Wednesday 29 April 2015

Welsh Wednesday #34

#34: Ymaelodi Â'r Ymylon by Super Furry Animals

This coming weekend, MrsRobster and I will be catching Super Furry Animals at their three-night residency at Cardiff University. Tickets are like gold dust, as you'd imagine, these being the first shows the band have done for five years. It's anyone's guess if this is the end of their hiatus, a temporary return to remind us they're still alive or a farewell. I do so hope it's not the latter.

It's being marketed as a promotional tour for the re-release of their Welsh language album 'Mwng' (trans: Mane), originally released 15 years ago. It came out on the band's own Placid Casual label, sandwiched as it was between Creation Records dissolving and their subsequent signing to Sony. The album was a back-to-basics effort - recorded live and costing just £6000.

Ymaelodi Â'r Ymylon (trans: Joining the periphery) is typical of its no nonsense approach. It's quite obviously a Super Furry Animals song, but without the techie gadgetry that graced their previous records, in particular 'Guerrilla', the record that immediately preceded 'Mwng'.

I expect much of 'Mwng' to be played at the weekend. Bring it on, I say. To be honest, the Furries could play for 10 hours performing Plaid Cymru's election manifesto for all I care. It would still be one of the most entertaining shows I'll have seen for years.

Monday 27 April 2015

From Inside The Pod Revisited #9

Looking back at the podcasts I created for my old blog, I was surprised how much good stuff I crammed onto each one over 30 short minutes. Compiling them was always interesting, but quite hard work deciding what to include and what to leave out. This one is a particularly strong set, eclectic and lively.

As with the rest of this series, I've not tinkered with the original article - what you see below is how it originally appeared more than four years ago. Enjoy.

Pod 10: Blue
(first published 4 January 2011)

We're told 2011 is going to be a tough year, which is something to look forward to!! Plenty of reasons to feel blue then, but for once in my life I'm going to try to be optimistic. Shit happens, right? What can you do but shrug your shoulders and get on with it? So with that in mind, here's another 10 gems to usher in another 12 months of excellent sounds which, even if things conspire against us, will offer us comfort in our hour(s) of need.

This post is dedicated to the late great Pete Postlethwaite who passed away at the weekend.

1. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan Come Undone [live] (2010, Live At The Barbican)
While the pairing of the former Belle and Sebastian cellist and the ex-frontman of Screaming Trees may have been considered a little odd at the outset, three albums in and Campbell & Lanegan have more than proved they are a match made in musical heaven. This track, originally from last year's 'Hawk' album, was recorded in London during their recent tour.

2. Compulsion Air-Raid For The Neighbours (1994, Comforter)
One of my favourite albums of the 90s was the debut from Irish punks Compulsion, fronted by the man who would later become renowned and in-demand producer Jacknife Lee (R.E.M., Snow Patrol, U2). I saw them live at a gig in Devon while I was working with the support band, and they were really quite phenomenal.

3. The Peth Sunset Veranda (2008, The Golden Mile)
Ten-piece Welsh supergroup comprising members of Super Furry Animals, Sibrydion and actor Rhys Ifans (of Twin Town and the latest Harry Potter movie), who once fronted the Super Furries way back before they made a record. If you're wondering, 'Peth' translates from the Welsh as 'thing'.

4. Head Cat Big River (2006, Fool's Paradise)
Rockabilly supergroup made up of members of the Stray Cats, the Rockats and, erm, Lemmy from Motörhead. Yes, strange as it may seems, rock's premier hedonistic frontman grew up listening to the rock 'n' roll greats and made this album as a result of a studio jam with the other members. This is their take on Johnny Cash's classic.

5. Ólöf Arnalds Klara (2007, Við Og Við)
An active member of the Icelandic music scene since the start of the last decade, collaborating with numerous acts including Múm, Mugison and Skúli Sverrisson, Ólöf Arnalds produces the most extraordinary folk music, performed in the troubadour style. Haunting and delicate, yet unnervingly self-assured.

6. Speedball Jr. Inferno (2006, For The Broad Minded)
How about some surf-rock from Belgium, then? Not something you're likely to hear that often, but in Speedball Jr. we get some kick-ass riffs coupled with raw rock energy while keeping with the essence of the genre.

7. Jesse Fuller Whoa Mule (1963, San Francisco Bay Blues)
The original one-man-band, Jesse Fuller worked in factories, farms, quarries, railroads, shipyards and as a film extra before carving out a career in music, his first album being cut in 1958. He is also known for his invention of the 'fotdella', a bizarre musical instrument that allowed him to play a bass line in several keys in addition to guitar, drums, harmonica and kazoo simultaneously. A true genius.

8. Cold War Kids The Soloist in The Living Room (2005, The Mulberry Street EP)
A new Cold War Kids album is on the way, which is always something to get excited about. This is one of their earliest recordings which featured on their debut release.

9. Nouvelle Vague (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) (2010, Best Of Nouvelle Vague: Limited Edition)
Known for their inventive reworkings of British and American new wave classics, Nouvelle Vague have recently turned their attentions to songs of the 80s from their French homeland. However, last year's Best Of featured a bonus disc of rarities that rounds off the first chapter of their career, and this take on the Stranglers debut is one of the highlights.

10. Sister Rosetta Tharpe 99 And A Half Won't Do (1956, Gospel Train)
After making her name as a gospel singer during the 20s and 30s, Rosetta caused a storm when her first recordings surfaced in 1938. Her devout god-fearing followers, outraged at the mix of sacred and secular music, turned their backs on her. That, however, didn't stop her from becoming a smash hit with wider audiences and a massive influence on those who would follow - she is credited with inventing the rock 'n' roll guitar solo a good decade before that genre broke through. Here, she duets with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight.

Saturday 25 April 2015

The Genius of... Tim Smith #10

As I mentioned last week the Genius series is going on hiatus for a while. The Tim Smith chapter is going to be rounded off with the song that gives this blog its name. I originally wrote this piece for JC aka The Vinyl Villain for his Cult Classics series back in January 2014. I've only tweaked it everso slightly for this post.

#10: Is This The Life by Cardiacs

When I started getting into indie music back in the mid-late 80s, I bought some of those Indie Top 20 compilation albums. One of them included Is This The Life by Cardiacs. It stood out as a highlight of that particular record and got me interested enough to buy their album.

I had no idea who they were, that they had been going for a decade, or that Is This The Life had already been released twice before – on the cassette-only albums ‘Toy World’ and ‘The Seaside’. All I knew was that I loved their sound, and it was one of the coolest songs I’d heard with a sax in it!

The album intrigued me and it was a fixture on my record deck for months. This was one very strange band, clearly touched by genius but far too odd to ever really gain any support or credibility from the media (as evidenced by the NME banning the very mention of their name).

Is This The Life was probably the most accessible track on that album; arguably it is one of the most accessible songs in their entire canon. It’s still a really bloody good track to this day. Is This The Life was the closest they ever came to a hit (it still didn’t make the top 75) and it was the one that introduced me to Tim Smith’s brilliantly bizarre mind.

Friday 24 April 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 3

Just as he ushered glam rock in, Bowie was the one who called time on it. He bid the genre he practically invented a final farewell before seeking a new sound, a new audience, and inevitably, a new persona.

Pin Ups (1973)

I'm left rather confused by 'Pin Ups', I've never really seen the point. It's an anomaly in that, given Bowie had established himself as one of the world's brightest new, forward-thinking songwriters, 'Pin Ups' merely showcases a dozen cover versions of songs from mid-60s England. There are one or two gems - his version of Sorrow, for instance, sounds like a genuine attempt to make a decent single, and Bowie's voice is at its best; while Where Have All The Good Times Gone could easily have fit on 'Aladdin Sane'. The rest of it though is largely throwaway, pub band stuff.

5 / 10


Diamond Dogs (1974)

The band formerly known as the Spiders From Mars had been jettisoned by Bowie by the beginning of 1974. With it, the glam rock sound that made him a superstar was being gently urged to leave the party too. 'Diamond Dogs' was glam's last hurrah, although the raw, garagey noises evident on the album's eleven tracks made it clear times were a-changing.

Bowie himself played guitar on 'Diamond Dogs', which certainly explains a lot of the edginess it emitted. The sound was appropriate for its subject matter - a post-apocalyptic Manhattan populated by street kids trying to survive in this harsh environment; the Diamond Dogs of the album title. Bowie was moving on but not drastically so. Rebel Rebel, another of his undisputed classics, was the last triumphant shout out to Ziggy and Aladdin, while the title track swaggers with an arrogance and self-assuredness of a rock star at the top of his game.

But there were signs of what was to come next. The soulful ballad Rock 'n' Roll With Me, and 1984 which sounds like a thinly-veiled Theme From Shaft, were certainly pointers towards Bowie's "plastic soul" of 'Young Americans'. Despite the variety of styles however, 'Diamond Dogs' works well as a cohesive album, even if the darkness of some of the songs means there aren't quite so many memorable tunes as on some of his previous works.

7.8 / 10


Young Americans (1975)

Right from the off it's clear 'Young Americans' was different to anything Bowie had done before. Taking the sound of Philadelphia as his cue, he ditched glam rock once and for all and embraced, what he called, 'plastic soul'. This new sound called for a new batch of musicians and guitarist Carlos Alomar was drafted in. A relationship lasting 30+ years was born.

The title track, with its sweeping strings, excitable sax and soulful backing vocals set the tone. It's a great track too, so uplifting. Lead single Fame, written with John Lennon, took on a more funky feel, but the best track on the record for me was the result of another collaboration. Fascination was co-written by a young Luther Vandross who would go on to be one of the biggest soul stars of the 80s. It also showcased the vocals of another up-and-coming singer, Robin Clark, who a decade later would feature prominently on Simple Minds' 'Once Upon A Time' album.

Not all the collaborations were successful however. Another track recorded with Lennon - Across The Universe - simply doesn't work for me. Lennon does his best to inject some energy into it; his backing vocals duelling with Bowie's lead during the last couple of minutes almost win me over. I still much prefer the Beatles' original - Lennon's mellow, psychedelic vocals suit the essence of the song more, in my view. Here, it's all a little over the top.

While 'Young Americans' isn't a record I usually go for when I'm in the mood for some Bowie, it is enjoyable when I do give it a spin.

7.5 / 10


Station To Station (1976)

On his tenth album, Bowie and his cohorts adopted an experimental approach to the recording process. There are a lot of sounds on 'Station To Station' and there is a clear pointer towards the motorik style of the Berlin trilogy. Elsewhere, the funk feel of 'Young Americans' is still evident - Golden Years and Stay, in particular.

As a whole though, 'Station To Station' is sensational. There may only be six tracks, but each one is of as high a quality as Bowie had produced to date and would produce in the future. The title track, which opens the record, is a 10-minute epic that criss-crosses Bowie's recent history and his near-future. There's a bit of funk in there, some glam rock and a bit of the Krautrock experimentation that would serve him well to the end of the decade. It's a real headphones track, especially during the first half.

It's clear that Golden Years was the first track written for the album. It wouldn't have been out of place on 'Young Americans'; TVC 15 was a somewhat strange inclusion musically - the album's most obviously pop moment - but lyrically it was in keeping with the dark undertones of the other tracks, based on a hallucination that Iggy Pop had in which he saw his girlfriend being eaten by the TV set. The darkness and almost surreal nature of the songs can undoubtedly be aligned to Bowie's chronic cocaine use at the time, but like so many such situations in rock music history, the dark times often result in some of an artist's finest work.

Word On A Wing was written during the making of the movie 'The Man Who Fell To Earth', a time of "psychological terror", according to Bowie. It was his protection against some of the things happening to him at the time. It's a beautiful song, one of the best ballads of his career. But the very best is saved til last. Bowie's take on Wild Is The Wind still rates as one of hs greatest moments of all. His vocal is phenomenal and the track as a whole is a thing of awe and wonder.

Bowie may have been going through a rather turbulent and disturbing period in his life, but by playing it out on record, he produced a masterpiece. 'Station To Station' is my fave Bowie album because of its depth and candidness. The Thin White Duke - Bowie's newest persona - may have been, in his own words, "a nasty character indeed", but as the muse through which this record was created, he was an extraordinary, and welcome, addition to the Bowie cast.

9.3 / 10


Wednesday 22 April 2015

Welsh Wednesday #33

#33: Peripheral Thermal (L) by R.Seiliog

Cardiff's Robin Edwards a.k.a. R.Seiliog is the leading exponent of new Welsh electronica. He's come a long way in such a short time. Having started out quietly making minimalist kosmiche electronica, he spent the best part of three years touring, and occasionally recording, with the likes of compatriots Cate le Bon, H. Hawkline, Gruff Rhys and Euros Childs.

His debut EP 'Shuffles' brought numerous other influences into an already heady mix, in particular Krautrock. James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers declared it record of the year in 2013 and brought Edwards in to remix tracks from the Manics' next album 'Futurology'.

R.Seiliog's debut full-length hit the shelves right towards the end of last year. Entitled 'In Hz', it's a terrific mix of sounds that takes a few listens to get your head around; there really is so much going on in there. Peripheral Thermal (L) is a highlight for me, a rather menacing, densely-layered 4½ minutes of kosmiche terror.

Oh, the (L) stands for 'Left', as the track has a companion piece on the album entitled Peripheral Thermal (R). I'll leave you to work that one out.

Monday 20 April 2015

Vintage Vinyl #8

Theatre of Hate - Do You Believe In The Westworld 7"
Bought from: Strawberry Fields, Cardiff
Price paid: one of a batch of five singles I paid £8 in total for

Another superb record I found at the now sadly defunct Strawberry Fields. It's completely representative of the post-punk era and as such has deservedly earned itself 'classic' status. Therefore I don't need to extol its virtues to such an educated and informed audience as you lot.

Instead, I can tell you about my introduction to Theatre of Hate and the one and only time I saw them live. I used to walk to school each morning with two mates who were neighbours. One of them, who was known to all as Megs, had two older brothers. One was a punk and played drums in the local punk band The Cult Maniax, the other was a rock fan. Therefore Megs was exposed to quite a bit of alternative music. I remember he introduced me to Half Man Half Biscuit, the Housemartins and Spear Of Destiny. I particularly liked the latter of these and as was my way I made sure I researched the band and got to know their back catalogue (they had just had a hit with Never Take Me Alive at the time; to this day, an absolutely immense tune).

Eventually I found out about Theatre of Hate, the former band of SoD singer Kirk Brandon and bassist Stan Stammers. I didn't like them so much at the time - a little too harsh for my liking, not as melodic as Spear of Destiny either. Do You Believe In The Westworld got stuck in my head though for some reason and over the next decade or so I kept finding this song, and other Theatre of Hate tracks, cropping up on compilations and in other people's record collections.

At some point in the early 90s, I went with Megs and a few others to see the reformed Theatre of Hate at the Cavern in Exeter. I still wasn't familiar with an awful lot of their material, but I do remember it being an excellent performance with loads of energy. Do You Believe In The Westworld took the roof off that night.

There are a lot of parallels you can draw between Theatre of Hate and a number of bands who have come to prominence over the last decade or so - Bloc Party, Foals to name just two of the better known ones. This Mick Jones-produced track remains one of their best loved and influential.


Saturday 18 April 2015

The Genius Of... David Gedge #10

#10: Kennedy by The Wedding Present

This will be the last of this series for the time being. It hasn't been as popular as I'd hoped so I'm calling time on the regular postings, though I may well sporadically post additional articles when the mood takes me. There will be one more Tim Smith post and one more Jack White post, but it's most likely the Tim Smith series will be revived at some point as it was by far the most popular.

So to finish the Gedge installment, an absolute classic, not just in terms of Gedge's output but in the entire output of the indie music genre. A big claim yes, but I defy anyone to argue the point. Kennedy was the Wedding Present's first single on a major label and their first UK Top 40 hit. It featured on their second album 'Bizarro' in 1989, but I first heard it the previous year when they played it at my first ever gig.

There was no new sound to accompany the major label deal, just classic jangly Weddoes. Lyrically it's one of Gedge's simplest - a single repeated verse referring to JFK and the so-called American dream. If you ever hear the Wedding Present on the radio, it's most likely Kennedy that's being played. It's a song that still gets me going all these years later, and a fine way to wrap this series up.

Friday 17 April 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 2

Three of Dave's best known and best loved records earmarked the beginning of a legend. No one could have predicted it, but something very, very special was being unleashed.

Hunky Dory (1971)

There were hints of greatness on Bowie's first three records, but the first true sign that someone remarkable was in our midst came in 1971. A far cry from the ominous heavy rock of its predecessor, 'Hunky Dory' really could be regarded as Bowie's first proper triumph.

Opening with Changes, replete with strings, piano and horns, it must have come as something of a shock to those who had discovered Bowie through 'The Man Who Sold The World'. It's a remarkable song and never fails to thrill whenever I hear it; it has one of the best choruses of all time. The great thing about 'Hunky Dory' is how it maintains the standard through an array of contrasting styles. Oh! You Pretty Things - a tale of aliens visiting Earth to rid the world of humans save for its youth - is a moment of unashamed pop; Eight Line Poem is essentially a blues song; and Life On Mars?, another of Bowie's everlasting, spine-tingling marvels, revels in its lush orchestral arrangement. It also boasts one of his very best vocals.

The recurring science-fiction theme not only harked back to Space Oddity, but also looked forward to Bowie's first peak period that was to follow. In fact, 'Hunky Dory' was the first album to feature the band that would become known as the Spiders From Mars. There were, however, other nods to both the past and near future. Kooks, a song for his newly first-born son, could have nestled nicely on either of his first two albums and been one of their best tracks; while Andy Warhol and Queen Bitch were real glam rock stompers, albeit in very different ways - the former being almost entirely acoustic, and the latter sounding like a lost Velvet Underground classic. It's not perfect though. The Tiny Tim cover Fill Your Heart was a last-minute inclusion, but really wouldn't be missed, while the country-rock stylings of Song For Bob Dylan are decent enough, but sound out of place here.

It would take another year or so for the record-buying public to wake up en-masse, but there's no doubt 'Hunky Dory' was the alarm that rang just before that last little snooze...



The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders From Mars (1972)

Bowie fell to Earth, fully realised, in 1972 with what is his first true classic album. 'Ziggy Stardust' cannot be left off any best records of the 70s list, or any best records of all time list for that matter. Not only is it full to bursting of extraordinary material, it was a record that made a real impact on the scene of the time. Glam rock was beginning to take shape and this album, I've no doubt, brought it right to the forefront of British youth culture.

Releasing a concept album about an alien rock star would perhaps normally be seen as an off-the-wall vanity project, but for Bowie it was the natural follow-on from his previous records. Far from off-the-wall, Bowie was staking his claim as the leading pioneer of pop music, and he did it under the guise of his new invention; Bowie was Ziggy and Ziggy was Bowie.

'Ziggy' doesn't have a weak track on it, or anything close to one. Sure, there are varying degrees of brilliance, but brilliance nonetheless. Five Years is the anthemic yet doom-laden opener which fades with Ziggy's desperate screams before giving way to Soul Love, a warning of worshipping false idols. Starman rates alongside Changes as one of Bowie's outstanding early tracks, while Lady Stardust is a wonderfully soulful diversion among the glitzy glam guitars.

The very best however comes at the end, the astonishing triumvirate of Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Rock & Roll Suicide. The adoration Ziggy enjoyed on Earth is eradicated by his masters and his time is over - a comment on the music industry perhaps? Suffragette City has long been one of my fave Bowie songs, but Rock & Roll Suicide is sensational and gives me goosebumps.



Aladdin Sane (1973)

Although Ziggy Stardust was killed off, Bowie described his next record as "Ziggy in America". During his last tour, Bowie experienced all the highs and lows of the States and condensed them into songs for his sixth album. This was no concept album like its predecessor though, and sadly, 'Aladdin Sane' suffers from a lack of focus and cohesion.

There were the familiar sounds of rock in Watch That Man, The Jean Genie and the outstanding Cracked Actor (one of my all-time fave Bowie tunes), but there was also doo-wop (Drive-In Saturday), cabaret (Time), flamenco (Lady Grinning Soul) and avant-garde jazz (Mike Garson's famous piano solo in the title track). Individually, they are all fascinating snapshots of Bowie's creative mind and the range and quality of the people he worked with. As a whole though it all sounds a little disjointed.

It has grown on me over time, but I still have trouble putting it all together. It seems to me as if Bowie was beginning to tire of the glam rock sound he had practically invented and was trying to step out into pastures new. Aladdin Sane wasn't Ziggy; he seemed as mixed up as his name suggested.



Wednesday 15 April 2015

Welsh Wednesday #32

#32: Crafwr by Anhrefn

Anhrefn (trans: Disorder) formed in Bangor, North Wales, in 1982 and became hugely influential in the Welsh language rock scene. I first became aware of Anhrefn when I saw their name on gig posters around my Devon hometown back in the 80s. They were part of an underground punk scene that saw bands tour relentlessly, release records and occasionally get a Peel session while all the while being ignored by the media and public save for the punk devotees who continued to follow the genre long after it had become uncool and no longer a threat to so-called decent society.

Musically, they sounded like a lot of other bands of their ilk at the time - the Skids, the Ruts, etc - but singing in Welsh made them stand out. Passionate about their language and fervently outspoken against their nation's music industry, Anhrefn became one of Wales' best-known non-chart acts despite their lack of exposure on TV and radio.

Following half a dozen studio albums - and collaborations with Pauline Murray and Margi Clarke - the band split in 1995. Bassist Rhys Mwyn went on to manage Catatonia and set up Crai Records which released some of their early singles. Anhrefn reformed in 2008 without Mwyn. Crafwr (trans: Scraper) appeared on Anhrefn's second album 'Bwrw Cwrw' (trans: Serving beer, or something. It's pronounced a bit like 'booroo kooroo', but with rolled R's) from 1989.

Factoid: There was a Welsh kids TV show from around 10 years ago or so called 'Crafwr'. It was a short game show that clearly took inspiration from Tiswas; kids had to earn their freedom from a school headed by a sarcastic headteacher by answering questions and gaining progress across the studio on motorised desks. The losers got gunged. Sounds like a lot of fun, actually. Pretty certain no member of Anhrefn was anything to do with it however.....

Monday 13 April 2015

Blues Monday #8: Bad Luck Woman by Memphis Minnie

Lizzie Douglas - a.k.a. Memphis Minnie - was one of the finest and most influential female blues musicians of the pre-WW2 period. Having learnt both banjo and guitar by the age of 11, and playing to audiences since the age of 13, she recorded around 200 sides and toured extensively.

Minnie wrote and recorded When The Levee Breaks in 1929 (famously interpreted by Led Zeppelin more than 40 years later) and Me And My Chaffeur Blues, later covered by Jefferson Airplane. She embraced technology, being one of the first artists to use an electric guitar, and wasn't afraid to experiment with different styles, techniques and tunings. She was also tough, renowned for being more than able to look after herself.

Memphis Minnie passed away in 1973 aged 76 following years of bad health, seeing her days out in a nursing home. While her name may not register with many people today, her work paved the way for the development of blues and she is regarded as an innovator by those who love and admire her work.

I've chosen Bad Luck Woman, recorded in 1936, for today's post, for no other reason than it's one of my personal faves.


Saturday 11 April 2015

The Genius of... Jack White #9

Fell In Love With A Girl by The White Stripes

A short article for a short song... By the time Fell In Love With A Girl was released as a single in the spring of 2002, the White Stripes were big news and well on their way to becoming the hottest property in pop music. In many ways it sums the band up - The Times called it a cross between the blues and Pixies and I suppose that's what it is. It's short (a mere 1min 50 secs) because that's all it needs to be.

It was a perfect track with which to be launched into the megasphere of pop stardom. It struck a chord with many people; Rolling Stone even listed it as one of the 40 songs that changed the world. It may not have been until the following year when they officially became HUGE, but this was the song that made it possible. Fell In Love With A Girl is a blast and I love it.

Friday 10 April 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 1

David Bowie is very probably one of the greatest people who ever lived. In music terms at least. He's an absolute fucking genius of the highest order, and if you dispute this I'll see you outside. I thought, therefore, he was worthy of a critical appraisal on this 'ere blog - an honour indeed. So over the next 8 Fridays I'll be rating all 25 of the great man's studio albums in chronological order. Compilations won't be included, neither will live albums, soundtracks, reissues, bonus tracks or imports. Just the UK versions as originally released. Oh, and no Tin Machine either.

My ratings are out of 10 and have been very unscientifically calculated using my own formula which is too embarrasingly simple to share. But that's not important. I'd be really interested to hear what you guys think of each record so please do make use of that Comments section. Here we go then. Lift off...

David Bowie (1967)

Influenced by the likes of Anthony Newley, Tommy Steele and Syd Barrett, it's safe to say Bowie's self-titled debut is a far cry from what he would create on subsequent releases. It's not terrible, but it's not something you'd listen to more than a couple of times for the curiosity value. It is rather quaint, even fun in places. Uncle Arthur sounds like one of the Kinks' lighter moments while Please Mr. Gravedigger is just plain nuts. This was around the time of The Laughing Gnome, though thankfully it wasn't included on the album.

Interestingly though, some of Bowie's recurring themes cropped up for the first time here, most notably, in We Are Hungry Men, the disturbing Messianic megalomaniac that reappeared on Cygnet Committee, Saviour Machine, Oh! You Pretty Things and Ziggy Stardust. But in all-in-all, this is little more than a curious sidenote in the Bowie story.




David Bowie (1969) - a.k.a. Space Oddity and Man Of Words/Man Of Music

Bowie's first album for Phillips was rather confusingly given the same eponymous title as his Deram debut. On signing for RCA a couple years later, it was re-released as 'Space Oddity', the title by which it has become better known. For many, this record is really where it gets started for Bowie. While a couple of tracks hark back to the folksy elements of his first - see God Knows I'm Good, An Occasional Dream and Letter To Hermione, for instance - there are plenty more recognisable sounds that Bowie would develop on future records.

The nine-minute dystopian narrative Cygnet Committee has been cited as Bowie's first true masterpiece; but the standout tracks are those which bookend the album - and are by far the most unusual. Memory Of A Free Festival was written by Bowie about an event he had organised the previous year, and predominantly features a child's organ that sounds like a harmonium. The closing refrain "The sun machine is coming down/And we're gonna have a party/Uh-huh" was (rightly) compared to Hey Jude.

But the opener - and later title track - is the most outstanding track of all. It sounds like nothing else on the record, or much like anything else ever since. The tale of Major Tom was expanded on in Ashes To Ashes and Hallo Spaceboy in years to come, but Space Oddity remains the quintessential Bowie classic. It's out of place on an otherwise OK but far from remarkable album. Transitional, I think is the best verb to use here.



The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

Sometimes referred to as the record where it all really started for Bowie; some say it ushered in the birth of glam rock; some even call it heavy metal! Well, it's certainly more Zeppelin than Ziggy, that's for sure. But as highly regarded as it might be in some quarters, 'The Man Who Sold The World' has always left me somewhat cold.

It was probably the most consistent sounding Bowie album to date, the first to have a true identity. What it didn't have was much in the way of decent tunes. There's no doubt the title track is the real highlight, and opener The Width Of A Circle meanders in and out of various moods and sounds making it the most interesting track on the record. Elsewhere though it gets a bit boring, musically at least. Get past Mick Ronson's overblown guitar noodling and thick riffing and you might be able to take in Bowie's dark, sinister and occasionally disturbing lyrical subject matter: murder, war, paranoia, madness - it's not exactly the light and whimsical cabaret of his debut, and even those songs had stings in their tails.

While you can hear where Bowie was heading - The Supermen skirts Ziggy Stardust territory - it was clearly far from the finished product, and there is nothing on 'The Man Who Sold The World' that would hint at the greatness to come.



Wednesday 8 April 2015

Welsh Wednesday #31

#31: Which Way To Kyffin by James Dean Bradfield

Following megastardom during the Britpop years, the Manic Street Preachers struggled to maintain their momentum into the new Millennium. 'Know Your Enemy' in 2001 was patchy at best, while 'Lifeblood', released in 2004, was pretty much panned by fans and critics alike. In the period between 'Lifeblood' and the next Manics record 'Send Away The Tigers', the band concentrated on non-Manics projects with Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield both recording solo records.

Bradfield's effort 'The Great Western' gave him the opportunity to sing his own words rather than those penned by bandmates. It revealed a rather sensitive side to the guy as well as showing he was more than capable of holding his own should the unthinkable ever happen and *gasp* the Manics split up! No, that just can't happen, I apologise for even considering such an absurd idea.

Anyway, it was a decent album, though very much not a Manics record. Which Way To Kyffin was the album closer and for me is the standout track. It begins sounding like Laurie Anderson's O Superman, but turns into a delicate ode to Welsh painter Sir Kyffin Williams who passed away earlier that year (2006).

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Welsh Wednesday #30

#30: Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth by Mary Hopkin

Mary Hopkin hails from the small South Wales town of Pontardawe, located in the Swansea Valley near Neath. She was the first artist signed to the Beatles' label Apple (other than the Beatles themselves of course) and came to Paul McCartney's attention on a recommendation from none other than Twiggy, who saw Hopkin on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. Her debut single is her best known - an English translation of the Russian folk song Those Were The Days, released in 1968.

After releasing a number of albums and singles over the next three years, as well as representing the UK in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest (in which she was beaten into second place by Ireland's Dana), she married producer Tony Visconti and retired from the music business, only sporadically venturing into the studio thereafter. She did, however, collaborate with the likes of David Bowie, Sparks, Thin Lizzy and Hazel O'Connor.

Mary has been far more prolific in the 21st Century with five studio albums released since 2005. A collection of recordings she made between 1972 and 1980 that never previously saw the light of day was released in 2007. Entitled 'Valentine, it contained this gorgeous version of Sparks' Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth. The song originally appeared on Sparks' 1974 album 'Propaganda'. This version is far simpler than the original's lush arrangement, keeping true to Hopkin's folk roots.

A brief sabbatical now ensues, some rest and recuperation (and some frenzied writing) over the Easter period. I'll see you back here next Wednesday, OK?