Monthly Archives: July 2016

Rocks In The Attic #506: Various Artists – ‘The Sounds Of Time A Dramatisation In Sound Of The Years 1934-1949’ (1957)

RITA#506I love records like this; time-capsules from another era. Back when this was released in 1957, the only way for a household to have such a recording was on a vinyl record. Television was still in its infancy, and video wouldn’t see mainstream acceptance for another twenty years.

It’s easy then to imagine the whole household gathering around the record player to listen to this recording. It’s nice to picture that kind of shared experience. One day, I might try and sit my daughters down and force them to listen to this. I’ll be lucky if they don’t roll their eyes and ask me to turn the boring talking off.

This record is full of famous moments, essentially the history of the Second World War, bookended by a couple of years either side. There isn’t a great deal of light relief, but it’s all fascinating stuff; some of it well-known, some of it new to my ears.

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly is Desert Island Discs, a slimmed-down version of the Radio 4 broadcast. It’s essentially the same as what is transmitted live, except that the songs are shortened quite drastically for copyright reasons. A couple of years ago, one of the “castaways”, the novelist Vikram Seth, chose as one of his discs a recording of a Nightingale singing as a wartime bombing raid passes overhead. It’s a fantastic recording, the purity of the birdsong contrasting completely with the ominous drones of the bombers. I was so happy to find that a short clip of the recording is included on this record.

The story behind the Nightingale and bombers is worth sharing also. Every May, the BBC would record birdsong for live transmission. On the day in question – May 19th, 1942 – a quick-thinking engineer pulled the plug on the transmission, believing that the sound of the bombers could potentially forewarn German forces of the impending attack. A full recording exists, with the 197 bombers recorded on their way to Mannheim, and only 186 recorded on their return.

Hit: “Oh the humanity…” – The giant airship Hindenburg bursts into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey, May 6th, 1937

Hidden Gem: Nightingale in a Surrey wood matches its voice against the drone of a thousand bombers striking at Germany

Rocks In The Attic #505: Leo Sayer – ‘Endless Flight’ (1976)

RITA#505I know it’s tragically uncool to like this album, but who cares? You Make Me Feel Like Dancing is a great disco single, and I’m not afraid to say I love it. Disco is always looked at unfairly with shame and regret, and usually the only thing more artistically bankrupt than a disco act is a white disco act.

It’s a shame that Leo Sayer doesn’t get the benefit of a career reappraisal every couple of years like the Bee Gees might, for example. Endless Flight was a Top Ten record on both sides of the Atlantic (#4 in the UK, #10 in the USA), and You Make Me Feel Like Dancing hit the #1 spot in both countries.

Production-wise, the album sounds similar in feel to Elton John’s output in the mid-‘70s. The record features a who’s who of ‘70s rock talent – Earl Slick, Paul Buckmaster, Steve Gadd, Bobby Keys, Michael Omartian, Ray Parker Jr. and Jeff Porcaro amongst others. It’s difficult not to like it when it sounds this good.

When I was at University in Huddersfield, Leo Sayer did a performance at one of the nightclubs. It was our regular Tuesday night haunt so we would have been there anyway, but for some reason he was booked to come out onto the dancefloor in the middle of the night and sing a few songs. It sounds remarkable now that this happened, but as strange as it sounds, it worked really well.

I happened to be standing around between the door where he appeared, and the dancefloor, so I reached out and drunkenly patted him on the shoulder when he walked past. Man, he was small. I know he’s regarded as a diminutive little fellow, but he was absolutely tiny in real life. It’s quite possible in my stupor that I thought he was a small child, and I was just trying to encourage him along.

He bounced onto the dancefloor, led by a couple of big, burly bouncers (making him look even smaller than he was) and everybody parted for him like Moses and the Red Sea. He then sang along to a couple of his well-known songs, singing live into a microphone, accompanied by a backing track.

Everybody loved it, especially all the ladies in the audience who absolutely fell in love with him; and we’re talking about 18-19 year old University students here – most of them wouldn’t have known who he was. As a measure of how unfamiliar they were with him, on our way home the girls in our group kept asking me to sing that song of his they really liked (When I Need You) – they’d drunkenly forgotten it, and it wasn’t familiar enough for them to recall it.

It’s nice eating a kebab with a belly full of beer and a head full of Leo Sayer melodies.

Hit: You Make Me Feel Like Dancing

Hidden Gem: How Much Love

Rocks In The Attic #504: Rage Against The Machine – ‘Rage Against The Machine’ (1992)

RITA#504I’m fourteen again!

When I started listening to rock music in the early ‘90s, this was essential listening. There was this, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Metallica’s self-titled ‘Black’ album. All three were incredibly relevant to a teenage rock fan.

In retrospect, it’s really only Rage Against The Machine who were cutting-edge. Both Metallica and the Chili Peppers had taken five albums to get to that position; RATM had done it in one, a sterling debut.

Mixing rock and rap wasn’t anything new. The Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C. had been doing it for five or six years by this point, but that was rap sampling (or in some cases, playing) rock. This was the other way around – a heavy rock band, with rap-inflected lyrics, courtesy of Zack de la Rocha.

It wasn’t cutting-edge for long though. A year later in 1993, the turgid soundtrack to the turgid film Judgement Night featured collaborations between rock / metal bands and rap acts. Then the floodgates opened, and a thousand imitators came along. The worst, although regrettably the most successful, was Limp Bizkit – a band ultimately so terrible that I walked out on my weekly DJing residency in the early 2000s because the landlord of the bar asked me to start playing more Limp Bizkit.

The imitators might have got the mixture of rap over rock right, but they avoided the political stance of Rage Against The Machine, and most importantly they didn’t have the same groove. One hit-wonders Crazy Town (no, me neither) even lifted a sample from the Chili Peppers’ Pretty Little Ditty for their song Butterfly, such was their inability to come up with their own groove.

Killing In The Name seemed like a rebellious song to listen to back when it came out, purely for the outrageous lyrics in the latter half of the song. When it would come on in a club, everybody would pile onto the dancefloor, purely for the thrill of being able to jump around shouting “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” at each other. I’m sure de la Rocha intended the song to be a missive against the establishment, but he ultimately created a song for difficult teenagers to use as internal ammunition against their parents.

There’s a reasonably successful (in local terms) Manchester band called Nine Black Alps, featuring an old acquaintance of mine. Signed to Island in the mid-200s, I caught them in the New Band tent at Glastonbury in the same year, and I really like their debut record Everything Is. But in the last ten years or so I haven’t been able to listen to Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name without thinking of that ‘too cool for school’ acquaintance from Nine Black Alps. The word on the street is that prior to joining that band, he was on some performing arts course in Oldham where he had to do a public performance of the song as part of his final exam. To an audience of teachers, students and examiners they went with the more family friendly lyric “Flip you I won’t do what you tell me!”

Hit: Killing In The Name

Hidden Gem: Wake Up

Rocks In The Attic #503: Otis Redding – ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ (1965)

RITA#503Probably Redding’s most famous of the studio albums he recorded during his short life, this is album number three of six. It earned a little more attention than its predecessors due to its frantic cover of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction which adorns the second side. It therefore finds its way into most rock-centric record collections. It’s usually the only Otis Redding record that appears in top albums of all times lists; and more often than not, it’s one of only a handful of soul albums to appear. In Rolling Stone’s Top 500, the record places at a respectable 75.

The record is mainly a bunch of covers, with only three songs penned by Redding himself. Also covered are songs by BB King, the Temptations, Solomon Burke, William Bell and three Sam Cooke songs.

The album was recorded within a 24-hour period in July, which is a great example of how quickly Stax could produce white hot material in the mid-‘60s. As per Redding’s previous albums, he was backed by Booker T.  & The M.G.s, with horns supplied by a mixture of the Mar-Keys and the Memphis Horns.

Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass line on Respect has always interested me. It sounds very similar to McCartney’s bass line on the Beatles’ Drive My Car. Almost too similar, if you know what I mean. A cursory look at the dates shows that Redding’s song had been released as a single in August 1965, a full two months before the Beatles recorded Drive My Car.

Ian McDonald in Revolution In The Head, his seminal analysis on the Beatles’ recording career, points out that George Harrison had been listening to Redding’s Respect when they recorded Drive My Car. It sounds like it was Harrison’s urging that they record the song with a heavy bottom-ended, dual bass and guitar riff.

So there was definitely some musical thievery going on with Drive My Car, but it’s impossible to say whether McCartney or Harrison was the chief magpie.

Hit: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long

Hidden Gem: What A Wonderful World

Rocks In The Attic #502: The Doobie Brothers – ‘The Captain And Me’ (1973)

RITA#502This isn’t my favourite Doobs album – that would be Toulouse Street – but this is probably the most successful one, if you consider the strength of the individual songs on it. Both Long Train Runnin’ and China Grove were lifted off this record, and they’re amongst the best singles the band ever released.

In 1976, when the band’s first compilation, Best Of The Doobies, was being put together, as well as taking the two hit singles on The Captain And Me, they also took a couple of album tracks – Without You and South City Midnight Lady. As a result, these two songs now sound like hit singles. The end result for The Captain And Me is a record that feels like it’s full of hits.

Of course the thing that makes this a great Doobie Brothers album is the absence of Michael McDonald. He wasn’t tainting the band with his smooth AOR vocals just yet. I’ve criticised him enough in the past though, so I won’t elaborate further on this lest anyone think I have a personal vendetta against the man. <Aside> I do!

The record does mark the first occasion when fellow Steely Dan alumnus Jeff “Skunk” Baxter would appear on a Doobie Brothers album. He would also appear on the following year’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, before becoming a fully fledged ‘brother’ on 1975’s Stampede.

Hit: Long Train Runnin’

Hidden Gem: Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners

Rocks In The Attic #501: Band Of Horses – ‘Everything All The Time’ (2006)

RITA#501A few years ago, with the help of a friend at work, I pulled my head out of the sand long enough to hear a few new(ish) bands. I do this every now and then; something to put into my musical diet other than Creedence and Steely Dan. I used to do it all the time, almost exclusively. Back then I would listen to 60% – 80% contemporary music. Now it’s less than 2%. I just got tired of investing too much time in sub-par albums.

This is one of the bands that I liked the sound of, thanks to my friend Justin introducing me to them. It’s the debut record by Seattle indie rockers Band Of Horses, released on Sub Pop (not sub-par) in 2006.

Band Of Horses aren’t the kind of band I would listen to. They’re a little bit too far into the jangly guitar spectrum of bands for my liking, and they sound like the kind of band that would feature prominently in a Zach Braff film.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Zach Braff films, except the cloying sentimental bits. Garden State was fantastic though, and I even like its soundtrack, but I just don’t want to be the type of person who listens to those kinds of bands all the time.

This is a lovely album though. It’s a little underproduced – mainly because the recording sounds live, with minimal overdubs – so there’s nothing fancy about it. It’s a very lush-sounding record, but because there isn’t anything featured except vocals, guitars, bass and drums, all of the songs tend to slide into one another, and apart from the melodies there isn’t much to tell one song from the next.

Hit: The Funeral

Hidden Gem: The First Song

Rocks In The Attic #500: Manic Street Preachers – ‘The Holy Bible’ (1995)

RITA#500Part I: A Search

When I started this blog back in April 2012, I never believed I would own a copy of my favourite album, the Manic Street Preachers’ peerless classic The Holy Bible, on standard black vinyl. It just seemed like it would never happen. On its release in 1995, it only saw a picture disc release on vinyl. And while I have that beautiful piece of wax, it might be nice to look at but it’s a dog to listen to. The only thing worse would be a flexi-disc – and I have that too: NME’s 7” Verses From The Holy Bible.

The album’s tenth anniversary came and went in 2005, but saw no vinyl release – just an interesting and very much welcomed CD / DVD box set, including the very interesting American mix of the album. Things started looking up – finally – in 2015 when the band released a twentieth anniversary box set, which included four CDs of material, a book, and that all-elusive black vinyl. I wavered though. Of course I wanted that slab of vinyl; I just didn’t really want the rest of the set. CD box sets tend to gather dust in my house, and once I’ve listened to all the bonus material, they just get pushed to the back of a shelf and never taken out again. I then found out that the vinyl record housed the four CDs in little pockets on its sleeve. Screw that – my plans of taking the vinyl album out to put with the rest of my MSP vinyl collection were dashed. So I continued to wait…

I waited through all the album’s twentieth anniversary celebrations in 2015.  I waited patiently. I waited while I heard the news that the band were going to play the album in its entirety at some live shows in the UK. After seven years living on the other side of the world, here was something that finally made me regret leaving the UK in the first place. Only the amazing 2012 London Olympics had prompted the same feelings. The reasonable part of me knew I was being silly, but the unreasonable part of me wanted to travel back in time to tear up my immigration documents.

It was nice to see the album’s appearance on last year’s Record Store Day list of exclusive vinyl releases. But it was just a picture disc again – two actually – one for the UK mix of the album and one for the US mix. Well, that was something, at least (and I picked those up in no time). But still no standalone black vinyl.

Then in October or November of 2015, I noticed that Amazon was listing a pre-order of the vinyl record – as a standalone release – for the end of December. No details, just a vague description: “vinyl” and “discs = 1”. I was sceptical. I had pre-ordered it before from Amazon, and for some reason the release didn’t happen; my order at that time was ultimately cancelled. Surely the same thing would happen here. Perhaps it was a nasty joke by some Amazon employee, maybe a God-botherer annoyed at the album’s appropriation of the holiest book around.

But then it turned up, the first piece of vinyl to land in my mailbox in 2016. A beautiful piece of black vinyl. No box set. No fancy release. Just a single disc in a minimalist package. No tracklisting on the rear cover; just a photo of the band and a quote by Octave Mirbeau. No lyric sheet on the inside; just an inner sleeve with a CCCP design on one side, and a photo of the band on the other side, overlaid with a quote by Solomon Northup (he of Twelve Years A Slave fame).

It was finally here.

RITA#500a

Part II: An Introduction

It was hearing Faster that started it all. Up to that point, I hadn’t noticed the Manics. I had definitely taken a dislike to their name though. Manic Street Preachers? How pretentious! What does that even mean?

It’s dangerous when you haven’t heard any music by a band, and the only thing you have to go on is their name. If the name sounds cool, then you’d be forgiven for expecting the band to be cool. If the name sounds unbelievably pretentious, well…

So I bought a compilation called Danger Zone during my second year at University. I’d heard some of the tracks before, but mostly the CD introduced me to a lot of the rockier indie bands I had avoided up to that point. It was the Manics’ Faster that really got my attention. It was like nothing I’d heard before – edgy, off-kilter, the sound of inertia committed to tape – and with lyrics name-checking Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath and Harold Pinter. Rock songs weren’t supposed to mention writers and poets, and as I was currently studying English literature, they sounded like the kind of lyrics I should probably be listening to. I needed all the academic help I could get.

The other thing that grabbed me about the song was the production. The first few lines with James Dean Bradfield’s vocals switching between a reverb and a clean sound was awesome, especially through a pair of headphones when you can really hear the difference. And guitar-wise, it was refreshing to hear a heap of effects that I just hadn’t heard before in my diet of Aerosmith, AC/DC, and the like.

I rushed out and bought The Holy Bible on CD, expecting to find more of the same. On first listen, I was disappointed. Faster was clearly the best song on the album, but what the hell was all this other stuff? Anorexia, prostitution, the holocaust, mass murderers, American politics, right-wing totalitarianism; to say that it’s a serious album would be a grave understatement.

A casual listener might have been put off by such content, but at that time I had the time and the inclination to fully digest myself in an album, to immerse myself in it until I knew it backwards and could form a valid opinion of it.

RITA#500b

Part III: An Obsession

Everyday from that point onwards, for maybe six months or more, The Holy Bible would be on my MiniDisc player (the highly unfashionable pre-cursor to the iPod). I’d listen to it on the long walk into University, sometimes finding myself listening to Archives Of Pain, a song about serial killers, whilst walking through the red-light district where Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe picked up some of his victims.

I’d listen to it between lectures, as I wandered the streets of Huddersfield to kill time. Then I’d listen to it again as I took the same long walk home. The only albums I’d share in my musical diet were the Manics’ earlier albums, Generation Terrorists and Gold Against The Soul. They were good, but they weren’t in the same class as The Holy Bible. I’d listen to them to try and understand their follow-up album; how had this band arrived at producing such a unique piece of art?

Posters of the Holy Bible adorned my bedroom walls, and I sought out everything connected to the album. In particular, in those dark days before the advent of YouTube, I went to great lengths to see a performance of Faster on BBC’s Top Of The Pops – a performance that at the time of broadcast saw a record number of complaints (over 25,000). The reason? Bradfield’s black balaclava (with ‘James’ scrawled on the front of it) and the rest of the band’s military garb prompted comparisons with the IRA. Viewed now, it looks very tame but the troubles were in full swing at the time so it’s not hard to understand how the Mary Whitehouses of the UK were horrified.

RITA#500e

My girlfriend at the time wore a handmade necklace adorned with a Holy Bible lyric – I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing, from Faster. I loved it so much she made me one as a gift, featuring another of my favourite lyrics from the album – Why do anything when you can forget everything?, from This Is Yesterday. I wore it every day until it split and the many lettered beads it was made of spilled all over the floor.

RITA#500cPart IV: An Understanding

To fully appreciate what the NME would ultimately call ‘a vile record’, it’s important to provide some context on how these four individuals came to record the album, and it’s impossible not to view the record without considering the unfortunate events that followed during its promotion.

As a band, the Manics are easily divisible into two camps. First, there are the musical writers of the band, vocalist / guitarist James Dean Bradfield and his drumming cousin, Sean Moore. They’re complimented by the lyricists of the group, guitarist Richey Edwards and bass player Nicky Wire.

The way that they approach songwriting is also fairly unique. An existing set of lyrics by Edwards or Wire (or both) is crowbarred into a piece of music written independently by Bradfield or Moore (or both). This is why the band’s lyrics sound strangely wrapped around the music. They don’t think twice about starting a line (or even a single word) at the end of a bar of music, and finishing it on the next bar. Effectively they’re fitting a poem onto a piece of music which might not necessarily have the same metre.

This is why I have major problems deciphering their lyrics. For a while, I though the chorus of their Masses Against The Classes single was ‘Grandma Says, Against Her Glasses’. Talk about mondegreens; I could write my own MSP lyric sheets and they would be filled with the most unintelligible gibberish. I’d have more success deciphering the Super Furry Animals’ welsh lyrics (who might very well be singing ‘Ysbeidiau Heulog’ on Mwng’s song of the same name, but I’ve always heard it as ‘a spidey-eye halo’).

To record their third album, the band decamped back to Wales, to Sound Space Studios, a small studio in Cardiff. Their first two albums had been recorded in London and Oxfordshire respectively, and their last album, Gold Against The Soul, had a hollowness and a commercial sheen they were keen not to repeat.

Manics biographer Simon Price describes The Holy Bible as ‘the sound of a group in extremis, at crisis point, hurtling towards a private armageddon.’ This sums up the album perfectly, but could also be used to describe Richey Edwards himself. Of their first five albums, this is clearly the most ‘Richey’ in tone, and Nicky Wire has confirmed that the lyrics are “30 per cent me, 70 per cent Richey”.

Five months following the release of the album, and on the eve of flying out to tour the record in America, Richey disappeared. Echoing the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980 – similarly on the eve of Joy Division touring America – this was the culmination of Edward’s deteriorating mental state.

Part V: A Disappearance

Edwards and Bradfield were staying at the Embassy Hotel in West London. They were due to fly out to the U.S.A. in the morning, for a week of interviews to promote the album and the upcoming tour. As they arrived at the hotel in the evening, Bradfield played a demo of Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky, a song with lyrics written by Edwards that would later appear on the band’s ‘comeback’ album Everything Must Go. Richey loved it. In the morning, Richey didn’t show in the lobby at the agreed time.

When Bradfield asked the hotel porter to open Edwards’ room, they found a box wrapped up in paper featuring literary quotes and images, addressed to his girlfriend. Inside the box was an assortment of books and videos. His full suitcase of clothes, toiletries and medication was also found.

The ensuing police investigation found that Richey had driven back to his flat in Cardiff that morning. Here, they found his passport, which he had had with him in London, his remaining medication and his credit card.

Aside from uncomfirmed sightings of Richey in Newport, he had completely vanished. Sixteen days later, his car was found abandoned in the car park of the Severn View motorway services in Aust, close to the English side of the Severn Bridge.

It was impossible to identify how long the car had been parked there, but the battery was dead and it appeared that he’d been sleeping in it, playing cassette tapes though the car stereo.

Despite numerous unconfirmed sightings early on in places as far afield as Goa, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, to this day Edwards is still missing / presumed dead – the Lord Lucan of pop music. In 2002 his family were given the option to declare him legally dead. They chose not to, and he remained a missing person until 2008 when he was officially presumed dead.

The proximity to the bridge – a suicide spot, as most large bridges are – served as a bookend to the situation to some. Many presumed he had taken his own life, but a body was never found. How horrible. It’s one thing for a band member to kill themselves – as had happened to Nirvana the year before – but for a band member to disappear, to have questions but no answers, must be considerably more torturous.

RITA#500d

Part VI: An Appreciation

The wise people know. You’ll hear them every now and then, in the toilet of a club, or walking in a mall. All of a sudden, your ears will prick up because you hear the word ‘Manics’ spoken by others; the Cocktail Party Phenomenon in action. If you can eavesdrop further, they’ll be debating which is the best Manics album. The one that’s heard The Holy Bible will be strenuously putting forward an argument that’s it’s better than all the others. The other person, the one who’s not heard The Holy Bible, will be saying something else. But they’ll be wrong of course.

Over time my tastes have changed. I’m not as avid a supporter of the band as I once was. I still follow them, but the standard of their post-Holy Bible output has been patchy to say the least. I’m still smarting over them (or more correctly, their record company) for putting out Know Your Enemy as a single disc of vinyl, despite its 75 minute running time.

The other week, I heard the Manics’ song backing the Wales football team in the 2016 European Championship. I nearly vomited, it was so bad. The Super Furry Animals’ song was much better, just proving that it’s not a missing band member that changes a band beyond comprehension, it’s the band becoming popular, moving into the mainstream, and falling back on tried and tested songwriting formulas that turns them into the opposite of what they started out as.

In 2007, I saw the Manics at Glastonbury; my last Glastonbury festival before I left the UK. I wasn’t excited as we were walking to the stage; instead I was going to see them on auto-pilot, out of a weird sense of duty. But halfway through the opening song, You Love Us, I suddenly remembered what a big fan of the band I was and as a result, I couldn’t stop smiling.

That must have been the fourth or fifth time I had seen the band play, and I noticed that they had added a second guitarist to their touring band. Up to this point they had been doing fine as a three-piece, but now it seemed like they were finally saying goodbye to Richey by filling his part in the band. The new addition to the band stood at the back in the shadows, while stage-right remained empty, as I believe it does to this day, waiting for Richey to return.

Hit: Faster


Hidden Gem: This Is Yesterday


Note – In the writing of this post, I’m indebted to Simon Price’s wonderful Manics biography Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) (Virgin Books, 1999) which helped a great deal, particularly with its in-depth report of the police investigation into Richey Edwards’ disappearance. I’ve also recently discovered Andy Johnson’s great blog Manic Street Preachers – A Critical Discography, a great repository for MSP fans, and well worth checking out.