Monthly Archives: March 2013

Rocks In The Attic #231: David Bowie – ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972)

RITA#231I used to rehearse with my band in Sankey’s Soap in Manchester on the same weeknight that a David Bowie covers band would rehearse in the room underneath ours. I never saw them in person, but it was always nice to listen to them through the floor when we were packing up. I remember one time listening to them do a rendition of Five Years, the slow-burning opener from this album, and it sounded very, very good. As though a 1970’s David Bowie was in the same building.

This album remains a firm favourite of mine, and depending on my mood, I’ll choose either this or Hunky Dory as my favourite Bowie album. I think the songwriting is better on that earlier album, but the different dynamics that this album delivers is mind-blowing – one of the defining albums where ‘60s rock n’ roll turned into ‘70s rock.

In 2000, I was at Glastonbury on Sunday night awaiting David Bowie to walk on the Pyramid stage. It was one of the best gigs I’ve seen, mainly because Bowie isn’t a proficient tourer, so it was always unlikely that I’d have the chance to catch him again (and to this day, I still haven’t).

All through that show, Vini and I were wondering whether he would play the song Ziggy Stardust. Covering this had sort of become my signature song in my band at the time, and to see him play this would have been a moment to remember. He played most of his hits (he has too many to fit into a 2-hour show), and by his last song – a version of Under Pressure – I had given up hope.

After a short break, Bowie walked back on stage for his encore, and the guitarist crashed into the opening chords of Ziggy Stardust. Vini and I erupted in cheers – a great festival moment.

Hit: Starman

Hidden Gem: Five Years

Rocks In The Attic #230: Booker T. & The M.G.’s – ‘The Booker T. Set’ (1969)

RITA#230On paper, Booker T. & The M.G.’s shouldn’t work. If you put their original material to one side, all that is left is a band covering instrumental versions of the hits of the day. I’ve never been a fan of the type of instrumental covers where the lead instrument – in this case, Booker T. Jones’ organ – tends to play the vocal melody. The same goes for guitar groups like The Shadows, where Hank Marvin will play the vocal line on his guitar. It can sound very infantile.

But, it works with Booker T. & The M.G.’s. A couple of songs are close to sounding a little hammy, but on the whole, mainly due to their choice of songs, it avoids the type of pitfalls that trouble a lot of instrumental groups. The skills that each member of the M.G.’s bring to their respective instruments puts them in a much better position than most instrumental groups, which tend to be built around one particular musician.

This is the group’s last album from the ‘60s. Their next album would be an entire cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, but this wouldn’t see the light of day until April of the next decade.

Hit: Lady Madonna

Hidden Gem: The Horse

Rocks In The Attic #229: Led Zeppelin – ‘Presence’ (1976)

RITA#229I listened to Led Zeppelin so much in my teens that I overplayed their classic albums – II, III and IV – to the extent that I know them too well. Instead, when I want to listen to Zeppelin these days I tend to go for Physical Graffiti, or this, their seventh and penultimate studio album.

For me, despite a few great songs on the otherwise forgettable In Through The Out Door, this really is Zeppelin’s last great album.

By this time, the band’s fondness for long songs had descended into something else entirely. Opener Achilles Last Stand runs to 10:25, but even at that length it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I can’t say the same for closer Tea For One though, which at 9:27 does get a little tiresome. Jimmy Page has just admitted in Rolling Stone that this song was simply the band’s attempt at having another stab at an extended blues in the same vein as Since I’ve Been Loving You (from Led Zeppelin III).

Musical timing is also an issue on Presence. Zeppelin were always such great musicians, that playing in weird time structures always sounded so natural. Take a song like Black Dog (from Led Zeppelin IV). The way that the drumbeat slips in front of, then behind, the guitars sounds hypnotic, but most importantly it doesn’t take anything away from the song. On Presence, the otherwise excellent Nobody’s Fault But Mine is almost destroyed by a couple of moments of intended musical cleverness that just sounds wrong in execution.

Hit: Achilles Last Stand

Hidden Gem: Royal Orleans

Rocks In The Attic #228: The Housemartins – ‘London 0, Hull 4’ (1986)

RITA#228A well-intentioned birthday gift, but one that didn’t quite hit the mark (apologies Moo, but thank you all the same). I didn’t quite have the musical awareness in the late ‘80s to notice a band like The Housemartins, although I probably heard them in the background of my youth.

I don’t doubt The Housemartin’s ability to craft good songs – Happy Hour is a perfect example of this – but the one big obstacle for me is Paul Heaton’s voice. It has such an unusual, high-pitched nasal quality that I find it hard to listen to without wincing. I always thought the same with The Beautiful South.

One thing I do like about this album is the title – and there’s an amusing message in the inner sleeve: “The Housemartins say: Don’t try gate-crashing a party full of bankers. Burn the house down!” Amusing, only in retrospect, as drummer Hugh Whitaker was later jailed for arson attacks on a business partner.

Hit: Happy Hour

Hidden Gem: Flag Day

Rocks In The Attic #227: Motörhead – ‘Ace Of Spades’ (1980)

RITA#227Lemmy Kilmister sings with so much conviction that a Spinal Tap-esque lyric like ‘Love Me Like A Reptile, I’m gonna sink my fangs in you’ goes by without you even noticing. In the next song, Shoot You In The Back – a song with imagery about cowboys and the like – Lemmy has little faith that the average Motörhead fan will understand the change in direction, so he sets the scene by shouting ‘Western Movies!’ after the opening guitar riff.

Subtlety, tact and discretion may not be Motörhead’s best qualities, but if you want frantic heavy rock, there’s hardly a better band around. With their incredibly fast tempos you can understand why the punks in the late ‘70s turned their safety-pinned noses up at most of the rock bands of the day, but gave Motörhead their collective blessing.

This is yet another one of my Dad’s records, and it’s always been a favourite on my turntable throughout the years. I’ve heard a couple of other Motörhead records, but they’ve always lacked the direction and appeal of Ace Of Spades.

Thanks to a very accessible title track as lead single, this record marks the band’s highest achievement in the album charts (reaching #4 in the UK) – and in the song Ace Of Spades alone, you can hear the undeniable influence that Motörhead had on the burgeoning thrash metal scene.

Hit: Ace Of Spades

Hidden Gem: Love Me Like A Reptile

Rocks In The Attic #226: Jimi Hendrix – ‘Band Of Gypsys’ (1970)

RITA#226The end of the ‘60s captured on vinyl – if only because this was recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve in 1969.

This isn’t usually the Hendrix album I reach for first. I’d opt for the three studio albums any day over this, but it’s well recorded and nice to hear Jimi play in a more relaxed setting than the Experience. There are some really nice, laid-back jams on this record – and then songs like Machine Gun which explode into frantic explorations.

As you might expect, it also sounds much blacker than any of the three studio albums, especially due to the soulful backing vocals provided by Buddy Miles. I never really think of Hendrix as a black artist, in the same way that I don’t consider him to be an American musician – mainly because across the three Experience albums, the backing vocals by Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell are very, very white and very, very British.

As much as I love Hendrix on record, I always struggle to stay interested when I’m listening to him play live. I have the same feeling about Jimmy Page. Both are fantastic guitarists but their fondness for improvisation can sometimes turn me off. There’s a fair bit of that kind of improvisation here, and when you look at the full set-lists for the two New Year’s Eve shows that this was cut from, you can see that they’ve avoided a lot of the three minute pop songs, in favour of material not previously associated with the Experience.

I have the European re-release version of this record. Instead of the six songs included on the original release (two on the first side, and four on the flip side), the reissue I have has nine in total (five on the first side, and four on the flip side). This obviously makes the album much longer, and even the inclusion of Foxy Lady is deceptive – it’s a six minute rendition!

Hit: Foxy Lady

Hidden Gem: Who Knows

Rocks In The Attic #225: Aerosmith – ‘Nine Lives’ (1997)

RITA#225I had started listening to Aerosmith in 1993, when Get A Grip, the album before this was released; so by the time this came out in 1997, I had consumed everything Aerosmith had produced in their 24 years of material, and was very thirsty for anything new. Most importantly, I was now very much a critic.

I still see Nine Lives as a decent album. It’s definitely not in the same ballpark as Pump, and it’s only slightly more palatable than the hard Country that infects most of Get A Grip. It’s their last stab at making a decent album – and, although a patchy affair, is much better than Honkin’ On Bobo, Just Push Play and Music From Another Dimension!

This album came out in my first winter of university, in February 1997. I remember buying the CD single of Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees), and listening to it on my Discman as I walked around the cold, bitter streets of Huddersfield. I wanted so much for it to be better than it actually was. I had no right to criticise any of Aerosmith’s work before this – as I wasn’t a fan when those albums were originally released – but now I was a fully fledged fan, and I felt I deserved better.

When the album was released a month later, I was similarly disappointed. I’ve come to expect that feeling with Aerosmith when they release a new album. They may not make classic albums any more, but they’re very consistent with the hype (and subsequent lack of follow-through) they foster with every new release. Purveyors of disappointment, you might say.

Still, Nine Lives has its peaks and I was still itching to see the band play live again. On the Get A Grip tour in 1993, I had only managed to see the band once, when they played in Sheffield. This time, I was going to try and see them as much as my wallet could afford. With my friends Stotty and Bez, I got tickets to see them in Manchester, and then a couple of weeks later in Birmingham.

Manchester was great – seeing your favourite band play in your home town is always nice – but Birmingham was very special. We made a day of it, travelling down the motorway in the sunshine, and hanging out around the NEC for an hour or so before the show, checking out anything female dressed in an Aerosmith t-shirt.

The title song is a classic album opener, with a wall of guitar feedback swirling around horrible cat noises. They opened their live show with the song throughout the tour, and it was eye-opening to find out the cat noises were produced by nothing other than the vocal chords of Steven Tyler. It was also nice to see Brad Whitford take centre-stage with the guitar solo on the song.

The other thing I remember from that tour (aside from the inappropriately booked support band of Shed Seven, who we had great fun booing, stood only yards away from Rick Witter) was the fact that during the Birmingham show, England were playing Poland in a World Cup qualifier. A couple of times during their set, Steven Tyler gave an update of the score – “England – two! Poland – zero!” -which was as bizarre as it sounds. The score stayed that way too.

This vinyl copy is the reissued version, with their later #1 hit single I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing tacked onto the end (I hate that song – it really signalled the end of Aerosmith’s ability to release anything of any artistic merit); and the alternative cover (after the original cover of the album offended a bunch of Hindus).

All in all, Nine Lives is a mixed affair, with some really strong highlights, all rolled up into a combination of initial disappointment, and tempered with some very happy memories.

Hit: I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing

Hidden Gem: Falling Off

Rocks In The Attic #224: Brad Whitford & Derek St.Holmes – ‘Whitford / St. Holmes’ (1981)

RITA#224Aerosmith-related solo project #2, after Joe Perry’s first outing with The Joe Perry Project, is this little curio from rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford and Ted Nugent vocalist Derek St. Holmes.

It’s a decent little album, and although it suffers from a very 1980s sound, it’s probably a little more ahead of its time than anything else. Although it came out in mid-1981, it sounds like a rock album from much later in that decade.

The most representative song on the album is Sharpshooter, which is probably why the track was chosen for Aerosmith’s 1991 retrospective, Pandora’s Box. That song is a perfect example of the very AOR slant that the album takes, complimented by Brad Whitford’s very measured guitar playing. That’s the big thing that pops out of Whitford / St. Holmes – whereas Aerosmith’s guitar sound is dominated by Joe Perry, you can hear throughout this album the melodic quality that Brad Whitford brings to the table.

It’s not a fantastic record, but it is a strong record. It’s at least as strong as the first Joe Perry Project album; and I wonder how good an album the two Aerosmith guitarists could have made if they’d put their heads together after going solo. In fact, that might have been more of an Aerosmith album than Rock In A Hard Place turned out to be.

Hit: Sharpshooter

Hidden Gem: Action

Rocks In The Attic #223: Jack White – ‘Blunderbuss’ (2012)

RITA#223I’d avoided this album throughout 2012. I hadn’t heard particularly good things about it, especially from one particular critic, and that really put me off even trying the album. Towards the end of the year though, I started hearing claims such as ‘Best Album Of The Year’ or ‘Best Rock Album Of The Year’ emitting from magazine, newspaper and website round-ups of the year.

I then heard that Blunderbuss was the best selling vinyl record of 2012 (in the U.S.), narrowly beating the 2012 stereo remaster of Abbey Road (which I did manage to get my hands on before the end of the year, as part of the Beatles’ stereo vinyl box set). Although, Jack White’s album came out in April, whereas those Beatles records didn’t see the light of day until November, so I’m not sure too much should be read into that. There are also two Mumford & Sons albums in that top-10 vinyl chart for 2012, so I guess that proves that charts shouldn’t be relied on for any artistic recommendation.

So I thought I’d dip my toe into the water, for old time’s sake. You have to understand here that I used to be a big White Stripes fan, but over the last five or so years, I’d really started to think that Jack White was washed up. I have all of the White Stripes records on vinyl (except Get Behind Me Satan which they didn’t release on the format) – even the Under Great White Northern Lights live album – and they’re the only contemporary band I can say that about; but I haven’t even bothered to take Icky Thump or Under Great White Northern Lights out of their shrinkwrap yet (I’ve heard Icky Thump on my iPod and I’ve seen the film of that live album).

But, Blunderbuss, is to me a huge success. It’s received many, many plays on my turntable in the couple of weeks since I bought it; and thanks to the free MP3 download that came with the record, it’s rarely been off my iPod. The last White Stripes album I can say that about was Elephant, not because it’s a great album from start to finish, but because there are a handful of songs on there that are as good as the band at their peak on De Stijl.

The album’s well produced – very, well produced – with a bunch of great songs and a diverse range of instrumentation. Thankfully, there’s not too much of the dull garage-rock sound that had blighted some parts of the White Stripes’ records from White Blood Cells onwards. Essentially the album sounds like it will stand the test of time, and I can’t say that for the last couple of White Stripes records.

I hadn’t been a fan of any of Jack White’s side-projects, so I didn’t think I would like Blunderbuss, but I think it might just be as good as De Stijl, and that’s a huge thing for me to say.

Hit: Love Interruption

Hidden Gem: I’m Shakin’

Rocks In The Attic #222: Stevie Wonder – ‘Talking Book’ (1972)

RITA#222This is my favourite Stevie Wonder album, because it has Superstition on it, and that song is for me the pinnacle of Stevie’s career; and I like that song so much, I’m prepared to put up with a lot of the slower material which otherwise blights this album.

If Stevie Wonder only wrote funky, upbeat, melodic music (a la Superstition, Higher Ground, Sir Duke, etc) I’d be the happiest man in the world. But he compliments these types of songs with slower ballads – the kind of which always sound like he’s writing them for lesser talents. The perfect example of this type of song is You And I (We Can Conquer The World), from Talking Book. A nice song, if that’s your sort of thing – but for me it holds no interest. It’s a million miles away from the likes of Superstition, and there’s a very bare melody, so it also stands out from his better slower songs like You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.

Songs In The Key Of Life is usually held up as his greatest achievement, and although there’s a lot of great material on there, like most double albums it’s filled with a fair but of fluff too.

I love how this album starts, almost like a freeform jam. Stevie’s the third person to sing a line of You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – and in this current climate where corporate record companies dictate everything, I can’t imagine a record that would come out in the 21st century by a well known singer, where the vocals on the opening track would start by someone other than that particular artist.

Hit: Superstition

Hidden Gem: I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)