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 http://www.sounditoutdoc.com/ 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!