Monthly Archives: December 2016

Rocks In The Attic #548: Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – ‘Stranger Things Volume One (O.S.T.)’ (2016)

rita548Clearly the pop-culture TV phenomenon of 2016, Stranger Things landed in July through Netflix – with all eight episodes released concurrently, providing the perfect opportunity to binge-watch. The show is steeped in nostalgia, tailor-made for somebody my age, taking its cues from science-fiction films of the 1980s, most notably the works of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Stephen King and Robert Zemeckis. It’s almost as if the kids from Stephen King’s It met up with Richard Donner’s Goonies and fell into a Carpenteresque, Spielbergian sci-fi horror.

On paper, that all sounds amazing, but the thing that clinched it for me is the heavily John Carpenter influenced soundtrack – all moody synths and drum loops – which really helps to place the show in the 1980s. I’ve written about John Carpenter’s soundtracks twice before – I’m a big fan – and this soundtrack stands up with the best of his work, but also touches on the likes of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream among others. Composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are half of Austin-based synth pioneers Survive, a band I really need to check out. Stein and Dixon were brought on board after the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, used a Survive song in the mock trailer they created to pitch the show to Netflix. They were hired when the show was green-lit, with early demos influencing the casting process by being played over the actors’ audition tapes.

Season two of Stranger Things is planned to air some time in 2017, with the main cast fleshed out by the addition of ‘80s stalwart Paul Reiser and chief-Goonie Sean Astin.

Hit: Stranger Things

Hidden Gem: Kids

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Rocks In The Attic #547: Various Artists – ‘Now That’s What I Call Music – The Christmas Album’ (2016)

rita547I saw this in a record store a few weeks ago, and couldn’t resist it. I’ve had my eyes out for the original 1985 compilation, hoping that I’d come across it in a charity shop, but it hasn’t happened yet. Forty notes does seem a bit steep for this new version – a bunch of songs I’ve heard a million times – but this is usually the soundtrack to present opening in our house on Christmas Day every year, and it’ll be nice to do it from my turntable, rather than through the iPod.

It’s slightly disingenuous to refer to any of these songs as a hidden gem – they’re all so ubiquitous – but the format of my blog forces my hand. I’ve therefore chosen Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, if only for the mental image it provides of Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin from Home Alone, putting on a fake house party with cardboard cut-outs and mannequins.

The song choices on this record are slightly odd – it’s a mixtures of ‘70s and ‘80s British songs (Slade, Wizzard, Wham!, Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, John & Yoko, Kirsty MacColl & the Pogues), together with a handful of older American hits (Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the aforementioned Brenda Lee). The only jarring inclusion is Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas – a song I’ve always liked but never loved, wondering if it’s the same journey he recounts in The Road To Hell. Bloody December traffic…

Merry Christmas everybody!

Hit: Do They Know It’s Christmas – Band Aid

Hidden Gem: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee

Rocks In The Attic #546: The Guess Who – ‘American Woman’ (1970)

RITA#546.jpgSometimes you buy a record when you only know one song, and the results are terrible. You end up wishing you never bought the thing in the first place, with the other tracks tarnishing everything you loved about the one song that interested you. Then there are other times, like when you buy an album like American Woman by the Guess Who, and suddenly everything fits in place. How can I not have heard more of this band before?

I remember hearing the original version of American Woman – before Lenny Kravitz covered it – on the soundtrack to Ben Stiller’s 1996 film The Cable Guy. It’s probably my favourite moment, in an otherwise disappointing film, when the stereo system installed in the apartment of Matthew Broderick’s character, by Jim Carrey’s cable guy, prompts a karaoke party.

I’ve been kicking around a 7” of American Woman for decades, and only just got around to investing in the album. The band sounds like a hybrid of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane, by way of Zeppelin and the Who, which makes for an interesting prospect, with lead guitarist Randy Bachman probably best known for his later work as part of Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The single version of American Woman cuts straight in, with the rhythm guitar part setting up the tempo for the incredible fuzz line that is the centrepiece of the song. I was amazed to find a nice little acoustic passage that opens the song on the album version. Hearing this is akin to hearing the instrumental break in the album version of Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper on Agents Of Fortune.

There are probably plenty of examples of singles being more than judicious in what they cut out of the original song – one infamous example being the single version of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion which disposes entirely of the bass guitar intro. Sacrilege!

Hit: American Woman

Hidden Gem: 969 (The Oldest Man)

Rocks In The Attic #545: Tony Hancock – ‘The Blood Donor / The Radio Ham’ (1961)

RITA#545.jpgIt’s blood donation season in New Zealand at the moment, but again I’m not allowed to donate. Having lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996, I’m considered Moo Positive, at risk of contracting Mad Cow Disease.

And Tony Hancock thought he had a problem. At least he could donate, not that he really wanted to…

Hit: The Blood Donor

Hidden Gem: The Radio Ham

Rocks In The Attic #544: Fawlty Towers – ‘Second Sitting (O.S.T.)’ (1981)

rita544Andrew Sachs, the actor who played long-suffering Fawlty Towers waiter Manuel, died last week. He was such an iconic character, and possibly my favourite when I was growing up in the early ‘80s, that I can’t imagine the show without him. He’s all over this record, providing a well needed in-character narration, that was missing on the show’s first LP.

I wonder if a character like Manuel – which could be read as a racist stereotype – would be accepted on today’s television sets. The comedy comes not from Sachs’ portrayal as a Spaniard, but from his poor grasp of English, something that might have struck a chord in the late ‘70s as package holidays to the Mediterranean started to become popular for British holidaymakers.

In later years, Sachs became infamous for his stoush with the BBC after a prank call on Radio 2’s  Russell Brand Radio Show went slightly wrong. Brand and his guest, Jonathan Ross, left messages on Sachs’ voicemail indicating that Brand had had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter Georgina Baillie, a burlesque dancer.  After an Ofcom inquiry, Russell Brand and the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, both resigned, and golden boy of the BBC, Jonathan Ross was suspended for just twelve weeks.

Sachs had suffered from dementia and was living in a nursing home in the years preceding his death. Fittingly, the day after his funeral, the BBC aired the Fawlty Towers episode Communication Problems in his memory.

“Manual, there is too much butter on those trays…”

Hit: The Rat

Hidden Gem: The Builders

Rocks In The Attic #543: R.E.M. – ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ (1985)

rita543I often wonder what would have happened to R.E.M. if things had not gone so well for them and their crossover into the mainstream in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They seemed to take such a long time to be the kings of alternative rock that it almost seems they would have been happy just churning out album after album of the kind of material that can be found on this record. I’m sure a lot of the early fans would have hoped that the band had continued on this track too.

For me, the two phases of R.E.M. can be summarised into two timeframes – before and after the introduction of Scott Litt as producer on 1987’s Document. Prior to that record, they’re very much like an American version of the Smiths, only with better harmonies. The sound is roughly similar from record to record, and from producer to producer, until Litt makes them sound like a different band altogether. The standard – although similar approach –  would be to split the band’s output between the I.R.S. years versus the Warner Bros years, which is different by only one record, 1988’s Green.

The one thing that irks me about R.E.M. is their refusal to spell some of their songs correctly around this time. Fables Of The Reconstruction gives us Feeling Gravitys Pull and Cant Get There From Here, and those missing apostrophes nearly kill me. Follow-up record Lifes Rich Pageant takes the same approach in its title, clearly placing this era of R.E.M. as the missing apostrophe years.

Hit: Feeling Gravitys Pull

Hidden Gem: Life And How To Live It

Rocks In The Attic #542: ZZ Top – ‘Eliminator’ (1983)

rita542I have a love / hate relationship with this record. On the one hand, I might not have discovered the joys of early ZZ Top if it weren’t for the global success of this 1983 multi-million seller. On the other hand, the change in approach to recording the album and its overall sound – vastly different to anything they had recorded previously – is sometimes a little too much to absorb.

The first four ZZ Top records – ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres and Fandango!­ – are, in my eyes, untouchable. Southern-fried, boogie blues, heavily influenced by the three Kings – B.B., Albert, and Freddie – the Texas trio developed their own sound across these records, and by 1979’s Degüello, had complimented this with guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill’s iconic overgrown beards.

Eliminator, taking its cue from New Wave, was recorded with synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers which permeate the record. This wasn’t the first time they had experimented with this sort of technology though. On the band’s previous record, 1981’s El Loco, Gibbons had toyed around with a synth on a couple of tracks, and despite that album selling only half as much as its predecessor, it’s incredible that they utilised synths more, not less, on its follow-up.

Much of Eliminator was recorded at 124bpm, the tempo that considered perfect for dance music by the band’s associate Linden Hudson. An aspiring songwriter, former DJ and – at the time – drummer Frank Beard’s house-sitter, Hudson’s involvement in the recording of the album would come back to haunt them. Despite assisting Gibbons with the pre-production and developing of the material that would end up on both El Loco and Eliminator, his contribution wasn’t credited when either record was released. Not surprisingly, with Eliminator registering such a hit, Hudson sued the band. The case was settled in 1986, awarding $600,000 to Hudson and crediting him the copyright to just one of the record’s eleven songs, Thug.

I’ve written before about whether the approach – and marketing – of Eliminator can be deemed as the band ‘selling out’. When you consider the poor sales of El Loco, it doesn’t actually seem probable that the band were chasing sales by continuing to experiment with technology that was alien to them. Then you see the glossy MTV videos of this era of ZZ Top, and it’s difficult not to judge them on such a 180° change in direction.

Thankfully, the band appears to have left that era well and truly behind them. Over the last couple of decades, they’ve performed yet another u-turn, back in the direction they were originally heading. 2012’s La Futura showed the band returning to the swampy blues of their youth, but complimented by the songwriting maturity that they perfected over their MTV years. Thumbs up, and hitch-hiking thumb out, for this direction of ZZ Top.

Hit: Gimme All Your Lovin’

Hidden Gem: I Need You Tonight