Kitchens of Distinction – Strange Free World: Round 26 – Tom’s Selection

Over the course of Devon Record Club’s brief life thus far I have grown to love the ‘themed evening’ as it has maneuvered me to various gloomy corners of my collection that have laid dormant for many years waiting to be re-discovered. I thought the idea of a ‘Year of Release Lucky Dip’ would be interesting precisely for this reason -I don’t know why, but every non-themed night seems to see me gravitating to 1981.

The concept was this: two dips, hence a year from which a track needed to selected and a year from which an album needed to be chosen. For bonus points, try to connect the two in some way.

When I pulled out 1979 and 1990 I thought I would be fine but as I scoured various internet lists and ran my beady eye over my vinyl I felt an ever increasing sense of dread that I would have to play either (a) something so bleeding obvious it would hardly be worth bothering with (in the case of 1979 – Fear of Music, London Calling, Armed Forces, Unknown Pleasures) or (b) rubbish (in the case of 1990). Or the not rubbish In a Priest Driven Ambulence by the Flaming Lips…but we’ve already had an album by them and Rob had suggested in the last meeting that bringing an album by an artist we’ve already had would be an act so unbelievably unimaginative as to lead to instant ex-communication from the club (I might possibly be exaggerating a teensy bit here). Which is ironic given Graham’s choice for this meeting!

Anyway, nestling on the bottom shelf of my unordered collection are my Kitchens of Distinction records. Hmmm, could give Strange Free World a go, but never really clicked with it at the time. In fact I had recently played their (still magnificent) debut a couple of times with a view to bringing it to record club and had mentally filed it away as a ‘probable’. But I was intrigued to hear Strange Free World again having only played it a handful of times in the last 15 years and always sensing that I had never really wrestled with it enough…..and it hasn’t left the turntable since. What a brilliant album! What a fantastic noise married to 10 lovely, brooding tunes, dark grooves and sweet, sweet melodies. What was I thinking all those years ago when I had dismissed this as a clunky retread of Love is Hell?

Listening to both records again, I suppose the tunes on Strange Free World are harder to find than on the debut, especially on the more ominous tracks such as Hypnogogic, Polaroids and Aspray. The bass lines pound away in the gloom and Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocal delivery is almost psychotically intense. But once you’ve lived with these tracks a while, they sound wonderful, especially with the volume cranked up high so that Julian Swales’ astonishing guitar work fills the room, as it’s meant to do. These are not songs for dinner parties (back in the day KoD were possibly my favourite live act – a literally unbelievable sound for a single guitar to emit)! Elsewhere on Strange Free World there are moments of pure pop heaven (Quick as Rainbows, Gorgeous Love, He Holds Her,He Needs Her) an incredible indie anthem (if that isn’t paradoxical) in Drive That Fast and, to cap it all, the blissful, almost meditative closer, Under the Sky, Inside the Sea. You can almost see the sun setting over a millpond sea as the final blasts of trumpet disappear from the song’s coda. A wonderfully calming end to a tempestuous album that is so so much better than I ever gave it credit for. Long live the themed evening and its ability to sniff out those under appreciated gems that have been neglected for far too long!

Post Script: For my track I did play a song from London Calling. For your own bonus points can you guess which one (it’s connected to SFW)?

Nick listened: Talk Talk > Long Fin Killie > Kitchens Of Distinction: that was the line of logic that I followed (via Allmusic) about 8 years ago when I first got into KOD; I liked Talk Talk, saw reference to LFK’s Houdini being influenced by Laughing Stock, loved LFK, and then saw reference to them also being influenced by KOD. Hey presto. Whether they were or not is pretty moot (there are certainly lyrical precedents for LFK in KOD’s music); I liked them both. Strange Free World is the only one of KOD’s four albums I don’t own; I don’t know why. Of the three I do own, I like The Death Of Cool most, I think, and Strange Free World, on first listen, was similar stuff; intriguing melodies, good songs, and huge swathes of awesome, intricate, beautiful/brutal guitar noise. It was great.

However, I’ve got to take issue with Tom choosing it – the year he pulled from the hat was 1990, and Wiki has Strange Free World down as being released in March 1991! Cheat! Cheat!

Tom Responded: Well…Rate Your Music (and my LP for that matter) state it was released in 1990. So there. And besides…1990 couldn’t have been THAT shit!

Rob listened: I adored Kitchens of Distinction and was delighted when Tom whipped this out of its hiding place. For me their sweet spot lies somewhere between their debut ‘Love Is Hell’ with its stripped restraint, and ‘Strange Free World’, where they cut loose and let the electricity course through their songs like hot blood. ‘Quick As Rainbows’, the post-Love, pre-Strange single nails it, and i’d been listening to it just a few days before the meeting. It’s absolutely perfect, dramatic, direct, simple, and spine-tinglingly addictive. Patrick’s voice, Julian’s guitar, whether on vinyl or in Taunton Community Centre, where my best friend and I saw them play in 1991, were a powerful combination. Of their time, if i’m being objective, but eternally wonderful if i’m being honest.


The KLF – The White Room: Round 26, Nick’s choice

There are a lot of albums that scream out at you as being significant when you think about 1991, one of the two years I pulled out of Tom’s magic hat at our previous meeting (the other was 1980, which is where I chose my track from – Talking Heads’ still magnificent Once In A Lifetime) – Nirvana’s Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, U2’s Achtung Baby, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, Metallica’s black album, Orbital’s green album, Slint’s Spiderland, and several others besides would all have made excellent choices. But I wanted something a little less predictable…

Perhaps our most recurring discussion at record club is about intention and seriousness; how much do artists actually believe in the aesthetic and philosophy (and music) that they’re presenting, and how much are they just doing a job? If one band explodes that discussion completely, it’s The KLF, the unholy duo of Jimmy Cauty (an actual musician) and Bill Drummond (an A&R man, band manager, and artist), The Timelords, The JAMs, The Justified Ancients Of Mu MU; the most committed, irreverent, impassioned, unpredictable band there’s ever been. It’s impossible to ascertain how much they cared about what they were doing and how much they were just taking the piss. It’s also almost impossible to ascertain exactly what they really did do and what they merely pretended to do, or said they did, or lied about, or told someone else to do, or inspired. Their career is such a maze of left-turns, distractions, stunts, and outright lies that it’s easy to forget that they actually made some really awesome music.

The White Room was conceived as a film soundtrack, for an ambitious road movie of the same name that never managed to materialise. That soundtrack was supposed to come out in 1989, and the album that ended up as The White Room two years later is essentially a potted, corrupted ‘best of The KLF’, jamming their four biggest singles together with a handful of other tracks, recorded with a handful of name session musicians, singers, and rappers, who Cauty and Drummond could afford to hire because of the astonishing success of the Doctorin’ The Tardis single (released as The Timelords).

Allmusic list it as the duo’s fourth album, whilst Wikipedia suggests it might be their seventh. Given that The KLF deleted their entire back catalogue when they retired from music in 1992, it’s hard to tell. The only other one I’ve ever heard is Chill Out, an ambient trip through train noises, minimal piano, cows mooing, and more. Scarce details about their other records suggest they were, by and large, opportunistic cash-ins and ragtag compilations of singles, remixes, and corrupted cover versions. I’m sure there must be a way of finding out for sure, but to be honest I like the chaos of not quite knowing.

Any which way, The White Room is a lot more than just four “stadium house” hits and some filler; tracks like Make It Rain, Build A Fire, and No More Tears are great (almost minimal techno) tunes in their own right, and those singles, appearing in LP-specific versions that differ from the various other mixes that saw release and airplay, are as enormous and irresistible as you remember them being. Deleted for 20 years (but actually pretty easily available on import), The White Room is a mad classic, and, amazingly, as much fun to listen to as talk about.

Tom Listened: Back in the day EVERYONE loved the KLF. Their singles were indeed works of genius and it was impossible not to be won over by Justified and Ancient, 3am Eternal or Last Train to Trancentral. These were great pop tunes, great to dance to, great to watch on Top of the Pops, great to hear on the radio. Even my Mum liked Justified and Ancient (or did I dream that?). But, a bit like De La Soul, I never felt the urge to explore beyond the singles.

Unlike Three Feet High and Rising (which Graham’s wife Karen chose for our wife’s night), I thought The White Room was consistently excellent throughout and I enjoyed listening to the tracks I had never heard before as much as the big four singles. I like the fact that The KLF are hard to work out, intriguingly irreverent and, a bit like Todd Rungren on my choice for last meeting, playful and inspired. Their intentions may have been mercenary, their skill as musicians may have been negligible, they may have been taking the piss but when the end result sounds this good, what does it matter? A great record.

Rob listened: I file the KLF under ‘Outfits i’m glad exist’. It’s years since I listened to them, possibly not since they were strafing the dancefloors of my student clubbing days. Prior to this evening I would have professed to be more interested in them as a rolling Situationist spectacle than as musicians but listening to the album reminded us what great music they were capable of making. ‘Light a Fire’ in particular stood out, removing the bombast and focussing on the beauty. We spend a great amount of time at DRC discussion whether artists are serious about what they’re doing or not. No point debating this in KLF land, where it’s always 3am. Just dive in.

Graham listened: At the time I probably spent a lot of time telling people how much I hated dance bands like KLF and then would promptly finish up ‘largin-it’ on the dancefloor to their tunes every time we went to a nightlclub in my student haunts of Birmingham and Portsmouth. They probably opened up my mind to dance music as a genre I might investigate further. I was never interested in their posturing and publicity stunts, the tunes were good enough by themselves.

The The – Infected – Round 24: Graham’s Choice

It’s always seemed to me that Matt Johnson’s band never really fitted in with scenes and styles, but just got on with doing their, and pretty much chiefly, his thing.

I first came across the band in 1983 with the track Uncertain Smile getting a fair bit of airplay and appearing on free tape given away by weekly Sounds magazine. Their synth/dance/pop sound was not a million miles away from more commercial bands at the time, but Johnson seemed to be marking out a very different path with his lyrics.

After buying the official debut album, Soul Mining, I moved on to the deeper and darker sound of Infected. Again, the style and sound of this album was a world apart from anything else I was listening to in 1986. The opening title track has a very poppy sound combined with a typical bombastic mid 80’s production sound, which could well prevent a new listener exploring further. This track hints at the journey to come, but the descent in to a depraved, strange kind of Britain, along with stinging references to the USA, is just around the corner.

Rob helpfully recalled that this album was available with an accompanying full length video. I haven’t had the time to catch up on YouTube, but distant memories are that this was a disturbing watch.

Listening to Heartland again is a sobering experience. There are things happening again today in this country which echo the urban decay and social breakdown which Johnson was highlighting in 1986. He does a masterful trick in laying out all this angst and tension on catchy tunes with hooks that stick in your brain for weeks afterwards. “over the mountain tops we go, just like all the other GI Joes, EE-AY-EE-AY—-adios!”, from Sweet Bird of Truth, is still knocking around my head after 26 years!

The crazy, jazzy opening on Twilight of a Champion leads on to a final track that is no more optimistic than the rest of the album, leaving you with an image of a tortured soul with a finger on the trigger, as it were.

I expect my fellow members will trump me on this one, but I find it hard to think of a case to say to someone, “if you like XXXX, then try listening to The The’s early work”. Matt Johnson’s reputation amongst his peers, if not the record buying public, grew after this album. It’s not everyone who could find Johnny Marr wanting to join his band for the next album. I didn’t stay the course with The The and later albums remain a mystery to me. Though I’m pretty sure I have something to look forward to.

Rob listened: Never one to shirk a challenge. How’s this Graham? “If you like Phil Collins, then try listening to The The’s early work, because Phil Collins is shit”.

I had a few friends for whom The The was their big musical awakening. My sense is that for many of them it was also a dead end. They seemed to stick with ‘Infected’ and ‘Soul Mining’ as destinations rather than stepping stones. Maybe they were. As Graham has said, it’s hard to put your finger on why. They weren’t radically different to some of their peers but their feel was wholly removed. They were dark, sweaty, grimy, uneasy. I do recall finding myself sitting through the full length video for this album on Channel 4 one night in 1986 and being completely spooked by it, so much so that I avoided listening to the band in any great depth. So, i’m glad Graham brought ‘Infected’ this evening but, even 26 years later, it still sent a few shivers down my spine.

Nick listened: I bought a handful of The The albums several years ago when I was ravenously consuming stuff from the late 70s and 80s that seemed to have formed the backbone of taste for people a little older than me, but which I’d just missed out on by a few years: Wire, Kate Bush, Talk Talk, The Blue Nile, Echo & The Bunneymen, Talking Heads, Gang Of Four… there seemed to be a really rich vein of ‘sophisti-pop’ amongst this cohort; ambitious, eclectic, studio-based, unafraid of pop hooks or the mainstream, but not quite… Dire Straits, or Madonna. The The weren’t my favourite of this period of investigation (Talk Talk and Talking Heads probably win out there) but I did like them alot, especially Infected and Mind Bomb. I hadnt listened to them in ages, and it was great to delve back into Matt Johnson’s recognisable, but slightly weird, world.

Tom Listened: Well…I thought his voice was a dead ringer for David McComb of The Triffids but the songs are placed in a very different musical setting to those of the Australian band – The The’s songs seem to be very much about the paranoia of the here and now (or, to be more precise, the mid eighties) as opposed to the bucolic, arcadian beauty of the Australian outback of days gone past.

I remember back at the time being confused about The The….I recall being very impressed by a song called ‘Life’s What You Make It’ that must have come out around the same time as Graham’s offering and thought that I would buy the parent album, the recently released Infected (I also remember having a conversation with a girl who ‘wanted to get Infected’ at which my lovely brother immediately quipped ‘well, Tom’s your man’. How we laughed!) Well, it turns out that Infected was not by the other alliterative ‘T’ band of the 80s and whilst, like Nick, I feel there is some distance between The The and Talk Talk at their best, it was interesting to hear Infected at last and revel in those mid 80s (because it is very much a mid 80s kind of record) sounds again.

Todd Rundgren – A Wizard, A True Star: Round 25 – Tom’s Selection

Where to start?

I’ve been saving this one up since we started DRC – the joker in the pack – and have almost brought it to a number of previous meetings but the time has never seemed quite right. However, having inflicted some pretty dark, harrowing LPs on Nick, Graham and Rob recently, I felt Round 25 and its Spring infused optimism was the perfect time to unleash this kaleidoscopic maelstrom of sounds and styles. But would its breadth and ambition and pace be too much for the uninitiated? As Melody Maker’s Paul Lester stated in the wonderful Unknown Pleasures freebie that came with the magazine in March 1995, ‘A Wizard, A True Star was the first vinyl LP I ever bought and it may just as well have been the last’. But on first listening does it just sound like an incoherent mash up of pretty much all popular music from the late 60s and early 70s – the last album you would ever want to buy? Having owned the album for getting on for 20 years now, I can barely remember how it felt the first time the needle nestled in AWATS’s unhinged groove, so I am fascinated to know what the others thought and I am still unsure (just as they might well still be) of how it went down on the night.

Whilst AWATS was not even the first Todd Rundgren vinyl LP I bought, it is the one I have come to cherish the most, another one of those pivotal, turning point/tipping point albums where the planets align and the artist’s only urge is to make the album they need to make, irrespective of the consequences. And so it is on AWATS, right from the opening lines of the cosmic International Feel where our hero sings ‘Here we are again. The start of the end. But there’s more. I just want to see if you’ll give up on me’. Talk about setting your stall out early! Up to this point, Todd’s albums had developed from lovely if somewhat straightforward singer songwriter fare (Runt, Runt : The Ballad of Todd Rundgren), to 1972’s wide ranging but quite well behaved double album, Something/Anything. But, at some point in between S/A and AWATS Rundgren discovered LSD and the effects couldn’t have been more dramatic. Rundgren has described the experience as causing a ‘permanent destruction of his ego’ and so it is played out on AWATS – akin to that moment that happens every so often on the dancefloor when suddenly you are freed from inhibition and you don’t care whether you make a right tit of yourself or not…or is that just me? Whatever, AWATS is completely uninhibited but manages, somehow (as Rob pointed out on the night) to not sound too indulgent. How this can be is hard to pin down, but I think it may be due to the the playfulness that runs throughout the album (especially on the, frankly exhausting, first side), the lack of pretension and the obvious reverence that Rundgren reveals for those genres he is so skillfully appropriating.

It’s pointless referring to individual tunes – they really are as different as chalk and something even less like chalk than cheese. Suffice to say, the first side is the mad psychedelic side, the second side the slightly calmer, soulful side.  My favourite track changes with each listen, but my favourite sound is always the thwuuuunnnnggggggggg of the arrows hitting the trees in Zen Archer (even more than the sounds of animals having sex on the mercifully brief Dogfight Giggle). Very much of its time and place, AWATS is no Ege Bamyasi, but I love it just as much and know that if I ever feel the need for a whistle stop tour of pop music from that time, I just need to strap myself in, take a few deep breaths and enjoy the trip (pun very much intended).

Nick listened: While we listened to this I was tweeting about how nuts it is, and got into a conversation with Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music about it; Stephen commented that it had convinced him that he never needed to take acid or other hallucinogens, because just listening to it was psychedelic enough. I concurred (and explained that I felt the same way about Jane’s Addictions’s Ritual De Lo Habituel in relation to opiates). AWATS kind of sounds like the cover looks; a recognisable face, distorted and made weird and confusing echoing recognisable songs, distorted by nuts arrangements, performances, sequencing and decision-making, and made weird and confusing. Rundgren’s a name I’ve been aware of for ever, seemingly, but never listened to. I’m glad I have, though I’m not sure how representative this is!

Rob listened: I’ve been through the AWATS funhouse a few times before, clinging on by my fingertips. The only Todd Rundgren I own is a Best Of which… doesn’t really hint at the swivel-eyed kaleidoscope craziness he managed to conjure up here. I think I came to him via a sneaking love for piano rock, but on the evidence of AWATS Todd Rundgren is to Billy Joel what Captain Beefheart is to Jamie Cullum. Has to be heard to be believed and then has to be heard again, preferably after a few months’ recovery.

Graham listened: During the 80s I  always  somehow managed to confuse Jim Steinman and Todd Rundgren. It was always something about those American performers names that seem like they have been invented create a bigger impact (in fact I can still remember collapsing with laughter when watching a West coast TV news channel being hosted by Kent Shockneck and Flip Spiceland). Anyway, for that reason I spent many years thinking Todd Rundgren was responsible for Meatloaf’s and Bonnie Tyler’s success.

In fact that state of confusion could have been helpful in approaching listening to the first half of this album. I’m not sure being completely lucid/sober is that helpful. During the first half of this I laughed, cracked strange facial expressions and almost felt a few moments of pain! That’s my review of side 1. Side 2 felt like it should be available for GP’s to prescribe for those who have listened to side 1. Very strange.

Bon Iver – ‘Bon Iver’: Round 25 – Rob’s choice

Bon Iver - Bon IverI’m excusing myself from describing what this record is. If by some minor miracle you haven’t come across Bon Iver in some form or other then there are forests of deads trees and millions of fading web pages available for you to brush up.

I brought this album along for one reasonably straightforward reason. I think it’s interesting and worthy of discussion for lots of reasons (and I also think it’s terrific) but I know that both Tom and Nick have already passed over it with little intention of returning. Tom, I suspect, because he hasn’t given it sufficient chance, Nick because he’s taken an irrational dislike to Justin Vernon and has little or no intention of redressing that (nothing wrong with irrational dislikes of course, at least when it comes to art – I like some of my own dislikes very much thank you, and would hate to see them go). This record is, in my superficial view at least, very similar in some important ways to records which they both revere.

Most previous meetings have been driven by the desire of the players to present music which will surprise and either delight or challenge the others, perhaps a name they’ve heard but music they have not. So it felt a little odd to be offering an album released in the last twelve months which went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, topping several end of year lists and eventually scooping a Grammy.

For me, ‘Bon Iver’ works in two important ways. Firstly, it shows Justin Vernon as an artist striving to move his music into new territory. Presumably nothing would have been easier for him than to disappear back to Wisconsin to record ‘Cabin In The Woods 2’. Instead he worked with other musicians, began to craft pastoral sound sculptures with Volcano Choir and ultimately developed a new approach which combined the intimacy of his debut record with the epic scale and complexity of the landscape he grounded it in. He has a painterly technique on this second album, layering sounds to build up immersive scenes.  It’s a huge leap from his first, more than those of us who loved ‘For Emma…’ had any right to expect, and he pulls it off majestically.

Secondly, it’s a just a beautiful collection of sounds and songs. It swoons, dips and soars and even if Vernon’s lyrical obfuscations take some panning to reveal their precious metal, the way he uses his voice as an additional instrument, or suite of instruments, creates a canvas awash with raw emotion.

To summarise, I think this is a great album, I knew that the others might disagree and figured that would make for an interesting discussion. And so it proved.

Nick listened: Taste is a funny thing, contributed to by so many factors, many of which are either so irrational that they can’t be explained, or else so rational that they don’t make any sense – for instance not liking a band because you don’t like their fans and don’t want to be associated with them, even if, on an aesthetic or emotional level, you actually do respond positively to the music. It’s rational, on one level, but denying yourself the pleasure of their music doesn’t make sense. And so on and so forth.

So, Bon Iver, who I still insist on pronouncing like Ivor The Engine. The first album got raved about. I bought it because it’s named after my wife. I thought it was boring off a couple of listens, put it on the shelf, and ignored it. Still people went on about it. And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and so on and so forth, to the point where I refused to listen to it ever again and became irritated by the mere thought of it. Then he worked with Kanye on the monstrous abomination that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then someone bought him a Talk Talk album or something, and Pitchfork made him album of the year, and I listened to it and it was alright but why is he doing that awful thing with his voice? So I ignored it, again, and, in conversation, played up my dislike for kicks. Because its fun to irrationally dislike things with comic intensity!

I actually quite enjoyed listening to it for a second time, in record club context. If I saw it for a fiver (HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE FIVER, EH?! IT’S NOT BLOODY FEE-VEHR, IS IT?!) I might buy it and listen to it some more.

Tom Listened: I too liked this album a bit more than I had previously on listening to it at record club, but not THAT much more. And I was a big fan of For Emma. I think there are a couple of fundamental differences here for me and I am not sure any amount of listening will enable me to overcome them.

The first is the juxtaposition of Justin Vernon’s singing and the sound of the record itself. On For Emma, Vernon’s hushed, plaintive falsetto fitted the intimate, mainly acoustic instrumentation and created a fuzzy warmth and familiarity I found reassuring and enjoyable. Whilst not pushing any envelopes, I thought that For Emma…was a natural place for Justin Vernon to inhabit and its soundscapes fitted his vocals like the proverbial glove. I can appreciate the risk Vernon has taken on Bon Iver. It is admirable  that he has looked to move on, not just make the same record again. I just feel that has looked in the wrong place. Without those warm tones (maybe Rob feels warmth in these songs, maybe he doesn’t need to), I find his voice to be faintly irritating, until Calgary that is, when he drops out of falsetto mode and, for me, it suddenly (and all too briefly)just clicks into place.

Playing Bon Iver at DRC has made me more predisposed to give this a few more listens and I am glad that Rob brought it along (I suspect he’s right in stating that I haven’t listened to it enough)…it’s just that I probably enjoyed the discussion more than the record itself!

Graham listened: By virtue of one of the minor miracles that Rob referred to, I arrived at this meeting from under my rock, with no concept of what Bon Iver would sound like. I’ve heard the name and that was it. While fellow members firmly set out their respective positions on this album, what I could hear sounded very interesting. Not that I was looking for revenge but hopefully Tom has forgiven me for my phone interrupting Calgary with news of Andy Carroll’s late winner at Blackburn.

Since the meeting I’ve listened to bits of the album again and the multilayered and complex sounds are really drawing me in. I’m finding the vocal style a major stumbling block at present, but some of that could be the influence of the discussions on the night. Time will tell…………


Sly and the Family Stone – Greatest Hits: Round 25, Nick’s choice

Sly and the Family Stone’s 1970 Greatest Hits collection was my introduction to the band, after hearing I Want To Take You Higher played on the radio by the singer in a current band I liked. I made a beeline for the record shop, and Greatest Hits was the only thing on offer; my inner teenage rockist almost certainly wanted a proper album, but beggars can’t be choosers. It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d realise the esteem this ‘mere’ compilation is held in – Christgau describes it as “amongst the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time”, and in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it number 60 in their 500 greatest albums of all time.

This esteem is because Greatest Hits quite simply houses some of the best music ever made, even though it was devised as a stop-gap to fill time while Sly himself was going mad (more on that later). Sly and the Family Stone, a revolutionary multi-racial group at the time, surfed their way through so many different styles, grooves, melodies, and emotions from 1967 to 1969 that it boggles your brain – they’re ostensibly a rock / soul band, but they were keystones in developing funk and psychedelic music, and they traversed boundaries at will.

Greatest Hits combines all the band’s singles from the albums Dance To The Music, Life, and Stand!, plus a couple of charting b-sides that accompanied those singles, another album track from Stand!, plus three stand-alone singles that followed Stand! in 1969. (Sadly it misses the splendid Underdog from their debut album, 67’s A Whole New Thing). Rather than arranging songs chronologically, the sequencing starts with the epic, heavy funk of I Want To Take You Higher (from Stand!) and finishes with Thank You (Falettineme Be Mice Elf Agin) (one of the stand-alone singles), which function amazingly as bookends. The ten songs between range from the plaintive, heartening Everybody Is A Star to the deranged jerking groove of M’Lady, and the beatific sunshine piano-pop of Hot Fun In The Summertime. I own the albums most of these songs come from, and this order is still the way I prefer to hear them.

Even if you don’t recognize the songs themselves, Sly and the Family Stone have been sampled left, right, and centre, and not just by prime-sampling-era hip hop acts like Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, NWA, Queen Latifa, Arrested Development, Stetsasonic, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Common, Pharcyde, KRS-One, Mobb Deep, Jurassic Five, De La Soul, Missy Elliott… they’ve also been sampled by Primal Scream, Fatboy Slim, Janet Jackson, Beck, Alanis Morrissette, Four Tet, Skinnyman, DJ Shadow, Kid Rock, Pizzicato Five… The list, quite literally, goes on, and on, and on.

After Greatest Hits, Sly and the Family Stone were a transformed band, never the same again. Things started to hint at negativity a little on Stand! (for instance the racial unease of Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey – not included here), but 1971’s infamous, paranoid, cocaine-psychosis-blur There’s A Riot Goin’ On sounded like a different band because it was; Sly himself played almost every instrument, his band disintegrated by his erratic behavior and cavernous drug consumption, as he recorded on the same tapes over and over again until he’d obliterated song after song, hence the infamous muddy tape-hiss sound. There would still be good music after Riot, but nothing as free, as hopeful, as vibrant, as life-affirming, as the material the Family Stone recorded in those first three years together.

Edit: In quick response to Rob, below, Sly and The Family Stone simply don’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic very well – I get the idea from American contacts and friends that they’re held in massive esteem and regard, and hold a huge place in popular culture, that just isn’t reflected or understood over here.

Rob listened: This was a lot of fun while it was on and playing spot the sample is always enjoyable, even if it more often than not leaves me worrying about how quickly my memory is degenerating these days. Clearly hugely influential, Sly and co. have perhaps been denied their place in the pantheon of pop, presumably thanks to Mr Stone’s disintegration. There’s no obvious reason that we should know all the hits by Stevie Wonder or the Bee Gees or The Beach Boys or whoever and not by this bunch. But we don’t. For now they’ll go back on the ‘artists i’m ashamed to say I don’t really know but don’t really feel like i’ll have time to snuggle up to any time soon’ list. Enjoyed hearing them though.

Tom Listened: Worryingly for me, I pretty much agree with everything Rob has written! I enjoyed this, but imagine I would like the paranoid, darker tones of There’s a Riot (a record I have always kept an eye out for but never seen for sale on vinyl) more as I enjoy darkness and paranoia (see recent offerings: Babybird, Big Star, Anais Mitchell, Kate Bush). Sometimes a little cheesy, but always fun and energetic, this was a great collection of tunes and I think it fitted the wonderful bright evenings of April perfectly. Thanks Nick.

By the way: To extend our discussion on the night,other compilations that are possibly more well known than any individual album in an artist’s discography: Legend and Standing on the beach.

Graham listened: Clear and present danger of consensus breaking out over this choice. There were some stonking (not a word I use lightly) tunes on this album. Like Rob says, it almost criminal that some of these don’t have the status of ‘classics’ by the other artists we hear so frequently. If the sun was shining and I had a convertible car, I would be reaching for the 8 track of this and go cruising with the window down and elbow out. Its great that a quick hit of such music can evoke feelings like this. Not sure if the Afro wig would suit me though?

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced: Round 24 – Graham’s Choice

It is pretty hard to ignore Jimi Hendrix, but I managed it until 1982. I then came across a quirky American independent film called Purple Haze.

The film focussed on American teenagers in the late 60’s,Vietnam and the soundtrack of the period. The film subsequently almost disappeared from trace as a result of disputes about permissions/royalties related to the soundtrack, but I now knew about Jimi.

I have always had the inevitable greatest hits albums, which was an easy way to get hold of the recognised hits. Only recently did I decide to buy this remastered debut album and give it a go.

Remembering it is 1967 and his first album, it is simply astonishing.

It’s easy to get hung up on the unfortunate guitar histrionics side of the Hendrix legacy, but listening to this showcases the breadth of his creativity. Yes the riffs and the ‘rocking out’, are there, but so are the blues, the psychedelia, jazz and experimentation with the instrument itself. The freedom and energy of doing something new, simply jumps out of this album.

The rhythm section of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding keep the sound structured but also find moments to show off a little themselves. The bonus tracks of the remastered album give you the additional hits like ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, all rushed on to the laterUSrelease of the album.

Strange that Hendrix broke through first in theUK, but listening to this debut again, it was inevitably  only a matter of time until the US caught on.

Rob listened: We are now farther away in time from the release of ‘Are You Experienced?’ than the date of its release was from the beginning of the Great Depression. I used to have a friend called Clive Glew who looked after Hendrix duties in our house (Clive – if you’re out there get in touch!). I don’t have anything else to say that Bill Hicks doesn’t cover here:


Tom Listened: I don’t like Bill Hicks and I don’t like Jimi Hendrix.  I guess these two dislikes may be connected. I did like the long, mainly instrumental track (Third Stone From The Sun I think) at the end of the album and I was pleased Graham gave me the chance to have a proper good listen to Hendrix again (I was convinced that this would be the time it finally all clicked into place) , I just don’t find guitar pyromaniacs played over solid, if somewhat unimaginative, bass and drums to be all that interesting. Kind of my equivalent to Graham’s feelings about Sonic Youth!

Nick listened: He just played guitar better than anyone else. It’s really that simple. As discussed on the night, there may have been people since who could technically play more notes faster or do my dexterously difficult things, but they (Yngwie Malmsteen?) are not as famous as Jimi Hendrix for good reason; they play crap.

Notably in our house, Hendrix is the only of the late 60s / early 70s canonical guitar heroes that Emma can stand; Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin are both banned, and neither of us have ever even investigated Black Sabbath or Deep Purple. But Em and I both really like Hendrix, pretty much everything from all three studio albums. (For my money, Axis might be the best “cohesive unit”, but this and Ladyland have probably his mightiest peaks).

I think what’s so special about Hendrix is his rhythm play, and the sense of fun and exuberance and sensuality that comes through that. Sure, he can riff and solo and show-off with the very best, but when he just plays a tune, explores it, adds that funky (for want of a better word) edge to it, he transcends all the onanistic fretboard-tapping show-offs in the world. Which is why I think Tom’s wrong here; it’s really not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about the fun and the imagination! (I also think Mitchell and Redding are a tight, exciting, perfect rhythmic partnership for Hendrix.)

Billy Bragg – ‘Talking With The Taxman About Poetry’: Round 24 – Rob’s choice

I heard about Billy Bragg before I heard him. Someone in the school playground marvelling, snorting, about a hooting idiot hollering about a milkman on TV the night before. It sounded like a weird joke and he clearly thought it was.

Bragg doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he was doing over those first few records. He used what he had at his disposal, a voice which would make the word ‘untutored’ blush with shame, and an electric guitar, and he made something substantial, moving and provocative from them. What he did to his guitar, slashing, chopping, fighting with it, making jagged, shattered folk music that sounded like it had been dug from a quarry, would have been lauded if Steve Albini or Annie Clarke had made the same sounds in the 90s or 00s.

His first few albums, from ‘Life’s a Riot…’ to this, his third, form a brimming songbook. Bragg’s voice masks a beautiful sense of memorable melody and dozens of his songs are fine singalongs, aligning him once more with the English and American folk traditions.

The songs switch between pamphleteering politics and adolescent love poetry. Some, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, see these as signs of immaturity in Bragg’s lyrics. I think there is plentiful room for both. Young men will always moon after unobtainable women and men of all ages will always reduce complex politics to brut slogans. It’s interesting however to reappraise some of these old favourites and to realise that where as as 16 year old I thought they were about dangerous women who left betrayed men behind just because they were boring, now they seem to be at least as much about strong women who are rightly fed up of weak men.

Lack of sophistication (or of pretension) doesn’t always reveal lack of depth. Sometimes it’s an attempt to speak directly to the listener. In this Bragg at his best, like his hero Woody Guthrie, is a master.

Unfortunately on the night my slot came up as the takeaway arrived which means the group missed some of Billy’s choicest lines (“How can you lie there and think of England/When you don’t even know who’s in the team?”, “I wished I’d done Biology/For an urge within me wanted to do it then”) and Nick, who claims never to have heard the shattering, heartbreaking ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ still hasn’t.

Nick listened: Definitely a victim of bad timing in terms of the curry arriving, I didn’t take much of this in as Rob suggests, but Billy Bragg is definitely a character I’d have time for in the future. I actually really quite like his voice, which I hear as loaded with personality, and his lyrics are about the most humanising take on political songwriting that I’m aware of. On the surface of it – broadly acoustic singer-songwriter with funny/heartfelt/political lyrics, this isn’t really my bag, and I can’t see myself rushing to buy up his oeuvre, but I definitely think of him fondly.

Tom Listened: I can recall my oldest best mate, Alex Phillips, getting into Billy Bragg when we were in our early teens (somewhat against type as he subsequently went to public school, had an all male ‘wine’ club whilst at university and generally veered strongly towards the righter end of British politics) and I remember feeling shocked that anyone so tuneless could actually manage to sell records or be given a recording contract. It took a couple of years for Levi Stubbs’ Tears to come along and make me realise that Mr Bragg had a fine ear for a tune AND the ability to pull it off on record. And said tune still sounds magnificent, even if only Rob and I managed to resist the temptations of Bollywood Spice long enough to hear it through. The rest of the album sounded fine but I can’t help thinking that, yet again, Rob’s offering suffered from being an interrupted listen and I don’t feel that I was able to listen carefully enough to the second side to make a properly informed judgement. So, another one to file alongside Macarthy in the ‘need to listen again…sometime’ drawer.

Graham Listened: I had really overlooked how much I used to like Billy Bragg. I don’t know why I stopped listening to this and his other albums. He is a national treasure, but also still hugely undervalued. This must be addressed, vote for Billy !

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