Friday, 28 March 2014

1982: Michael Jackson - Thriller

Isn't it extraordinary, that name, Michael Jackson? Extraordinary that the most alien star of all had the most mundane name imaginable. Not Prince, or Madonna, or Elvis Presley, or Christina Aguilera, or Alvin Stardust, not even Jackie Jackson, or Tito Jackson, or La Toya Jackson, or Jermaine Jackson or Randy Jackson or Janet Jackson - all names with a bit of pizzazz. No, Michael Jackson. You know, Michael Jackson, the plumber. Michael Jackson, the League 1 footballer. Michael Jackson, the geography teacher. Michael Jackson, the army officer. Michael Jackson, the most famous, weirdest man in the world.

I hadn't realised till I was listening to 'Thriller' for this post, and really trying to assess it and think about what I really thought about it, how my perception of Jackson was so utterly affected by the child abuse allegations against him in the early 90s. I remember when they came out, I was on holiday in a place with lots of tabloids around (I never read tabloids at home) and so followed the story from a sensationalist angle for days.

I was an impressionable teen then, and one never wants to look back and think one's an impressionable anything, but I did not like this story, did not like it one bit. But then, really, it wasn't just the allegations, it was the kerfuffle of 'HIStory', the outrageous, brazen egotism of all that, the statue down the Thames, the Messianic imagery, the Pied Piper shit, the Brits performance where i'd have done worse than Jarvis Cocker if I'd been there, the weird marriages, the veil of lies, the millions and millions whom it seemed he'd hynotised into denial. Appalling. I was a stern teenage Christian with a burgeoning addiction to indie rock, and to me, Michal Jackson, in the mid-90s, was the Antichrist. What I mean by that is I gave serious consideration to the notion that this man was the Antichrist. The actual Antichrist.

So, Thriller was a great album, eh? ...

Michael Jackson's not that epitome of evil any more, not in my mind or anyone else's. He's tragic victim Michael, lost genius, never convicted of any crime worse than irresponsibility, wild extravagance, addiction, self-destruction, egotism. Imposssible to imagine what kind of old man he'd have become, now.

So, Thriller, then, the best selling album of all time. What do I think of it? I actually got rid of my zealous loathing of Michael Jackson many years ago, I bought his three classic solo albums in about 2001, I was able to disassociate man from music to some extent a while back. Maybe not fully, but I'll give it a go.

I don't think Thriller is the best album of all time, but I can't quite make my mind up about it. Some things about it bother me. Why has it only got 9 tracks? That's always bothered me.  Unless there's a very good excuse, albums should have 10 tracks or more, and I don't think the excuse is good enough here. There must have been other songs available as good as Baby Be Mine or The Lady in My Life.

It's cheesy, almost comical at times. Schmaltzy too. And here's the main thing. You might suggest I'm not the person to make this judgement, I don't get Michael Jackson, I'm not a Michael Jackson fan. But if I measure the esteem in which I hold the rest of the songs on Thriller against the esteem in which I hold Billie Jean, there's a massive chasm. I think Billie Jean is flat out one of the greatest songs ever, on every level. That's how good I think Michael Jackson can be, but I don't think anything else is as near as good.

Oh, they're good, don't get me wrong. I've listened to Thriller all the way through a few times recently, and did I enjoy it? Of course I did. Wanna Be Startin' Something is far more substantial than I'd remembered. The Girl is Mine is one of the naffest songs ever but  a real joy from start to finish. Beat It and the title track, well I know a lot of people think those are great great songs, on a par with Billie Jean. Maybe thinking that is the key to the album's greatness - they're right at it's heart, and if you think tracks 4, 5, 6 is a show of unstoppable strength, fair enough. All I can say is I want them to finish so I can hear Billie Jean.

Then, yes, I love Human Nature and PYT, those are crackers, but The Lady in My Life is quite a weak finish, as far as I'm concerned, just a standard 80s ballad.

Thriller doesn't keep me up there, I don't stay on the adrenaline ride all the way through. I'd probably listen to Tracks 6, 7 and 8 over and over again if it came to it and ignore the rest.

You know what, Bad is better, isn't it? No? 11 tracks. When you've got 11 tracks you're allowed a tiny bit of comedown here and there, whereas with 9 tracks you're not (just checked, Bad was originally 10m but Leave Me Alone was added for the CD version). What a run of hits! Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Liberian Girl, Man in the Mirror, Can't Stop Loving You, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Leave Me Alone. I loved those songs when they were coming out and even now, most of them hold up. And nothing dwarfs, like Billie Jean dwarfs Thriller.And he wrote more of Bad himself. To me, Bad may be his greatest achievement

A few things strike me about Michael Jackson. Firstly, the best Michael Jackson voice was the voice of I Want You Back and I'll Be There. That was a voice of almost impossible wonder. When it broke, it was extraordinary still, but somehow ... not loveable. I'd rather listen to the younger voice everytime.

Secondly, there is something I don't quite get. I know there is. There's something in STAR POWER and its value I don't quite get. Something in how people view Elvis, Sinatra, Michael Jackson as geniuses I just don't get.

My mother, not a pop music fan in general, watched a doc on Michael Jackson shortly after his death and said to me "He really was a genius" in a tone I hadn't heard her use since she's described Leonardo Da Vinci as a genius to me 20 years earlier. Well, I suppose he was, as showman, dancer, pop king, star. I'm a bit boring. I break things down to things like body of work, consistency, boring, boring, boring. That's not pop music, is it? Thriller is the biggest album ever, the most enjoyed album ever. What I have to say on it matters not the tiniest bit.

Thirdly, Thriller, this album, played all the way through my life. I remember it when I was 5 all the way through. Those songs were just there. And Michael Jackson was the most famous man in the world all through my conscious life. That's obvious too. But I suppose it means that, despite what I felt about him in the mid-90s, I, like millions of others, ok, a lot less than millions of others, and in a far more dispassionate way, I felt a little bereft when he died. The benchmark of fame was gone.

OK, a Michael Jackson compilation. There'll be very few surprises here...

Don't Stop Til You Get Enough
I'll be There
Can You Feel It?
I Want You Back
Billie Jean
Dirty Diana
Will you Be There
One Day In Your Life
She's Out of My Life
The Girl Is Mine
Rock With You
Give in to Me
Human Nature
Smooth Criminal
Liberian Girl
I Just Can't Stop Loving You
Man in the Mirror

Hell, he was pretty good, all told.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

1998: Manic Street Preachers: This is My Truth Tell Me Yours

I've chosen this particular album because it marks the time when, strange as it may sound, the Manic Street Preachers were the biggest band in Britain. Following on from the surprising success of their 4th album 'Everything Must Go' they consolidated and built on that commercial success. It was Number 1 for 3 weeks, it sold several million copies worldwide, it won the Brit Award for Best British Album.

To me, right then, it was the most important thing in the world. I remember the day it came out. I remember it well. I was on a week long boat trip on the Norfolk Broads. It just so happened that we stopped for lunch at Wroxham, a big enough town to have a WH Smith, to which I hastened and found my prize.

The new Manics album. A guaranteed hit. The single 'If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next' had already beaten Steps to Number 1 (just as the album would steptacularly deny the Steps album 'Step One').

Perhaps, looking back, that boat trip was the changing of the guard for my music taste. As excited as I was by the Manics, I was listening to Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley. My Britpop taste would head further and further across the Atlantic in the coming months and years. I think, even then, I could tell that this was not quite where I was at anymore.

It would be untrue, for a couple of reasons, to say that this is the last great Manics album, firstly because fans of the band would argue that at least three of their later albums are as good as anything they've ever done, so really it's fairer to say that this was the last Manics album that I devoted long, long hours of listening to. Secondly, because 'This is My Truth Tell Me Yours' is not a great album. Not really. Even if you don't hate the Manics, even if you love them, like I do. It's not a great album.

This was their real grown-up album. Looking at the cover, its bleak anti-style imagery (beach at Porthmadog, beautiful, Manics in baggy middle-aged beige), you realise it's a statement, but anti-aesthetic is still an aesthetic, and those closes look baaad. No wonder some older fans of the Manics, fans of their punkish sounds, big slogans, eyeliner and stencilled t-shirts, took against it. They were still in their 20s, for heaven's sake.

Thematically, in terms of lyrics, it's not so bland. There are songs ABOUT THINGS, about war and prison and Wales and crime and gender and tragedy, about loss and depression. Some of them are really good songs.

Listening back to it now, I still love the swooning rock anthemics when they get it right, I love James Dean Bradfield's voice, I love the tunes, I'm regularly moved by it. The first half is full of big songs, big songs that really work, 'Tsunami', 'Ready for Drowing', 'You Stole the Sun from My Heart', they're all potential singles. The second half, hmm, it's more awkward, slower, more dirgy, weirder, and it really just doesn't work as well. It does contain one of the very best Manics songs, though - 'Black Dog on My Shoulder', a really lovely piece of chamber pop about the black dog of depression.

But the album is hampered by a few things. Firstly, frankly, it's hampered by the fact that the 'SYMM' the closing track, is ... one ... of ... the ... worst ... songs ... of ... all ... time... by ... anyone ... ever. SYMM stands for South Yorkshire Mass Murderer. It is a song with the very best intentions. It is about the Hillsborough disaster - the title accuses, accurately as it turned out, the police in the fiercest way possible. But the lyrics ... jesus. I was going to paste them in here, but that would be cruel. Read them here, just read them. Jesus. Those are bad lyrics. You can tell they felt this song needed to be on the album, but they had no idea how to write it. It's painful.

I think this was the first Manics album where people began to point out that some of their lyrics/scansion etc didn't really work, and it was the first time I had to agree. Perhaps it was just my understanding of verse growing but where, before, I'd have loved the lyrics because they were brave words and they were about something, I began to realise that lines like "The future teaches you to be alone, the present to be afraid and cold" and "Give me some more of your carrier bags" could really stick out in a bad way unless handled perfectly.

Their next album 'Know Your Enemy' and the one after that 'Lifeblood' were really pretty dreadful, first swamped by too much conceptual ambition, then lifeless and drab. But they kept going and the general consensus is that their last four or so LPs have really been as good as you could expect from a band in their 40s who claimed over 20 years ago that they would split up after their first album.

Their constant battle is between grand orchestral graceful rock and fearsome punkish fury. Their two greatest albums, Everything Must Go, and its predecessor, The Holy Bible, display those two aspects respectively.

This is My Truth Tell Me Yours is a natural successor to Everything Must Go - there's not much punkish about it. It's the first album without lyrical input from Richey Edwards and for a large part, the band deal with that absence really well. Nicky Wire, for such a wonderful talker, is really not a natural writer of verse. That's my view.

It's not a truly great album, but if you think it's great that a band of South Wales misfits beat Steps to Number 1, if you think it's great that a song about the Spanish Civil War got to Number 1, if you basically think it's pretty great when James Dean Bradfield really gives it some with either voice or guitar, then there's a lot to love here.

A playlist!

Prologue to History
Motorcycle Emptiness
La Tristesse Durere
Little Baby Nothing
Spectators of Suicide
From Despair to Where
Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky
She is Suffering
This is Yesterday
Black Dog on My Shoulder
Ready For Drowning
Your Love Alone is Not Enough
She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach
Show Me the Wonder
Life Becoming a Landslide
A Design for Life
All Surface, No Feeling

Maybe not actually my favourite 20, but i wanted a spread

Sunday, 23 March 2014

1967: Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen

Rather as with that other definitive rock'n'roll year, 1977, where I chose Elvis Costello's My Aim is True, I'm rather pleased with myself for choosing an album for 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, which stands alone, away from its time, by an old soul for whom the song above all was everything.

Of course, Leonard, on his debut, wasn't just an "old soul" he was a relatively old dude, already in his mid 30s. He'd had poems and novels published to acclaim. His were not literary pretensions.

He took to song. Song took to him. Leonard Cohen doesn't stand in anyone's shadow, not Bob Dylan's, not Elvis Presley's, not Neil Young's, he'd be exactly what he was without all of them.

As I've already written about, I went to a Leonard Cohen gig last year. It was quite incomprehensibly excellent, I can't overstate the extent to which seeing Leonard Cohen live in the 2010s is one of the wonders of the western world.

Something I love about Leonard Cohen the songwriter is actually how unpretentious his style is - he writes in pretty simple forms with gentle humour, he doesn't baffle or confound. He's not trying to prove anything. I imagine a young singer-songwriter can aspire to writing like Leonard Cohen. He's really not all that forbidding.

What of this debut itself, a bigger hit amongst us cultured folk in Europe than in the US? As with so many, I came to Cohen through Best of Collections, but i've managed to navigate my way over the years to understanding Songs of Leonard Cohen as a proper album. Sensual is a word that should undoubtedly never be uttered by the likes of me, but it is unavoidably a sensual album, through Suzanne and Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy.

The great song on the album, for me, is So Long, Marianne. It doesn't matter who you are, if you've got a big singalong number, you're all right with me. A real person, too. I'm trying to imagine who would be the worst possible person to do a cover of it thinking they're improving on the original - I'm thinking one of those American singers who sound like they're on the loo - have the Dave Matthews Band ever done a cover of So Long, Marianne? Or maybe the Jove. They've done a cover of Hallelujah which JBJ himself holds in high esteem.

I remember the first time I listened to Leonard, it was on a trip where I also listened for the first time to the next album I'm going to write about, which couldn't be much more different. His golden voice is pretty firmly one to listen too while the rain is pouring down outside.

These are the songs I like the best

Bird on a Wire
Going Home
If It Be Your Will
The Sisters of Mercy
Chelsea Hotel #2
Famous Blue Raincoat
The Stranger Song
Stories of the Street
Who By Fire?
First We Take Manhattan
Come Healing
Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye
Take This Longing
Everybody Knows
Tower of Song
So Long, Marianne

Saturday, 22 March 2014

2010: Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

Is it reductive to ponder if Laura Marling is the new Joni Mitchell, a young woman of the Commonwealth who has gone to California to find fame and fortune, whose enjoyed and endured romances with noted male singer-songwriters of the same scene, who has a voice of startling maturity, learning and presence far beyond her years? We'll see - Blue was Joni Mitchell's fourth album, and Laura Marling hasn't quite managed anything like Blue yet.

There's something so precise and exemplary about Laura Marling's career so far - four albums, all with six syllable titles, all following hot on the heels of the next. All of the albums are strong; this, her second, is my own favourite.

The process of this blog obviously involves me listening to the artists I'm going to write about in the run up to writing, and it's nice when my agenda is changed for me in that process.

I was going to write about how it was seemingly all there for Laura Marling but there was just something missing, something which meant she hadn't quite found 'it' yet, was still not writing great songs or great albums in the way she seemed to be capable.

But, listening to all her albums through the last week, I had a very enjoyable experience. I heard most of the things I'd previously thought she was missing - humour, connection with self, varied instrumentation, abandon, and, above all, and the thing I'd decided her music lacked above all, a few really good tunes.

Which, frankly, gives me a bit less to write about. I was going to work through a few theories about Laura Marling, how her absorption in songwriting tropes and clear obsession with mythology had not yet fully connected to her positioning as confessional writer, how she seemed to struggle for identity, in terms of using varying accents across the albums, how she somehow sounded too composed to truly warm to.

But, like I say, I listened to her four albums, and you can by and large strike all of the above.

But ... perhaps there's something important in the very fact I'd had those thoughts. Laura Marling is a critical darling, who gets reams and reams of (broadsheet) press coverage but sadly, here are a few young female singers who are more successful than here - Adele, Duffy, Paloma Faith, Lily Allen, Laura Mvula, Corinne Bailey Rae, Ellie Goulding, Katie Melua, Emeli Sande, Pixie Lott, Florence Welch, Gabrielle Aplin .... it goes on. And yes, it's apples and pears, but it's not like there's anything per se about her which couldn't be a mainstream album-selling artist. Maybe it's a good thing, but maybe it would be great if there was one song, one big song, which made the people who only buy three albums a year pay attention.

'I Speak Because I Can' probably contains the songs closest to that. I saw her playing two or three times around the release of this album and  she was great, seemed to be growing in confidence every time, and one or two of the songs seemed like real showstoppers.

'Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)' is perhaps the most obviously pleasing, and then there's the dark menace of 'Alpha Shallows' and 'Hope in the Water', the splendid title track and the rollicking 'Rambling Man'. This album was a big leap from her debut 'Alas I Cannot Swim' which, though precocious, came from the personality of a teenage Englander, while this album was steeped in a higher level of learning and storytelling. I'm not sure there's been a big leap forward since then, though her music has certainly become more and more American. Perhaps once she gets settled in that US setting, there'll be the event album she is almost certainly capable of.

My selection from the best of Marling would be

Alpha Shallows
New Romantic
The Beast
Goodbye to England (Covered in Snow)
Blackberry Stone
Rambling Man
Blues Run the Game (cover)
My Manic and I
All My Rage
Hope in the Air
I Speak Because I Can
Saved These Words

Monday, 17 March 2014

1971: Joni Mitchell - Blue

If I was to put together a ten-song Joni Mitchell compilation tape, I would just put the ten songs from Blue, in the order they appear on the album. This is the perfect album. Since I first heard it 15 years ago, I'd say it has never not been one of my 3 favourite albums. What are your favourite albums, imaginary people ask me surprisingly regularly. Hugh, Pugh and Joni Mitchell's Blue, I reply. Or Blue, Pugh and Barney McGrew. Or Red, White and Joni Mitchell's Blue. You get the idea. Something, something and Blue. The other two entries may change, but Blue is constant, constant as the Northern Star.

Some would place Joni Mitchell as a singer/songwriter on the highest pedestal, some would suggest her body of work is the equal of any other of her peers. I wouldn't necessarily. I have dabbled but ultimately not gone all the way with Joni. I don't have any of her 9 albums between 1976 and 2000, even though some of them are very highly thought of (something about the words "further voyages into jazz fusion" put me off).

It's pretty much Blue for me. I have most of her other early albums, and a couple of later ones, when she did some really nice, smoky covers of her own material, but there's nothing which has had even the remotely same impact on me as Blue.

Court and Spark is almost great, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is pretty distinguished, other early ones, Ladies of the Canyon, Clouds etc ...there are good songs, but ...

Anyway, why am I talking about negatives with Joni Mitchell. All of the above is personal taste, and quite likely the reason I haven't loved the rest of her career is just because my first taste was Blue, and everything - everything - after that is going to seem a little bit of a disappointment.

How come it's so good? What's the magic formula? 10 songs, 35 minutes 41 seconds. All songs between 2 minutes 50 and 4 minutes 20. Nothing the album could do without.

I think as I've listened to it down the years, I've broken it into units

1-2 All I Want, My Old Man (both sides now of romantic love, deceptively simple)
3 and 5 - Little Green and Blue (colour songs, woe and loss)
4 and 6 - Carey and California - jaunty, joyful travel songs. Glorious highlights.
7, 8 and 9 - This Flight Tonight, River, A Case of You - relationship breaking, getting away, terrible sadness. A Case of You stands slightly apart from the other two. It's the emotional culmination of the album. It's also one of the very greatest songs ever. Lots of people think that, it's not just me.
10 - The Last Time I Saw Richard - slighly removed, looking further back, cynical, irritated, holding on to sense of self.

This album is a unit and a story and a mood in the way that not all great albums necessarily are (Revolver isn't, or Thriller, or The Queen is Dead) but when they are, it somehow enhances them. To me, nothing holds together quite like Blue, not Astral Weeks, not Blood on the Tracks, nothing.

I first listened to it in the Easter holiday in 1999. My university holidays didn't match up with those of my friends and I remember just spending two weeks back at my mum's house, doing nothing but playing patience, cleaning up the excrement of our remaining elderly cat (Cat Stevens) and listening to new albums. There was no internet, 5 TV channels, no mobile phone. It was possible back then to need saving from considerable lengthy boredom. I was all set up to be consumed by an album, and so I was.

Joni Mitchell has done a recent interview, having been off the radar for several years. She seems a deeply intelligent, artistic, enormously egotistical person. She is disparaging of what might be considered her peers, while considering her own peers the likes of Duke Ellington. She sees herself as a painter first and foremost.

History might come to view her as a wonder of the world, I don't know. I think there are a few others with better catalogues of songs than her, but this, her great work, is, for me, the greatest of all the great works.

It slightly misses the point, but here is a Joni Mitchell compilation album which isn't just Blue from start to finish.

Both Sides, Now
Chinese Cafe
Court and Spark
The Jungle Line
All I Want
This Flight Tonight
Trouble Child
Free Man in Paris
In France They Kiss On Main Street
The Circle Game
I Don't Know Where I Stand
A Case of You
The Last Time I Saw Richard

Sunday, 16 March 2014

2008: James Yorkston - When the Haar Rolls In

Well, I do love my list of the 1001 Greatest Songs of All Time, of course I do, but even basking in its recent glorious shadow, I can see some clear aberrations, times where there was no pretence at objectivity, I just put songs I really like really high up, and that's that.

The most glaring example is the unnaturally high position (42) of the title track from this album. It's just a song, a long folk song you've never heard by someone you've probably never heard of. It's not the 42nd most important, defining moment in the history of song.

I suppose.

It's damn good though. I've written before about James Yorkston and what makes him such a distinguished, mesmeric performer, despite a total lack of glamour and a limited vocal range. 'When the Haar Rolls In', as a song, is his magnum opus, a beautiful journey through memory, lost love, music and melancholy, which I feel is almost unrivalled in song, in not just capturing a part of a story or describing a feeling or expressing a sentiment, but in being the whole story, everything you feel you need to know about the writer and his life and his feelings and his situation.

There are different types of great lyrics - a great, bouncing, rhythmical lyric, rich in musicality and internal rhyme, like you may find in something like 'Anything Goes' or 'To Ramona' or day I say it, the raps of Eminem, and then there's someone like Yorkston, who usually writes as if it he doesn't entirely realise the words will be set to music and yet, when they are, they fall utterly seamlessly into place. Hmm, that doesn't quite capture it, implies there's something amateurish. Far from it. The point is it sounds natural, like real things a real person would say, except beautiful and poetic.

He deals in the folk medium though is not entirely afraid of modern sounds or turning the volume up. Oddly his most famous song is a piece of spoken word electronica called 'Woozy with Cider'.

As a man, I imagine he's a little complex - his lyrics are full of faux-humility alongside general contempt for modernity and urbanity. I don't know, something about him makes me think he's tricky!

This is one of two of his five full studio albums of original material which I would place in the highest bracket, along with his debut 'Moving Up Country'. The album feels as a whole like a meditation on love past - several of these songs seem to be mainstays of his live shows, like 'Tortoise Regrets Hare' (as good as its title), 'Temptation' and 'Queen of Spain'.

There's a fabulously meaty cover of 'Midnight Feast' by the Watersons, but it's the epic title track that sticks with you, with as many memorable phrases as 'Thunder Road' and a final surrender to the healing powers of music.

Somehow, though James Yorkston is aligned closely with modern folk music, and certainly knows his folk music in and out, he's almost too much of an individual voice with a modern confessional sensibility to be constrained by that.

I've included songs of his on a Fence compilation way in the past, but rather than updating that, this will be a purely James Yorkston list.

Sweet Jesus
Surf Song
Woozy with Cider
St Patrick
B's Jig
Tortoise Regrets Hare
Border Song
I Spy Dogs
A Short Blues
Banjo #1
Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel
Banjo #2
The Lang Toun
Year of the Leopard
When the Haar Rolls In

Thursday, 6 March 2014

1980: The Jam - Sound Affects

Aah, The Jam. Don't get me started on The Jam. 6 albums in 5 years, 4 Number 1 singles - basically, the perfect career.

And yet, none of those albums are necessarily seen as absolute classics like 'London Calling.' The three which are closest are the punning middle trilogy, 'All Mod Cons', 'Setting Sons' and 'Sound Affects' (see what he's done there?) which are all very good albums.

'Sound Affects' is probably the best of them, and it's from 1980, which is one of the Jam's best years, so why is it not a classic? Why are The Jam seen primarily as a singles band?

I've asked myself that question before without totally grasping that the answer is completely straightforward. Of their 18 singles, only half were on albums. Simple as that. Their albums didn't necessarily contain the best songs. They gave the fans value for money. Fancy that.

Why did it take me so long to grasp that? Well, because I've never owned a Jam studio album, despite the fact that they're one of my favourite bands in the whole world and as I've said several boring times, seminal to my musical taste.

Because first I bought The Jam's 'Greatest Hits', which I listened to almost every day for two years, then I bought a really good compilation called 'The Jam Collection' which basically contained all the great songs they'd done which weren't singles, and it is fairly extensive, and then I bought 'Direction Reaction Creation' which is their complete works (albums, singles, b-sides, live tracks) mashed together on 5 CDs. So forgive me if I was occasionally a little confused about what went where.

I'm not sure I'd fully grasped that The Jam album from 1980, the year they released what I humbly submit as one of the greatest songs of all time -  'Going Underground', does not contain 'Going Underground' or its double-a side 'Dreams of Children'. The American version does, but they never broke America anyway.

It does contain 'Start!', their other Number 1 from 1980, which has frankly never been my favourite Jam hit, but listening it in the context of the album, it really works.

This is the album where The Jam really begin to get a bit funky. Apparently the influences were post-punk bands like Gang of Four and Wire and also Michael Jackson's 'Off the Wall', and you can certainly hear the former, and even the latter a little.

Besides 'Start!' it contains 'Pretty Green', which was meant to be the first single, 'Monday' which is a nice sweet song, 'Boy About Town' which is a rumbunctious little number, and a few fairly brave numbers like 'Set the House Ablaze' and 'Dream Time'. But the stand out tracks are two veritable Weller classics, 'Man in the Cornershop' (my favourite Jam non-single) and 'That's Entertainment' (which, famously, made the UK charts purely as an import single).

I still find the maturity of these songs startling. I started listening to the Jam when I was 15 so I could look up to Weller of 1980 as an adult. But he was 21/22 at the time, which is just a kid, and the thing is, he's not necessarily ever sounded so poised and mature since.

'That's Entertainment' is so good I forget how good it is. Listening to it now, it's not as simple as I remember. There are nice little psychedelic swirls, it's not just man with guitar. It might actually be The Jam's most famous song, actually.

'Man in the Cornershop' is much more of personal favourite of mine. You can probably hear Weller striving for big ideas more on this, it's not quite as natural, but I like that. What made the Jam so great, and what he slightly lost through the rest of his career, was the ability to hold on to original "social themes" lyrical theme while making a smooth transition to different musical styles.

There are so many great Jam songs, and not that many of them are contained within this particular album, whereas lots of other "great" British bands seemed much more to put all their eggs in one basket.

I do wonder how the Jam would be perceived and remembered if Weller had held on to that name throughout the 80s and even beyond (notwithstanding any personnel changes). There's not that much difference between late Jam and early Style Council. I wonder if, under that classic "brand", a lot more Style Council songs would have been way more successful and be more acclaimed. I'm not saying the Style Council didn't get a bit ropey, but there's some really good stuff in there.

Anyway, I've already done a Paul Weller in his entirety compilation so let's keep it to The Jam and let's keep it, like their career and most of their songs, brief and faultless

In the City
Going Underground
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight
Man in the Cornershop
That's Entertainment
Tales from the Riverbank
English Rose
When You're Young
Eton Rifles
A Town Called Malice
Beat Surrender

Sunday, 2 March 2014

1974: Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

The way it works with the "classic rock" music press, of which I have been a regular partaker for the best part of two decades, it seems like there are classics of the season. So one year, I'll read lots of articles about what a great album Gene Clark's 'No Other' is, the next year it'll be Dexys 'Don't Stand Me Down' or The Zombies 'Odessey and Oracle'. Well, in the late 90s, I came across a lot of things telling me that 'Grievous Angel' by Gram Parsons was one of the greatest, most influential albums of all time. The very seed of country-rock, of alt-country, of cosmic American music. The very heart of modern guitar music.

I'm not here to argue against that, actually. There's some truth in it. But it's funny how that sometimes happens, when really 'Grievous Angel', released after Gram's death, was a bit of a rush-job, patched up mish-mash, a commercial nothing, not much of an actual album at all. It's full of covers, old songs and out-takes, made by an artist so strung out that most of his mojo had gone.

But it's still flippin' marvellous.

Gram Parsons was just 26 when he died but for, a dissolute drugged-up waster, he managed to do an awful lot. Born of wealthy tragedy, he dropped out of Harvard, was a folk singer, was in something called the International Submarine Band, joined and influenced the Byrds, did two classic albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers, hung out with and heavily influenced the Rolling Stones on one or two of their classic albums, then released two great albums of his own which are seen as massively influential in the country-rock sphere.

You know that border between country and rock? Well, it would be a lie to say Gram Parsons was the first to pass across it - surely Dylan did in various way in the late 60s, and surely Elvis and Buddy Holly were doing it in the late 50s and Ray Charles too, but Gram Parsons was intent on harnessing all the sweet sounds of America, from country to soul to rock to folk, and he did so splendidly.

Strange thing is, his voice is a bit weak and whiny, but it's just got something. Even more so when paired with his life and legacy's secret weapon, Emmylou Harris - who wouldn't be seen as a legend when they have such an eloquent spokesperson preaching their cause for the 40 years after death?

'Grievous Angel' is the Gram Parsons album where Gram and Emmylou really sing together as equals (she'd been more of a backing singer on his first LP, 'GP'). Indeed, apparently it was his wife's suspicions of their relationship which kept her from being fully credited.

And these are some of the most beautiful duets in the history of popular music. They really are.(Which is what makes it so fitting that another pair of voices born to sing together, First Aid Kit, paid tribute to Gram and Emmylou on their 2012 song 'Emmylou').

I bought 'Grievous Angel' as a double album with 'GP' in 1999 - in my first blast of CD (as opposed to cassette) purchases. And I got it. Got it instantly. It helps that the first song is one of the two best on the album, a glorious country travelogue with beautiful guitar from James Burton (who was Elvis' guitarist) and lyrics written by a poet called Thomas Brown. But it's the singing! When Emmylou joins in. Jeez.

And despite it's being cobbled together after Gram Parsons' death (which was weird and sad and I won't dwell on), the rest of the album is almost as good. There are covers where again the singing just knocks you out - Hearts on Fire and, most famously, Love Hurts, and songs Parsons dredged up from his past given new life. 'Brass Buttons' about his mother's death, is heartbreaking enough, but the real jawdropper is '$1000 Wedding' - the lyricism and the storytelling and the melody and, guess what, the singing again. It's one of my favourite songs in the world.

He was so short of material he even used an old Byrds song 'Hickory Wind' but it all just comes together and makes a great album, the album he seemed born to make.

This album was in 1974 and, like I say, is heavily cited, though it's hard to see its influence in the intervening years - not till you get to Uncle Tupelo and Cowboy Junkies and Whiskeytown and Drive-By Truckers and Fleet Foxes and all that. Ryan Adams seems an obvious heir, both in intent and vocal style. One of his greatest moments is his duet with Emmylou Harris on his finest album 'Heartbreaker', 'O My Sweet Carolina' which really couldn't sound much more like an outtake from 'Grievous Angel'.

So, 1974, a bit of an all-over-the-place year in the history of music - pre-punk but there was already some important stuff going on with the likes of New York Dolls, Stevie Wonder was on it, Dylan was doing Blood on the Tracks, glam was top of the charts, Bohemian Rhapsody, quietly influential stuff from Big Star, shit, this was the year after Kool Herc invented hip-hop too. The early 70s were great weren't they? I was brought up to think the 60s died then it was shit and then punk saved everything, but the truth's nothing like that.

But, in terms of my personal musical taste, this was the most important album of that year (I'm just about confident in that as Blood on the Tracks was 20th January 1975 ...)

Here's a Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris related compilation - only fair to give them equal standing, as this album would not be half of what it is without Emmylou ...

Return of the Grievous Angel - Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
Hot Burrito #1 - Flying Burrito Brothers
$1000 Wedding - Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
Hickory Wind - They Byrds
Brass Buttons - Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
Boulder to Birmingham - Emmylou Harris
The Road - Emmylou Harris
She - Gram Parsons
Hot Burrito #2 - Flying Burrito Brothers
A Song for You - Gram Parsons
O My Sweet Carolina - Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris
How She Would Sing the Wildwood Flower - Emmylou Harris
Dark End of the Street - Flying Burrito Brothers
Love Hurts - Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
Michelangelo - Emmylou Harris
In My Hour of Darkness - Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris