Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Big Takeover: Sweet: “Teenage Rampage”

Or, whatever happened to the Glam Slam?  It’s still here (the previous song was from the RAK factory, after all) but it seems to be slowing down somewhat.  This song isn’t so much about Glamour as it is about Politics.  And yet Politics is glamourous for some; almost all politicians, no matter their stripe, have something of a high when they win and take power, much, I suppose, like the honeymoon period of a marriage.  Sweet don’t concern themselves too much with that here – it’s the kids – teenagers! – who are going on a rampage and taking over with their rules, their choices, their own constitution.  (Yes, the kids are going to form committees and hash out their rule -  democratically!)  Say “teenage rampage” now and people think of a melee, a riot, looting, cats and dogs in the street, COMPLETE CHAOS.  And yet that is not really happening here.  The music is by-the-book glam; the delirium documented, however, is real.  The Baby Boom peaked in the late 50s/early 60s, which is in part why so many songs at this time had the word “teenage” in them (“Teenage Dream” by T. Rex and “Teenage Lament ‘74” being the main ones, though as a rule the Glam Slam was all about teenagers, more or less).  Of course there is the fact that this song  (stopped only by the biggest song of the year, Mud’s “Tiger Feet”) appeared just as the effects of the three-day week were really kicking in – more freedom for parents, more freedom for the kids?  Or more chances to seize power, to do whatever they want, to discard the present and think up a future.  Their time is coming, and in looking around who can blame them for wanting to take over? 

Just about everybody who would become major figures in punk and post-punk were teenagers at this time, and I can well imagine some of them are already getting into music that is more adventurous than this; and they were to make music that held to no constitution or united scene whatsoever.  The Sweet had another Chinn-Chapman hit on their hands here, but in the end it sounds more like what would speak to, oh, Tony Blair more than John Lydon (though the Glam Slam got a free pass from the punks – how could something so shiny and unpretentious be bad)?

Next up:  Face to face with…who? 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Beat Goes On: Cozy Powell: "Dance With The Devil"

And so Music Sounds Better With Two returns, to an insistent drumbeat; and with that rocking start the mid-70s begins as well...

Cozy Powell - a drummer from the Midlands who ordinarily played with various groups as a drummer - at this point he'd been with Jeff Beck and his own band Bedlam - was striking out on his own with this tribute (a #2 hit on Radio Luxembourg), on RAK records (meaning - that's probably Suzi Quatro in the back on vocals and bass).  This song is overtly a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, however; and with "Third Stone From The Sun" being the melody to the insistent beat*, the 70s once again remind the listening public of what has been and how the beating of drums can somehow summon them back again, drumming as a medium's way of bringing the dead back to life...

...and what a life!  Trying to even sum up Jimi Hendrix's importance to those who don't know him (astonishingly I tried to do this once and was frustrated even then with how indescribable his music is, how dangerous and ecstatic and in-your-face it is all at the same time - frustrated with myself, I should hasten, not Jimi).  The Olympian heights he reached inspired so many people, some of whom were copyists, others more their own innovators in their own areas (Freddie Mercury's vocals were deeply influenced by Hendrix's bravado guitar solos).  I am not, as a rule, one to sit around going "whoa dude" at guitarists in general, being more into the groove and feel of things, but Hendrix is someone I have a lot of time for; listening to a certain BBC station in the morning and hearing yet more news about Led Zeppelin is enough to make me shake my head at the bagel I am slicing, but somehow anything Hendrix grabs my attention.  He is still ahead, still the way forward, still actual news.  And it is no good wondering where the next Hendrix is (as Chrissie Hynde did back in the 90s, esp. wondering where the female Hendrix was) as one was quite enough and is still very much here, with no need for a "next."

As for Powell, he continued to work at RAK for a while as well as forming his own band, and then joined Rainbow in 1975; he continued to drum in various bands until his death in 1998.  He took his nickname (his actual name was Colin Flooks; you'd change it too) from the US jazz drummer Cozy Cole, who'd had huge hits with "Topsy" and "Topsy Part 2" - both songs that were mainly drum solos, a rare thing at any time.  And so jazz makes a sideways wink into this song as well, as if to say - to Hendrix and to Powell - that it is the umbrella underneath which all other musics stand.  Let the music play, and we can all beat the devil.      

Next up:  The kids, the kids, and possibly some more roots of punk?

*The beat on the original was far more laid back, as befits 1967, man.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Onwards, Through The Fog

I thought I should pause for a moment to reflect on what has been happening recently with regards to the intersection of music, power and abuse of power. 

It has become increasingly difficult for me to write wholeheartedly about music in general because of Operation Yewtree – which, if you don’t know about it, is looking at the extensive abuses of the late DJ Jimmy Savile; the revelations of these abuses have caused others to come forward and for other prominent musicians/broadcasters to be called in for questioning.  It is a terrible thing to think of the ugliness and sleaze of the music industry extending to the BBC, but it has.  Paul Gambaccini*, for instance, has been off the air since October, awaiting legal proceedings; retired DJ Dave Lee Travis has been under a cloud of allegations.  Sports broadcaster Stuart Hall has been convicted and put in jail and will likely be there for life.  Musicians are part of this as well:   Rolf Harris has been brought in for questioning; Roy Harper has been too.   Ian Watkins of Lostprophets has pleaded guilty to things more hideous than what most of these men have been alleged to have done, but at the very, very least he has admitted guilt and is now in jail.  The Fog that I have been writing about has its heart here; and that is why writing has now become difficult.  I wish I could just write about the music, but in understanding the charts I have to understand the BBC.  I have reached the point where Gambaccini is working at the BBC, Travis & Savile are fixtures there and only his co-workers really know what Stuart Hall is up to, there in his room…

And it is really like a David Peace novel, save I am not a crime reporter but a mere music blogger, taking my magnifying glass to songs and sensing something toxic about them.  I think of how while it may be noble to write about these times, I am reopening things that should stay shut, not just for the good of you readers but for my own good.   When I think of the mid-70s I remember abuse, plainly, and when I look at the corresponding #2 song I wince – if I have the year right, and the time, and I think I do.  For me there is no going back to accuse my abuser or even naming him – I don’t remember his face, or much of his voice.  Just the notion that I was a thing to be “educated” and the non-cheering thought that if another girl had been outside that cloudy summer afternoon it would have been her, not me.  And as you’d expect, the gulf of experience between now and then means I only am in “now” or “then.”  As the 70s pull ever-closer into focus for me the further many of the #2s of the mid-70s become distant objects, ultimately irrelevant to my experiences as they were lived.  The mere action of looking back at this time does not do what it once did; far more vivid things come to the fore, demanding attention, and crucially almost none of this is helping me adjust to life in the UK.  

Nor does it help that the BBC’s most popular station, Radio 2, is meanly fixated (in part) on this very time.  I have difficulty listening to it now as what I want to hear – the new – is all but drowned out by the old, the creepy and outright awful.  This is, as far as I can tell, is to provide some odd layer of comfort to the listeners, a kind of cozy nostalgia.  Certainly none of it is played in an ironic or facetious manner.  It is – this terrible music – played straight, accepted straight, with no comment or fuss.   I sometimes think I am the only one who notices this, just as I notice that so many of the “love songs” played on R2 aren’t, in fact, love songs at all. 
Now, I could (and have) changed the station, but how absolutely wonderful would it be to actually change the station.  But I know that this would be difficult, as the ratings for these shows are so high, proving that the public is willing to listen to crap music and why would the embattled BBC want to lose even one listener?  I think (as Marcello so often says) they are actually terrified of that, but then what to make of the listeners themselves, the UK public at large?  Is this a station that actually exists (a leap here, but not a huge one I don’t think) for the broadcasters rather than the music?  Is what gets played ultimately meaningless?  And are the charts (therefore) also meaningless? In a place as small and dense as the UK, what a DJ plays matters, the charts matter, but what if those associated with charts and shows are…suspect?**
As you can see, dear reader, the whole music system closes in on itself here, the actual fans of music themselves – the girls – unable to see what is happening, due to fandom and naivete, until for far too many it was too late.  They may find some therapeutic purpose in writing about the mid-70s; for me it is a step into the past that makes things more complicated than even I had expected.  I like to think as a trained journalist that I can use some of my own personal experience to illuminate the wider scene, but the scene here is ugly, relentless, smug, self-denying…and that scene seeps into the charts, until they become one.  Any steely determination I might have is nearly crushed by that accumulative repulsion.  The rebroadcasting of TOTP on BBC4 shows just how elemental the BBC were to keeping fun and joy off the charts as best they could, the shows being labelled with the tags  “#nostalgiafail” and “#wrongness overload” and variants on twitter for two years now. Even the punk scene ends up as just part of the general scheme of things, alas; the BBC did not alter itself but stays staunchly middle-of-the-road, right in the thick of things where the status quo (no pun intended) remains what I would call “passive aggressive/neutral” – which is also where most abusers would classify themselves, I think.      

So how can I continue to write here?  The only way I can get through The Fog safely is to avoid writing about large chunks of it.  Not all of these songs are here because of The Fog – some I or Marcello have written about already – but I think by listing the ’74 ones you can see where I’m coming from.

“Angel Face” The Glitter Band (I have never heard this on UK radio, and while they are innocent it’s a case of guilt by association, alas.)

“Remember You’re A Womble” The Wombles (I had Woodsy The Owl and I don’t pollute – did The Wombles have the same effect at the time? Again, a question better answered by someone else.)

“Homely Girl” The Chi-Lites (Ugh, and this got in while Curtis Mayfield was sold in the wrong shops.)

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long” – Peters & Lee (who have been pretty much already written about on Then Play Long)

“Shang-a-lang” – Bay City Rollers (I strongly recommend Bye Bye Baby by Caroline Sullivan in all matters to do with the band and their Tartan Army; I was far too young to be part of it.)

“Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll” Showaddywaddy (I will be avoiding this band altogether.)

“Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies” – The Drifters (Perhaps the center of The Fog musically at least, and I must emphasize how their 70s hits weren’t hits in the US.)

“Band On The Run” – Wings (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Born With A Smile On My Face” – Stephanie De Sykes (I don’t think writing about this or any other soap-based hit will help me understand the UK any better.)

“Far Far Away” – Slade (They remain more than a little alien to me for some reason, so, no.)

“All Of Me Loves All Of You” – Bay City Rollers (see above)

“Killer Queen” – Queen (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Wombling Merry Christmas” – The Wombles (Isn’t it odd how the ’73 Christmas hits have become standards while the ’74 ones have no lasting impact whatsoever; or maybe not.)

Take away those songs and there are still a few to write about from ’74, ones I can write about with enthusiasm and a strong belief that despite everything, good music does will (like truth) out.  The Fog is something to contend with, but in the next few years I will try to find all the signs of life and light. 

*I cannot comment on Gambaccini's situation directly as it has yet to be resolved one way or another; for someone who was such a fixture at the BBC (R2 had a whole week dedicated to his 40 years there) it may be that no matter what happens he may choose not to return to the station.

**Top of the Pops reruns now have to skip all episodes hosted by Savile and Travis; a whole tranche of shared culture has been denied the UK public, all because the BBC will not just edit their links out – a case of the BBC going too far to correct themselves when in the past they should have done so, but didn’t. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beware The Clown: Leo Sayer: "The Show Must Go On"

And so, dear reader, we come to the end of 1973; and here is the first hit of Leo Sayer's career, a song that is about...wanting to escape.  That he is a pierrot figure, a scary clown, adds to the unease of the song (as does the banjo somehow).  He has more than had it with the fat cats and their cigars and fancy cars (which reminds me of "Folsom Prison Blues") who are making him perform in front of an audience that wants his blood, that seemingly will not let him out of the theater alive.  He chose this life, he admits, but he has been used and abused, has broken all the rules; he is the misfit, the outsider, on the high wire precariously balanced between freedom and near death, it appears.  Must the show go on?  No, he says.  He won't let the show go on*.  Just how he is going to do this he doesn't say; that he has got down to this point, where he has been pushed and taken advantage of so many times that he has to say it, is the point.  (How many narratives are there from the early 70s of this kind - the lone person standing up and saying no?) 

Sayer's naturally anguished voice suits this song (a #2 on the Radio Luxembourg chart) - he wrote it with David Courtney, and it was produced by Courtney and Adam Faith, who may or may not have suggested the pierrot costume to Sayer as a way for him to stand out from the Glam Slam crowd.  (Just as Gilbert O'Sullivan had dressed as a school boy when he was first seen, for much the same reasons.)  In any case, the "masquerade" is seen as a sham - could that masquerade be the rock scene itself?  I think so.  And while that show went on, it largely continued in the world of albums, as opposed to the increasingly confusing and baffling world of the singles charts - singles which, as I will explain in the next entry, are getting more and more difficult for me to write about.

This song also stands as a kind of one-man strike anthem, a testament to anyone who feels they too have been used and have been wasting time, to make some kind of stand.  And so the three-day-week comes in, the lights dim and The Fog settles in for the foreseeable future.  Sayer won't have any of it, and being dressed as a scary clown emphasizes how he is the fool that speaks the truth, who feels compelled to do something, and it may well be something violent for all we know.  The Fog cometh; the creeping, surrounding, uneasy-making mid-70s are here, and Sayer's is the last voice of defiance before they begin.

Next up:  power, corruption and lies.

*When Three Dog Night covered this they changed the lyric to "the show must go on" which shows the fundamental difference between the UK and US mindsets.  Sayer wasn't too pleased, apparently, but that's American optimism for you, in the face of Watergate.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Love From Outer Space: Wizzard: "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day"

What makes a great Christmas song?  This is a debatable point, but one of the main points of Christmas (and therefore, of Christmas songs) is a sense of bounty and relief; a sense (especially in the UK, I feel) of abundance*.  Christmas is a time for pure celebration and joy, which gets the straight treatment here; indeed of all the big UK Christmas songs, this NME #2 feels the most American.

The density of Wizzard - straight out of the whole Spector/Beach Boys wall of sound - suggests plenty, to an almost ridiculous degree.  Of all the Glam Slam bands Wizzard were the ones with the most members, the most fun, and the most sincerity, I believe.  Slade's monumental achievement of getting to #1 first week with "Merry Xmas Everybody" was one thing - Noddy's voice waking the dead with good rattling cheer - but Roy Wood is taking everyone back to the early 60s via the early 70s, wishing a moribund we-haven't-had-it-so-good UK not just a happy Christmas for one day but a wish that the love (did I forget to say the best Christmas songs are love songs?  No?) the day represents would be here every day, perpetually.  The snowman brings the snow, all the better for Wood to write his name on the roof so Santa (who comes from the Milky Way - yes, Santa is an alien here) can find him. 

In a way, this makes the song a plea for deliverance from the ordinary into the extraordinary - if Slade are asking you to look to the future, Wizzard are asking that love and abundance be part of everyone's lives, that the bells should ring and ring, that it should be like this every day.  (The absurdity of this is what makes the song British, I feel - he wishes it could be like this, whereas Slade are "well, here it is, Christmas, have fun while you can" Wizzard want this to go on and on, and of course there's a children's choir because who doesn't want Christmas to end as a child**?)  The snow arrives, glowing cheeks light the way, romance is also in the air - this isn't altogether a throwback to a decade previous but a kind of Utopian 70s thing, as an ideal to hold up as the 70s begin to buckle down into The Fog and good cheer is desperately needed. Christmas began as a celebration of the birth of (if I may say so) a revolutionary figure; and something of that has rubbed off here.  So it is no surprise that this is one of the most enduring British Christmas songs and it is apt that Wizzard, that multi-instrumental Glam band that Roy Wood led, are leading the way as Friendly Forebears for New Pop.  This is revolution, kids-choir-and-sleigh-bell style.  

Next up:  the end is nigh...

*In the US there's Thanksgiving, which doesn't exist in the UK, so I feel some of its qualities are celebrated at Christmas, more or less.

**Well, maybe not all kids, but most, methinks. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Stand-In Star: Alvin Stardust: "My Coo Ca Choo"

As the year draws to a close, this is a good time to recall how split this year has been between the US and UK charts - there was only one common #1, the unremittingly awful "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando & Dawn.  The Glam Slam, outside of Bowie (and at one remove, Roxy Music) was not getting anywhere fast in the US, and even then was, I'd guess, something of a cult for the teenagers hanging out at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco in Los Angeles, for instance.  For me Alvin Stardust is a purely UK-understood phenomena, someone whose whole persona is "rock 'n' roll" at a glance, all the odd signifiers of "danger" without any of said danger really there whatsoever.

He was born in London, was Bernard William Jewry, and grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (a town a few miles just north of Nottingham itself).  He was working as a roadie for Shane Fenton and the Fentones when Fenton got ill and died; Fenton's mom wanted the band to continue in his honor, and so they did, with Jewry taking Fenton's name and leading the band to some chart success in the early 60s.  The group broke up, leaving Jewry on his own, and by the early 70s he was given a new name by his label boss Michael Levy, and that was Alvin Stardust.  It's a bit more complicated than that, however; "My Coo Ca Choo" was written by Peter Shelley and recorded by him as well - but he didn't want to "be" Alvin Stardust, so Jewry once again stepped in and took on the task of looking moody, dressing in black leather, and generally being a rock star - a role I feel he acted as much as really was.  The song is pure glam stomp, seductive-style (though "Tom Cat! Y'know where it's at/Come on! Lets go to my flat/Lay down 'n' groove on the mat" is not exactly Bryan Ferry singing to his siren).  There is something reassuring about something so inherently safe and unthreatening appearing at this time (and how reassuring as well, that this public service ad featuring two girls can be viewed with a clear conscience even now, thank goodness.)  Perhaps the long years working in obscurity gave Jewry a sense of responsibility and perspective that others have sadly shown to have lacked; to take on someone else's part or role is in itself a situation that works best with some modesty and determination.  Stardust (and yes his name was a take on one Gary Glitter) remains one of those beacons in The Fog, a man who was pure showbusiness but somehow humble about it in a way that showed the Glam Slam to be the people's music.  How could it ever go?

Next up:  Every day?  Really?   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Burning On: Mud: "Dyna-Mite"

The main virtue of rock 'n' roll is that it's not supposed to be about technical excellence at its heart (though that can be stupefying, goodness knows) but about a kind of knowing-wink look, a sense that maybe what is happening is a little...dangerous

Mud aren't dangerous; certainly with this song the woman in question is explosive, but Les Gray's voice doesn't shriek or go camp - it is a plain voice (one from quiet suburban Carsharlton, no less) and poses no threat to any order whatsoever.  And so the woman's impact is tempered, made suggestive somehow, because of Gray's calm. 

This Chinn/Chapman song (rejected by The Sweet for being not quite rocking enough, I guess) sounds a little like Status Quo, a little like Suzi Quatro - when the Glam template was fresh every song was distinctive, but now that it has been worn smooth it has become a genre, as opposed to a movement.  Glam was still big enough to have real force in the charts (this was a #2 on the Radio Luxembourg hit parade) to matter and wasn't going away anytime soon (see the next two entries here) but emotionally it had to be more ooomphy than this (though the music going "on and on and on and on" with the Gray's voice going up and up each time is at least a good try). 

The sophisticated velvet goldmine era of T.Rex has given way to this handclapping/vaguely intimidating ode to a woman who can turn on a whole damn town, not just one man, with her flashing eyes and radiance - so much so that no one knows if she's "wrong or right" as she is so overwhelming.  This is again a woman-as-spectacle song (nowhere in the narration is there any interaction between the narrator and the woman) - she tells you to boogaloo and you do, and that's that.  She comes from nowhere and is beholden to no one.  She is a flash in the sky, but it's too bad the song is durably rock 'n' roll but not much more than that; this song is in The Void, as far as I can tell, for being too neat and tidy about a woman who is anything but.  She's on fire, as Alicia Keys will one day sing, and as Gray gets across backhandedly. 

Next up:  groove on me what?