Rocks In The Attic #386: Gerry Rafferty – ‘Night Owl’ (1979)

RITA#386I bought this record at the Auckland vinyl collectors fair the other week, and of the twenty five slabs of wax I brought home with me that day, this is hands down my favourite. I’d never heard the album before – I knew Gerry Rafferty obviously, because of Baker Street and Stealers Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You – but I’m loving every minute of it.

There might not be a hit as big as Baker Street (from 1978’s City To City) on this, but the album still contains a great bunch of songs. There were three singles released from the album – the title track plus Days Gone Down and Get It Right Next Time. All of these make regular appearances on radio to this day, and hearing them so many times on Radio 2 when I used to work on the road in the UK has probably conditioned me into being a Gerry Rafferty fan.

To my ears, the best thing about Gerry Rafferty – other than the songs themselves – is his voice. I’m not sure why it sounds great – whether it naturally sounds that good or whether there’s an element of studio trickery involved (with double-tracking or heavy compression, for example). It sounds luminous, and I just know I like it!

The ever ubiquitous Richard Thompson turns up on three tracks – really, he must be the unsung hero of my record collection. He’s like the Where’s Wally / Waldo of music. On the downside, probably the only naff thing about the entire record is the fact that on the insert’s photo montage, Rafferty and the production staff are all wearing navy blue v-neck sweaters emblazoned with ‘Chipping Norton Studios’, where the album was recorded. Hardly rock n’ roll, guys.

Hit: Night Owl

Hidden Gem: Days Gone Down

Rocks In The Attic #385: Elton John – ‘Elton John’ (1970)

RITA#385…or Red Dwight Piano Hits – Vol. 1.

I do like a bit of Elton. Only in short doses though. Unless it’s that video of him falling over at the tennis, in which case I can watch it all day. I’m Still Standing? No, you’re not.

This is Elton’s first international album (it’s actually his second album). It starts as he means to go on, with the ubiquitous Your Song opening side one. Overall, it’s a very gentle, understated singer-songwriter album – with singer (Elton) and songwriter (lyricist Bernie Taupin) taking centre-stage on the record’s rear-cover photo.

They’re the only ones wearing any colour in this photo. Moog player Diana Lewis is allowed to wear a jacket with some muted puce tones, and cellist / arranger Paul Buckmaster sports a red hat, but apart from this the photo belongs to the songwriters.

Elton is wearing his best Harry Potter costume – a long scarf that wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts, and a great pair of wizard glasses. But it’s Bernie Taupin who realy looks out of place – wearing a blue string singlet, an oversized hat and belt, and gauntlets across his wrists. If you didn’t know he was the silent partner in all of this, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the charismatic frontman of the band.

In fact, having the rest of the band – including the producer, Gus Dudgeon – in the rear cover photo is quite a nice move, and very out of step for the type of controlling character Elton ‘Centre Of The Universe’ John would become.

Hit: Your Song

Hidden Gem: I Need You To Turn To

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Rocks In The Attic #384: The Beatles – ‘Mono Masters’ (2009)

RITA#384So the plan was to buy the Beatles In Mono vinyl box set, and then sell the stereo box set that I bought a couple of years ago. That was the plan. But then I got it home – from supporting my local independent record store, I like to add – and plonked it down on my shelves next to the stereo set. I couldn’t split these two up, could I? Not when they’re both so…different.

The differences – both minor and major – are a wonderful thing between these two sets. I do agree that mono is king, especially here when the Beatles contributed to the mono mixes, and left the ‘after the fact’ stereo mixes to the studio engineers. It’s just such an oddity how some of the changes can be so noticeable. For a band known for their high quality control, it’s amazing that the stereo mixes were handled so poorly. People applaud George Martin and the Beatles for being so innovative and forward-thinking. Here, they were largely disregarding an audio format that would go on to dominate the music industry by the end of the decade.

It’s nice to see that they expanded this record into a triple, rather than reduce the running time due to some of the later singles not receiving a mono mix. In place of those later singles, we get some tracks mixed in mono intended for a Yellow Submarine EP that never saw the light of day. As welcome as this is, it does change things slightly – in the past I always say the two Past Masters discs as representative of each half of their career. Past Masters Vol. 2 begins with Day Tripper, recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions just as the Beatles were starting to wholeheartedly reflect outside influences, in this case the Motown sound. On Mono Masters, Day Tripper turns up halfway through the third side.

With the Beatles In Mono box set, I now own the core catalogue three times over (I already owned them all prior to the stereo remasters). Do I need three copies of the White Album? Three copies of Revolver and Rubber Soul? Three copies of Sgt. Pepper’s? Damn right I do!

Hit: She Loves You

Hidden Gem: Hey Bulldog

Rocks In The Attic #383: Martha & The Muffins – ‘Metro Music’ (1980)

RITA#383I picked this lovely record up at the Auckland vinyl fair a couple of weeks ago. I’ve always been a big fan of Echo Beach – a staple of my DJ set back in the day – and figured I might as well check out the rest of the album. It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered that I have the 7” of Echo Beach, so this makes a nice little companion piece.

The record is a promo copy, with a shiny, gold embossed stamp in the bottom right hand corner proclaiming ‘Promotional Copy NOT FOR SALE’. Also on the cover is a big rectangular sticker, placed in the water of Toronto harbour on Peter Saville’s cover. The sticker is headlined ‘VIRGIN RECORDS, INC.’ and has a tracklisting with a checkbox next to each song to denote the ‘suggested cuts’. Presumably when mailed to radio stations, the record company would put a big fat tick next to Echo Beach.

I prefer this second blast of punk, now firmly classified as new wave. It seems a bit more musically minded, after the sneer of 1977’s summer of punk. The guitar line that opens Echo Beach in particular is fantastic – and equal to anything from more established bands. Unfortunately the rest of the album isn’t as strong, but great tracks like Indecision and Sinking Land show they’re far more than just a one-hit wonder.

Hit: Echo Beach

Hidden Gem: Indecision

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Rocks In The Attic #382: Simply Red – ‘Picture Book’ (1985)

RITA#382I remember Simply Red being around when I was younger. Not the band themselves, I didn’t bump into them at social gatherings or anything, but I do remember them being played on the radio a lot. For some reason, I associate their music with being in the underground market in Manchester’s Arndale Centre. I’m not exactly sure why. It might have been the first time I recall hearing one of their songs, blaring out from a radio inside a shop.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s an unfortunate association – you know that horrible, rancid odour you smell inside a butcher’s shop? The whole of Manchester’s underground market essentially smells like that, because of its one butcher’s shop that doesn’t have a door or anything to keep the stench inside. Your Mum thinks she’s doing you a favour by picking you up a few pairs of cheap socks, but you soon realise that they smell of mince. Same with the three pack of white t-shirts she bought you for P.E. They might eventually smell of B.O., but brand-new they smell like beef and onions.

I would have been seven years old when this album was released. I remember cuts from this and the follow-up albums being played on Atlantic 252 – a new radio station that we could get on the long wave frequency, discovered when we were on holiday in Cornwall. Broadcast out of Ireland, it was the first commercial radio station available across the UK.

It’s now commonplace to ridicule Mick Hucknall and Simply Red, but this debut album is great. They might have quickly devolved from a blue-eyed soul group into a no-frills pop band, but when I hear something like Come To My Aid or Money’s Too Tight To Mention, all I want to do is dance.

Just before I left the UK, I was temping for Cooperative Financial Services in Manchester. A couple of us had started a new email game where we were passing comment on things in the office through the medium of song. It started from one guy ridiculing our new filing trays, whose bold primary colours he described as ‘red, gold and green’ (from Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon). My retort was a comment on one of the hot girls in his team who had come to work that morning in short shorts (hot pants really), much to the dismay of their Manager – ‘shorts are too tight to mention’. My colleague enjoyed it so much, he stood up and applauded, from the other side of our open-plan office.

Hit: Holding Back The Years

Hidden Gem: Come To My Aid

Rocks In The Attic #381: The Shadows – ‘The Shadows’ Greatest Hits ’ (1963)

RITA#381Last year I read Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles super biography, The Beatles: All These Years. One of the many, many nuggets of information I gleaned from it was that while the Beatles were over in Germany for their first shambolic Hamburg trip, the Shadows came out with Apache. Due to their absence, John, Paul, George and Pete missed out on the craze that would soon sweep the nation – beat groups with synchronised dance manoeuvres, and guitars heavily drenched in reverb.

It’s a blessing that they were out of the country for this. I don’t think I could handle Love Me Do with some twangy guitar lines over the top of it, or John, Paul and George doing some corny dance steps. The Shadows can keep that nonsense – Cliff Richard is welcome to them. I’ll happily take some of these tunes though – what a bunch of great melodies in such a short, three year period.

One of my Dad’s favourite jokes from the ‘60s goes something along the lines of ‘Have you heard that rumour about Cliff Richard? After his concerts, he likes to slip quietly into the shadows.’

Hit: Apache

Hidden Gem: 36-24-36

Rocks In The Attic #380: Gary Clark, Jr. – ‘Blak And Blu’ (2012)

RITA#380I went to see Gary Clark, Jr. and his band last week. I usually try and find something positive to say about a live act when I go and see them, but with I was just bored. It wasn’t anything special. Nothing to write home about. In fact, I enjoyed the support act – Aaron Tokona, from Cairo Knife Fight – much more.

I’m in two minds about Gary Clark, Jr. in general – and from the sounds of it, so is he. This album – Blak And Blu – his Grammy nominated major label debut, sits in about three or four camps. He flits between being a bluesman, a ‘60s soul singer, a rapper and a 21st century R&B singer. Dialled back to just 30 minutes, he could hit one any of those genres on the nose. Instead he spreads himself far too thinly across an hour and seven minutes.

Then there’s the H word – the dreaded ‘new Hendrix’ label; the curse of the gifted guitarist. In the ‘80s, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the ‘90s, it was Lenny Kravitz. In the 2000s, it was probably Ben Harper. In the 2010’s, it’s almost a sure thing that it’s Gary Clark, Jr. Poor guy. Like most people (other than Stevie Ray, who’s probably as freakish as Hendrix, just in a completely different way) Clark comes nowhere near. He’s a good guitarist, don’t get me wrong. He knows his chops, it’s just that he isn’t the saviour of the electric guitar – or the blues – that people are making him out to be.

He isn’t even the best guitarist in his band. Wisely sticking to mainly rhythm guitar and lead vocals (with the odd solo thrown in for good measure), he lets his lead guitarist do most of the heavy lifting. The lead guitarist’s playing on a mid-set cover of Albert King’s Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong was fantastic.

Worryingly, he seems to be taking a long time to deliver major label album number two. The record company put out a live album last year (a stopgap release if ever I’ve seen one), but it’s odd that he’s taken at least three years to deliver his sophomore effort. Momentum is a wonderful thing for an artist, but it doesn’t last forever.

In my record collection, Clark is filed between Clapton and the Clash. Hopefully he won’t waste as much time as they both did in finding out which genre they belonged to (blues revisionist, and pop-tinged new-wave musical magpies, respectively). He needs to forget all that Hollywood, urban youth hip-hop crap and concentrate on his brand of blues – an updated Chicago blues for the 21st century.

Hit: Bright Lights

Hidden Gem: Third Stone From The Sun / If You Love Me Like You Say

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