114. NEIL YOUNG (1969)

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)

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107. HÜSKER DÜ – CANDY APPLE GREY (1986)

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)

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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)

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

  
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)

  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)

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).

55. DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)

DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)
As a comparatively unloved record in the discography of a comparatively unregarded band, Do The Collapse is in something of a double bind. For a band who had earned renown for unvarnished, elliptical, sawn-off songs, being produced by RicOcasekoftheCars, pedlar of incorrigibly MTV fodder, seemed imponderable and impardonable to some, like Lester Bangs agreeing to do a column for the Saturday Evening Post, particularly following the departure of deputy chief songwriter Tobin Sprout.
The sheer prolificacy of GBV and their penchant for brevity  meant they were not immediately packageable but their irresistible way with a melody offered a chink of light to the mainstream – but it doesn’t take much for sellout to be entered on the charge sheet. Furthermore, selling out can be highly relative – Can were accused of it after they joined Virgin, even though they were still capable of breaches of the peace like Unfinished and Animal Waves. Some considered The Fall to have become a pop band in the years when Brix was chief song officer but a world in which Lay Of The Land and US ’80s/90s are pop songs is one which does qualify as wonderful and frightening. And hadn’t Ocasek, two decades earlier, applied a gloss to Suicide’s second album which made it superficially more accessible than their peerless debut but, on closer inspection, retained most of its panic, tension and threat intact?
It’s apt to mention the Fall when discussing GBV, as the simplistic equation I’ve been known to offer for them is “music by Paul Westerberg, lyrics by Mark E Smith.” Robert Pollard’s lyrics and titles devour and defile language in a similar manner to Mark E Smith’s, although it’s his rueful delivery that nudges him in the direction of Westerberg – in fact, the trajectory to Do The Collapse’s measured disarray from, say, the tunefully ragged 1994 EP Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer, runs parallel to the path the Replacements staggered along from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to All Shook Down.
I purchased Do The Collapse on a whim a few weeks after its 1999 release, reasoning that, while I’d always been impressed and intrigued by GBV, apart from Clown Prince I owned nothing by them and a new album would be a sensible place to start. The years seem to have hardened the cognoscenti consensus that Bee Thousand (which enjoys the accolade of being the subject of a volume in the Thirty Three and A Third book series) or Alien Lanes are the GBV albums against which all others are measured. I’m open to persuasion on this but they were – and remain – less familiar than I’d prefer them to be and I was able to approach Do The Collapse on its own terms.

About two and a half (more of this in a moment) of the songs could have been ripe for MTV mutilation and were within the grasp of Virgin (now Absolute) Radio’s scaly fingers and shrivelled, shrunken playlist but, mercifully, they escaped and I knew this was a far richer, more lasting and more rewarding proposition than flavourless, dehydrated contemporaries (not peers) like Fountains of Wayne or Semisonic.
The two whole songs, though, did reach, perhaps unwitting, wide audiences by other means. Opener Teenage FBI, robotically limbed and with rare lyrical directness, found its way on to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer album (though not, as I understand, the programme itself). The thrust and melody resonate with the driven-in line “Someone tell me why,” though behind the youthful doubt of the phrase, part of me also hears the teacher that Pollard remained for years after forming GBV demanding an explanation for undelivered homework – a brilliantly baffling duality.
The other most radio-ready song, Hold On Hope, would be easy to characterise as a just-add-water Everybody Hurts, a calculatedly poignant work designed to overlay emotionally manipulative montages in reality shows and dramas alike. Except that, firstly, even after two decades of grievous misuse, Everybody Hurts survives as a genuinely moving, throat-swelling song; secondly, the same description applies to Hold On Hope, and thirdly, the hospital series it soundtracked was not the blustering Gray’s Anatomy but a rare moment of pathos in the endearingly silly Scrubs.

The 50:50 split comes in Liquid Indian, where the verses don’t seem too bothered what you think of them, with glowering riffs hoisting lines like “Soft clay orifice quivering like new structures and formations” before the invasion of a chorus which could have stadiums from Shea to Shawfield levitating through nothing more than repetition of a title which seems to celebrate an ink used as a drink – surely the most radical transformation since Lucozade morphed from a pick-me-up for sickly children into an elixir for the modern superathlete. The David verse battles back but the Goliath chorus rises again – it all ends in a draw but there’s no time to go to penalties as there’s too much happening elsewhere…
For instance: Zoo Pie helps itself to the coda of the Clash’s Garageland and has Pollard hollering through a bullhorn in a particularly belligerent moment; Mushroom Art sees him confessing vulnerably “Living without you is difficult” before the odd old instincts kick in and he elaborates: “Cloud faced oldman winking/You see, he tests me.” Its already measured riff is slowed further still on In Stitches, where he promises “Human amusement at hourly rates,” in tandem with a menacing backing vocal which has its flock of wrath turned away by a delicate tremolo. Dragons Awake!, with acoustic guitar, strings and Lennonesque vocal reverb, is less psychedelic than its title promises but is still as close to that status as GBV get, while Things I Will Keep lists, veers and swerves like Prime Husker Du.
And it all came out on Creation, in its very last days. The label may not actually have been brought to the brink of financial bankruptcy by the procrastination of Kevin Shields but creative bankruptcy was definitely wrought by general post-Morning Glory hubris – the recruitment of veterans GBV and Ivor Cutler were just about its only inspired moves at this time.
GBV themselves collapsed afterwards and did so again after a recent reactivation but the songs have never stopped pouring out of Robert Pollard and this prolificacy is almost a recommendation in itself. It’s well- known that actor Paddy Considine is an enthusiastic champion of theirs, perhaps less so that, when Daniel Radcliffe was once  invited to disclose the contents of his MP3, a couple of stray GBV tunes were revealed to lurk within. Since then, he’s gone on to play Allan Ginsberg, one of the great American poets of the 20th century – a category I’d contest Robert Pollard has a powerful case for belonging in (PG).