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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bob Dylan Blonde On Blonde

Double Trouble...
Blonde On Blonde
Bob Dylan

The world is divided into those who think double albums are a really only single albums weighed down by too much filler and the over-indulgence of their creators, and those who treasure every minute, revering the range afforded by the extra space the format provides.

As someone who has yet to hear a double album that couldn’t (or shouldn’t!) be trimmed to a single, I confess a bias when it comes to Blonde On Blonde. Regularly spied in orbit around heavenly bodies such as Pet Sounds, Revolver in those stellar “best album ever” lists, side one is a golden run of songs that are about as perfect as you could want.

Even a cursory glance at the highlights would be enough to confirm this first disc’s classic status: the rambunctious stomp of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, the shrill punctuation of Dylan’s harp on the surly rant of “Pledging My Time”, a riotous neck-wrung blues soloing on “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”, opulent, elegiac verses on “Visions Of Johanna”, the popish affectations and beautiful detail of “I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman.”

Consolidating what he’d begun on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, the recording of Blonde On Blonde was part of an intense, fertile outpouring for Dylan. One can understand why he and producer Bob Johnston were keen to present as much of it as they could.

As a result however, the taut energy of the first disc become somewhat elasticised across the second, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, (whose eleven minute length even caught the Nashville backing musicians by surprise) being the chief culprit. Of course one person’s prolix poetry is another’s visionary epic, and it’s a fair bet that my dissenting view would be very much in the minority.

One point which both sceptics and believers can all agree on however is the extent to which Dylan is utterly at ease with himself here.

Credit also, should go to the crew backing him up. And if their backing is at times a little hurried or patchy, part of the charm of this album is listening to them trying to keep up with the man at the microphone. Mind you, they were in good company: pretty much everyone else had to play catch-up after this album was released.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Deep Purple Machine Head

The Boast In The Machinery...
Machine Head
Deep Purple

Though not without its moments, 1971’s Fireball described something of a non-descript holding pattern for Deep Purple. Not a bad album as such it was artistically at least a curious underachiever compared to In Rock.

What they needed was something with as much impact and which delivered them new standards to ensure their upwards path. With not a lot of spare change in the pocket as far as new material went, the recording session was a fraught affair. Yet out of such adversity, Purple dug deep into their reserves producing their strongest and most consistent set.

There was always a sense that the band pulled in a couple of directions, stretching between John Lord's classical aspirations and Ritchie Blackmore's brand of rockist self-determination. This was the album where Blackmore won the battle hands-down.

Released in 1972, Machine Head become the benchmark against which everything that followed would be judged against. In the canon of heavy rock this is an album replete with classic tracks. Concise in nature, killer punches are only ever a minute away no matter which song you play. Vocalist Ian Gillan excels himself on “Highway Star,” and “Never Before”, the latter an excellent single, released ahead of the album covering both pop, rock and some righteously funky turn-arounds.

Blackmore dominates the album turning in some of his most understated and reflective playing on “When A Blind Man Cries” (the b-side to the single and not included on the original album) and of course, “Smoke On The Water.”

Its devastating simplicity is the foundation stone of the whole record and one of rock’s most archetypal riffs. Not only heavy as hell, it was insanely catchy and the long-haired denim-wearing world grasped it to their bosom without a moment’s hesitation. Detailing the burning of the casino near Lake Geneva (which caused yer actual smoke on the water), the lyrical content perhaps presaged the internal fires that would consume the group.

Released in May it went straight to number one but by August Gillan had resigned. Though he would stay on to record the live Made In Japan and the decidedly lack-lustre, Who Do We Think We Are, the mark II line-up of the band was all over bar the shouting – and there was going to be plenty of that. Machine Head however, remains their finest hour.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Highway 61 Revisited Bob Dylan

My Way Or The Highway...
Highway 61 Revisited
Bob Dylan


There’s been so much written and said about each and every one of Bob Dylan’s albums that it’s all too easy to wind-up lost in the vast, labyrinthine myths surrounding them. One of the biggest is the whole shock-of-the-new deal, otherwise known as the day the earth stood still when Dylan picked up a Stratocaster.

It seems faintly ludicrous now that there could be so much ballyhoo over his decision to play some tunes with a rock group, especially when, even by the standards of the day, it was fairly innocuous rock music at that.

Still, escaping fundamentalists from whatever cult they belong to is no bad thing, and it was a newly-liberated Dylan, just days after his controversial appearance at Newport, who recorded Highway 61 Revisited with a rock band in tow. This is the point where Dylan planted both feet firmly on the ground that had been partially turned over on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, and started digging in. This is the point where he told the backward-looking fans that it was "my way or the highway!"

It’s easy to overlook the testy brilliance of "Like A Rolling Stone" on account of its having been part of the musical furniture for the last forty years. Yet the fresh air and fresh ideas whistling alongside Al Kooper’s soaring organ lines all add up to this being a 100% classic with one of the great cutting vocal performances to date.

Though comparatively muted at an instrumental level, the “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is no less mordant and biting a putdown. Not all imagery tucked up inside those increasingly florid lyrics plays well but there’s no mistaking the attitude jumping out of every last syllable. The abrasive scrape of his voice meets its match on the boisterous shuffle of “Tombstone Blues” with a spectacular guitar break from Mike Bloomfield ahead of the penultimate verse.

To these ears at least, Dylan works best when he’s at his most concise. Though the purists may find sanctuary in the acoustic-only eleven minute-long “Desolation Row” and regard any dissention as sacrilege, such verbosity drags slightly upon an invigorating collection of songs which otherwise takes things at a brisk pace.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Deep Purple In Rock

Something Like A Monument...
Deep Purple
In Rock


Having failed to make any significant commercial impact with three previous albums, Deep Purple finally turned some heads following the recruitment of vocalist Ian Gillian, bassist Roger Glover, and the premier of their atypical but ambitious crossover project, Concerto For Group & Orchestra, (conducted by Malcolm Arnold) at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. Though this classical curiosity secured a Top 30 placing there was a nagging sense that they had yet to fulfil their true potential.

Recorded in snatches between relentless gigging over a six month period, In Rock, released in June 1970, did just that. In some respects the material was a skilful synthesis of what was already in the air. “Into The Fire” simmers some of the juice left over from Hendrix (“Purple Haze”) and Cream (“Politician”), “Black Night” (not originally on the album but included on the anniversary edition) is a steroid-enhanced augmentation of the Blue Magoos’ “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet.”

Even the album’s rhapsodic stand-out centrepiece, “Child In Time” was itself adapted from “Bombay Calling” by US psychedelic folk rockers, It’s A Beautiful Day. In lesser hands a sculpting of such unlikely raw materials might not have worked.

That it did is evidence of their strident confidence that the new line-up had found. Deep Purple raised the bar thanks to the water-tight rhythm section of Glover and drummer Ian Paice, who together underpinned the diamond-hard riffing from which Ritchie Blackmore’s fast-moving excursions would go head to head with Jon Lord’s neo-classical noodlings like a couple of cranked-up kamikaze.

That we take the seam-splitting cod-operatics as the norm for today’s heavy metal tonsil-torturers is due in no small measure to lead singer Ian Gillan’s work here. Not even Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant had the range of shrill theatrics or glass-worrying octaves achieved by Gillan on this record.

Their collective chutzpah was captured via the album sleeve; rarely has a cover so presciently reflected the monumental influence its contents would have in the years that followed. Reaching number 2 in the UK charts in 1970, it made the band and pretty much carved out the template for heavy rock.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nirvana Unplugged

A Shadow Of Their Former Selves...


Appealing to our sense of romantic nostalgia for a time when music making was about connecting flesh and bone to wood and wire rather than the mains socket, Unplugged has seen many occasions when rock songs stripped of all their sonic frills and amplified heat become reinvented and revelatory.

When it works best it tells us something new about both the singer and the song. Neil Young’s Unplugged and his version of “Like A Hurricane” immediately springs to mind.

What do we learn from the gentle stroll-through renditions of “Come As You Are” or “About A Girl” that wasn’t said more successfully on the originals?

The muted expression in these campfire run-throughs, as though the band are sensitive about having their playing exposed to the kind of scrutiny the Unplugged format invites, makes them tentative and tepid compared to their fiery forebears. Only “Something In The Way” with added cello gravitas seems to be comfortable in its new arrangement.

With more cutting-edge than a sawmill working double shifts, Nirvana’s clout was always located in their sound as much as the songs themselves, whose essence was utterly defined by their reliance on electricity. As with most of the grunge movement their material is so intrinsically linked to the juice that without it, this stuff has a slightly hollow ring to it.

It’s interesting that they seem to audibly relax and stretch a little when playing other people’s songs–notably on the Meat Puppets’ lamentation “Oh Me” and The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.”

Had Cobain lived this set would be viewed as a mildly entertaining but probably flawed diversion from the real action. Released after his suicide in 1994, it was inevitable that the album was greeted with the kind of fervour that in days gone by might have been accorded to the relics of a martyred Saint.

For all the hype though, this set fails to get close to the plugged-in bite that was part and parcel of their strength and appeal.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Moody Blues Live At The BBC

In search of the lost band...

Live At The BBC
The Moody Blues

A friend recently described the Moody Blues as being like “Peter, Paul and Mary with a Mellotron”. Though cruel, there is something to be said for that harsh assessment.

Whilst their place in the pantheon of prog is no doubt deserved having set the bar for the notions of concept albums and honourably punching above one’s weight, the problem with much of the Moody oeuvre is that it’s, well, a bit too nice.

These early recordings catch them clearly in search of something as they move from their beat boom origins with a polite rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in 1967 to their more spectral musings on man with their monumentally influential “Nights In White Satin”. Although only a couple of months separate these two sessions you’d have to have cloth ears not to realise that a colossal jump has been achieved.

Sensing they were onto something the Moody Blues inhaled the full guff of flower power, and unlike many others who did the same thing that summer, managed to save themselves from the ignominious fate of being a novelty inclusion on a Psych sampler at some point in a far flung future. That said, if you’ve got the original albums then pass on this collection.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Night On The Tiles

A "try before you buy"addition to the kitchen. They remind me a bit of the cover from Scott Walker's last album. Neither of us are convinced we want to live with them.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Black Sabbath Vol.4

Not The Real Thing...

Black Sabbath


Working on the commercially astute basis of not fixing something that’s not broke, the Sabbs offer up yet more riffs of doom and associated heaviness. Hugely popular with the punters, particularly in America where their years of unrelenting touring were now paying top dividends, Vol.4 is careful not to tamper with what was now a successful formula and therein lays the problem.

Originally slated to be called Snowblind, this is the sound of Sabbath taking no chances with the music because they were famously too busy taking enormous quantities of marching powder. Whilst Sabbath albums have never been particular high on the subtlety stakes, none of their previous records sounded so lazy or dull, their recreational intake causing them to take their eye off the business in hand.

Cranking the volume up can’t quite mask the shortcomings. The intro to “Wheels of Confusion” briefly alludes to a bluesy vibe before it slips into a grinding motif that represents guitarist Tony Iommi‘s comfort zone.

The difficulty with this approach is that producer Patrick Meehan occasionally relegates Osborne to bystander status. “Cornucopia” suffers largely from being two separate songs clumsily bolted together and a frankly ludicrous chorus that has Ozzie bleating 'You’re going insane/I’m trying to save your brain.' Yeah, right.

Only the sprightly hard rock basher, “Supernaut” manages to reach escape velocity from concrete-set mould in which they’d encased themselves.

The only significant contrast to the wall of sound is Iommi’s superficial Library Music instrumental “Laguna Sunrise” and the obligatory ‘sensitive’ track, “Changes.” Who’d have thought that all these years later that it was destined to be covered as an amiable country-soaked amble by The Cardigans, a dance remix or even a saccharin-coated duet by Ozzie and daughter Kelly? Originally recorded long before she was a twinkle in his bleary, boodsho, red-rimmed eye, with its ever-so-slight twinge of gospel piano and chilled Mellotron strings, it has proved to one of the band's most durable songs.

After this, an itinerant Rick Wakeman would add some much needed texture to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but it’s Vol.4 where you can hear the rot setting in.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Black Sabbath Paranoid

The Boys From The Black Stuff...

Black Sabbath


With its monolithic slabs of sound and Tony Iommi’s guitar so growlingly low as to be almost subterranean, Black Sabbath’s second album maps out the same pessimistic pathways as their self-titled debut, also released in 1970.

Despite having cover artwork featuring a bloke with his Y-fronts outside of his long-johns, waving a plastic sword whilst wearing a crash-helmet, (the record was originally going to be called War Pigs) Sabbath meant business, and their dirge-drill was set to max and aiming straight for the skull.

The title track, famously dashed off in a few minutes, was a surprise hit in the singles charts. Claustrophobic and oppressive, this is dark stuff dominated by Iommi’s blunt riff and Ozzie Osborne’s emotionally numbed monotone sounding like car alarm gone on the blink. About as understated as a navvie’s 14-pound hammer, it sold bucketloads, drawing in yet more fans attracted to the no-frills pounding of proto-metal.

Though popularly associated with the Devil and all his works, the songs here are more sci-fi than Satan, charting apocalyptic futures, dystopian regimes and comic-book characterisations of politicians and the military.

The spacey ballad “Planet Caravan”, with Osborne’s vocals rinsed through a gauze of filters shows them capable of softening things when the urge took them. The only real clunker is “Rat Salad”, an instrumental bookend for a drum solo. Though it probably worked well enough on stage, shoehorned into the studio it sounds rather cramped and lacklustre.

Sabbath may not have been the most musically adventurous group of their generation but they did one thing and did it exceptionally well. If you want proof just take a look at the world of heavy metal. Without this album there wouldn’t be one. Simple as that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Richard Hell & The Voidoids Blank Generation

It's Blank But Not As We Know It...

Richard Hell and The Voidoids
Blank Generation


Having been a member of Television in their pre-Marquee Moon days, stoked the bass for The Heartbreakers and chased by Malcolm McLaren during his New York Dolls phase, Richard Hell had already packed a lot into his CV by the time he got round to recording this seminal album. With his sulking bruise of a voice, torn clothes and a king-size sneer that Elvis would have been proud of, Hell was every inch a punk rock icon long before the safety-pinned crowds cottoned on to the new threads. Unlike the vast majority of the clones that would follow, there was a keen intelligence at work behind the pose.

He was into his late twenties when he stepped up to the microphone to record his tequila-fuelled vocals and for all their off-the-cuff artlessness, his words were honed by a voracious high-brow reading habit. Wry innuendo aside, “Love Comes In Spurts” traces the emotional atrophy of a childhood where love is doled out in miserly packages.

Abuse of another kind is alluded to in “Liars Beware” and the anger of “Betrayal Takes Two isn’t deployed every which way but conveyed with the precision of a stiletto blade. As with the words, there’s more to music than first meets the ear.

Though the vernacular deals in three-chord slang, Robert Quine’s maturity (35 at the time and as much influenced by Ornette Coleman as the Velvet Underground) lends the guitar parts on the album (shared with Ivan Julien) a subtle complexity that would not sound out of place on a Captain Beefheart album.

Eclectic cover versions (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Walking On Water” and lounge crooning standard “All The Way”) add to the patina of deft accomplishment. There’s a neat Talking Heads-type sophistication about “The Plan”, whilst the epic twitch-funk smoke of “Another World” billows crazily like steam escaping from a New York street.

There are perhaps only a handful of records which encapsulate the environment that spawned them but The Blank Generation bottles up the smell and feel of the whole NY CBGB era, making it a thrilling and improbably poignant listening experience.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Who Sell Out The Who

Advertisements For Themselves

The Who Sell Out
The Who


Whatever the arty origins of their auto-destruction stage act may have been, the resulting column inches from those exploding drum kits and wrecked amplifiers demonstrated that The Who were one of the most media-savvy bands around. Their grasp of the importance of image comes as no particular surprise given Mod culture’s attention to personal grooming and having the correct look at all times.

Pete Townshend once said that the idea of interspersing the tracks of The Who Sell Out with radio jingles came from a desire to disguise what he felt was a weak collection of songs. Thus the iconic cover and the audio adverts conspired to become a satirical swipe at rampant consumerism – hey presto, a concept album of sorts. Well, almost.

Ironically, the album is an advert of sorts for their follow-up record, containing as it does, many of the seeds that would flower into Tommy. Townshend was partially right about some it not being up to scratch. John Entwhistle’s “Mingy Stingy” and the psychedelic “Armenia City In The Sky” (written by Speedy Keene, later of Thunderclap Newman and Motorhead producer, trivia fans), as well as his own “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand” and “Our Love Was” may well be innocuous tosh but tosh nevertheless.

Things get on firmer Townshend ground with the tongue-in-cheek tale about the nature of masculinity, “Tattoo” which has such a glorious uplifting melody that Roger Daltry could’ve sang lines from the Yellow Pages and it would’ve been just as spine-tingling. The plaintive “Sunshine” (with its hint of “Pinball Wizard”) is an attractive enough love song, and like “Rael 1” - the album’s only true concept track - shows his keenness to extend his craft. Generally though, things are pretty tame by The Who’s rumbustious standards, and lacking stylistic coherence.

The exception is “I Can See For Miles.” Its glowering presence overshadows everything else here. The rumbling salvos of Keith Moon’s tom-toms brilliantly herald the cathartic release of the song’s pulsating, obsessive chorus. A classic chunk of Who and a highpoint in 60s pop.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Are You Experienced Jimi Hendrix

Pilot Of The Future

Jimi Hendrix
Are You Experienced


It’s hard to imagine an album like Are You Experienced getting made these days. Even harder to imagine is a major label picking up this expansive combination of pop, rock, soul, jazz, funk and stoned experimentation. The marketing people would have a fit trying to figure out how to sell it to the kids as they A&Red the life out of it.

When recording on this album began in 1966 (finishing in 1967) there were only a handful of people tinkering with the format of the three minute song. Hendrix’s arrival on the scene (the archetypal stranger in a strange land scenario) upped the ante and didn’t so much nudge things along as give them an almighty shove after which rock music would never be the same again. Even ignoring the likes of “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” (as singles they were not included on the original album) tracks like “Fire” stretch out the baton that later bands such as Deep Purple would so willingly grasp.

Similarly, the faintly ludicrous cock-rock antics of “Foxy Lady” graphically joined the dots on the whole sex and music shebang in a way that a nation weaned on Hank Marvin heroics could barely guess at. Whilst some of the licks shot-blasted across the disc ape the twangy pop tones of the day, his solo on “Manic Depression” sounds like its being beamed in from another dimension altogether. “Red House” remains a dazzling blues exhibition that rightly made the jaws of London’s musical elite drop.

It’s a sobering thought that when this originally came out in May 1967, the only other serious contender for the crown of guitar godhood, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, was still six months from being released.

The psychedelic flummeries added to an already rich recipe (the title track and “Third Stone From The Sun”) occasionally results in a kind of multi-coloured indigestion. Whilst such embroidery indelibly watermarks the album, it rarely detracts from the stand-out, casual brilliance that is so abundant. This is the sound of the future arriving; tacky, awkward, inspirational, exciting, perplexing and sometimes contradictory for sure, but the future nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fresh Cream Cream

The Shape Of Things To Come

Fresh Cream


Laid down at the height of the UK blues boom, Fresh Cream covers the kind of territory you might expect from three of the most respected players on the scene at the time. With Clapton fresh just from his time with John Mayall, Ginger Baker leaving behind the R'n'B backwaters of Graham Bond Organisation, and a woefully under-employed Jack Bruce hightailing it from the increasingly pop-leaning Manfred Mann, the electric blues was their natural turf.

Highlights include the racing harmonica work-out, and the call and response excitements on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” a spine-tingled vocal on the Willie Dixon classic, “Spoonful” as well as the self-penned “Sleepy Time Time” which gives Clapton a free hand to wake up all and sundry. The traditional standard, "Cat’s Squirrel" is given a rousing treatment, showing how well these players meshed. Only a particularly anaemic stroll through Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late”, sounds like a side filler.

What lifts this album beyond the blues-tinged pigeon-hole are some superior pop songs brought along for the ride.

It’s well-neigh impossible to hear the opening bars of “I Feel Free” without conjuring up images of dolly birds, hip young guys in new threads full of finger-clicking coolness hopping aboard one of those brand new Mini cars and soaring off for groovy times. Cultural cliché’s aside, given the amount of musical information that’s been packed into those two minutes and fifty-five seconds, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t implode under the weight of its own inventiveness.

The rhythmic ambitions and ambiguity of “NSU” adds to the thrill, and if some of it doesn’t quite work as well as it should (Bruce’s dreary “Dreaming” is especially lame), “Sweet Wine” with its psyche-tinged lyrics and the heavy breakout offers a clear hint of what was to come. Overshadowed by its more famous successor (1967’s Disraeli Gears) and their reputation for lengthy improvisations during which mighty civilisations would rise and fall, their debut captures one of those elusive moments in music when blues, pop and rock magically starts to coalesce to create something brand new.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Doors Of Perception...

My thanks to Rupert Loydell for initiating me into the joys of this wonderful website. Click on it at your peril. What on earth did we all do before the internet?

Monday, April 09, 2007


Let joy be unconfined - the mighty and deeply wonderful Dubstar have reformed and are heading back. I love Dubstar but came to them late in the day when I was working on the Northstars book a couple of years ago. So, by way of celebration of their impending return, here's the chapter from Northstars that deals with them.

It’s June 1995. The taxi driver has just picked up a fare from Gateshead’s Low Fell to go down into The Forth public house in Newcastle’s Pink Lane. After some small talk the driver turns the radio on. The poppy froth of Radio 1 leaks out from the speakers as the car crosses over the Tyne Bridge.

Somewhere between the boy bands, rehashes and TV tie-ins there comes a glistening, bitter-sweet sound – ineffably melancholic yet uplifting and reaffirming; the song is called "Stars" and the group is called Dubstar.

The driver taps his fingers in time with the shuffling, sampled dance-groove that bubbles under the icy-cool vocals and sparkling production.

For Chris Wilkie - the fare in the back of the cab - this is a surreal moment. Having turned twenty-two back in January, he is on national radio. Chris is a member of Dubstar and they are on the up and up. Although it’s a novel experience hearing oneself on the radio it is also a sobering one; Chris realises that he and his colleagues, Steve Hillier and Sarah Blackwood have a responsibility not to bottle this opportunity.

They didn’t.

During the course of their seven years together Dubstar would find themselves the subject of countless articles and features across the world’s press, clock up album sales of over half a million copies in the UK alone, produce three albums of consummate and sublime pop music, make numerous TV and radio appearances, headline at Reading Festival and generally badger the charts around the globe.

But back then, as Chris stepped out of the taxi, he didn’t know any of that. Right then, their feet were firmly on the ground.

“We had pretty normal backgrounds; none of us came from stage school backgrounds or anything like that. My mother was a primary school teacher and my dad was a builder who went on to lecture at Newcastle Polytechnic (now University of Northumbria). Sarah's parents were very much working class people and Steve's folks had pretty normal family life. You write about what you've got don't you. We couldn't really write about the Hollywood Hills because we hadn't been there.”

Born in Birtley and brought up in Low Fell, Chris was made well aware of the region’s musical heritage courtesy of his father’s record collection. “I was 5 or 6 years old when my dad actually gave me his pile of 45s that he'd had from when he was younger. The one that really stuck out was this old Shadows EP - Shadows to the Fore with "Apache", "Man of Mystery" and "FBI" and all those songs. The cover had this beautiful picture of them with these fantastic looking guitars and I remember thinking that they just looked wonderful.”

It wasn’t just the look of pop music that fired Wilkie’s youthful imagination. His father would spend time telling his young son stories about the old glory days of Newcastle’s music scene. “I was quite envious of this scene he would describe; watching The Animals playing "Road Runner" at the Club A Go Go or whatever. It always sounded so exciting, so vibrant.”

Aside from his dad’s collection, Chris was listening to the radio and the likes of the Pretenders and Blondie – a place where guitar based bands seemed to rule the roost. As influential as this medium was, the true catalyst to Chris becoming a musician was his father’s battered old collection. In 1979, following a trip into town with his mother, Chris emerged from Jeavons music store on Percy Street carrying an acoustic guitar.

Fads and fashions come and go as sure as day follows night. Kids pick things up, dabble a bit and then move on to the next big idea. Not Chris. He was six years old and he gave his guitar his full attention and would prove a talented and enthusiastic pupil. It was at Kells Lane primary school in Low Fell where his precocious technique was first noted although not always appreciated.

“The teacher would show you like a D7 chord or whatever. But I've been playing so much at home that I ended up teaching the teacher how to do the "House of the Rising Sun" chords at one point. And I think because she sort of felt that I got a bit cocky so she actually put me on the snare drum…she thought I was too big for my boots.”

Chris had a brief dalliance with making animated films after acquiring a small stop frame movie camera when he was about eight years old. Although he kept this up well into his teens as a hobby it still came very much second to his music. By the time Chris turned fourteen in 1987, the movie camera had been consigned to the shelf. He was now playing electric guitar and needed to devote all his energies into tackling the different skills needed for playing electric. Here he would look to The Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr for inspiration.

Marr was a formidable technician and immensely gifted writer whose abilities stretched way beyond his youthful years. His songs were impeccable constructions filled with breath-taking dexterity, audacious verses, startling bridges and middle eights, culminating in heroic choruses. These elements combined with the wit and wisdom of lead singer Morrisey, meant that The Smiths in the brief career through the 80s (and beyond) were a force to be reckoned with. If you’re going to learn, then you might as well learn from the best. For Chris, that was Marr.

By now Chris was attending Heathfield Senior High (other notable pupils have included Paul Gascoigne and Coronation Street / Eastenders' actress, Jill Halfpenny). Getting together with a bunch of mates from the school, Chris formed The Presleys. “We started off trying to do Smiths covers and then just started making our own tunes because it seemed like the next thing to do” Wilkie recalls “By 15 or 16 I was gigging in bars and clubs in Tyneside that I wasn't really old enough to be in.”

Getting those early gigs required resourcefulness and some cunning. “We had to fool Pelaw Social Club into letting us put on a gig by pretending that it was a birthday do. Then we went and sold tickets round at school at two quid a piece to cover the cost of hiring the room. That was when it started to become like an ambition or vocation.”

The Presleys put a lot of emphasis on their visual presentation, sometimes taking risks with their reputation in the process. “We had this song called "Collective Partner". It was supposed to be about this almost diseased Ziggy Stardust-type figure, kind of making love to the audience like all at once. The singer would sometimes get carried away and drop his trousers and end up gyrating. I think we nearly got thrown out.”

The Presleys had been sending demo recordings to independent companies such as Rough Trade and though they hadn’t been signed they nevertheless received enough encouraging replies to keep the momentum and maintain Chris’s ambition for a career playing music. The Presleys fell apart when members of the group headed off to university. Chris admits to feeling upset and a little lost. So, in 1992 just as one door closed, another opened - the door into Walkers nightclub on Low Friar Street, Newcastle.

“I started hanging out at the sort of nightclubs which played the kind of music that I liked and quite specifically to try and keep my mind on the job of finding people to form a band with. I was signing on at the time and had to go where the students were going in town to listen to more esoteric music and where the beer was cheaper.”

But it wasn’t just the cheap beer that attracted Chris to Walkers on Wednesday and Thursday nights. DJ, Steve Hillier was playing music that was a little off the beaten track and Chris liked what he heard.

“I'd been watching him quite interestedly for a while because he was playing the kind of things that I would only normally hear in my bedroom acts like Ultra Vivid Scene and Throwing Muses. Nobody would really try to play that stuff normally in a nightclub in Newcastle because you'd get thrown out - you wouldn't last a couple of weeks.”

Meeting Hillier was a pivotal moment in Wilkie’s life. Just as the purchase of that small acoustic guitar would open his horizons, getting together with Hillier would prove just as critical.

“I'd told him my sob story about how the Presleys had gone under and how I was hoping to get another band together. It turned out he'd had similar aspirations of his own, sitting in his bedroom in Jesmond, wanting to be a singer. He said he played the guitar a bit which disappointed me because I knew that I was a good guitarist and I thought that the guitar would be my bag. But he was also a programmer - playing keyboards - because he'd had to make his own demos at home. So he invited me over to his place to listen to what he’d been doing.”

Steve Hillier had moved up to north east in 1988 after a stint as a sales executive for Pinnacle Records (a major distributor). His experience of DJing in his native Southampton and London meant he was well placed to make an impact on Newcastle’s club scene. Alongside residencies at clubs such as Walkers and Riverside in Newcastle upon Tyne, Planet Earth in Leeds and The Arena in Middlesbrough, Steve also hosted radio shows for Ice FM, Wear FM and provided title themes for Metro FM among others.

“So he met me at West Jesmond Metro station and took me over to his place” Chris continues. “He played me this stuff that sounded quite ethereal and other worldly. At that time he was singing on it but Steve wasn't that confident a vocalist and we knew we’d need to find another one. He was very interested in dance music but it was more song based material that he was dealing with; very melodic stuff. He was using the structure of dance music but doing it in a more song-friendly and interesting way. I could really see how I could bring something to what he was doing.”

From here the duo started working up material with Chris bringing arrangements and textures to Hillier’s compositions, layering them with intricate patterns or providing dramatic nuances. After rejecting Perfect Tone Series as a name for their live outfit, they eventually settled for calling themselves The Joans.

“The fact that the name echoed 'The Smiths' hadn't escaped our notice, although most people complained that it was wantonly 'indie' sounding and misleading in the environment of the local band scene which would have expected Wedding Present soundalikes with such a moniker. We stuck with it in the absence of a better suggestion. The music was kind of electronic psychedelia with moments of quite ridiculously catchy pop sensibility which seemed completely out of context. Our fascination with the likes of My Bloody Valentine meant that we weren't afraid to be completely out of tune occasionally, too. In hindsight it was a complete mess, but with promising moments.”

Despite the more challenging aspects of their sonic makeup, The Joans enjoyed regular modest attendances at the Broken Doll, Middlesborough Arena, The Riverside etc. and a Tuesday night residency at the Dog & Parrot next to Marlborough Crescent bus station.

Chris recalls that the music scene in Newcastle during the early 90s was very good but was somehow separated from the mainstream of city life. “The scene was small but pretty concentrated - it was very removed from the rest of town not only geographically but in terms of the kind of people who were frequenting the area around the Barley Mow pub, Riverside itself, the Egypt Cottage pub and so on. These were the places that people and promoters and everybody would be but it didn't really seem to have anything to do with what was going on in the centre of town.

In fact it's something I've always thought that the interesting about Newcastle, the thing that separates it from other northern cities like Manchester or Liverpool, is that the music scene is kind of like the smaller brother of football - the two don't really mix. Places like the Barley Mow and the Riverside couldn't get further away from St James' Park without actually falling into the Tyne. And it seemed like the people who went to those places quite specifically stayed there and didn't really have a lot to do with what was going on in the middle of town.”

They say two’s company and three’s a crowd but Chris always knew right from the off that they would need a good singer up front if they were to stand any chance of breaking through with a decent record deal. A tape of a vocalist had been left at Steve’s flat. Steve rang Chris at home in Low Fell and played him the demo down the phone. Although Steve was enthusiastic, Chris wasn’t too sure. The voice down the line belonged to Sarah Blackwood.

“Sarah had been making a nuisance of herself around the Newcastle band scene. She was living at the time with Vanessa Best - a girl who was in a band called The Sleepy People (who later became Ultrasound and did pretty well on their own a few years ago). Anyway, Sarah would be hanging round the usual venues and hassling people for an opportunity to do some backing vocals or sing. I wasn't completely against the idea of a female singer because so many of my favourite bands had female vocalists, but it sort of went against the grain of how I imagined how it was going to be. I quite fancied the whole lads-together scene, you know, the sex, drugs and rock and roll trip round the world or whatever. Little did I know that the best way of guaranteeing the sex, drugs and rock and roll was to get Sarah in the band”

Hailing from Halifax and in the region studying design, Sarah was thrown in at the deep-end at the Middlesbrough Arena.

“It was a bit of a tough gig because most of the people there didn't really want to see local bands; they just wanted to get drunk and dance. So we thought of gave her a baptism of fire in that respect. We warmed her up with a couple of things - I think she wanted to sing Sunday Morning (a Velvet Underground song) then we tried her out with some of our material – stuff like "Stars" and "Not So Manic Now.” "

Now with Sarah on board, the band established its HQ in The Forth pub in Newcastle’s Pink Lane. From here they would map out their plans and aspirations for the group. When not sitting round their favourite table they could be found up Westgate Road at their rehearsal studio. Wilkie admits that although the band was serious about their work they had no clear strategy or approach.

“I seem to remember round about that time we'd got it into our heads that we definitely did want to get a record deal but that we had absolutely no idea about how to do it. We hadn't attempted to put together a demo and start sending it off willy nilly to companies which I thought then (and still think now) was a bad idea.”

The break came when Food label boss, Andy Ross heard a demo of the band sent to him through a third party. Ross liked what he heard enough to hop on a train from London, up to Newcastle and straight into The Forth. “Andy jumped off in his shorts because it had been warm down the South at the time and freezing everywhere else” recalls Chris. “He runs into the pub sort of had a chat with us and he fell in love with Sarah because he could tell she was a bit of a character. He decided that he wanted us to be on his label. A couple of hours later he went back to London and that was that.”

Dubstar, as they were now called, were in good company on Food; the roster included Voice Of The Beehive, Jesus Jones and an early signing included an unknown group called Seymour. They would eventually change their name to Blur.

The name of a band is always subject to change in the early days of their career. The Joans had morphed into Dubstar before Andy Ross heard the demo. Chris was never that keen on the name which he felt was a little hackneyed and misleading.

“Our attempts to offer something more original were largely dismissed on the grounds that 'Dubstar' sounded like a famous band already. Steve claims that he heard (or misheard) the word "dubstar" in a Porno For Pyros song "Pets"…I still think its a really nondescript, trite sounding name and probably caused more people to overlook investigating the music than it encouraged. If we had called the band Catheter, we'd still be together and playing stadiums right now” laughs Chris.

Despite the years of hard work, getting signed to indie record company with some very good connections still came as something of a surprise to Wilkie.

“It was a bit of a shock. There was a few times when Steve would be DJing somewhere and Sarah and I would have to go down to EMI’s offices in Manchester Square - where The Beatles’ Please Please Me cover was shot. Travelling down there would be terrifically exciting for me because I hadn't really been to London much. We’d have to try to get it from a singles deal to an album deal or whatever and then we'd get drunk all the way back on the East Coast Mainline, in time to go out and celebrate with Steve in Walkers (pub) again.”

Their first album, Disgraceful was released in 1995 to great fanfare by EMI. Although the bitter-sweet frost of the Hillier-penned "Stars" penetrated the outer edges of the Top 40, it was the quirky "Not So Manic Now" (itself a cover of a song originally sent to them by Brick Supply) that sent Dubstar into overdrive. The upbeat spaced-out dance beats of the track belied the decidedly dark content of the lyrics. Profiling the band in The Scotsman in 1996, reviewer Tom Lapping describes "Not So Manic Now" as “a brilliantly infectious pop confection, with a sting; if you listen closely to Blackwood's faux angelic vocals you'll find she's singing about a pensioner being attacked in her high-rise flat.”

Their bright, slightly trippy sound drew comparisons to the work Kirsty MacColl, indie ironists, St. Ettiene and even Euro popsters, Ace Of Bass. Caitlin Moran, writing in The Times astutely commented ''The cheerful Portishead'' is an over-glib generalisation; but a useful starting point for a band about to become Dubstellar.” The shimmering production values of Steven Hague (famous for his work with New Order and the Pet Shop Boys) meant that even out of tiniest and tinniest radio speakers, Dubstar positively glistened with poise and finesse.

The album received almost universal praise from critics around the globe who appreciated the wry observations of "Popdorian" and the beatific pop rapture of "St. Swithin’s Day" (a swooning Billy Bragg tune). Wilkie’s complex and well-crafted guitar work chimed beautifully with Blackwood’s ethereal, silky vocals. Combined together with Hillier’s writing and innate good sense of where the right groove lay, Dubstar transcended much of the mulch that littered the charts of mid-nineties Britain.

The usual arc in the “local band makes good” story often results in the group moving down to London after the success of the first album. Not so with Dubstar. Though they teamed up with producer Stephen Hague in exotic locations such as Woodstock, NY or at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio in Bath, the focal point for the writing of the second album was at Stink Central – their studio in Newcastle Arts Centre on Westgate Road – a mere stone’s throw away from The Forth.

The release of Goodbye in 1997 once again drew praise from press and fans. In the United States, it was amalgamated with several tracks from their debut, Disgraceful. “This didn't bother me enormously because The Beatles had experienced the same fate and our proper CDs appeared to be doing OK over there on import anyway.” Unfortunately, their American label, Polydor was quickly swallowed up in a series of corporate takeovers, effectively leaving the band somewhat under-promoted. Consequently, plans for touring the USA failed to materialise. The Times noted that “Goodbye is crammed full of bright, tart little pop statements that often conceal a bitter emotional core within a heavy coating of sugar.” That was the thing about Dubstar – however calm and attractive the surface looked, there’s a darker, dangerous undertow lurking below.

Chris agrees. ‘We tried to write songs about life as it's lived rather than a lot of the chart stuff. When we were getting started a lot of the music was like four word choruses, 'Love You Baby' and techno. We just figured that maybe there was a gap in the market, time for something that actually sang about things that we know about - whether it be the darker side of human relationships or literally the kitchen sink sometimes or a cup of tea. Maybe that’s why we stood out at the time.” Talking to the USA music publication, Billboard around the release of Goodbye, Wilkie commented that Dubstar’s lyrics were “rooted in what we've seen and felt.”

Reviewing the album, The Sunday Times picked up on this aspect of the band. ‘Dubstar’s guitarist, Chris Wilkie, once remarked that his was "one of the few bands who sound like we've lived through the 1980s". True, but the shiny pop surface of Dubstar's work masks a more complex heart chiefly composed of Steve Hillier's atmospheric synth programming, Wilkie's now jangling, now ethereal guitar and, especially, Sarah Blackwood's dramatic lyrics…first they lull you with their lush tones, then they sneak up and deliver a creative payload you weren't expecting. "No More Talk", "The View from Here", "My Start in Wallsend" and "Can't Tell Me" are all immediately arresting, but most of the others come out with their hands up before long.”

In 1998 Dubstar hunkered down to start work on material in a working mill in Oxfordshire’s beautiful countryside. Despite the tranquil surroundings the sessions were not a success and were abandoned. Steve Hillier, the group’s principal songwriter describes them as “disastrous.” Wilkie agrees. “Making Let It Be must have been a walk in the park compared to the hilariously titled "Make It Better".” Dubstar gave things another shot, decamping to Brighton to demo more material. It was a remarkably fruitful period with over with nearly fifty songs being worked on and thirty two fully recorded.

The non-stop pace that Dubstar had been living had begun to take its toll and personal relationships had cracked somewhat under the strain.

“In the end we kind of burned out to a certain extent. I don't think it was so much we got jaded or cynical, but we had done an awful lot of work in a very short period of time. But also I think, as personalities, between the three of us we were very different and Steve and Sarah's relationship certainly was at best functional; they weren't really the sort of people who would choose to hang out for a beer together if it wasn't for the fact that we all had a common goal.”

By January 1999, Mike "Spike" Drake (who had mixed the previous two Dubstar albums) came on board as co-producer for the album, joining them at their old place at Newcastle Arts Centre in the spring. Against a backdrop of cooling relationships, the three of them managed to produce a startling good album. Make It Better has a noticeably harsher bite; grittier with a touch more dissonance than their previous work. From the powerfully gutsy opener, Take It, through to the appropriately self-referential, "Swansong", the sound was Dubstar’s darkest to date; full of unexpected twists and turns.

Chris once commented in an interview with The Independent that “If Dubstar can do anything I hope we wipe out opera and heavy metal - anything with too many notes." Whilst they didn’t quite manage that they did however, create three fresh-sounding slices of near perfect pop. Though Stars and Not So Manic Now are embedded in public consciousness, their trio of albums, Disgraceful, Goodbye and Make It Better, sound just as good as when they were first released; vivacious, vital and sharp.

Looking back on them Wilkie offers this assessment. “The second album is probably my favourite because it came from such an extreme time, written and recorded in such a whirlwind, dashing between Westgate Rd, Newcastle and Woodstock, New York. I can see why Disgraceful is the one that has stood the test of time, though.”

There’s nothing sadder than the sound of a band flogging itself when their sell-by date has long expired. Thankfully this is a fate that Dubstar have managed to avoid. By agreeing an amicable split in 2000, Dubstar’s credibility remains intact; their dignity untarnished. In the end it’s about judgement and being honest with oneself. Chris reflects on what can’t have been an easy decision to make.

“So many bands will stay together simply because it puts bread on the table. When we stopped feeling that there was anything particularly magical happening we thought ‘well let's retain a bit of dignity and let it go.’ It broke my heart at the time but you've just got to know when to admit that it's finished.”

Considering his time with Dubstar, Chris cites their triumphant appearance at the Reading Festival in 1996 as one of his favourite moments in their seven year career.

“Sarah was at the height of her powers at that stage as a performer. When she did an 'a cappella' version of "The Day I See You Again" you could have heard a pin drop. It was actually quite unnerving to have that many thousands of people being completely silent. Spooky. Billy Bragg joined us for our version of "St Swithin's Day" and for a band which was plagued with technical difficulties as a live entity, everything just seemed to come together that night.

On reflection, it really seemed at that point like it could have gone anywhere. We weren't struggling to get somewhere any more - it had taken on a life of its own and we just had to hold on and try not to get hurt. In hindsight, we had neglected to pack a saddle.”

Sunday, April 08, 2007

PG Six Slightly Sorry

The Magnificent Six

Slightly Sorry
Drag City

Pat Gubler (aka P.G Six) takes us on a leisurely tour of Americana that encompasses the Byrds' brand of country rock (with a spring of Deja Vu CSNY) , impressions of traditional folk fragments and the meditative formalities of the singer songwriter. Although there are no great surprises contained here it is nevertheless music with heart and a smouldering outsider’s passion.

“The Dance” is the album’s true stand-out track, detailing the pain of a spurned lover whose angst is elevated as he imagines his ex and her new beau dancing. Locked from the intimacies he once knew Gubler’s performance has both fragility and a frankly creepy element to it, perfectly capturing the whole two-sides-of-the-coin deal when it comes to breaking up; he might be wronged but maybe she had a reason to go scooting off in the first place that we don’t know about. A beautifully crafted song.

Evocative use of vintage instrumentation gives the entire album agreeable lived-in feel. “Strange Messages” has that gorgeous blown-on-the-wind feel embedded deep with the Wurlitzer piano and Mellotron cello, Gubler’s voice drifts with the emotion and exhaustion of a man that’s too-long from home and uncertain about what’s before him. The delicacy of this record is deceptive.

The initial impression was that we were in the company of a fairly unassuming set of songs. Yet this is to seriously underestimate the growing power of Slightly Sorry, as with each play it grows in stature gradually taking on the mantle of a slow-burning classic.

Friday, April 06, 2007

No Sleep 'Til Milton Keynes

And they're off!

Street Life LXIII

I'm normally alone when I pop out in the morning. Today I was joined briefly by a young woman who asked me why I was taking pictures of the sunrise, and then told me that this was the first time she'd ever been up so early in the morning. It was a little after 6.30 a.m.

The Fucking Champs IV

Breakfast of Champions

The Fucking Champs
Drag City

Given the name it’s no surprise that there’s something a bit pumped up about the music. However there’s also a self-deprecating humour wired into the complex charts. “Abide With Me” (yes, that one) has you scratching your head and the Hippie noodlage of “The Crystal Behind You” comes across as an affectionate homage although it could easily be a knowing piss take. What the trio from San Francisco proffer is a well-drilled heavy metal that plays some weird curveballs with the metre to keep things interesting.

Whilst there are plenty of details to ponder over, the clever thing about the Champs is that they keep things moving at a fierce pace. Careful attention to dynamics lends some tracks a beguiling mystery. “A Forgotten Chapter In The History of Ideas” pauses the bluster for a sojourn see-saw of harmonics before launching off again. “Dolores Park” stretches into a dappled psych-like bliss that almost borrows “Stairway To Heaven” whilst “Play On Words” and the ascending "Column Of Heads" is full-on prog rock work out which if it had vocals sprayed over (the entire album is instrumental) it would eat the likes of Rush for breakfast.

For an album that sweats macho guitar-hero potion it’s surprisingly light on its feet. Tightly orchestrated, it’s constructed in a such a way that the result is never about guitar solos as much as the force and impact six strings and a whole mess of amps can produce. Literate heavy metal with brain appeal.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Close To The Edge, Down By The Co-op

Tom and his cousins, Errin and Isaac, went out today. "Take the camera!" I said. He did. According to the evidence here, went out towards Cullercoats (passing the Co-op shop along the way). I only hope this first picture was on zoom mode - it's a little too close to the edge for my liking.


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