Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wishing You A Simply Wonderful Christmastime

Well it’s that time of the year again. No not International Dance Like a Giraffe Day, though seriously it deserves more recognition than it gets.

It’s time to place Retro Universe on hiatus for a couple of weeks, in order to finish Xmas shopping, watch the Boxing Day Test Match, eat, drink, frolic in the sunshine, and generally act all merry-like. To anyone who reads this, please have a happy and safe holiday season. Be kind (to others and yourself), be happy (for others and yourself), and listen to great music!

Thankyou to regular readers of this blog (if there are any) for your ongoing support, casual passers by, and those who have arrived for the first time (don’t worry a porter will be along shortly to collect your luggage). I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey thus far, exploring the stories behind some of my favourite songs and artists, and I sincerely hope you‘ve enjoyed at least some of my ramblings along the way. My desire, nay determination, is to return in early ‘09 to continue this magical mystery tour of classic popular music. The Retro Universe music menu for the new year includes: Hot Chocolate, Fox, The Waitresses, Sailor, Big Country, Buggles, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Captain Sensible, Melissa Manchester, S.O.S. Band, Til Tuesday, Georgia Satellites, Climie Fisher (& Naked Eyes), JoBoxers, Mi-Sex, Army Of Lovers, Haysi Fantayzee, The Ritchie Family, Venetians, Ram Jam, Gary Wright, QED/Jenny Morris, Johnny Hates Jazz, Industry, Del Amitri, Tenpole Tudor, Jellyfish, Bucks Fizz, The Reels, Underworld, Sparks, De Barge, Wild Cherry, Candi Staton, Adam & The Ants, Sunnyboys and…well, you get the idea ; )

So leave some room after your Christmas pudding to digest all of that fabulous fare coming soon to Retro Universe. As they say in the classics - stay tuned!

In the interim, I’d like to leave you with something appropriate for this festive season. You may have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a Beatles’ fan - both their group efforts, and their solo work. One day, I hope to annoy net surfers with a Beatles blog (but only after I’ve exhausted material for, or feel like a change from, Retro Universe), but for now you’ll have to content yourself with a couple of classic Xmas tunes from Messrs McCartney and Lennon.

‘Wonderful Christmastime’ was released in late ‘79, and credited on the charts to Paul McCartney (UK#6/OZ#61), though it was recorded while Wings were still an active unit at the time, and feature in the promotional video. The song was later included as a bonus track on the CD release of Wings’ ‘Back To The Egg’ album (in my humble opinion the best Wings set of them all - though it was a relative disappointment in commercial terms). ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ isn’t exactly a McCartney classic, but if you’ve consumed enough eggnog, chances are you’ll find yourself happily singing along to its cheery tune.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over) was credited to John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with Harlem Community Choir, and was released (the first time) in time for Christmas ‘71. The song peaked at #3 in the U.S., #4 on the U.K. charts (in ‘72), and #9 in Australia (also for the first time in December ‘72). Deservedly, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ has become a staple on radio play lists every festive season. Not only does it serve as a reminder of Lennon’s genius and humanity, but its sentiments are suitably poignant, and uplifting.

Oh, and if you Googled ‘International Dance Like a Giraffe Day’ and found anything interesting, let me know.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night! See you all on the flip side in ‘09 ; )

Gartside Finds A Perfect Way Into The U.S. Charts

Gartside took some time out to consider his options, during which he worked with Eurythmics on the track ‘Wrap It Up’, then he recalled having met another songwriter on the Rough Trade roster, whilst he had been working in New York on material for ‘Songs To Remember’. David Gamson joined the Scritti Politti movement, and brought along ex-Material drummer Fred Maher. The fresh trio began recording new material in 1983, under the guidance of acclaimed producer Nile Rodgers (ex-Chic - see earlier post). But there was a sticking point. Gartside didn’t see the independent Rough Trade label as having the muscle to back his proposed assault on the world of mainstream pop. When Gartside and Rough Trade split, the material that he had been recording with Rodgers was shelved, indefinitely. There were no shortage of major labels willing to woo Scritti Politti, and Gartside eventually decided to go with an offer from Virgin. With Gamson, Maher, and a selection of accomplished session players in tow, Green Gartside set about recording a selection of songs he’d been working on for some time.

The first of these to surface, was the aforementioned ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, featuring former Miles Davis bassist Marcus Miller. The song was released in the U.K. and Australia almost two years prior to its eventual U.S. issue. ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ cruised to #10 in Britain and #25 in Australia, and had been produced by the legendary Arif Martin. No sign of a finished album in 1984, but two more pop-soul styled singles followed, with ‘Absolute’ (UK#17/OZ#77), and ‘Hypnotize’ (UK#68), keeping the Scritti Politti musical manifesto in the charts. Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that Gartside, and supporting members of Scritti Politti, have rarely featured on the cover artwork for their singles/albums. The next single ‘The Word Girl’ showcased another side to the Scritti Politti sound, and featured Ranking Ann. ‘The Word Girl’ became their biggest U.K. hit (#6/OZ#70), and proved the perfect appetiser for Scritti Politti’s much anticipated sophomore album. ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’ finally hit stores in June ‘85, and featured the previous four singles from ‘Wood Beez’. It was an immaculately assembled, and sophisticatedly produced cache of catchy synth-edged pop. The album also became a landmark set due to Gartside’s innovative use of sampling and sequencing, pushing the limits of those techniques, both stylistically and technically (it was still only 1985). Gartside continued his mischievous and provocative wordplay, but it was his employment of cutting edge technology and recording styles that imbued ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’ (UK#5/OZ#59/US#50) with a genuine element of timelessness. The album also featured the smooth pop piece ‘Perfect Way’, which proved a breakthrough for Scritti Politti in the U.S. (#11) in late ‘85 (UK#48/OZ#75). The song was later recorded by jazz legend Miles Davis. ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ finally received its U.S. released in early ‘86, following the success of ‘Perfect Way’. Scritti Politti toured extensively in support of ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’, before Gartside hit the pause button once more on the band.

Green Gartside worked then with Chaka Khan (see earlier post) on the song ‘Love Of Lifetime’ (co-written and produced with Gamson). The only track to surface to from Scritti Politti over the next two years was ‘Best Thing Ever’, included on the ‘Who’s That Girl’ soundtrack. Miles Davis played trumpet on the next single ‘Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)’, which debuted on the UK charts in May ‘88, eventually peaking at #13. It featured on Scritti Politti’s new album ‘Provision’, this time co-produced by Garside & Gamson. The album saw Gartside further refine his straight pop approach, complimented by a more prominent synth-funk edge, with dashes of reggae. The album was well received in the UK (#8), but couldn’t find an audience of note in the US (#113/OZ#96). The follow up single ‘First Boy In This Town (Love Sick)’ was a moderate performer (UK#63), and Scritti Politti welcomed vocalist Roger Troutman on the only single from ‘Provision’ to chart in the U.S., ‘Boom! There She Was’ (US#53/UK#55). Troutman had charted as ‘Roger’ in 1987 with the US#3 hit ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Gartside also experienced a debilitating relapse of stage anxiety during this period, and had to withdraw completely from live performance duties. Combined, with the disappointing U.S. sales for ‘Provision’, Gartside decided he needed another sabbatical from Scritti Politti.

Green popped his head up briefly for a couple of single releases in 1991, both reportedly from a proposed album that never eventuated. The first single was a cover of the Beatles’ track ‘She’s A Woman’ (originally from the ‘Help!’ soundtrack), and featured guest vocals from Jamaican rapper Shabba Ranks. It was Scritti Politti’s last U.K. top 20 hit to date (#20/OZ#94). The follow up single featured another guest vocalist in Sweet Irie, but ‘Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me’ (a version of the Gladys Knight song) only managed to embrace the British charts at #47. Green Gartside then withdrew once more to the Welsh countryside, turning his back on the music business, but not on music.

From as far back as the mid 80s Gartside had taken an interest in, and a liking to, the rap and hip-hop scene. In yet another radical change of musical tack, and confirmation of his pop maverick status, Gartside set about making the next Scritti Politti album a heavily hip-hop inspired affair. Just as most had concluded that Scritti Politti had faded into pop history, the album ‘Anomie And Bonhomie’ hit stores in mid ‘99. I say Scritti Politti, but it was more or less a Green Gartside album, with a support cast of session players and guest vocalists. Hip-hop specialists like Mos Def and Jimahl were invited to contribute to tracks, whilst Scritti Politti keyboardist David Gamson was still on hand to help with production. Though positively reviewed by critics, ‘Anomie And Bonhomie’ achieved modest sales in the U.K. (#33) and couldn’t crack the U.S. market. The single ‘Tinseltown To The Boogiedown’ (UK#46) is the most recent Scritti Politti single to make the charts.

Sticking to the pattern of releasing an album , then retreating from the scene, Gartside returned to low profile status over the next seven years, aside from a duet with Kylie Minogue on the track ‘Someday’, from Minogue’s 2003 album ‘Body Language’. In February 2005 renewed interest was sparked in the early career work of Gartside and Scritti Politti, via the Rough Trade released compilation ‘Early’. Gartside hadn’t been idle during the intervening years, and in early 2006 he hit the stage for the first time in over twenty years, with an all new live line-up of Scritti Politti. Over the next few months several more gigs followed, by way of previewing tracks a new album. ‘White Break, Black Beer’ was released in May 2006, and was recorded almost entirely by Gartside (co-produced with Andy Houston). The album saw a return to more conventional pop music, and Gartside even treated listeners to the rarity of more personal, emotion based lyrics. The album was highly praised, and nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. With a new found sense of performance confidence, Gartside and Scritti Politti hit the road for an extensive tour.

With his track record for sporadic output, there’s no telling when or even if Gartside will record another Scritti Politti album. But it was definitely worthwhile taking that closer look at the work of an enigma, maverick, innovator, individualist, intellectualist, a pop-chameleon of sorts, who has forged a unique path through popular music for more than thirty years.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Italian Political Writing - In Music

One of the rarest happenings in popular music history would have to have occurred in 1986. British pop trio Scritti Politti entered the U.S. Hot 100 for the second occasion, this time with a song titled ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’. At the same time the ‘Queen of Soul’ herself, Aretha Franklin, had one of her own singles, ‘Another Night’ sitting well inside the U.S. Hot 100 (it was Franklin’s 66th such foray into the Hot 100). I’ve strained my brain, which admittedly doesn’t take much at times, trying to think of another occasion when an artist had not only featured in the charts, but at the same time featured in the title of another artist’s chart hit. Aside from that quirky little aspect to Scritti Politti’s hit ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, the band themselves deserve a closer look.

British band Scritti Politti have primarily been the creative vehicle for Welsh singer/songwriter Paul ‘Green’ Gartside. Gartside’s height (six foot six inches) serves as a stark contrast to his gentle, almost wispy singing voice. But to call Gartside a complex man of many contradictions, would be an understatement. Gartside grew up in South Wales, and from an early age gave every indication of being a genius, but one who didn’t want to play by the rules. His schoolwork may have suffered, but Gartside poured his intellectual energies into other endeavours. He joined the local chapter of the Young Communist League, and it was through that organisation that Gartside got to know future Scritti Politti bassist Nial Jinks. Gartside must have at least turned up to his high school exams, because he earned a scholarship to Leeds Art College. There he met future Scritti Politti drummer Tom Morley. Both Gartside and Morley dropped out of college in 1978, and moved to London where they took a lease out on a flat. Gartside contacted his old Y.C.L. buddy Nial Jinks, and invited him to join them in a little musical endeavour. Gartside had been inspired by a psychedelic post-punk outfit called Desperate Bicycles, and wanted to form his own band. Now for a name - something clever, something political, something different - what’s Italian for ‘political writing’? Scritti Politti! Well, that’s approximately right - the name was essentially a homage to Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci. Actually, the band’s earliest performance was under the name ‘The Against’.

With a post punk political manifesto as their calling, Scritti Politti just needed to come up with some music. Three months into their odyssey, Gartside and crew decided to make their own record, literally. They recorded the song ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (more Marxist parlance), hand printed the covers, and rubber stamped the labels themselves on their own ‘St. Pancras’ label. Word of mouth eventually led them to selling 2,500 copies of ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, and brought them to the attention of influential DJ John Peel, who recorded some of their songs on one of his famous BBC ‘sessions’ programs. The Rough Trade label released the Peel sessions, and reissued ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, selling 15,000 copies second time around. The band’s edgy musical style, combined with Gartside’s sweet delivery of impossibly abstract lyrics, placed Scritti Politti on the cutting edge of things. They were soon signed to tour with the likes of Gang Of Four and Joy Division. However, Gartside didn’t take well to the whole touring environment. At age 23, he suffered his first heart attack, and had to withdraw from music for a year, while he convalesced in his home town in South Wales.

With the high energy post punk phase behind them, Scritti Politti, which was now firmly in the creative control of Gartside, re-emerged in 1981 with a cleaner, new wave meets art pop, with a twist of reggae, sound. Gartside retained his abstract, obscure lyrical bent, but served it up in a sweeter package. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ (UK#64) was originally released as a demo version, via a giveaway cassette titled ‘C81’, with an issue of New Musical Express (NME). The feedback was positive, but the finished version took some months to be issued, by which time the initial momentum had waned (Madness later covered the song in 1985). Scritti Politti issued their debut album ‘Songs To Remember’ in September 1982, winning widespread acclaim from the music press. The Adam Kidron produced album reached #12 on the British charts (#1 Independent Albums), and spawned two minor hits. ‘Faithless’ had already peaked at #56 in Britain a few months earlier. The second single was a double-A side, ‘Asylums In Jerusalem/Jacques Derrida’ (UK#43), and featured Robert Wyatt on keyboards. Jacques Derrida is an Algerian-born, French-based philosopher and writer, who Green Gartside greatly admires. By the time ‘Songs To Remember’ was in the stores, Scritti Politti had effectively been reduced to the creative force that is Green Gartside. Drummer Tom Morley was the only other original member still involved at the point ‘The Sweetest Girl’ was released. But with a top 10 album under his belt, and an acknowledged reputation as an astute and gifted songwriter, with a silky smooth pop falsetto at his disposal, Green Gartside had outgrown the independent Rough Trade label, and was in the mood for another change of musical direction.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Year Of The Cat - A Portal To Time Passages

Al Stewart signed with RCA (UK) and immediately bowled everyone over with the album ‘Year of the Cat’, arguably the masterpiece effort of his career. His previous two albums had effectively been rehearsals, implementing the formula, and getting the balance just right. The album is missing a central story arch, but retains a strong sense of continuity and cohesion via Parsons’ exquisite production and Al Stewart’s sensory provoking narratives, which both enchant and captivate the listener. The aforementioned title track ‘Year of the Cat’ was the best of a great bunch. It hit the U.S. charts in late ‘76, and went on to peak at #8 in early ‘77. Australia succumbed to the song’s spell soon after (#13), but the U.K. proved less receptive (punk had just exploded), and ‘Year of the Cat’ could only claw its way to #31. The album ‘Year of the Cat’ achieved platinum certification in the U.S. (#5), and hit the top 10 in Australia (UK#38). The follow up single ‘On The Border’ (US#42) dealt with some weighty issues, challenging the listener to contemplate matters of a political, temporal, and metaphysical nature - it’s a credit to Stewart and Parsons that potentially disturbing themes were presented in an engaging package. For all the complex rumination of ‘On The Border’, Stewart was able to keep it simple on a song like ‘If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It’, which means no more than the literal interpretation of the title. Following the huge acclaim for ‘Year of the Cat’, Al Stewart switched U.S. labels from Janus to Arista, with the unintended consequence of a protracted legal dispute. That aside, Stewart recorded the follow up album ‘Time Passages’, released in September ‘78. Once more Parsons was in the production booth, and in concert with Stewart, the result for the ‘Time Passages’ album was even more refined production, and a soft rock tint to things. Stewart’s elegant, finely crafted historical vignettes were again enhanced with cinematic arrangements and slick production values, but the tracks retained a freshness and simplicity, at paradoxical odds to the complexities lurking beneath the smooth surface. The title track was released as the lead out single, and soon delivered Al Stewart his second U.S. top 10 hit (#7), also charting well in Australia (#36). Stewart wrote ‘Time Passages’ with his keyboardist Peter White. The song reflected Stewart’s ongoing fascination with the concept of time, and humanities perception of it. Stewart often utilised this ‘fourth’ dimension as a central theme in his work. The ‘Time Passages’ album earned Stewart his second platinum accreditation in sales - US#10/OZ#15/UK#39 - and spawned another US top 30 single with ‘Song On The Radio’ (#29) in early ‘79. For a change, Stewart didn’t have any greater lyrical ambition with ‘Song On The Radio’, than to attempt to get the song, played, on the radio. Thanks to a catchy chorus hook, he managed to do just that. It was almost two years before Stewart returned (possibly via a time passage) with the 1980 album ‘24 Carrots’. Commercially, the album was a relative disappointment (US#37/OZ#51/UK#55), though it had the explosive new wave movement to contend with. The only single from ‘24 Carrots’ to chart was ‘Midnight Rocks’, which was just too radio friendly to ignore (US#24/OZ#85). Producer Alan Parsons was no longer on the album sleeve credits, but regardless, Stewart managed to come up with a strong effort, thanks mainly to his rich writing vein still flowing freely. One of the highlights was another Stewart/White composition ‘Merlin’s Time’ - not Merlin of the Camelot variety, but rather a 6th century Scottish warrior poet. In part due to ongoing contractual problems, Al Stewart didn’t record any more studio material over the next three years, but did release a couple of live albums, including ‘Indian Summer (Live)’ (OZ#50). Stewart’s backing group, who had taken on the name A Shot In The Dark, released an album and scored a US#71 hit in 1981 with ‘Playing With Lightning’. A Shot In The Dark comprised Krysia Kristianne (vocals), Adam Yurman (guitar), Bryan Savage (sax), Peter White (keyboards), and Robin Lamble (bass). Stewart’s 1984 album ‘Russians And Americans’ (UK#83) was an overtly political album, from cover, to song titles, to lyrics. In this case the politics overwhelmed the music, and it was Stewart’s first album to miss the U.S. charts in nearly a decade. Once more Al Stewart found himself hamstrung over the next four years, as he continued to be embroiled in contractual issues. When he resurfaced again in 1988, he did so with the album ‘Last Days Of The Century’. The only track I’ve heard from the album is ‘King Of Portugal’, which I purchased on vinyl 45. It’s an engaging mid-tempo pop-rock song, that opens with a searing trumpet, and flows quite smoothly among swirling synthesizers and Spanish guitar. Once again Stewart’s lyrics are strongly engaging and evocative. ‘King Of Portugal’ didn’t ascend to the charts, nor did ‘Last Days Of The Century’, which was said to be inconsistent on the whole. The album did feature the song ‘Fields Of France’, written about World War 1 fighter pilots, possibly one of the few modern songs to address that subject - if you discount ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’. As happens with the so many great singer/songwriters, Al Stewart’s golden age appeared to have gone from future, to present, to past. 1988 also saw a return to touring for Stewart, for the first time in several years, with his 1988 acoustic tour, captured for the eventual 1992 release ‘Rhymes In Rooms’. Stewart found a new label stable at EMI for his 1993 release ‘Famous Last Words’, dedicated to the late Peter Wood who co-wrote ‘Year of the Cat’ with Stewart. Waning sales confirmed Stewart’s days of being a resident on the pop charts were behind him. Still, with less demands on his time for publicity appearances, and a reduced touring schedule, Stewart had more time to devote to his increasing passion for wine collecting. On 1995’s album ‘Between The Wars’, Stewart began his collaboration with former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber, who also took on production duties. The album was an out and out concept affair, and focused on major historical and cultural events from the end of WWI to the beginning of WWII - fingers on the buzzer, your time starts now! 1996’s ‘Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’, received limited distribution, then Stewart returned to work with Jauber on another concept album in 2000’s ‘Down In The Cellar’. Now I’ve already given a clue earlier in this post as to what the subject matter for this album might have been - well, yeah it seems bizarre, but Al Stewart recorded a concept album about wine. Well, if you’re a dedicated wine connoisseur like Al Stewart, there’s nothing bizarre about it, and there’s much to be considered on the subject. Over the last decade Stewart has continued to tour the U.S. and Europe on occasion, and has released two more albums, ‘A Beach Full Of Shells’ (2005), and ‘Sparks Of Ancient Light’ (2008). With a career spanning more than forty years, and a swag of intelligent and engaging albums to his credit, Al Stewart’s work is sure to continue traversing time passages well beyond the next ‘Year of the Cat’.

Past, Present & Future - The Evolution Of Al Stewart

The early to mid 70s was a (possibly the) golden era for the singer/songwriter, and produced some of the most memorable songs of the last half century. Some of the bigger names like Elton John, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens and Don McLean take care of themselves in terms of an enduring profile. But there were so many more, who struck once, or maybe twice, with absolute gems, before fading to the background. One of the songs that burns brightest in my memory from that era is ‘Year of the Cat’ by Scottish singer/songwriter Al Stewart.

Like so many singer/songwriters Al Stewart knows how to tell a good story. ‘Year of the Cat’ evolved from an earlier incarnation titled ‘Foot of the Stage’. The earlier version was written about the late British comedian Tony Hancock, and featured alternative lyrics. But Stewart and co-writer Peter Wood (Stewart’s keyboard player), decided to re-write the lyrics to recount the tale of a stranded tourist in the Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. The hypnotic opening piano sequence acts as a curtain raising on a cinematic world. Stewart’s lyrics are rich and evocative, conjuring up intensely vivid imagery. The central character is left stranded, and succumbs to the allure of a mysterious, beautiful temptress - “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a water colour in the rain”. Our tourist is left to stay for a year, the ‘Year of the Cat’ (derived from Vietnamese astrology - the Year of the Cat occurs every 12 years). Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the mercurial Alan Parsons produced the mid-tempo ballad ‘Year of the Cat’, and married crystalline guitars, piano, and a searing saxophone solo, seamlessly to heighten the cinematic quality of the song. Al Stewart’s sublimely smooth vocals apply the final layer of brilliance. My favourite lyric is “You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime”, in reference to the legendary screen bad guy of the 30s and 40s. By the end of six and a half minutes listening to ’Year of the Cat’, I liken the feeling to walking out from a darkened cinema after two hours in front of the silver screen - the song truly does envelop the senses. ‘Year of the Cat’ became the biggest hit of Al Stewart’s career, when it was released in late 1976, but as brilliant as the song is, it was but a passing moment (though memorable) in the evolution of Al Stewart, musician and songwriter.

Al Stewart arrived in Glasgow, Scotland in 1945 - exactly half way between two separate ‘feline’ years. Stewart was raised by his widowed mother, and by his teenage years turned to learning the guitar for solace. He learned guitar alongside Robert Fripp (future core member of King Crimson) on an instrument he purchased from Andy Summers (future Police), and after leaving home Stewart became a budding rock musician, though struggling to begin with. Stewart played solo, and with a local bands in the Bournemouth region. Like so many others, Stewart’s musical ambitions were influenced by seeing Bob Dylan in concert. Stewart began writing his own material, and adopted a softer, more folk oriented style. He once shared a rooming house with another (then) struggling folkie, Paul Simon (and for a time Art Garfunkel). In July ‘66 Stewart released his first single, ‘The Elf’, on the Decca label - the song featured a young session musician called Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Stewart spent the next year performing in a variety of London folk club venues, and was no doubt playing some of the same venues as another young singer/songwriter around that time, Steven Georgiou (Cat Stevens).

Stewart was signed to the CBS label in 1967, and released his debut album ‘Bed-Sitter Images’. It was the archetypal introspective piece, focused on angst-ridden confessions and naval gazing. Sales were poor, but the suits at CBS saw enough potential in Stewart, that he was offered a shot a redemption on 1969’s album ‘Love Chronicles’, which was the only one of Stewart’s first four albums to gain a U.S. release on Columbia. The album took the brooding, contemplative premise of the first album, and centred on tales of doomed romance, ‘In Brooklyn’ being the strongest example - thoroughly uplifting stuff. But musically Stewart was really hitting his straps, and with studio assistance from the likes of Jimmy Page, the album was critically well received. ‘Love Chronicles’ even scored the gong for ‘Folk Album of the Year’ from Melody Maker magazine.

Stewart’s 1970 album ‘Zero Flies’, became the first of his albums to crack the mainstream charts, peaking at #40 in Britain. The album continued Stewart’s folk style, with occasional rock flirtations, but he broadened the subject matter of the songs, to include tracks addressing historical themes and events, such as the track ‘Manuscript’. The song takes some of the same personal issues but places them against historical events, to set up intriguing contrasts and parallels. In a way Stewart places himself, or a first person character, into an historical setting, setting up an interesting dynamic - ‘Manuscript’ served as a stylistic template of sorts for Stewart’s later work. The ‘Orange’ album (1972) revealed the first indications that Stewart was about to make the leap into a more folk-rock area, but the album didn’t contain anything too different to the last - Yes keyboard genius Rick Wakeman did play on a number of tracks, including ‘The News From Spain’, giving hints of a prog rock sound. Al Stewart would later distance himself from the first four albums of his career, preferring to focus on the shift in style and subject matter offered up by his subsequent work.

Stewart signed to the Janus label (for U.S. distribution), and in 1973 released a breakthrough album with ‘Past, Present & Future’, both musically and thematically. Stewart traded in the first person songs of love and loss, to fully embrace the historical saga. Thankfully Stewart didn’t go overboard on the prog-rock musical accompaniment to these epic tales - not that prog-rock is necessarily a bad thing, but Stewart’s voice and delicate treatment may have been lost in translation. To give some insight into the weighty material Stewart dealt with in his lyrics, ‘Road To Moscow’ is set within the context of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. It tells the tragic story of a young Russian soldier captured by the Nazis. After Berlin falls to the Allies, rather than being repatriated, because of Stalin’s reputed paranoia about former prisoners-of-war, the young soldier is banished to a transit camp in his own country. The closing track on the album ‘Nostradamus’, focuses on the book ‘The Centuries’, with Stewart cleverly weaving himself into the tales of prophecy. But they weren’t all historical epics, and in the song ‘Soho (Needless To Say)’ he recalled his early days living and working in London in the mid 60s. Stewart suddenly found that his music was being played on FM radio in the U.S., and soon the singer/songwriter located Stateside to concentrate on taking his career to the next level.

1975’s ‘Modern Times’ (US#30) was Stewart’s final album with CBS. Stewart brought in a new backing band, at that time called Home, comprising Gerry Conway, Simon Nicol, Pat Donaldson & Simon Roussel. Producer Alan Parsons also came on board, and immediately lifted Stewart’s work to a new level of richness, with lush and layered production, edgier in places, augmenting but not overpowering things. Stewart continued to construct sweeping historical tales, in exotic locales, yet maintained a personable, accessible feel. More importantly, the melodies were better than ever. No doubt Stewart had evolved from bare bones folk, to a more elaborate folk-rock style, and all signs were positive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cattletruck Resurrect A Classic

If a band were going to resurrect a former hit, in an effort to inject a new lease of life into their own career, what better choice of song to make than ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ - well in theory anyway. Australian pop-rock band Cattletruck, had been working away on the fringes of big time success, and always seemed just one major hit away from breaking, not just nationally, but internationally.

The origins of Melbourne band Cattletruck lay in a one time St. Kilda bar band going by the name Caught In A Cattletruck. Paul Janovskis (vocals/guitar), Tony Dennis (bass), Charles Todd (saxophone), and James Martin (drums), started out playing a basic acoustic brand country-blues, born of their mutual affection for the roots music of Johnny Cash, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and pre-Army Elvis Presley. Having shortened their moniker to the more manageable Cattletruck, in early 1985 Janovskis and Dennis decided to do a Dylan and electrify their sound. Keyboardist Phil Viggiano and trumpet player Peter Knight were brought on board to both expand the line-up, and give them a bigger sound, whilst original sax player Todd was replaced by Nick Cross. Cattletruck recorded the single ‘Never Is’ and had it produced independently (a big call in those days). They gave away copies of ‘Never Is’ to fans who attended one of Cattletruck’s headliner gigs at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Melbourne, in December 1985.

Cattletruck’s lively, pulsating brand of rock and blues, soon had them filling support gigs for A-list Australian acts like Hoodoo Gurus, The Saints, Australian Crawl, Models and a number of high profile international acts, such as Los Lobos, The Violent Femmes and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions (see Oct post). With so much big venue exposure, and a growing repertoire of original numbers, Cattletruck were a natural to be signed to the respected Regular label.

By the time Cattletruck pulled into the studio in 1986 to record tracks for their debut album, the line-up on board was Janovskis, Dennis, Viggiano, Knight, Cross, and new drummer Bruce Coombs. The band’s first single hit the stores in October ‘86, but ‘Change’ only skirted around the lower reaches of the Australian chart (#81). The follow up single ‘Leave Me’ left the record store shelves at a reasonable enough rate to give Cattletruck their first top forty hit (#39) in May ‘87. English producer Dave Courtnay was flown over to produce Cattletruck’s debut album. Courtnay brought a degree of rock pedigree to the table, having a C.V. that included Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Three Dog Night. He basically let the lads in Cattletruck have their head to unleash their effervescent, vibrant brand of performance. Several tracks on the album also benefited from the sublime vocal harmonies of Vika and Linda Bull (The Black Sorrows). A mix of rock, pop, country, R&B, and traditional blues amalgamated to form the album ‘Ready To Believe’ (OZ#58). No doubt the diversity of music satisfied the interests of band members, but possibly proved to be a little too diverse for record buyers, making the album a tad difficult to categorise. The next single ‘Rain’ (OZ#56) didn’t exactly create a downpour of demand, but the band had their best offering laying in wait.

Cattletruck’s version of ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ was released in November ‘87, and within weeks was stampeding the national charts. The song was a cover of the 1971 hit by Ashton, Gardner & Dyke (US#40/UK#3/OZ#16). Whilst Cattletruck’s version (OZ#33) didn’t ascend to those heights, it was a kick arse, high energy take on a rock and roll classic. The surging brass backing, and driving rock beat, were perfectly matched to Paul Janovskis raucous vocals. Every time I hear the track it brings to mind something that current Australian punk rock powerhouse The Living End would take on.

‘Resurrection Shuffle’ proved to be the highpoint on the road for Cattletruck. The next two singles ‘Ready To Believe’ in March ‘88, and ‘(It’s Not Such A) Bad Life’ in June ‘88, both drove on past the charts without making a stop. At the end of 1988 vocalist/guitarist Paul Janovskis left Cattletruck, dealing a body blow to the band. They toured throughout 1989 with a new line-up, which added vocalist Gary Young, guitarist Scott Kingman, and saxophonist Steve Colebrook to the remaining members Tony Dennis, Peter Knight and Bruce Coombs. Over the course of the year the crowds dwindled and the venues became smaller. With little prospect of recording more material, Cattletruck pulled over to the side of the rock and roll highway, and its members duly disembarked for good.

Whilst Cattletruck was coming to a slow and steady stop, former front man Paul Janovskis had changed his name to Paul Dean, and formed a new band called Gas, with guitarist Brett Kingman (brother of Cattletruck’s new guitarist Scott Kingman). Kingman, of the Brett variety, was ex of Uncanny X-Men and the James Reyne Band, so there was no doubting his credentials. Completing the Gas line-up were the jazz-trained Tailby brothers, Greg (drums) and Rick (bass). They provided an effective jazz-swing rhythmic counter balance to Dean and Kingman’s hard rock drive out front.

Gas was connected at the Mushroom label, and issued their debut album ‘Burn So Bright’ in June 1990. The album spawned the title track and ‘Empty Dreams’ as singles, but none managed to light up the charts. The Tailby Brothers and Kingman all left in 1991 (Kingman went on to join Bigger Than Jesus), and were replaced by bassist Brett Goldsmith (ex-Chantoozies), guitarist Peter Dickson, and drummer Brett Luton (ex-Geisha - see previous post). But the new line-up didn’t settle, and before long Gas had evaporated into Australian rock history.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cutting Crew Score One For The Mockingbird

The very same notepad that Van Eede had used to scribble down the phrase “cutting crew”, came in handy some time later, though in a slightly different set of circumstances. Rather than reading an article in the paper, Van Eede had just finished making love to his then girlfriend. He later recalled, that in the throws of passion he exclaimed the phrase “I just died in your arms”. At the earliest convenience in the sequence of events, Van Eede leaned over to the bedside table, picked up his trusty notepad and pen, and made a note of the statement, because…well, it might come in handy for a song someday. It’s as well Van Eede was so attentive to his songwriter’s intuition, as he indeed did pen a song around that very phrase, in fact he even used it for the title of the song.

The lead out single for the proposed album was indeed ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’, penned of course by Nick Van Eede. The opening keyboard sequence hooked listeners from the get go, and overall it was slickly produced, laid back, but powerful formula, that worked a treat. The song debuted on the British charts in August ‘86, and peaked at #4 on the charts before year’s end, in addition to invading the top 10 across several European territories. During the same period ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’ came to life on the Australian charts, debuting in October ‘86. I recall seeing the video clip for the first time on ‘Countdown‘, or maybe ‘Sounds’. Black and white promo clips, with intermittent use of slow motion, were all the fashion in the mid 80s. What stood out most was the rather dexterous riding of a motor scooter around the stage area where Cutting Crew were playing - not especially arty, but effective nonetheless. Certainly effective enough to help send the song to #8 in Australia, in early ‘87 - but the U.S. was the real target market.

Siren, and their parent company Virgin, left no stone unturned in trying to crack the U.S. with ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’. Truth is, they probably didn’t have to exert too much marketing and distribution muscle, because the song sold itself. In March ‘87 Cutting Crew cracked the U.S. Hot 100 for the first time with ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’. By May the song had toppled ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, by Aretha Franklin and George Michael, from the top of the American charts. Cutting Crew held sway over the competition for two weeks, before U2 came along with their first U.S. chart topper ‘With or Without You’. The song featured on Cutting Crew’s debut album ‘Broadcast’, which had been released in Britain back in late ‘86. The album was co-produced by Cutting Crew themselves, with Terry Brown, and John Jansen. The core quartet handled all the instrumentations, including keyboard and synth duties. ‘Broadcast’ notched up solid sales across the world (UK#41/OZ#77/US#16), and spawned two solid follow up hits. ‘One For The Mockingbird’ is my favourite all time Cutting Crew cut, but its chart performance sadly didn’t reflect its pop-rock brilliance (US#38/UK#52/OZ#96). The third single, ‘I’ve Been In Love Before’, became Cutting Crew’s second U.S. top 10 hit (#9) in September ‘87. The song had originally been released in the U.K. in late ‘86, and peaked at #31, but on the back of the success of the song Stateside, a remixed version of ‘I’ve Been In Love Before’ was released in the U.K. in late ‘87, second time around scaling the charts to #24. On the downside of things, a number of critics (including Rolling Stone magazine) savaged ‘Broadcast’ as being trite, formulaic pop-rock. Well, what it may have lacked in groundbreaking stylistic acrobatics, Cutting Crew more than made up for in catchy hooks, heartfelt vocals, and first class musicianship.

On the back of the enormous success of ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’, and the follow up singles, Cutting Crew found themselves playing support to 80s pop heavyweights the Bangles (see future post), Huey Lewis & The News, and the revitalised Starship. Their brand of synthesizer toned pop-rock lent itself perfectly to the FM radio format in the U.S., and Cutting Crew’s song’s often found a place alongside the likes of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Starship, Boston and Mr. Mister (see earlier post). Cutting Crew also found themselves nominated for a Grammy Award for ‘Best New Artist’, the same year as Breakfast Club and Swing Out Sister (see previous posts), but they all lost out to Jody Watley.

It took some time to surface, but in 1989 Cutting Crew finally unveiled their sophomore album ‘The Scattering’ (US#150), which featured a great title track, and a more tempered sound overall. It was a relatively low key affair, all things considered, though given the time elapsed since their biggest hit now exceeded two years, any residual momentum from their earlier triumphs, had long since dissipated. The lead out single, ‘(Between A) Rock And A Hard Place’, found itself struggling to establish any kind of solid foundation on the charts (US#77/UK#66). The Cutting Crew brought studio guru Hugh Padgham on board to mix the track, but his unique brand of magic couldn’t work any wonders on the song’s reception, which was lukewarm. There was still a home for Cutting Crew on the Adult Contemporary charts in the U.S., but that probably wasn’t where the band envisaged they would end up so soon. ‘Everything But My Pride’ garnered solid airplay, and reached #4 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary charts, but the next single ‘The Last Thing’ (US#17-Adult Contemporary), proved mildly prophetic in early 1990.

Cutting Crew’s crusade was in general disarray, and in the fall out from the failure of ‘The Scatterings’, the band line-up itself did some scattering. Both Martin Beedle and Colin Farley left Cutting Crew in 1992, which left Van Eede and MacMichael to carry on recording the band’s third album ‘Compus Mentus’. Record label support had fast faded as well, which left the album ‘Compus Mentus’ with only limited, and very short term release. Van Eede and MacMichael decided to call it quits for Cutting Crew in 1993. MacMichael paired up with rock legend Robert Plant, on Plant’s 1993 album ‘Fate Of Nations’, and later toured with Plant for two years. Van Eede returned to performing solo for a number of years (and at one stage auditioned as the replacement for Phil Collins in Genesis), Martin Beedle worked as a session drummer, whilst former bassist Colin Farley returned to low key local pub gigs in England. Sadly, guitarist Kevin MacMichael passed away from lung cancer in 2002.

In 2006 singer Nick Van Eede decided to revive the Cutting Crew brand, albeit with an all new crew in support. The new line-up was Van Eede (vocals/guitar), Gareth Moulton (guitar/vocals), Sam Flynn (keyboards), Dominic Farley (bass/vocals), and Tom Arnold (drums/percussion/vocals). The new Cutting Crew hit the road in earnest, and by 2007 had written sufficient material to record a new album, titled ‘Grinning Souls’. They have subsequently kept themselves busy touring mainly around the U.K. and Europe.