130. THE ROLLING STONES – BETWEEN THE BUTTONS (1967)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Psychedelia, Rock Music

For me, the best Stones album by some distance is Beggars Banquet. Although Brian Jones played a more peripheral part than usual in its creation, it was the last and greatest LP to feature the original five. By the following year the band’s sound, as well as its understanding of itself, had altered irrevocably. After Beggars Banquet, while the highs were often ecstatic ones, much of their music became progressively more hackneyed over time, and while some of their records (particularly those made between 1969 and 1972) are amongst the best and most confident they would ever make, never again would they sound so natural nor exuberant as they did in ’68.

The two albums which preceded BB offer a glimpse into the Stones’ orbit before they became self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’. The dayglo psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, its excesses (of the sonically adventurous kind) perhaps easier to stomach than those (of the dead-eyed smacked out type) of the ‘70s, so candidly chronicled by Nick Kent in Apathy For The Devil.

But TSMR‘s predecessor Between The Buttons is better still, an effervescent pop potpourri which saw them step outside of their R&B roots to incorporate elements of country and western (‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’), baroque (‘Yesterday’s Papers’) and Kinks-ish music hall (‘Cool, Calm & Collected’,’ Something Happened To Me Yesterday’) alongside their first organically psychedelic inflections.

’67 was the strangest year for the Stones. They would make newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons (the famous drug bust at Redlands) and Between The Buttons – while it performed fairly well in the charts (although not as well as Aftermath) – was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent court case. A shame, because it’s one of the very best albums they ever made.

On January 15th they ‘spent some time together’ performing their new AA-sided 45 on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan censored the lyric while Jagger rolled his eyes and deliberately fluffed his lines. As was oft the case, the single cuts (‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday’) were included on the US version of the LP which would be released in February. The UK version, released on 20th January, omitted both. Curiously, when I began building my Stones collection, the US version was more widely available and therefore I didn’t hear the album in the form it was originally intended to be heard, for many years. And when I did, the album finally began to make perfect sense.

The first of the two tracks to make way for the hits on the US version of the LP, contains the kind of embellishments which would remain absent throughout their ’70s oeuvre. ‘Back Street Girl’ sees Jagger lampoon the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, it’s ‘lord of the manor and his mistress’ lyric stapled to one of the Stones’ gentlest melodies, a waltzing companion piece to ‘Lady Jane’, featuring Brian on vibes, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord with Nick de Caro lending some Gallic charm on accordion. “I wrote this in some weird place which I can’t remember. It’s got the feeling of a French cafe about it” Jagger explained to Keith Altham of the NME. Years later, he suggested it was the only song on the album he was happy with. It’s an album he sorely underestimates.

Brian’s fingerprints meanwhile, are everywhere in evidence, pulling the strings and twiddling the knobs on the second of those tracks, the Bo Diddley on (a)steroids runout ‘Please Go Home’. Jones had big plans then, and his interviews always made good copy. “I believe we are moving toward a new age in ideas and events. Astrologically we are at the end of the age called the Pisces age…We are soon to begin the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place”, he told Keith Altham shortly after the album’s release. Maybe one eye was already on the band’s next more explicitly psychedelic project, but those roots were sewn on BTB not only through Brian’s dilettantish peppering of the material with sitars, oscillators and flutes, but also with Keith’s heavily distorted reverb on ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ and the menacing ‘My Obsession’. Sessions were engineered by Dave Hassinger and the hovering dynamics here recall his similarly impressive synchronous work with The Electric Prunes.

On ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ the miraculous interplay between Nitzche’s harpsichord and Jones’ vibraphone hangs like draped finery over Keith’s pulsating generator. Jagger had envisaged the song entirely differently. “It was going to be very straight but it’s ended up donging about all over the place. All tinkling and weird. Charlie said he wanted to think up a weird drum rhythm for it and brought about two dozen different drums into the studio for it, then he asked me if I thought he was getting contrived?” he told the NME at the time. Contrived or not, it is a hugely undervalued gem and for many, the album’s defining moment.

The Stones hadn’t forgotten how to rip it up as evidenced by the delightfully rambunctious ‘Miss Amanda Jones’. ‘All Sold Out’ and ‘Connection’ are feisty little rockers too, the latter’s irresistible staccato guitar riff and prescient lyric anticipating the personal problems to come (“The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect ’em?”), while the former is ’embellished’ with more superb guitar work alongside Jones’ tone deaf recorder. The mid tempo ballad ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ is less successful, possibly the album’s weakest track, and despite Keith’s versatility his efforts to edify the thing with solemn church organ – Jagger claimed the track was “quasi-religious” – are in vain. Even his bass part is bewildering, as if he’s playing on one string, and a broken one at that. One might guess they ran out of time and everyone else had disappeared for the evening.

‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’, a kind of countrified Dylan pastiche, is a peculiar marriage of his mournfully melancholic ‘She Belongs To Me’ with the bawdy ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35′, but against the odds it works splendidly well, with particular credit to Jones’ understated harp playing. It’s also interesting to note the progression from here to ‘No Expectations’ from the following year’s Beggars Banquet. As for the closer, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’, it is one of the oddest songs in the Stones’ canon, and musically at least sounds like an out-take from The Kinks’ Face To Face. As for the subject matter, Jagger was somewhat cryptic: “I leave it to the individual imagination as to what happened. The ending is something I remember hearing on the BBC as the bombs dropped.” A red herring probably – it is more likely to be about his first encounter with LSD. And that experience would of course lead them to unexplored pastures.

It is often overlooked, but Between The Buttons is quirky and ingenious, and if at times a little too polite for some tastes, reassuringly devoid of the rawk posturing to come. It is the Stones’ brightest album, and also their most English – their very own Village Green. (JJ)

 114. NEIL YOUNG (1969)

Country Rock, Greatest Records, Rock Music

The hideous painting on the sleeve was a little off putting to say the least. The song titles too were unfamiliar, but in the top right hand corner the price label read £1.99, so it had to be worth a shot. Yet another bargain from Rebel Records. As soon as I put it on the turntable, it began to crackle away. A good sign. It must have seen some proper service with its previous owner. It’s the unplayed records you want to worry about. But the surface noise could not disguise the fact that something had gone badly wrong with the production – the electric guitar seemed suffocated, its strangulated stabs and squeals occasionally puncturing what sounded like a thick protective quilt. And those trebly tonsils, buried so low in the mix. But here was a record I couldn’t help but fall in love with, and it has been a favourite ever since.

Even I’m not convinced it’s his best album, but it’s almost universal dismissal I find irksome: “a godawful debut”; a “stuttering false start” to his solo career, or at best a mere “prelude to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere“. It’s as if he was saving everything in reserve, gearing up for the real thing, but that rarely happens with debut albums. Popular music is all about the present moment, and by autumn ’68, Neil Young had a point to prove. The wax on the last Buffalo Springfield album had barely had time to dry before Neil Young hit the stores. The cover of Last Time Around told the story of Buffalo Springfield’s sad and premature demise. The photo montage pictured Young positioned with his back to the others, steadfastly facing in the opposite direction as if he could no longer even bear to pretend anymore. Bruce Palmer’s departure in early ’67 had effectively sounded the death knell for the band. Palmer had been, according to Young, the “soul of the band”, if you will,  Buffalo Springfield’s very own Brian Jones. The clash of egos would play out a familiar battle and everything soon fell apart. Last Time Around was a hastily assembled contractual obligation album, but it had in effect delivered Young’s first solo recording to the world, ‘I Am A Child’, which foreshadowed the bedsit folk troubadour of After The Gold Rush.


By August 1968, Young was back in the studio with David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche. It was in many ways a painful time. In Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey, Young recalled: “It was either a lonely experience or a labour of love. I was really glad when it was over, because it was so technical, took so much thinking.”

The instrumental overtures which kick off each side provide scant indication of any ‘labour of love”, at least on Young’s part. The laidback country twang of the first, ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ is matched to a relatively unfussy string arrangement, while the second, the brief Nitzsche-penned ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ only hints at some of the complexity characteristic of the rest of the album.

A more explicit benchmark of the album’s ‘everything bar the kitchen sink’ production, is ‘The Loner’ where strings soar beneath meaty chunks of stomping guitar, at times fizzing like a squadron of mosquitos fighting for air in a glass bottle, which has the subtle acoustic interludes running for cover. There’s s parallel performance on the conquering metallic riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which renders as mere subtext the intricate underlay of piano and organ.

Young has stated that he wished his voice on the record to sound “a million miles away, but right there” and in the floating reverie of ‘I Could Have Her Tonight’ his wish is granted. Barely whispered, it’s unassuming country jangle has a strange little twist in the tail which Television may have lifted for the coda of ‘Torn Curtain’.

Perhaps the most polarising track on the album is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’. Jack Nitzche’s overwrought orchestration often comes in for some criticism, but when Ry Cooder’s languid guitar and Nitzsche’s fluid electric piano ooze into the big soul chorus – take a bow Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones et al – the results are utterly euphoric. It’s simply magnificent.

If Nitzsche’s aspirations were ambitious here, then David Briggs’ contributions were equally so. ‘Here We Are In The Years’ – on the surface a stately ballad – weaves little melodic miracles throughout its patchwork structure and features one of Young’s most earnest vocal performances: “Here we are in the years/Where the showman shifts the gears/Lives become careers/Children cry in fear/Let us out of here!” “We got tones nobody’s ever got, even Hendrix” said Briggs at the time, and here – bizarre moog solo aside – the balance was just about right. Similarly on ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ the arrangements (vibes, electric piano, soul chorus, even woodwind) are well-balanced, pretty and entirely satisfying.

The best tracks more than offset the album’s one blatant misstep, the bumblingly neurotic and supremely self-indulgent nine minute acoustic dirge ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, of which the less said the better.

I am sure I speak not only for myself when I adjudge the best Buffalo Springfield moments to be ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, both transcendent sound collages, as opposed to ‘For What Its Worth’ or Neil’s very own ‘Burned’. That he aimed to crystallise some of that airborne-ness, and twine a few fragments of baroque into the album’s tapestry is most certainly a plus, and not a minus. Neil Young is the last time he would venture quite as boldly in that direction. The great sin from that moment onwards was to ‘overthink’ composing and arranging. That perhaps accounts in part for such a prolific output. Perhaps he was right too, but undoubtedly something  was lost in the process. For the man himself, Neil Young represented a steep learning curve, and if for him it was a failure, for us it was a glorious one. (JJ)

107. HÜSKER DÜ – CANDY APPLE GREY (1986)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Rock Music

By the time they had signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros in early 1986, Hüsker Dü’s implosion was well underway. Tracked by the label for the previous twelve months, the band had opted to remain with indie label SST until the completion of their fourth album Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü had outgrown SST, but the move to Warners didn’t go down well, and as a consequence, any objective critical analysis of their first album for them, Candy Apple Grey, has been rare. In an otherwise formidable canon, it is almost universally regarded as the runt in the litter, falling way short of masterworks such as Zen Arcade. It is time for a reappraisal.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the major label debut album of the beloved independent band almost invariably elicits a hostile response from the hardcore fan. After all, he was there when it all began. He can vividly recall his idols heaving their own gear into some piss-stinking dungeon of a venue where they performed before an audience whose animosity could not have been greater had you announced you’d had intimate liaisons with their mothers the night before. But he was instantly hooked. He bought their first record on the day of its release at the little backstreet indie store, the only one with guts enough to stock it, and he has followed them ever since. Until now that is. Because now they are working for the man. Look at those Johnny-come-latelys wearing those t-shirts emblazoned with the new album sleeve. Where were they three years ago?! You can’t call them real music fans. They are living proof that the incorruptibles have become corrupted. If the only thing Warners are interested in is product and shifting units, it follows logically that the band have the same aspirations. To hell with those corporate whores, and their fawning new legions of gullible lemmings.

It is a peculiar relationship the one between pop star and fan. Many of us at sometime or another, may have borne this conceit. It is a well-worn cliche that rock stars, simply by virtue of their status, have realised their dreams and fantasies. But it is equally true to say that pop fans often inhabit a fantasy world of their own making. It is all inside their heads. Songs and albums may well seem very personal to the listener, a unique meeting of souls. But they are not. They are simply recognisable expressions of one particular aspect of the human condition. A coalescence of timing and circumstance might propel them deep into our subconscious. What might mean nothing to one person, could be the only thing preventing another person from putting an end to it all. Because of that, music can assume a gravitas beyond its rather humble ingredients. But to believe a rock band is one’s own private possession is both extraordinarily deluded and somewhat infantile.

It was to precisely this type of indignant response I first declared my fondness for Hüsker Dü. Occupying one half of an old C90 cassette was a recording of their penultimate album Candy Apple Grey. It was summer 1987, a few months after the release of their heroic double swansong Warehouse: Songs & Stories. The tape had been handed to me by a fellow student – being students we had little money to buy the records themselves – but the scorn he reserved for the album was merciless. In fact he’d only given it to me so I could hear Side Two (if I recall correctly the Homestead compilation, Wailing Ultimate!) “Ignore the other side” he warned. I could not.

The album was created in the most challenging of circumstances. A home movie style video for the Grant Hart penned 45 ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ may have reflected the searing intensity of the band’s live performances, but it was captured at a time when relationships between the trio had broken down irreparably. Personal differences had been growing; Hart’s drug abuse accelerating. At the time Mould was quoted as saying that none of the three wanted to continue, but ironically, the band had reached their commercial zenith. That sense of confusion and disintegration permeates an album often labelled a sell out. But any doubts of musical compromise should have been dispelled for good on the album’s opening track, the finger-shreddingly ferocious ‘Crystal’, where Mould, hoarse with fury, rages at the chaos surrounding him (“When civilization falls in its grave/Technology throws on the dirt/You realize the finest things in life/Are the ones that can never be hurt”). Meanwhile, the guitars in time honoured tradition explode like a coalition of cheetahs leaping through an avenue’s worth of shop windows.

The communication breakdown, which Hart accepts ultimately led to the suicide of the band’s manager David Savoy a year later, allowed greater room for the expression of each individual’s musical and emotional idiosyncrasies, and Candy Apple Grey undoubtedly displays the greatest musical variety of any Hüsker Dü album. In Mould’s case at least, the ensuing turmoil led to the more introverted songwriting style he would follow into his solo career. It is undeniably true that on Candy Apple Grey he frequently sounds in despair, bereft. His energies were at an all time low, but this was misconstrued by fans as a mellowing out. His solo acoustic venture ‘Too Far Down’ (“I’m too far down/I couldn’t begin to smile/Because I can’t even laugh or cry/Because I just can’t do it”) is hardly the product of a singer seeking a wider audience. If Hüsker Dü had always struck a fine balance between melody and discord – it was the tempo which was unrelenting – they also possessed a more sensitive melancholic dimension to their sound. Consider ‘Perfect Example’ and ‘Celebrated Summer’ from New Day Rising, or even ‘Diane’ way back on the Metal Circus EP. No, these slower songs are the sound of people having to get to grips with the very real challenges of life, the turgid reality of having to work alongside people you once loved but can no longer look in the eye, and even, no matter how banal it sounds, with the life-work balance. The band’s output had been prolific, they had become exhausted by an unforgiving touring schedule. And their personal lives were unravelling. On ‘Hardly Getting Over It’, a song he continues to perform today, Mould reflected upon his awareness of the impact of loss and bereavement in his own life. “My parents didn’t even mention my grandfather’s passing to me for months, for whatever reason. Presumably it would upset me.” It was a heartfelt confessional, but all people heard was the volume reduction. The sound may indeed have been quieter, but the message sang loud and clear .

The band’s bastardisation of The Byrds’ folk-rock is most obvious on Hart’s ‘Dead Set On Destruction’, while his ‘Sorry Somehow’, the album’s second 45 is much more immediate, belying its author’s fragile psychological state. While the bitterness in the sentiment is acute (“There’s no need to talk to you, well to know what’s on your mind/There’s no need to see you either, no, I’m just being kind/You want me to beg forgiveness, tender an apology/It’s not my fault and you’re not getting one from me”), it’s infectious and muscular Hammond-driven riff seems perfectly tailored for alt-college radio. It is interesting to note that college rock darlings, fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements, had signed to a major label (Sire – also distributed by Warners) shortly before Hüsker Dü, yet there has never been any charge of ‘sell out’ levelled at The ‘Mats’ first major offering, Tim.

On ‘No Promise Have I Made’ Hart was accused of sailing perilously close to the bombastic coastline -over a skin of shivering cymbals and an automotive synth sounding like a multi-tracked vocal, its epic piano motif builds to an ecstatic climax powered by Greg Norton’s Herculean bass riff while at the finale Hart thrillingly hammers home the point orally as well as physically with emphatic angst.

Out of chaos occasionally emerges something beautiful, honest and true. If songs like ‘Crystal’, ‘Eiffel Tower High’ and ‘All This I’ve Done For You’ would have fit comfortably onto New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey delivers a broader palette, reflecting a depth of emotional involvement unmatched elsewhere on any other HD album. As individuals they were suffering but growing up too, perhaps against their will. The case for the album being a sell out simply doesn’t hold water. It is a wounded bewildered beast, certainly without thematic unity, but made entirely without compromise. It is the album Hüsker Dü would have delivered no matter which label was pressing the vinyl. Time has been kind to its shortcomings. So should you. (JJ)

88. NEU! – NEU! ’75 (1975)

Greatest Records, Krautrock, Rock Music
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If music is often a portrait of the life of the artist, then it may sometimes bear the wounds and scars of the complex nature of human relationships; even at times, of the differences musicians experience working together. If that can lead to albums being abandoned mid-recording, it can also occasionally result in the creation of transcendent pieces of art. Think of ‘The Beatles’ or Spacemen 3’s ‘Recurring'(featured in TNPC #51). But rarely has any album borne witness to this possibility more transparently than ‘Neu! ’75’.
In late 1974, when he entered the studio to record Neu!’s third album, Michael Rother was 23 years old. It is no exaggeration to say that by that stage in his short career, he and Klaus Dinger had already rewritten the future of popular music. They might not have known it, and Rother may even feel faintly embarrassed by the suggestion, but it is virtually impossible to talk about the music Neu! produced in the early 1970s without introducing to the discussion references to the profusion of artists and musicians who have borne their influence directly or indirectly. From contemporaries such as Hawkwind, Eno and of course Bowie, through PiL and Joy Division, to 80s synth bands such as Ultravox (who worked with Neu!’s producer Conny Plank) and The Human League, through to the post-rock landscapes of Stereolab, Tortoise, Mogwai and The Sea & Cake, they can boast legions of admirers.
At its root this was music without a past, and as a consequence, it constructed the future. But buried in its grooves, ‘Neu! ’75’  bore the DNA of the divergent paths Rother and Dinger had taken in the intervening three years since they had last collaborated (on ‘Neu! 2’). Rother had fully immersed himself in his latest project Harmonia (with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius). It was a project from which Dinger possibly felt excluded. If ultimately Harmonia was a failure on a commercial level, nevertheless it was artistically a tremendously rewarding one for Rother, and something with which he was aesthetically very satisfied. The time with Moebius and Roedelius had not been wasted, nurturing in a period of creative growth, during which his musical horizons expanded immeasurably.
By contrast, during the same period in question, Dinger had travelled to London in order to seek more media exposure for Neu!. With the exception of some additional air play from John Peel, his efforts were largely fruitless. Likewise, his own project, the fledgling Dingerland record label, had collapsed leaving him bankrupt. At the same time his girlfriend Anita (the ‘love of his life’) left him. Disillusioned and filled with rage, Dinger re-entered the studio with Rother to complete together their third LP for Brain, the dreaded contractual obligation album.
It is a schizophrenic creation. Unlike say Bowie’s ‘Low’, where the two sides of the album simply differ stylistically, here we have the two protagonists moving in completely opposite directions, so much so that they compromised on composing one side of music each. Despite this, Rother and Dinger were possessors of sufficient fingerspitzengefühl, alongside a virtually telepathic understanding, enabling them to contribute selflessly to the other’s compositions. For example, Rother plays guitar on Dinger’s ‘Hero’ and Dinger plays keys on ‘Leb Wohl’ perhaps the two songs which capture best their sonic polarisation. Neu! as an entity, could probably not have lasted any longer than it did at the time. The differences, musical and personal were too great to bridge. Dinger was aided in his efforts by Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe who played drums on his side of the album allowing him to focus on guitar. That the album was as brilliant as it was is truly remarkable given the circumstances.
The Music:

‘Isi’ / Rother – Michael, enthused by his experiments with Harmonia, procures a crisper and more joyous sound – this possesses a lightness of touch – the simple  recurring piano motif – and features a trebly keyboard line which points forward to the electro pop of Depeche Mode and OMD. Musically, clearly a descendant ‘Hallogallo’, but simultaneously dancing into the future.

‘Seeland’/ Rother: there’s a greater emphasis on synths and keys on the album; at times Michael’s guitar creeps back into the shadows. Here however, his brooding, patient playing creates a solemn ghostly sound. Listen to this and then play ‘The Overload’ from ‘Remain In Light’ – Eno was clearly smitten. There’s a (subconscious) Eastern influence too. The track has been criticised for ‘not going anywhere’ but the patient, hypnotic groove is mesmerising as is the inventiveness of the atmospheric wash of guitars.

‘Leb’ Wohl’ / Rother: Rother and Dinger shared a mutual love of natural sounds, but if  Dinger was more likely to cultivate an aggressive confrontational noise, some may say proto-punk, then Michael was by the same token proto-ambient. Here the music anticipates the experiments of Eno, Harold Budd and David Toop  with a chilled out concoction of ocean sounds and minimalist piano (possibly by Dinger), the whole thing breathing and groaning  like the great Aum of existence. And with a title such as Leb’ Wohl’ (‘Farewell’) who knows if it was possibly Rother’s goodbye hymn to Klaus.

‘Hero’ / Dinger: Klaus, raging at providence unleashes a tirade against Anita, the press, the record company and Lord knows who else. “Your only friend is music until your dying day/Your only friend is music/And you’re just another hero riding through the night/Riding through the city, trying to lose your fight…Fuck the press/Fuck your progress, fuck the press/Fuck the company, fuck the company/Your only friend is money.” If it had been released in 1977, it would have made more sense. And more money perhaps. Some say it was the inspiration for Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ but listen to ‘Red Sails’ off Lodger for an even closer comparison. Oh, and listen to Johnny Rotten too, I’m sure his ears must have been seduced by Dinger’s histrionics.
‘E-Musik’ / Dinger: Klaus utilises all that destructive energy, channelling it into the creation of an ‘Autobahn’/ ‘Sister Ray’ hybrid for the 1970s (and possibly the 80s/90s for good measure). The ‘E’ in question does not stand for ecstasy, but for Ernste (so this reads ‘serious music’) – perhaps symptomatic of Klaus’ frustrations at Neu!’s relatively modest critical and commercial standing at the time? [Trainspotter alert: Deerhunter sampled the little keyboard riff at 5:42 for ‘He Would Have Laughed’]. But what really stands out here is the brilliant use of phasing in the percussion – a new and significant development in the Neu! Sound, and the way the rhythm dies off into nothingness at the end, blown away by the wind; providing temporary respite before…
‘After Eight’ / Dinger: Almost their most conventional rock’n’roll moment with Dinger’s guitar revv-ing it up like Manzanera kicking off on ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. Not perhaps entirely representative of Neu!’s sound but a psychotic discharge which provides an aural snapshot of Dinger’s state of mind at the time. (JJ)

Special Feature: TNPC interviews MICHAEL ROTHER

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL ROTHER
Rother on Dinger, Kraftwerk, Harmonia and the Bowie Project that never was. (With thanks to Tim Sommer for helping guide some of the Qs)

TNPC: Your influence on modern music has undoubtedly been far-reaching. Did you and Klaus ever envisage that you would have such a pioneering role in the development of rock music?

MR: The truth is that I never really bothered with thinking about the future or thinking about what influence the music could have. I worked from day-to-day. Now, looking back, maybe I thought about these things, but on the other hand I knew it could have distracted me from what I wanted to do. It was really the joy of experimentation – the ambition was really to create music that was our own. Klaus was certainly as ambitious as I was. We never spoke about it really; we just went into the studio and did it.

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TNPC: I am particularly interested in how you would assess your influence upon Kraftwerk, the most celebrated German band of all. It seems clear that after you and Klaus were invited to join them in 1971, they never sounded the same after that collaboration…

MR: I joined Kraftwerk in  1971, February or March. Klaus and I formed Neuafter we were in Kraftwerk. I didn’t know the band Kraftwerk. I was working in a mental hospital but by chance ended up in the Kraftwerk studio with another guitar player who had been invited, and I joined with Ralf Hutter – it was a revelation for me to notice that I wasn’t alone in this approach to ‘music without roots’, which instead focused on a tradition of central European music in the melody and the harmony. That was very surprising for me. I think Ralf and I over the years probably watched what the other was doing with some respect. I know from talking with my friend Karl Bartos, who was in Kraftwerk for 14 years, that Ralf Hutter and he jammed to my track’ Karussell’ [from ‘Flammende Herzen’, Rother’s first solo studio album] in the Kraftwerk studio, so I think they enjoyed my approach to music. Of course they had amazing success when they released ‘Autobahn’, which was quite a step forward – although I really love the first three Kraftwerk albums and don’t really understand why people don’t see these as realKraftwerk albums. I think the influence must have been equally in both directions, not one way. It is clear that Ralf Hutter, if you look at the melodies he created, and mine, we would always be able to just play along without talking. I was very strict about what was possible and not possible as a melody/note. 

You can’t imagine how difficult it was to find people who were on the same path in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Nearly everyone I knew was still so influenced by only British and American music of the time and still stuck to that system. Florian [Schneider] was also a huge influence on me when I played with him and Klaus Dinger in Kraftwerk, although maybe not musically that much, but I was very impressed by the great flute treatments he did and the amazing permutations he produced when we performed live. It is a fact that is not noticed by the sound recording engineers on The Beat Club performance – my guitar is way too loud; they didn’t understand how important the crazy stuff was to the sound. I would have mixed it in a different way.

There was a great connection with Ralf Hutter on a musical level. Based on working with Conny Plank, it’s clear to see the influence of Neuon UK & US bands of later years. Also, when I met Eno in 1974, he mentioned how much he liked our music and how he and Bowie enthusiastically exchanged their ideas and views about our music back then

TNPC: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the impetus to create music ‘without roots’, although I think I read somewhere of your admiration for the 1960s guitar heroes and so on. Neverthelessthere is an absence of traditional western music (blues etc). Might there have been other more avant-garde influences, such as John Cage, LaMonteYoung, Tony Conrad or The Velvet Underground – or did you not hear these people until much later?

MR: I think this is not really true for me. I was the youngest of that whole group of people. My situation was that I really threw away everything as much as I could. Of course you cannot erase your memory, but I did my best intellectually to avoid picking up any ideas, clichés of music that I’d heard until then. Of course, the guitar heroes, The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Clapton and Cream and so on – I still have much respect for those people, and from time to time, when I hear a song by them I am still blown away, like a few years ago when I was in Dublin and I stumbled along the road and ‘You Really Got Me’ was blasting out, I just got goosebumps again…

My girlfriend at the time already listened to The Velvet Underground. She was more into listening to music. I stopped. In the path I was on it was important to ‘stop listening’ and to try to avoid this. I know the minimalists you talk of were an influence on a lot of the people I worked with, so their influence reached me through other musicians but not directly. I remember once seeing Terry Riley and I remember seeing a German film from the late 1960s – there was a track by The Velvet Underground, ‘Waiting For The Man’ I think was the title, and I remember being moved by the flow of that music, Mo Tucker obviously, that kind of…duh-doh-da-do-do-do-do-do…[imitates rhythm] –  is very close to my heart. But I wouldn’t call it an influence, more a similarity, this idea of forward reaching music that looks out to the horizon, not just the next few yards.

TNPC: In your quest to create something ‘new’ you clearly wilfully avoided listening to too much music, and the Neualbums are certainly exemplars of a new approach to music. Was there a ‘eureka’ moment when you realised one chord was enough?

MR: I don’t think there was this kind of moment. It grew. It started when we played live with Kraftwerk. There was no harmonic change when we played live, it was just on one level and the details happened with the dynamics – starting slowly, relax, building up tension, going through the ceiling at the end, just going wild, and when we recorded the first Neualbum, if you look at tracks like ‘Hallogallo’ which is such a puzzle really – I don’t know how that came together – but it was spontaneous music. Klaus and I had a vision which we had together; this idea of music just running forward and then some of my elec-lines just flying on top – but how that really turned out was the result of very spontaneous decisions and some fortunate things happening, like the wonderful feedback I had on my guitar in the studio which enabled those long long notes, and of course Conny Plank’s amazing skill at catching the most important parts. He was great at that. He had nothing – a reverb plate, a limiter, a tape machine for short delay – that was it, so the whole organisation of the music was of course the result of what we played in the studio, but the way he constructed the final sounds was so impressive.

TNPC: Can I ask you about the first three Neu! albums, in terms of the progression in the music? Sometimes when I listen to ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Für Immer’ and ‘Isi’ from ’75, you can note the similarity there, but often when I hear ‘Neu! 2’ it almost sounds too adventurous, in the way the tempo of the music changes, speeding up, slowing down – there are lots of ideas floating around. By the time you get to the third album it sounds like you have really hit your stride. There is space for long silences, you can press the noise button at times, there is great variation. Were you and Klaus moving in different directions and really becoming different artists, or had you just reached a point where you were connecting very well?

MR: Well, after ‘Neu! 2’ I started the project Harmonia which took me into completely new fields. I cannot imagine composing or recording tracks like ‘Isi’ and ‘Seeland’ without working first with Moebius and Roedelius [of Cluster] in between. I was able to learn more about music going back and forward with Neu! and Harmonia.

On ‘Neu! 2’ the two sides of the album are quite different. What we wanted to do, well Klaus isn’t around anymore and he may have some other points to stress about this; we certainly didn’t agree on many things. I am actually quite convinced that what we wanted to do was something like ‘Für Immer’. We would have done something like ‘Für Immer’ on both sides, but it took us too long to record all those items. Neu! 2’ was recorded on 16-track as opposed to 8-track on the first album. I got carried away, adding backwards guitars, forwards guitars, backwards pianos, sideways, all those colours which are fun and are hung up are important for the picture – particularly for something like ‘Für Immer’, but at the end we didn’t have the time for all that because we didn’t have enough money. We paid the studio out of our own pockets. And so, we sort of realised we had only one night shift left and we still needed to finish the whole second side! So those experiments were the result of very spontaneous decisions around ‘what can we do to end up with a complete album here?’ Of course the critics hated it. The fans thought we were making fun of them. People did not really accept it. The perception of the second side has changed dramatically over the last 30-40 years. I am not sure if all people want to hear the needle jump and scratch! It certainly turned my stomach around when Klaus kicked the turntable. I thought these experiments, slowed down music, backwards music – I was quite sure that people would stop following us – they were not ready for this at the time. The two tracks ‘Super’ and ‘Neuschnee’, the original tracks, they stand out – that’s what we really wanted to do. We really wanted those on the album, because the record company hadn’t cared about promoting the single. They didn’t. We pressed the single on them. They didn’t want to have one. So that’s the explanation for the second side of ‘Neu! 2’

TNPC: You say that people ‘hated’ the second side of ‘Neu! 2’. More generally, how successful were you in Germany at the time – in terms of sales and so on? The albums were long unavailable in the UK and were the kind of thing you had to pay good money for if you were fortunate enough to find them at record fairs. They were treasure items but success would have been limited here in the UK, at least until the renewal of interest in your music more recently. But in Germany, were you quite successful from the beginning?

MR: Well that always depends on the scale I suppose. There were many many musicians in Germany making pop music and selling hundreds of times the numbers, but in my view the first Neualbum was a real success and we made really nice money. I mean I wasn’t interested in buying stuff. I was happy simply with the freedom some money in the pocket could give me. But the money from Neumade it possible for me to help the project Harmonia, which was a commercial disaster! Compared to Neu!, Harmonia was nothing. People did not enjoy our music. It was terrible at the time, so difficult to survive, not only economically but also emotionally. I mean I loved the music from Harmonia. I didn’t understand and couldn’t make sense of why one was loved and one ignored. Of course, I’m so happy to see in recent years the recognition Harmonia is getting. It’s so sad that Dieter Moebius passed away last year. He was involved in all the decisions until the very end. Only two weeks before he died he thanked me for my work because I was the one who did all the work, because he was too weak by then, and Roedelius was busy with his own projects. But Harmonia was always something that came from my heart. I owe them I don’t know how much. I couldn’t have done Flammende  Herzen and my solo work and also ‘Neu‘75’ without having spent those three years working with Moebius and Roedelius.

TNPC: Often Klaus is portrayed as the angrier of you. He is seen to have had the more punk temperament, and that perhaps musically you are seen to be the one creating landscapes around the metronomic/motorik rhythms he created. At least that is the way people often perceive Neu!, but I was wondering if your musical relationship was more fluid than that. Did your contributions cross over and overlap more than some imagine?

MR: It’s not black and white for sure, much more complex. Klaus once said, maybe ten years ago “Michael and I had a blind understanding in music” – a bit romantic I think but it comes close to the truth. We never had to discuss music, but both admired and respected each other’s contributions. I loved his drumming style, his artistic inspirations. I did not really enjoy his personality to be honest. He could not be my friend. I could not have people like that as friends, but as soon as we made music it was great. He was such an impressive, strong drummer. Obviously I can’t say what Klaus would say now, but I think he felt the same positive way about my contributions, and we met in the middle. He had a heart for melody; maybe not…as…’talented’ [laughs]- but the same is true for me with the rhythms – I also played rhythm guitar – it’s not only Klaus doing the rhythms, it’s also me, but he was in that respect more ‘talented’ than I am.

TNPC: And did he therefore, when punk came along embrace that more fully than you?

MR: Oh yes, Klaus always had a very different way – to do with his personality, his upbringing, with the things that did not go his way. If something goes wrong for me, I’m sad but I try to make sense of it and work around it, but with Klaus, he became furious, angry, would blame other people for things which he was also responsible for. Yeah, Klaus was the punk. I never was a punk. Klaus would often say: “I was never a punk. They copied me!” 

TNPC: I can hear your influence Michael in a lot of the post-punk music. ‘Seeland’ for instance from ‘75’ – you can hear Eno lifting the idea for ‘The Overload’ on ‘Remain In Light’ but more generally that patient, building, brooding sound in Joy Division and other bands. But I also hear an Eastern influence on ‘Seeland’. I wonder if that was to do with your time in Pakistan – did you accommodate those influences as well?

MR: Not purposely, but I can remember being blown away by the music – I have a soft spot in my heart for Indian hypnotic music, like The Ali Brothers –  I have a wonderful CD of recordings of classical Indian raga – actually two Pakistani men and an orchestra. Intellectually, I would think my heart for music must be a mixture of Chopin (from my mother), Bach maybe also, Little Richard and Indian music; then mix in a little Jimi Hendrix and Beatles.

TNPC: There are a lot of organic, natural or found sounds (wind, tidal waves etc). Was that aspect your idea?

MR: Well, maybe it’s a cheap trick – to add drama! Both Klaus and I agreed on that. I love water, the sound of heavy rain, thunderstorms, and of the wind blowing the music away. I don’t want to say and I don’t want to lie about who took what sound or proposed which at a certain point. ‘Hero’ of course was a track that Klaus brought in – I brought in ‘Seeland’ and  ’Isi’ –  and a wonderful example of the amazing energy he could create with his music – and a good example also of the frustrations he felt. We did not talk about this, but I knew that he was very unhappy about the situation – so many things were wrong in his life: the record company, the label that he started going bankrupt; his girlfriend going away. You can hear it in the lyrics. It was the first take, spontaneous. We did the backing tracks together, we recorded the guitars and the drums, and then he went to the microphone and sang the lyrics and belted them away. He tried to improve upon this in the second recording, but that was more organised, but less powerful, so Conny Plank and I were sure about the first take being the right one. It is one of the most impressive expressions I know and one of my favourite Neutracks.

TNPC: Often people say Bowie stole it for ‘Heroes’ of course but I think there is a song on ‘Lodger’ (’Red Sails’) which is more like ‘Hero’ than ‘Heroes’. But obviously Bowie and Eno were borrowing heavily from you during that time…

MR: Well you know that David wanted me to play along on what on what became ‘Heroes’. Somebody prevented that from happening. I did not turn him down.

TNPC: It’s often reported that you declined the invitation, but you can set the record straight…

MR: We were both very enthusiastic and then his manager called and something had gone wrong on his side, not mine.

TNPC: Perhaps you regret this, or do you believe things turn out the way they are supposed to turn out? Even still, might there be a sadness that the opportunity to work with him did not arise?

MR: I don’t know. It was a thrilling time. It was between ‘Flammende Herzen’ and ‘Sterntaler’. My career was taking off. I was having so much success and recognition suddenly. I earned enough money to enable me to buy my own professional recording studio here. I felt like a small child getting a train set. But I was still surprised to get this last phone call from someone from his staff saying ‘You don’t have to come, David doesn’t need you anymore.’ I thought ‘that’s strange’ – we had been so enthusiastic, looking forward to the collaboration, but then I just went into the studio and recorded ‘Sterntaler’ and if I listen to ‘Heroes’ now, it is obvious that Robert Fripp did a great job. So no regrets but still a mystery. You know it took something like 25 years for me to realise there was something wrong, because he started saying in interviews that “Unfortunately, Michael turned me down”. But maybe he was fooled. Maybe someone took liberty in making decisions for him (“We don’t want this crazy German”) You know that his sales were dropping dramatically back then. These experimentations were not popular with David’s fans. “These crazy Germans guys won’t help us make money.”

TNPC: You are going out on tour, Japan in July – back to Glasgow in September – what can the fans expect when you are performing?

rother

MR: The billing says it – it will be a mixture of tracks by Neu!, Harmonia and from my solo work. I  guess I am still enjoying playing this fast forward kind of music, just rushing down the road and running to the horizon. This is something I love doing live now. In recent years I have done some film scoresmelodic and abstract music, but playing live, I like to feel the energy. When I played in China 18 months ago, I was totally fascinated to experience the crowd. I didn’t know what to expect but they went wild, jumping around inside the venue, they were so excited. The joy and the positive energy was something to behold, and that is what I intend to bring to Glasgow.

85. NEXT – THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND (1973) Guest Contributor: Robert King (Scars)

Greatest Records, Rock Music

  
It may appear that I have written very few words about the Sensational Alex Harvey Band album ‘Next‘, but in truth I should not say anything. This album is a building-block in my life and also in my development as a musician. It taught me that both extreme raucousness and violins could work, and also that a Scottish accent can make a song sound compelling at the very least. I have, on occasion, been compared with Mr. Harvey, but in my estimation he always precedes me. I am no copyist, I just have a similar accent and for that matter, perhaps enthusiasm.

Anyway, notes on ‘N.E.X.T.’
Never in order, but ordered in no order:

“Let me be your swampsnake ’till the real one comes along”. The listener doesn’t know it yet, but the real one is the laconic voice full of delicious malevolence which seems to celebrate everything your parent ever hated. Thus opens the Sensational Alex Band’s second album. An easy blues with a snide smile towards the contempt that the camp has for the attempt at legit. Fuck it! Easy shit but good.

Gang Bang is essentially a Mott The Hoople song with what are today considered questionable lyrics. Oddly the protagonist is female. Or… is that just another male fantasy?

Next. What can one say? His band performed this never having heard the original. Who followed whom? It is obvious from Zal’s facial excursions on The Old Grey Whistle Test that he connected with the performance of the song in such a way that was to truly identify SAHB. This odd adventure book full of the bizarre, but . . . The TV version is one of the greatest TV performances ever.

Faith Healer. .. … . .. … He did put his hand upon me. On a few occasions at gigs. I made sure of that. This song, from my emotion in 1974? was one of violence. A gang song. Simply. Should I analyse the song? I don’t think I should, because then I would be pointing out the stuff that is out of time and the over-use of the compressor… in my opinion. I just like it.

Vambo Marble-eye. Funky thumping start with that out of control controlled shout that the Mr Alex does. Gang song. A period in the seventies when the short T-Shirt that revealed the belly indicated you were a casual. Vambo rules! (Robert King)

64. T. REX – RIDE A WHITE SWAN (1972) Guest Contributor – Johny Brown (Band of Holy Joy)

Greatest Records, Rock Music

  Proper albums would follow: Aladdin Sane, Psychomodo, For Your Pleasure, The Slider etc. This was the first record though. The first long playing record that I had bought on my own terms, using my own money to furnish my own, budding, and quite contrary, taste. Ride A White Swan, on the dreaded and much derided Music For Pleasure label. It cost 72 of the new pence and was bought from a Woolworth’s in Nottingham whilst on a family holiday. I was 11 years of age. It was 1972.

It wasn’t remotely proper in the proper sense of what a proper album constituted, it’s impropriety stemming from the fact of it being a tacky cash-in compilation of old material between the cool label Fly and general industry chancer MFP to cash in on Marc Bolan’s newly found superstar success. No matter, I was instantly smitten by the maven weave of magic and dream that flowed out of the grooves.

I loved this first record to death, lost it and found it and then lost it again, and I had quite forgotten about it I must say, until a week or so ago when doing a Marsha Hunt inspired you-tube surf I was confronted by an image of the lurid and hyped Ride A White Swan cover.

It was a bit of a shock to say the least, and I clicked on the link with a bit of trepidation, wondering how it would sound after all these years. No worries though. It was the same raw beautiful sound of youthful memory that bellowed out. Better in fact: it lit up a drab autumnal week and put some proper fire into the leaves falling onto the pavements outside. I posted an Instagram of the cover on Facebook and quite a few other bods said the same thing – it was their first record and much loved after all these years. Way to go MFP!

Things got better still when Ant Cook of the quite superb Church of Elvis emailed to say he had a spare vinyl copy and would trade. Within two days I had the record in my possession and I’ve played it every free moment since. I’m not even going to try to be objective here. In fact, indulge me please as I head into the direction of gush overdrive. I just have out and out love for this record, and for the fourth or fifth time in my life, it’s hit me like a new infatuation. Here are a few thoughts…

Let’s start with that sleeve. The fabulous purple cover with ultra pink pumped lettering promises a kind of tacky magic. It says T.REX on the sleeve; this is of course a bit of a misnomer, as most songs here should be credited to the earlier Tyrannosaurus Rex incarnation. Made no difference to me at the time and indeed only served as a portal to discovering Bolan’s earlier work. I’m not going to quibble now either: the sleeve still looks magnificent and trashy and casts a weird spell upon the room. How about the music, the sound, the songs, the word, the voice?

The album itself begins with two absolutely monumental pop big hitters in Ride A White Swan and Deborah. This is Bolan at his seductive best, harnessing rock and pop and great surreal poetic couplets to ride out a flight of mad fancy. It’s a ride of cosmic insanity that carries you along all the way as Marc exhorts us to ‘wear a tall hat like a Druid in the old days, say a few spells and baby there you go’ Both songs still sound strong today and serve to put a spring in the step and a cheeky notion in mind.

Two reverb drenched mythical ballads Child Star and Cat Black follow. Child Star seems to be about some kind of Tibetan Wunderkid waiting in exile to return to his country. I’m probably wrong on the Tibetan Wunderkid front. Bolan sets out such a fantastic terrain it’s easy to populate it with mythical beings of your own imagination.

Cat Black is simply beautiful, it employs a classic rock and roll / doo wop chord structure to sing a hymn of lovelorneliness to a supremely distant hippy chick who I’d guess might be Marsha Hunt.  I’m probably wrong again, but I don’t think that matters at all with these songs, they are all wide open to interpretation. Maybe bringing Marsha Hunt to mind is just an excuse to recommend you go on You Tube and search out her sublime cover of Walk on Gilded Splinters, or indeed her take on Stacey Grove.

Conesuela is next, followed by Strange Orchestra, and such a strange orchestra it is too. I have never thought of these songs as overtly psychedelic or psyche despite their cosmic allusions and punk drive, rather it’s kind of a weird ecstatic pop the act forges, never quite druggy but always mystic with one eye firmly on the important teenage things of the day like fast women, smart cars and streamlined clothes. Bolan’s singing often seems both rushed and slurred with a kind of drugged excitement though, and I like that. I like that I can’t always understand the words: again, it allows my own interpretations to flourish. Peregrine Took’s percussion is frantic and intense and propels the sound on in great skittering surges. Mickey Finn was a bit more laid back in the later incarnation. All of them beyond good looking: style-saturated Ladbroke Grove cats, which adds extra pop dust to the starry mix.

Lofty Skies is one of the greatest songs ever, a visionary heroic love song that always inspired a kind of Northern Mysticism on cold winter mornings when I was 19, looking for another world through Magic Mushrooms and Liebfraumilch, and then later in London, in the early hours of coming down off a speed fuelled night, the song always pointed to some other wilful and more Wyrd world beyond this stupid one. I was always prone to a bit of astral flight and imbued with cosmic yearning. Never quite managed the corkscrew hair mind…

Mucho silliness yes, Narnia Glam Racket indeed and pure wilful cosmic escapism without a shadow of a doubt and, all the better for it. Lofty Skies is blessed with one of the greatest wah wah guitar solos ever and I’m happy to report that all these decades later it stands. The whole record in fact sounds better to me now than it did then, makes more sense, fires the spirits, sends new shivers, in a purely different older way of course. The crushed velvet has faded but the fist heart mighty dawn dart remains strong and true and hey…

King Of The Rumbling Spires is magnificent and tribal, tremulously so, with a chorus that makes you feel ten foot tall and ready to be like the true ruler of Narnia, or the outside bet in Game of Thrones and yeah, this monster song, really takes off when the mellotron kicks in. The album ends with the deranged rural boogie of Elemental Child with dance, dancers a dancing as a truly rocking Bolan lays bare the torch girl of the marshes. The songs as a whole have me bopping around the room and Bolan’s voice transports me and even now as a grown man I swoon to a croon that is rare velvet, and as precious and as fragile. Gorgeous!

What I love most about this album listening to it now, are all the clicks and trills and whoops and bangs that flicker through Tony Visconti’s production. These sounds are probably not things that I would have picked up on at the time. The sonic blast has enlightened some blank days of late and transported me to other spaces awhile. He lords it over this record in a manner similar to the way Martin Hannet did with Unknown Pleasures. His use of strings, effects and organs turns every song into a mini pop odyssey. Fuck it, it’s 7 30am and I’m going to play it again, right now, loud.

I lost track of my copy after leaving home but weirdly enough came across it again around 1990 when Band Of Holy Joy played the legendary Surfers club in Tynemouth and I took a pre gig browse in a car boot sale, and found it, with my name written on the insert, and along the balloon typography, much like ‘Andy’s’ on the You Tube post.

The cost that time was 50p and 20p admission fee, so 2p cheaper than the first time around. With all the moving about I’ve done in London I soon lost it again mind and along with my lost copy of Prince Far I’s Under Heavy Manners, the early Pistols and Banshees and some Bowie bootlegs, it was always the slab of cardboard and vinyl I wish I still owned. All of them have the same depth of wonder and perpetrate similar crude sonic magic. Which is always what I look for and want in any piece of music. This time around it cost me a copy of Land Of Holy Joy and I’m determined to hold on to it for a few more years yet. I know one thing, it’s came into my life again at a good time. It is a record that has magic in spades, and stars in buckets, a shiny truth in every glam grain of sand, it’s an exotic treasure of the popular past washed up on the drab shoreline of my present, and for that I’m grateful. Major thanks to both Ant Cook and Marsha Hunt for bringing it back into my life. (Johny Brown)

Click here for our review of The Band Of Holy Joy’s brilliant debut ‘More Tales From The City’:

https://thenewperfectcollection.com/2015/02/13/the-band-of-holy-joy-more-tales-from-the-city-1987/

62. HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)
It’s been widely accepted for some time now that “indie” has become a completely meaningless term, yet still the notion and concept persist.
Leaving aside the factual definition of a small record company’s business model and distribution method, the idea of indie-as-genre first evolved from Stiff, Factory, Step Forward and unnumbered others taking the practical step of recording, financing and distributing their own music to maintain it on their own terms and to pre-empt likely, though by no means inevitable, rejection by the majors of sounds that were in the main untutored and untroubled by anxiety over chart placings  or courting the approval of a music establishment that was even sleazier and more putrid than had been apparent at the time.
At this point, the sound of indie labels was a loose, labyrynthine but endlessly rewarding aggregation of punk, electronics, R & B (another term to have since mutated beyond recognition), funk and myriad other items tipped into the soup.
Sometime around 1985, the definition was put on a far tighter rein – mirroring the retreat of the best mainstream pop from loose-limbed adventurism to lumpen, profit-chasing garishness – and indie came to mean guitar-based music in thrall to either the Byrds and post-Cale Velvet Underground on one hand or Captain Beefheart on the other. The former definition became preeminent and solidified at the end of the decade with the precipitous rise of the preposterously overrated Stone Roses, a good band – nothing more, nothing less – completely unequal to the ludicrous hosannas  made on their behalf.
With the arrival of those who haplessly aped the even more overestimated Oasis, what had previously set this music apart from the mainstream – adventure, openness, empathy, quest – had been whittled down to a proscribed set of approved sounds and postures which resulted in utterly unremarkable music and which  came to be known by the 21st century as landfill indie, though I crave the indulgence of offering my own coinage –  I called it Gumby indie, as its oafish grunting unavoidably reminded me of the same in the Monty Python creations.
By the middle of the millennium’ first decade, Arctic Monkeys were perceived as the stationery-shovers but while they were several cuts above the sludge, owing in no small part to Alex Turner’s lyrical dexterity, they still weren’t quite what was needed. Around the same time, the saviours indie didn’t know it had quietly appeared – from Sydney, Howling Bells.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why they grabbed hold of the essence of this music when so many others hadn’t even come close. It’s an indefinable quality- there may once have been a time when I’d have felt able to call it the X factor without blanching – but it involves things like style, panache, a sense of dynamics and, quite simply, a strong feel for songwriting and melody. The absence of these things isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – some of the greatest music ever made has had little tune to speak of – but if you’re just going to make a noise, you’d better have some substance to it and the sheer gormlessness of so much of what was peddled meant it held so few surprises and made so few demands on the listener that it barely seemed to exist.
And so Howling Bells and their dense, layered sound – which supports the songs rather than hanging around on its own – slotted briefly but perfectly into the formidable roster of Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union for their first album. The cover art reflects what lies inside – an illustration of an owl in a tree being pursued, with nefarious intent, from a ladder; it’s such an authentic French-and-American-revolution period pastiche that I was surprised to discover it was actually commissioned for the album and, similarly, Howling Bells grapple so skilfully with their largely ’80s/early ’90s influences that it seems of a piece with them, while still being unmistakably 21st century.
Take opener The Bell Hit, which has an almost stage musical feel, a doleful intro (curiously reminiscent of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days – or, if you prefer, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, the Russian folk song it’s based on) giving way to a jazzy sashay which could support an unwelcome singalong in the wrong circumstances but, left to its own devices, casts a sunburst into the sorrowfil refrain “Promises are empty in a world of empty bliss.”
There’s palpable contrast in Low Happening – the first of the album’s four singles- where two of the more obvious Howling forebears, Pixies and PJ Harvey, swerve around each other in brilliant discord on the album’s most blatantly abrasive moment. It’s run close, though, by Blessed Night, where Juanita Stein sets out what resembles an abridged version of the non-credo of John Lennon’s God but still grasps for something, or someone, to take her belief to (“Don’t believe in the stories I hear/Don’t believe in the things you fear/Give me strength/Give me time/Give me you, now”) against a simple but inescapable Spanish/Moorish guitar figure from her brother, Joel, and Glenn Moule’s drum pattern spelling out a dire warning.

The nocturnal theme recurs on The Night Is Young,  where Juanita darts in a breath from desolate (“When I needed you to stay/Drove your car the other way”) to defiant – with a nifty mixed metaphor for good measure (“Oh,me – don’t you worry about me/Got a pocket full of wisdom up my sleeve) in one of the most expressive and affecting voices of recent times. She doesn’t quite sound Australian but neither does she sound Pom and definitely not faux-American; she sings in a human accent, with no need for subtitles.
Setting Sun, the first toll of the Bells I ever heard, is the most markedly commercial song here but still retains oddness in a rhythm that piledrives even as it’s hushed, a solo from Joel which as uncomplicated as the one on Buzzcocks’ Boredom yet still yields up subtletly, and Juanita capturing the frustration of running out of time while being resigned to it happening: “One more day’s not enough to change the world/But we’ll rise and fall beside the setting sun.” There’s probably a mathematical formula that can unravel why this wasn’t a hit; maybe there’s a generous prize on offer for another formula to make it the hit it’s not too late for it to be.
Four albums in now, that hit continues to elude Howling Bells but the definition of what makes a hit is narrower and more predictable than it’s ever been. The web-driven collapse of the conventional music industry should have cleared the way for uninhibited adventure but conservatism still holds sway. Howling Bells may not be avant-garde but they’re vastly inventive and stand as a reminder of what’s still possible, as well as the solar system of difference in music between being ambitious and having ambition. Howling Bells, like much indie worthy of the name – and like the best of any genre – are ambitious; Gumby indie merely has ambition, for sales, for ever-vaster venues, for heavy rotation – for tedium. Hear Howling Bells – hear the difference (PG).