Raw Power, Iggy & The Stooges 3rd album, the first to be credited to Iggy and… and featuring a slightly different line-up to the late 60s version is a loud, abrasive, violent album. Danger lurks around every panther-snarled verse and every slash of razor blade guitar. It’s uneasy listening and totally essential.
Bowie and Pop, Berlin drug buddies, relocated to Germany in a failed attempt to kick their habits and, in Bowie’s case, help kick-start his pal’s solo career. They even did so in matching outfits.
You can say what you will about the drugs, but they certainly made for prodigious times. Bowie crammed in an insane amount of work over this short period of time. His Berlin trilogy of albums with Eno notwithstanding, as well as manning the mixing desk for Iggy he regularly found time to be out on the randan with a visiting Lou Reed, a combined weight of 8 stones and a generous handful of grams.
Dave, Iggy and Lou. There’s your Berin trilogy right there.
One of the first tracks Bowie and Pop tackled was Tight Pants.
Iggy Pop – Tight Pants
From the enthusiastic count-off and in, Tight Pants is overloaded gutterpunk blooze straight outta 1972; nagging, insistent, a proper primal scream of snakehip guitars with needles ramped round in the red.
There are Supremes handclaps perhaps, or maybe just a heavily slapped snare – it’s hard to tell from the cardboard box production – alongside riff upon riff of juddering guitar, vying for earspace with the Iggy barks and yelps, but far as garage band rockers go, it’s a whole lot of don’t-give-a-damn snarling fun, with a guitar solo in the outro that sounds like a wheezing tramp running over broken glass.
Tight Pants was eventually redone, louder, clearer, less murk and maybe perhaps less menace, renamed Shake Appeal and ended up on Raw Power, with Bowie firmly at the controls to ensure those needles (on the monitors not intravenously) stayed as far into the red as they could go.
Iggy & The Stooges – Shake Appeal
It’s oft-considered a sloppy production, out of step with the musical landscape of the era, but it certainly captures a proto-punk spirit that would, within a few years, be omnipresent in the underground.
Most of your favourite bands have listened to Raw Power back to front and inside out in an attempt to capture its flying majesty. James Williamson’s guitar in particular is a beautiful maelstrom of whirling feedback and ear-splitting, jagged riffing, the real star of the show in spite of Iggy’s hang-dog American drawl. Fantastic stuff. Play loud, as they might say.
In 1974’s embryonic form, Japan were a glam rock band. They had the peroxide and the platforms and the plastered-on foundation to prove it.
Vocalist David Batt, forever with an ear on the pulse and an eye on the future twisted his name into an approximation of the New York Doll’s Sylvain Sylvain. His guitar/keyboard playing brother Steve became Jansen in dyslexic homage to the Doll’s vocalist David Johansen. And to go with the name change, the music underwent an identity change of its own too. Out went the chipped polish sneer – check out their Adolsescent Sex single and album for proof – and in came a decadent and louche new sound, European in outlook and ice-cool in ethos. Dropping glam rock and the tail end of the second wave of punk like the lumpen crock of cack it had become, Japan instead took the stylings of Roxy Music and David Bowie and created a run of arty, obtuse and fantatstic tunes.
Life In Tokyo was the big one.
Japan – Life In Tokyo (12″ version)
With a golden touch production courtesy of Giorgio Moroder, Life In Tokyo is the sound of cruising Jetstreams and elongated, curved aerodynamics, the decadent sound of a high society 80s that was still a year away, with helicoptering synth lines and slink-funk serpentine basslines wandering between the steady 120bpm disco beat with all the sashaying grace of a Bond girl in a Monaco casino.
Moroder got the band to play live in the studio, deconstructed it and then added his magic touch. Chrome and mirrored synth washes, spacey and linear, horizontal and widescreen, percussive pulsing with blasts of Mini Moog… a production as razor sharp as the cheekbones and jawlines on its principal players, Life In Tokyo is something of a masterpiece.
Sylvian’s vocals, yawning yet urgent, are the finishing touch, pitched somewhere between Roxy’s vocalist and the Thin White Duke but instantly recognisable as Sylvian in his own right. Hero worship, yet true to himself.
He might’ve had the hair and complexion that Lady Di would, er, die for, but crucially his style transferred to record. He sounds as he looks. As it spins, you can almost picture him in baggy, high-waisted Bowie breeks, a wee thin microphone held at 270 degrees and a flash of blue eye shadow beneath a blow-dried fringe of Pearl Platinum.
It’s a great record.
That 12″ version above goes on for maybe a wee bit too long, but it’s noticeable for the background noises halfway through that you’ll maybe only spot after 2 or 3 closely-monitored plays.
It isn’t, as Moroder would want you to believe, the bleeding of the track’s reference pulse, and isn’t actually the sound of David Sylvian applying another layer of Elnett either (that’s the hi-hat you’re mishearing). It is in fact Nick Rhodes and the rest of Duran Duran frantically firing up the synthesizers and cribbing notes on how to have a glamorous-sounding hit single. Felt fedoras off to them too, for they made a good fist of it, and the rest. You knew that already though.
The record books show that this week Plain Or Pan turns 14. That’s about 800 articles and a whole lot of words on a whole lot of music that a whole lot of people have never read. If you’re a regular, please accept 14 years worth of thanks for adding to the wee electronic turnstile on the side there every time you visit. If you’re relatively new, welcome! Hopefully you’ll stick around.
Wonder Y by A Certain Ratio has been spinning regularly over the past few days. If you’re a neighbour you’ve probably heard its faint thump permeate your personal space. As you disentangle the Christmas lights from your garage guttering and wrestle the real tree out to the bins, that supersmooth fluid groove that you can hear pulsing through my living room wall is the very tune. You might even have caught me sillhouetted behind the blind on New Year’s Eve as my hips succumbed to its bubbling funk and forced me into some sort of spasmodic movement you’d have the nerve to call a dance. Great tune, innit?
A Certain Ratio – Wonder Y
In the grand, expansive and eminently investigatable ACR discography, Wonder Y and its parent album, Up In Downsville, signifed the band’s era-defining move from clattering, industrial, grey-painted post-punk funk (Joy Division with better clothes, to slightly misquote Tony Wilson) to the smoother-edged, electronically driven and chemically enhanced variant.
If it were a picture, early ACR would look like the jagged peaks of the Alps. By 1992, their sound was as smooth and rolling as the landscapes of Ibiza. Sequencers and samplers take prominence over scratchy guitars. Relaxed, whispered vocals replace urgent shouty ones. The bass is more rounded, less an assault weapon and more a rhythmic dictator. The jerky elbows and awkward jut of the 80s ACR have relaxed and grown into themselves. It’s a good look.
Wonder Y takes its lead from a spoken word sample and a Kraftwerk-inspired rippling rhythm, electronic stones making concentric circles when flung into rivers of fluid mercury, and floats off downstream from there. It’s a cracker.
ACR is joined on Wonder Y by the much-loved and instantly recognisable Denise Johnson. One of the defining voices of the Manchester music scene, Denise finds her spot in the track and surfs across the top, breathy and low one moment, skyscraping and divaesque the next.
By the time Wonder Y is halfway through, man and machine are as one, melded and welded together in holy head-nodding abandon. With Denise gradually taking control of vocal duties, the track is propelled further out into the stratosphere, its analogue bubbles and synth washes, keyboard stabs and nagging, three note bass giving it the auditory appearance of a long-lost melted remix of Primal Scream’s Don’t Fight It, Feel It. Joy and precision in better clothes, perhaps.
I’m not one for end of year lists. I used to be. I used to spend hours refining ‘Best of the Year’ compilation CDs for my pals, sticking them snugly inside Christmas cards, eagerly received by the men, sniggered at by the wives. I enjoyed getting theirs in return – the contents equally considered, the sequencing just as agonised over, the sleeve art spat from equally temperamental printers. They functioned as snapshots of the year just gone, a ragbag of coulda been and shoulda been hits, now forgotten album tracks and one-off singles by artists who, for the main, have dropped off the radar.
Until the great PC crash of 2016, I’d spend a good fortnight in the run up to the festive period refining the running order of my Best of the Year double CD. Since the crash – and my steady return to vinyl – and the fact that my PC no longer has a CD drive (what’s all that about?!?) – my list making has stopped. My spidey senses no longer tingle in Springtime when a belter pops up on rotation on 6 Music. “Must add that to the Best Of,” I no longer think to myself. I’ve stopped appropriating the same volume of new stuff from the darker corners of the web too. That’s half the reason the old PC ground to a crashing, spam-filled halt. After deliberation, I buy from Bandcamp or the label or eBay or even Amazon, whenever the Cheap Records notification on my phone highlights something worth owning. And those wee download cards? Half the records I buy don’t come with them anymore. The ones that do lie unused. So my purchasing and playing habits have gradually regressed to the days of my youth. It’s records and that’s about it.
Crucially too, I listen to old stuff, if not exclusively, then certainly for the majority of time. I’m not blessed with a Rough Trade East or a Monorail or even an HMV anywhere near me, certainly not in a year when crossing county lines might land you in the jail. The one record shop anywhere near where I live is owned by an old rocker who stocks Japanese imports of Iron Maiden albums and overpriced Fleetwood Mac reissues. Tequila Sunrise by The Eagles is always playing whenever I enter and I always check in hope that that Small Faces album on display on the wall has perhaps lost a zero on its price tag, but it never has. It’ll still be there come the next Middle Ages. You won’t ever be tempted in there by racks of Waxahatchee and Moses Sumney fighting for shelf space with Taylor Swift and Fleet Foxes. Occassionally, a dip through the crates under the racks will produce a cracker that he places little value in – Scott 2 for £3, an unplayed copy of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel Mighty Real on 12″ (“Och, here, if you’re taking the XTC album (also £3), you can have the disco shit on me, you’d be doing me a favour etc etc). I’d much rather find something of value in there than splurge upwards of £25 on the latest Perfume Genius record.
With so much old stuff still to rediscover, there’s no time for the new. I read these lists on social media and, honestly, I don’t know half the acts. And the ones I’ve heard of – yer Fionas ‘n Phoebes ‘n Microphones ‘n whathaveyou, I just don’t have the time or money to invest in them. I’m sure – actually, I know – I’m missing out on a whole load of great music. But…but… it’s just that there’s still loads of stuff from the 1970s to uncover. Just as you find little time or inclination to make new friends the older you get, so too do you find less time to get into new music. It seems like a lot of effort to me. It’s not that music’s a young person’s game by any means, but the music that soundtracked the formative years is the music that makes you feel young when be-slippered middle age creeps up on you and slaps you across the top of that salt ‘n pepper hair-do. I don’t care about Porridge Radio, I’m still working my way through This Is Radio Clash and Sandinista, thank you very much.
Having said that, with apologies to the acts I’ll remember and shins I’ll kick as soon as I’ve pressed ‘publish‘, I’ve very much enjoyed releases this year from;
Blue Rose Code
Working Men’s Club
I suppose I could make that my Top 8 of 2020 – ‘in no particular order’ – and I’d fit right in.
Slow Weather – Clean Living
The Slow Weather track above is great, a gently spiralling and unfolding slow burner, a sulky Lee ‘n Nancy if picked up by one of those vending machine claws and plonked into the Scottish heartlands.
‘You’re an optimist,’ they sing in unison. ‘I’m a realist‘. Music box percussion tinkles and the track wanders its way to a treacle-slow coda somewhere between Super Furry Animals and somnambulism. If tectonic plates made, er, rock music, it might sound like this.
The truth of the matter though is that I’ve also very much enjoyed rediscovering Loaded by The Velvet Underground, De La Soul’s first half dozen singles on 12″, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, The Specials’ debut, Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, I’ve Seen Everything by the Trashcan Sinatras, Another Music In A Different Kitchen by Buzzcocks, Wire’s Pink Flag, The House Of Love’s gnarled and shimmering back catalogue and a million other things I’ll always return to – my real Best of the Year.
The polls would suggest 2020 has been something of a good year for music releases. I’ll probably be able to concur sometime around 2045 – ‘a vintage year‘ – I might even proclaim, should I still be shuffling my shoes to the groove. Not for nothing is the tagline above Outdated Music For Outdated People.
…when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.
To be fair, Jimi Hendrix said that, and it was far too long to fit on a Frankie t-shirt in any case. It’s a neat quote though, one that easily applies to the rule makers and breakers who are hell bent on prioritising their own agendas over the good of a nation who (didn’t quite) elect them, a boys club bash, an ‘I’m all right Jack’ knees up, where the joke is very much on the ordinary people. What. A. Shower. Frankie Says Revolution!
The marketing machine that rumbled behind every Frankie Goes To Hollywood release (and t-shirt) saw to it that each of their first three singles made it to the top of the charts. Coming after The Beatles and Gerry and The Pacemakers, they were the third Merseyside act to achieve three number one singles in a row, but whereas their 60s counterparts got there via non-stop touring and ubiquitous hourly spins on Radios Luxembourg, Caroline and London, Frankie took a different route.
When sales looked like tailing off, they’d release another version; remixed and extended, strung-out and funked up across a variety of formats; 7″, 12″, picture discs, even cassette singles. The CD was just around the corner, otherwise those variations would’ve been spread across even more formats. With each subsequent new variation, the record would maintain its place at the top of the pile.
There are, believe it or not, over 30 pulsing, throbbing Hi NRG mixes of Relax! Arguably, the weekly mixes that were released to keep Relax at number 1 in 1984 weren’t actually required – as soon as it was banned by Radio 1, a goldrush of record buyers ensured it lorded over everyone for yet another week.
I should know – I was one of the millions who bought it after the ban. Frankie weren’t quite our Pistols, but they did generate similar headlines and debate.
Second single Two Tribes followed a similar path. It surfed the zeitgeist of Reagan/Gorbachev’s Cold War cat and mousing, a high octane cocktail of propaganda and paranoia – ‘the air attack warning sounds like…this is the sound.‘
A barrage of taut, tense guitars, juddering bass and superbly giddy vocals (“Hau hau hau!” went Holly) propelled it straight to number one and one and a half million sales, helped, no doubt by the provocative video showcased on The Tube where two lookalikes played the part of the two world leaders in the wrestling ring. You knew that already though.
The third single was the surprise package. From a band known for grimy S&M inspired disco and anti-war political baiting, The Power Of Love was a genuine, heartfelt love song. The machinations of the ZTT marketing team – ‘The Group Of The Year‘ – ensured it was released strategically, all eyes focused on capturing the lucrative Christmas Number One slot. The Power Of Love reached the top in its first week of release at the end of November, and continued to outsell all others until Band Aid gatecrashed the party. In the event, 1994’s Christmas top three finished with Band Aid way out in front, with Wham’s Last Christmas at number two and Frankie in third spot. There’s an era-defining top 3 right there.
The Power Of Love has slowly crept up to be one of my favourite Christmas tracks. It’s not overplayed. It’s not omnipresent. It’s not short, sharp nor sugary sentimental. There’s not a sleigh bell or thumping office party beat within earshot, no Phil Spectorisms in arrangement or delivery, no ca-ca-ca-catchy chorus hooks or even a lyric that mentions the ‘C’ word. Simply, the song was accompanied by a video showing the three wise men following the star, and its message of universal peace rings true at this time of year, so a Christmas song it is.
Naturally, it’s the full-length, 12″ picture disc version you need.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – The Power Of Love (full length version)
It begins with the sound of a Radio Fab! Mike Read soundalike talking over a string-swept instrumental, speaking word for word the DJ’s outrage as he cued Frankie’s debut to be played as part of the chart rundown.
“And it at number 35….it’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax….waaay! I’ve just had a look at the cover…I think it’s obscene!…this record is absolutely obscene!…I’m not gonna play this y’know….no…thank you and goodbye!”
Then the nylon acoustic thrums its way in, the sound of the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon played by Love on mogadon. It’s all minors to majors, orchestral sweeps, gently thunderous timpanis and a skyscraping guitar line that sounds like Neil Young as produced by Trevor Horn. A great sea swell of orchestra carries us forward and the brass section – the horns of Gabriel himself – builds and climbs and climbs and builds then drops. And then, out of the blue, we have a half-witted Ronald Reagan, reading a version of the Lord’s prayer. Mad and inspired, whoever came up with that idea. And then…
…piano. That famous tinkle that starts the record you’ll know from the charts. Hooded Claws and vampires. Holly’s vocal, all reverb and echo, accompanied by Spanish guitars and understated piano. “I’m so in love with you, hurts the soul,” and the strings swell once more, carrying the song to its message. “Make love your goal.” Tension and release in just under 10 minutes, a slowly unravelling cinematic widescreen beauty.
Star Star Light Star Bright She’s A Star It’s Written In The Stars Superstar Shine Like Stars Starry Starry Night Star Maker California Stars Co Stars Starry Eyes Baby I’m A Star Starman Lady Stardust Ziggy Stardust The Prettiest Star Black Star Lost Star New Star Stars Are Strong Strange News From Another Star Star Sign GUIDING STAR Star Of Bethlehem Wishing On A Star Thank Your Lucky Stars Star 69 Star Me Kitten Star Sailor Star Shaped My Dark Star Little Star Near Star Pole Star One Bright Star Shooting Star Star Spangled Banner Starmoonsun Your Star Will Shine Star Fucker Morning Star Evening Star Starry Eyes In The Ocean Of The Stars
At this time of year though, one star song shines brightest of all.
Teenage Fanclub – Guiding Star
Guiding Star is the penultimate track on Teenage Fanclub‘s Bandwagonesque and it’s perfect for repeated plays in the run-up to Christmas. It’s ethereal, woozy and melancholic, a dreamy ballad soaked in the strings of sighing cellos – the saddest instrument of all – and brightly ringing, high in the mix jangling 12 string guitars that sound, to these December ears, a bit like sleigh bells.
The triumvirate of songwriters in Teenage Fanclub really began to show their individual strengths around the time of Bandwagonesque; Norman did the uplifting, life-affirming ones – The Concept, Alcoholiday, Raymond did the noisy ones – I Don’t Know and Gerry did the wistful, regretful, heart-tugging ones – chiefly December and Guiding Star.
Time has shown that Gerry’s songs are the ones I probably value just that wee bit more than the others. The benefit of years and years of listening to one of our finest-ever bands still throws up unexpected new things in Gerry’s songs; previously unnoticed fret-spanning bass runs, a nod here and a wink there to a crate-dug 60s sunshine pop obscurio, a rhyming couplet that remained buried for years underneath glorious Fanclub noisepop. He’s a much underrated writer, is Gerry Love.
Guiding Star may be Gerry’s song, but it’s a real band effort in pulling it together. The others give him the spotlight, stepping forward as and when the song requires them. Here comes Norman with those caramelised, high, high, “hey!” harmonies. And here comes Raymond with his pedal board and understated avant gardisms. Those morse code guitar bleeps, firing off little tracers of olde-worlde communication out into the night sky. Stay in touch, they say, you’re my guiding star – you’re my number one.
Then there’s the fuzz guitar in the background, heavily manipulated by Raymond’s slo-mo, divebombing whammy bar, My Bloody Valentine with better manners and cleaner hair.
While all of this plays out, Gerry is singing about Jesus Christ and how he wears his hair and how he walks on air, and the vocal floats magically above the quiet storm below. And then Raymond turns it up another notch and he’s sliding straight into the feedback ‘n sustain solo that carries us to the song’s suddenly fading conclusion. Over and out. Gone.
Wise men used to follow stars. Wise men and women still follow the Teenage Fanclub. Stars of another sort.
Before lead singer Jehnny Beth stepped out as an acclaimed solo artist and before she was releasing critics’ choice album To Love Is To Live, all polished electro sheen and processed gloss, she was the focal point of Savages, a perfectly-named, uncompromising four piece with a clear affinity for post-punk and tough, muscular guitars.
Savages’ debut single ‘Husbands‘ remains their high watermark. First heard, it made me want to kick in walls…and I’m a lover, not a fighter. Its concrete slab rhythm and the howling ferocity of the guitars set them apart as the most exciting thing since Pixies first surfed their thang in wonky time signatures and broken sweary Spanish.
Savages – Husbands
Watching the clip of it below reminds me of that footage of Joy Division on Something Else; four musicians locked into their own world, aloof slightly, arrogant perhaps, but flying on self-belief and attitude, locked into a groove and hanging on for dear life as they clatter downhill without the brakes on, yet in complete control. They know they’re great and after you’ve watched it, you’ll be in no doubt too.
You can find umpteen performances of Husbands just as intense, just as essential as this across the internet. That the band play it every time as though it may be the final thing they do before the world ends tells you all you need to know. They mean it, man.
The vocals on top are the icing on a particularly scorching cake. Part antagonistic, part orgasmic, Jehnny Beth’s voice comes in ever-increasing waves; shouty one moment, breathy the next and every line full-stopped by a feral, wailing guitar before the band ease off and reign it in, only to ramp it all back up again. It’s a breathless rush, a voice clear and centre while the chaos around her reigns. How could anyone not like this?
“Husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands,” she repeats over and over. She starts only mildly scary but by the end she’s fairly terrifying, the sound of Siouxsie Sioux going 15 rounds with PJ Harvey. I daresay there’s a frisson of political undertone to the record, and why not, but more than that, Husbands is just a really great, loud, fast, dynamic rock song, a Sturm und Drang of scorching electric guitars and crashing ride cymbals.
That Savages look great too – all high cheekbones and glossy, pixie-cut hair, sleek black linear clothing only matched by coal-black, wild-eyed focus -makes the whole thing the perfect package. What a shame they’ll not make more records.
a remarkable person or thing. “the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”
I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.
Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.
They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.
That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.
They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.
Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.
Sault – Don’t Waste My Time
Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.
Sault – Why Why Why Why Why
Sault – No Bullshit
Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.
Sault – Smile And Go
To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?
A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.
Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.
Jeez. I gotta hear it.
But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).
Years ago I was doing supply in a school where they dedicated a whole Friday afternoon to the learning of new skills; baking, woodworking, knitting, glass staining and so on. The kids loved these afternoons. The dinner ladies helped with the baking, the janny helped with the woodworking and experts from the local community came in to impart their considerable knowledge in the art of growing root vegetables and making stained glass. With each new term, the kids could pick a different skill so that over the course of the school year they got to partake in four activities.
Being the supply teacher, I was right at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid and I watched, pained, as first the blogging and then the guitar groups were given to two teachers who couldn’t care less. Each subsequent activity was assigned to a nonplussed teacher until, finally the head teacher looked at me with a thin, watery smile and handed me a box of battered, rattling chess sets. “Chess Club!” she confirmed. “I doubt many will pick it, but it’s an option.” She never asked if I played chess, if I understood the rules, if I wanted to be in charge of the chess club. I just was.
I did know how to play chess, as it happened, but it was years since I’d done so. Anyway, I took the chess sets, fumbled together half a dozen complete sets out of the ten or so ancient boxes I’d been saddled with and set about turning my classroom into a (cough) Chess Club.
On the first Friday, seven kids – there’s always an odd number for these things – turned up to see what all the fuss was about. None of the kids I knew. Six of them were curious to see this new teacher in the school – a man! – and the seventh was sent to play chess because he’d already tried to stab someone’s hand with a gardening fork outside. Grrrrreat. First thing I did was draw the blinds to create an ambience that encouraged studied quietness.
After that I Googled an arty monochrome picture of Bobby Fischer eyeing up the board, typed ‘Chess Club‘ on top of it in an interesting font and displayed it on the smart board, a reminder to the players of where exactly they were. Then I rejigged the tables so that the players sat in a square around the sides of the classroom, allowing me to stand in the middle and explain the object of the game and so on, helping the kids as they took their first unsteady steps into the geek world of chess.
As they slowly began to understand the whys and wherefores of the board, I introduced music. Classical stuff sometimes, an Erik Satie piano piece or two, but mostly jazz, mainly John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson but always Miles Davis. Sometimes I’d branch out into the blues, helping some poor cornered soul get out of a chequered funk as John Lee Hooker boomed out at a genteel volume in the corner.
By week three, the ‘Chess Club‘ image of Fischer had been edited to say ‘Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club‘. By the following week, this had been shortened, in loose homage to CBGBs to ‘Chess AJABs Club‘. No-one complained. None of the school management noticed. I was having fun and so were the kids.
I taught them the one fancy move I knew, learned from my dad when I was 10 or 11, about the same age as them, where you could put your opponent in checkmate in three moves. More fool me, as after that, they all wanted to play white. One time, the garden fork boy got so enraged at being put into checkmate before Miles Davis had parped his way out of his first solo that he tossed the board and all its pieces into the air and stormed off. “There was no need for that, Mr McAllister,” said his victorious opponent in a world-weary voice that suggested she’d seen all of it before.
Over the weeks, the chess kids progressed to a reasonable standard. They played one another, they challenged and beat me, they seemed to enjoy themselves. In fact, when the time came to renew activities at the end of term, half of the kids chose to stay at the chess. And on their return in January, a couple of them told me excitedly that they’d woken up on Christmas day to a new chess set under the tree. One of them even got a ‘Best Of Jazz’ CD too. As it turned out, Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club was alright.
We’ve binged recently on The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s seven-parter that tells the story of a young girl’s rise to Grandmaster level. It’s ace.
Set against a backdrop of 50s and 60s Cold War America, it is, on every level, a triumph. Visually, it’s stunning. From the trippy, imagined chess pieces that emerge from the ceiling each night and play combinations of winning moves that the lead character Beth Harmon commits to memory, to the period-perfect set design, every episode has the appearance of being filmed through a particularly agreeable Instagram filter. The more poetic of us might even suggest that the muted tones and dull pastels of the actors’ clothes that contrast with the glossy shine of hardwood and chrome are metaphors for the opposing sides on the chessboard itself.
The cars – big, American gas guzzlers, all sleek fins and whitewalls, cruise across the background like gliding bishops picking off pawns. The houses, with their mod cons and perfect lawns, bordered by subtly territorial picket fences, are the very symbol of nuclear family success. ‘Stay out,’ they scream silently, ‘or I’ll take you out.’ It’s a world at odds with the lead character – supremely played by Anya Taylor-Joy – yet here she is.
Quincy Jones – Comin’ Home Baby
The hotels where the chess matches are played, especially as the series progresses and the competitions become more exclusive, are grand affairs. Jet-setting across the continents, Harmon and her mother enjoy nothing less than the good life. Expensively-wallpapered corridors and opulently furnished dining areas are accessed via long-winding and never-ending Art Deco staircases.
There’s a terrific scene set in Miami where the swingin’ Quincy Jones track above perfectly soundtracks Harmon movin’ on up to the competition floor, sashaying confidently to another crushing victory against an awkward and embarrassed male player, all the while looking like Jackie Onassis’ cool half-sister.
A horrendous childhood and a less-than-smooth passage into adulthood comes at a cost to our young prodigy. To cope with all that life has thrown at her, Harmon has developed a fondness for tranquilisers and booze. Her numerous breakdowns and spirals into addiction are soundtracked by period-era deep cuts. If she’s not kicking off a three-day bender by dancing like no-one is watching to Shocking Blue’s Venus, she’s discovering pot to the sound of Gabor Szabo.
Gabor Szabo – Somewhere I Belong
The throb and thrum, the slowly spidering guitar line, the creeping paranoia and electric dischord are just the thing to simulate an out of body experience, no?
Or how about Gillian Hills’ 1965 slice of fingersnappin’ French Yé-yé mod-pop?
Gillian Hills – Tut Tut Tut Tut
Druggable yet fruggable, Tut Tut Tut Tut features during another particularly memorable scene, bursting through the stately piano that is woven through the soundbed of each episode, as joyously unexpected as the ever-attacking Harmon choosing to play the Sicilian Defence.
To be perfectly honest, every scene with Taylor-Joy in it is memorable. Usually, a blink of her dark almond eyes is all it takes to hook you in. She plays perfectly the ever-spiralling Harmon with a magnetism that should win her whatever awards are going these days for Netflix dramas.
The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in stylish home cinema. As the year creeps to an undignified close, we may well have found the best thing about it. Watch it. Now!
Aw man. Scott 4. A magic album slowly soaked in pathos and regret and towel-dried with inventive orchestration and outlandish arrangements. I’ve played it many a time, my old set of mp3s unearthed at the advent of broadband when the darkest corners of the internet begat a never-ending flow of everything one could ever need and plenty more besides.
I don’t have a copy. It’s easy enough to get of course, but I don’t want any old version, half-speed remastered or otherwise. It’s got to be an original ’69 copy, spinning in cavernous, timeless mono, its silver Philips label reflecting the handsome majesty of its creator on the gatefold sleeve. I keep looking, but those eyewatering prices don’t ever seem to drop. There is though a narrow space for it on the shelf next to those first three eponymous albums and one day it shall rest easy right there.
Scott 4 was the first album of all-original Scott Walker material. It was a commercial flop at the time, blamed partly on the fact Walker insisted it be promoted as a Scott Engel album, but more than likely it sank and was unceremoniously deleted due to the ‘pop’ climate of the time.
One-time teen idols didn’t release flamenco-tinged, brass ‘n string swept torch songs, especially not at the tail end of a decade where guitar solos, in direct proportion to the guitarists’ hair, were becoming longer and more outlandish with each release. As swinging London turned an autumnal burnt umber, Walker’s music was perfect, poignant and peerless, but it ultimately done for him.
Its influence is, naturally, immense. You’ll hear its echoes in the unexpected chord changes and deeper grooves of any Michael Head record. Marc Almond appropriated much of its tragedy, hammed it up and built a career around it. Bowie nicked his baritone. Leonard Cohen pickpocketed the wordy couplets and female harmonies. You could ask any number of your favourite artists and most of them would enthuse well into the wee small hours about the super soaraway Scott 4.
Scott Walker –The Old Man’s Back Again
The Old Man’s Back Again is an extraordinary piece of music. In three and a half minutes, it takes on nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, wordless Gregorian chanting and a lyric about the repressive Czech government and melds it into a brooding piece of immense, orchestral art-funk.
The voice – we’ll get to that in a minute – takes centre stage, but its surrounded by the most disparate of collective parts. It’s the bassline you’ll notice first. An on-the-one groove, all frugging Fender, woody tone and rubbery stretch, it’s rumoured that the player is none other than Engel himself.
A veteran of the pre-Walker Brothers studio session scene, the young Scott proved to be no slouch across four strings and if the playing is indeed him, then he’s just gone up another 20 notches in my estimations. Rattling and rolling alongside the anonymous loose-limbed jazzer on the drums, it very much creates the sort of rhythm that forced Serge Gainsbourg to cock an ear, put down the Gauloises and get to work on what would become his Histoire de Melody Nelson album.
The case for the prosecution of Serge is further strengthened by the addition of a shimmering string section. Likely the work of Philips’ arranger du jour Ivor Raymonde, the strings – freeflowing and wild – give the whole thing a cinematic ambience, a feel that’s enhanced when those uhming and ahing backing vocals come creeping in from somewhere below Walker’s waistline.
Sensational stuff, and bang in the middle is the voice, as golden as its singer’s hair and effortlessly in tune. It’s the phrasing. And the pitch. And the tone. Walker’s range on The Old Man’s Back Again is actually fairly narrow, but the control he has over his singing as he tells a tale that could well have fallen from the page of a Tolstoy short story is quite the thing. Many will try, but on this form, no-one comes close. Or likely ever will. His vocal on Duchess is maybe even better. Go and find it..