Monthly Archives: June 2017

Rocks In The Attic #600: Aerosmith – ‘Get A Grip’ (1993)

RITA#600During their formation in the early 1970s, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry initially rejected Steven Tyler’s proto-power ballad Dream On, believing that the only type of slow song the band should play was a slow blues. Perry was somehow won over (overruled? blackmailed?) by Tyler and they recorded the song in late 1972. It was a high point on the band’s self-titled 1973 debut, eventually becoming one of the band’s biggest hits, peaking at #6 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 upon its re-release as a single in 1976.

Twenty years on, and Perry’s principles have been left behind in rehab with his various drug addictions. Either that or his accountant has managed to point out how many Ferraris and swimming pools Tyler’s ballads have paid for in the intervening decades. Their eleventh studio album, Get A Grip shows that Perry has all but given up in the struggle against Tyler’s proclivity towards slower, commercial songs.

Things don’t start well, with Tyler rapping – yes, rapping – over a drum loop. A snippet of their well-known Walk This Way riff completes the heavy-handed reference to the band’s crossover hit with Run-D.M.C., before making way for some Polynesian drums and the first song proper, Eat The Rich. It sets the scene well, with a heavy riff and a ballsy production by Bruce Fairbairn aimed at a grunge / alternative rock audience.

Something isn’t quite right though. Over their two previous records, Permanent Vacation (1987) and Pump (1989), Aerosmith showed that they could succeed by employing external songwriters. But Pump, the more successful of those albums, still had a decent proportion – 60% – of self-penned songs. With Get A Grip however, Aerosmith put almost all of the album – thirteen out of fifteen songs – into the hands of ‘song doctors’. As a result, the band sound less and less like the 1970s classic rock versions of themselves, and more and more like something created in a school for performing arts.

The album has no less than seven singles (released over a fourteen-month span), and this is where the album loses focus. It’s almost as if they were trying to create an album of singles, a ready-made Greatest Hits compilation. Released smack-bang in that early-‘90s period when nearly all rock albums tended to be sixty-plus minute affairs, the only limits were the band’s imagination (and the running length of a compact disc). As a result, it lacks the cohesion of Pump, and has far too much filler material.

Joe Perry should be happy though. The album contains a more than adequate dose of straightforward rockers, and he even gets to sing a self-penned number (the refreshing Walk On Down). However, it isn’t power ballads that Perry should be looking out for; Steven Tyler has a new weapon in his arsenal – country-rock. Be afraid, be very afraid.

One of the most joyous moments on Pump was its final song What It Takes – a slow-burning country-tinged ballad, co-written by Tyler and Perry with Desmond Child. Something about it didn’t seem serious though. Tyler hams it up by singing the lyrics in a southern drawl, and it sounds more like the band is having fun playing in a different style than a serious attempt at a change in genre.

Fast forward four years and either Tyler has been bitten by the country bug or somebody has pointed out how lucrative the country market is. Two of Get A Grip’s singles – Cryin’ and Crazy – are unashamedly country rock, and this time the band aren’t playing around. They’re deadly serious. By 1993, two of Garth Brooks’ four albums had debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 – a feat Aerosmith could only dream of at that point – so it’s difficult to view their change of direction without a degree of cynicism. Get A Grip would be their first record to peak at #1, so maybe the left turn into country music paid off.

The album does have some high-points– the cosmic jam of Gotta Love It finds them channelling the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Line Up is a welcome collaboration with Lenny Kravitz and Boogie Man might just be the weirdest, most soothing guitar instrumental you’ve ever heard after Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross.

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The Get A Grip tour programme

But it’s the big singles that are the showcase of the album. Released a month in advance, Living On The Edge is a weighty rocker, with the band in important-message-to-the-youth-of-today mode. It’s so earnest; a million miles away from the band who had recently been singing about transvestites and sex in elevators. The other notable hits – the Alicia Silverstone music video trilogy of Cryin’, Amazing and Crazy – are as commercial sounding as possible. Chart fodder, indistinguishable from a Bon Jovi record.

I saw Aerosmith on the Get A Grip tour, in Sheffield on Thursday October 21st 1993, the very first concert I went to, and so the record means a lot to me. I just wish that such an important record in my musical upbringing was a better record.

If Pump represented a high water-mark for the second age of Aerosmith, Get A Grip signals the beginning of a long, slippery slope downhill.

Hit: Livin’ On The Edge

Hidden Gem: Gotta Love It

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Rocks In The Attic #599: Honeycrack – ‘Prozaic’ (1996)

RITA#599In the early to mid ‘90s, when I first started seriously listening to music, I had two great loves.  Aerosmith were always my number one favourite band, but my favourite British band was the Wildhearts. Aerosmith were always a distant prospect, they didn’t tour the UK very often – although I did see them three times in the ‘90s – but the Wildhearts were always much more accessible and easy to see perform live. Always on tour – even when they didn’t have any releases to support – I quickly lost count of how many times I saw them in and around Manchester between 1993 and 1997.

The Wildhearts had great songs and great fans. I was once let into Rio’s, a rock club in Bradford, for free, simply because the doorman, presumably a fellow fan, appreciated the fact that I was wearing a Wildhearts t-shirt. Ah, those were the days.

In 1994, while recording the band’s second full studio album, P.H.U.Q., the Wildhearts’ leader and chief songwriter Ginger fired guitarist C.J. due to personal differences. C.J. responded by forming Honeycrack with guitarist Willie Dowling who had contributed piano and keyboards to the Wildheart’s debut record, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts, and its follow-up, the fan-club only mini-album Fishing For Luckies.

Honeycrack didn’t fit the usual mould of a rock band. Willie Dowling had an androgynous look, to the extent that he looked like a girl I went to school with, and C.J.’s Guyanese and Seychellois descent stood him apart from the – usual – white twenty-somethings ranking among most rock bands. Two other band members were black – third guitarist Mark McCrae, formerly a member of Rub Ultra – a band I saw support Headswim in the same venue I would later see Honeycrack, and a band that would lend its name to a party game among my circle of friends – and bass player Pete Clarke. The only member of the band who looked like a normal white guy was drummer Hugo Degenhardt.

The band’s record company, Epic, tested the waters with a pre-album single, Sitting At Home, in late 1995. I bought this on the strength of C.J. and Dowling’s history in the Wildhearts, and I wasn’t disappointed. Essentially a re-tread of the Wildhearts’ T.V. Tan, the song is similarly written around an upper-register earworm guitar riff, with lyrics evoking the guilty pleasures of staying in.

But it was the b-sides to Sitting At Home that got my attention – If I Had A Life, which would be re-used on the album, the awesome 5 Minutes, which sadly wasn’t, and a bouncy cover of the Beatles’ Hey Bulldog. These were the days when I used to listen to a band’s b-sides as much as I would their album tracks. I was happy to see that right from their very first release, Honeycrack seemed to be as proficient at releasing decent b-sides as the Wildhearts were.

RITA#599b[I often regret the fact that I more or less stopped buying records in the mid-‘90s. I did buy the odd thing on vinyl, but in general like most music buyers I mainly bought CDs (until I switched back to records around 1998). However, if I had restricted myself to only buying records, I would have missed out on a heap of CD-only material – particularly b-sides, and let’s not forget that a lot of contemporary albums were only released on CD. Case in point: in 1994, I was quick enough to order the Wildhearts’ Fishing For Luckies mini-album. Rejected by their record company, it was offered to fan-club members only as a throwaway release in limited quantities. Pre-internet, I wrote a cheque and posted it away, hoping that I had acted quickly enough. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later – probably ’28 days or more’, as everything seemed to take by mail order in those days – a jiffy-bag turned up on the doorstep with the 6-track CD inside. If I had purchased only vinyl back then, I would have missed out on this – such a milestone album during my teens.]

I played Honeycrack’s Sitting At Home single repeatedly until I heard that the band were to play at the Hop & Grape in Manchester (now the Academy 3) in February 1996. I bought tickets and went along with friends. One of the best things about the Hop & Grape is that the room is so small, the band usually enters the venue through the same door as the audience. Arriving early to check out the support band and drink beer, I was sat against the windows on the stage-left side of the room when Honeycrack walked in, making a bee-line for the green room. Seeing no other way around, C.J. stepped over my stretched out legs, to get past me. This blew my mind as a 15-year old – I had just come into close contact with a Wildheart!

I remember the gig well – they played all four songs from the Sitting At Home single, and the rest of their set was filled with songs from the as-yet unreleased album. Prozaic eventually saw the light of day in May 1996 and, as was customary back then, I purchased it on release day.

The album is a much poppier affair than I was expecting. Where the Wildhearts always straddled the line between metal, rock and pop, Honeycrack were a bit easier on the eardrums. It’s still a rock album, but not quite as heavy as the Wildhearts’ output. The imprint of C.J. and Dowling’s former band is easy to hear though – lot’s of stream of consciousness vocals, à la Caffeine Bomb, multiple sections to each song (it’s as much prog-pop as it is rock-pop), and harmonies galore (each of the five members contributed vocals).

The band seemed to have a bit of a push behind them. Epic got them spots on Top Of The Pops and TFI Friday, but the album didn’t go anywhere, peaking at an unremarkable #34 in the UK charts. I went off to University and sort of forgot about them, given the amount of new bands I was exposed to there. After they parted with Epic, they released a single, Anyway on EG Records – the last thing I bought of theirs – before disbanding. In 1997, Anyway would be re-recorded by Dowling and used as the theme tune to the Channel 4 show Armstrong & Miller – the last piece of Honeycrack genius I remember before I closed that chapter of my life.

Dowling and C.J. continued to form several other bands following the demise of Honeycrack. C.J. eventually re-joined the Wildhearts in 2001, and it was great to see that classic Earth Vs. line-up play in the Manchester University Debating Hall (now the Academy 2) in 2003. Weirdly, Honeycrack drummer Hugo Degenhardt got more exposure anybody elsee from the band, joining the Bootleg Beatles and touring the world as Ringo Starr between 2003 and 2016.

Hit: Sitting At Home

Hidden Gem: Animals

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Rocks In The Attic #598: Elvis Presley – ‘The All Time Greatest Hits’ (1987)

RITA#598I recently watched Elvis & Nixon, a 2016 film directed by Liza Johnson. All I knew about the film was that it starred the fantastic Michael Shannon as the Big ‘E’, and the equally fantastic Kevin Spacey as the big crook in the Oval Office. I didn’t know whether it was a drama, a comedy, a satirical warning or a Bollywood musical; all I knew was that it sounded as intriguing as the real-life meeting it was based on.

A quick blast through the opening credits, soundtracked by Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’, lets you know what you’re in for – a light-hearted, absurdist, partly fictionalised tale of Elvis and Nixon’s meeting. The film is executive produced by Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ long-time confidant and member of the Memphis Mafia who accompanied him to the White House, so the film clearly has one film clearly stuck in reality. The other foot is waving everywhere, guided by a script by husband and (now ex-)wife team Joey & Hanala Sagal, and where-is-he-now actor Cary Elwes.

RITA#598aThe left-field choice of Michael Shannon to portray Presley is a strange one. Ever since I first saw Shannon in 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and the following year’s Revolutionary Road – two small but extremely effective performances – it’s been clear that he’s been one to watch. One of my favourite actors ever since, he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. 2011’s Take Shelter and 2016’s Midnight Special are two particular stand-out performances, but his ominous presence shines through in everything he’s been in.

He plays Presley as a caricature of course – it is the 1970’s Vegas-era version of Elvis we’re talking about, after all – but he also shows a quieter, melancholic side of Presley. This isn’t hard to imagine, an unfortunate side-effect of the isolation from being the biggest star in the world.

RITA#598cIn December 1970, Presley turned up in Washington DC to ask Nixon to swear him in as an undercover agent for the Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs. The result, he hoped, would be that he’d be given a badge to add to his growing collection of law-enforcement badges. Nixon acquiesced, in exchange for a photo with Presley and an autograph for his daughter.

It was odd to see Spacey sat in the Oval Office given that I’d just binge-watched him sitting behind the same desk in the fifth season of House Of Cards. His portrayal as Nixon feels spot-on, but then Spacey has always been a great mimic. The cast is rounded out by Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer and an underused Johnny Knoxville, and the film is wrapped up with a great late-‘60s soul and R&B soundtrack.

This double-disc compilation, The All Time Greatest Hits, features 45 Presley 45s – an astounding body of work.

Hit: Hound Dog

Hidden Gem: Way Down

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Rocks In The Attic #597: Bill Conti – ‘For Your Eyes Only (O.S.T.)’ (1981)

RITA#597My childhood hero, the great Roger Moore died recently. My favourite Bond (it doesn’t matter who you think is the best, it’s the one you grew up with that counts) and one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever encountered. A true gentleman, Sir Roger devoted his retirement years as a UNICEF ambassador, and really deserved his Knighthood for his tireless work for the charity.

I was overjoyed to see a double-bill of The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only at my local cinema last week, shown as a tribute to Moore’s passing. It was a worldwide re-release, as far as I can tell, although I’m not entirely sure why those films were chosen. Spy, I understand, but I would have thought other Roger Moore films would have been a better draw-card than For Your Eyes Only. I can only presume that those two films are the ones Moore was personally most proud of?

(There’s a nice bit of serendipity in that at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, the credits promised that ‘James Bond Will Return In For Your Eyes Only’. However, due to the success of Star Wars, it was decided to make Moonraker next, in 1979, before they got around to filming For Your Eyes Only in 1981. I’d like to think that this is just a coincidence, and that the two films were chosen for other, better reasons than a nice bit of circumstance.)

Watching Spy and Eyes on the big screen was a real treat as I’d seen neither at the cinema before – my Bond viewing started with two films, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, in 1983 when I was five years old. I’ve seen a few of the earlier films on re-releases – Dr. No, Goldfinger and a scratchy print of Thunderball – so it was good to add a couple more Moores to the list.

For Your Eyes Only used to bore me as a kid. It had its moments, but it was such a step down from Moonraker in terms of the things that are important to a five-year old. Of course, I now love it for its bravery in trying to pull the character back closer to Ian Fleming’s template, and away from the more embarrassing moments of Moonraker.

One thing that really struck a chord with me when I saw it at the cinema was how European it feels. The locations are all on continental Europe, aside from some underwater filming in the Bahamas, doubling for Greece. It makes a nice change to the globe-trotting Moore’s Bond does in each of the four previous films.

The other thing I hadn’t noticed before was its structure. Watched back to back with The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s clear to see that in many ways it’s a remake of that earlier film, in that it tries to duplicate some of the elements which made Spy so successful. Both films start with Navy ships succumbing to peril, both have a strong female lead, and both feature England and Russia racing towards the same goal.

It was also quite eye-opening to see how much mansplaining Bond does to Carole Bouquet’s Melina. Even though she and her family are experts in underwater exploration, Bond feels the need to mansplain the technical risks of what they’re about to do. Given the term’s entry into the English language over the last five years or so, I might have to rewatch all of the Bond films to see how much mansplaining goes on (and I’m guessing it’s not a small amount).

In terms of music, For Your Eyes Only is another non-John Barry affair, who would return to score Moore’s two remaining Bond films after this one. I’ve already written about how terrible a non-Barry soundtrack can be, but I much prefer Bill Conti’s Eyes soundtrack to Hamlisch’s efforts on Spy.

If you ignore the fact that a lot of the score sounds like something you might hear on Conti’s soundtrack contributions to the Rocky films, it isn’t too bad. Those pumping horns definitely don’t sound like the kind of brass lines that John Barry would write. I’ve also written about how poorly I rate the film’s title theme, but at least it’s not Madonna.

The soundtrack also features one of those rare things – another proper song that isn’t the main title theme. These pop up from time to time on Bond soundtracks, and they’re always quite interesting. This time it’s Make It Last All Night, by Rage, which is used to soundtrack the pool party at the start of the film. It’s a nice bit of sleazy pop (and secretly, I prefer it to Sheena Easton’s bland title song).

I was lucky enough to meet Roger in 2008 at a book signing in Auckland, where he signed my copy of his autobiography. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I have no regrets. Thankfully, my wife was quick enough to film me shaking his hand on the way out. I try not to watch this video too often as it always puts such a huge smile on my face (and I don’t want to dilute that).

Hit: For Your Eyes Only – Sheena Easton

Hidden Gem: A Drive In The Country

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Rocks In The Attic #596: Pantera – ‘History Of Hostility’ (2015)

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I’ll always have a soft spot for Pantera. Not because of their awesome songs, or their incredible guitarist (the late Dimebag Darrell Abbott) or even the fact that their drummer had a swimming pool in the shape of a Jim Bean bottle.

No, I’ll always respect Pantera for having the balls to be such bad-asses when they used to be such wimps. Prior to their career as ‘90s metal gods, they were glam-metal also-rans, recording three albums in the early 1980s before joining up with vocalist Phil Anselmo and recording 1988’s Power Metal, an album still planted in the glam-metal genre but with songs which pointed to their future.

RITA#596aOf course the greatest thing about all of this is that there’s a wealth of photographic evidence. It’s hard to take somebody with piercings, tattoos and a snarl seriously if there’s a photograph of them online wearing spandex, hairspray and eyeliner.

This history of the band is swept under the carpet, understandably. Just like Alanis Morissette’s two dance-pop albums prior to Jagged Little Pill, it’s seen as something that can be forgiven as it exists prior to their major label debut (1990’s Cowboys From Hell). It makes you wonder though. How many bands have similarly shady pasts that they have locked away in a cupboard somewhere?

RITA#596bPrior to their introduction to the world on 2005’s Employment, the Kaiser Chiefs were once a band called Parva who released a since-forgotten album, 22, in 2003. A friend of the band once told me that after the release (and subsequent fizzle) of 22, they saw an image consultant who turned them into the Kaiser Chiefs (and the rest was history, etc). I don’t like hearing stories like this – it just shows how fake everything is. Ignorance, sometimes, really is bliss.

Isn’t the guitar in Cemetery Gates just fucking sick though? It definitely wasn’t a glam-metal band that recorded that!

Hit: I’m Broken

Hidden Gem: Mouth For War

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Rocks In The Attic #595: Bob Marley & The Wailers – ‘Kaya’ (1978)

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This record features my favourite Bob Marley track, Is This Love. It’s a typical Wailers song – effortless, catchy and upbeat – and doesn’t let itself be burdened by the verse-chorus-verse template of western pop music. It has a structure, but a loose structure and the emphasis comes more from the message of the song rather than the boundaries of its form.

The record also features a re-recording of Sun Is Shining. Originally released on 1971’s Soul Revolution and then on the African Herbsman compilation in 1973, the song was later lifted by Funkstar Deluxe for a reggae fusion remix in 1999 which hit #1 in the USA and #3 in the UK. I’m not a huge fan of club remixes, but this was one of those tracks that forever seems to keep Marley’s music in the public eye.

I might have to hunt down the Deluxe Edition of Kaya on CD as it features a second disc of a live performance recorded in Rotterdam on the day I was born. Maybe that’s why I like Is This Love so much. Could Bob have been playing it just as I popped out into the cosmos?

Hit: Is This Love

Hidden Gem: Misty Morning

Rocks In The Attic #594: Manic Street Preachers – ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (2010)

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I’m pretty sure the Manics have been making the same album over and over again since – at least – This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. The first four albums all sounded different than the ones that went before them, for better or for worse, but from album number five they seemed to reach a level of complacency that has also seen them become darlings of BBC’s Radio Two.

The finger pointing usually goes to the disappearance of Richey Edwards – what band wouldn’t be affected by this? – and I find myself blaming his absence like everybody else. To be fair, I haven’t heard 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers, the record written using posthumous lyrics by Edwards. I want it to be great, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to ever hear that record, just in case it’s terrible. It’s the same fear that’s kept me from watching the DVD of To Catch A Thief that I bought 15 years ago, because it’s the only film from Hitchcock’s golden period of the 1950s that I haven’t seen.

The one thing in the last couple of years that really killed the Manics for me was seeing the music video for their song Together Stronger. Subtitled ‘(C’Mon Wales)’, this was the official song of the Wales football team for the 2016 European Championships. What were once angry young men…

The Super Furry Animals’ unofficial Bing Bong was a better song anyway…

Hit: (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love

Hidden Gem: Auto-Intoxication