Reviews: Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Richard Hell, the Ramones, Ian Dury, United States of America, T Rex, Alice Cooper, Faces, Johnny Cash, Funk Inc., Three Pieces, Otis Redding, the Doors, Lee Brilleaux

It was a big deal in 1976.  A bootleg EP, name of White Heat, rounding up four songs recorded by the Velvet Underground during the sessions for what would have been their fourth Verve LP, had they not hightailed over to Atlantic instead.

Its contents – “Foggy Notion,” “Temptation,” “Ferryboat Bill” and “I’m Sticking With You” – don’t even raise an eyebrow today, but like I said, back then, big deal.  The out-takes collections VU and Another View were almost a decade distant at the time; the CD box sets of more recent renown, and expanded editions of the original LPs were even further away.  This really was the Velvets as we’d never heard them before.

Fast forward forty years, and there can be little left in the archive that we’ve not heard.  But still we celebrate 1969 (Polydor), a three sided round-up of (almost) everything we’ve since heard from those same sessions, with a fourth side of earlier out-takes tacked on.

It’s the second Velvets double album to be gifted that title, following on from the live set of vintage renown, and there’s no surprises.  Indeed, the first side (almost) faithfully duplicates yet another album of the self-same title, included in Sundazed’s Velvets mono box a few years back.  But five new (2014) mixes and six original 1969 mixes wipe away the 1980s tinkering that has hitherto been the norm and, smarter still, songs that the band returned to the studio for Loaded are shunted together onto side three.

So no, there’s nothing you haven’t been offered before, and no reason why you couldn’t just make a playlist of these same twenty songs and play it on whatever cockamamie digital doohickey you now call a home hifi system.  But it’s a beautiful package regardless, with the first disc surely concluding all those decades of debate regarding a “final” track listing for the lost fourth album, and the second adding sufficient bonus tracks to come up with a fifth.

And there’s a third disc on the shelves right now, in the form, of a fresh reissue of Loaded, to round the story off.  Last time around (or was it the time before?  Who can keep track anymore?), Loaded was delivered in ugly spatter vinyl for the 2014 Record Store Day.  We’ve also had it in red, white and yellow in recent years.

It reappears now in what the sleeve insists is gold, but which looks a bit more mustardy than that, a part of Rhino’s newly instituted Rocktober vinyl reissues series, and it follows the recent tradition of including the unedited version of “Sweet Jane,” as opposed to the (admittedly, oddly-) edited take that originally appeared.  Which may or may not be a good thing… guess it depends which version you’re accustomed to.

Talking of Rocktober, though, does give us a moment to pause and listen through some other sainted seventies gems.  Beginning with T Rex’s landmark Electric Warrior, which may not have been Marc Bolan’s very best effort (Beard of Stars and The Slider battle it out for that title), but it is his most archetypal.  Particularly in the United States, where “Bang a Gong” retitled the signature hit “Get It On” and gave Bolan his biggest local hit.

Three Alice Cooper albums, Pretties For You, Love it to Death and Special Forces also reappear, and though the former and latter both have their moments (Special Forces less so, it is true), Love it to Death remains one of the key rock albums of the early 1970s, and is probably Alice’s best all round.

Others have more hits, others include “School’s Out.”  But still Love It to Death rises above them, our first true taste of the Cooper horror show, with “Black Juju” rounding out side one in still-terrifying style, and side two’s “Second Coming” and “Ballad of Dwight Fry” adding up to become one of the most dynamic mini-suites in all of modern rock.  Plus, the front cover restores the naughty finger with which Alice outraged his label the first time around, and the black-and-white vinyl matches the sleeve.  Exquisite!

One last look back at Rocktober, with the Faces Ooh La La.  Again, the original artwork is restored in the form of the Pythonesque animation of the front cover photo, while a clutch of songs that period critics dismissed as somewhat disappointing nevertheless includes two of the Faces’ finest.

Ronnie Lane’s title track is the epitome of plaintive, and “Cindy Incidentally,” the leering king of bar-band sleaze.   Add “Silicone Grown,” “Borstal Boys” and “Glad and Sorry,” and Ooh La La might not be the band’s greatest offering; might still foreshadow their relentless and imminent collapse.  But it’s a lot of fun, regardless.

Whizzing back a couple of decades from there, Johnny Cash’s The Sun Records Years (Charly) is a half-speed remastering of no less than twenty stone cold Cash classics, from “Cry! Cry! Cry!” to “Oh Lonesome Me,” and they really do sound fabulous.

It’s very easy, in these days of bloated hyperbole, to become utterly jaded by all the virgin vinyl multi-gram new remaster blah blah blah that is routinely appended to every new release… sometimes, you just want to ask them what was so dreadful about the record as it was originally made?  (Answer – usually, nothing.)

But The Sun Records Years really does sound as fresh as it ought to, and as dynamic as it used to – a testament to Sam Phillips’ studio brilliance, of course, but also to the strength of the material and the performances.  Cash went on to enjoy a fabulous career, of course.  But he could have halted when this album ends, and he’d still have been a genius.

Also impressive are the latest offerings from the Jazz Dispensary Top Shelf Series.  The Three PiecesVibes of Truth (Concord Music) was originally released by Fantasy in 1975, a Donald Byrd production that mined the contemporary soft soul vein with peerless sensitivity, and merited far more attention than it received at the time (“If Only I Could Prove To You” is everything a 1975 disco ballad should have been).

Funk Inc’s eponymous 1971 album (Concord Music), on the other hand, is apparently best-remembered today for the sample (from their cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Kool Is Back”) that Yes borrowed for “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”  Dig deeper, however, and the entire package is a seething heap of cool soul jazz, all percussion, organ and drums, sultry rhythms and lazy sax, five tracks that layer and lounge across one another, and feel like they never should end.

But they do, and so we turn to Otis Redding, whose entire studio output has just been boxed by Atlantic as the seven LP Definitive Studio Album Collection.  Restored original artwork, original mono reproduction, it’s a spectacular looking and sounding collection, and if you were fast enough, you also picked up Redding’s in concert Live in Europe album when that, too, resurfaced for Record Store Day in November.  You can never have too much Otis.

Nor too many Record Store Days.  While the main event’s little brother remains a resolute under-achiever, still 2017 was a banner year for some.  Neil Young fans, for example, who’ve already been well-treated by the year-to-date, but were now afforded the opportunity to warm up for The Visitor by looking back at Harvest Moon (Reprise).

Making its Stateside vinyl debut, spread across three sides of a double package (side four is another of those implausibly pointless etchings that labels seem to think we like), Harvest Moon caused  quite a stir when released back in 1992, as Young celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Harvest by… making its successor.

There’s even guest reappearances from Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, Nicolette Larson and Jack Nitzsche!

Young was in a peculiar place in the early nineties, reborn with “Rocking in the Free World,” and the Weld/Arc live package, but still scarred by the inconsistencies of his eighties.  But, from the moment “Unknown Legend” slides in on that gentle guitar, on through “From Hank to Hendrix” and “You And Me,” and into the luxurious sweetness of the title track, it was clear that Young was actually doing what the pre-promotion promised.  Which wasn’t (and still isn’t) always something you could bank on.

A gatefold sleeve and lyric sheet are wrapped around a beautifully quiet pressing, lacking any of the pops and distortions that are all too common with modern vinyl reissues.   Four tracks consume side one, three apiece on sides two and three, and it all leads up to the seriously under-rated, but epic regardless “Natural Beauty,” a ten minute opus whose chorus (“a natural beauty should be preserved like a monument”) has since become something of a recurring mantra in Young’s world, but is delivered with absolute power and beauty here.

Surprisingly pleasing, too, was the appearance of the United States of America’s eponymous debut album (Sundazed), returning to its original, dodo-scarce mono mix, and sounding as … well, what word would you use?… today, as it must have back in 1968.

Always poised closer to performance art than pop; to willful experimentation than chart bound chutzpah, The United States of America tends to be mentioned today only when discussing the latter-day bands that most obviously fell in love with it – the late lamented Broadcast for one.

Little about it, after all, conforms to anything you would call radio friendly, and yet it’s difficult to listen through without your head filling up with ear worms, even as titles like “The American Metaphysical Circus,” “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” and “Love Song for the Dead Che” remind you that the band members came to the group from backgrounds in electronica, political radicalism, ethnomusicology and Fluxus.

All of which, and more, find resonant echoes within.  Indeed, filed alongside your Velvets and Fugs albums, The United States of America is as much a shimmering monument to late sixties New York avant-rock sensibilities as, a decade later, the debut albums by Patti Smith, Television and Richard Hell personified what those currents would become a decade later.

Meaning, the RSD reissue of the last of that triptych, Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation (Sire) should find an appreciative audience in your ears as well.

It’s arguable that Hell never truly lived up to his potential.  Too mercurial, too stubborn and maybe even too clever to allow himself to be sucked into the music machine altogether, his entire career has been one of simmering silence, punctuated by occasional outbursts of noise.  Each of which leaves you wishing that there was more, much more, to collect, at the same time as leaving you satisfied knowing that he will never outstay his welcome.

Blank Generation is reborn as a double album here, the original LP on one disc, and a clutch of alternates and live tracks on the second.  We spin through that fairly quickly – the Voidoids were phenomenal when you caught them in person, but their live show has never lent itself to armchair listening, as forty tears of bootlegs will remind you.  Neither are the alternates especially illuminative, although it’s good to catch the Ork Records version of “Another World,” and a studio version of the live fave “You Gotta Lose.”

No, the real meat lies in the original album – which, as much as it ever did in ’77 – both distracts with its tinny, fidgety sound, and draws you in through the sheer power of Hell’s persona.  And, of course, Robert Quine’s guitar.  From the opening “Love Comes in Spurts” through to the closing remake of “Another World,” Blank Generation is unquestionably the album that the CBGBs’ “punk” scene most needed to make – a summation not only of the ruthless energies that smoldered in the Bowery, but the poetic grime that percolated into the surf.

The title track alone would have assured Hell’s immortality, guitars like broken glass impaling a voice that wheedles its way into your heart – and it’s a formula that doesn’t grow old as the album plays on.  True, there is definitely a couple of weaker moments (Spin Cycle will single out “Betrayal Takes Two” and “Down at the Rock and Roll Club”), but only when viewed in isolation – taken as a whole, Blank Generation is as solid a wall of agitated sound as anyone was conjuring in 1977…

…and that includes the Ramones, whose Super Deluxe reissue of Rocket to Russia (Sire) might not have been a part of the RSD party, but hit the streets at much the same time, and is a limited edition as well.

The third Ramones album, and the third, therefore, to be given the hardbound LP-plus-CDs treatment, Rocket to Russia is simultaneously the album that “broke” the Ramones to a wider audience (blame “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “Teenage Lobotomy”) and, for the old faithful, the first sign that da bruddahs were beginning to lose the plot.  Or, at least,  lose their grip on the sleazy basement sensibilities that hallmarked their debut album, and the fringes of their second.

It’s a little too rote, a little too obvious, and an awful lot too cartoony.   It’s still a lot of fun… “Cretin Hop,” “Rockaway Beach,” “I Don’t Care,” “We’re a Happy Family,” they’re all great songs.  Great Ramones songs, too.  And you could argue that they’d already done the Fourteen Reasons Not to Go Down to the Basement routine, so of course it was time to move on.  But still it’s the Ramones with a Comics Code sticker… so the bonus material had better be good.

It is.  A disc of rough mixes, demos and b-sides will fascinate archaeologists; a live show from Glasgow in December ’77 captures the band a few nights before they recorded It’s Alive.  

But the real treat is the tracking mix of the album which appears on both CD and vinyl, and which lets us in on the band’s original, pre-overdubs and production vision.  Dirtier, rougher, starker… it’s not like listening to an altogether different record, but you will feel the edges more, and you might even find yourself wishing the original release had sounded like this.  Well, now you can pretend it did.

And we remain in 1977 for one final album.  And this time, there’s not a word of complaint.  Ian Dury and the BlockheadsNew Boots and Panties (Demon) is, after all, one of the cornerstones of the British new wave and that despite (or maybe because of) its makers being utterly unrepentant old pub rockers, relics of an era that never really got started.

But Dury’s blend of music hall bonhomie, rough kid vernacular and shark-eyed deliberation was always destined for the “big time,” and while New Boots itself didn’t push him there, it set the stage for the years that followed.  Larger than life, and louder as well, it glistens with instant classics, at the same time as ignoring the most classic of them all.  In the USA, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” was appended to the original UK LP; here, you have to wait till you reach the bonus disc before finally getting your fix of it.

That’s right.  Secreted within a great gatefold sleeve, littered with press cuttings, sides one and two are the original UK album (complete with lyric sheet); but sides three and four are the hard stuff, a live show recorded by the BBC in summer 1978, and making its vinyl debut here.

New Boots dominates the set list, of course – six of the twelve tracks peel off the LP, and though they may not be the ones you hoped would be played, remember this was a family radio show.  “Plaistow Patricia”’s coarser elements were not invited.  “Sex and Drugs” both opens and closes the show, straightforward the first time,raucous the second; the then-recent mini-hit “What a Waste” gets an inevitable airing, and there’s room for a couple of old Kilburn & the High Roads gems as well.

But more than the songs, it’s the sheer force of personality that radiates from the record, Dury the consummate showman showing the nation what he was worth, and maybe this was the moment when you could say he finally kicked the cult status away.  In Concert was a big deal radio show at the time, people tuning in regardless of whether they knew the performers or not, and Dury’s profile certainly leaped in the weeks that followed the broadcast.  Listening to it again, you can see why.

You should also have picked up the limited edition blue vinyl reissue of the DoorsAbsolutely Live – in its own way, as solid a representation of the Doors at their in-concert height as any of the full-length concerts that have rattled past the roadhouse in recent years.

Conceived during that brief span when live albums were not seen as just another excuse to sing the biggest hits once again, Absolutely Live was one of rock’s first double live albums, and one of the most successful, too – at least in musical and artistic terms.  No matter that the four sides are weighed down by unfamiliar new material, the band was genuinely blazing on the tapes, the audience ecstatic and Morrison was blazing.

These are the versions of “Who Do You Love” and “When the Music’s Over” that every Doors fan should swear by, while “Celebration of the Lizard” might have disoriented period listeners, but it’s quintessential Jimbo today.

In much the same way as Rock’n’Roll Gentleman (Parlophone) is the quintessential Lee Brilleaux, and if the name is not familiar, then now’s your chance to make amends.  Frontman with Dr Feelgood – Britain’s greatest R&B band of the seventies and beyond – the late Lee has just been celebrated with a four CD box set of this very same title.

On vinyl, the box set’s ninety-plus tracks get slimmed down to just eleven, with the whole of side one dedicated to the Feelgoods’ mid-late 1970s commercial peak, and the five song side two rounding out the next fifteen years.  But still you get the picture, from the seething “Roxette” and “Back in the Night” to the dynamic “Wolfman Calling,” the Feelgoods legend comes to such visceral life that you can almost hear the vinyl sweat.

In terms of getting you up on your feet and keeping you there, it’s probably the most gloriously exhausting listening experience of recent years, and it’s unlikely there’ll be much in the future to compete with it, either.  Of course the year is still young and hope springs eternal. But it’s good to know the Doctor is here if you need him.

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