David Bowie – Low: Round 31, Nick’s choice


Many years ago as a gauche 18-year-old I interviewed a band for my fanzine, and asked them all what their favourite song was. The drummer replied “Life on Mars”, and was incredulous when I had to ask who it was by. A couple of years later I decided to properly investigate Bowie. I knew he was a cultural behemoth, a chameleon, and I knew he’d worn a bad shirt and danced with Mick Jagger when I was a kid, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue. His catalogue was remastered and reissued on CD at about the same time (1999) which was serendipitous, and I picked up a handful of his 70s albums – Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Heroes, and Low.

Ever since then I periodically binge on Bowie, not out of adoration or affection but out of curiosity; I want to get him, to understand what his significance and genius is. Sure, there are songs from across his catalogue that I enjoy (and plenty of them), and even some that I’d profess to love, but I always feel like I’m observing and attempting to comprehend rather than being excited or nourished by his music.

And Low is the album that I have most wanted to love, that I’ve spent most time thinking about, listening to, trying to get to grips with. It’s his running-away album, where he escapes (or tries to) from LA, from drugs, from stardom; his first album done as himself rather than as a character (maybe), the first of the Berlin Trilogy (even through most of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger wasn’t actually recorded in Berlin), a truly experimental record in that the songs are the result of experiments much of the time. It’s the Bowie album that ought to be catnip to me, but I’ve spent more than a decade not quite getting it.

This year I’ve spent more time with Low than ever before, and finally, after reading Hugo Wilcken’s 33 & 1/3 book on the album, I think I’ve finally cracked it. Certainly, knowing more about the context that brought Low into being – the drug-chaos of Station to Station (Bowie: “I know it was recorded in LA because I read it was”), the idea that Low was a realisation of the destructive behaviour patterns Bowie had become entrenched in, a documentation of his physical escape to another place (side 1), and then an exploration of his “self” in that place (side 2) – opened Low up to me in a way that just listening to it in a vacuum, decades after its release, never quite had.

Learning about the dynamics of the album’s recording was informative too; the importance of the way Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and David Bowie worked together (Eno as collaborator, not producer; Bowie as conductor and composer rather than “song” “writer”, perhaps), made the songs structure and sound make more sense – the long passages without vocals, the way side 1 is more like glimpses of songs than full songs, the R’n’B rhythm section, crazy synthesizers, metallic guitars. It’s not right to call the second side ‘ambient’ – the instrumentals there have more going on than true ambient music, and whilst they lack the vatic beauty of Eno’s most sublimely minimal work, they’re imbued with more emotion (if confusion is an emotion).

In many ways Low is similar to Another Green World (which came out two years before), but where Eno’s record is pastoral and rural, Bowie’s is arguably cultural, urban. Of course it’s not quite as simplistic as that, because nothing ever is, but Low is definitely a record about interiors – of buildings and cities and ones’ own mind – whilst Another Green World describes landscapes. (Ironically, Another Green World was largely recorded in central London, whilst much of Low was produced in the French countryside.)

Low sounds stranger, deeper, more affecting and more groundbreaking to me as time passes. It seems to predict a huge amount of postpunk and new wave, music that sprang up, according to historiography, in the wake of the punk revolution that came to wash away the indulgence of 70s superstars like Bowie. But between Low and Tom’s choice on the same evening, we were left pondering if punk was really as necessary, and revolutionary, as we’re told it was?

Tom Listened: As Nick has suggested, Low rewards a measured approach and definitely requires a careful listen. This is head music of the highest order and the more I’ve learnt about Bowie’s intentions with regard to Low, the better it has sounded. Listening at record club, the instrumentals at the end of the album really shone – there is so much more going on than I realised and I am keen to immerse myself in them some more. I guess this is a problem I have with CDs – the last few songs on an album get played far less often than the initial tracks. I listen to vinyl side by side, very rarely lifting the needle half way through. Sure, I could alter the way I listen to CDs…but for some reason I find it very hard to skip to a track that is two thirds the way through and start there. I digress…getting back to Low, a fabulous album, in my book just a notch below Station to Staion in the Bowie discography but wonderful just the same.

Rob listened: I missed the boat when it came to Bowie. By the time I was switching on to music the airwaves were full of ‘Modern Love’ and ‘China Girl’. I already knew I wasn’t interested in Phil Collins, so why would I bother with Bowie? None of my friends at school, college or university were into Bowie so whilst I was exposed to the Beatles, Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, T-Rex, Hendrix and Nick Drake, no-one ever pressed a Bowie album into my hands and the boat slowly sailed away.

I’ve tried to go back to him. I own ‘Low’ and the three albums that followed it. They’re okay. ‘Low’ certainly sounded better at DRC than when I’ve listened to it half-heartedly previously. Still, it’s cold music, at least to my touch. I find much to be impressed by, much to admire, but little to spark a fire in me and little to engage other than, through familiarity, the singles. Perhaps that’s a clear signal that I just need to give him more time. Perhaps i’m just six months behind Nick, as I’m sure I am in so many ways. For now, however, I really don’t think I get enough from Bowie to bother trying much more. I understand his influence, his boldness, his at times unbridled creativity but I just don’t care for his music enough. This makes me a philistine. Whatever, I’ll live. For now i’m with Alan Partridge.

Interviewer: “Who’s your favourite artist?”
Partridge: “David Bowie.”
Interviewer: “Oh yeah? What’s your favourite album?”
Partridge: “Erm… David Bowie’s Greatest Hits?”

As for punk and it’s perceived ‘necessity’ or lack of (which seems to have been an undeclared theme of the evening) it’s a false debate. It happened. It was influential in its own way. Much of the music we love wouldn’t have been the same without it, much perhaps would. If you’re happy to trace the influence of the Beatles (or Bowie or whoever) and claim, quite correctly, all sorts of influence for them, then you can’t just nominate other bits of musical and cultural history and decide that everything would be the same if they hadn’t happened.

Graham listened: Like Rob, when I was starting to discover alternative/indie music, Bowie appeared to me to be wholly mainstream/corporate. I’ve always viewed him with some suspicion and questioned whether his chameleon like changes are driven by his art or clever commercial marketing. I’ve never been able to get my head round the way his music can span such a breadth of style and quality (to my ears anyway). Not that he’s bothered but I don’t trust him. My angst has just been compounded by ‘Let’s Dance’ coming on the radio. I’m therefore really annoyed that this was such a surprising and great listen.

Adam and the Ants – ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’: Round 30 – Rob’s choice

This is the first record I ever bought. I was 9.

I may not have made many retrospectively cool choices as a child, teenager, adolescent or, to be comprehensive, adult, but I think having ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ as a first record and Public Image Limited as a first gig both stack up. Perhaps I should have quit back then. My cache was never higher and has been worn away gradually but relentlessly by a string of poor hair choices, ridiculous jumpers and, most recently, lyric-heavy choices for Devon Record Club. But enough about me.

The backstory is reasonably well known, but bears repeating. After a dark, sexy first album ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ which failed to make a commercial impact, Adam Ant hired Malcom McLaren to help his band break through. I guess they had a few conversations about pirates and then Malcolm, bless him, persuaded the entire band, minus Ant, to jump ship and form the backbone to Bow Wow Wow. Cheers!

It’s worth noting that very few of the horses McLaren backed during his time as a svengali actually romped home to victory. Even so, what happened next is delicious. Bow Wow Wow went on to middling success marked by bluster and controversy, mainly rooted in McLaren’s apparent willingness to exploit 15 year old Annabella Lwin’s sexuality to promote their records. Ant recruited a whole new band including, crucially, Marco Pirroni (briefly a member of Siouxsie and the Banshees), wrote a bunch of new songs and recorded ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ which went on to begin one of the oddest and most wonderful crossover smashes in pop history.

If you weren’t there it really is hard to grasp just how big Adam and the Ants were around the release of ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ and its follow-up ‘Prince Charming’. More noteworthy than just the fact of their success was the impact they had in the playground. In 1980/81 no school disco was complete without a small clique of lads wearing Adam Ant’s trademark white line across the nose. The pirate image clearly struck home with a younger audience, but when you factor in just how chart-unfriendly the material was, both musically with its aggressive, alien drumming and heaving vocals, and lyrically, all sex, death and insect invasions, we can only imagine what that generation of parents must have been thinking as they listened in outside our doors, and can only speculate on just how many youngsters had their musical and cultural outlook completely radicalised by this apparently throwaway bunch of pop dandies.

And now? The album’s high points still stand up. The clatter of ‘Antmusic’, the clubbing war cry of ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, the creeping horror of ‘Ants Invasion’ and ‘Killer in the Home’. There are some tracks which seem clearly to have been written just to match the new image, step forward ‘Jolly Roger’, but in all it’s a pretty good listen and one which  can hold its own pretty well against some far more renowned albums of the first phases of post-punk and new wave.

Perhaps its main achievement was to show that genuinely challenging and downright weird music really could cause a breach in the fabric of pop. I can’t think of many acts to have equalled Adam and the Ants in this regard since. Frankie Goes to Hollywood? Eminem? Slipknot? Any more suggestions?

Tom Listened: Much like Simple Minds (see round 29) I came to Adam Ant at precisely the wrong time. Unlike Simple Minds and their turgid Dad rock, Adam Ant’s problem was an ever greater reliance on gimmicky imagery and style over substance. So having narrowly missed out on Stand and Deliver, my first exposure of him on returning from three years of life in the Antmusic free zone of the South Pacific was, if I remember correctly, the vapid self-parody of Puss in Boots. I was not impressed, even though my new found mates seemed to lap it up…if you’ll excuse the pun.

But Kings of the Wild Frontier sounded wonderful at DRC…fun, obviously, but much less throwaway than I had expected. Dog Eat Dog is a brilliant opener and having just watched a TOTP performance of it from 1980 it is easy to see why the band became so massive – there is a conviction of purpose and an edge that makes it totally captivating viewing and listening, these guys really do seem to think they’re…pirates!?! Whilst the album Rob brought (of course it’s not true that this was his first record, he just chooses not to count those Nolan Sisters albums) picked its singles wisely, there was surprisingly little filler and it offered an unexpectedly (to me) enjoyable end to the evening, although the cover of Antmusic by Hyno Love Wheel (?)  didn’t really add much to the experience!

Nick listened: Adam Ant was one of the first pop stars I was ever aware of – Stand And Deliver and Prince Charming are pretty indelibly burnt into my brain. But I don’t think I knew anything from before that (to be fair, I was only 2 years old when the Prince Charming album came out), and certainly wasn’t aware of his postpunk roots or involvement with Malcolm McLaren and the whole Bow Wow Wow saga. I’ve only heard Antmusic consciously in the last few years, but it’s a great piece of music, and Stuart Goddard was definitely onto something, as this whole album (bar the ostentatious pirate song towards the end) was great fun and impressive. Wasn’t so fussed by the cover after the original was so good, though!

The Walkabouts – Satisfied Mind: Round 30 – Tom’s Selection

Until about 30 minutes before we met, I had little intention of playing Satisfied Mind to Rob and Nick. But while listening to my intended choice – Maxinquaye by Tricky – I decided that although it still stands as a monumental piece of work, it was just too well known by myself and my fellow members. Seventeen (!) years on from its release, Maxinquaye has not lost none of its power to astonish, but perhaps its ability to surprise has diminished – I felt on listening to it the other day prior to the meeting that I had pretty much worked it out already, that listening again would be unlikely to reveal anything new and therefore I switched at the last minute to an album that I know far less well but admire all the same. And although none of the album’s worth of covers on Satisfied Mind sound as radical or daring as Tricky’s amazing re-working of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Satisfied Mind achieves something elegant and subtle in the way it unites old and new into a pretty much seamless whole.

Satisfied Mind is a lovely, blissful and predominantly calm(ing) hour’s worth of vaguely traditional American sounding music that is unlikely to change your life but is, for me, a rare treat – an easy listen that does not tire with familiarity. It sets its stall out early with the title track, a lilting, gentle waltz that is perhaps reminiscent of Tom Waits at his most tuneful or Nick Cave in his Boatman’s Call phase. It comes as no surprise then that Mr Cave himself gets the treatment on the second track (Loom of the Land from Henry’s Dream) and the comparison of these two covers serves to highlight the album’s rationale. By linking a well loved standard of the 50s to a song written by the man who gave us Junkyard, The First Born is Dead and The Mercy Seat, the Walkabouts manage to strip away the accoutrements of the original arrangements, suggesting in the process that music of different eras is much more closely connected than we sometimes realise.

The challenge for the evening was to bring two versions of the same song and on the night Free Money by Patti Smith was the cover of choice for no better reason than that I have always found Nick Cave’s Loom of the Land a bit of a snooze, I love John Cale’s Buffalo Ballet but we’ve already had an album by him and I don’t have the original of any of the other songs on the record. But, for me, it’s the lesser known tracks they cover (Robert Forster’s The River People, The Carter Family’s The Storms are on the Ocean and Will You Miss me When I’m Gone, Shelter for the Evening by Gary Heffern) that work the best. But the jewel in the crown has to be the unimpeachable Feel Like Going Home, an immense slab of American music that navigates a astonishing breadth of musical territory in its eight and a half minutes, starting off with a simple guitar motif, reminiscent of Dead Flowers from Sticky Fingers and ended in a gloriously electric slow-burn.

The Walkabouts on Satisfied Mind do a fantastic job of creating an affecting and affectionate homage to American folk, indie, rock and punk and, in so doing, serve to remind us that these genres are much closer relatives than they might at first appear. And whilst it might not change your life, it’s surely worth a listen?!

Nick listened: To be frank, I really wish Tom had stuck to his guns and played Maxinquaye and Public Enemy’s original version of Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos, as I think it’d have inspired a lot of debate. Certainly more than The Walkabouts managed; there was nothing wrong with this album of covers, and, not knowing most of the songs, it hung together rather admirably, it just didn’t really do it for me. I know the alt.country aesthetic is catnip to some people, but beyond a bit of Lambchop and Wilco it’s not really a genre I’m interested in.

Rob listened: I was expecting to hear Maxinquaye at some point this evening. It was the first thing that sprang to my mind when Tom chose his ‘same song, two different records’ theme. I don’t think i’ve quite worn it out yet, but I understand where Tom is coming from. Ultimately I wavered away from choosing ‘Slanted and Enchanted’, despite really wanting to play the lovely Tindersticks version of ‘Here’, for similar reasons.

I think i’m mostly with Tom when it comes to the record he did finally choose. Despite only really knowing a handful of the songs, or perhaps for that very reason, ‘Satisfied Mind’ hung together pretty well as an album. As I recall the discussion was pretty good. I remember getting wound up at one point about whether the chap singing was deliberately choosing his vocal lines to avoid being shown up by his female companion, who was streets ahead of him. Sometimes records can just be pleasantly pleasant, and this seemed like one of those.

Michael Head and The Strands – The Magical World of the Strands; Round 30, Nick’s choice


Tom challenged us to bring a track that was “the same song” as something on our album choice for our latest meeting; queue much pondering regarding what might constitute something being “the same song”; cover versions, remixes, live takes, Peel Sessions, re-recordings, reprises, songs that evolved into other songs.

I thought about bringing Screamadelica and I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have from Primal Scream’s previous album, to show where Loaded came from. We all thought about Tricky’s interpretation of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos by Public Enemy. Rob mentioned the relationship between Tricky’s Overcome and Massive Attack’s Karmacoma. I thought about Red Sails from Lodger, which is essentially a track from Harmonia’s Deluxe (except that I’ve already played Deluxe at a previous meeting). I considered Sly and the Family Stone’s Higher from Dance to the Music, which was re-worked two years later into I Want to Take You Higher.

This got me thinking about what makes a song, what the central essence of the art is; if with classical music the score is the essence, and if with jazz the live performance is the essence (Teo and Miles obviously obliterating this notion from 1969 onwards), then, with rock/pop, is the recording the essence? Apparently Boys Keep Swinging and Fantastic Voyage from Lodger both (very deliberately) have exactly the same chord sequence and structure, while Move On is the chords from All the Young Dudes played backwards! Then I thought about Kanye West rapping over Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up, and the Jamaican Dancehall trend of MCs singing different ‘songs’ over the same backing tracks. I thought about The Stone Roses flipping the tape of Waterfall backwards, mumbling over the top of it, and pretending it was a new song.

Then, after considering and discarding so many things, I looked at my pile of DRC potentials, and was struck by an album I’ve been meaning to bring since we started, which features an instrumental reprise of a song from a previous incarnation of the same group.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about The Magical World of The Strands before, telling the stories behind its strange conception. Track six is a reprise of Undecided from Shack’s previous album, Waterpistol, and offers strange echoes of Mick and John Head’s past.

The Magical World of The Strands itself is a beautiful, strange record, in thrall to Arthur Lee’s Love, The Byrds, Nick Drake, The Beatles, and pastoral English folk music, yet somehow hermetically sealed from the world around it, a wistful, delicate, lovelorn universe of its own. It’s a damaged album made by a recovering heroin addict, which is nonetheless amazingly crafted and emotional. The songwriting on display is never less than exceptional, and, in Something Like You, reaches the kind of peak that very few composers of popular song can even comprehend, let alone achieve; it’s a near perfect love song.

The Pale Fountains, Shack, The Strands, and then Shack again: Michael and John Head have tried time and again to break into the public consciousness and always been denied. It’s a shame, because this record is exceptional.

Rob listened: I enjoyed parts of this, but, I dunno. I never really got the Shack as Great Lost Band thing. I saw them supporting The Fall in, I guess, the late 80s and they never really caught fire for me. I’ve given ‘HMS Fable’ a couple of goes over the years but… it’s all a bit meh. I found the sound of ‘The Magical World…’ really rather sweet, and the back story intriguing. Two or three of the songs really managed to nuture a lovely glow particlarly, if I recall correctly, the one John sings. However, I never really got Love either, I don’t get bands who set out to create pitch perfect recreations of bygone bands and sounds (and I could certainly picture one N. Gallagher nodding along appreciatively to this) and ultimately I didn’t get this, at least on first listen. Referential, reverential but not, i’m afraid, revelatory.

Tom Listened: I have been keen to hear Shack related music for a long time now – I remember Uncut magazine going nuts (not Nuts magazine going uncut – that’s different!) for HMS Fable at the time of its release but The Magical World didn’t really do it for me – in fact my feelings towards this album very closely mirror Nick’s in relation to Satisfied Mind by The Walkabouts. A pleasant enough sounding album and possibly one that will reveal itself over time but, in direct contrast to Love’s Forever Changes (which it didn’t much resemble to be honest), it didn’t leave much of an impression on a first listen (for the record, I absolutely hated Forever Changes the first time I heard it, but it intrigued me nonetheless and went on to become a favourite album of mine).

Simple Minds – Sons and Fascination – Round 29 – Graham’s Choice

File:Sf-front.jpg

 After the last meeting, I felt a more quirky offering may be due. I consulted my carefully compiled list and factored in listening environment, temperature and wind conditions (pre-takeaway).

Pulling this out of the archives was really inspired by Nick, following his Harmonia selection and mentioning he had picked up a couple of early Simple Minds albums. We may have already banned the word “journey” from DRC, but before we do, it’s a subject that keeps coming up for discussion as to how artists/groups progress, and the how and the why they ended up sounding (and sometimes behaving ) the way they do. Listening to any Simple Minds album post 1982, is a very different experience to anything prior to that date, and certainly not something I have done for 30 years. There is not much to connect the bombastic stadium rock “la,la,la,la’s” of ‘Don’t you forget………’, to the work of their first 4 albums.

I  bought New Gold Dream (5th Album) in 1982 when released. Thought it was great and still give it a listen now and then. Not sure it is quite the “classic” that some seem to revere it as now though. That inspired me to go through their back catalogue and see what else the band had to offer. From that period, this album is probably my favourite, but ideally I would like to borrow a third of their third album (or is that a ninth?), ‘Empires and Dance’.

‘Sons and Fascination’ was originally issued in 1981 with a bonus album ‘Sister Feelings Call’. I still have both, and ‘the American’ and ‘Wonderful in Young Life’ are probably the stand out tracks from the bonus offering. The tracks on both albums are heavily influenced by krauktrock/European themes/post-punk dance styles, producing an album which, while not truly original, still sounds interesting.

The first and last tracks on the main album, hint at the more sophisticated sound that would appear on ‘New Gold Dream’, but through most of the album there are driving bass lines and drums, along with edgy/aggressive guitars and vocals laid over a synth sound which vary from lush to sparse. ‘Love Song’ is the only really commercial sounding track on the album, but its more of a 80’s dance club song than any sort of  stadium sing-along. I’ve read some reviews which suggest the band lost their way/overstretched with this album, but to me, along with ‘Empires and Dance’, it represents their best and most interesting work, producing a sound sometimes reminiscent of a highly polished Joy Division, blended with a large dose of Kraftwork.

How they got from this to ‘Alive and F****ing Kicking’, is a blinking mystery to me, but one hell of a “journey”.

Tom Listened: One of the biggest surprises for me since DRC kicked off. I came to Simple Minds at the exact point when they went bad. The first Simple Minds song I remember hearing was Waterfront which was stodgy AOR at best (having just reminded myself of it on youtube, it is still as horrible as ever…those drums!!!). At the time, I remember various fellow sixth formers urging me to go back to the earlier albums claiming they were nothing like the bloated nonsense of their mid 80s output. I never did. But now that I have heard Sons and Fascination I have to concede that my SMs loving peers were right.

Interesting from the off, a little cold for my tastes perhaps, but a revelation in terms of how different this sounded to the stuff I am familiar with. How can a band eliminate all the positive influences from their sound (Joy Division/Krautrock/early Bunnymen) in the space of a couple of albums? Why they would do it is depressingly obvious – look at how the sales of their work rocketed – but how could they bring themselves to do this when they were previously producing music this vital is beyond me.

Rob listened: I’d like to associate myself with the comments of the member above, with the exception of his experience with sixth formers. I’m a year or so younger and by my time in sixth form the earnest young men were urging me to listen to Prefab Sprout, rather than early Simple Minds. I ignored them, naturally.

Otherwise what I found most interesting in the discussion of ‘Sons and Fascination’ were the notions of why Simple Minds changed so drastically after ‘New Gold Dream’. I have no idea, but I think it’s at least possible that rather then striking out for new territory as a deliberate move, they simply ran out of the sort of spiky ideas and diverse influences that make this record interesting, started making blander, and to compensate, louder, music thereafter and thus found themselves drifting onto the mainstream radar. If there’s even a grain of truth in that, then I think it makes their ‘journey’ even more interesting in it’s second half, even if their records were most definitely not.

Nick listened: As Graham mentioned, I’ve bought a couple of Simple Minds albums this year, following a piece in The Guardian about a box-set of their first five records, which greatly talked up their postpunk, krautrocking credentials. Intrigued, only knowing them at all from Don’t You Forget About Me, I picked up Real To Real Cacophony and Empires and Dance. I wouldn’t say I had my mind blown, being pretty familiar with all the ideas and influences that Jim Kerr and friends were mining, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sons & Fascination was at least as good as Real To Real or Empires.

Regarding Simple Minds’ career path, I find it vaguely amusing / intriguing that they appear to have taken an exact opposite arc to Radiohead / Talk Talk, in moving away from experimentalism into brash stadium-isms. I’m not as disenfranchised as Tom in their decision to do this in the first place, but I am always intrigued by the way that bands who seem to arrive at success after a few albums then seem to be victims of their own (and maybe record label) expectations in terms of how they then shape their music; i.e. once you’ve sucked the devil’s cock, it seems difficult to stop gulping and go back to where you were beforehand.

The Breeders – ‘Pod’: Round 29 – Rob’s choice

The Breeders - PodI’d had this in mind to consider for a DRC meeting for some time. Perhaps bruised by the recent realisation that I had only previously chosen one female singer (i’m going to add Low to bump that total up to two), The Breeders elbowed their way to the top of the list for this week.

I hadn’t listened to ‘Pod’ for a while and I was surprised when I came back to it. My recollection of it is so heavily influenced by the first Peel Session the band recorded, with Steve Albini, and which was broadcast before any of their music had been released. Specifically the song ‘Iris’, which at the time I found so disorienting, so much of a wallop to my sense of musical right and wrong that i’ve never forgotten it. I was actually surprised to find ‘Iris’ nestling part way through side 2 of the record. It grows and grows in my memory to the extent that I would have sworn it led the album off and that the rest of the collection merely trailed in its wake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The real wonder of ‘Pod’ is the strength and certainty of all the songs. ‘Glorious’, ‘Hellbound’, ‘When I Was A Painter’, ‘Only In 3’s’, ‘Lime House’ and pretty much everything in between stands up as blunt and intense songs which challenge without being alienating.

There’s something about the directness of Kim Deal’s approach to songwriting, to her guitar and voice, that is unmistakable and, in it’s own way, unimproveable. In theory The Breeders were a genuine collaboration, at this stage at least, and Tanya Donnelly must take credit for bringing sunshine to ‘Fortunately Gone’ just as Jo Wiggs’ influence can be clearly heard in the dark undertow of ‘Oh!’ and ‘Iris’. But somehow this still sounds like Deal’s record (I know, she’s the singer..). I don’t think she necessarily gets the immense credit she deserves. Memory can be deceptive, but listening back properly now it seems to me that not only was ‘Pod’ the best Breeders record, it was also, with the exception of ‘Surfer Rosa’, quite possibly the best record Kim Deal ever wrote and played on.

Nick listened: For some inexplicable reason I don’t own Pod, despite thinking Gigantic is the best Pixies song, thinking Cannonball is one of the greatest singles ever released, and owning the other three Breeders records. This was really good, and I’ve added it to my list of things to buy. There’s really not much else to say.

Tom Listened: For some inexplicable reason I have a huge amount of affection reserved for the Pixies, despite only ever really liking Surfer Rosa. I was slightly disappointed with Doolittle for which I probably had unreasonable expectations, but listening again it still sounds forced and overly deliberate. The open and natural rawness of SR is more of an act on Doolittle it seems to me. From then on it was always going to be a case of diminishing returns as Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde went on to prove.

As a result, and despite being well aware of their output as I was an avid John Peel listener back then, I didn’t bother bothering with The Breeders. This felt like a mistake when I heard Cannonball for the first time, but still I held off. I seem to recall reviews at the time suggesting that the albums were patchy with high highs but quite a few fallow patches.

Well, Pod seemed to contradict this assessment – it sounded consistently high quality on the night…but also surprisingly dated. They don’t make them like this anymore and I suppose Kim Deal had such a distinctive way with melody and playing the bass (and the Pixies were so influential) that it comes as no surprise that this is a record very much of its time yet none the worse for it. Nice one Rob.

Graham Listened: This choice really highlighted an issue for me. I like the Pixies. I like Throwing Muses (even saw them live). I like The Breeders. I’ve enjoyed listening to all of them over the years,   but never felt inspired enough to go and purchase any of their albums. I really enjoyed listening to this album and I could happily listen to it again. I guess it could be down to a period in time when I fell out of love with American music (refer to Round 14 and blame REM) at end of 80’s. When I returned years later and started listening again to what our colonial cousins had to offer, I guess I picked up on things like Pearl Jam/Nirvana/Screaming Trees and had missed out on quite a lot. My loss, I suppose.

Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen: Round 29 – Tom’s Selection

In most cases, my offerings at DRC meetings have been ‘on the list’ for many months beforehand. I don’t think my list is as organised as Nick’s or as considered as Rob’s. And I don’t think Graham really does lists. But I certainly have a mental roster of probables, possibles and definites – it’s just that, despite owning it for a couple of years now, until recently Steve McQueen didn’t feature on it at all.

I picked up Steve McQueen (not literally, that would be ridiculous, seeing as he’s dead and all) from the stall in Newton Abbot market  – a case of predetermined purchasing that I occasionally indulge in…as in, ‘I’m going to go to the stall and I’m not coming away without a record’. So I bought it because I knew it was something I should have in my collection. It was something I was supposed to like and there wasn’t anything else that was more (or, more probably, remotely) enticing! I somewhat halfheartedly played it a couple of times, out of a sense of obligation really, when I actually felt like playing something else, something new and vital (and probably nowhere near as good) but I always made sure it was when I was only half listening – probably whilst doing the hoovering or with the dishwasher whirring away – so I wouldn’t be wasting a ‘proper’ listen on something so unlikely. You see, I’ve always hated the band’s name and I’ve associated Prefab Sprout with hot dogs and jumping frogs and Albuquerque and being fey. Their sound to me was all cheesy 80s synths and cheesy 80s girlie backing vocals. The chances of me ‘getting’ Steve McQueen were minute before I even listened to a single note. To compound matters, this is not an album that rewards a casual listen. Its complex structures and melodic twists and turns can sound like a total mess with only half an ear and a tenth of a mind on the job. So it went back on the shelf to gather dust and disdain.

Until, that is, I sat down and had a proper listen. And boy, that first side just blew me away. So I played it over and over, only occasionally venturing into the more oblique, abstract musical landscape of side two. But that was fine because side one was all killer, no filler.  And then, as so often happens, side two starts to worm its way in so that eventually you can not even remotely understand what it was that was getting in the way in the first place. So now I love it all, from the opening romp of Faron Young which is so deft in the way it writhes from one passage to the next, through the plaintive soundscapes of Bonny, When Love Breaks Down and Desire As to the funk(ier) work outs such as Moving the River and Appetite and on to the final thrilling crescendo of When the Angles. And possibly the trickiest song of the lot, the bizarre and (at first listen) clunky Horsin’ Around. Well, that’s probably my current favourite. How that can be when it sounds so much like Matt Bianco is beyond me, but it charts some amazing musical territory in its four and half minutes and, like all the best songs, the realization of its brilliance is all the better for being so hard won.

On the night, Destroyer (in particular Kaputt, which is a bit of a DRC favourite) was mentioned on many occasions. The similarities are obvious and pretty much irrefutable but I have to say that whilst I think both albums are amazing, I (whisper it)  probably prefer this one…for the time being at least.

Rob listened: What a strange, smooth and slippery record this is. As a teenager in the mid 80s, already enamoured of The Smiths and following the dots to other acts, Prefab Sprout were one of the doors open to me. I never got them. Just couldn’t see the appeal at all. Thinking back, and listening now to ‘Steve McQueen’ for the first time proper, I can hear why. There’s so little for a hot-blooded young man to get hold of, and the record puts no hooks into you. How odd then to listen properly nearly 30 years later, years in which the sounds and styles of ‘Steve McQueen’ have seeped into the culture to the point where Dan Bejar can gain Album of the Year plaudits for fetishing them. Sounded great, start to finish. Still no hooks, but enough sparkle to draw me back to look at its shiny surface again.

Nick listened: I really enjoyed this, too. The opening track was like a strange, distracting curveball, an awesome groove that had nothing to do with the rest of the record, and then things settled comfortably into the smooth, jazzy-pop territory I’d expected – I read about Steve McQueen and the rest of Prefab Sprout’s oeuvre whilst ravenously devouring Kaputt last year, and they;d been on my mental list of things to investigate. So I’m very glad that Tom solved that for me, and I’ve added this to my list of things to buy, too.

As an aside, much mirth was caused by reading that The King Of Rock’n’Roll is about a musician being haunted by his one uncharacteristic jaunty novelty single becoming a massive albatross of a hit. Oh the irony.

Graham Listened: For many of the same reasons listed by Rob, I actively chose to ignore Prefab Sprout during the 80’s. They sounded too ‘ clever by half’ to me and the way that much of the music press fawned over them, added to my determination to avoid them. My resolve cannot of been that strong, as by 1988 I had bought the album which followed Steve McQueen (which has the ultimate 80’s fashion pic’ for a cover!). I still view them with some suspicion, but this is a great record and really good to hear it again.