21st century metal

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Such has been the fanfare recently over the return of Swedish 1970s pop darlings Abba, with a new ten-song album and a supposed ‘virtual concert’ where ‘digital avatars’ will perform in the shoes of the band’s now somewhat long-in-the-tooth members, that I’ve wondered if I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t actually like Abba.

 

Okay, ‘doesn’t like’ is a bit strong.  A more accurate verb-phrase would be ‘is totally indifferent to’.

 

There are a couple of Abba songs that get me tapping my foot in a vague, mindless way, like Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! or Money, Money, Money (both 1979) or the song with which they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Waterloo – which, come to think of it, was an appropriation of the breezy, sax-laden sound of Roy Wood’s glam-rock band Wizzard.  But unlike, say, the entire population of Australia, a country that’s given us such Abba-obsessed cultural phenomena as the cover band Bjorn Again and the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding (both 1994), I don’t worship the ground that the shiny, 1970s, high-heeled boots of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Bjorn have walked on.

 

However, while the planet’s airwaves turn into the equivalent of the soundtrack of Mamma Mia! (2008), though thankfully without the pained, raspy sound of Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing, I will seek solace in the one type of music that truly matters… heavy metal.

 

Here’s a quick guide to the heavy metal bands, all of whom have become prominent since the beginning of the new millennium, that I’ve been listening to lately.

 

Al-Namrood

As this 2015 feature in the magazine Vice noted, “Al-Namrood have never played a live show, because it could result in the entire band being executed.”  That’s because the band Al-Namrood (a) play black metal and (b) are Saudi Arabian, two concepts that go together about as harmoniously as serpents and mongooses. According to their guitarist and bassist Mephisto, who, like all the band’s members, has never revealed his real name for his own safety, “Al-Namrood is the Arabic name of the Babylonian king Nimrood, who was a mighty tyrannical king who ruled Babylon with blood and defied the ruler of the universe.”  Yes, those sound like pretty black metal things to do.  It’s a shame that the band has had to operate so far off the grid because the music by them I’ve heard, its growling vocals and relentlessly thunderous guitars and drums laced with delicious Arabic folk stylings, I’ve found irresistible.

 

Behemoth

Polish black metal and death metal band Behemoth are similarly unloved by their country’s political and religious establishment.  And though the repercussions obviously won’t be as serious as those risked by Al-Namrood in Saudi Arabia, Behemoth’s frontman Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski has recently been convicted of blasphemy and could face imprisonment in the increasingly authoritarian Poland of Andrzej Duda. Actually, politically, Nergal has proved to be a bit of a knobhead in the past and once gained notoriety for wearing a ‘black metal against Antifa’ T-shirt, so it’s ironic he’s become a martyr in the struggle against the forces of extreme, right-wing knobhead-dom.

 

Behemoth first caught my attention when I listened to their 2018 album I Loved You at Your Darkest, which begins with a choir of creepy children chanting, “I shall not forgive… Jesus Christ… I forgive thee not…”  Thereafter, the album is a brilliantly Wagnerian parade of tunes with such titles as God = Dog, Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica and If Crucifixion Was Not Enough.  Can’t imagine why those pious Polish politicians don’t like them.

 

© Earache Records

 

Cult of Luna

Proof that, musically, Sweden has considerably more to offer than just Abba, Swedish doom metal band Cult of Luna serve up tunes where big, booming slabs of guitar lumber ominously along, accompanied by hollering and shrieking vocals, creating a sound that suggests a world teetering on the brink of collapse while simultaneously being strangely exhilarating and even uplifting.  The earliest album of theirs I’ve heard is 2003’s The Beyond, the most recent one 2021’s The Raging River.  Though there’s evidence of development and exploration between the two, the basic template is reassuringly the same.

 

Electric Wizard

Hailing from County Dorset, England, the original members of Electric Wizard bonded in the 1990s over a shared love of horror films, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the music of legendary Brummie metal band Black Sabbath.  It was from the titles of two Sabbath songs, Electric Funeral and The Wizard (both 1970), that they devised their band’s name.  For me, they just seem to get better and better – from early albums like Dopethrone (2000) and Let Us Prey (2002) to their most recent opus, Wizard Bloody Wizard (2017), which contains the deliriously catchy track Necromania.

 

In fact, someone has stuck a fan video for Necromania on YouTube, its visuals stitched together from such lovable old horror-movie schlock-fests as The Dunwich Horror (1969), Le Frisson des Vampires (1971), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Baron Blood (1972), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). It captures the essence of Electric Wizard perfectly.

 

© Roadrunner

 

Gojira

Several bands have named themselves after Godzilla, Japan’s favourite, radioactive-breathed, city-destroying kaiju, including Godzilla in the Kitchen and Bongzilla.  In my opinion, the best of the bunch is the one using the giant reptile’s original Japanese moniker, Gojira.  This French death / progressive metal outfit combines shrieking vocals, wailing guitars and thunderous drums – courtesy of drummer Mario Duplantier, whose sound suggests the footfall of the giant lizard itself – with a surprising degree of melody.  Well, the melodiousness is perhaps not so surprising, giving that the bandmembers cite Led Zeppelin as a key influence.  The 2012 album L’Enfant Sauvage made me fall in love with Gojira, although their most recent one, Fortitude (2021), is pretty good too.

 

Melechesh

I first heard of the band Melechesh through the artist John Coulthart, whose blog I read regularly and who’s designed the covers for their albums, including 2015’s album Enki.  Soon afterwards, I saw Enki on sale in a record shop and bought it out of curiosity.  It’s a great album, its storming metallic sound embroidered with such eastern-Mediterranean and Middle Eastern instruments as the sitar, bouzouki, saz and bendir.  Melechesh, it transpires, are the propagators of ‘Mesopotamian metal’ which, according to their Wikipedia entry, aims to “create a type of black metal incorporating extensive Middle Eastern influences mainly based on Assyrian and occult themes.”  They formed in Jerusalem in 1993 but later relocated to Europe.  In the mid-1990s, the city authorities in Jerusalem accused them of ‘dark cult activities’, which probably didn’t encourage them to hang around in Israel.

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Orchid

One afternoon I was in the FOPP record shop on Edinburgh’s Rose Street and the guy behind the counter decided to play a heavy metal album over the store’s PA system.  “What’s this?” I demanded, intoxicated by the album’s old-school sound – although as this was Rose Street, I may have been slightly intoxicated already. “It’s The Mouths of Madness,” he replied, “by Orchid!”  Then he produced another copy of the album, recorded in 2013, which I bought on the spot.  I would have remarked: “ORCHID – obviously stands for OZZY Osbourne / RAINBOW / the CULT / Rob HALFORD / IRON Maiden / Ronnie James DIO!”  But I wasn’t able to think that fast.

 

As I’ve suggested, San Francisco metallers Orchid wear their influences on their sleeves, but especially the influence of Black Sabbath.  Now while Black Sabbath, with their doomy sound and the occult preoccupations of their song-titles and lyrics, have been a huge influence on heavy metal generally, later bands have taken that sound and those preoccupations and made them more extreme and exaggerated. But Orchid are reminiscent of Black Sabbath as they were, in a purer, simpler form. I don’t mean that they copy the original band’s songs. Orchid sound like Black Sabbath in their early 1970s prime, if they ‘d existed in a parallel universe where they’d been able to churn out a few extra albums. Similar riffs, but not the same riffs.

 

© Sinister Figure

 

Reverend Bizarre

As far as I can tell, quaintly-named doom-metal outfit Reverend Bizarre are the only band on this list who no longer exist. They disbanded in 2007, having produced three albums during the noughties.  I own two of those, the excellent In the Rectory of the Reverend Bizarre (2002) and II: Crush the Insects (2005).  Sounding like  a sludgier, more primordial version of Electric Wizard, this Finnish band was notable for, among other things, its vocalist, the also quaintly-named Albert Witchfinder.  He eschewed modish doom-metal growling and shrieking and mainly just crooned forebodingly.

 

Wolves in the Throne Room

Their name may conjure up images of Game of Thrones, but Wolves in the Throne Room come from the relatively un-sword-and-sorcerous environs of Washington State in the northwestern USA.  One of their objectives (to quote Wikipedia again) is “channeling the ‘energies of the Pacific Northwest’s landscape’ into musical form.”  Thus, their song titles contain such words as ‘fields’, ‘fog’, ‘lightning’, ‘rain’, ‘rainbow’, ‘stars’, ‘storm’ and ‘woodland’ and their sound has been described as ‘atmospheric black metal’ or ‘ambient black metal’.  But there’s still enough ‘black metal’ present in Wolves in the Throne Room’s formula to prevent them sounding serene and bucolic.  I have three of their albums – 2006’s Diadem of 12 Stars, 2009’s Black Cascade and 2011’s Celestial Lineage – and think they’re all blisteringly brilliant.

 

Having finished writing this blog-entry, I now feel an urge to listen to the above nine bands’ albums again, at maximum volume.  I’ll probably be deaf afterwards, but at least then there’s no danger of me hearing the new Abba album.

 

© Southern Lord

Charlie was our darling

 

From beatsperminute.com

 

The death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on August 24th came as a blow.  Ask me to identify my favourite all-time band and four days of the week I’d say the Stones, at least during the years from 1969 to 1974 when they had Mick Taylor playing guitar with them.  (Ask me the other three days of the week and I’d probably say the Jesus and Mary Chain.)

 

A drummer who’d schooled himself in jazz music but paradoxically found himself thumping the tubs for the self-styled ‘biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’, Watts performed with none of the bombast of your archetypal rock drummer like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham – of whom Keith Richards once inquired perplexedly, “Did he have to hit those drums so hard?” But his immaculate backbeat imposed discipline on the Stones’ blues-rock sound, reining it in and holding it together when it could so easily have degenerated into sloppy, all-over-the-place chaos.

 

Meanwhile, Watts was endearing as a figure of modesty, decorum and decency amid the maelstrom of outrage, hysteria, decadence, heroin, cocaine, Jack Daniels, swimming-pool drownings, Hells Angels slayings, groupies, wild partying, alleged Mars Bar abuse, alleged whole-body blood transfusions, dabbling in black magic and shenanigans with Justin Trudeau’s mum that swirled around the band for the first two decades of its existence.  Among the many, many tributes to Watts this week, one that sticks in my mind is a below-the-line comment in the Guardian.  It was from a guy who’d once worked in a quarantine centre for animals arriving in Britain.  He’d made Watts’s acquaintance when the drummer’s cats and dogs ended up there after he and his wife returned to the UK from tax exile in France.  Apparently, while many owners never looked in on their poor pets for the whole duration of their quarantine, the animal-loving Stone made a point of coming to visit his every day.

 

As tales about Watts’s mild manners and niceness were legion, when he did lose the rag, it became the stuff of legend.  After he passed away on Monday, I noticed Mick Jagger’s name trending on twitter and discovered this was because people were tweeting and retweeting the tale of what happened in an Amsterdam hotel in 1984 when Jagger referred to Charlie Watts as ‘my drummer’.  Watts responded by yelling, “Never call me your drummer again!” and landing a right hook on him.  Such was the force in the punch, probably the only time that Watts exerted as much unsubtle power as John Bonham did, that the lippy one was knocked back onto a silver platter of salmon.  He then tilted towards an open window that overlooked a canal.  Supposedly, Keith Richards grabbed hold of Jagger before he disappeared out of the window, though only because at the time he was wearing one of Richards’ jackets, which the owner didn’t want to see dunked in a canal.  This is recounted in glorious detail in Richards’ autobiography Life (2010).  Therefore, it’s got to be true.

 

For me, the height of my Rolling Stones infatuation came during the 1990s, while I was living in Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido, the northernmost island and prefecture of Japan.  For the first time in my life, I was earning a decent wage and didn’t feel guilty about splurging some of it on music.  By good luck, there was an excellent wee music shop dealing in specialty, bootleg and second-hand records on Hiragishi-dori, the avenue where I lived.  The shop’s lugubrious owner did very well out of me during the five years I was there.  It was at his establishment that I bought remastered versions of classic Stones albums that I’d only owned previously as crackly, crap-sounding cassette tapes: Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) Exile on Main Street (1972) and so on.  I also bought albums that people had told me were a bit duff, like Goat’s Head Soup (1973) and Black and Blue (1974), though I ended up thinking they were quite good.

 

One spooky Stones-related thing that happened during this period was when I held a Christmas party at my Sapporo apartment on December 18th, 1993, and then discovered that the party-date coincided with Keith Richards’ 50th birthday.  As a result, the evening was more Stones-themed than I’d planned.  I spent an early half-hour of it at my record player, playing and replaying a section of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the 1970 live album of the Stones performing in New York and Baltimore.  This was at the insistence of my Japanese colleague Tokunaga Sensei, also a Stones buff, who was convinced that there was a bit of it where you could hear members of the audience shouting in Japanese.  (The cover of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out features the shocking sight of the usually dapper Charlie Watts prancing around in white pants and T-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat.  The album also contains Jagger’s affectionate but accurate onstage remark: “Charlie’s good tonight.”)

 

© Decca 

 

The party got truly Stones-ian later on.  A lady I’d invited from the local hairdressing salon flipped her lid after a few drinks and started assaulting the other guests, while Sympathy for the Devil played in the background.  As Jagger remarked at the ill-fated Altamont concert in 1969, after someone had been stabbed to death in the crowd, “Something always happens when we play that number.”

 

Early in 1995, I heard exciting news.  The Rolling Stones were playing seven concerts at Tokyo Dome in early March as part of their Voodoo Lounge tour.  I hadn’t seen the band live before, so this seemed a golden opportunity to do so.  Unfortunately, I had other commitments at that time.  I’d arranged to do some freelance work with the Fodor’s Travel company, who planned to bring out a new edition of their Japan guidebook and wanted someone to update its chapters on Hokkaido and Tohoku, the northernmost part of the main Japanese island of Honshu.  As I had a break from my regular job during February and March, I’d intended to wander around Hokkaido and Tohoku, doing the guidebook research.  Determined to have my cake and eat it, I bought a ticket for the Stones and planned to spend late February and the first half of March in Tohoku, doing research, but taking a break for a few days in the middle to pop down to Tokyo.

 

That research trip in Tohoku proved to be one of the most physically punishing things I’ve done in my life.  Hokkaido was cold at that time of year, but I hadn’t expected Tohoku to be so bloody cold too.  Also, in my haste to clinch the Fodor’s job – wow, I thought, here’s my big chance to be a travel writer! – I stupidly agreed to accept a lump-sum payment at the end of it, which meant I got nothing to pay for my expenses while I actually did the work.  Therefore, to minimize costs, I decided to stay in youth hostels and hitchhike around rather than travel by bus or train.  Sleeping in Tohoku’s drafty wooden hostels and thumbing my way along its highways during wintertime proved not to be a good idea.

 

To make things worse, my itinerary depended on what was written in the previous edition of the Fodor’s Japan Guidebook.  Trying to find many of the tourist sites, whose prices, opening times, attractions, etc., I was supposed to be checking and updating, proved a nightmare because whoever had written the previous edition seemed to have been drunk at the time.  Or more likely, hadn’t actually been to many of those places and had just made it up instead.  Getting hopelessly lost became a daily occurrence.

 

Looking back on it now, I can laugh, but there were times when I thought I was going to die or go insane.  Trudging in ever-maddening circles around the castle town of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, trying to find a tourist attraction, until a local explained to me that the streets’ layout was deliberately confusing, designed in medieval times to confuse any attackers who entered the town intending to locate and assault the castle.  Getting a lift in a pick-up truck with an old geezer who’d never spoken to a foreigner before and was so excited by my presence that he might have been tripping on LSD while we whizzed at top speed along the highway.  Venturing up to Lake Tazawa in the mountains above Akita City, arriving at night, wandering into a snowbound youth hostel and finding it inexplicably deserted, and wondering if I’d just strayed into an uncanny tale of the supernatural by Lafcadio Hearn.  Coming into a freezing Fukushima City after dark, discovering that a big conference was taking place there and all the hotels were fully booked, and having to spend the night sleeping among the local homeless community in an underpass next to an open sewer.

 

© Universal Music LLC / From discogs.com

 

It was after the Fukushima episode that – thank God – the time came for me to jump on a bullet train and head down to Tokyo, where I holed up in a hotel and spent the next couple of days in a bathtub with an unlimited supply of beer. Then, scrubbed up and feeling human again, I went to Tokyo Dome to see the Stones.

 

No doubt it wasn’t the greatest Stones concert ever.  The set leaned towards the overly familiar – Satisfaction, Start Me Up, Angie, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll – although I was delighted that they played Tumbling Dice off Exile on Main Street.  But as a communal experience where you switched your brain off for a couple of hours and just got into the groove, and especially after the wretched, wintry experiences I’d been through up north, it was rather wonderful.  Jagger tried to show off his mastery of the Japanese language, which was funny.  Keith Richards shambled to the front of the stage to sing a song at one point and, looking at the Tokyo masses, croaked, “I don’t see you very often, but when I do, I certainly see a lot of you.”  At his drumkit, Charlie Watts sported his usual expression, half-bemused, half like that of a man nervously eyeing the misfits around him and thinking, “If I just keep on playing, maybe these nutters won’t notice I’m here…”

 

Tellingly, when Jagger introduced all the musicians to the crowd near the end of the set, starting with backing vocalists Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler, working his way up to Darryl Jones (who’d replaced Bill Wyman on bass) and then onto the Stones themselves, it was Charlie Watts who got by far the biggest and longest cheer of the night.  In fact, for so long did the Japanese crowd show their adulation that the poor guy looked a bit embarrassed by it.

 

Then again, with his modesty, humility and politeness, with that hardy gaman shimsasho-type attitude he displayed whilst playing with the Stones for 58 years and, simultaneously, the sense of wa that he had with his bandmates, with his love of a sharp suit and his occasional flashes of samurai spirit – which Jagger experienced to his cost when he got lamped in Amsterdam – Charlie Watts exhibited many of the finest Japanese virtues.  No wonder the crowd that night loved him.

 

From twitter.com/officialKeef

How ZZ Top stopped me topping myself

 

From Wikipedia / © Brian Marks

 

It’s farewell, alas, to Dusty Hill, who recently passed away at the age of 72.  Hill was bassist and sometime vocalist with the mighty blues / boogie / hard-rock Texan power trio ZZ Top, and not only was his musicianship crucial for the muscular tempo of those much-loved Top songs, but his appearance was crucial for the band’s image.  Sporting Stetson, sunglasses, beard – a lot of beard – he was almost indistinguishable from the similarly hatted, shaded and hirsute Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s lead guitarist and vocalist.  This meant two-thirds of the band seemed to consist of man-sized, guitar-wielding, Texan versions of Cousin It from The Addams Family.

 

The band’s third member, drummer Frank Beard, had a moustache but a clean-shaven jaw.  This is probably the best-known amusing fact in the entire world, but it hasn’t stopped pub-bores during the past 40 years declaring: “Hey, here’s something funny you won’t know!  The guy in ZZ Top who doesn’t have a beard is called Frank Beard!”

 

ZZ Top don’t get much credit for being a blues band, but one reason why I like them is because of the obvious influence blues music has had on their sound.  Indeed, the ‘ZZ’ part of their name pays tribute to Texas bluesman ZZ Hill, and Billy Gibbons had toyed with the idea of calling the band ZZ King, in honour of the legendary BB King too, but decided that would be a bit much.  No matter how hard, raucous, even heavy metal-ish they became at times, and even when they hit paydirt in the 1980s after sprucing up their sound with new technology, like synthesizers, and embracing new media, like MTV, the chord progressions powering their songs remained defiantly bluesy – My Head’s in Mississippi from their 1990 album Recycler is a particularly exhilarating example.  Blues-music writer Charles Shaar Murray neatly described their sound from this period, lean and relentless, but with a crisp studio sheen, as ‘cyber-blues’.

 

When they made it big with the 1983 album Eliminator, they managed to make themselves cool by being determinedly uncool.  Their videos were packed with foxy, leggy 1980s babes, but whereas the members of your average 1980s hair-metal band would be strutting like randy tomcats among the luscious ladies, eyes goggling, tongues waggling, ZZ Top stayed on the sidelines.  Hill, Gibbons and Beard would suddenly appear in their videos as if they’d beamed down from the Starship Enterprise.  They wouldn’t interact with the ladies but just play a few riffs, throw some schmuck the keys of the ZZ Top car (a cherry red 1933 Ford Coupe), point mysteriously and de-materialise again.  This they did whilst clad in unphotogenic, dusty hats and denims.  No wonder that when they made a cameo appearance in one of the Wild West scenes in Back to the Future, Part III (1990), they had no problems blending in.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

All ZZ Top’s albums are worth a listen – I think their final album La Futura (2012), which has another corking blues track Heartache in Blue, is really good – but it’s their trilogy Eliminator (1983), Afterburner (1985) and Recycler (1990) that sees them capture the zeitgeist.  Recycler, which one critic described as ‘worth stepping over a few rattlesnakes to buy’, is for me their finest hour.  It effortlessly straddles the interface between modern America, a place of ‘concrete and steel’, ‘flying saucers off the Presley estate’, penthouses, fast food and 7-11s, and the America of old, one of the ‘Texas sand’, ‘dust and haze’, cowgirls and ‘old Levi’s’, with a clutch of songs that are both bracingly up-to-date and pleasingly retro.

 

There aren’t many culturally cool things that Texas is associated with.  After all, this is the place that’s given us George W. Bush, Ted Cruz, Vanilla Ice and the Dealey Plaza.  That’s why my partner’s parents, who live in the Texan city of San Antonio, always opt for a ZZ Top T-shirt when they want to give me a souvenir of their state of residence.  Thus, I’ve amassed quite a collection of ZZ Top T-shirts over the years.

 

 

And now for a personal digression.  Here’s how during 1984-85, ZZ Top helped keep me sane.

 

I’ve done many different jobs in my time.  If anyone asks me what my least favourite job was, I immediately reply: “Being a member of the floor-staff at Ritzy’s nightclub in Aberdeen.”  This was during my second year as a student at Aberdeen University and I worked at Ritzy’s three or four evenings a week, earning some money to compensate for the fact that I hadn’t been awarded any student grant that year.  (Yes, this was in the days when students in the UK not only had their tuition fees paid for but many of them received a grant to cover their living expenses too.  Of course, as soon as the generation that benefitted from this educational generosity graduated, became politicians and assumed positions of power – Tony Blair, I’m looking at you – they abolished the system for the kids who came after them and saddled them with potentially ruinous student loans instead.)

 

At Ritzy’s nightclub, I’d don a short-sleeved, light-blue boiler suit and lug around a plastic crate all evening.  In the crate I’d place empty glasses and full ashtrays from the punters’ tables, then carry them to the work-spaces behind the club’s bars where I’d empty the ashtrays and wash them and the glasses.  Then I’d return the clean glasses to the bar-shelves and the clean ashtrays to the tables.  Doing this job at Ritzy’s – which’d previously been known as ‘Fusion’ and would later be known as the subtle-as-a-brick ‘Bonkers’ – was shit for a great variety of reasons.

 

It was shit that I had to work till 2.00 AM every Friday and Saturday night while all my mates were out enjoying some social life.  It was shit that the club used a particular design of tumbler, a structurally unsound design, that exploded and sprayed you with shards if you stacked too many of them together.  It was shit that the glasses you collected were often phenomenally grotty, with booze still inside them and cigarette butts floating around in that.  (Not everyone in Aberdeen at this time had mastered the new-fangled invention that was the ashtray.)  It was especially shit that many of the punters were workers in the then-flourishing oil industry whose headquarters was in Aberdeen, and made barrow-loads of money, and believed that their earnings entitled them to behave like knob-heads at all times – especially towards serfs like myself, trying to scrape together a few pennies by carting crates of glasses and ashtrays around a nightclub at the weekends.

 

But worst of all was the nightclub music.  1984-85 was a particularly horrible era in terms of British popular music and it was grueling indeed to lug your crate of glasses about, get insulted by dickhead oilmen, and at the same time be blasted by likes of The Reflex by Duran Duran or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham or,  joy, The War Song by Culture Club.  Even worse was how the DJ – a fellow whose day-job was with the local radio station, Northsound – would play certain songs, which in themselves weren’t so obnoxious, again and again until hearing them became the musical equivalent of the Chinese water torture.  Even today, if I ever hear Lost in Music by the Sisters Sledge, or Solid as a Rock by Ashford and Simpson, or No More Love on the Run by Billy Ocean, or Roni Griffith’s cover of The Best Part of Breakin’ Up, I suffer from a type of post-traumatic stress disorder where I have harrowing flashbacks to the hellscapes of mid-1980s Ritzy’s.

 

It wasn’t much better when I was scheduled to work mid-week at the special evening Ritzy’s held for the over-30s, which was known in local parlance as ‘grab-a-granny night’.  (Yes, back then, granny-dom began pretty early in Aberdeen.)  This featured a live band that performed cover versions of songs currently in the charts.  I realise the band did their best and I don’t want to slag them off…  But I have to say their front-man, a bloke called Stan, doing his Bruce Springsteen impersonation during Dancing in the Dark wasn’t the most edifying thing I’ve ever seen or heard.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

But mercifully, this was when ZZ Top were riding high in the British album charts with Eliminator and during my year at Ritzy’s the band released a mighty trio of singles from that record: Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs.  At least one of these would be played each evening in Ritzy’s and as soon as Frank Beard’s drumbeat started, followed by Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill’s crunchy guitars, I’d actually smile.  I’d even find myself singing as I struggled with my heavy crate through the crowd: “You got to whip it up… And hit me like a ton of lead…!”  Etcetera.

 

I’d even swear that as soon as a ZZ Top number started playing, the dancing in Ritzy’s – which hitherto had resembled a net-load of flopping, convulsing fish being dumped across the deck of a North Sea trawler – would suddenly improve.  Folk would suddenly smarten up and jig with a military precision, courtesy of Beard and Hill’s infectious, but meticulously-measured rhythm section.  I’ll go further still and suggest that Stan at grab-a-granny night never sounded better than when he was wrapping his tonsils around Sharp Dressed Man.

 

If only, while I was wrestling my way through the punters at Ritzy’s in the mid-1980s, ZZ Top had actually materialized and tossed me their car-keys…

 

From antiquesnavigator.com 

Still ruled by the Queen

 

© EMI / Elektra Records

 

Back in 2018, I found myself in a Colombo pub one evening having a blether with Suresh De Silva, the vocalist and co-founder of the Sri Lankan heavy metal band Stigmata.  Within seconds of the start of our conversation De Silva had asked me if I’d seen Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie biopic of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen, which’d been released in Colombo cinemas a few weeks earlier.  The unexpectedness of the question threw me a little.  It also reminded me of the hugeness of the phenomenon that is Queen.

 

It’s a phenomenon that transcends place.  National boundaries seem not to matter when it comes to liking Queen.  Meeting a Sri Lankan heavy metaller in 2018 who wanted to talk about the band wasn’t my first experience of this.  I remember working long ago at a language school in the UK that had weekend discos for its kids.  At one point there were a lot of self-consciously trendy and streetwise teenagers from Milan at the school and the DJ who oversaw that weekend’s disco thought he’d please his audience by playing then-modish big beat, drums and bass, UK garage and hard trance tunes.  But he ended up nearly causing a riot.  What did those trendy Italian teens want him to play? I Want to Break Free by Queen.  All bloody evening.

 

Their popularity also transcends time.  They remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991, when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away from AIDS.

 

I find this interesting because back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, friends of mine who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees’ knees.

 

Incidentally, it seemed ironic to me how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who were unreconstructed, macho and laddish and who, in all likelihood, were pretty homophobic too.  They were liable to punch you in the face if you suggested they were into anything that might be classified as ‘gay’ culture.  But after a few moments of hearing the unashamedly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, shedding sentimental tears and singing along in emotion-cracked voices.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Regency Enterprises / GK Films

 

I wasn’t greatly impressed by Bohemian Rhapsody when I caught up with it, sometime after speaking to Suresh De Silva.  It takes many liberties with the truth.  For example, the band weren’t on the wane before their barnstorming appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, which the film claims pulled them back from the brink.  On the contrary, during the previous year and following the release of their 1984 album The Works, I remember them being as popular and prominent as ever.  And there was no big emotional moment before they took the Wembley stage when Freddie told his bandmates he was HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

 

Meanwhile the film airbrushes away the band’s real-life moral warts and carbuncles. We get nothing about, for instance, their misguided and money-fuelled decision to play at the Sun City Super Bowl in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, at the height of the apartheid era.  This act of unprincipled greed earned them a ban by the British Musicians’ Union.  Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In 1984, the real Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and, considering the times, reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim, insecure about his sexuality and led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter, who introduces him to a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.

 

Still, the sequence in the film with Mike Myers as a (fictional) record executive called Ray Foster, who’s aghast at the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song should be released as a single, is funny.  “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

 

Personally, I thought 1970s Queen were great.  They produced albums like Sheer Heart Attack (1974), A Night at the Opera (1975), A Day at the Races (1976) and News of the World (1977) that were studded with classic songs and, though they sometimes felt all over the place stylistically, were admirable for trying to explore a wide range of musical genres, everything from music-hall singalongs and salsa-y Spanish guitar workouts to blues and jazz and even, with 1974’s Stone Cold Crazy, nascent speed metal.  The rip-roaring Death on Two Legs, which kicks off A Night at the Opera, is one of my favourite songs ever.

 

But for me they seemed to lose their creative mojo at the beginning of the 1980s.  The last song by them that I liked was probably their 1981 duet with David Bowie, Under Pressure.  Actually, I didn’t think much of Under Pressure at the time, but it’s grown on me since then.  It’s certainly a zillion times better than Vanilla Ice’s dire 1990 single Ice Ice Baby, which appropriated Under Pressure’s memorably nagging bassline.  (I remember being at a Saturday-night disco in my hometown in Scotland – the clubhouse of Peebles Rugby Club to be precise – when the DJ put on Ice Ice Baby.  The bassline started and everyone cheered and hurried onto the dance floor, thinking it was Queen and David Bowie.  Then the lyrics started: “Yo!  Let’s kick it!  Ice, ice baby…”  Everyone threw up their hands in horror and shouted, “Och, shite!  It’s Vanilla Ice!”  The dance floor immediately cleared again.)

 

Anyway, a few days ago, taking advantage of the fact that Sri Lanka’s most recent Covid-19 lockdown has been lifted, I went for a walk and ended up at the area where Colombo’s Dehiwala Canal meets with the Indian Ocean. It’s a pleasantly grassy and leafy neighbourhood although, thanks to the condition of the water in the canal, it’s a bit smelly too.  And lo and behold, on a wall standing at the canal’s southern bank, I saw further evidence of the global love for Queen.

 

 

Yes, it was a mural of Freddie Mercury in his moustached, short-haired, white-vested Live Aid incarnation, which presumably someone had painted after seeing Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018.

 

As I’ve suggested in this post, I have mixed feelings about Queen overall.  But the fact that in the 21st century a Sri Lankan graffiti artist was inspired to paint their iconic vocalist and master showman on an out-of-the-way, canal-side wall makes me feel strangely happy.

 

Why I love The The

 

© Cineola

 

I recently caught up with the 2019 movie Muscle, directed by Gerard Johnson. This film and Johnson’s two previous films, Tony (2009) and Hyena (2014), show that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as better-known British filmmakers of the 21st century like Shane Meadows and Ben Wheatley. Movies like Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) deliver winning and distinctly British combinations of grimness, violence, black humour and both gritty realism and phantasmagorical weirdness.  Johnson’s work does this too, with Muscle being his most accomplished film yet.

 

Set against the backdrop of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city I’m always happy to see turn up in a film, and shot in a simultaneously gorgeous and spooky monochrome, Muscle tells the story of a downtrodden and unhappy man (Cavan Clerkin) who tries to turn his life around.  Sick of his job-from-hell in a borderline scam-operation call centre and upset by the end of a long-term relationship, he decides to re-invent himself by pumping iron at a gym. Unfortunately, a hulking muscleman (one-time low-budget British-film-industry action hero Craig Fairbrass) makes his acquaintance there, takes him under his wing and promises to transform him from Wimpo to Rambo.  Fairbrass proves to be a psycho, unhinged by steroid abuse, who’s soon trying to take control of every aspect of Clerkin’s life.  This makes for an engrossing, if occasionally gross, meditation on the lengths to which men will go to reach a misguided ideal of masculinity.  Its testosterone-fuelled darkness is interleaved with occasional humour and there are excellent performances from the two lead actors.

 

However, what I want to write about here is the band that provides the needling, at times hallucinogenic music for Muscle, as well as for Tony and Hyena, the veteran post-punk / alternative band The The.  In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically painful name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson who, yes, is director Gerard Johnson’s brother.  Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points, in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey.  Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records.  Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.

 

The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums, Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993), which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era.  I heard about the band while I was at college, though to be honest I resisted listening to it for a long time because the students I knew who were The The fans seemed a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84).  That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time, after my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape.  The result was love at first listen.

 

© Some Bizarre / Epic

 

Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks.  Also, despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they had a precise, shiny, synth-y sound that, unlike a lot of 1980s music, still sounds fresh and invigorating today.  However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim.  He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much was what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square.  Though I have to say that in terms of horribleness, the past year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money.

 

Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front.  His words didn’t get buried in the mix.  Thus, when I listened again to my The The collection recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day.  When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…”  The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.”  It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes along beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from the Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).

 

Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2021: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.”   Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.”  Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”

 

Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON.  Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”

 

© Epic

 

Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising.  He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’, and early-dyin’, country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams.  On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising listenable.  Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”)  and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).

 

Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes.  I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ.  I should add that he was influenced by Hank’s lifestyle as much as he was by his music.  Whenever he had an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as suffering burns to his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.”  He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.

 

The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band.  Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.

 

Thereafter, Johnson remained busy but in a slightly different field.  Still using the moniker of The The, he worked on movie soundtracks.  In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme.  By this time he’d also contributed to the first film directed by his brother Gerard: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and put-upon man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer. Five years later, he made his mark on the soundtrack of his brother’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters.  For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective.  Sequences like the one in Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one early on in Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.

 

Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past two decades have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to produce another fully-fledged album.  In 2017, the wait seemed to be nearly over, for a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry stated that a new album was currently ‘in progress’.  However, no standalone album has appeared since then and the entry was perhaps referring to the band’s soundtrack album for Muscle, released in 2020.  That album produced the unmistakably The The-esque, i.e. simultaneously breezy and brooding, single I Want 2 B U.

 

In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue.   Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.

 

© Epic

A sad day for the Sisters

 

© Merciful Release

 

When American music composer and producer Jim Steinman died last week, the tributes paid to him made heavy mention of two titles: 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, the album by Meat Loaf, and 1983’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, the ballad by Bonnie Tyler.  Steinman wrote the songs, played keyboards and percussion and provided ‘lascivious effects’ on the former and wrote and produced the latter.  He was not a man who did things by halves in his orchestrations, in his lyrics or in the performances he encouraged from his singers.  Thus, both Bat and Eclipse are synonymous with bombast, histrionics, chest beating, garment rending, howling at the moon and general wildly over-the-top melodrama.

 

Which makes my experiences with Steinman’s two most famous pieces of work strange.  Because when I hear Bat Out of Hell nowadays, the images that it conjures up in my head are of the summer landscapes of bucolic Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland: of hayfields, barley-fields and pastureland populated by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.  Whereas if I hear a burst of Total Eclipse of the Heart, I’m immediately transported to the wolds of equally bucolic County Lincolnshire in England, during the early springtime, with freshly ploughed fields undulating off into the soft morning mist.

 

To elaborate. In the summer of 1982 I worked on the farm of my Uncle Annett, in the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone. My cousin there was a big Meat Loaf fan and when we weren’t toiling in the fields and were back in the farmhouse, Bat Out of Hell never seemed to be off the stereo. The farmhouse reverberated with the vrooming of motorcycles and Meat Loaf hollering about screaming sirens, howling fires, evil in the air, thunder in the sky, being all revved up with nowhere to go, praying for the end of time, glowing like metal on the edge of a knife, etc.  Stirring stuff, but it was incongruous background music for my life at the time, which consisted of lugging around bales of hay, mucking out cowsheds, feeding pigs, thinning turnips and holding down sheep while they had their fleeces sheared.

 

Admittedly, I did ride a motorbike that summer.  My cousin had recently graduated from riding a motorbike to driving a car and his old motorcycle was stashed in an outhouse on the farm. My uncle took it out and taught me how to ride it.  I didn’t venture out onto the roads, though.  Instead, I’d ride it up the surrounding slopes and across the surrounding fields when I had to check on my uncle’s sheep.  So no doubt while I cruised past those woolly flocks, Meat Loaf was roaring in my brain about hitting the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike and so on.

 

© Sony / Epic / Cleveland International Records

 

Fast-forward eight months from then to March 1983 and I was employed in a different job in a different part of the world. I was working as a volunteer houseparent and classroom-assistant at a residential school for ‘maladjusted boys’, which was the un-politically correct 1980s parlance for what today would be termed ‘boys with behavioural issues’.  The school was on the outskirts of the town of Louth in Lincolnshire, in the English Midlands. Walk one way from the school and you’d end up in the town, walk the other way and you’d soon be among the gently curving Lincolnshire wolds.  The school’s older boys stayed in their own residence, with its own kitchen and living room, and I was doing an evening shift there one Thursday when Top of the Pops started on the living-room TV. The show aired a newly released song and video by Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart.

 

The Lincolnshire lads in the residence were either sharp-footed Michael Jackson wannabes or bequiffed rockabilly types who’d been influenced by the Elvis albums in their dads’ record collections. Their immediate reaction, and my immediate reaction, was: “What the f**k are we listening to?”  For Ms Tyler’s tonsil-rattling performance, caterwauling about falling in love, falling apart, living in a powder keg, giving off sparks, forever going to start tonight, etc., was unlike anything we’d heard before.

 

It was also unlike anything we’d seen before.  The video, directed by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, and full of fluttering candles, billowing lace curtains, slow-motion flapping doves, dancing ninjas, nocturnal fencers, indoor American football players, acrobats in bondage gear and glowing-eyed demonically possessed choirboys, was pretty far-out too.

 

The song immediately went to number one in the British singles charts so I heard a lot of it in the ensuing weeks.  In particular, it got played a lot in Louth’s top – only? – post-pub nightspot of the time, which was the social club for the local branch of the Liberal Party.  Thus, while its dance floor quaked to the bellowing of Bonnie Tyler, I’d be sitting having a pint with some regulars who were proudly telling me for the umpteenth time how they’d ‘had David Steel in here just the other year.’

 

Today I don’t mind Bat Out of Hell too much, but I could happily live the rest of my life – and any future lives, if reincarnation is a thing – without ever hearing Total Eclipse of the Heart again.  For one thing, Eclipse’s success spawned a zillion hideous 1980s and 1990s power ballads, sung under the misapprehension that the louder and shriller you are, the greater the emotion you convey.  The biggest culprit here is Celine Dion and yes, it was Jim Steinman who penned her interminable 1996 ballad It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

 

From jimsteinman.com

 

And yet…  I can forgive Steinman for any crimes he indirectly committed against music by encouraging the growth of the power ballad.  That’s because for a couple of years at the end of the 1980s he worked with the Goth-rock band the Sisters of Mercy and made them sound like the mightiest group in the universe.  In 1990 he co-wrote and co-produced the storming tune More with the band’s frontman Andrew Eldritch, while in 1987 he produced two Sisters songs, Dominion / Mother Russia and This Corrosion.  The latter is surely one of the greatest Goth anthems ever.

 

Although This Corrosion was written by Andrew Eldritch, it has Steinman’s aural fingerprints all over it, most notably the Wagnerian squalls of guitar and the use of the 40-strong New York Choral Society to provide a celestial choir at the beginning.  Sweetly, the first comment below the song’s video on YouTube claims that “When a Goth dies, their voice gets added to the choir at the intro.”

 

Eldritch once told Sounds magazine that “It’s about the idiots, full of sound and fury, who stampede around this world signifying nothing… about people who sing about the corrosion of things while they themselves are falling apart.”  Supposedly, the sound-and-fury-filled idiots he had in mind were his former colleagues Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, who quit the Sisters of Mercy in 1985 and formed their own band the Mission.  Elsewhere, in Q magazine, he likened the relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission to that between China and Taiwan.  It was obvious which band Eldritch considered the equivalent of the massive, nuclear-armed superpower.

 

Now I like the Mission.  However, in 1998, a 36-song compilation of 1980s and 1990s Goth, industrial, synth and dark indie music was put together under the title of Nocturnal and it had This Corrosion as its opening track and then the Mission’s song Deliverance as its second one.  And when I heard the two played together, I realised that with their Steinman-produced opus the Sisters of Mercy blasted the Mission out of the water.  Incidentally, This Corrosion is used to great effect in the finale of Edgar Wright’s underrated 2013 sci-fi / horror / comedy movie The World’s End.

 

Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a dick to work with, Eldritch spoke generously of Steinman.  For instance, he said that Steinman “really knows how to make a wonderfully stupid record.  Totally outrageous.  Every time you think to yourself, do we really want to go this far, and you say to Jim, ‘Jim, are sure about this?’ and anybody else will go, ‘Don’t do it!’, Jim goes, ‘More!  More!  More people singing!’  It works.”

 

That’s the spirit.  And here, for anyone wishing to really immerse themselves in Jim Steinman’s glorious bombast, is a link to the 11-minute remix of This Corrosion.

 

From marktracks.blogspot.com / youtube.com

My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, SNFU, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually came to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

Why I love the Cramps

 

From slugmag.com

 

The American rock band the Cramps, who blazed a sonic trail for three memorable decades from the mid-1970s to the mid-noughties, wore an awful lot of influences on their black-leather sleeves.  Yet somehow they managed to meld those influences into a sound and style quite unlike anyone or anything else.

 

They took as inspiration classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf music, garage rock, the velocity and bad attitude of punk and the darkness and glamour (but not the pomposity) of goth.  The band’s heart and soul were guitarist Poison Ivy (Kirsty Wallace), who was responsible for their sometimes juddering, sometimes twangy, always captivating guitar sound and who wasn’t adverse to posing for album-cover photos in high heels, fishnets, suspenders, shades, devil’s horns and body-hugging PVC; and her romantic and musical partner, the towering vocalist Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser), whose sepulchral voice and ghoulish lyrics channelled a 1950s American childhood spent immersed in trashy horror, sci-fi and exploitation movies and gruesome sensationalist comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

 

Outside the creative nucleus of Ivy and Lux, the Cramps underwent a lot of line-up changes.  Among some 20 band-members over the years, only guitarists Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo Powers, bassists Candy Del Mar and Slim Chance and drummers Nick Knox and Harry Drumdini were around long enough to make much impression.

 

Under Ivy and Lux’s control, the Cramps became a Frankenstein’s Monster fashioned out of pieces of Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Marquis de Sade and the Addams Family; but this was no lumbering misshapen monster.  This was something cadaverously elegant and it rocked.

 

As usual, I was late to the party.  I didn’t get into the Cramps until the late 1980s, a dozen years after they’d started, thanks to my brother giving me a crackly cassette-tape recording of their 1983 compilation album Off the Bone.  Incidentally, on the other side of the cassette was the 1988 Sugarcubes album Life’s Too Good.  Wow, those were the days.

 

© Creation

 

But at least by then I’d heard of the Cramps.  Indeed, the band had been credited with inventing their own musical genre, psychobilly.  Their supposed progeny, such raucous, upright-bass-slapping combos as the Meteors, Guano Batz and King Kurt, with their thickly greased quiffs, brothel creepers and copious tattoos, had been rampaging through the sweatier, dingier music venues of 1980s Britain.  The music journalist Dick Porter notes in his 2015 biography of the band Journey to the Centre of the Cramps that the Cramps were certainly responsible for the term ‘psychobilly’.  They’d made the word up and stuck it on a promotional flyer when they were trying to get themselves noticed in New York a decade earlier.  But they maintained a polite and slightly bemused distance from the actual musical scene they were meant to have spawned.

 

Porter quotes Poison Ivy as saying, “I think our songs have a more sensuous tempo.  I’m not sure what exactly defines psychobilly but it seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But it’s not quite what we do.”  Porter himself observes that “whereas the Cramps drew on a smorgasbord of influences that included R&B and doo-wop, the psychobilly groups tended to eschew blues-based influences and splice rockabilly to a punk template that hadn’t existed back when the Cramps got started.”

 

Anyway, as soon as I heard Off the Bone, I was hooked.  And I snapped up their releases in subsequent years, albums like Stay Sick (1990), Look Mom No Head (1991) and Flamejob (1994), which were choc-a-bloc with irresistible songs like Bikini Girls with Machine Guns, Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon, Journey to the Centre of a Girl, All Women are Bad, I Wanna Get in your Pants, Eyeball in my Martini, Bend Over I’ll Drive, Let’s Get F***ed Up and Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs.  Even now, when I’m feeling a little down or stressed about something, I only have to listen to one of those songs, with the stutter or buzz of Poison Ivy’s guitar, and with Lux Interior’s macabre, funny and innuendo-laden lyrics, and after a minute I’ll feel right as rain again.

 

© Restless / Enigma

 

Take Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs, for instance: “I fell in love at a terrible pace…  When someone gave her a shove down a staircase…”  I mean, how can anyone not love a song called Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs?

 

I never saw them live, though, which is something I really regret now.

 

One thing the band never received enough praise for was their musicianship.  There’s a perception of the Cramps, popular for example among certain snooty British music critics, as a kitschy, campy and not-to-be-taken-seriously novelty act.  This overlooks the skill, attention to detail and sheer hard graft that went into composing and recording their songs.  Ivy and Lux were extremely knowledgeable about their influences and committed about what they did and they put the work in.  Their finished songs might’ve made it look and sound easy, but this illusion of effortlessness is testimony to high standards of talent and professionalism behind the scenes.

 

The story of the Cramps ended on a melancholic note, for in 2009 Lux Interior died suddenly and unexpectedly from a tear in his aortic wall.  Not only did his death deprive rock ‘n’ roll music of one of its most striking and amusing figures; but it also brought the curtain down both on his lifelong romantic and creative partnership with Poison Ivy and on the Cramps themselves.

 

That partnership and the band were of course one and the same thing.  As Poison Ivy remarked to Dick Porter in 2006, “That’s all the Cramps is – a folie à deux.”

 

© I.R.S

Why I love the Jesus and Mary Chain

 

© Mike Laye

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain are an alternative rock band from the Scottish town of East Kilbride who’ve been in existence for 29 of the last 37 years.  They are essentially the brothers Jim and William Reid singing vocals and playing guitars, with a long and ever-changing cast of drummers and bassists, including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, filling out the rhythm section.  On at least three days of the week, they’re my favourite band of all time.  (I’d say on the other four days of the week, my favourite all-time band are probably the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones.)

 

However, it wasn’t until four years after their formation in 1983 that I started listening to them. When they first came to prominence, the media focused not on their music but on their habit of delivering gigs just 20 minutes long, something that the Reid brothers later blamed on not having enough decent songs to play.  Also, they’d perform with their backs to the audience and cloak their sound in squalls of feedback.  This didn’t go down well with the punters and resulted in bottles being thrown and much general disgruntlement.  Not having had a rock-and-roll bogeyman to demonise since the days of the Sex Pistols, the tabloid press happily described these gigs as ‘riots’.

 

A mate of mine went to see the band in Aberdeen in 1985, got the 20-minute, backs-turned, wails-of-feedback routine and then wrote a review for a student newspaper in which he called the gig ‘a load of bollocks’.  And for some time afterwards, I felt reluctant to part with my money for the sake of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

 

It wasn’t until 1987 that I accidentally heard some of their music.  My brother had recorded an album by the Pogues on a cassette tape for me and, to fill some remaining space on the tape, stuck the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking EP (1986) on it too.  The EP I found surprisingly tuneful, in a lugubrious sort of way.  The following winter, I worked in a ski-resort hotel in Switzerland, where I procured a tape of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second studio album Darklands (1987) from an alternative music-inclined English girl who was employed in the hotel’s bar.  I liked that enough to track down, soon after, their first studio album Psychocandy (1986) and a compilation album of their B-sides and rarity tracks, the fabulously titled Barbed Wire Kisses (1988).

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Psychocandy is a combination of abrasive noise and, less expectedly, some wistful, haunted melodising that makes you imagine you’re hearing the ghosts of the Shangri-Las singing through a spirit medium.  Among the songs in the noise category are The Living End, In a Hole, Inside Me and It’s So Hard, while the melodic ones include the opener Just Like Honey, The Hardest Walk, Cut Dead, Sowing Seeds and the aforementioned Some Candy Talking.  Other songs are hybrids that somehow manage to fall into both camps, like Taste the Floor, Never Understand and My Little Underground.

 

Darklands, meanwhile, largely eschews the noise and embraces the melodic but melancholic. Most of its songs fit the mood suggested by its gloomy title but, in spite of themselves, are often exhilarating too.  The standouts for me include the title song and Cherry Came Too, Happy When It Rains and Nine Million Rainy Days, which contains the cheery lines, “As far as I can tell / I’m being dragged from here to hell / All my time in hell was spent with you…” Nine Million Rainy Days, however, veers off in an unexpected direction towards the end when it borrows the famous ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals that grace the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1969), though here they mutate into ‘woo-woo, woo-woo, woo!’  Evidence, if it didn’t exist already, that the Reid brothers were, for all their modish abrasiveness, happy to ransack the annals of classic rock music for ideas and inspiration.

 

Q magazine, I think, once likened the songs on Darklands to ‘Scottish blues’, though you could also identify the album as a prototype record for the soon-to-be-popular shoegazer movement, but with more drive and focus.  You could even call it an outlier in the already popular goth-rock genre, though without goth’s self-conscious melodrama.  Actually, I suspect if you told Jim and William Reid they were goths, they’d punch you in the face.

 

But it was Barbed Wire Kisses and especially the track Sidewalking that finally made me fall in love with the band. Sidewalking is a massive, swaggering thing that sounds like a bastard child of the Velvet Underground and T. Rex, a combination I found irresistible.  Elsewhere, Kisses reaffirms the band’s love of late 1950s / early 1960s American pop and rock music by offering cover versions of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA and, particularly good, Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love?

 

By the end of the 1980s, I’d started a job in northern Japan.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s latest album, Automatic (1989), in a Tower Records store in the prefectural capital, Sapporo.  Automatic is commonly regarded as the runt in the litter of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s albums – it made heavy use of a drum machine, which offended a lot of people – although I remember it being enthusiastically received at the time and getting into the ‘albums of the year’ lists of publications like the Melody Maker and New Musical Express.  Personally, it’s my favourite of all the band’s records, with that crunchy Velvet Underground-meets-T. Rex swagger to the fore.  Its tracks that were released as singles, Blues from a Gun and Head On, are great.  Head On even had the honour of being covered by the Pixies in their 1991 album Trompe le Monde.  However, for my money, the best thing on the record is the riff-tastic but overlooked song UV Ray.

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

Although the Jesus and Mary Chain had a signature sound and you were never in doubt about whom you were hearing, they were surprisingly varied.  Just as Psychocandy had that dichotomy of discordant noise and yearning soulfulness, so they’d moved from the exquisite cry-into-your-beer moroseness of Darklands to the strutting, sneering panache of Automatic in the space of two years.

 

For me at least, the Jesus and Mary Chain were on a roll and their next album, Honey’s Dead (1992), was another stormer.  Especially memorable is its opening track, Reverence, whose lyrics provocatively declare, “I want to die just like Jesus Christ / I want to die on a bed of spikes… / I want to die just like JFK / I want to die on a sunny day…”.  The breezy Far Out and Gone and the blistering Catchfire are splendid too.

 

Around this time, not only did the band get invited to take part in the 1992 Lollapalooza Tour in the United States alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ministry and Pearl Jam, but they mounted their own scaled-down version of Lollapalooza back in the UK.  This was the Rollercoaster Tour, which they headlined.  I was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Rollercoaster Tour at London’s Brixton Academy.  It featured not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a new, up-and-coming band called Blur.  I have to say my impression when I saw the youthful Damon Albarn ambling about onstage, cheerfully gormless, wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom.  Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away.  Promoting Honey’s Dead, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising… and a bit terrifying.

 

With hindsight, the early 1990s was when the Jesus and Mary Chain peaked for me and I didn’t enjoy the albums they produced later in the decade as much as I’d enjoyed Automatic and Honey’s Dead.  1994’s Stoned and Dethroned is a comparatively mellow affair, at times almost a Jesus and Mary Chain Unplugged, although it does feature a collaboration with Shane MacGowan, recorded a few years after he’d parted company with the Pogues.  This track is called God Help Me and, given the condition MacGowan was in at the time, it was probably aptly titled.

 

1998’s Munki has a brilliant single, Cracking Up, which yet again shows that the band know what to do when they get their teeth into a memorable guitar riff.  Elsewhere, Virtually Unreal bounces along nicely and I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll is enjoyably caustic, offering such bad-karma lines as “I love the BBC / I love it when they’re pissing on me / And I love MTV / I love it when they’re shitting on me / I hate rock ‘n’ roll / And all these people with nothing to show…’  But there are a few other tracks on the album that go on for too long.

 

© Creation

 

Rather better is the band’s second compilation of B-sides and oddities, 1993’s The Sound of Speed.  Among other things, this features the band having a go at such standards as Smoky Robinson’s My Girl, Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster and Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song.  They also manage a gloriously rumbunctious take on Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man, which was famously covered by Elvis Presley in 1967.  So much did I like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s rendering of Guitar Man, and so unfamiliar was I with Elvis’s oeuvre at the time, that when I subsequently heard the 1967 version the first thought that popped into my head was: “Wow, is that Elvis attempting a Jesus and Mary Chain song?”  And yet another praiseworthy cover on The Sound of Speed is their wonderfully lithe, snaking version of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Reverberation.

 

By the late 1990s the vitriol expressed in the lyrics of I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll had seemingly overpowered the band.  The relationship between Jim and William Reid had often not been easy, especially when they were under pressure onstage or in the studio, and they’d long been known in the British music press as ‘the Brothers Grim’.  Their one-time drummer John Moore once remarked that they’d experienced ‘enough fraternal conflict to make the Gallagher brothers look like princes William and Harry’ and quoted Jim as saying: “It’s like being locked in a cupboard with somebody for 15 years.  If it wasn’t your brother, you could kick him out.”

 

When I saw them in concert again in the summer of 1998, in Edinburgh, it was clear that things weren’t rosy in Jesus and Mary Chain World.  “William, just shut up!” Jim yelled in the front of the audience when his brother started singing a song intro off-key.  In September that year, a bust-up at the House of Blues venue in Los Angeles, wherein Jim was inebriated and William stormed off the stage, resulted in a gig that echoed the chaos at the start of the band’s career by lasting all of 15 minutes.  It was no surprise when, the following year, it was announced that the band had split.

 

I missed the Jesus and Mary Chain during the noughties.  Ironically, during the years when they weren’t around, it seemed you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some new band that’d obviously been influenced by them – for example, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes, the xx and even the Scottish indie rock band Glasvegas.  Meanwhile, I felt a pang when I saw the Sofia Coppola-directed movie Lost in Translation (2003) because, unexpectedly, the song accompanying the final scene when Bill Murray bids farewell to Scarlett Johansson was none other than the first track on the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, Just Like Honey.

 

© Artificial Plastic Records

 

Yet somehow Jim and William managed to patch things up in 2007 and they performed at that year’s Coachella festival in California (with Scarlett Johannsen showing up to provide vocals for Just Like Honey) and Meltdown festival in London.  Since then, the Jesus and Mary Chain have done intermittent tours and gigs and overseen new releases of their old material.  But it wasn’t until 2017 that they finally got around to putting out a new album, Damage and Joy.

 

Their seventh studio album starts off powerfully with a clutch of songs that, in the way the Jesus and Mary Chain of old managed so effortlessly, fuse together the sunny harmonies of late-1950s / early-1960s bubble-gum pop music with some 1980s guitar distortion and general bad attitude – the sinewy Amputation, the meditative War on Peace, the irrepressible All Things Must Past.  Thereafter, among the album’s total of 14 songs, there are a few things that could have been excised to create a leaner package.  But there’s still lots of good stuff.

 

The band remain capable of penning lyrics that are amusingly provocative, as demonstrated by the avantgarde Simian Split.  The song boasts, ‘I killed Kurt Cobain / I put the shot right through his brain / And his wife gave me the job / Because I’m a big fat lying slob’.  Let’s hope this song never finds its way onto Courtney Love’s iPhone, or indeed, her lawyer’s iPhone.  Elsewhere I love the uplifting The Two of Us, the bouncy Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch), and Facing Up to the Facts, which channels part of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1959) amid its muscular guitar work.

 

Incidentally, Facing Up to the Facts contains the lyrics, ‘I hate my brother and he hates me / That’s the way it’s supposed to be’.  Which suggests that, at long last, the Jesus and Mary Chain have achieved a dark but stable peace.

 

From nativetongue.com.au

They’ve got the biggest balls of them all

 

From twitter.com/acdc

 

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been the calendrical equivalent of a giant reeking pile of horse manure.  However, recently, amid the daily tsunamis of bad news, I saw a headline in the Guardian that performed the now-difficult feat of putting a smile on my face.  The headline was: AC/DC REUNITE, FEATURING THREE FORMER MEMBERS.

 

Yes, AC/DC – the proper AC/DC – are back.

 

After several years of disarray, the band has got back together with as near classic a line-up as is possible in 2020, with that famously cap-wearing and impeccably gravel-voiced Geordie Brian Johnson on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Phil Rudd on drums and Angus Young, presumably still in his schoolboy uniform, on lead guitar.  Alas, Angus’s brother Malcolm passed away in 2017 but their nephew Stevie Young has taken his place on lead guitar.  They’ve returned with a new album called Power Up, to be released in November, and a new single, A Shot in the Dark, which is available now and sounds like every song that AC/DC have done in the last half-century.  That’s an assessment that, as any bona fide fan of the band will tell you, is a compliment rather than a criticism.

 

AC/DC and I go back a long time together.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought.  The album starts with the title track and rarely have a set of opening chords sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH!  Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were single-mindedly determined to use their guitars to blow your arse off.  Which was surely what heavy metal, and for that matter, rock and roll itself, were all about.

 

Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse in Peebles, Scotland, one Friday when my parents were away for the evening.  Predictably, most of my guests turned up armed with copious and illegitimately purchased bottles and cans of booze.  They also turned up armed with AC/DC records.  Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening.  No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of dissolute and drunken teenage misbehaviour.

 

Incidentally, during the margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.  They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage.  After the discovery, the building contractor worriedly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.

 

From blabbermouth.net

 

Sadly, though with a horrible-seeming inevitability, AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning related to heavy-duty partying in 1980.  Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for Malcolm  and Angus Young, the band’s driving forces, considered calling it a day at this point.  Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further four decades.

 

It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album, 1980’s Back in Black, was a cracker.  It featured such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like ‘Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”  By now I was in my second-last year at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the upper-school common room.

 

The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events were happening in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time.  I soon tracked down and listened to their back catalogue  Their 1976 album High Voltage had an opening track called It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll, which exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes.  Despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots.  The same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap had a stonking title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls, whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best.”  Yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff.  Meanwhile, their 1978 album Powerage was identified by no less a personage than Keith Richards as one of his favourite records ever.

 

There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press of the time.  Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in the musical world, unlike their two favoured musical genres, punk rock and indie music.  For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.

 

This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who were fans of the likes of the Smiths, the Style Council and Simple Minds.  I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”

 

To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch; 1985’s Fly on the Wall; 1986’s Who Made Who, which was the musical soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive, writer and big AC/DC fan Stephen King’s ill-advised attempt to try his hand at directing a film; and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.  It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge.  Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck.  The latter track is so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it in their team coach every time they travel to their opponents’ stadium for an away game.

 

From bravewords.com

 

The band’s star was back in the ascendant too because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some overdue praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted.  Their sound is imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Beastie Boys and many more.  It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.

 

Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball.  As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ plays an important role in the AC/DC lexicon.

 

But the same year as the release of Rock or Bust everything seemed to go pear-shaped for the band.  First of all, they lost Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that year, the band parted company with Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after).  Then in 2016, Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, which he claimed was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his indulgence in auto-racing.  And in 2016 too Cliff Williams announced his retirement and played his supposedly final gig with the band.

 

What was left of AC/DC continued performing with Axl Rose, of legendary glam-metal band Guns n’ Roses, doing vocal duties.  Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses.  Indeed, their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) occupy prominent places in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice didn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.  Also, it didn’t help that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair thanks to a broken foot and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove.  This hardly seemed to bode well for the vitality of this weird new incarnation of the band.

 

Anyway, that’s all academic now because, thankfully, the real AC/DC are ready again to strut the world’s stages.  Well, once this pandemic comes to an end, whenever that will be.  Let’s hope that to the list of ghastly things to which AC/DC and their gloriously unchanging sound are impervious – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – we can add the coronavirus too.

 

© Albert Productions