Monday, 27 April 2015

Stage Fright - The Band - album review

The Band's third album, Stage Fright, released in 1970, had a lot to live up to, following as it did in the wake of the group's brilliant first two records, Music From Big Pink and The Band.

Regardless of whether Stage Fright can be said to be "better" or "worse" than the two works which preceded it, it was without doubt different. Several theories have been put forward to explain this. The rock n roll lifestyle may have begun to affect the musicians, together with the rigours of life on the road. It may be that the initial magic and enthusiasm of the group striking out on its own had begun to diminish.

This record is markedly darker in tone, and The Band may have been reflecting some of the uncertainty and perceived bleakness of the new decade. The shift in atmosphere and sound may have been a conscious attempt to explore new territory, both sonically and lyrically. Trying to replicate the feel-good factor of the first two records, even assuming that they had the energy, would have represented treading water.  There wasn't so much a decrease in intensity here;it was just a different kind of intensity. It wasn't a comedown or a hangover, but more a change in direction and emphasis.

One of the major differences immediately discernible on this album is the comparative absence of the idiosyncratic and endearingly chaotic vocal harmonies which characterized the band's work of the late 1960s. This is one of the reasons why the sound on Stage Fright feels thin and lacking in depth and warmth. The instrumental backdrop is also quite sober, in keeping with the lyrical content. The keyboard layers of past times are thin on the ground.

There are a few genuine highlights, and not all of this record has a soulless reticence. Track number two, "Sleeping" contains many of the Band's traditional hallmarks, and is marked by a fine Richard Manuel vocal. "The Shape I'm In" has some real character and drive to it - the vocals, again from Manuel, but also this time the harmonies have real presence. This is one of the few tracks on the album where Garth Hudson's keyboards are permitted full freedom, and his contribution helps propel things admirably.

The second half of the record is much stronger than the first. "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" reminds us of the mystique which surrounded the group, and has the welcome bonus of a horn part. "Daniel And The Sacred Harp" has similar attributes. There is some feeling in the vocals by Manuel and Levon Helm, and the words are nicely enigmatic. There is even a hint of the Cajun, in the employment of accordion and fiddle.  All in all, plenty is going on to hold the interest.

The title track is one of the key numbers. It has quite an affecting melody, and Rick Danko delivers one of his most effective lead vocals. This is one song where a lack of harmonies is an advantage. The subject matter suggests one voice only.

"The Rumor" is a downbeat, even sinister, track with which to finish proceedings, but not inappropriate. It is very much a "Seventies" song, in its ambiguity.

So there is some fine material here, and a distinctive vibe which makes Stage Fright a fascinating listen, both on its own merits and as a period-piece. It is less accessible and lovable than what went before, unsettling even in its tone, but it also encourages the listener to think....

Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones - album review

Of the four "classic" studio albums released by the Rolling Stones between 1968 and 1972, Let It Bleed, their 1969 effort, has traditionally inspired the most mixed feelings in me.  Made during a time of turmoil in the band, with the decline and subsequent death of Brian Jones, it has commonly been described as one of the cultural artefacts which most cogently captures the close of a decade and its attendant idealism.

Much has been made of how vividly the record evokes the disillusioning tail end of the Sixties, but I often thought in the past that this has hampered an objective appraisal of the album's musical merits. Just lately, however, I have come to realize that my own views about its perceived sociopolitical weight has clouded my own judgement on the artistic offerings contained within. Some concentration and analysis is required to fully appreciate it.

The album is not as uniformly "rustic" as Beggars Banquet, and this can make it seem disjointed. I would go so far as to conclude that Let It Bleed actually contains less filler than its 1968 predecessor, although strangely there are also fewer memorable or "classic" songs here. Only "Gimme Shelter" truly resonates these days.

Whereas the underlying mood before was part anger, part confusion, part defiance, here there is more a sense of fear, ennui and resignation. Many of the songs almost drift by unnoticed rather than grabbing the listener by the throat and demanding attention.

"Gimme Shelter" looms ever larger as one of the group's towering achievements, both for its relevance and for its musical power. The multiple parts performed by Keith Richards, including the oft-overlooked thundering rhythm guitar, Charlie Watts' drumming, the dramatic vocal intervention of Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger's harsh harmonica interludes.

It is easy to disregard the fact that the stylistic thrust of Let It Bleed is not fundamentally different from that which characterized the previous record made by the band. A country-blues ambience is clearly evident on such tracks as "Love In Vain", "Country Honk" and "You Got The Silver". However, the sound is somewhat "cleaner" than before, and this can mislead one into thinking that there had been a profound departure between 1968 and 1969.

A couple of tracks situated in the middle of the album help to lighten the mood, for different reasons. "Live With Me" can seem like a lightweight item, but its danceability and aggressive rigour are welcome in a contextual way. On the other hand, "Let It Bleed", the title track, instills levity with its risque lyrics and ebullient, almost tongue-in-cheek register.

For a long time I had a blind spot about the studio version of "Midnight Rambler", as it appeared clearly inferior to the version later included on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, and the production felt cloudy and muddy. However, I now consider that this is one of those tracks which requires real listening, and the clinical and cold feel here is actually highly appropriate. "Monkey Man" serves a similar purpose to "Live With Me", in its injection of energy, although it has an added drama and menace which makes it one of the more underrated cuts on this LP.

"You Can't Always Get What You Want" is the other popularly "iconic" song on the album, forming a potent pair of bookends along with "Gimme Shelter".  I must admit that I prefer the "single" versions, though, as they are shorn of the "choral" introduction...

Of course, Let It Bleed marked the debut of Mick Taylor on a Rolling Stones album, and although his role is limited, his slide guitar touches, even though low in the mix, indicate the way in which his talents would enhance the sonic tapestry of the band in the four or five years ahead.

So, Let It Bleed is prone to be misunderstood. It can seem a forbidding prospect, but if one gets past the mildly unwelcoming exterior it is revealed as a substantial, intriguing and entertaining collection, and it should not be regarded as in any major way inferior to the other works in the Stones' golden 68-72 run.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Beggars Banquet - The Rolling Stones - album review

One or two critics have asserted that Beggars Banquet, released by The Rolling Stones in 1968, is the greatest album of the Sixties. I might not go that far myself, but it is certainly a wonderful album, and one which helped to usher in the band's most creative and turbulent period.

The group, clearly ill-at-ease during the psychedelic era, appeared to be much more at home in 1968's changing cultural and social climate.  They were also more comfortable performing rootsier music, and these sounds somehow more closely reflected and complemented the uneasy or revolutionary sentiments which were supposedly prevalent in '68.

Beggars Banquet also witnessed a solidifying of the Jagger-Richards axis, as their songwriting became ever more prolific and and focused, and Brian Jones' influence gradually diminished.  Did the image of Keith Richards as the "heart and soul" of the Stones arise from necessity, as he was obliged to perform many of the functions previously undertaken by Jones?

In the past, I have tended to view some of the songs on this record as trite or lacking in cultural finesse, trying a little too hard to reflect the tenor of the times. However, after repeated scrutiny I would say that surprisingly little of it sounds corny or misjudged nowadays. I wasn't around in 1968, so I can't comment on how it might have sounded in the context of what was "going on" in those days.  The Beatles did seem to evoke the uncertainty and edginess of the time more acutely on "The White Album", with a minimum of effort and the conspicuous absence of any soap-box, but then again popular perception would have expected the Stones to put out a more overtly "angry" and visceral commentary.

The sound and production have a distinctly earthy flavour to them, redolent of honest toil, and therefore in keeping with the ethos which may or may not have been underpinning the project. Whether this was a conscious effort is difficult to say; what is certain is that the album would not have had the same gravitas and vigour had it been given a smoother and more polished sheen. The guitars (both electric and acoustic) sound splendid throughout.

As opening tracks go, "Sympathy For The Devil" takes some beating, and does kind of set the tone, both musically and atmospherically. The Stones had hinted at such "menace" in the past, but here was its most vibrant and stark manifestation. Opinions may vary as to precisely what Mick and Keith were getting at here, but none can deny that it captures the essence of the album and the popular image of 1968.

If "Sympathy For The Devil" is seen as being a standard-bearer for the spirit of Beggars Banquet, then tracks such as "No Expectations" and "Dear Doctor" are its DNA, with their acoustic bluesy rawness. The former features one of Brian Jones' last notable musical contributions as a member of the Rolling Stones, in the form of his haunting slide guitar part. The rendition of "Prodigal Son" is in a similar vein.

Of course, another song which attracted, and continues to attract, much attention is "Street Fighting Man", with its nicely ambivalent lyrical outlook and its blistering acoustic guitars. What it perhaps lacks in melodic subtlety it more than makes up for in power and robustness, and the instrumentation is pleasingly fuzzy.

I used to dismiss "Jigsaw Puzzle" as superior and stylish filler, but over time it has grown on me. The lyrics sound less and less like a poor man's Bob Dylan the more I listen to them, and the melody is deceptively vibrant and clever. Some more good slide guitar here, and nice separation between the instruments ensures that the rhythm section and the piano can be appreciated with some clarity.

Some people might dismiss "Stray Cat Blues" as a mere prototype for future Stones endeavours, or even "Stones by numbers", but in my view it is one of their finest and most formidable album tracks. Many elements coalesce to make it memorable, including the riffs and feline guitar lines, Charlie Watts' muscular drumming, and Jagger's lascivious vocal delivery.

The set is concluded with the two most obviously "blue collar" and "proletarian" items, "Factory Girl" and "Salt Of The Earth". "Factory Girl" is a rather charming and unpretentious number.  The song which follows it is musically strong, although the "anthemic" choruses can be grating, and the excessive second half of the song rather spoils the effect for me . Very much "of its time", and it is therefore churlish to be too harsh forty-seven years later.

I would say that Beggars Banquet ranks very high for me as far as Stones albums are concerned, second only to Exile On Main Street I would say.  There is very much a demarcation between what was recorded in 1968 (we should include the single "Jumping Jack Flash" in such deliberations) and what had gone before. This record is not as immediately enjoyable or accessible as Sticky Fingers, Some Girls or even Let It Bleed, and it might seem like hard work to begin with, but soon enough its abrasive self-confidence becomes evident.  Essential to an understanding of the Stones and the evolution of their music.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Made In Japan - Deep Purple - album review

Recently, I rediscovered Deep Purple's 1972/1973 live album "Made In Japan", and it was a revelation. For me, it remains the band's greatest single achievement, capturing their strengths with greater clarity and purpose than even their classic studio albums of the early Seventies. Which other acts have a live record as their "magnum opus"?  The one which springs to mind is The Allman Brothers Band, with "At Fillmore East".

The energy and commitment in these performances has to be heard to be believed, comfortably eclipsing that on the equivalent studio recordings. The feel is looser, more urgent and intense, and the effect is heightened by the scope for jamming and improvisation, with a healthy does of general 1970s excess and extravagance.

One of the things which one notices straight away is that Jon Lord's keyboards are allowed freer rein. The organ sounds like an organ more frequently, and it is extremely pleasing to the ear. There is less emphasis on trying to make the organ sound like a guitar.

Ian Gillan is in fine voice and in ebullient form. Those famous screams are much in evidence, adding considerably to the excitement of the set. As ever, Ian Paice is imperious, his drums almost a lead instrument alongside the guitar and keyboards. It still baffles me that he is rarely mentioned when lists of the great rock drummers are compiled. The interplay (possibly stemming from personal rivalry) between Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Paice is exhilarating here, and importantly they seem to know where and when to draw the line.

"Highway Star" is a perfect opener, as it encapsulates what would make the whole album so enthralling. This version has a rawness which is absent even from the brilliant "Machine Head" cut. Yes, it lacks a bit of "polish", but is "polish" really all that important in this context? As many have contended, this really is the ultimate Deep Purple song, outstripping the claims of more "obvious" candidates for that accolade...

Every number on "Made In Japan" positively drips with self-confidence and authority. Jon Lord once said that this record was a wonderful snapshot of the Mk II Deep Purple in all its glory, and you can see what he meant.  All too often live albums capture bands who are either off-form or fatigued.  This is a glorious exception. There are glimpses too of what made Ritchie Blackmore so influential to later rock guitarists; some flourishes and motifs which were seldom heard on the studio works.

"Child In Time" is probably not my favourite Purple number, but the one here is a very nice rendition. Again, the organ sound is lovely, and it substitutes for the guitar in what on record was the first part of the Blackmore solo. Roger Glover's bass-playing is more clearly audible than is sometimes the case on the group's songs. The same is the case on other tracks on this album. There is more life and zest here than on the version of the song on "In Rock". This is down to the contributions of all concerned.

It has often been remarked that the iconic status of "Smoke On The Water" owes much to the popularity and impact of the version of the song included on this live LP.  Again, the interpretation contains more melody and spontaneity than the one which featured on "Machine Head". The musicians sound like they are taking the initiative, forcing the pace, rather than being carried along by it. The guitar solo is very off-the-cuff, and we hear some fine vocal ad-libbing from Gillan. The absence of a fade-out means that we get a great ending, characterized by some sparring between Messrs Blackmore and Lord.

"Strange Kind Of Woman" assumes something approaching a whole new lease of life. The "Fireball" recording is a touch dry. As on other tracks on this album, Purple sound motivated, eager and uninhibited, and Blackmore's guitar solo is quite effervescent. The "call and response" section involving Gillan and Blackmore was a regular Purple tactic. Always good fun, and intriguing when one bears in mind the antagonisms and friction which supposedly plagued this line-up of the band. One upmanship may have been a motivating factor...

In many respects the highlight of the album, "Lazy" acts as a showcase for the instrumentalists to exhibit their individual prowess and ensemble playing skills. Ritchie displays his eclecticism here too, the group members feeding off each other with considerable aplomb. An exciting ride.

The final track on the original album, "Space Truckin'" is given the full treatment, Ian Paice supplying much of the extra punch and agility, and the famous riff sounds even more menacing in this environment. Another case of a song being extended to facilitate all sorts of extras, including what sounds to these ears like an attempt at a "freak out" sequence in the middle.

"Made In Japan" is a reminder of what a formidable and potent act the Mk II Deep Purple were, and also of what happened in the days when rock bands were let off the leash and permitted to perform like this.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Man On The Moon - Andrew Chaikin - book review

By the time I was old enough to appreciate some of the finer points, it seemed that the main excitement of the Space Age was over. On closer reflection, this is a superficial and simplistic view to adopt, but by the same token I wish that I had been old enough to take in the full magnitude and importance of the events in the late 60s and early 70s, by which I mean the moon landings. A highly intriguing and absorbing take on that era is provided by Andrew Chaikin's superb book, "A Man On The Moon - The Voyages Of The Apollo Astronauts", originally published in 1994.

Chaikin relates the story largely from the point of view of the Apollo astronauts themselves;their aspirations, their motivations, their fears, their varied, often tortuous paths towards their goals, and their diverse personalities. There is much emphasis on some of those who are perhaps less prominent in the mainstream public imagination. The book manages to combine a chronicle of the human elements of the Apollo program with a look at the scientific dimensions, the latter looming larger in the second half.

The author also eschews a dry chronology of the era, with the less heralded episodes garnering just as much attention as the "marquee" missions and events. The most noteworthy and fascinating parts of the enterprise were not necessarily those which were most widely publicized and documented. So, for example, some bits of the iconic Apollo 11 mission are left out, and more exhaustive analysis given to notable aspects of the other missions.

I particularly relished the passages which sought to explain and rationalize why certain astronauts were selected for missions, whilst some eminently qualified men seemed to be passed by. As the program flourished and grew in scope and scale, it was quite easy it seems to be supplanted or overtaken by talented, ambitious and determined newcomers, and to become "yesterday's man". Also, it was often a case of being in the right place at the right time. In relation to these matters, there is some focus on the relations and tensions between the different generations of astronauts, and the differing ways in which chemistry developed among the various crews.

It is also striking how all-encompassing and demanding an astronaut's remit and job description were. As well as training and planning, there were innumerable other demands on their time and energies;liaising with contractors and research institutions, as well as ambassadorial and public relations duties. Indeed, the facet of the astronaut make-up which most stood out for me in this book was the sheer capacity for hard work, diligence and concentration which they needed to possess, not to mention the requisite amalgam of experience, expertise and qualifications.

The accounts of the lunar expeditions are beautifully executed, conveying the onerous nature of the objectives,the meticulous preparations undertaken for each task, but also the often humbling impact of exploring another world. I found the story of Apollo 8 especially absorbing. There is lots of humour and "human interest" material in there too.

One of the most illuminating avenues which Chaikin goes down is the exploration of what made each individual astronaut tick - their perspectives on their experiences and the dangers, and how visiting the moon affected their lives and their outlook on the world. These thoughts are often brought out in the mini-biographies, which detail their backgrounds and their struggles and successes. Some overcame adversity to achieve cherished goals, others were left unfulfilled, while others fell by the wayside. These stories serve as a reminder that beneath the heroic, superhuman veneer, these people were human beings, with many of the attendant insecurities and weaknesses.

The "popular" version of the moon program which is sometimes heard is that the initiative became somehow devalued as it went on. Here, Chaikin persuasively illustrates that this was not the case, demonstrating that a focus on scientific discovery (geology, in particular) was at the heart of the final two or three trips to the moon. More substance was seemingly acquired towards the close of the Apollo epoch, because of lessons learned and experience and information gained on previous trips. To back up these assertions, the author goes into some depth about the geological dimension of the final lunar explorations in 1971-72.

"A Man On The Moon" evokes a time when little appeared beyond the reach of mankind. It also delves beyond popular legend and gets us inside the minds and souls of some of those who helped to push the boundaries and limits. A riveting read.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The French Connection - movie review

I recently watched the classic 1971 movie "The French Connection", directed by William Friedkin, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.

The plot, which is based on a non-fiction book by Robin Moore, revolves around the attempts of two New York detectives, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Scheider), to apprehend a gang of narcotics smugglers.

The factors which in my opinion pervade this whole movie are darkness of tone and a corresponding darkness of scenery and imagery. Most of the scenes are located either at night or in cavernous and forbidding, dimly lit daytime settings. These elements, together with the camerawork and lighting, accentuate the claustrophobia and insidious tension. The fact that the most of the movie appears to have been filmed in cold weather may also have assisted.

Sweeping, panoramic shots are few and far between. The scenes in Washington DC, in bright sunlight, serve as an exception. The accent is firmly on urban decay and the toughness of inner city existence. Even the policemen themselves appeared to pursue a frugal and unostentatious lifestyle.

An intimacy and realism characterizes many of the scenes, including the surveillance and undercover sequences.  "Cinema verite" is probably not the correct term, but it nearly borders on "fly on the wall" at times. The editing also contributes to the overall effect.

The rawness and immediacy are also augmented by the sparsity of the dialogue, and the sparing and judicious employment of music, the visuals often sufficing to tell the story. In highlighting the "dark" motif, it should be stressed that both natural and artificial light are utilized beautifully to capture and convey the mood.

The Doyle character, as played by Hackman, is a very plausible and rounded one. The words pugnacious, irascible and even avuncular all spring to mind. Doyle could be seen as a forerunner for other prickly, unorthodox detectives who appeared in films and television later in the 1970s, inducing suspicion and disquiet in his superiors, but surviving by virtue of the results which he delivered.

The popular image of this movie is largely associated with the Doyle character, and this tends to overshadow the role of  Russo, so ably portrayed by the excellent Roy Scheider. One of the more intriguing, but less discussed, aspects of the picture is the nebulous relationship between Doyle and Russo. It does not necessarily conform to the audience's expectations of how two "partners" should deal with each other.

One or two things occurred to me during my most recent viewing. One relates to the scene where Doyle uses the pretext of a raid as a "smokescreen" to enable him to speak to an informant.  Is this a common device in crime shows and movies?  Later in the decade, a similar scene was included in an episode of the British television series "The Professionals". This also begs the question, is the practice a regular one in the real world?

I had also totally forgotten that The Three Degrees make an appearance in a nightclub scene!

Another important, if minor, touch was the decision to include some French dialogue, with subtitles. They add to the authenticity and the realism of the film.

After the absorbing but relatively sedate start to "The French Connection", the pace quickens,  around the point where Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits on the New York subway. The climactic phase commences with the attempt on Doyle's life and the iconic and pulsating chase scenes.

I find some of the scenes towards the end unsettling, this sensation compounded by the contrast with the more measured fare which precedes it. Did the owner of the vehicle commandeered by Doyle receive compensation, I wonder?

Some people might regard the enigmatic ending as unsatisfactory, but on reflection I think that it is in keeping with the edgy and uncompromising nature of the film. "The French Connection" is riveting viewing.  It might not have been appreciated at the time, but in some ways its appearance heralded a golden period for American cinema, and cinema in general.  Its style and tone were at least partially indicative of what was to follow during the remainder of the decade.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Adwalton Moor

I recently read a book about the English Civil War, and wrote a blog post about it:-  Civil War

The book reminded me that there was an English Civil War battlefield almost on my doorstep, at Adwalton Moor in West Yorkshire. I recently visited the site, and took some photographs.

The battle took place in June 1643, and resulted in a victory for the Royalist forces.

On the day of my visit the site was vaguely windswept and the weather decidedly overcast. Somehow this felt more apt than it would have done if it had been a bright and sunny day.

Some of the battlefield appears to have been built on, but the area which remains is surrounded on all sides by all the regular signs of civilization - houses, businesses and a public library.

A reminder of one of the last major domestic upheavals to sweep England.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Rubik's Cube

A few days ago I was seized by the urge to purchase one of these:

Sure enough, earlier today I went out and bought myself one. Strangely enough, during the Rubik's Cube craze of the 1980s, I had my enthusiasm for the whole thing well under control. I owned one of course, but fairly early on in the piece I was somewhat discouraged by the realisation that several of my friends were disturbingly proficient at unlocking the solution to the cube's mysteries. Peer pressure and bragging rights being what they are at that age, I evinced disinterest and apathy, and quietly detached myself.

Now, three decades later, I can truly appreciate the greatness of the cube, its design, and its educational and spiritual benefits. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it was the last truly worthwhile and genuinely substantial "craze" or fad of its type, in that it is indisputably benign and a force for good in the world.