Music Reviews: Mick Ronson, Black Sabbath, Battleground Korea, Schizo Fun Addict, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells

It’s one of the great What Ifs of the early 1970s. What If Mick Ronson had joined Elton John’s band instead of David Bowie’s?

It’s not that far fetched. Early in 1970, producer Gus Dudgeon recruited Michael Chapman and his current band, the young and unknown Ronson included, as the musicians for what would become Elton’s latest (third) LP, Tumbleweed Connection.  Ronson, talking in the mid-1980s, recalled playing on “a few tracks”; Chapman and Dudgeon, a decade later, thought that half the album was recorded.  

But Elton’s label head, Dick James, loathed everything they taped, denounced it all as “too psychedelic” and scrapped the lot.  It would be the early 1990s before even one track, a lengthy (and indeed psychedelic) “Madman Across the Water,” sneaked out aboard Elton’s Rare Masters compilation, and more than twenty-five years on, it remains the only cut from the sessions to have seen release.

It resurfaces again, this time aboard the soundtrack to this year’s Beside Bowie documentary of the late Mick Ronson’s life and times (Universal), and it is still startling, an absolute reinvention  of all that the early Elton portended; and all that he would go on to achieve.  Dense, swirling, mysterious, with Ronson’s guitar physically churning the waves, it was so far from “Your Song” that it could have been somebody else’s.  You don’t even have to like Elton to be spellbound.

It also provides the introduction – alongside Chapman’s own “Soulful Lady,” from the same year’s Fully Qualified Survivor LP – that reminds us that, even before he met Bowie, Ronson was already on course to becoming the new decade’s first guitar hero.  Bowie just made sure everyone noticed.

Beyond Bowie, Ronson was indeed prolific. Arrangements for the Pure Prairie League; sideman with Dylan and Annette Peacock; the guitar glue behind albums by Ellen Foley and Roger McGuinn; three solo albums and some posthumous collections too; one-offs with Phil Rambow and Marc Bolan; production for Morrissey, Kiss That and Slaughter… there’s an absolutely stunning box set to be compiled from Ronno’s non-Bowie activities.

Here, that dream is reigned in by the movie’s own insistence that Beside Bowie should be liberally spattered by the partnership (six of the fourteen songs), but still it’s a cracking collection.  The aforementioned Elton and Chapman cuts aside, there’s a triptych of gems from Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, two excerpts from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, an Ian Hunter single and four solo Ronson numbers stacked up across the first three-and-a-half sides (less fabulous tributes by Joe Elliott and Mike Garson complete the set), and every one shimmers with the brilliance that was Ronson unleashed.

Beautiful packaging, respectful liners and top notch vinyl and sound complete the package.  And still “Madman” hangs like an unanswerable question at the end of side one.  What if?

So here’s another one. What if Black Sabbath had not told their UK label that they didn’t want to release any more singles, and that “Paranoid” would be their one and only hit?

Not that their label paid any attention – the 45s would continue rolling out, in Britain and elsewhere, throughout the band’s lifespan.  But Sabbath didn’t promote them and most (until 1978) passed unnoticed through the marketplace.  

Supersonic Years – The Seventies Singles Box Set (Warner Bros/Rhino) rounds them up, though, ten 45s that begin with 1970’s “Evil Woman,” end with 1978’s “Hard Road,” and inbetween times serve up an alternate history of the Hits That Never Were.  But for the most part, Should Have Been.

Yeah, we lose interest towards the end – “Gypsy,” “It’s Alright,” “Never Say Die” and “HardRoad,” the last four discs in the box, were scarcely primo Sabs, even at the time.  But “Evil Woman,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “Tomorrow’s Dream,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Am I Going Insane,” all complete with their original b-sides, are solid grinding gold, all rage and riffing, and presented here in magnificent hybrid sleeves that pair front and back designs from sixteen different worldwide jackets (eighteen if you count the company bags that wrap around “Iron Man”).  

More sleeves are shown off in the accompanying booklet, and though the labels themselves stick to the US Warners template, still it’s a visual feast that is only matched by the sound of the singles themselves. There’ve been other Sabbath singles boxes in the past, but this one… like the music within… is immaculate.  

You could say the same for the timing of the latest Bear Family box. Battleground Korea – Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War is a four CD, 121 track anthology telling the tale of a conflict that, maybe, is a lot less “forgotten” now, than it was when the package was titled.  And which might even, at last, be nearing its end.  

Bear Family’s usual exemplary packaging opens the box – a ten-inch slipcased 160 page book that outlines the war and then delves in depth into every track.  Artist photos, record labels, sheet music, war posters, newspaper cuttings and so on give it a glorious scrapbook feel, song lyrics accompany the music, and the music itself is brilliantly chosen, a snapshot of early fifties pop, swing, jazz and blues, all with a wartime angle – and, like Bear Family’s Vietnam box of a few years back, making no distinction between pro and anti-war sentiments.  

There are moments of high sentiment (musical settings for letters addressing loved ones back home from the men at the front) and bitter satire (the possibility of the war turning nuclear), domestic drama (you have to hear the Oklahoma Sweethearts’ “Don’t Steal Daddy’s Medal”), religious entreaty – all human life is here!

Short radio bulletins and newsreel clips intersperse the music; indeed, as much as any history book, Battleground Korea immerses you in both the era and its immediate aftermath – disc four is dedicated to “peace and its legacies,” beginning with President Eisenhower’s announcement of the armistice, and a Sister Rosetta Tharpe number, “There’s Peace in Korea,” which was recorded that very same day.

In fact, the only thing missing would seem to be the one piece of music that most people automatically associate with the Korean War – the theme from MASH.  But you probably won’t even notice that.

A new album from Schizo Fun Addict descends, and the dichotomies of its title should give you a good clue as to what to expect.  El Shoegaze Bossa Nova (Sugarbush Records) is simultaneously deeply, darky, swirling and trippy, and gleefully shot through with a groovy lounge Music to Watch Girls Go By sixties vibe.   

Schizo, as befits their name, seldom unleash a straightforward song when they can twist it around a few random fascinations first, and that’s the glory of this album.  Nothing falls where it ought to, but it still winds up where you want it, be it the ghostly horns that seem to play something else entirely during the plaintive “Plan for Love”; the almost jazzy “Voltage Alert” (“almost” being the operative word); or the climactic “Angels are Marching,” which builds around fuzz and echo and sounds like something Loop might have done, if Andrew Loog Oldham had found them first.

There’s a wordless advertising jingle for Something You Dare Not Imagine lurking behind the very sensibly-titled “51 Second Interlude,” and “Seagulls” is the Shangri-Las lost in a cave full of guitars.  Oh, and in case you can’t think of Schizo without visualizing their long-time penchant for dynamic covers of songs that you’d forgotten, the entire LP is self-composed.

Moody, moving and constantly shifting in tone and timbre, El Shoegaze Bossa Nova is an album to play long and loud, a sonic monument to the kind of record that you wish had been made a long time ago, but which it was well worth waiting for.  The next time some intolerant, graying oldie tells you there’s no decent bands around any more, suggest they listen to this.  And, if they demur, force them to.  

Two new blues reissues round things off this month: Junior Wells’ Coming at You and Buddy Guy’s A Man and the Blues (both Craft Recordings) are faithful reproductions of the original 1968 Vanguard releases, and both capture their makers in stunning form.  

The Wells album is often ranked among his finest, a solid roar of classic blues numbers that range from “Tobacco Road” to “Mystery Train,” “Stop Breaking Down” to “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” backed by a powerful horn section and a dynamite band – including a passing Buddy Guy.

Guy’s own album, meanwhile, marks his first after leaving Chess records, but it does not suffer from the severance.  Indeed, it ranks among the most broiling efforts of his early career, and that includes “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” transformed from a favorite gentle nursery rhyme into a savage blues shouter.  

“I Can’t Quit the Blues,” BB King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and Motown’s “Money” are all given crunching work-outs; Otis Spann’s piano playing is… well it’s Otis Spann ,isn’t it?  And the whole thing… both whole things… stand proud among the most essential blues reissues of the year-so-far.

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