Land of the Overdose
(JKP – CD, vinyl)
Of all the survivors of classic 77 punk, TV Smith is one of the precious few who has never lost sight of whatever it was that flamed up those young firebrands in the first place. Which was always a lot more than the clichés into which the music so quickly descended; a lot more, too, than a ramshackle ramble through three chords and green hair.
Punk was protest, pure and simple, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” played through cheap amps and a snarl, but through it all,Smith was – and has remained – the master of the lyrical lashing. Indeed, a post-Adverts career of ten solo albums is probably the closest the modern age will ever come to warts-and-all autobiography. But his eleventh, The Land of the Overdose (JKP) might well be his most damning yet.
Smith has never been much of one for asking “questions,” and he certainly doesn’t try to offer “answers” – that’s what we pay politicians to do, remember? All he can do is observe, and though his sympathies lie with the downtrodden and disadvantaged… well, where else should they be?
Whatever wrongs might embitter the headlines this month, they’re certainly not the handiwork of the narrators of “No Control” (“you have the illusion of involvement but you have no control”), “We Stand Alone” (“we… create predictable passwords and live happy ever after”), “Never Again Until the Next Time”… it’s actually a very depressing vista.
But the Smith vocal remains a comfort to cling to, his eye for melody has never been sharper, and if we go back to the topic of “survivors” for a moment, maybe Paul Weller alone stands alongside TV Smith in the ranks of post punks who still believe in the old gods of activism, anger and a refusal to accept that things have to be like this..
Closer parallels, however, would reach back a lot further… Richard Thompson walks some of these same pathways with similar poise and power; and Neil Young, when he leaves the soapbox at home. But the fact that Smith delivers his damnation with the minimum of electricity and the maximum of verve establishes him even further ahead. If you know his past work, you’ll know how great this album is. If you don’t, then where’ve you been?
Walter Lure & The Waldos
Wacka Lacka Loom Bop A Loom Bam Boo
(Cleopatra – LP, CD)
You don’t even need to play this album. Come on, with a title like that, how can you not love every iota of sound that permeates these grooves, and besides, it’s Walter Lure. He might be best remembered for the Heartbreakers, the able lieutenant to Johnny Thunders’ dishevelled general, but it’s forty years since they broke up, and Lure is still blazing as loud as the old records used to. That guitar sound alone is worth the price of admission.
There’s two obvious reflections on the past herein. “Take a Chance On Me” was written with Jerry Nolan back in the Heartbreakers days, while there’s also a version of “London Boys,” from Thunders’ first solo album, which itself was built around the demo that was the Heartbreakers’ final recording.
Thunders’ lyrics remain an hysterical putdown of Johnny Rotten, but maybe time has broadened the target to encompass sundry others, and not all of them are musicians (or from London) – it’s a very well-chosen revival, and one of the album’s most powerful tracks.
But only one of them. “Don’t Mess With Cupid” gets a dramatic work-out too, a reminder of just how indebted to the sixties the best rock’n’roll should be, while the opening “Crazy Kids” feels like the Pink Fairies playing the Sex Pistols, and you really can’t get much better than that.
“She Doesn’t Love You” is power pop with teeth; “Bye Bye Baby” is a lurching lament played a little too loudly to be a ballad; and, though “Little Black Book” sounds like a song about the days before text messaging, when phone numbers were indeed written in one, there’s something quite deliciously odd about this one. Like… please don’t put my number in there? It’s an early 80s co-write with fellow ex-Heartbreaker Billy Rath, by the way,
And then there’s the almost-title track, which is absolutely everything you’d want from a song called “Wham Bam Boo.” As, indeed, is this album. You know, it’s early, it’s raining and there’s albums that need reviewing that Spin Cycle would rather just bury in the garden. But Wacka Lacka Loom Bop A Loom Bam Boo has placed all of that in a completely different perspective. Wow. A record that makes you uncontrollably happy. You don’t hear many of them these days.
Djabe & Steve Hackett
Life is a Journey – the Budapest Live Tapes
(Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red – 2CD/DVD box)
Steve Hackett’s union with Hungarian jazz rockers Djabe could have gone one of two ways. Either it would be as awesome as it was already adventurous, leaving us sitting breathlessly back as it rumbles along. Or it would be the most hideously horse-headed prog-up-yer-bum borefest of the year. Or one of them, anyway. There’s a lot of serial offenders out there, and they all seem to be active right now.
Thankfully, and perhaps predictably, Life is a Journey errs on the side of the former. Indeed, though at least some of the track listing really doesn’t deviate far from every other live album Steve Hackett has ever released ever, the performances themselves are simply breathtaking – not least of all “Firth of Fifth,” which has rarely sounded this alive. Kicking the keyboard line off with a violin is only the beginning. Lots of guitarists can make their instrument speak. Hackett’s is practically engaging you in conversation here.
It’s true; Djabe’s form of fusion is not to everyone’s tastes and perhaps the fast forward button gets a little more exercise than the average Hackett fare is accustomed to. But in terms of musicianship, delivery and Hackett’s own obvious enjoyment (his grin shines through even on CD. It practically explodes out of the DVD), the 2017 MOMkult performance that provided the bulk of this collection must rank among his most livid live albums yet.
One More Thing
(Market Square – CD)
And this, insists Steve Ashley, is it. Fifty years on from the dawn of his recording career, and forty-five on from Stroll On – still one of the crucial documents of whatever English folk becomes when it largely eschews traditional boundaries – Ashley announces his departure from the music scene with what… well he describes it best. “I just couldn’t resist the temptation to retire disgracefully.”
He acknowledges, too, that this is the fastest album he has ever made. Just a couple of sessions in his living room was all it took to lay down a dozen new songs, and if the voice and delivery are as gloriously familiar as before, his subject matter remains as unpredictable as ever.
Who else but Ashley could swing from a discussion on the manifold ways in which the British Royal Family has attempted to court popularity, to a lovely paean to the dragonfly? From a lament for the old days of genuinely committed political activism, to a song about the intellectual liberation that old age confers on its constituents – “I once believed what I was told, but now none of it’s fooling me.”
It’s a topical album, in that anyone with an eye for recent British headlines will instantly recognize Ashley’s targets and themes. And maybe that’s a dangerous game to play, in that history moves so fast these days that who will even remember… I don’t know, name your own vainglorious parasitic loser… in another twenty-five minutes?
At the same time, though, it’s music that often keeps the memory alive, as a trawl through, say, Dylan’s first back pages will remind you. He, too, sang of names that might never have meant as much as they still do had he not given voice to their stories. And it has to be said, it’s very difficult to disagree with Ashley’s conclusions and condemnations, and you wouldn’t want to, even if you could.
And that is the mark of a truly great songwriter, as opposed to the rent-a-polemicists that have come and gone across the years. Which in turn means, if this truly is Ashley’s last stand, we’re going to miss him more than we could ever know.
(Blanc Check – CD)
More prolific now than they ever were in their so-called prime, Blancmange – in reality, Neil Arthur alone – return with their sixth new album in seven years, and Arthur’s own second this year.
Yet he shows no sign of exhaustion or overkill. Rather, Wanderlust opens with a “Distant Storm” that could be a modern-day Chris & Cosey soundscape, and maintains that mood throughout, even as it trails from domestic drama (“I Smashed Your Phone”) to Depeche-y darkness (“In Your Room”); from suburban ambition (“Gravel Drive Syndrome”) to modern day dystopia (“Talking to Machines”), and the fact that the music remains as sparsely lush and electronically organic as the best of Blancmange ever has only amplifies the sheer scope of Arthur’s achievement.
A soundtrack for modern living, then? In as much as it’s becoming increasingly difficult to completely disassociate oneself from the relentless yammering of Nothing Much, Wanderlust is in many ways preaching to the unwittingly converted. But it does so as much by inference as anything approaching directness, and the never less than dramatic textures and tunes that power the album to its conclusion are themselves a portrait of restraint. At the same time as they let rip in some quite remarkable ways.
It’s the closing title track, however, that is Wanderlust’s ace-in-the-hole, disembodied vocals over slowly percolating melody, while Arthur questions all that the title actually entails. Like, it would be nice to escape the grind. But what will you be escaping to? Back to the “Distant Storm” we go, then, and though this is scarcely a concept album per se, there’s a bewitching circularity that makes it feel like one.
A Year In The Country
The Quietened Mechanisms
(ayearinthecountry. bandcamp.com – CD, DL)
Though it is very fashionable (and rightly so) to decry the scars and worse that industry has wrought on the landscape over the years, there is something fascinating… even compulsive… about viewing its eventual decay; the process of nature reclaiming old factories, mine shafts, gasworks and more – as if to remind their builders that even man’s most destructive instincts are, in the end, mere temporary structures.
That is the over-arching theme behind A Year in the Country’s latest prolusion, an unspoken delight as these monuments to capitalism are reduced to theme park impotence, but hand-in-hand with that, a lonelier sense of what is lost when such places are left to rack and ruin. Employment, community, and the sheer weight of labor that went into both their construction and their operation.
Seventeen artists place themselves in the shadow of what remains, choosing sites that may not lay on the tourist maps, but await the explorer regardless. Echoes of Robert Calvert’s “All The Machines Are Quiet” seep through some of the cracks between the tracks, but that was written in the immediate aftermath of a past British government’s purge of the country’s manufacturing base.
The Quietened Mechanisms returns to those same sites decades later, where that initial shocking silence has been filled by brooks and bird call, and even the ghosts have given up lamenting the soot, the stench, the dust and disease that were the factory’s living legacy.
It’s an incredibly evocative experience, listening to this album… if you can find a copy, look out Anthony Burton’s Remains of a Revolution (Andre Deutsche, 1974) a history of the UK’s eighteenth century rush to industrialization, illustrated by what became of its glory. It makes the ideal companion to this particular evening in the country.
Rockpalast TV, 1983
(Ace – 2CD)
A sensational release this, former Roogalator frontman Adler and his then-current band kicking out over an hour-and-a-half’s worth of seething rockabluesadelica for the benefit of German TV. And though we don’t get the visuals, the music’s worth a thousand pictures.
It’s a solid set that draws from throughout Adler’s career – “Zero Hero,” “Gusha Gusha Woman,” the immortal “Cincinnati Fatback”… they’re all here, alongside a blazing take on James Brown’s “The Scratch,” and if you consider how few artists have ever truly mastered what Brown pulled off so easily, then you’ll understand why that one track is probably worth the price of admission on its own.
As it is, the rest of the show is equally compulsive, with Adler in great voice and great guitar too – “Take Off Your Fantasy Pants,” “Ain’t Gonna Fight No Cure,” “Ghost Train,” anyone with even half an ear for the intricacies of Adler’s career already knows how exciting this show is going to be, but there are moments that exceed even those expectations.
These two CDs are volumes thirty-five and six in Adler’s ongoing Legacy series of releases, a project that represents one of the most exhaustive archive exhumations this side of a full-blown Bear Family box set. But while there’s already several tons of great music to be found therein, this release really is something extra special.
Can we have some more, please?
Eddie and the Hot Rods
The Island Years
(Caroline – 6CD box)
There’s no denying it, or at least, there shouldn’t be. In their prime, which means at any point between 1975-1978, Eddie and the Hot Rods were the ultimate live experience on the British pub and club circuit.
Other bands came close… and you can name them all yourselves. But the Rods… did anyone ever catch them on an off night? Were they ever anything but mach five R&B mayhem, even when their music shifted to try and keep tabs on the punky power pop boom that displaced their beloved pub rock from the headlines? And was there any greater intro to any record of the age than that almost accidental slip from silence to savagery that kicked off “Do Anything You Wanna Do”?
Yeah, you’ll probably say there was. But, quite frankly, we don’t want to hear it. We want to hear this.
The Island Years is a six disc clamshell into which have been crammed more Eddie than you can shake a Rod at. Their first two studio albums, of course, unimpeachable jewels that they are; their third, which was frankly disappointing (and will not be mentioned again), two discs of BBC material, one live and the other studio sessions; and more odds, sods, singles and b-sides than you have ever seen from them before.
This is not, after all, the first time the albums, at least, have been reissued, and for a long time we were content with the bonuses that those other packages gave us. This, however, goes above and beyond. To Teenage Depression (here in its original UK configuration) are added thirteen bonus tracks, including the original Live at the Marquee EP, with its original-shaming versions of “Gloria” and “Get Out of Denver”; to Life on the Line, twelve more, including b-sides, odd singles and even more live cuts, plus the band’s collaboration with Rob Tyner.
The BBC sessions disc rounds up three John Peel sessions, and effectively catches the Hot Rods live, without an audience to egg them on… not that they seem to notice on the first one, which might itself be the highlight of the box; and the BBC live set is just that, two broadcasts from 1977 that offer bags of energy and noise, and a pair of classic (if, given the show’s thirty-minute running time) truncated sets.
For collectors, however, disc six is the real gem, restoring to the world at last the excruciatingly limited edition Fan Club Album with which the Rods rewarded 100 loyal listeners in 1977.
Divided between unreleased live material and out-takes from past sessions, including a couple more tracks with original harmonica man Lew Lewis, a demo of “Gloria” and even a radio ad for the “I Might Be Lying” 45, it’s a magnificent adjunct to Teenage Depression – which means, in turn, if you play the box in the order it’s presented, you’ll be back at the start before the evening’s over, and you can just play the whole thing again.
Yeah, they really were that good.