Reviews: Us and Them, Fab Gear, Phil Manzanera, Burning Britain, Comus, Danny Adler, the Upsetters, Humble Pie, Bob & Marcia

Us and Them

On Shipless Ocean (CD, vinyl)

Mega Dodo

Second album time from the Swedish Fruits-and-Dodo duo and, though it’s scarcely “make or break” time, still they have a few questions to answer.  Beginning with, how much of their own press do they believe?  Every band, after all, is saddled with a lexicon of terms to which every writer is compelled to refer, and terms like “distorted,” “aggressive,” “nightmare” and “wired” are not at the top of the list.

But just a few minutes into the version of Kevin Ayers’ “Lady Rachel” that devours half of side one’s twenty minute playing time, and it’s clear that neither Britt Ronnholm nor Anders Hakanson have any intention of playing to the peanut gallery.

Like the version of Bowie’s “All the Madmen” that graced the back of their last 45, the challenge seems not to have been to cover the song, but to kidnap it as well.  It’s electrifying, not only in terms of Us and Them’s own past accomplishments (which itself is a major achievement), but in relation to Ayers’ original, too.

Twice the length and maybe twice as fast, there’s a Madchester rhythm pattern around the careening Third Ear soundscapes, while Ronnholm shrugs away Ayers’ gentle, caring questioning, and sounds positively, wildly gleeful.  If music were a Batman comic, it’s the difference between Bruce Wayne wishing you a goodnight and sweet dreams, and the Joker saying the same thing.

The lead up to the song is not too far removed from more traditional pastures.  Well, not wholly. “The Trees and Sky Above” is lovely, pastoral… what else could it be with a title like that?  But “From the Corner of my Eye” builds on murmured vocals and menace; and “A New Life” echoes with a darkening ennui that the opening lines have already prefaced – “no surprise who the murderer in my book will be.”  And behind Ronnholm all the way, a guitar pattern haunts like a metronome, while strings push in to polish its claws.

Side two keeps the pressure up – “Changes and Choices” and “People Like Us” are, respectively, blue moody lush and echo-fed sparse, while “Time” ticks like a wordless nursery rhyme, even after the vocals chime in.  

“Extract from the 17th of November,” however, makes you wonder precisely what the whole day looked like. Think “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” if a bunch of robots deleted all but the bass line… and then wonder why nobody thought to crossfade it into the album’s other epic, the slow burning nine minute “Tail” –  and, no matter how powerful the rest of the record, it’s clear that this is what it was all building up to.

Indeed, it’s almost an anti-climax when the CD continues for two songs more – “She’s Not Me” and “We Are Not Alone”; placed elsewhere on the disc, their impact would have been far more pronounced.   Absent from the vinyl, On Shipless Ocean might have ended, but it sails on in your mind regardless.

So, where does that leave Us and Them?  Well, those questions were answered long ago, and the lexicon has no bearing on the band.  Just as they have for ten years already, Us and Them continue to plough their own peculiar furrow, and you’ll think twice before referring to them as psych-folk again.  They’re far more perfect than that.

 

various artists

Fab Gear – The British Beat Explosion and its Aftershocks, 1963-1967 (box set)

(RPM/Cherry Red)

Although it doesn’t always feel like it, it’s getting on for forty-five years since the initial attempts were made to accurately curate a lasting collection of obscure British beat-and-after 45s; thirty-five since the dawn of the manifold series that we’ve hoarded since then; twenty-plus since bumper box sets first attempted to present the full picture.

And still they come, although few – if any – tackle the topic with the sheer eye for detail that Fab Gear can boast.  Of course, even six discs cannot hope to compile everything.  But across no less than 185 tracks, Fab Gear traces – in painstakingly annotated, near-chronological order – everything that went on in the post-Beatles, not-too-much Merseybeat, world of the long-haired groovers and movers.  

Don’t look inside for the big hits.  The oldies radio staples are elsewhere, the future stars lurk beneath unfamiliar names, the bedroom poster faves are excised.  But from Chad and Jeremy’s opening “Yesterday’s Gone” (1963) through to Katch 22’s “Makin’ My Mind Up” (1967), Fab Gear positively seethes beneath the weight of (some of) the era’s greatest might-have-happeneds and could-have-beens, interspersed at regular intervals with a slathering serving of how-the-hell-was-this-not-huge-s?  

And still it finds time to wrap everything up by devoting its final disc to material that didn’t see the light of day at the time.

Popular misconceptions are popped from the outset. While a lot of period bands did simply cover recent Beatles hits, and a lot more delved into the American R&B/blues songbook, there’s a far stronger emphasis here on original talent.  So John Carter and Ken Lewis get as many writing credits on disc one as either John/Paul or (almost) Chuck Berry; and for every historically redolent John Lee Hooker or Smokey Robinson composition, there’s an opus from Rawbottom, Christopoulus and Wylde.

Likewise, though “hit” names abound… early tries and failed follow-ups by Twinkle, the Searchers, the Tornados and Arthur Brown… far more prevalent are the likes of the meddyEvils, the Eccentrics and the Blue Aces Showband.  We do stumble across a young David Bowie, a formative Status Quo, an un-Hoopled Doc Thomas Group and a pre-Move Carl Wayne, and there’s a Kinks b-side lurking as well.  But we’re more likely to be engrossed by the Chapters, the Legends, Russ Loader and the Truth. 

Stylistically, too, matters range so far across the spectrum that it’s futile to even attempt to sum the entire package up without saying “just sit down and listen.”  Or stand up and dance.  Outside of the disco scenes in grainy period youth flicks, people don’t really say “Fab Gear” anymore, at least not without first draping their words in knowingly retro irony.   

But there’s not many other expressions that could begin to do justice to this collection, nor to the sheer weight of history that bears down as you play it through.  

Arguably, this period represents the most fertile, febrile period of growth in the history of British rock.  There have been individual movements of equal import (glam, punk, whatever), but they always displaced what came before, and were wiped out in turn a few years later.   Last year’s anarchists are always next year’s boring old farts.

British Beat, on the other hand, never actually died.  It just quietly shifted, mutated and grew, which is how Chad & Jeremy went from “Yesterday’s Gone” to Of Cabbages and Kings, or the Moodies from “Lose Your Money” to Days of Future Past; why the Sorrows’ “Take a Heart” makes as much sense here, in its original form, as it would half a century later, when Schizo Fun Addict got their paws on it; and so on and so forth.

So, another British Beat box.  And the best there’s ever been.

 

Phil Manzanera and the Sound of Blue Band

Live in Japan

(Expression Records)

Not every release in the Phil Manzanera back catalog is what you’d call “essential,” but one thing is certain.  Of all the former members of Roxy Music, Manzanera is not only the one who has remained truest to the band’s founding principles (and that despite not being there when they were founded to begin with), but also the one who has remained the most consistent.

Eno, after all, has served up as many distractions as he has delights, while mapping the highs and lows of Brown Furry’s solo career leaves you with nothing more than a very classily-dressed relief map of the Rocky Mountains.  Yeah, there are some staggering peaks.  But there’s a lot of bumps and troughs as well.

Manzanera, on the other hand, just piles up the albums, and while not everything is the best he has ever done, still he remains delicately poised on the same twitching tightrope that Roxy walked through their first year-or-so. And this, recorded live in Tokyo in 2017, serves up two discs of Manzanera at his most inventive, and his most retrospective, too. 

It opens a la 1975’s 801 Live, with the soaring “Lagrima” and that definitive reappraisal of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Sonia Bernado’s vocal upending our customary expectations – and not for the last time.  Frankly, few fans could ever have dreamed of hearing a female-fronted “Out of the Blue,” but it works so well that when she doesn’t handle the entire lead part on a superbly eerie, echoey, “In Every Dreamhome a Heartache,” it actually comes as a disappointment.

“Dreamhome” is the first towering highlight here, just five tracks in and rearranged with true spectral sparsity and visceral punctuation.  Sax player Joao Mello may not be Andy Mackay, but he doesn’t actually need to be, and while we can’t see what Manzanera is doing while the first part of the song passes by, the solo that soars through the second is blinding.

The set meanders, as it should, between solo Manzanera and his band work – long-time admirers will mourn the absence of any Quiet Sun from the repertoire, but Diamond Head is given a tasty work-out (“East of Asteroid” is devastating), and while his choice of Roxy covers is largely confined to his cowrites, “Dreamhome” proves that he’s not limited to that… “More Than This” is given a great work-out later.   “Love is the Drug,” meanwhile, sounds better in Manzanera’s hands that at any time since Grace Jones did her thing with it.

Of course, it’s fans of Manzanera’s guitar who will take the most home from Live in Japan, whether it’s the brittle “High Atlas,” the soaring “Frontera” or a “Let’s Stick Together” which may, indeed, take its cue from Brain Fury’s solo rendition, but which shreds the memory regardless.  With three guitarists credited in the line-up, you might be wondering how you’ll know when Manzanera takes the lead.  Don’t worry, you will.  

This might well be the best non-archive, non-reissued, non-“let’s bleed the suckers one more time cos we’ve got nothing new to say” live album we’re going to hear all year.  It’s certainly one of the finest in the entire Roxy canon.

 

various artists

Burning Britain: A Story of Independent UK Punk 1980-1983 (box set)

(Cherry Red)

Punk stepped out of the seventies in pretty poor shape.  Already unfashionable, already ignored, already scorned by a music press that, just two or three years earlier, had worshipped at its feet, punk was superseded by so many subsequent styles that even saying “wun-too-free-for” before a song got started was viewed as the onset of premature senility.   “Such a shame, he’s only seventeen.”

It wasn’t the music’s fault, more that of those musicians who pushed punk to the forefront in the first place.  They unleashed a fiery new energy onto the music scene, then turned their backs on it the first chance they got – as if every last one of them had always longed secretly to be the new Stones/Beatles/Can/Who-ever all along, and the vitriolic snarl was just a means to an end.  

Which would be a frightfully cynical thing to accuse them of, but no matter.  It’s genuinely hard to keep thrashing two chords when your next album sounds like Abba.  The fact is, it happened and the handful of bands that did adhere to the original tenets were left to pick up the pieces.

No wonder they all sounded so cross.

Burning Britain is the story of what-happened-next.  In terms of product, it’s the logical and lovingly compiled successor to all those Twenty Fab Hits of the Safety Pinned Era packages that pushed even the sweary ol’ Pistols into supermarket rotation.  Except there’ll probably never be an orchestral remake of this.

Hits are sparse, names are unfamiliar.  Maybe you remember Drongos for Europe, External Menace, Kronstadt Rising and Death Penalty, but they barely got their names in print at the time.  Today, they’re more or less forgotten.

And unforgotten.  Four CDs and 114 tracks range across a catalog that, it is true, still lionized a handful of oldies (Chelsea, the UK Subs, the Lurkers and the Damned are all on board), but was far more interested in what was new.  A few of the bands were forced to labor beneath the awful Oi tag; a few others leaned towards the (absent from this collection) Crass flag.  All, however, raged with a conviction and energy that has seldom been recaptured.

Not everything here made it out at the time, and it was not always on single when it did – tracks are culled from demos, compilations, flexidiscs and more.  But, just like the first wave of punky people, almost every band produced that one glittering number that made their memory worth preserving, and for the most part, that’s what we get.  The Blood’s ecstatic “Megalomania,” Vice Squad’s triumphant “Last Rockers,” Blitzkreig’s “Abuse of Power,” Blitz’s “Warriors,” the Varukers’ “Die for your Government”….

It was never just the music that mattered, though.  There was also a strong political content in play, and maybe that’s a reason why a lot of it has been disdained.  After all, if you’re really in love with Margaret Thatcher, you’re not going to think much of the Septic Psychos’ paean to the lady.  Nor the Not-Sensibles’, for that matter, although their best-known title is replaced here by the later “I Thought You Were Dead,” and sensibly so.  

You could also say that a lot of the concerns aired here now sound like a very bad tempered history book, jumping off the shelf to shake its fist for no contemporary reason whatsoever.  But you’d be wrong.  You don’t need to understand what the Cuba crisis was about, in order to comprehend early sixties Bob Dylan, and it’s the same here.  The most meaningful past discontent is relevant whatever the current headlines say, and just as it sometimes still feels like a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, shell shock remains shell shock, no matter how long the acronym that is now deployed instead.

The only thing that’s changed, after all, is the fact that nothing’s changed.  That and the fact that nobody sings about it any longer.  More than overview of a particular era, Burning Boredom is also a document of probably the last genuinely sincere collision of popular music and outsider politics there ever was, and might ever be.  

 

Comus

First Utterance

(Esoteric/Cherry Red)

Considering how deep underground this album was buried back when it first appeared, it is little short of miraculous just how highly-regarded it is today.  

First sighted on the Dawn label at, indeed, the dawn of the seventies, it did enjoy a brief moment in the sun when “Song to Comus” was called out for inclusion on a period label sampler, Take-Away Party.  But Pye, Dawn’s parent label, didn’t have a clue how to market the band, and the comp scarcely set the world ablaze either.  Within a year or so of release, both had vanished from view and when a second Comus album, three years and a different label later, barely even glanced towards its predecessor in terms of coherence or continuity, the story might have stopped dead.

But no.  A handful of hunters became a gaggle of acolytes, First Utterance was reissued, and reissued again… Comus reformed, and more reissues followed.  Conservatively, and counting bootlegs and knock-offs, this is probably its dozenth reappearance in the last thirty years.  

But it might be the first to have been fully remastered, and no matter how many other CD copies you have, this is the one you’ll be playing the most.   It truly sounds sensational, even shading the original vinyl, bright and beautiful yet not shedding even a soupçon of its natural claustrophobia and darkness.  Past CDs sound like a puddle of mud by comparison.

Contents-wise, there are no surprises on board.  A la several other reissues, the original seven song album is appended first by the three songs that appeared on the Diana maxi-single; while we also get “All the Colours of Darkness,” a period out-take that was hitherto collected for 2005’s sensibly subtitled The Complete Collection.  The accompanying booklet tells both the story of the band and their album, and also allows former members to reflect on the what-could-have-beens that they attach to the record – it’s hard to believe, given First Utterance’s renown, that the band themselves still regard it as badly produced, sonically flawed and, ultimately, nothing like it should or could have been.

One hopes the remaster goes at least some way towards addressing their concerns.  But, even in its most flawed condition, First Utterance remains one of the crucial releases of the early seventies folk/prog underground, and one of the standard bearers of that movement’s recent revival.  Comus still glares.

 

Danny Adler/Luther Tucker

Brussels Midnight Blues

(DA Legacy)

The latest (thirty-fourth) release in Cincinatti hot cat Adler’s so enviably thorough exhumation of his archive, Brussels Midnight Blues is an hour long live show, taped at the Belgian city’s Quadrige nightclub in 1982 (presumably at midnight).  

More importantly, however, it pinpoints not only why Adler is widely regarded among the finest bluesmen of the rock’n’roll era, but also why so much of his catalog is collaborative.  Because, he can play with anyone, and everyone who shares the stage with him as no choice but to raise their own game accordingly.

The veteran Tucker is no exception.

Nine tracks are split between Adler originals and old faithfuls… Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” makes a fabulous intro, a loping stomp over which the instruments weave and wave their way round one another; “Sweet Home Chicago” is a pounding shuffle; “Mean Old World” is as lazy as its nine minutes songspan demand; and “Reconsider Baby” is a pumping, humping epic.  

Littered around them, Adler’s “The Cleaner” is an extra-funky take on a track that should be familiar from elsewhere in the Legacy series (volume 28, recounting his Peel sessions), while the title track, and a couple of blues numbers titled for the venue itself, feel as though they were extemporized on the night, and are seat-of-the-pants great to match..

It’s a terrific album, an amazing band and with two stellar guitarists letting rip for a crowded club, you have no choice but to play it loud.  You’ll be sweating as wet as the rest of ‘em.

 

The Upsetters

Return of Django/Eastwood Rides Again

(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)

Lee Perry’s career might have been five-plus years old at the time, but it was with the launch, in 1968, of his Upsetter label that he truly impacted upon the world outside of reggae’s most detail-oriented listeners.  No longer simply another name in the Studio One roster of talent, suddenly he was out on his own as Jamaica’s top producer – or, at least, the most idiosyncratic.

The chain of singles that Perry masterminded across the next three or four years still feel more like a stream of consciousness than any attempt to formulate a coherent statement, and include what remain some of the most sense-jangling records in reggae history.  But he was also a hitmaker supreme and, in 1969, with “Return of Django” having landed him with a major UK smash, Trojan released the first of the two albums in this package, a wild, honking, skanking collection that might have looked like a round-up of his last few singles (which it was), but which felt like a planetary realignment.

“Return of Django,” the opening title track, remains the most lethal rhythm combination ever forged, the kind of record the CDC should seriously consider adopting as the poster child for whatever the next contagious outbreak might be.  Listened to now, the entire history of Jamaica’s past and Two Tone’s future is crammed into barely two-and-a-half minutes, and if the ghost of “Tequila” hangs around the breaks, then that just shows how all-consuming “Django” was.  Plus, it packs what is surely the most tortured sax squawking ever to visit the upper echelons of the chart.

The rest of the album follows demented suit.  “Cold Sweat,” “Night Doctor,” “Man from MI5,” “Medical Operation” – this is Perry unleashed, experimenting with sound and technology alike, nuggets of noise over (or under) which anything could, and often does, happen.

1970’s Eastwood Rides Again continued in the same vein, of course, only now – if anything – it was even more bizarre.  A straight Val Bennett solo through “A – You’re Adorable” and an instrumental chug through “Knock on Wood” are as po-faced as “Hit Me” is a wired, weird bundle of high octane, high fructose cornbread; “Popcorn” is a funky monster; “Eastwood Rides Again” is Django’s dark dub brother, while “Django Shoots First” turns out to be a hesitant “Old Man River,” over which DJ Lord Comic alternates between groan and yelp.  

But  the drum and bassline-based “Red Hot” slyly lives up to its title, and if Eastwood Rides Again is not as profoundly shattering an album as its predecessor, still it’s a vital step on the road to Perry’s Black Ark pinnacle.  It’s also a lot easier to pick up now than the pile of singles from which it was compiled.

 

Humble Pie

Official Bootleg Box Set Volume Two

Back On Track/Live in Cleveland

(both HNE Recordings/Cherry Red)

The continuing excavation of the Humble Pie vault has uncorked a lot of music, some truly essential, some ostensibly reverential, and some… well, it depends just how deep, and how far, you want to take things, doesn’t it?

Live in Cleveland is a 1990 live show, with just Jerry Shirley representing any kind of “classic” Pie line-up;  Back on Track dates from 2002, and features Shirley plus fellow founder Greg Ridley, alongside early 80s guitarist Bobby Tench and newcomer Dave Colwell.  

Both retain the overall mood of the original band, musically and energetically, but so much of the band’s appeal was wrapped around Steve Marriott’s irrepressible passion and vocals that, if you just walked in on someone playing the albums, and didn’t look at the sleeve… you wouldn’t know.  You probably wouldn’t even dream.  For Pie completists only.

You could also make that final observation about the second volume in the Official Bootleg Box Set, but you’d be wrong.  No, it ain’t no Rockin’ the Fillmore, all the more so since it documents the next incarnation of the band, with Clem Clempson replacing Peter Frampton on guitar.  But that line-up, arguably, was responsible for the best of Humble Pie’s vinyl output, Smokin’ (1972) and the double Eat It (1973), and so the story continued.

A disclaimer on the back of the box warns not to expect stellar sound quality, although in truth it’s not bad.  Disc the first, from New York’s Academy of Music in December 1971, is clearly an audience recording, and just as clearly someone has tried to clean it up, to give the whole thing a pronounced digital tinnitus.  But the power of the performance overcomes the failings, just as it used to on the old vinyl bootlegs which the box sets out to echo, and by the time you reach the marathon (seventeen minute) “Rollin’ Stone,” you’re immune to all aural faults. 

The second disc, Boston the following March, is better – still rough, but the sound is bassier, fuller, and more “you-are-there.”  Plus, it’s much the same set as the Academy disc (a couple of songs change position, and there’s a great “Roadrunner” to wrap things up), so if you’re only here for the music, this is where you start.

Disc three jumps around a bit.  It opens with four highlights from a 1975 Philadelphia show, FM radio quality but it’s maybe telling that all four are Pie oldies… “Four Day Creep,” “C’mon Everybody” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which we’ve already heard twice before on the box, and “Stone Cold Fever.”  It’s a great recording, though… the full show would make a great future release.  

But it gets even better, because the disc ends with three tracks taped for Midnight Special in London in 1973, with Pie punched up by the addition of the ever-sensational Blackberries.  The studio half of Eat It itself might be regarded as a missed opportunity, its brilliance scuppered by a frankly appalling remix.  But in concert, this was the Pie show to catch,  and the platter’s worth of live highlights that bolstered the original Eat It was never, ever enough.  If the Philly show deserves a disc of its own, the Blackberry Pie needs a box set.

The final two discs capture a couple of club dates from the reformed Pie’s 1981 reunion and, like other latter-day prolusions, purists can probably take them or leave them.  Give ‘em a go, though.  Marriott is in fine voice, the sound quality is stellar, and where else are you going to find a twenty-three minute medley of “30 Days in the Hole” and “Walk on Gilded Splinters”?  Followed by a blistering “Tin Soldier”?

It’s odd.  In terms of what’s out there, Humble Pie’s catalog is as healthy as it has ever been – all the more so with the vinyl remasters that were boxed up not so long ago.  But still it feels as though they deserve better than they’ve been given.  This band needs a box that rides roughshod over all the business deals that plant one part of the discography here, one part there, and one part some place else; a box that weeds out the weak bits and amplifies the strong; a box that states, for now and for all time, just how brilliant Humble Pie could be when they wanted to.

And how much we should cherish them still.

 

Bob & Marcia

Young Gifted & Black/Pied Piper

(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)

A terrific twofer showing off  the less feted side of reggae’s early seventies international insurgence – pure pop with a Jamaican back beat.  

Nobody looking at the track listing… “The Onion Song,” “United We Stand,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied”… is likely to expect any more than what it is.   

Yet still the duo of Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths were as much a part of the spearhead as any “heavier” team and, in some ways, even more important.  It was in their wake, after all, that the UK Trojan label was emboldened to send the likes of Ken Boothe and John Holt into the studio, to reggaefy their favorite easy listening numbers, while the British success of “Young, Gifted and Black” also saw Bob & Marcia become Motown’s first ever Jamaican signing.

The album titled by that initial hit remains as delightful today as it was at the time – maybe the image of a youth club full of skinheads slow-dancing to “Private Number” seems incongruous now, but you can’t be moonstomping all the time.  And Pied Piper is just as strong, even if its emphasis on Andy’s original compositions (six verses one on its predecessor) does detract from its period-piece glory just a little.  

But “Pied Piper” itself was another UK hit and, to round the package off, the far punchier Jamaican mix of “Young Gifted and Black” reminds us that, no matter how fervently the international audience was embracing reggae, it still wasn’t getting the full picture.  That joy was still to come.

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