Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Lucy Show - Mania

Well, here we are at the end of another year. So long, 2013! And thanks a bunch to the 62,000+ of you who visited this funny little site for the first time over the past year. I greatly appreciate all of the new visitors, along with those of you who have returned time and again, who all have taken the time to check out my blog. I hope that this site has entertained and possibly enlightened you over the past year, exposing you to new bands you may not have heard of and obscure albums you may not have been aware of or may have forgotten about over the years. I have responded to over 2,500 download requests during 2013, so it appears that many of you found something here of interest! For that I am grateful.

With the year coming to a close, I'd like to include you all in on a little tradition I observe every New Year's Day.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, after my graduation from USNA in the summer of 1987, I spent the rest of that year and the early part of 1988 living in Athens, Georgia, where I attended the Navy Supply Corps School (NSCS), a small base/installation located in the northwestern part of the city. After being an inmate of the Academy's military dorm, Bancroft Hall, for the previous four years, I had no remote intention of living under that yoke again, in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) on the school grounds. I searched around a bit, and found a small two-bedroom duplex on the far end of town, south of the University of Georgia, on an extension of Milledge Avenue (Athens' main north/south drag). The place was a shitbox - tatty carpeting, peeling paint, poor water pressure and inadequate heating. But it was cheap and furnished, and the doors locked securely, which was all I wanted and needed. Plus it was close to UGA's Sorority Row, and a short drive from the downtown music clubs like the 40 Watt and the Uptown Lounge. So I was happy. Besides, I wasn't going to be living there for that long.

A few of my old Annapolis classmates attending NSCS with me did decide to live in the BOQ, including my old friend Pat. Pat was a native Californian and a fellow New Wave fan like myself, although his tastes skewed more towards European synthpop bands like Talk Talk, OMD and Alphaville. We hung out a lot during our time in Athens, heading out to local shows there (we saw X and The Beat Farmers at the Uptown that year) and in Atlanta (U2's Unforgettable Fire tour at the Omni that spring, at the time the best show I'd ever attended in my life), chasing college girls at the GA Bar downtown, or just chilling out and listening to one another's large music collections. I wasn't into a lot of the stuff that he owned and liked, but a couple of things caught my fancy, including an album called Mania by an obscure English New Wave band called The Lucy Show. I liked it so much that that fall, Pat hooked me up with a cassette copy. I didn't know much about these guys at the time; much of their history I learned years later . . .

The Lucy Show was formed in early 1983 by two Canadian musicians transplanted to England, bassist Rob Vandeven and guitarist Mark Bandola, along with two of their friends, drummer Bryan Hudspeth and keyboardist Pete Barraclough. Bandola and Vendeven collaborated on the band's songwriting and shared vocal duties. The group wasted no time in getting noticed, later that year releasing the single "Leonardo Da Vinci" b/w "Kill The
Beast" on independent Shout Records, a record that received both attention and airplay from influential British DJ John Peel. This in turn generated some major label interest; by early 1984, The Lucy Show was signed by A&M Records. During that year, A&M (through its Piggy Bank Records offshoot) released two more of the band's singles ("See It Goes" b/w "Resistance" and "Electric Dreams" b/w "History Part 1") and a four-song EP, Extended Play.

In 1985, A&M released the band's first album, ...Undone. The band's sound at the time was darker and more brooding than their future releases, but still quite melodic. I've heard other critics express similarities between some album cuts (like "Better On The Hard Side" and the title track) to music that The Cure was putting out at the time - yes, there are some parallels there. But after I purchased and listened to this album years later, I found that there was more to The Lucy Show than just being a Cure rip-off band. In their music, I also found a significant strain of European post-punk present. And in the ringing guitars and bass rhythms on songs like "Wipe Out" and "Ephemeral (This Is No Heaven)", I hear a lot of Australian influences (whether intentional or not), from bands like Radio Birdman and Hunters & Collectors.

All in all, the music on ...Undone was a very compelling mix, and in its day it got the band noticed, at home and abroad. The album received favorable critical reviews, and sold briskly in the US, eventually reaching #1 on the influential College Music Journal (CMJ) charts. It looked like The Lucy Show had it made . . . but shockingly and inexplicably, A&M decided to drop the band from its roster. On New Year's Eve, 1985, The Lucy Show found itself without a label.

Scrambling now, in early 1986 the band signed with the American arm of Australian independent label Big Time Records (the home of both Air Supply and The Hoodoo Gurus). Later that year, they released their follow-up, Mania. On this disc, The Lucy Show radically changed its sound from that of their debut album. The moody, atmospheric nature of their early songs was almost totally dispensed with; in its place were bouncy, poppy, upbeat tunes, augmented with a heavy dose of shimmering synthesizers.

In many ways, the band's new sound was textbook mid-80s New Wave music, and could be viewed as a blatant ploy for immediate commercial success and radio play - which, after present-day reflection, I find that being somewhat of an odd move on their part. With their first album, the group already proved that they could find financial and critical success with their darker sound; in my opinion, there was no need to make such a radical shift.

Then I thought a little further, and put myself in the band's shoes. By late 1985, The Lucy Show had built upon almost three solid years of steady sales and upward momentum - momentum that was suddenly terminated when they lost their major-label contract. The shock of A&M's seemingly arbitrary asshole-ery undoubtedly weighed heavily on the band members' minds, perhaps causing them to adjust their musical focus in order to quickly regain that momentum.

Whatever the reason, what was done was done. And fortunately for the band, the move initially paid off. Reviews of Mania were even more laudatory than for ...Undone, and the album enjoyed good sales, once again topping the American CMJ charts. Even MTV began playing the video to the first album single, "A Million Times". It looked as though The Lucy Show was moving forward once more.

Then the bottom dropped out once again. Big Time Records' financial fortunes suddenly declined precipitously in late 1986/early 1987, and by the spring of 1987, the label had filed for bankruptcy and released its stable of artists. The Lucy Show, seemingly snakebit, was out in the cold once again. With the band's finances also in dire straits, the two Canadians politely asked Hudspeth and Barraclough to leave, and continued on as a duo. Bandola and Vendeven tried to make one final go at it on a new label, uber-indie Redhead Records, but the single they released in 1988, "Wherever Your Heart Will Go", sank like a stone. Game over. The Lucy Show broke up later that year.

. . . But all of that was in the future. In the late fall of 1987, all I knew was that I liked Mania. During a Christmas break in classes, I drove home to Virginia to spend the holidays with my folks. I spent New Year's Eve that year as I had for the past couple of years, partying with friends at various clubs in Washington D.C. After a long night of fun ringing in the New Year, I drove back down I-66 to my parents' house in Northern Virginia in the wee hours, and decided to pop one of the various cassettes I brought along into the car's tape player. Of course, I selected The Lucy Show, and the first song that cued up was "New Message":

I didn't get much out of the lyrics to this song. But for me, the music itself gave off such a positive vibe and uplifting, happy energy, that it made me feel that much more optimistic about the upcoming year. "New Message", "New Year" . . . I played the tune several more times on the way home, further linking the song and the day firmly together in my head (and yeah, I know that "New Message" has nothing whatsoever to do with the holiday - but still . . .).

That was over twenty-five years ago . . . But every New Year's Day since then, I make a point of playing "New Message" at least once during the day, in honor of the occasion. Of course occasionally in the past, the optimism and happiness I hoped to engender for the upcoming year with the playing of this song hasn't quite panned out. But like eating black-eyed peas, touching ashes or wearing red underwear, this song is one of my New Years good luck traditions, and as such I prefer to play it in the off chance that it brings me good fortune during the coming year than not do it and suffer the consequences!

You don't have to be as superstitious about it as I am . . . but still, here it is for you to enjoy: The Lucy Show's Mania, released by Big Time Records (America) in 1986. Enjoy, and I look forward to hearing from you all in 2014! Again, Happy New Year!

[BTW - this is the original 1986 release, not the expanded 2005 rerelease.]

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Various Artists - Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas

Another one from the great multi-album Just Can't Get Enough New Wave compilation series put out by Rhino Records in the mid-1990s (I posted New Wave Halloween here a couple of years ago).  This is one of the final entries from that run, a holiday-themed set featuring some real modern classics.  They sort of stretch both the concept of "New Wave" and the specific period covered (ostensibly the Eighties) with this album, which includes a couple of songs from both the 1970s and 1990s, along with "Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth", sung by those two post-punk giants Bing Crosby and David Bowie (heh) . . .  But despite this uncharacteristic drift of Rhino's focus, all in all, it's still an enjoyable disc.

Personal favorites include "Thanks For Christmas" by XTC (disguised here as "The Three Wise Men"), "Santa's Beard" by They Might Be Giants, and one of the greatest holiday-themed songs of the past thirty years, The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York".  Pretty much everything on this album is a winner, or at the very least will make you smile with the various bands' off-kilter thoughts on Christmas.

I meant to post way more Christmas stuff this year . . . but I just got distracted.  Plus, I'm nursing a recent sports injury that's kept me from spending extended periods in front of the computer.  A thousand pardons, please.  I hope that this entry somewhat makes up for my dearth of holiday posts - although I'm well aware that putting out Christmas music on Christmas Eve is a little like trying to sell pumpkins on November 1st . . .  But no matter - at least it will be here for next year!

So, for your holiday pleasure, here's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas, released by the good people at Rhino Records on October 15, 1996.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  And Happy Holidays to you all!

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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Special A.K.A. - In The Studio

Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

A great man died yesterday, after a long and eventful life.  There will be tributes aplenty to Nelson Mandela over the next few days and weeks, all of them well-deserved; the man was a significant figure in world history, and the memory of him will live on after most of us are long forgotten.  His is a sad, but not unexpected, loss.  However, rather than mourn for what we have lost with his passing, we should celebrate his accomplishments and be glad for the fact that we had him here on Earth with us for so long, and at such a crucial point in his country's and the world's history.

And in my opinion, the best way to celebrate Mandela's life is with that most celebratory of songs about him, the classic protest anthem "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special A.K.A.

This is arguably the most effective protest song of all time, bringing the plight of Mandela's long suffering and imprisonment at the hands of the racist South African government to more widespread and worldwide attention.  It even made it into the British Top Ten in the spring of 1984, and thrust songwriter and Specials co-founder Jerry Dammers into the forefront of the international anti-apartheid struggle.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the release and popularity of this song was one of most significant events, if not THE most significant, that led to Mandela's freedom six years later.

"Free Nelson Mandela" was the highlight of a tumultuous two-year recording session by the remaining Specials (crippled by the 1981 departure of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple to form The Fun Boy Three), renamed The Special A.K.A. for legal reasons and augmented by replacement musicians of varying quality (including volatile new lead vocalist Stan Campbell, who was reputedly a major head case even back then - eventually in 2002, he was indefinitely committed to a psychiatric hospital following attacks on two Coventry schoolgirls).  On the whole, the lone album this band produced, In The Studio, was a disappointment - but it did include this one great song, so there you go. 

The story behind the recording of this album and song has already been superbly covered by my friend and fellow blogger Marco On The Bass, so I won't belabor it here; here's the link to his article.  The album link on his site has long been down - so here's one that works:

In honor and in celebration of the life of the great statesman and peacemaker Nelson Mandela, I proudly offer to you In The Studio, recorded by The Special A.K.A. and released by 2 Tone Records on June 23rd, 1984.  Enjoy, remember, and as always, let me know what you think.

Rest long and well, Mr. Mandela.  And thank you.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Beatles - With The Beatles (Purple Chick) (3 Discs)

Well, here we are - November 22nd, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of one of the worst, most traumatic and far-reaching days in American history.  This is going to be a day full of stories, tributes and recollections, graveside homages and pilgrimages to sites associated with that fateful day.  I already provided my reflections on the Kennedy assassination, and my journeys to and observations of the various locations in assassination lore, years ago in a previous post; I don't see any value or worth in rehashing here what the crime has meant to me throughout my life - you're going to get more than enough of that today, from multiple sources.

The shock and horror of November 22nd, 1963 and its association as a timeline-changing moment has long overshadowed the fact that this date was also one of the most momentous in popular music history.  Not one, but two legendary albums were released on this day: one was the holiday compilation A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, put out in the United States by Philles Records - the grandfather of all holiday records to come.  The other was the British debut of With The Beatles, the band's second long-player, released eight months to the day after their debut album Please Please Me, the Number One album on the UK charts since May of that year.

In addition to featuring an iconic and oft-copied/parodied album cover (taken by photographer Robert Freeman), With The Beatles is significant in that it includes the first George Harrison solo composition (the great "Don't Bother Me") on a Beatles record (not that his bandmates appreciated his efforts; it would be nearly two years before another Harrison song appeared on a Beatles album).  It was also the last time that cover songs would make up such a significant proportion of a Beatles album (in addition to George's song, the disc included seven Lennon-McCartney compositions and six covers, including tunes by Chuck Berry and Motown artists, among others).  Their next studio album, A Hard Day's Night, released in 1964, would be the band's first containing all original tunes.

This album was hugely popular in England, taking over the Number One Album spot from its predecessor Please Please Me the week after its release, and remaining on top for almost six months (all told, the first two Beatles albums controlled the top of the British charts for a remarkable fifty-one consecutive weeks).  With The Beatles was only the second album in the UK (after the South Pacific soundtrack album of 1958) to sell a million copies.  However, with all of its popularity overseas, it was literally decades before this album was properly released in the U.S.  With The Beatles was an early victim of EMI's American distributor Capitol Records' tendency to repackage and alter the song lists and running order of the British releases.  Nine of the original album's fourteen tracks would appear on Meet The Beatles!, their first U.S. release, in January 1964; the remaining five would be released in the States on their second Capitol LP, The Beatles' Second Album, that following April.  It wasn't until July 1987 that the original With The Beatles album would be properly released in the U.S.

As for what I'm offering here: these are the Purple Chick bootlegs of this great album, put out in 2004 and gathered up by yours truly in that legendary week-long downloading marathon way back when . . .  This set includes mono and stereo mixes of the original songs, along with a third disc full of rehearsals and aborted takes of some of these classics.  If you have any prior experience with Purple Chick product, then you'll know that the packaging and sound quality of this music will be impeccable, as always.

So, let me offer up to you all one of the few bright spots from that sad and shocking date back in 1963: The Beatles' three-disc With The Beatles compilation, released by the good people at Purple Chick in 2004.  This music is provided not to drown out the thoughts and feelings regarding JFK on this somber anniversary, but to remind us all that the world is never completely evil or tragic, and even in the worst of times, good things can still occur.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Various Artists - Tuatara: A Flying Nun Compilation

After their early wave of success producing and distributing the first records by The Clean, The Chills and Sneaky Feelings, New Zealand's Flying Nun Records released a couple of compilation albums in the early 1980s. These collections showcased the burgeoning underground/alternative sound emerging in various locations around the country, especially in the South Island cities of Dunedin and Christchurch.  These early comp
releases (which included the seminal Dunedin Double EP in 1982 and the live recording The Last Rumba in 1983) had fairly limited distribution - essentially only within New Zealand, where they both were popular and influential albums. But it was the 1985 release of the label's Tuatara compilation that gave the rest of the world the first real indication that there was something special happening musically in Aotearoa.

During 1984-85, Flying Nun entered into limited distribution deals with a number of small international labels, including Normal Records in Germany and Strange Weekend Records in North America.  They also established their own overseas subsidiary, Flying Nun Europe, for distribution on that continent. Tuatara was their first test of that international network, and for all intents and purposes it was a resounding success. By 'success', I don't mean that it was a huge seller. It was successful in that here in America, it was pushed along via college radio and word-of-mouth, and the 'right' people got exposed to it. I found a quote from Nils Bernstein, current Director of Publicity at Matador Records (who formerly owned Seattle store Rebellious Records in the '80s) which sums up the impact of Tuatara here in the States:
“People were really floored by songs like "Death and the Maiden" and "Pink Frost". It was an album that new-wave girls, brainy pop geeks and noise rock fans all loved. You know how they say about the first Velvet Underground album: it sold terribly, but everyone who bought a copy started a band. It’s kind of like that with the Tuatara comp.”
High praise indeed.

As mentioned above, this album contains "Pink Frost", probably The Chills' most famous song, along with cuts by Tall Dwarfs, The Clean and The Verlaines. But there is also gold here in the tracks by the more obscure, less heralded Kiwi bands, including Look Blue Go Purple and Marie & The Atom. Pretty much every song on here is a winner, and in total they provide a superb overview as to what sort of cool stuff was happening in the New Zealand music world of the early '80s.

This thing is hard as heck to find online, so here's a copy burned off of my meticulously maintained CD. For your throwback listening pleasure, here's Tuatara: A Flying Nun Compilation, released by said label on 1985. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Velvet Underground - April 1966 Scepter Studios (Norman Dolph Acetate)

I just learned that rock giant Lou Reed died this morning . . . a tremendous loss to the music world.  Through his work, both as a solo artist and especially as a founding member of The Velvet Underground, for over fifty years Reed was a visionary, a chameleon, a poet, an agent provocateur, a pop tunesmith, and a pioneer who changed the course of popular music.

The Velvet Underground began coming together in 1964, when Reed, then a songwriter for low-budget label Pickwick Records, met John Cale, a Welsh classical violist (viola player) studying in the U.S., who became interested in rock music.  The two began jamming together, and soon added Sterling Morrison, an old college friend of Reed's.  After original drummer Angus MacLise quit the band in a huff in the fall of 1965 after the group accepted $75 for their first paying gig at a New Jersey high school ("Angus was in it for art", Morrison later stated), new drummer Maureen "Mo" Tucker was recruited.  Later that year, The Velvet Underground got a regular gig playing at Café Bizarre (a Greenwich Village coffeehouse/folk/beatnik joint located about a block south of Washington Square Park, close to New York University), and began getting good buzz among various city art/music aficionados.  Soon, artist  
Andy Warhol discovered them, and by the end of that year he was serving as the group's manager, getting The Velvet Underground more paying gigs and utilizing them as the musical accompaniment to his avant-garde multimedia roadshow, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI).

As part of their work in the EPI, Warhol foisted a new member upon the band to serve as a "chanteuse" -  Nico (born Christa Paffgen), a German model, actress and occasional jazz vocalist who had fallen into Warhol's filmmaking circle.  The Velvet Underground wasn't all that thrilled with having the decision regarding an additional band member dictated to them, but at the time they regarded Warhol and his purported music industry connections as their meal ticket to bigger things, and as such they weren't quite ready to piss him off just yet by rejecting Nico out of hand.  So they acquiesced.  But there was plenty of grumbling behind the scenes, out of Andy's earshot.  Lou Reed in particular disliked Nico for her diva-ish tendencies (such as extended dressing room preparations that would sometimes hold up performances) and her tendency to sing off-key, a result of her partial deafness.  So their early days together were rough, to say the least (to their credit, in later years, Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground would come to respect and support Nico's artistry).

Warhol's early Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows began generating a lot of press (both favorable and unfavorable), and he was eager to keep that buzz building as he made plans to take his show on the road to cities across the U.S.  So Andy's next move was to release a record, featuring music from his 'happenings', as quickly as possible.  In exchange for one of his paintings, Warhol persuaded a sales executive from Columbia Records, Norman Dolph, to helm a recording session with The Velvet Underground at a local studio.  The band was equally eager to begin taking advantage of Warhol's contacts and seek out a major-label record deal.  So they had no objections to the arrangement, even though Warhol insisted on having Nico join them during the taping, which was held at a decrepit Manhattan studio on 54th Street, Scepter Studios (located in the same building that a decade later would house the Studio 54 nightclub).

Over a four-day period in April, 1966, Dolph and his engineer John Licata recorded nine of the group's songs - including "Femme Fatale", "I'm Waiting For The Man", and "Venus In Furs" - at Scepter.  Warhol sat in the control booth during the sessions ostensibly as the "producer", but from all accounts had no real input or influence over the music; the main music arranger during that first session was John Cale.

Shortly after the completion of the session and initial mixing, Dolph arranged for the pressing of an acetate (a metallic "master" record) and forwarded it on to his superiors at Columbia, hoping to interest them in signing the band.  Columbia aggressively rejected it, returning it to Dolph with a handwritten note, the gist of which was "not only no, but fuck no."  Dolph also
forwarded the disc on to Atlantic Records and Elektra Records, who also declined the offer in the same manner as Columbia.  Finally, however, Verve Records showed some interest in these rough recordings.  After extensive remixing and polishing by Verve staff producer Tom Wilson, and rerecording of four songs, including "Heroin" and "Sunday Morning", the label released the then-ignored but now-classic album The Velvet Underground and Nico on March 12th, 1967.

As for the original acetate - Dolph gave it to Andy Warhol, who filed it away and apparently forgot about it.  After Warhol's death in 1987, the disc just sort of disappeared - very few people knew of its existence, and none seemed to care about its whereabouts.

Cut to fifteen years later . . .

In the summer of 2002, a Canadian record geek named Warren Hill attended a weekend flea market in the Chelsea section of New York City, looking for old tunes.  In a box full of soggy punk and '60s garage albums, he stumbled across a worn, sleeveless record with the handwritten center label "Velvet Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph."  Believing that, at best case, he had acquired a test pressing of the original VU and Nico, Hill bought the album . . . for 75 cents.  It wasn't until after listening to it, and discovering that the disc contained a different running order and markedly different mixes, that Hill determined that he had inadvertently purchased the long-lost Norman Dolph acetate.  Because the original master tapes of the Scepter session have long been lost or destroyed, this acetate remains a one-of-a-kind testament to The Velvet Underground's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin."  It's rough and hissy in places, but it's unadorned and unadulterated VU, and as such is a must-hear for fans of the group.

So here, for your listening pleasure, is the April 1966 Scepter Studios (Norman Dolph Acetate) disc, containing the demos for The Velvet Underground and Nico, one of the top twenty greatest rock albums ever released.  What better way to reflect upon and remember Lou Reed's life and art at its conclusion then by going back to the beginning, and hearing where it all started for him.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

And farewell to you, Lou - say hi to Andy for us.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Beatles - Before America (Live) (Purple Chick) (2 Discs)

Earlier this year, I posted The Beatles' eleven-disc Complete BBC Sessions (released by bootleg label Purple Chick back in 2004).  A couple of months afterwards, a writer named Colin Fleming penned a superb article about the band's BBC radio shows for the Atlantic Monthly magazine (I added a link to this piece in the original posting; here it is again).  Shortly after it was published, I began receiving exponentially more requests for my Purple Chick BBC posting; as it turned out, my site was apparently one of the very few places, if not the ONLY place, on the Internet to find the complete set.  I made a point of thanking Mr. Fleming here in writing for indirectly bringing the power and glory (ha ha) of Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole to the attention of literally thousands more people. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to actually meet him; he recently published a couple of books (Dark March and Between Cloud and Horizon), and had a reading/book signing up in Boston that I attended.  I made sure to introduce myself; he brightened considerably when I told him who I was and what I was there representing!  We spoke for a few minutes about some of his recent in-progress projects, which included expanding his Atlantic Monthly article into a full Beatles book, slated for publication sometime in mid-2014.

Well, it appears that he had too much of the Fabs on the brain to hold out until next year; a new Fleming-authored Beatles article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly this morning.  This new piece commemorates the 50th anniversary (to the day) of what he calls "The greatest Beatles performance of all time", a seven-song concert played before a miniscule audience for broadcast on a Swedish radio show, "Pop '63".  Fleming focuses on the energy and rawness inherent in this music - back in the pre-Sullivan time before The Beatles became megastars, when they could actually throw themselves with abandon into a live show and hear themselves during their concerts - in making his case for the greatness of the particular performance.

The piece includes links to YouTube recordings of all seven songs - and yes, there is rawness and power aplenty in this gig.  I don't have any considered opinion regarding whether or not this was The Beatles' 'best ever' live gig . . . but I'll defer to the experts (i.e., Mr. Fleming) on that point.  I will say that, all in all, the entire Swedish set is pretty good.

I realized, as I was listening to these YouTube clips, that I already owned this entire concert on .mp3; it's part of Purple Chick's two-disc Before America set.  About five years ago, Purple Chick released a series of sets - about a dozen in all - cataloging and collecting almost all of existing Beatles' live show recordings, from their earliest days in Hamburg (Star Club) to their U.S. breakthrough (Conquering America), and on through their various concert tours up to their last official show in 1966 in San Francisco (The Last Tour).  Generally speaking, the musicianship and sound quality on these live sets gets progressively worse after early 1964.  After their initial flush with international success, the band quickly bored of touring, and were fed up and frustrated with the shrieking fans drowning out the sound of their meticulously-crafted songs.  Frankly, they stopped giving a shit - and you can hear it.

In that regard, Fleming may have a point; the best live Beatles recordings are generally from the pre-first U.S. visit period, with the sweet spot being the late fall/early winter of 1963/64 - the specific period covered in Before America.  The first disc of this set contains the "Pop '63" show (tracks 11-18), along with another less heralded but equally excellent Beatles Swedish appearance less than a week later, on the Stockholm TV show "Drop In".  The disc also contains the band's entire Royal Variety Performance set (where John famously instructed the audience to rattle their jewelry instead of clapping) and their hilarious appearance on the Morecambe & Wise Show, where the Fabs more than hold their own with England's top TV comics of that period (I can't resist posting some video of a portion of this show - still funny today):

The second disc contains. among other gems, portions of The Beatles' January 1964 afternoon/evening stand at L'Olympia Theatre in Paris, France, their last major overseas gig before their arrival in America less than a month later. Pretty much everything on this set is outstanding - I'll leave it to you to decide if it's the all-time Beatles best.

Here, for you listening pleasure, is The Beatles' Before America, a two-disc collection released by Purple Chick in 2008.  Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.    

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Various Artists - Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set (4 Discs)

Yeah, yeah . . . OK.  I know . . . mea culpa.

Yes, folks - believe it or now, I'm still here, and so is Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole.  Don't let the dearth of new posts here lead you to believe that the demise of this blog is nigh . . . far from it.  I have yet to run out of ideas or stories.  By last check, I've got at least a dozen posts in various stages of development. 

The tragedy of it all is that, for the past three months, I just haven't been able to complete any of them to my satisfaction.  Despite this being a silly little music site of no major consequence to anything else going on in the world, it is mine own, and as such I try to put a little care, work and editing into my screeds.  With that in mind, I'm constantly in search of the perfect phrasing and narrative flow to make these tales at least somewhat interesting, in the hope that when visitors come here to grab the links for my latest album posting, they just possibly might linger a bit and actually read what I've penned in relation to the music.

Unfortunately for me, that quest for the "right" line has led to stagnation and writer's block.  I visit this site with a sense of shame now, looking back guiltily over the vast number of unfinished postings stretching back for months and wondering when the fog will lift, and when I'll be able to add them to the others.  It's annoying, to say the least.

But there is a bright side - this has happened before, and no doubt will occur again; sometimes I just get locked up.  But in the end, I always end up completing the stragglers and clearing out the backlog.  So keep watching this site; I will undoubtedly be backdating quite a few postings in the next few weeks.  But they will get done.

Until then, here's a stopgap to tide you over, the Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set, four discs jam-packed with pure Kiwi punk/alternative goodness by New Zealand's premier independent music label.  These limited-edition discs contain a semi-chronological overview of nearly all of that country's (and label's) great non-mainstream artists - some of whom you may have heard of (The Chills, Toy Love, The Clean) and many others which may be new to you (The Pin Group, Straitjacket Fits, Love's Ugly Children, Chug, The Dead C).  Many of the tunes in this set have long been out of print, making it a must-have for anyone with any interest in the New Zealand scene.

The reason I'm posting this (other than as an apology for being so idle over the past couple of months) is because not only is this a great set, an outstanding overview of the evolution of New Zealand alternative music since 1980 - it's also annoying difficult to track down online.  And I know that if I have trouble finding it, many, many more of you are having a hard time as well.

So here - let me make it easy for you all:  Here's the Flying Nun 25th Anniversary Box Set, eighty-three tracks of Aotearoa brilliance, released on Flying Nun Records (duh) in December 2006.  Enjoy these while I get my act together, and let me know what you think. 

And one more thing - thanks for hanging in there with me and this blog.  More to come.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Adult Net - The Honey Tangle

Thirty years ago today, on September 21st, 1983, Brix Smith made her live debut with The Fall at the Hellfire Club, Wakefield, England.  What a long, strange trip it's been for her since that day . . .

Brix (born Laura Elise Salenger) was born in Los Angeles and raised during her early years by a single mother, who worked as a TV reporter and producer for CBS.  When Brix was in her teens, her mother remarried a university professor and moved to Chicago, where she became director of the Illinois Film Commission.  Brix took up guitar while in high school there; she got the name "Brix" due to her obsession with The Clash and their song "The Guns of Brixton".  After graduation, she went to Bennington College, a highly regarded (and insanely expensive) liberal arts college in Vermont; fellow members of her freshman class included writers Jonathan Lethem and Brett Easton Ellis.  While at Bennington, she started a punk band, Banda Dratsing, with her roommate Lisa Feder.  But Brix was only in school for less than a year; in the spring of 1983, she and Feder decided to leave college for a semester or two to pursue a music career, and ended up back in Chicago.

While there, Brix met Mark E. Smith on the evening of Saturday, April 23rd, 1983, at the Smart Bar, downstairs from The Metro, where his band The Fall played their latest gig in their North American tour earlier that night.  Stories about their 'mutual attraction' notwithstanding, Brix later admitted that one of the first things she did was have Smith listen to her band's demo tape while they were riding in his car on the way to a band after-party.  According to her, he was instantly impressed with the music, calling it 'genius' (now, I could be really snarky here, and offer the view that, in an effort to get into the pants of an attractive young blonde American girl, any other guy in Smith's place would have said pretty much the same thing . . . but why state the obvious?).  She remained with Smith for the rest of their American tour, then moved back to Manchester with him, where they married that summer.  By the end of that season, she was up on stage playing guitar as a member of her husband's band.

In 1985, during her second year in The Fall, Brix began a psychedelic side project called The Adult Net with then-Fall bassist Simon Rogers.  I always found it more than a bit odd that her husband Mark, a legendary band autocrat who ordinarily would brook no dissent from his group (he's been known for firing Fall members on the spot for lesser transgressions), not only allowed her the freedom to concentrate on musical activities outside of The Fall, but also had no problems with the participation of his bandmates in her project.  Must be nice to be the boss's wife, I guess . . .

The Adult Net (featuring Brix on vocals, Rogers on bass, Craig Scanlon on guitar and Karl Burns on drums (the latter three working under aliases) - essentially The Fall without Mark E. Smith) - released their first single, a cover of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's 1967 classic "Incense and Peppermints" backed with "Searching For The Now" and "Fat Hell", on Beggars Banquet in April 1985 - it did not chart, nor did the other Adult Net single released later that year, "Edie".  During 1986, Smith began taking a more active role in his wife's group, writing songs and contributing vocals under his own alias, 'Count Gunther Hoalingen'.  The results of his participation were marginal; The Adult Net released two more singles in 1986: "White Night (Stars Say Go)" early that year, and "Waking Up In The Sun" in September.  Only the latter release met with even the most middling chart success, spending a week at #95 on the British charts.   Over the course of that year, the band also recorded enough material for an album - the disc, titled Spin This Web, remains unreleased to this day.

[Keep in mind that all of this extracurricular activity was occurring at the same time The Fall recorded and released some of their most critically-acclaimed material (This Nation's Saving Grace was released in 1985, and Bend Sinister in 1986) - I find it remarkable that these musicians were so prolific and yet so versatile during this period.]

By 1987, it seemed that most of the energy regarding The Adult Net had been expended.  The singles that had been released were flops, the album project was dead in the water, and both Rogers and Burns had left The Fall for other pursuits (while no longer a musician in the band, Rogers continued to hold producing duties for another year), with Burns leaving The Adult Net as well.  Brix placed her band on indefinite hiatus, and her attention was once again focused full-time on The Fall.

The early part of 1988 was a busy time for The Fall, with the release of The Frenz Experiment in February and I Am Kurious Oranj (the soundtrack for the ballet collaboration between Smith and choreographer Michael Clarke) that April.  However, as the year wore on, serious personal tensions began to grow between Smith and Brix.  It was obvious to both parties that their marriage was rapidly coming to a close, and Brix was smart enough to know that the end of her relationship with Smith would in all likelihood also be the end of her tenure in The Fall.   Rogers was having his own professional difficulties with Smith; although his work as producer on The Frenz Experiment was acclaimed, he was passed over to helm the IAKO sessions - Smith selected Ian Broudie instead.  So both Brix and Rogers had more than a little incentive to begin planning out their post-Fall lives.  And this led to their revival of The Adult Net later that year.

The Adult Net twosome reached out to Geffen Records regarding a possible recording deal, but Geffen showed little inclination to sign them.  In an attempt to pique the label's interest, Brix and Rogers went out and recruited what appeared to be a formidable lineup - namely, members of the recently disbanded Smiths, including the rhythm section of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, and second guitarist Craig Gannon.  But it soon became clear that these former Smiths weren't all that committed to Brix's pop thing.  After a few gigs together, Rourke and Joyce drifted away to other projects, with artists including Sinead O'Connor (I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got) and former Smiths frontman Morrissey ("Interesting Drug"; "Last of the Famous International Playboys").  Gannon remained with The Adult Net, but split his time doing guest and session work with other bands as well.  Observing this band instability, Geffen once again declined.

Scrambling now, Brix scared up some quick replacements for Rourke and Joyce - former Blondie drummer Clem Burke and The The bassist Jim Eller - and went out on the hustings again, trying to drum up some label buzz.  She finally generated some interest from Fontana Records, a subsidiary of Phonogram Records; they joined the label in early 1989 (The Fall had also changed over to Phonogram from Beggars Banquet at around the same time - I'm curious to know how much that influenced the label's decision to sign them).  The Adult Net's lone Fontana LP, The Honey Tangle, was released later that fall.

The Honey Tangle was greeted by critics and the public with a collective yawn.  The songs, all written by Brix (except for a cover the The Grass Roots' "Where Were You (When I Needed You)"), are mostly bland, frothy, way overproduced jangle-pop confections containing a smattering of light psychedelic and Phil Spector-ish inferences.  To me, most of the music on this disc sounds like a watered-down combination of ABBA and early Belinda Carlisle.  The album isn't terrible by any means; but it isn't exactly engaging either - it's just 'blah'.  Three singles came off of this album, and all of them stalled on the lower regions of the British charts - the aforementioned Grass Roots cover at #66; "Take Me", which reached #78; and a rerecording of the band's 1986 single, "Waking Up in the Sun", which only made it to #99 (even worse than its performance three years earlier). 

The album itself failed to chart, and Fontana lost no time in releasing The Adult Net from the label soon after.

Finding herself without a band, a label or a husband, Brix quickly began a new relationship with flamboyant 'alternative' classical British violinist Nigel Kennedy.  She spent three years with Kennedy, releasing one collaboration with him, a cover of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man", which was unsuccessful.  After their breakup, Brix moved back to America in 1993 to start over.  She moved into the garage of her old friend Susanna Hoffs (of The Bangles) and began night classes in acting while waitressing during the day.  When this didn't work out, she ended up as a touring member of The Bangles for a few months.  After Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff ODed in the summer of 1994, Brix auditioned to be her replacement and won the job.  But she was only in Hole for one week; bizarrely, ex-husband Mark E. Smith contacted her to rejoin The Fall, and even more bizarrely, she agreed and immediately went running back to England (Melissa Auf der Maur took her place in Hole).

Brix's second stint in The Fall lasted less than two years, during which she participated in two albums, 1994's Cerebral Caustic and 1995's The Light User Syndrome.  After leaving The Fall in 1996, Brix once again attempted to parley that association into a solo career.  She was signed to indie Strangelove Records and recorded an EP, Happy Unbirthday, which once again went nowhere.

However, one night during the recording sessions in London, she decided to crash a hoity-toity fashion party held at the elegant Harvey Nichols store in Knightsbridge.  On the elevator, she met Philip Start, a fashion designer made recently wealthy through the sale of his menswear chain, Woodhouse.  They immediately hit it off and eventually married.  In 2002, the couple combined their ideas regarding fashion and opened a London boutique store, Start, which has since expanded into a small retail chain.  Brix Smith-Start is now an in-demand TV fashion expert and commentator.  So, good on her.

I've always had mixed feelings about Brix.  Her addition to The Fall marked a major change in that band's musical direction, adding a more mainstream 'pop' dimension into the band's arsenal of audio weapons.  That can be viewed as either a negative (for Fall purists who came up with the band from their punky, abrasive beginning) or a positive (in that it brought new fans to the group, and began a brief period where the band saw some chart success).  For a short spell, she brought an unlikely bit of style and glamour to the unlikeliest of bands (although personally, I always thought that keyboardist
 Marcia Schofield (shown at left), in her heyday, was WAY hotter . . . ).  In some ways, Brix was a 'fame whore', seemingly always glomming on to the next guy (Smith, violinist Kennedy, designer Start) who would take her to the next stage or level of whatever career she was pursuing.  However, even if that characterization of her is somewhat true, she isn't a suckfish or a trophy wife/girlfriend - in all of her relationships, Brix brought her own innovative, exciting ideas into the mix, and arguably made the art/business pursuits of her paramours that much more successful (and frankly, if she was trolling for stardom and success, she could have done a lot better than to latch on to the guys that she did).

I suppose the most accurate characterization of Brix is that she's a relentless opportunist, with a knack for finding/falling into the next situation that works best for her.  Brix is no dummy - she definitely has some brains, and has thoughts and plans of her own.  But it can best be said that Brix's talents and vision are complementary, rather than singular or individual - she needs a partner with an equally strong parallel vision in order to bring her own plans to fruition.  The few times she struck out on her own without an artistic partner - such as her experience with fronting and managing the musical direction of her own band and solo career - were, frankly, abject failures, even with the top-notch musical talent that she drew into her orbit.

But hell - at least she tried.  And all in all, I guess you really can't dislike her for that.  Like the rest of us, she is a complex personality, someone who can't be narrowed down into completely "good" or "bad" categories.  Kudos to her on her current success.

And with all of that, here you are - The Adult Net's The Honey Tangle, Brix Smith's sole LP release, released on Fontana Records on September 19th, 1989.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Uilab - Fires EP

Here's another one of Stereolab's many collaborations during their long band history, this time with New York City-based post-rock instrumental group Ui.   UI, founded in 1990, was known for its frequent use of two bass guitars in their sample-heavy, electronica/dub music, along with other uncommon instruments such as the banjo, tuba and timpani.  These guys (Sasha Frere-Jones (now a writer with The New Yorker), Clem Waldmann and Wilbo Wright) were active for well over a decade, releasing three LPs and numerous singles and EPs before breaking up in 2004.

This particular EP was recorded at Southern Studios, London in the summer of 1996, while Ui was on a European tour with Stereolab serving as their opening act.  However, the label didn't get around to mixing and releasing the EP until well over a year later, in late October 1997.  This EP features, among other songs, an excellent cover of Brian Eno's "St. Elmo's Fire", off of his 1975 Another Green World album, along with three radical remixes of the same song.

I don't have any long-winded story related to this disc, other than I recall grabbing this at the old Virgin Megastore in Grapevine, Texas shortly after it was released.  I was just listening to it the other day, and thought that others might like to have a listen to it as well.  Sometimes, brevity is best!

So, here you are - Uilab's Fires EP, released in February 1998 on Duophonic Records (Stereolab's privately owned label).  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Various Artists - The Ska EPs

Last week, a long-held dream of mine come true: I finally saw The Specials live. They played in Boston at the House of Blues, directly across from Fenway Park (the place used to be called the Avalon Ballroom; I saw the Cocteau Twins there years ago on that band's final tour). I learned through the grapevine months ago that they were coming to town (ever since the demise of the local arts paper, the Boston Phoenix, earlier this year, it's been hard to get dependable news about gigs coming through this way), and I've had my tickets for weeks, I was so jazzed to know they were en route.

I will never forget the first time I became aware of The Specials - it was the April 19, 1980 episode of NBC's Saturday Night Live, hosted by Strother Martin; one of the very last episodes to feature the majority of the original SNL cast, in their fifth and final season. As I've mentioned in an earlier post, SNL's fifth season, in terms of comedy, was pretty uneven. But the show's saving grace at the time, and perhaps the best reason to continue watching it that year, was the breadth and quality of the musical guests. Blondie, Chicago, Bowie, J. Geils, Gary Numan, The B-52's - all of them made iconic TV appearances that season. The Specials' appearance was no exception, although I didn't know what to expect until the host introduced them, and the band kicked into a white-hot version of "Gangsters":

With the first note, I practically LEAPT out of my seat and rushed the television, all but pressing my face against the screen so I wouldn't miss a note or a moment. Holy arm-waving shit! The movement - the energy - the music - just jumped out of the set at me! By the end of that first number, I'd already added The Specials to my list of favorite bands.

At that point in time, I would have done anything to have seen them live, and looked forward to their next US visits. But regretfully, The Specials fell apart little more than a year later, soon after the release of their greatest triumph, the timely and prophetic "Ghost Town" single in the summer of 1981. They joined my 'dream list' of bands that I would have loved to have seen in their heyday (a roster than included The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Police), ones whose time, I assumed, had passed for good, and would never again come to pass . . .

How wrong I was.

Since 1993, The Specials had a number of off-and-on half-assed reunions, groups billed as "The Specials" but including, at best, only a handful of original band members. But it wasn't until September 2008, at the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, that a majority of the original group played together again. Six of the founding seven members were present for that show, for legal reasons at the time billing themselves as "Terry Hall and Friends" (Jerry Dammers pointedly refused to be part of the reunion, claiming that he had been forced out of the band and calling the reformation a "takeover" of the group he was instrumental in forming - a stance and attitude he maintains to this day). The one-off gig was so well-received that by December 2008, the band announced a full-scale international "30th Anniversary" tour, which for the next two and a half years took them all over the globe, playing to wildly enthusiastic audiences. The Specials took a long break from their worldwide trek during 2011 and 2012 to play some gigs closer to home. But earlier this year they resumed their schedule with an extensive, full-fledged American tour.

Before the show, I was a little worried that my enthusiasm and anticipation for finally seeing my longtime musical heroes might be dampened during the actual show - after all, it HAD been thirty-plus years since the band's origins; they weren't spring chickens anymore. Also, I knew that Neville Staple, one of the lead vocalists and the driving force behind getting the group back together, had been forced to drop out of the group earlier this year due to illness.  So there was more than a little trepidation on my part regarding just how good The Specials were going to be that night . . .

My fears were completely unfounded - the band was absolutely fantastic that evening! Everything about that show was right - first of all, the place was packed to the rafters and to the back of the hall with rabid, long-time Specials fans like myself. While there were a goodly number of folks in their twenties and thirties there, the vast contingent of fans there were my age; like me, people who grew up with the band, and remember when their original songs and albums were released in real time.  But that didn't mean that us 'older folks' were just standing around during the show - people were hopping, jumping and skankin' to the beat of EVERY song, and I was skankin' along with them for the entire 90-minute-plus show. I fell in with a group of folks about my age, and together we all danced like fiends, and yelled like banshees, and sang along to the old favorites at the top of our lungs!

The Specials played absolutely EVERYTHING I hoped they would play - most of their hits, including pretty much everything off their debut album (including "Nite Klub", "Do The Dog", "Monkey Man", "(Dawning Of A) New Era", etc.) and the majority of the second album More Specials ("Rat Race", "Enjoy Yourself", "Do Nothing", etc.). There were a few surprises thrown in - including a great version of "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" and, to my utter joy, "Stereotypes" AND "Stereotypes Part 2". And the group was as tight musically as they always were, and as sprightly as if it was 1979 all over again - not an iota of rust on those boys! As they played their final encore tunes, "Ghost Town" and "You're Wondering Now" (which, I might add, I correctly predicted to my companions before the show even started that these would be, in order, the last two songs played . . .), I knew that I had been lucky enough to be part of an epic experience - a few years later than I would have preferred, but epic nonetheless.

In their late 70's/early '80s heyday, The Specials were far from being a household name in the U.S. And despite their massive mainstream U.K. success, the passing of time has caused their music and achievements to fade into the background and out of the overall popular frame of reference in their home country. But the band's influence and importance remains strong in certain circles, both here, there and beyond. It is hard to imagine the emergence and continuing endurance of the worldwide Third Wave and ska-punk movements occurring without The Specials stepping up and spearheading the English ska revival of the '70s. The look the band and its followers and contemporaries (Madness, The Selecter, The Beat) co-opted and championed - the rude boy fashions of porkpie hats, Dr. Martens' boots, Ben Sherman shirts, and black-and-white checks - remains the signature look of ska around the world. Many a modern-day group has attempted by various means to tap into The Specials' leftover legacy, and harness the group's energy (and loyal following) to their own ends.

Beginning in 2008, a few artists took a shot at doing just that; a series of limited-edition bootleg EPs were released, featuring popular mainstream musicians covering classic ska tunes. All were released under mock 2-Tone EP covers paying homage to The Specials' iconic singles packaging of the late 70s/early 80s (shown above) which featured label logo Walt Jabsco and the signature black-and-white checkerboard theme. When I first heard about these discs, I snapped them up just as fast as I could get my hands on them. My reactions to three of them are provided below:

1.  Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP (2008):

Although she was raised listening to classic jazz vocalists like Frank Sinatra (who her debut album was named for), and modeled her later look and sound partially on that of classic '60s girl groups like the Ronettes, the late Amy Winehouse always claimed to be a huge ska fanatic. After she shot to fame in 2006 with the release of her second album, the worldwide smash Back To Black, covers of songs by Toots & The Maytals and The Specials became integral parts of her concert set. As her star rose higher and higher, she began including more and more of these tunes in her gigs; in fact, in 2008, she told Rolling Stone magazine that her next album was going to be heavily ska-influenced.

On June 29th, 2008, audiences were given essentially a sneak preview as to what this future Amy Winehouse ska album would sound like, when she performed an extended set at the Glastonbury Festival.  At that gig, she sang a number of Specials hits, including "Monkey Man" and "You're Wondering Now" [ed. note: apparently, she did a couple of these songs at the previous year's Glastonbury as well]. Shortly after that concert, she slipped into a London studio to commit those tunes and two others (another Specials "Hey Little Rich Girl" and a cover of Sam Cooke's "Cupid") to wax, which was released on a limited-edition bootleg before the summer was out.

I know that it's not considered proper to speak ill of the dead . . . but I've got to call it as I see it - for me, this EP is damn-near unlistenable. Winehouse rambles and slurs her way through the songs; you can't even say that she's off-key, because she never remains on any single key long enough for you to make any comparison. Her version of "Hey Little Rich Girl" is especially cringe-inducing - "sounds like complete shit" is too kind or mild a description for this horror. It's hard to believe that these are professionally produced versions - they sound like Winehouse woke up after an all-night schnapps bender and stumbled into the studio, bringing in with her a couple of ragtag street musicians she met along the way and another street person to run the tape. It's THAT bad, and it makes you wonder what was in her head (or, more likely, not) when she decided to foist these songs onto the public. After listening to them, I didn't feel sorry or embarrassed for Winehouse - I HATED her for butchering these classics. No wonder this was released as a bootleg - no reputable label would have touched these monstrosities with a ten-foot pole.

With Amy's death in 2011, that purported third ska album of hers never came to pass - something that, after my decidedly negative reaction to her Ska EP, I was initially thankful for (the cancelled album, that is - not her death). However, I changed my opinion somewhat after hearing her reggae cover of Ruby & The Romantics' "Our Day Will Come" (released posthumously in November 2011 on Lioness: Hidden Treasures).

The song was actually pretty good, and to me showed how well Winehouse could interpret Jamaican music if she set her mind to it. Shoot - I would have paid good money to hear an album full of these types of songs from her (makes me wish I had back the money I paid for the EP . . .). Too bad she never had the full opportunity to prove just how adept she was with this genre.

2. Lily Allen - The Ska EP (2008):
Unlike Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen was into reggae/ska right out of the gate. She grew up with that music; The Clash's Joe Strummer was a close friend of her father and a frequent visitor to her home. During his visits, he brought along mixtapes of Jamaican and Brazilian music, which were played constantly from the time Lily was a toddler. And that early exposure apparently paid off; all of the songs on her international smash debut album Alright, Still show a heavy Jamaican influence.

Frankly, Allen's covers are the best of the three EPs featured in this post. The disc contains only two songs: a version of "Gangsters" recorded live with Specials Terry Hall and Lynval Golding at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, and a studio version of "Blank Expression". Both songs are great; Allen obviously has a real love and feel for this music, and sings both with the regard and respect that they deserve, while still making the songs her own. I honestly can't say any more about this EP, other than, if you only pick one of these to download, THIS is the one you should choose.

3. No Doubt - The Ska EP (2010):
I've already said my piece here about how much I loathe this band. No Doubt had its origins in the California 'Third Wave' ska revival of the late 1980s. But in their quest for commercial success after signing with Interscope Records in 1990, they quickly cast aside any and all vestiges of that association, remaking themselves into an alt-rock radio-friendly band. After they became successful, No Doubt occasionally added ska covers to their live sets, as a "throwback" to "their roots". But to me, it always smacked of pandering, a calculated attempt to show their critics and fans how "cutting edge" and "indie" they really were. What utter rubbish.

No Doubt's versions of "Ghost Town" and "Racist Friend" (from The Special AKA's album In The Studio) were released as part of the bootleg series in 2009. They're serviceable enough, in that the band is playing mostly in time, and is hitting the proper notes and singing the words in the right order. But, similar to the way the band homogenized itself for commercial consumption, the songs here are similarly devoid of any character. Gwen Stefani & Co. just suck the life and feeling out of these hits, making them into something other than the cultural touchstones and trenchant social commentaries they were when The Specials first released them. I don't know what pisses me off more - Winehouse's under-the-influence Specials in-slurrrrr-pretations, or Stefani repeatedly exhorting the crowd to "Put your hands up in the air!" during their blaring arena-rock version of "Ghost Town". Either way, I can't recommend this disc either.

* * * * * * *

So, for better or for worse, that's my take on these three bootleg EPs. I know that a lot of my criticism may seem harsh. But I have long known and loved the original article, produced by The Specials, still one of my all-time favorite bands. So I think I have a right, and an expectation, to be a little critical. It is only by knowing the true meaning of quality - as in the quality music that The Specials released and continue to play - that you can honestly assess the nature of a similar product's worth.

 But I'll let you all hear and judge for yourself. For your listening pleasure, here are The Ska EPs, limited-edition bootlegs released by Lily Allen, No Doubt and the late Amy Winehouse in 2008 and 2009 (the Winehouse one is an extremely limited edition EP, including not only the original four bootleg songs, but their live Glastonbury versions as well, and a tribute cover of one of her songs by The Selecter, done in 2011 mere hours after the report of her death). Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.   

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link ASAP:    

Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP: Send Email    

Lily Allen - The Ska EP: Send Email    

No Doubt - The Ska EP: Send Email

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bitty McLean - Here I Stand EP

I first heard the song "Here I Stand" during my first austral summer in New Zealand, sometime in early January 1994.  It was like it appeared out of nowhere - I'd never heard of this guy Bitty McLean or his music prior to that time; suddenly the song was everywhere, on every station in the country. 

While lightweight, it had a nice sort of old-school dancehall vibe to it, and that was enough to get me to purchase the single and find out more about this young singer.

Delroy McLean was born to West Indian immigrant parents in Birmingham, England in 1972.  During his youth, he was immersed in 60's-era rocksteady and reggae, the sounds of his parents' homeland, and soon became adept at emulating this sound in his own singing.  By the time he reached middle school in the mid-80s, he was fronting as vocalist for some of the major Birmingham sound systems [in the context of West Indian culture, a 'sound system' was a mobile group of engineers, DJs and toasters (MCs) who played popular music (at top volume) at street parties and dance halls - in Jamaica, sound systems were instrumental in the development of ska and reggae, and spurred the formation of local record production companies that ended up spreading this music throughout the world].  Nicknamed "Bitty" due to his young age and small stature, McLean and his singing gained a large local following.

After gaining his GCSE, McLean enrolled in a local Birmingham college, taking courses in sound engineering.  After graduation, he found employment with British roots reggae band UB40, initially as an engineer,
soon graduating to assistant producer roles, and even appearing as an occasional background singer on some of their songs (you can hear his vocals featured on the 1993 album Promises and Lies).

At the same time he was working with UB40, McLean was utilizing his studio access to work on his own music, behind the scenes and on the side of his day job.  In the spring of 1993, he inked a deal with small independent Brilliant Records, and in late July the label released his first single, "It Keeps Rainin' (Tears From My Eyes)", a cover of an old Fats Domino tune from the early 60s.  The song was a sensation in England, staying on the national charts for six months and peaking at #2.  The song was also popular in several other European and Commonwealth countries, topping the charts in Holland and New Zealand (which was strange, because I don't recall hearing it there at
all).  Brilliant released Bitty's first album, Just To Let You Know..., in the fall of 1993; his second single, "Pass It On", didn't do as well as his debut.  But it still made the British Top 40.

Virgin Records, never one to be caught flat-footed when there was a dollar to be made in music, quickly swooped in to acquire McLean's contract and recording rights from Brilliant, and by the beginning of 1994 had rereleased Just To Let You Know... under their own label.  Learning the lesson of the relative failure of Bitty's second single, Virgin put all of its marketing muscle and expertise behind the release of the third album single, "Here I Stand".  The effort paid off; "Here I Stand" was McLean's second big international hit, reaching the Top Ten in England and elsewhere, including New Zealand.  In the months that followed, Virgin culled two more British Top 40 singles off of this album: a reggae-fied cover of The Shirelles' "Dedicated To The One I Love", which made it to #6 that May, and "What Goes Around", which only reached #36 that August.

Bitty McLean's music was popular and enjoyable enough, but more than a bit derivative.  Unlike his former employers UB40 (who, to their credit, gave their former engineer their full support, and even toured with him for part of 1993), the vast majority of McLean's music avoided any controversial or political themes.  His tunes were mostly inoffensive 'lovers rock' - light, soulful, 'crooners' reggae - a style and stance that put him at odds with the prevailing trends in reggae at that time.  In addition, almost all of Bitty's hits were reggae covers of already-popular songs - along with the Fats Domino and Shirelles songs I mentioned earlier, "Here I Stand" was an old Justin Hines tune.  So while the general public at large was receptive to him, in the world of reggae purists, McLean was considered a sellout and a fraud.  However, as long as his records kept selling, this stance wouldn't be a problem for him.

Unfortunately, McLean's commercial success vanished just as quickly as it came to him.  His second album, Natural High, was released in early 1995 but did not chart.  Most of the singles released off of this album reached the extreme lower end of the British Top 60.  Within 24 months of his greatest successes, Bitty was a has-been in the industry.  He quietly returned to his engineering and production duties, working mostly with his old friends UB40.

However, in the past ten years McLean has made a comeback of sorts, releasing a couple of albums of rocksteady covers (2003's Soul To Soul and 2005's On Bond Street KGN, JA) and two studio albums with Sly & Robbie in Jamaica, 2007's Made In Jamaica and 2009's Movin' On.  With his recent work and his tours with Sly & Robbie, his reputation has improved somewhat in hardcore reggae circles.  His latest stuff hasn't reached the commercial heights of his early '90s material, but he seems contented now with improved critical acclaim.

That isn't to say that his early stuff was without quality.  Here, for you consideration, is Bitty McLean's Here I Stand EP, released in England in January 1994 on Virgin Records.  This disc features the original song, a seven-minute dub version, and a "60's version" (basically, McLean singing the same song over a simulated "dusty LP" crackle), along with the non-album single "Don't Be Confused".  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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