Public Image Limited – ‘The Flowers of Romance’: Round 22 – Rob’s choice

Public Image Limited - The Flowers of RomanceWe’ve spent some time together over the last year or so. I’ve played you Japanese speed metal (Melt Banana), US Drone Doom (Sunn O)))) and distressed electronica (Liars), but let me tell you, I don’t own a record more alienating and challenging than ‘The Flowers of Romance’. When I say ‘alienating’ I mean it sounds like a direct transmission from another world and when I say ‘challenging’ i’m talking about a record that gets right up into your face and asks what you’re going to do about it.

The Flowers of Romance’ was recorded in late 1980, less than two years after John Lydon, then Rotten, had left the Sex Pistols for dead onstage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. That two year period was the most productive of Lydon’s career and ‘The Flowers of Romance’ was the third of a hat-trick of radical, interruptive albums that PiL released in a rush of driven creativity.

By then Jah Wobble, Lydon’s foil since they met at school, had left, accused of stealing bass lines to use in his own solo work. This left Keith Levine and Lydon alone, corroding under a barrage of narcotics, locked together in a dread duet. They contrived a pulsating, corruscating blizzard of percussion augmented by whatever esoteric instruments they could get their hands on (a Violumpet anyone?). A gleeful gremlin’s way with the studio lead them to record backwards pianos, TV transmissions of opera and phased recordings of ticking Mickey Mouse watches. Amidst all this, the recording leaves a cavernous space at it’s black heart, big enough for Lydon’s satanic countertenor to rage around in.

It may not be structurally obtuse – it’s no ‘Trout Mask Replica’ – but the stark combination of tribal percussion and Lydon’s hellish holler is so aggressive that the temptation to turn away can become irresistible at times. The drums are startling, pounding, tumbling, booming. Perhaps most frightening of all they were said to have inspired the sound of Phil Collins’ later work. Lydon’s vocals are as stark and acidic as he ever managed.  At times he defeats himself, losing his breath and failing to finish phrases, so swept up in the anger of the music that his own voice gurgles and seethes away into a bubbling, incoherent gas. At others his voice is a razor scimitar, unwavering and undeniable. Looking back it strikes me that this is the only record Lydon ever made where the music was the powerful equal of his vocals. Perhaps it’s this clashing collaboration that creates the flames.

The album is by turns repulsive and gripping, crazed and savage, devastating and ludicrous. Still after 30 years it’s like nothing i’ve ever heard. ‘The Flowers of Romance’ has a reputation as the least commercial album ever delivered to a major record label. I’m not sure about that (RCA released ‘Metal Machine Music’ six years earlier) but it’s bracing and almost baffling to reflect that this singular record reached number 11 in the UK album charts. It remains PiL’s highest charting long-player.

Public Image Limited, with their single ‘Rise’, changed the music I pursued fundamentally when I was 15. I bought this the year after that and it’s a key part of my musical hinterland. I’m fascinated to find out what the others think of it.

Tom Listened: Despite the fact that Rob’s offerings are often puzzling and perplexing, Flowers of Romance stood out for me as being particularly difficult to assess. I liked aspects of it – the drumming was great (reminiscent of Liars I thought), the lack of conventional verse chorus verse song structures, the risk taking. But I found the brutality of the sound, the harshness of the aesthetic (I’m acutely aware of the irony of using that word in this context) too much. And then there’s that voice. I just can’t stand it!

I think that, on the whole, Rob and I have pretty similar taste. On most occasions we are both very fond of the same awful singers – Will Oldham, Will Sheff, Bill Callahan…although, having listed the first three that came into my head, maybe we only like them if their first name is William! But every so often a voice will come along that we just can’t agree on. I gave Rob my free download of Future Islands’ In Evening Air a couple of years ago. He couldn’t listen to it as he found Sam Herring’s vocals indigestible. They’re not my favourite vocals either, but they don’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the record. For Rob, the record was a non-starter. Well, I feel the same way about John Lydon. Even his speaking voice sets my teeth on edge. Oddly, it’s something about the same phoney theatricality in John Lydon’s singing that Rob dislikes in Sam Herring’s vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever warm to it and unfortunately (and despite owning Metal Box, on vinyl, in its metal box) I don’t think I’ll be spending much more time with either PiL or The Sex Pistols. It’s probably my loss!

Nick listened: What a voice. Whether he’s hollering about her majesty or blathering about butter, Lydon’s tonsils are exceptional. Shorn of his squealing, The Sex Pitols are basically just a classic rock band with a dirty guitar sound. PiL, though, are something else. I bought Metal Box at uni and thought it was great and important, though I’ve not listened to it in years. I’ll dig it out soon. Flowers of Romance itself was fascinating on first listen – I know how much Rob loves it, and can see how his opinion on These New Puritans stems from his relationship with it. The percussion, the synths and sounds surrounding them, all compelling and exciting. But then there’s Lydon on top, snarling and skronking and sneering. He’s bloody horible, and a big stumbling block…

Graham listened: Showing my age, sometime in the past I’m sure I had a remix/12inch of the title track and single. Loved it at the time but was shocked by how stark and itense this album really was. I’ve never really investigated PiL to any degree, but there was something almost primeval about this that took hold of me and demands I dig deeper.


Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique: Round 22 – Nick’s choice

I’ve been amassing a pile of albums that I want to bring to Devon Record Club – old favourites, new crushes, canonical bugbears, sound-qua-sound obscurities – over recent weeks, and there’s now a stack of 20+ CDs on my shelves, enough to power through a whole year of meetings, unless we get theme-happy. Even then, I reckon I can probably gerrymander something from the pile in somehow.

Paul’s Boutique was pretty much at the top of the pile. My favourite Beasties album (just eclipsing Check Your Head and then Ill Communication), I bought it when I was about 16 or 17, after a rash of bands I liked at the time (95/96) seemed to namecheck it an inordinate amount – Noel Gallagher, The Charlatans, The Chemical Brothers, reams of other pseudo-funky quasi-Britpop also-rans. I knew Fight For Your Right To Party, obviously, and was aware that Beastie Boys had a certain cache amongst very, very cool people, but by and large I didn’t really get why.

After the obscene success of Licence To Ill, the Beasties ran away from NYC, scared of what they’d achieved and become at such a young age (lest we forget the go-go dancers in cages on stage), and holed up in LA with The Dust Brothers, DJs who’d been making sample-based, instrumental hip hop tracks which the trio had become fans of. The Dust Brothers thought the tracks they’d been making were too dense, too busy, too layered with crazy samples and juxtapositions to be rapped over, but the Beasties insisted that they didn’t want anything more minimal; they loved the sound collages, and wanted to weave themselves into them.

The result is an album which is essentially a love song to the Beasties’ estranged home city of NYC, from the sleeve to the samples to the innumerable lyrical references to the places and people and pop culture they’d grown up with. The rich, heavy, sample-woven music, which the Beasties’ voices are intricately intertwined with, is a pretty psychedelic experience, like a beat-heavy, hip hop, spot-the-reference recreation of the second side of Abbey Road, mixing hugely familiar moments of music (from Johnny Cash to Curtis Mayfield to The Isley Brothers to The Beatles to Sly And The family Stone to so much else) with the sounds of every day city life, ping pong matches, drive-by robberies, skits about eggs, stories about New Yorkers. It’s the opposite of Tom’s choice; so dense that half a lifetime later on I’m still catching new lyrical references, googling names I don’t know, recognising samples from old music I’m newly familiar with since the last time I played it.

There isn’t much out there like Paul’s Boutique – Endtroducing and Since I Left You use samples in a similar way, but do something different in spirit; for the Beastie Boys, the samples and lyrics perform the same bewildering function. Changes to copyright law regarding sampling mean that no one can ever make an album like this again; but the sheer quality of the record makes it unlikely that anyone would be abloe to, anyway.

In short, Paul’s Boutique is a trip, it’s got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it. Perfect.

Tom Listened: For me, at some point during the 90s The Beastie Boys went from being an annoyance to a possibility to a treasure. I can’t quite remember the chain of events but, as usual, I think the catalyst in my change of mindset must have been the overwhelming acclaim that Check Your Head and (belatedly) Paul’s Boutique were getting from the press and from fellow artists. So I decided to buy my brother Check Your Head for his birthday. Curious to hear an album but not enough to get it for yourself…buy it for someone else’s birthday and then ‘borrow’ it, for a long, long time.

Well, I loved Check Your Head and it is still my favourite Beastie Boys album. Listening to Paul’s Boutique at record club made me realise just how much more accessible it is. The songs on Check Your Head are more straightforward – there are fewer unexpected twists and turns and it’s less packed in with everything and the kitchen sink. I’m not saying CYH is the better album but I know it much better (although I have had PB in my collection for probably a dozen years I have never felt I really know it) and that certainly helps. With this in mind, it was great to hear Paul’s Boutique the other night and I will certainly be pulling it out aplenty in the forthcoming months and attempting to unpick its bizarre tapestry of sound.

Rob listened: My brother handled hip-hop in our house. ‘Licensed to Ill’ was pretty important for him and I have fond memories of rotating it with ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ and ‘Album’ by Public Image Limited whilst we played darts in his room. By the time ‘Paul’s Boutique’ came out we’d both moved on. It’s worth recalling that it arrived to no real fanfare, to general bafflement in fact. My sense is that it was only with ‘Check Your Head’ that commentators began to recognise the trajectory the Beastie Boys were on and the give them the credit they deserved as innovators and creative spirits. Still, I didn’t come back to them until ‘Ill Communication’.

I’d never heard ‘Paul’s Boutique’ until this evening because, if i’m honest, whilst I admire what they do, I never find myself reaching for them. I don’t know why. I do find that the constant yapping voices create a wall of interference between me and the often compelling music. I guess I also find them a little too hipster. I dunno. Feel srtangely guilty even writing this. I’m extremely glad that the Beastie Boys exist. I enjoyed hearing the album and totally understand why it belongs in the canon. But once again, I can’t imagine i’ll invest much time in it. I might go back and listen to ‘She’s On It’ again though.

Graham listened: I’m old enough to vaguely recall jumping about in nightclubs to the singles from the first Beastie’s album. But to badly quote Public Enemy, “I didn’t believe the hype”, which put me off the band for many years. I’ve heard this before and it didn’t fit with what I expected then, but listening again this is so deep and multi-layered that it simply demands I spend more time with it. If I finally get this one, who knows where it might lead?

Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth: Round 22 – Tom’s Selection

As a ‘no theme’ evening, I had no idea at all what records Rob, Graham and Nick would be bringing. As it turned out, my offering couldn’t have provided a greater contrast to theirs. But then, Colossal Youth offers a stark contrast to pretty much everything else in recorded music – though it may have been an influential album, its sound has never (to my knowledge) been replicated and, now that we live in very different times and produce records in very different ways, I guess it is unlikely ever to be. Colossal Youth is certainly not one of those ‘timeless classics’. It was made in 1980 and it sounds like a record that couldn’t have been made at any other point in time. It’s all hushed tones, intimate, yet strangely dispassionate vocals, chopped guitar notes, cheap ‘n nasty organ sounds and the occasional, relatively frantic (as in a snail in fifth gear), bass run. When listed, it sounds as there there might be quite a lot going on. There’s not! I described Colossal Youth at the meeting as one of the most ‘undense’ records ever. I stand by that. Though sonically very different, I am minded to reference Nick Drake’s Horn as the only music I know of that conjures a similar feel…and that’s much less of a trick to pull off when you consider that its an instrumental, played on two strings of an acoustic guitar. But Colossal Youth’s shares its sense of space and intimacy and is equally intriguing.

My relationship with Young Marble Giants’ sole album has been a long running and ever evolving affair. I bought it with a vague expectation that it might be something I liked having seen it mentioned from time to time in the music press. This was prior to Kurt Cobain’s championing of the record and Hole’s butchering of Credit in the Straight World (a prime example of something becoming infinitely less powerful as the…well, power, I guess…is ramped up). I hated it at first. It sounded like mopy bedroom music. I found Alison Statton’s vocals to be cloying in the extreme sounding like something the Grange Hill school band might come up with on an off night. And the music had no momentum, at all. And that bothered me, a lot. So it sat on my shelf, gathering dust….

But every so often I would try it out again. You know how it goes. Gradually it wheedles it way in and before you know it, it’s one of your favourite records. Now, I love it all. I treasure the cheesy bits (the song Colossal Youth, Wind in the Rigging), no longer embarrassed by their lack of backbone but in awe of the restraint and bravery in making music that sounds so limited and fragile when your peers were playing with noise, feedback and distortion. And whilst there are jewels scattered throughout this record the run of Choco Loni through to Brand-New-Life is, for me, just breathtaking.

So, twenty(ish) years on, my conversion is complete – I am a Young Marble Giants devotee, an apologist no longer. I’m not sure whether this has been caused by my own maturation, the changing times we live in, or two decades of getting acquainted. Probably it’s a combination of all three. Perhaps my three fellow club members will shed some light on this.

Nick listened: I’ve heard of Young Marble Giants before, but only vaguely – they got mentioned quite a lot in relation to The XX’s debut album in 2009, as a touchstone for stripped down minimalism – but I didn’t really know what to expect when Tom unveiled his choice. And boy, is it minimal – maybe not ‘spacious’, as the vocals are quite closely mic’d – but there’s so little going on, and so much restraint. I really enjoyed it, especially the juxtaposition between some exceptionally childlike moments and occasional instances of something a little darker, almost more abrasive. I think I’ll be investigating further, not that there’s much more to check out…

Rob listened: Young Marble Giants were spoken of in appropriately hushed tones by the time I began my NME-scouring phase in the mid-late 80s. Somehow, inexplicably, I got them mixed up with Cowboy Junkies circa ‘Caution Horses’ and so when I finally got around to listening to ‘Colossal Youth’ a couple of years ago I found myself with more questions then answers. What a strange and rather wonderful record it is, sitting somewhere in the hitherto undiscovered and unsuspected territory between Low and Billy Bragg. One of the recurring questions at DRC is whether a certain record could be made now, or whether it was of its time. This is one that probably could only have been made in a specific 18-month window and that’s no bad thing.

Graham listened: A complete unknown for me. But I cannot recall a DRC offering when I have hung on every note, vocal etc as much as this one. I was always interested to know where each track was going, probably as the sound was so minimal. Some parts sounded like they were heading in the direction of ‘dodgy’ 6th form bands (believe me I should know), but there was always a  mini-drama/humour/ironic touch that demanded you keep listening. Like Rob said, probably of its time, but nothing wrong with that. Left thinking how the band could possibly follow that with another album?

Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels – Round 21 – Graham’s Choice

As a 17 year old in 1983, the choices of new emerging talent to follow seemed endless at the time. There was also a rich seam of mainstream dross to be avoided with numerous New Romantic/Synth Pop rubbish still around. Then I heard this for the first time.

Simply put, Liz Fraser sounded and expressed herself like nothing I had heard before. The instrumentation ranged from rich and lush to sparse, and sometimes playful, from track to track. Influences of Joy Division and Siouxsie are there, but the fact I was not familiar with either of them at the time just meant this was a whole new experience.

I’d initially chosen Treasure (3rd album) as my pick, but listening back to their 2nd album after maybe 20 years, I was amazed how familiar it sounded and quickly recognised this as a stronger offering. There are moments of introspection sitting side by side with what I can only describe as a “wall of gothic/post punk sound” that Mr Spector might have been proud of. Soaring vocals of unrecognised meaning, given weight and emotion by Fraser’s possibly unique style. Fair enough I had a few friends that responded, “what the **** is this” when I tried to convert them at the time.

Seeing them live at the Royal Festival Hall sometime around 83/84 was a magical experience. Fraser just hypnotised the audience and their sound filled the venue perfectly.

Not as dark as their first album and less ethereal than subsequent releases, this feels like their highpoint to me. I collected all the numerous EP’s from their early days and the 4AD compilations on which they featured just to get my fix. After Treasure I began to lose interest, probably more about me looking for new influences, though the overall sound didn’t seem to going anywhere new.

Maybe a bit of “you had to be there” album, as people became freer to experiment and push boundaries as the 80s/90s progressed.

Tom Listened: I have a very vague and depressingly distant memory of seeing the Cocteau Twins on The Old Grey Whistle Test in about 1985 and thinking to myself ‘this sounds great, but I’d never get it (as in ‘purchase it’ as opposed to ‘understand it’) as it’s far too weird’. Fast forward five years, the Dire Straits, Queen and Elton John records had been ditched (possibly literally), to post Husker Du epiphany (as in ‘music that sounds great is great irrespective of whether it sounds weird or not’) and I was ready to check out the Cocteaus properly. So I did. And, during the seemingly endless Summer of 1990 my C90 of Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll rarely left my Sony Walkman (if it did it was only to be replaced by something similar – AR Kane’s 69, Kitchen’s of Distinction’s Love is Hell etc etc).

I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for those two Cocteau Twins albums in particular, not because they are that much different to (or better than) the others but because they immediately transport me back to good times. Nostalgia is such a powerful thing and certainly obfuscates objectivity. I did have a copy of Head Over Heels but by the time I obtained it I seem to remember feeling I had all the Cocteau Twins stuff I needed and it was all pretty similar, so I didn’t really bother spending much time with it.

Listening again at DRC, I was surprised by how varied it sounded in comparison to Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll, as if Guthrie and Fraser hadn’t yet quite nailed the aesthetic and were still in the process of appropriating their influences. So you can hear echoes of Joy Division and Siouxsie and Magazine (perhaps) and other great post punk bands and for some that could be a strength but for me I think I’ll always slightly prefer the more homogeneous albums that succeeded it – or maybe I just prefer the memories they evoke!

Rob listened: I bought ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ having heard ‘Carolyn’s Fingers’ on the radio and ended up taking it back to the shop. Money was tight for a teenager and I just hadn’t found anything else in the album to get to grips with. I’ve no idea what I swapped it for, but now, having bought hundreds of albums with just one decent song, and those not a patch on ‘Carolyn’s Fingers’, I regret it. I’ve since managed to accrete copies of ‘Head Over Heels’ and ‘Victorialand’ at student second hand sales, and I thought I remembered little about them, other than that I preferred the latter’s more abstract, ambient sound (i’ve no idea if it’s either, but that’s the impression i’ve retained).

I was surprised how much of ‘Head Over Heels’ I knew and I enjoyed hearing it again. I’m afraid for me they remain a band to be admired rather than loved. There’s something a little too cold and mannered in their music. Fair enough for them, but I prefer mine more instinctive and restless. Nothing here quite matches the brio and bubbly joy of that first Cocteau’s song I really did fall for, but never managed to hang on to.

Nick listened: I’m pretty sure I own this; I certainly know Sugar Hiccup, and I bought a handful of Cocteaus Twins remasters a few years ago when Robin Guthrie redid their entire catalogue. Obviously, this isn’t the Cocteaus album I’m most familiar with – that title goes to Treasure, followed by Heaven Or Las Vegas and Victorialand, which were the three I bought at university when I was introducing myself to them – but I enjoyed hearing it again thoroughly. As we discussed on the night, no one else has ever really got near to emulating the sound the Cocteaus produced, which, even though it did get varied slightly across their albums, is always instantly identifiable and, once you’ve bought into it, gorgeously enveloping.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners – ‘Too-Rye-Ay’: Round 21 – Rob’s choice

Time is short. I’m going to skip the bit where I explain that Dexy’s Midnight Runners were more, so much more, than the School disco gypsies that most of the Northern Hemisphere remembers them as. Sure, I’m handing our credits here. Fill your boots.

There’s a quote variously attributed to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and various other smarty pants rock stars that goes thus: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a peach. Plus, as a bonus, it’s pretty accurate. How then to write about Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Kevin Rowland in particular, a band and a singer who, at their most fearsomely intense, used their music as a platform to struggle publicly, forlornly and beautifully to express the essence of what they wanted their music to be? They never reached the purity, the core that they sought and if they couldn’t express what they wanted for their music in the form of their music then writing doesn’t stand a chance. So, I’ll dance for 400 words instead.

Before we speak of Kevin and his heart of fire, let’s be sure not to skip past the sound his band made. The sound he made them make. Rowland conceived Dexy’s Midnight Runners as a hard-hitting hoodlum soul revue and he drilled them, technically, physically and mentally, until they were the outfit he needed. Then, after their first album, they all abandoned him and he started again. The band we hear on this, their second record, is almost completely new and (perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised) despite the additional adornment of fiddles and dungarees are harder, bolder, tighter and punchier than any other Runner’s incarnation. Hear how they push and push their way through ‘I’ll Show You’, piano, horns, strings, drums hitting every step, every sublime transition together and hitting them hard. Try to spot a single crease in ‘Until I Believe In My Soul’ a 7 minute gospel torch song that sweep inexplicably into a jazz pastiche and back out to a floor thumping, chapel-filling cri de coeur.

In Dexy’s Kevin Rowland fused the personal and the political then sublimated them. In this he and his band equalled, perhaps surpassed, the great testifying rock and soul acts. ‘Too Rye Ay’ is his least political and most personal record. It plays down his desire to reconcile his Black Country upbringing with his Irish heritage, which dominates much of ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ and ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’, and focusses on his urgent need to create something that will burn bright down the ages, a pure expression of abstract inner truth that will stand as no less than a monument to the beauty and the worth of the human soul. Sounds over the top? Fair enough and, by the way, screw you.

Rowland’s lyrics are remarkable. Each song is like a workout, a battle as he fights to express himself, beating down the language, beating down the constraints of the form, throwing propositions back and forth in dialogue with his band members, searching, climbing, grasping for the secret resolution he knows is out there somewhere. And the Runners go with him creating elatory music to match their leader’s fervour.

All this comes together in it’s most perfect form in ‘Let’s Make This Precious’, Rowland’s signature piece. The band kick hard, fast, joyfully, irresistibly. Rowland’s lyrics, his dialogue with the band and himself are a pure plea for purity, for commitment, for transcendence. Together they are striving, working, training and straining for something beyond the ordinary, something more, something that they can sense but cannot reach, something that will transform them, redeem them, save them.

“Pure, this must be, it has to be.
Pure, let’s make this pure,
(Do you mean it?) Yes I do,
(Then let’s sing it) Certainly, but
First bare your hearts and cleanse your souls
(And then?) Let’s try and make this precious, like this.”

Their quest never reaches it’s end. They never get there, perhaps they never could. But, my goodness, ‘Too Rye Ay’ brings them pretty close.

Epilogue: reversing the Curse of Devon Record Club, in the days after this last meeting Dexy’s announced the release of ‘One Day I’m Going To Soar’ their first album for 27 years.

Nick listened: Dexys are an odd proposition; any understanding of them for me, and for most people I suspect, is so massively overshadowed by Come On Eileen (even more so than Geno, which I’ve read about countless times but don’t ‘know’) that it’s difficult to form any kind of relationship with them and their music. I tried to, years ago, by buying Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, in the hope that it would be the white soul classic I was looking for back then (I suspect it was, but I wasn’t ready for it, for whatever reason – the reason probably being Eileen). So, I’ve read more about Dexys than I’ve listened to them, but Come On Eileen is still burnt into my consciousness more than anything else about them.

Rowland himself is a fascinating character, doing, as Rob points out, the musical equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, singing about the music he is singing, striving for something primal and honest. This was great (as was the Don’t Stand Me Down track that Rob played alongside it), and I want to know and hear more. Sadly, as ever, I think the distance of time elapsed between then and now, coupled with Eileen’s ubiquity and strangeness, will make any appreciation I come to of the rest of their ouevre just that; appreciation, rather than love. But I’m gonna keep looking out for Don’t Stand Me Down, lest it ever be around for less than £50, and try and pick this up too.

Graham Listened: Since the mammoth success of …..Eileen, I have probably been doing my best to avoid Kevin Rowland. The first album had no real imapct on me at the time, but I could recognise Geno as a great tune. But being around at the time, the success of ……Eileen categorised Dexys as just another pop band for me. I can recall listening to this album at the time of release and really “not getting it”, as it were. I was probably expecting more of the pop classics like the singles and didn’t really get all the heart and soul searching. I can hear it now but still harbour doubts.

Tom Listened: I have a friend at work who is really into early 80s ‘pop’…hell, I even caught him listening to a Heaven 17 Youtube mix the other day! I told him about Too-Rye-Ay being an offering at our recent DRC meeting, offering condolences that he wasn’t there but he replied that Dexy’s were never his thing. When I (incredulously) asked him why not, he related to their ubiquity at the time. In his words ‘you don’t come home and drink scotch when you’ve already got plastered on it in the club’. Now I suspect that with that statement he is not referring to Dexy’s, he’s referring to their crowning glory/albatross…that song…you know the one!

The thing is, once you come to properly listen to the albums you soon realise that Come on Eileen is so far from being representative of Dexy’s that it has probably done the band more harm than good. That one song is, to most people, Dexy’s. And I haven’t met all that many people who don’t like it. But I also haven’t met all that many people who have explored the band’s output beyond it. And I guess the reason for that is that the song’s album is an awkward bugger, packed with disorientating time signatures, oblique lyrics and (horror of all horrors) more key changes than you can shake a stick at. So it’s really difficult to get to grips with (at least for me it is) and yet I feel as though, six or so listens in (Rob lent me his copy), this is probably a work of genius, passion, authenticity and other good words. One that’s very much worth persevering with and although I still wouldn’t say I have clicked with it yet, I am beginning to really enjoy the ride (and none of it is remotely like Come on Eileen… apart from Come on Eileen).

PS I have also felt inspired to go back to Searching…and that sounds brilliant…and much more accessible! Definitely an easier introduction to the band.

Miles Davis – In A Silent Way; Round 21, Nick’s choice

Graham deigned not to set a theme for this week, so I turned to the literal pile of CDs that I’ve amassed on a shelf and mentally labelled as future contenders for Devon Record Club. And, as usual, I’ve picked out a record that I’ve written about before, way back when Stylus still existed. (To my amusement, my ruminations on this record, researched from a couple of books I had on Miles from the library, are now used as a source on producer Teo Macero’s Wikipedia page. Which just goes to prove the pointlessness of citations.)

Anyway. The Christmas holiday in my first year at university, and I decided to get into red wine and jazz. As you do. My dad shared a bottle of rioja that he’d received as a gift from a client with me, and my brother bought me Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis. Not a bad introduction to either. I delved further into Miles’ catalogue more quickly than I explored pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, though, eating up Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way first, as those seemed like the most exciting and essential jazz albums from Miles’ oeuvre for a young man to get to grips with.

But, whilst Bitches Brew can take some getting to grips with as you go about unravelling its immense tapestry of sound, rhythm, melody, and texture, In A Silent Way clicked with me straight away. Maybe it was the fact that I’d already digested a handful of CAN albums as a 17 year old? Or perhaps it’s just that this mesmerising, mellifluous amalgamation of electric pianos (two of them, and an organ on top), slinky bass grooves, insistent high-hats and insouciant, beatific, late night melancholy-and-cool-at-the-same-time trumpet and saxophone riffs is, purely and simply, an absolute pleasure?

I’ve never met anyone who knows In A Silent Way and didn’t love it. It occupies a similar territory to CAN’s Future Days and The Necks, and paved a trail that would be followed by a host of ambient musicians and other minimalists and experimentalists for years to come, as well as pioneering production techniques that only The Beatles had ventured towards previously, and which would soon become commonplace throughout pretty much all pop music.

I say it a lot in reference to the records I bring along to DRC, but In A Silent Way is one of my favourite records ever (I bring them because I love them dearly!). But what will Graham, Rob, and Tom make of it?

Tom listened: Well, Nick is being a little disingenuous there as he already knows what I think of it. For me, In A Silent Way is the best jazz record I have ever heard… by a long shot. But then, I’m not sure just how ‘jazz’ it is. This is something else, it exists in its own little group of one, a unique record that is a blissful meeting place of be-bop, fusion and african rhythms, loops, crazy organ sounds and a hypnotic groove that keeps you guessing right up until the last few minutes when Miles eventually lets rip in the (frankly orgasmic) kaleidoscope of sound that had been promised for the previous 35 minutes. This is not one of the best jazz records ever, it is one of the best records ever…and if you think you don’t like jazz and haven’t heard this, reserve judgment until you have!

Rob listened: Beautiful and timeless. I hadn’t heard it before, my Miles go from ‘Birth of the Cool’ to ‘Kind of Blue’ and then run out. I get Tom’s opint about this seeming to sit in a class of one. ‘In a Silent Way’ sounds like it’s always existed. To an extent it was unsurprising in that its moods, if not its moves, have been copped so many times since then that they have become part of the culture. It’s slightly disorienting then to face the facts that this sound, this approach, this type of record had to start somewhere, that this it where it DID start, and that, based on my scant experience, none of its celebrants, or imitators have come close to its accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine anyone not loving it. But then, I have a limited imagination.

Graham Listened: Well I’m one of the people Tom points to in  last sentence. Lets be clear here. I’m not about to grow a goatee, buy a beret and start attracting people’s attention by saying “hey Cat”, but I may just have been converted. Wonderful feeling of motion and groove. Need to tread carefully along this path to avoid falling back in to previous prejudiced view.

Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers: Round 21 – Tom’s Selection

This used to be my favourite record. Now, twenty(ish) years on, having re-aquainted ourselves properly after a while apart, I am as astonished by this monumental piece of work as I was when I first tentatively placed my stylus in the opening groove of (the frankly gobsmacking) Stroke It Noel all those years ago. It was love at first listen. It so easily might not have been. I got lucky!

Big Star’s 3rd album has a complicated history. Due to all sorts of messy record label wranglings, the album failed to see the light of day at the time of its recording and hence the tracklisting when PVC (the cover above) finally released the album in 1978 was different to the one that Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson had initially decided on. When Rykodisc re-released the record in 1992 they stuck more closely to the original playlist…but it makes little sense and completely alters the feel of the record. PVC got it right! So my first impressions of Big Star’s 3rd (and Big Star for that matter) were so overwhelming that the record could never fail to win me over. Had I bought the Rykodisc version, I would have initially been faced with the fine enough, but awkward, rocker of Kizza Me which makes an excellent, contrasting track three (after the lush strings of the aforementioned Noel and the equally beautiful, Jodie Stephens penned For You) but just doesn’t really cut it as a first track. Nick, who owns the Rykodisc version, actually took a photo of the track order from my record sleeve as it dawned on him how the record is completely transformed with a few alterations to sequencing.

The PVC copy tells the story of one man’s descent into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human soul imaginable. By the time he wrote the songs for 3rd Alex Chilton had sniffed big time success with The Box Tops and watched it disappear over the horizon as he picked up the pieces of a disastrous record label relationship with Stax that led to the first two Big Star albums selling diddly squat when they should have been competing with Led Zepp IV, Harvest and Ziggy. And it’s these circumstances that makes 3rd so special…here is a man with nothing to lose, in the depths of despair and at the height of his musical game. So we are offered a poignant and rare insight into the human condition, the dark night of the soul, perhaps second only to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and maybe even more impressive as 3rd doesn’t have the weight of what happened next colouring our judgment. Chilton’s voice is so vulnerable, so weak and so affecting. It’s not the record that is broken, it’s the man. The PVC track order makes total sense because the darkness becomes more and more pervasive as the record progresses until we reach the pitch black triptych of Big Black Car, Holocaust and, to top it all, possibly the greatest song ever written to have no discernible rhythm (hell, let’s face it, possibly the greatest song ever written full stop) the immense car wreck of a song that is Kangaroo. Yet Chilton saves the absolute killer punch for last (on this version at least)…the sweet enough sounding but scarily bitter and sarcastic Thank You Friends, in which he thanks, ‘all the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so PROBABLE’. God, is he pissed off!

When I purchased Big Star’s 3rd I had no idea music like this existed. This was prior to Teenage Fanclub’s weak assimilation of the Stax records’ power pop, when barely a week went by without a music publication having some retrospective or other on the band. I remember a feeling of huge excitement upon first playing 3rd, imagining all the other lost classics I had yet to hear of, waiting for me to discover them. I thought there would be 3rd’s all over the place, and whilst I have made innumerable wonderful purchases over the years, few (if any) have affected me in the way this amazing record has.

Nick listened: I bought the Ryko CD version of this well over a decade ago, whilst I was at university, alongside Big Star’s debut album, #1 Record. The Ryko version claims to be closer to Chilton’s intention, but having heard the songs in this order, it seems like even more of an insane jumble now than it did back then; the Ryko version runs the exquisite Stroke It Noel straight out of the back of the Holocaust / Kangaroo double-bill of desolation. This PVC version arranges the songs into a narrative of disintegration, which sounds wanky and rockist but which honestly makes each moment more affecting. I’ve loved many of the individual songs from this record since I first heard them, and could sing along with them all, but it’s not a record I dig out often at all, and that’s not merely because of how much of an emotional slog some of the songs can be.

Of course, Chilton abandoned the record and left it for dead before it was finished, and then ignored it for 40 years before his untimely death two years ago, so there is no ‘proper’ running order (or cover artwork). In fact, it wasn’t even meant to be a Big Star record; apparently it was supposed to be released under the artist name ‘Sister Lovers’

Anyway, a great record, and a harrowing document of the frustrations and heartbreaks of someone who tasted success as a teenager and then spent the rest of his life trying to catch it again, and failing.

Rob listened: I never liked Teenage Fanclub. I thought ‘A Catholic Education’ was dull and the stuff that came after drippy and pointless. I suspect I might like the former now if I went back. However, I dislike them even more after this evening. I avoided Big Star for 20 years because of the number of times I was told that Teenage Fanclub’s schtick was channeled untampered with from Alex Chilton’s band. Why bother seeking out records that would sound like the boring Fannies? Brilliant. Thanks a bunch.

I thought ‘Third’ was mesmerizing, chilling, sweet and cruel in equal measures. All the way through I found myself thinking ‘this is a record I could love’. Through all our meetings thus far I’ve never felt the need to shut up and listen as much as I did during these 40 minutes – stronger even than the need to tell Nick to shut up and let us listen during the preceding ‘In A Silent Way’. It’s ‘In a SILENT Way’ Nick, not ‘Shrouded by Chatter’. I think this is the most affecting and captivating thing i’ve heard yet at Record Club.

Graham Listened: This has to be the most remarkable record I have heard yet at DRC. A thing of beauty. The only 2 tracks I had ever heard were Kangaroo and Holocaust, courtesy of covers on 4AD’s It’ll End in Tears compilation (featuring the Cocteau’s) in early 80’s. It was a joy to hear their original versions. Somehow this gave rise to a debate about whether you could recognise something as being an awful cover version, without having heard the original. Even though I had never heard Lou Reed’s original version, in 1984 when I heard Simple Mind’s version of Street Hassle, I knew it was just, wrong.

Big Black – ‘Songs About Fucking’: Round 20 – Rob’s choice

I bought ‘Songs About Fucking’ shortly after it came out. I was 16. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d read a couple of reviews and, having noted the discussion of the drum machine, the grinding bass and the cover version of ‘The Model’ I was expecting something like a heavier version of New Order.

I got the record home, snuck it upstairs past my parents, played it once and immediately hid it under a stack of much older records. I was petrified. Never heard anything like it, never even contemplated that anything like it might even exist out there. I can still remember how my room looked the day I first heard the record, and still taste the horror, disgust and fear that I was left with. I hid it away so I didn’t have to think about it and it was six months until I played it again. That was 25 years ago. It’s been one of my favourite albums for about 23 years now.

‘Loud’ is a slippery theme, but I chose ‘Songs About Fucking’ because, more than any other record i’ve ever heard, it absolutely seethes with volume. Not only can you hear the tracks straining, pushing and pounding to burst out of their own skins, but you’re left in no doubt that, if they do manage to break free, they’ll go straight for your throat (probably to give you a ‘Columbian Necktie’). I have many records which are more shouty, have more rocket-powered guitars on them, have more frenzied beats, gunshots, howls, bits of metal being obliterated by industrial machinery, but none of them possess a spiritual loudness, an unquenchable violence in their DNA, their soul, like Big Black’s second and last album.

Steve Albini used a drum machine in Big Black because he knew where he was going and he knew no human drummer could keep the beat as quickly, consistently and relentlessly as he needed. The drums on this record go off like a pounding rail gun. He played his guitar with metal picks to which he’d attached industrial metal chippings so they would give a sound like two guitars being played at once. The guitars on this record buzz, squeal, scrape, fizz and skinng (Albini’s word for the sound) like wild animals being dragged towards a meat grinder. Albini has an reputation as a misanthrope which may be unfair, but this record lays out a cast of characters none or whom you would want to meet were they to step off the vinyl.

‘Songs About Fucking’ has inspired some great lines from critics since its release, many from writers who shared my initial repulsion but realised also that to make something this effective, this driving, this brutal, this memorable is an achievement that deserves recognition. Look ’em up, google the title (no, really), they’re worth it. I think it represents the end of something. It’s not possible to take this line of attack any further than Albini and his fellow sociopaths did here.

It’s just 29 minutes long. I’ve been listening to it for 24 and a half years since I retrieved it from it’s hiding place and still, after all that time, it never fails to give off one hell of a charge. Every single time. I can’t think of any other records I own that can hold a candle to it in that regard.

Nick listened: I know Rob’s been pondering how record club would react to noise since its inception, and threatening to bring this album along every fortnight to find out… Big Black are a name I’m very aware of, but not a band I’ve ever been tempted to taste for myself, despite the fact that I’m a big fan of the sound Albini engineers in other people’s music; on finally hearing this, my hesitancy was warranted, because as much as I might love the sound of Electrelane or Nina Nastasia (and their songs) and even In Utero (as long as you tweak the bass and treble settings as suggested in the booklet), this is a very different record indeed. I’m very glad I’ve heard it, and I “enjoyed” it more than I thought I would – the fact that the noise was used as a vehicle for recognisable song shapes (and, of course, one very recognisable cover) made it much easier to consume; I guess I’d been vaguely fearful that the songs themselves might not exist at all. That it’s brief certainly helps too. I doubt I’ll be buying my own copy, but I’m glad Rob’s got his, and loves it so much.

Tom Listened: I thought this was great…and I didn’t really expect to! In fact, Songs About Rumpy Pumpy (just in case the kids ever read this) has probably been the biggest surprise for me since we started DRC. Whilst the sound of the record was not far from what I expected, there was much more space and dynamic range than I thought there would be, with barely a sniff of that heads down thrash your fingers until they bleed hardcore rifforama that has always put me off. And there were melodies. And it wasn’t terrifying in the least. Now I just need to find a way to smuggle the sleeve past the kids! Not one for long car journeys with the family.

Graham Listened: I knew this album for its reputation, and more chiefly, its cover. I prepared my self for the aural onlsaught, but hey, it wasn’t that scary at all!

Screaming Trees – Dust – Round 20 – Graham’s Choice

A loud theme opened the door to a band I had been thinking of bringing along for a while, partly to test the water on whether I was out on my own as an admirer of their work. I’m not really sure if I have a “nodding” category in my meagre collection, but the Screaming Trees would definitely fit in there. Whether in the car or at home, involuntary head movements quickly follow when this and the previous 2 albums  are played.

I think I came across this band through some kind of TV/radio documentary exploring the American Grunge scene in early 90’s. The band had been around since the mid 80’s and Dust was finally released in 1996, after a four year gap in releases and abortive attempts to record. This was their 3rd release on a major label and their 7th and final studio album. On that basis it might be expected that the band was running out of steam and the album would reflect this. What I get from Dust is an album where the band seem to be enjoying themselves, free from some constraints of what they might have been expected to produce in the past and more confident in their own abilities and willingness to expand on their previous sound. I’m still not sure if the mellotron/organ on Sworn and Broken really works, but it certainly comes in as a surprise. Listening again, they even allowed for a little guitar heroics, most of which can be sustained by the general feel of the album. Whether labeled post punk/grunge in the past, their sound developed through their last 3 albums and here they are happily embracing psychedelia/folk/country influences on many of the tracks, without losing an easy to follow “groove”, as it were.

All of this still leaves me asking why they never enjoyed the commercial success of the other bands spawned by the Seattle grunge scene? Whether they wanted it is down to them, but timing of albums and tours doesn’t seem to have been on their side, and the Connor brothers were never going be as photogenic as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. Whether filed under “nodding” or “earthy/dirty/grungy”, still and album and band to be enjoyed.

For an “earthy/dirty/grungy” point of reference track, I managed to sneak in Sick Again, the final song on the magnum opus that is Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffitti.

Tom Listened: Screaming Trees are one of those bands that I have always meant to check out and always thought I’d quite like, imagining from what I have read that Mark Lanegan’s voice would be rough and gravelly (akin to Tom Waits at his brawliest) and the sound of the band to be right up my street. This could still turn out to be the case but, to be honest, I don’t really remember much of Dust and I suppose that may well be a problem as I am unlikely to actively seek it out…its ten songs kind of washed over me and left little impression. Over the years some of my favourite albums have had similarly inauspicious beginnings but usually there will be something that reels me in for a second go. With Dust, surprisingly for me, that certain something seemed to be missing.

Nick listened: Conversely, I’ve had this album since shortly after it came out in late 1996, and have played it hundreds of times in the near-16-years since then. I love it; for me, it’s the platonic essence of an accomplished rock record, with strong songs, great performances, rugged vocals, terrific riffs, just enough virtuosity to make it impressive without ever verging on wanky. The sound is terrific; George Drakoulias’ production and Andy Wallace’s mixing give it a rough, hewn foundation but a smooth front edge, loads of detail but plenty of heft, too. Whenever I want loud, primal, but sophisticated rock with hints of psychedelia, folk, and blues, I reach for Dust. Play it loud.

Rob listened: I also bought ‘Dust’ when it came out, but for me it was the unacceptable waning of the fire that had started in Seattle. I loved the filthy, broken, wild blues roots of grunge. Mudhoney threatening to kick through your speakers and lick your face. Tad struggling to stave of a massive coronary whilst screaming about drowning in an upturned pick-up. Kurt taking his global success and laying it all on the line with ‘In Utero’. Amphetamine Reptile records and all the disgraceful abandon they stood, or mainly laid down, for. Then there was the other line of descent, down through Pearl Jam to Stone Temple Pilots and ultimately to Nickelback. ‘Dust’ is okay, but it belongs in that half of the family. And I’m with the freaks.

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