Tag Archives: 1980s

You Won’t Need to Cry – new single out today

Well, I have to apologise for having made no progress on the last More Live Gonzos piece I was planning. Coronavirus has made this a very strange, quite stressful couple of weeks (at work, not for health reasons), and I’ve had no spare mental energy at all. I do plan to get back to it, but it may be a couple more weeks.

A few months ago, before any of us had heard of Covid-19, I recorded a couple of songs I’d written that leaned more towards indie/power pop than the kind of thing I normally do. I liked both songs and, more importantly, liked the recordings I’d made of them. They didn’t seem to fit on the EP I’m making with Mel or the album I’ve been working on forever, so I thought I’d release them as the A and B sides of a single.

The A side is called You Won’t Need to Cry. I wrote it very quickly just before new year. Mel gave me a new effects pedal for Christmas (a Leslie speaker-style modulation pedal by TC Electronic) and the song’s main riff/chord progression was pretty much the first thing I played when I sat down with it for first time. As sometimes happens when you’re playing around with ideas, it didn’t sound like a few strung-together chords – it sounded like an actual song’s intro, so I got to work.

The washy modulation effect on the guitar sounded a bit early 1980s to me, so I was thinking in those terms aesthetically, and went for a different kind of treatment than usual: a drum loop (taken from my actual live playing on Make it Last and slowed down a little), palm-muted bass and guitars, and double tracked vocals and harmonies. Mel added some extra oohs with me in the middle eight, and supplied the cover image (taken from the top of St Paul’s one night last summer).

The other song, Hard to Begin, is slightly older, written in late August last year and recorded in, I think, October or November. This one has a live drum track, quite loose and Ringo-y. I like the extended chord sequence in the verses and the general McCartney-ness of some of the changes. I guess if it sounds like anything, it’s a bit Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.

The songs are available on my Bandcamp for streaming and download (player embedded below), and you can also find them on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music and so on.

I hope you have a chance to listen, and if you like them, please do share them.

Stay safe, everyone.

 

 

 

 

Sue – Frazier Chorus

Well, another general election result in the UK I can’t bring myself to think about, let alone write cogently about. So, instead, here’s another piece about a little-known 4AD record. This time we’re looking at Sue, the debut album by the Frazier Chorus.

We can file this under: “Not for everyone”.

Frazier Chorus were a four-piece band when they released Sue in 1989. While that initial line-up contained a flautist (Kate Holmes, later of Technique and Client) and clarinet player (no bassist, drummer or guitarist), the band was essentially a vehicle for the songs and voice of Tim Freeman (older brother of actor Martin Freeman) and each record the band released featured a different line-up.

Freeman’s whispered sprechgesang and the band’s rather rinky-dink programmed beats and synths, decorated with touches of flute and clarinet, make the Pet Shop Boys sound like AC/DC. They sound a little like a synth-pop version of Belle & Sebastian, five years or so before the fact, and a similar bleakly cynical outlook to Jarvis Cocker in Freeman’s observational lyrics.

There’s some good stuff here. Storm, with its insistent synth cellos, is really effective; Sloppy Heart, which was Ivo Watts-Russell’s favourite and I gather was the song that got the band signed, is a neat indie-pop song; opener Dream Kitchen sets out Freeman’s musical and lyrical stall within 35 seconds (the lines “your life’s too good to be true; I think I’ll ruin it for you” was when I felt like I cottoned on to what Freeman was up to).

But some of the songs – usually the ones that gesture towards jazz or contemporaneous sophisti-pop – exist in a strange place where the combination of synths and acoustic instruments feels bland rather than exciting; the intro of 40 Winks sounds like the theme of a forgotten ITV sitcom from the mid-1980s, and Sugar High’s perky keyboard and faux-marimba is a similar low point. Over the course of 11 songs, Freeman’s limited voice becomes a bit of a problem too.

The best three or four songs on Sue are definitely worth a listen, but I’m not sure the recipe works at album length. I wonder where Ivo was coming from with Frazier Chorus. They feel like an odd fit for 4AD at the time, when the label’s most vital bands were the Pixies and the Throwing Muses, and the Cocteau Twins were just about to hit their peak with Heaven or Las Vegas. Perhaps he wanted just wanted to sign something small scale and intimate. A curio, then.

 

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

Bachelor Kisses – The Go-Betweens

I wrote about Robert Forster’s memoir, Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a piece I wrote after a few days spent revisiting the band’s music.

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

Formed in Brisbane in the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens began life as founder Robert Forster’s concept. Obsessed by rock ‘n’ roll and its history, he desperately wanted to be a musician, but he found bandmates who shared his vision hard to come by. He suggested to his closest friend, Grant McLennan, that maybe he should get a guitar and join the band. McLennan, though, was a film nut and wanted to concentrate on that passion, not become distracted by music. Not to be deterred, Forster kept working on him until McLennan agreed to give bass guitar a go.

To Forster’s delight, his friend had a natural ear for melody, quickly developing a bass style that complemented Forster’s terse guitar chords. McLennan soon started writing songs, too. Always a hard worker, he was prolific and – more so than Forster – tuneful. McLennan wrote the band’s early masterpiece, Cattle & Cane (a reflection on childhood from the point of view of a young man on a train bound for the parental home), and followed it up one album later with the first song by the Go-Betweens that sounds like it should have been a hit.

Bachelor Kisses, from 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, is built on one of those open-string tricks that guitarists love*. In the verses, McLennan shifts bass note while playing an almost-arpeggio on the open B and G strings. The implied chord sequence (C / D / G / A minor) is standard stuff, but the reliance on the open strings extends the harmony into something more like C major 7 / D6 (add11) / G / Am (add9). His vocal melody, while fairly static, avoids obvious root notes (he frequently sings yearning ninths), and is complemented by a graceful counter-melody in the chorus by the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva.

Another telling detail is the performance of Lindy Morrison. The band’s drummer was also Forster’s girlfriend, and her relationship with McLennan was uneasy and tense, yet she produced much of her most inspired work on McLennan’s songs, as on the tricky 11/4 time Cattle & Cane. Here, her decision to play the verses in half-time, only shifting to tempo for the bridges and choruses, and moving back to half-time for the middle eight, is astute and key to the song’s balance of tension and release.

Despite the efforts of producer John Brand to shine it up, Bachelor Kisses is perhaps still too skeletal to have been a genuine commercial hit in 1984 (maybe a couple of years earlier it might have been a contender), but it remains one of the great treasures of the Go-Betweens’ catalogue.

 

Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens – Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens (published in 2016) is as good as rock memoirs get.

Its focus on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan is key to what makes it so fascinating. There are no shortage of rock bands built on the relationship between two key creative protagonists, but books about them tend to focus on their rivalries, disagreements and power struggles. McLennan and Forster had a period of estrangement in the 1990s, during which they made solo records and Forster lived with his new family in Germany, but the Go-Betweens didn’t break up because McLennan and Forster no longer wanted to work together. Their relationship stayed fairly harmonious all the way along, and the pair picked up again pretty seamlessly in 1999 to make The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster, then, has no axe to grind, and his love and respect for McLennan is evident from the first page until the last.

So much so, it should be said, that he pulls a few punches. While his accounts of McLennan’s drinking and depression shed a great deal of light on his death of a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster doesn’t discuss MacLennan’s heroin use, which has been well documented elsewhere (most notably in David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens), and which may have contributed to his later physical and mental ill health. Perhaps Forster wanted to spare McLennan’s family and former partner, but it is a notable omission in a book that’s otherwise so candid.

What I loved about the book, though, and what kept me reading it more or less in one sitting on an overnight flight from Portland to London during which I couldn’t get to sleep, was Forster’s retelling of the band’s early years – their hopping back and forth from Brisbane to Melbourne to London, their alliances with like-minded Scottish indie groups Orange Juice and Josef K, their adventures in the West London demi-monde with Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party, and their struggle to ever stay on the same label for more than one album cycle. Forster brings it all alive vividly in precise but engaging prose, and shows how one good song by either of them could compensate for cold and uncomfortable lives lived in squats and Dickensian shared houses.

Forster’s a sound judge of the band’s best work, and his willingness to highlight McLennan’s work rather than his own speaks well of him, as does his his honesty in admitting to sometimes feeling envious of McLennan’s greater musical facility. McLennan was, I suppose the better melodist, and on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane his hookier songs were more natural choices as singles, but Forster was always the heart of the band, and it’s fascinating to read about the songs he wrote, and how he views his process. The passages about Forster’s relationship with drummer and former partner Lindy Morrison (who emerges as a difficult, somewhat domineering figure in Forster’s telling) are similarly illuminating.

It’s rare to find a book about a band, especially ones by musicians, that I’d recomment to a non-fan, but Grant & I is a rare exception. It’s funny, wise and humane, and a priceless look at the world of 1980s indeoendent music from a man who lived it.

 

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

29-trouble-boys.w700.h700

*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

Never Any Clapton, Part 2 – Hello by Lionel Richie

I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.

By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louis Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.

The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco). The jazz cats took with them into pop session work not only an advanced knowledge of harmony and a keenly developed sense of melody, but an ability to bring that training and experience to their playing in the moment.

Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo on Hello is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic.

He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, who has only recently developed anything close to a decent string bending technique on electric guitar, I love hearing a solo that doesn’t use the technique yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.

Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.

In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.

Louie SHelton

*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.