very receptive to Havens' brand of psychedelic folk. All three hours of it.

The only person at Woodstock not out of his tree
Just a couple of months prior to his epoch-defining spot of rural busking, Havens released his most 'electric' LP yet in the shape of Richard P. Havens, 1983 which, as was the norm for a Richie Havens LP, featured a plethora of covers of other artists' work. And, typically, he made the songs his own. Of the four Beatles tunes on this double album, I have chosen the seldom-covered She's Leaving Home to share with you here. While you're at it, check out that great psychedelic sleeve photography. 

The green hue to Richie's skin, his repose and the name and date format of the album title give the impression that this photograph is a memento mori, the album an epitaph, not a leaping off point for an artist who would shortly perform at Woodstock and would still be making music in 2011. Richie's corpse-like complexion is thanks to the vogue for infrared photography that was popularised by the photographer Karl Ferris on the cover of Donovan's A Gift From A Flower To A Garden boxset and the US version of Hendrix's Are You Experienced LP. The photos of Richie Havens here aren't by Ferris, but by Mark Roth, a multi-talented composer, producer and photographer who receives four co-writer credits on Richard P. Havens, 1983 as well as a co-production credit. With tracks of the quality of one of these co-writes, The Parable Of Ramon, it's somewhat surprising that Havens relied so heavily on covering other people's songs. See what you think of it. I apologise for the crackles and pops throughout these recordings. That's what happens sometimes when you buy a 40-plus-year-old LP for a quid. I don't find the background noise intrusive. If you do, I suggest you imagine yourself sprawled in the grass at Woodstock (adopting a similar pose to Richie on the LP cover) bathing in the beauty of his music with the gentle accompaniment of the pops and crackles of a campfire adding to the festival vibe. Enjoy!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Hairy Hoodoo Men

Back in January when I started this blog, I revealed that an eye-catching facial appendage prominently displayed in a band portrait is often enough to persuade me to take a punt on an album, especially if that album dates from the late 1960s or the 1970s. This rule of thumb still helps lead me to some superb music, but once in a while the reverse happens. That is, I discover some spectacular facial hair as an unexpected bonus when I buy an album for the music contained therein. Birth Control's Hoodoo Man is one such album. Nowadays, facial hair, however off-the-wall, has become formulaic: it's part of the uniform of an alternative lifestyle along with tattoos and piercings. In the 1970s being in possession of an extravagant jaw cosy meant that you were probably a bit mental.

The Heinz Dofflein illustration on Birth Control's Hoodoo Man LP sleeve is like a Robert Crumb fantasy that's gone horribly wrong. It's not the kind of packaging you would usually expect for an album with a whiff of Deep Purple MkII's sound. Where's the self-aggrandising Mount Rushmore parody of In Rock or the cosmos-conquering meteorite of Fireball? Once you open up the gatefold sleeve you begin to understand why these Hammond-heavy Krautrockers might have opted for the bizarre over the iconic: they're all bonkers.

The Deep Purple comparison, however valid, is a bit of a lazy one based on the prevalence of Hammond organ throughout the LP. I hear sonic doffs of the hat to many heavy progressive bands of the era. That's not to say that Birth Control lacked originality, it just helps to have a convenient peg to hang that hat on when describing their sound. Of the two tracks presented  here, the first, Buy!, begins in promising fashion with an explosion. You can't go wrong with an explosion! Over the course  of its seven plus minutes, the track incorporates a fluid, mellow, funky bassline, tempo changes, a King Crimson-esque freakout featuring Mini Moog(?), a slide guitar solo and a Hammond / guitar duel. What's not to like? Gamma Ray, clocking in at almost ten minutes, opens with the sound of a spaceship taking off, followed by a spoken, scene-setting intro before the track settles into a relentless head-nodding, shakers and tom-toms, Bo Diddley rhythm. We are treated to lashings of Hammond organ and a rasping vocal underpinned at all times by that cosmic jungle beat and a subtle wah-wah guitar flavouring which morphs into something more primal as Bruno Frenzel unleashes a cry-baby solo akin to Uriah Heep's Mick Box at his best. A single manipulated piano note brings the solo to an end and introduces a hoodoo voodoo percussion-fest featuring maracas, timbales, congas, kit and kitchen sink. A quick guitar and vocal-scat duel, a verse or two and the Bo Diddleys take us home. This one really hits the spot!

It would be criminal not to bring out the Face Fungus-ometer for these fellas...

...And madness not to award them the FF-O's highest accolade!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Camilla: The Metal Years

Long before she hit paydirt by marrying renowned tree whisperer and Three Degrees fan, Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles had a couple of other strings to her bow. 

Camilla Parker Bowles

Her long-standing role as Audrey Roberts, the glamorous hairdresser in ITV's Coronation Street, is well documented, but her brief dalliance with hard rock has been hushed up by an embarrassed Royal Family.

In Character As Corrie's Coiffeuse

The year was 1981, a difficult time for the Duchess-in-waiting as she watched the man she loved marry another woman for no other reason than her face looked better on the souvenir tea towels and shortbread tins that otherwise sane individuals would buy by the truckload that year. Oh, okay, one other reason: she was already married to some bloke. People do crazy things for love, but how many have gone so far off the rails that they have formed a melodic hard rock supergroup with John Oates of Hall & Oates fame and Manowar's Scott Columbus (R.I.P.) in a desperate attempt to blot out the pain of a broken heart. How many? One: Camilla Parker Knoll. Clearly we can see from the album cover photo that Camilla, second right, is not a happy bunny.

Even in her disturbed state the future Mrs Wales had the presence of mind to disguise her appearance. The record-buying public and her fellow band members alike were blissfully unaware that the burly rocker was in fact a woman. The clues are there: the copious bingo wings, the studded choker hiding the non-existent adam's apple and the poorly strapped down puppies. Tracked down by husband Andrew to a seedy rehearsal space in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an emotional and confused Camilla returned to the U.K. and attempted to rebuild her life. Who knows what dizzying heights her band, USA, might have scaled if Camilla had remained 'unfound' because, contained on their sole LP, are ten fair to middling stabs at melodic rock, a couple of examples of which you can hear below. I suspect Camilla had a hand in writing Can't Get You Out Of My Mind.

It's been far too long since the Face Fungus-Ometer made an appearance and, quite frankly, I miss it. Don't expect a high score for USA in the facial hair department despite Scott and John's efforts, because, let's face it, they're at a disadvantage having a woman in the band.

A respectable five! A big thumbs up though to Scott and John for their 'tache and superhero leotard combination. Pure class!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Re-imagining The Beatles #1 - Pot Liquor

One of the marks of a great song is its ability to stand up to re-interpretation by other artists and in some cases to scale new heights in their hands. Don't shoot me for suggesting that Badfinger's Without You is a mediocre performance of a superb song which only revealed its true beauty when Harry Nilsson made it his own. Pete Ham admitted that Nilsson's rendition of his song was "the way we wanted to do it, but never had the nerve." The Beatles' With A little Help From My Friends suffers, some might say, from Ringo Starr's naive, tonally-challenged vocal, which manages to disguise the quality of the composition. Thank God that Joe Cocker was able to recognise the song's potential and gave the world one of the greatest Beatles covers to date. To call it a cover doesn't perhaps do it justice as Cocker's reinvention of the song launches it into the stratosphere. The fact that such a great song was handed to Ringo to sing on Sergeant Pepper attests to the embarassment of songwriting riches in the Beatles camp.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Yesterday is the most covered song of all time, with versions ranging from instrumental Tijuana Brass-style interpretations to reworkings by Elvis, Dylan, Sinatra and beyond. In recognition of the wealth of Fab Four covers that exist, today sees the first in an ongoing series of posts featuring unusual, surprising, and downright wonderful re-workings of Beatles songs. It's up to you to decide which category they fall into.

Here's Louisiana band Pot Liquor's interpretation of Lady Madonna. To my ears, their version invests the song with a Little Feat / The Band vibe. There's blues and hard rock influences aplenty on this LP, but there's also a heavy dose of what would now be termed Americana. See what you make of their take on The Beatles classic.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Welcome To The Máquina!

I love the Internet. Without it I would never have tracked down this great little record shop on a recent trip to Cantabria in Northern Spain. 

The shop in question, Boikot in Santander, would be a tough one to stumble across without some prior knowledge of its existence as it's hidden away on the first floor of an apartment block, accessible only to those who discover the intercom in the stairwell and get buzzed in by the proprietor, Daniel. 

That's not to say that the shop is unwelcoming. On the contrary, Daniel, whose English is infinitely better than my Spanish, went out of his way to chat to me about the Spanish Psychedelic / Progressive Rock scene and how it struggled to be heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s under Franco's dictatorship. Coupled with the difficulty of getting hold of decent instruments and amplifiers, band members often found their musical careers curtailed when they were hauled off for a spell in the armed forces. Unsurprisingly, many Spanish bands of the era were of a political bent. Indeed, the mere act of being in a band was seen as a political one, a refusal to accept the controlling hand of the state.

Loathe to miss the opportunity to broaden my musical horizons, I got Daniel to point me in the direction of some notable Spanish artists of the Franco era and he came up trumps. Following on neatly from my last blog entry, much of Boikot's stock consists of 180 gram vinyl reissues. I picked up a copy of Máquina!'s highly acclaimed debut LP, Why? from 1970 and Musica Dispersa's eponymous and sole album, also released in 1970, both beautifully reproduced by Wah Wah Records.

It seems that many of the bands of the era were intertwined, sharing members and accepting changing line-ups as part and parcel of contending with compulsory military service. Some came to view themselves as collectives rather than groups with a stable and fixed personnel. The impression I have is of a scene that was dynamic, constantly evolving, and that burned brightly but briefly. It is no exaggeration to suggest that artists such as Máquina! were as important to Spain's counter-culture as Bob Dylan was to that of the USA. Even the sleeve art to Why? was designed to provoke and rally opposition to Franco's regime. Apparently, Salvador Dali approved of the image of a pocket watch embedded in a croissant, a thinly disguised call for Spanish youth to realise that it was time to wake up to what was happening around them. The name Máquina! is itself confrontational, originating as it does from an expression whose meaning is perhaps too culturally specific to translate well, but was used by those doing miltary service. They would exclaim "Máquina! Dos cafés" (Machine! Two coffees), meaning something along the lines of "Fuck You".

Poster insert

 Why? is the type of album that bands only produce before the spectre of self-awareness causes them to compromise their art. Once bands begin to analyze what they are doing, the music they produce is rarely a true representation of what is in their souls. Why? comes across as an unedited stream of consciousness, a disgorging of ideas that had been left unexpressed prior to the moment that they were committed to tape. This makes for a somewhat schizophrenic album, but one that is never less than captivating. The opening cut, I Believe, comes across like Dave Brubeck's Take Five with incisive fuzz guitar: mannered coffee house jazz on a Haight-Ashbury trip. The listener is left unprepared for the title track that follows and plays out over two sides of vinyl as the band sets the controls for the heart of the sun. It is a jam, a glorious release, a flood of ideas purged in one take. It begins with a pleading, almost bluesy vocal after which the track becomes progressively unhinged with fuzz, wah-wah and Hammond all vying for attention, scything around the elastic bass lines and the drums which flirt with jazz before launching into a full-on tripped-out Burundi assault. The final track, Let Me Be Born, regains a degree of sanity with a throbbing, suspenseful bass line, an urgent vocal, wah-wah guitar and flute to the fore, ending the LP with an element of psychedelic funkiness.

Musica Dispersa are aptly named as their music stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed. Is it Acid-Folk, Progressive, Avant-Garde, Psychedelic World Music...? Well yes, all of the above and more.

The LP opens with snorting and nonsensical muttering, setting the tone for an album that utilises vocals as another instrument rather than as a vehicle for lyrics. In the absence, for the most part, of a traditional drum kit, the bass player provides the glue that binds the music together with some beautifully engaging rhythms. Various hand percussion, slaps and claps add rhythmic texture throughout.

Musica Dispersa

 After just a handful of listens, one of the tracks that has made the biggest impression on me is Gilda, a dreamy, meandering, piano-led tune with a vibe not dissimilar to an even more chilled Planet Caravan. I bet that's the first time anyone's ever compared Musica Dispersa to Black Sabbath! Rabel sounds like something from a North African souk, whilst Cefalea, with its hypnotic rhythm, Cherokee chant and up-front Jew's harp twang, sounds like something the Beta Band soaked themselves in before hitting the recording studio. Arcano, the only track with a 'traditional' drum kit backing throughout, bounces along on a superb, almost dub-like bass line and features Hare Krishna-style chanting and snake-charmer flute. Listen to this bass groove and tell me that Damon Albarn and his Gorillaz didn't sit up and take notice of this LP.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Facsimile Dodo G-Spot Alert!

One sure way to know if you have crossed the line from vinyl enthusiast to obsessive vinyl junkie is if you choose an original copy of an LP (despite it looking like Edward Scissorhands has been breakdancing on it) over a pristine later issue. For the 'serious' collector, early copies (preferably first pressings of course) are the only ones worthy of consideration. Owning a later re-issue is at best a compromise, at worst a shameful blot on a collection that has to be apologised for in conversations with others who share your particular brand of vinyl hoarding O.C.D. Either that or it has to be separated from the main collection, hidden away from mocking eyes like a grubby skin mag under a teenager's mattress. The chances are that you suffer from this strange urge to seek out first pressings if you own books like the one I've been poring over recently: Labelography - The Major U.K. Record Labels by Jan Pettersson.

What a rivetting read! This makes the guest publications used on the fill-in-the-missing-headlines round on Have I Got News For You (you know the kind of thing, The Alpaca Shearer's Gazette, The Crumpet Butterer's Chronicle) look as mainstream as The Daily Mail. My excuse is that I use it to ascertain the rarity of what I already own or stumble across in junk shops, not as a shopping list. Yes, it would be great if all my Vertigo albums had those trippy swirly labels, but the fact that some of my Black Sabbath LPs are on the spaceship Vertigo label or even (oh, the shame!) on NEMS doesn't keep me awake at night. Obviously, if I happen upon any Sabbath, Stones or Beatles first pressings in my local charity shop I'll be sure to find shelf space for them. Why else do you think I chose the pseudonym 'Shelf-Stacker'?

As someone who needs a tangible music collection, 'owning' MP3 files of various obscurities from the Sixties and Seventies holds no interest. I often justify my vinyl-buying habit by telling my wife that my collection is my pension, but of course, ultimately, I'd have to sell it for it to fulfil that particular purpose. Still, at least I have that option: good luck selling your MP3 collection, I hear there's a big demand for invisible, second-hand, ones and zeros! What I have come to realise is that while I'm waiting for that elusive original Decca pressing of Leaf Hound's Growers Of Mushroom to fall into my hands for a quid at the next Car Boot Sale, there are some really good 180 gram virgin-vinyl re-pressings available of LPs that realistically I might never see, let alone own in their original form. Let's face it, many original pressings are as hard to find as a Dodo's G-spot.

The packaging of these re-issues is often impressive, with beautifully reproduced artwork, informative sleeve notes and, in some cases, extra tracks, not on the original release. I generally have a bit of a problem with extra tracks though, whether on LP or CD, in much the same way that I can't be bothered with all the extras that invariably come with DVDs. Why on earth would I want to see all the rubbish that got dumped on the cutting room floor, deemed too dull, irrelevant or poorly realised to make the final cut of a film? Why would I want to have a rough-as-arseholes demo of a track that didn't make the grade on the original LP tagged onto the end of the re-release so that my enjoyment of the album is forever marred by its presence? I like to kid myself that magic happens when musicians are in the recording studio: a hard illusion to maintain if the listener is privy to the umpteenth amateurish, warts-and-all take prior to the producer packing the band off to the pub so that he can tart up their inept efforts with his studio trickery and banks of effects. Let's keep the wizard behind the curtain.

This Sunbeam Records re-issue of Czar's self-titled album from 1970 is typical of the label's output: faithfully reproduced artwork, a gatefold sleeve complete with an essay giving a modern perspective on the record's significance, heavyweight vinyl and a second disc containing all the extra tracks so that you needn't ever hear them if that is your preference.

Reputable companies like Sunbeam ensure that the artists actually get royalties for the sale of their music. For many years the only way to get hold of some of the more obscure psychedelic and progressive albums was to purchase suspect, non-legitimate re-issues on fly-by-night labels who clearly had no access to the original master tapes. I have LPs by Power Of Zeus (The Gospel According To Zeus) and The End (Introspection) which at first glance appear to be originals, but are in fact cleverly executed fakes. Even the labels on the records have been reproduced to give the illusion of originality, more successfully on the Power Of Zeus LP it has to be said.

There is no clue whatsoever on the sleeves or discs as to who produced these facsimile LPs, but facsimiles they are. Loathe to stump up the £100+ required to snag an original copy of Introspection, I'll settle for my dodgy doppelganger until I hit jumble sale paydirt. Especially as the sound quality is superb.

Put your feet up, pour yourself a herbal tea (or similar) and enjoy a selection of my favourite tracks from some of these re-issues. Hope they tickle your G-spot!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Moody Blue Cad And A Red Jeff Lynne

There seems to be a glut of bands from the USA and Canada featured on this blog with enviable facial hair. Outside the United States you have to look to the Middle East for comparably moustache-centric nations. Indeed, some of the skirmishes during the Gulf War must have resembled particularly bloody disagreements at a Freddie Mercury fan convention. Sure, the British did face fuzz back in the 1970s, but often in a restrained, university lecturer style: more a case of failing to shave than consciously and creatively fashioning a chin or lip coiffure. Of course, there were some notable exceptions: the awe-inspiring sideburns clinging to the fizzogs of Slade's Noddy Holder and Trevor Bolder in his Spiders From Mars days have few serious rivals and the magnificent Moody Blues have done much to champion the Victorian cad and bounder 'look'. Mike Pinder in particular looks as if he was born to wear a Royal Hussars jacket and make inappropriate comments to your sister about the turn of her ankle beneath her crinoline dress.

Bodice Rippers

 I am delighted to have found a record in my collection by a band from the former East Germany whose cover seems to suggest that the lure of the lip duvet managed to penetrate the Iron Curtain.

Short-lived Zappa/Lynne Supergroup

 Not only is one member of Puhdys sporting a Barnet and nose-doormat combination that surely infringes Jeff Lynne's copyright, but he is doing so back in 1979 when Jeff's white 'fro look was at its zenith. They had to buy their Levis on the black market and had no choice but to eat boiled cabbage and potatoes at every meal, but, somehow or other, the East Germans were hip to the styles being sported by all the cool English kids back in '79.

10 Wilde Jahre (10 Crazy Years) contains one superb track, Ikarus II, which sounds like Hank Marvin jamming with a Space-Prog Boogie band. The remainder of the LP is unadulterated rubbish having more than a whiff of the bierkeller about it. Despite the absence of a brass band, there is something a tad 'oompah' about the rest of the tracks, as if the musicians are unable to free themselves from the malignant influence of the traditional German music that seeped into their collective subconscious in their formative years. It's comparable to an English guy going to a rave and finding that despite his best efforts he can't dance without waving a handkerchief and jingling a set of ankle bells because he was exposed to morris men as a child. I'm sure there are men with heroic mullets, bum-fluff moustaches and stone-wash jeans who, when they're not listening to David Hasselhoff CDs, get off on this 'oompah' rock, but it does nothing for me. Ikarus II on the other hand...

Monday, 15 August 2011

London's Burning: The Day The Music Died

Now that the fires have been put out and the big clean up has begun, the less immediately obvious effects of the riots that hit London last week are becoming apparent. Because a bunch of selfish dickheads couldn't do what the rest of us do when we want a new plasma television (that is, save up for one or do without), innocent people have lost their homes, their livelihoods and even, in some cases, their lives. How many of the morons who thought they were fighting capitalism by burning down the Sony warehouse in Enfield, North London, gave a moment's thought to the consequences of their actions? As it turns out, that warehouse contained the entire stock, both CDs and vinyl, of as many as one hundred independent record labels for whom Sony acts as distributor. There are rumours that many of these labels also used the warehouse to store their master tapes, so many recordings will be lost forever. Most of these independent labels are run on a shoestring and have no chance of surviving a catastrophe like this. Congratulations scumbags, in one fell swoop you've managed to kill off one hundred small, struggling businesses and left hundreds of bands without a label and without hope. Yeah, you really stuck it to the man! We know who to blame when there are no more independent labels left to release challenging, edgy, non-mainstream music. Let's face it, the ultra-cautious major labels aren't going to take a chance on anything that can't be stacked high and sold alongside the other landfill-bound tat in Tesco. Welcome to a world of nothing but lowest common denominator X-Factor dross. I ardently hope that the geniuses that torched the Sony warehouse are among those who have been kicked out of their council houses as a result of their crimes: good luck trying to find somewhere to plug in your stolen 52" plasma TV when you're living in a cardboard box.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Warp Cure Update

My attempt at rectifying the warps in my LPs failed miserably. Back to the drawing board. Arse!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Too Fast For Love, Too Warped To Play

A couple of weekends back Mrs Shelf-Stacker and I, accompanied by our very good friends Mr and Mrs Wurzel, attended the second annual High Voltage Festival in London's East End. And what a weekend!

...and the crowd went mild...!

It's always a relief not to be the oldest face in the crowd but, at the same time, it's great to see 'the kids' being well represented at an event like this. A healthy proportion of teens and twenty-somethings in attendance will help High Voltage to avoid becoming one of those cosy, nostalgia-fests that verges on necrophilia, with decrepit punters drooling over coffin-dodger bands. Having said that, I was determined not to let my dodgy knee get in the way of going crazy-ape-bonkers to bus pass-eligible headliners, Judas Priest. It's thirty years since I first saw them 'live' and they never disappoint. They're utterly ridiculous of course, but I don't want to stroke my chin, congratulate myself on my intellectual superiority and be preached to when I watch a band: I want to throw the devil's horns in the air, and sing really badly at the top of my voice. As Mrs Shelf-Stacker always says, she hates bands with a message, unless the message happens to be "Rock 'n' Roll All Night And Party Every Day". She is a woman of simple tastes.

How Metal?

So what's any of this got to do with vinyl then? Well, around the festival site were a number of stalls selling music: plenty of the devil's coasters of course, but a very healthy selection of vinyl LPs too. I'm not one to pass up the opportunity to add to my collection, but the thought of carrying a bunch of records around when I could have a pint of Hobgoblin in one hand and an organic courgette flower and pheasant wrap in the other just did not appeal. I was however delighted to see that many of the bands playing at the festival had their albums available to buy on vinyl alongside a not insignificant number of those very sexy 180 gram vinyl re-issues of obscure prog and proto-metal bands' efforts from the Sixties and Seventies. Even better, loads of people were flicking through the vinyl troughs. Better still, many of them were punters young enough to have bought their first ever album as a download. Best of all, they were actually purchasing the LPs, not just looking at them and trying to work out how the hell these weird looking CDs would ever fit in the little drawer on the side of their laptops. I did however find myself wondering how many of these LPs would be as warped as a Gary Glitter theme park by the end of, what was, a very warm weekend. I was particularly concerned for the LPs that were held aloft in the crowd as some sort of a show of loyalty or as an attention seeking device: look over here, I'm waving a brand new, sealed and quite possibly wavey-edged LP at you while you're up there rocking in the blazing sunshine. Can't you see what an Über-fan I am?

All is not necessarily lost for those over-exuberant festival punters' records. Today, with the thermometer pushing 30°C and with a number of warped LPs that I hope to restore to flatness, I have decided to conduct an experiment. To that end I have placed warped copies of The Hits Of Edwin Starr and Canadian band Sheriff's eponymous and only album between two panes of glass weighted down with bricks and left them in the sun for it to do its worst. I'm hoping that the heat of the sun will soften the vinyl which will then be sufficently malleable to be squeezed flat by the weight of the bricks on the glass. All I have to do is wait for the records to cool down when the sun sets and, Bob's your uncle! Well, that's the theory.

What did you do today, darling?

Incidentally, the Thomas The Tank Engine sandpit on which the whole shebang is resting is probably not essential to a successful outcome, so don't worry if you don't have one. I'll let you know how things turn out.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

As Above...So Below

I thought I would share something a bit different with you today. Something that, strictly speaking, doesn't fit in with the vinyl-centric format of my blog, but deserves a wider audience nevertheless. 

Back in 1981, a full year before Marillion released their debut single, a Hertfordshire-based progressive rock band who went by the name of As Above...So Below produced a demo tape and secured a session on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1. When this was later repeated, I recall Tommy Vance commenting that he'd received more requests for a repeat airing of that particular session than any other in the history of the show. It seems a shame then that As Above...So Below weren't able to capitalise on the interest their session garnered and to share in the success that Marillion, Pallas, IQ et al enjoyed as participants in the early 1980s' new wave of progressive rock. I count myself fortunate to have a copy of the aforementioned demo, but my recording of their Friday Rock Show session has long since gone A.W.O.L. I would love a copy if anyone out there has a tape of it lurking in the back of a drawer somewhere.

I am particularly fond of this band as guitarist Robin Hodge, or 'Mr Hodge' as I knew him, was my school teacher when I was nine years old. Undoubtedly he played a role in developing my love of music, introducing me to Harry Nilsson's The Point and playing guitar or classical piano pieces at morning assembly. In the drab 1970s it seemed very cool to have a guitar and piano-playing teacher with long hair, cowboy boots and a side-line in conjuring tricks as a member of the Magic Circle. The band benefited greatly from the experience that Robin's brother, Phil, had acquired as a member of Steve Hillage's band, having played at some of the shows captured on the Live Herald album. To my ears he has a decidedly Tony Banks-like quality to his keyboard playing, whilst Robin's guitar playing is at times reminiscent of Camel's Andy Latimer or Marillion's Steven Rothery. 

Robin Hodge bottom left with brother Phil behind him
The band would perhaps have benefited from a stronger vocalist, someone with the charisma and lyrical bite of Fish or Peter Gabriel, but that aside, they had everything going for them. If you can find so much as a mention of As Above...So Below elsewhere on the internet, then I take my hat off to you. The brief flurry of interest that their radio session provoked seems to have been erased from the collective memory of Tommy Vance's listeners. Here's Fade Out, the lead off track from the demo. I hope you enjoy what you hear. I would be delighted to post the other tracks if anyone wants to hear more.

UPDATE: 9th August 2012

Seeing as there has been such interest generated by this post, including a response from As Above...So Below's bass player, Charlie Noble, I thought it was about time I posted the band's demo in its entirety. And, for those of you who haven't found it hidden away in the comments section, here's a link to that Friday Rock Show session:


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Don't Give Up The Day Job...

I have this mental image of branches of McDonalds throughout California being staffed almost exclusively by one-time members of also-ran Hair Metal bands. For every Motley Crue and Ratt there was a Roxx Gang, an Odin, a Hans Naughty, a Tuff or a Pair-A-Dice. 

"Do you want fries with that?"
There's a typically uncomfortable scene in Penelope Spheeris' Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, where an emotionally overwrought Randy 'O' insists that Odin will make it, no two ways about it, they will make it. They didn't. Not all would-be rock stars are like Brian May, guitar god and astrophysicist, they don't have a back-up plan if things don't work out. I suppose there's much to be said for the motivating influence afforded by having nothing to lose. An unfinished PhD thesis might act as a distraction to an aspiring rock god, causing him to lose focus. How many years would you want to spend schlepping up and down the M1 in a Transit van between gigs to play to one man and his dog when you know you could be curled up with a book in the university library? Thankfully, the corporate headhunters weren't clamouring to recruit ex-jailbird and abattoir worker Ozzy Osbourne, allowing him to concentrate on fronting Black Sabbath with his beautiful, plaintive bellow.

Some musicians manage to maintain a day job alongside the rock 'n' roll fantasy: Bruce Dickinson flies Jumbo Jets, Coldplay create cures for insomnia, Ronnie Wood has his art, Roger Daltrey has a pond full of trout, and Gary Glitter is always keen to babysit. Ron Chenier of Myofist (known as 'Fist' in their native Canada) has perhaps the most fascinating parallel career of all: he travels back in time to the Middle Ages to work as a blacksmith. I think it's wonderful that back in the Fifteenth Century Ron forges metal and then hops forward to 1980 to do the same thing in a musical context. And, the Medieval togs work beautifully in both situations.


 Their rather prosaic attire attests to the fact that Ron's bandmates don't have such exotic extracurricular pastimes. A bit of a shame because, despite having stolen the tassles from the handlebars of a little girl's bike to adorn his wrists, I think he's really onto something here. Clearly Manowar thought so because they stole his look wholesale. And added some baby oil.

More 'Manilow' than 'Manowar'

Revolting Hawaiian shirts and banana-hued leisure suits aside, Myofist are a band for whom I have a real soft spot. Their Hot Spikes LP from 1980 is a particular favourite.

It has a lively, infectious, quirky production which lends the tracks a joyful immediacy that always puts a smile on my face. The production techniques seem to anticipate those that came to dominate the 1980s without making the album sound hopelessly dated like so many records of that era. Containing elements of heavy rock, new wave and powerpop, stylistically, Hot Spikes is a tough one to pin down, but who cares, I want to listen to it, not file it. Having said that, see what you think of the title track: I hear a suggestion of Bachman Turner Overdrive's Not Fragile filtered through ZZ Top's Eliminator.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

New & Improved: Because You're Worth It

Two posts in three days: don't say I don't spoil you! The reason for today's missive is just to let you know that I'm taking steps to make visiting my blog a more rewarding experience. To this end I recently acquired a bit of kit to enable me to convert my vinyl to digital. "What a bloody hypocrite," I hear you cry. But not so hasty, I have no plans to cart my records to the knacker's yard and go all 21st Century on you. I'm still the same piss-taking old Luddite that you know and love / have never met and despise. Whatever!

If you look back at my Rio Takes It To The Max post you'll see that there's now a divShare player nestled within the text which will let you listen to the standout track from the Max Demian LP. Enjoy it! Or hate it, just so long as you can hear it! This is all a steep learning curve for me, so let me know if the player isn't working and I'll try to sort it out. If it is working okay, let me know that too. As far as I know, I'm not stepping on anyone's toes in terms of copyright as you can't download the mp3 file and I only plan to post obscure, unusual and out-of-print stuff anyway. If you like what you hear and want more, you're going to have to trawl the second-hand shops and auction sites to buy the vinyl.

I'm hoping that giving you a bit more to get your teeth into will prompt more feedback on what I post here. I would love to hear your comments, suggestions, requests, stories and experiences. Vinyl-related of course: I'm not the bloody Samaritans.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Music Search in Valhalla

It's been a while! Apologies to anyone waiting with baited breath for a new blog post. I like to imagine that there might be a few of you out there who enjoy what you see here. It's been a busy couple of weeks! Things got off to a bad start when the Valhalla power supply in my Linn Sondek gave up the ghost. But, that particular cloud's silver lining came in the form of a new Hercules power supply which enables me to play 45s now as well as LPs. Thanks to Carl at Infidelity in Hampton Wick for working his usual magic on my beloved LP12.

I've not been idle while my turntable's been throwing a sickie though. Oh no, I've been stocking up on loads of lovely vinyl to put it through its surgically enhanced paces. You might recall my mentioning the impending closure of Music Search in Chertsey, Surrey in an earlier post. Well, sadly its demise is now assured and, in fact, has been brought forward. After twelve years' trading, Saturday 2nd July will be your last chance to visit this fantastic little shop. As an incentive, all LPs, CDs and DVDs are just £1.00 each.

Obviously I grabbed everything that took my fancy before imparting this particular nugget of information, but hey, what have you done for me lately? Don't worry, there are still thousands of quality LPs to dig through. I didn't get a chance to so much as glance at the singles, so who knows what gems are lurking there. Incidentally, the 7" singles are just 25 pence a shot.

L-R: Clive (owner), Andy (co-worker) and a man in surgical gloves

I'm assuming that the gentleman on the far right of the above picture is wearing gloves in order to avoid the kind of greasy, filth-encrusted, cracked and bleeding hands that I suffered after a few hours' crate digging. I'm almost certain that he's not a Michael Jackson impersonator.

Get filthy with Madonna on the carpet

If Jazz is your thing, then you should discover a few treats in the depths of those boxes. I added some Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck releases to my collection. I wish I knew as much about Jazz as I do about Rock because in my ignorance I'm sure I must have passed over some absolute treasures. Similarly, if it's Movie Soundtracks that you collect, you'll find a ton of them here.

So, in a little over a week, when Music Search has shut its doors for the last time, what will be the point of a blog posting entreating you to pay the shop a visit? Well, perhaps these words and pictures will ensure that, in cyberspace at least, Music Search will never die.