Reviews: Queen, Shoegazing, Velvet Underground, David Essex, Rocket from the Tombs, Eric Clapton

1Queen

A Night at the Odeon (DVD/Blu-Ray)

(Eagle Vision)

There’s a moment, two songs in to this magnificent feast, when you suddenly stumble upon Queen’s secret.  Yes, they were clever little devils when they wanted to be; yes, they invented the six minute rock opera, the modern pop video and so much more besides.  And yes, they probably will rock you.

But the real secret is that they really weren’t that good.  They just didn’t let on.

“Ogre Battle” is the giveaway.  The moment when you realize that three of the band think they’re jamming Led Zeppelin, but never agreed which song they were playing, when in walks this guy who thinks he’s a pop star and just starts… well, he just starts.

It’s absurd.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s actually faintly painful.  And that was why Queen were so great.  Because they knew all that, and they carried on regardless.  For years.

Sheer brilliance.

Shot at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and broadcast live on Christmas Eve for the Old Grey Whistle Test’s 1975 festive special, A Night at the Odeon catches Queen at the top of their game, with a new album (A Night at the Opera) selling by the truckload, “Bohemian Rhapsody” about to enter its seventeenth aeon at the top of the UK chart, and the band… not caring.

The new album drops precisely one song into the show, and not even that really, because “Bo Rhap” is sliced and diced around “Killer Queen” (which gets a much louder roar) and “March of the Black Queen,” and the whole thing slams so suddenly into an absurdly end-of-the-pier flavored version of “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” that you just wish Queen’s fans took the band as seriously as the band themselves did.  Meaning, not at all.

Fully two-thirds of the tracks are still in much the same place in the set list as they were when the band toured a year before (captured on the Live at the Rainbow ’74 DVD), and the set itself is some 25% shorter than before, too.  The biggest band in the country and they couldn’t even be bothered to learn their new songs.  Again, sheer brilliance.

Freddie’s costume changes are as delicious as they ought to be, even if they do bring home just how pedestrian (and so mid-1970s) the rest of the band’s fashion sense was, the lighting and pyrotechnics are superb, and there’s a glorious moment at the end of the night as the audience is showered with special Christmas gifts, in the form of balloons and blow-up-dollies.

Which, no doubt, made fine traveling companions on the train home after the show.

2various artists

Still in a Dream – A Story of Shoegaze (5CD)

Cherry Red

Note that – A story of shoegaze; not the story, because no attempted retelling of that particular tale could be considered complete without My Bloody Valentine, and no, they are not here.

Which may or may not solve the inevitable argument of which track from their one decent album should have been included, but it does mean we can get on with the rest of the set without waiting for the wonderment of (insert your favorite here)… and then reeling back in horror because it no longer sounds as fabulous as it did way back when.  When you gazed at your shoes as a lifestyle, not as an exercise in quarter-century-plus old nostalgia.

That’s right.  Shoegaze is now older than Britpop, older then Grunge, older than half the jumped up little toads that pass for pop and rock stars today.  And some of its adherents have aged better than others, which means five discs do pass a little slower than they might – at the same time as the best bits rocket past with all the glory that was the music’s hallmark in the first place.

A stunning box set contains close to a working day’s worth of watchable wellingtons, gloriously packaged and annotated, and the memories abound.  Lush, Curve, Ride, Spaceman 3, Slowdive, Th’ Faith Healers, Galaxie 500, Mercury Rev, Catherine Wheel, the Mary Chain… but squeeze past the headliners (and there’s a lot of them), and you’re going to pick up at least one disc’s worth of jewels that you’re amazed you’d forgotten, or missed altogether, back in the days when the field was so overflowing with new bands that you’d need a clear head to keep up with them all.  And of course, for many listeners, a clear head was the last thing they’d want when listening.

As always with a gene-spanning box whose contents are arrayed in chronological order, the first few discs are the strongest – Jane from Occupied Europe, the Cocteaus, the Pale Saints, Spiritualized and Velocity Girl are among the other joys that lead you up and into the third disc; and then, of course, there’s Loop, a band whose every step was so gloriously placed that all those arguments you wanted to have about MBV can just be replayed with them instead.  What do you mean, there was only room for “Arc Light (Sonar)”?  What about “Be Here Now”?  “Fade Out”?  “Black Sun”?

Even into the music’s dog days, though, there were reasons to think there was still sparkle in the old toecaps – the Honey Buzzards, Drugstore, Bowery Electric.  You can hear things beginning to change, too, morphing into what would become the smarter edge of the burgeoning Britpop, and reminding us that musical genres are not all born with the big bang theory.  Sometimes they merely advance out of what was already happening before.

Watch those shoegazers carefully, then.  They were up to something even then.

3Velvet Underground 

Loaded – Reloaded 45th Anniversary Issue (6CD)

(Rhino)

The Complete Matrix Tapes (4CD)

(Universal)

Of all the revisions that have befallen the Velvet Underground in the decades since the biggest one of all (the fact that people started to like them), the slow acceptance of 1970’s Loaded as an equal partner in the catalog has been the most pronounced.

Once despised because of Lou Reeds’ own bitter commentary about its creation and execution, it is now seen as one of the four fonts of Velveteen glory – and not just “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll” and “New Age,” all of which were long ago raised to the classic status that they deserved.  No, there’s room, too, for the doo wop of “Who Loves The Sun,” the gawky charm of “I Found a Reason”… even “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.”

Suddenly, it can do no wrong, and here are ten discs to round up all you need to know.  Unless, of course, you already own it all.  Of the 25 demos, out-takes and early versions and mixes included on the Loaded box, all but two were featured on 1997’s two disc “fully loaded edition”; Loaded itself has been reissued on multiple occasions in the past; while the 15-strong recounting of Live at Max’s contrarily drops two of the tracks included on the 2004 double album.  And of the 42 tracks on the Matrix box, more than half have seen past service, across the super deluxe edition of the third album, 1969 and The Quine Tapes.

Are we finally reaching the bottom of the unreleased barrel?

Loaded first, sprawling across six discs in packaging that sensibly matches the deluxe editions of its three predecessors.  The first two concentrate on the album itself, in its stereo and promo mono incarnations (not too much difference to be truthful), with four out-takes and four single mixes appended respectively.  Disc four is dedicated to Live at Max’s, that (again oft-released) low-fi document of the band’s final nights; disc five rounds up the many-times booted Second Fret show, and disc six goes all surround sound on your ass, just in case you really need to hear Lou walking hand in hand with himself all the way round the room.

And in-between the album and the shows, disc three offers up a smorgasbord of other period demos, early versions and alternate mixes that may well prove to be the disc you’ll return to the most.

Again, we’ve heard it all before, but brought together like this, we see just how great an album Loaded could have been… had Reed kept his interest, had Mo Tucker not been on maternity leave and, maybe, had their old label, Verve, kept the faith in the band, and not thrown them to the hit hungry sharks at Atlantic.

The missing link between the third and fourth albums kicks off with a joyously clangy “Rock and Roll,” moves on to an early sketch of “Sad Song” (one of several tracks that Reed would return to for his solo career), skeletal lyrics adding King Henry to the familiar version’s Mary, Queen of Scots; a buoyant “Satellite of Love” (ditto), even more gleeful and upbeat than the Bowie-fired one; an epic “Ocean”… and a version of “I Found a Reason” that is so sheeet-keeeekingly countryfied that it has to be a joke.  Or a demo for an unsuspecting Nashville label.

“Early versions” of five album cuts follow and all continue in the third album vein – generally laid back, oft-times slow, and each one skewed suddenly by delightful clatters of guitar or chorus.  Except for “Oh Sweet Nothing,” that rides an organ that wants to be an accordion, and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” which is still a silly throwaway.  Finally on the disc, a handful of alternate mixes offer up what we could have been listening to all along.

4Certainly nobody lured into earshot by the first three albums will fall instantly in love with Loaded, and for all the “they can do no wrong” genuflections that today rain over Loaded, the fact remains, it is the sound of a band allowing other heads entirely to dictate what we heard.  Whereas the superlative Complete Matrix Tapes, in conjunction with Loaded’s demos and live discs, remind us of the real reasons why the latter day Velvets deserve all the plaudits that attend them today.

The ears behind Loaded may not have fancied a thirty-six minute “Sister Ray.”  The fingers on the mixing desk might not have wanted “Sweet Jane” (one of several Loaded numbers that the Matrix serves up with alternate lyrics) sounding more akin to “Pale Blue Eyes”; and even Reed seems to have decided “New Age” deserved a less sordid storyline.

But the Matrix-era Velvets disagreed.  The band sounds relaxed, Reed cracks jokes, Doug Yule adds organ to where John Cale’s viola once soared, “Heroin” sounds like a speedball, and “Venus in Furs” (two versions) is as spellbinding as it ever was.  So is “Black Angel’s Death Song.”  So is “After Hours.”  So is “The Ocean.”  And so on and so forth, and all of it relayed in terrific sound quality, with vibrant mood and mischief aforethought.  Past (and future) Velvets live recordings have always felt like a risky proposition, prized more for the noise and the substandard rumble than for the musicianship.  Here we hear them as they’d have wanted to be heard themselves, and it sounds fabulous.

Just like Loaded should have….

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5David Essex

All The Fun of the Fair (CD)

(Cherry Red/7-T’s)

Spearheading the much-needed revitalization of the David Essex career, All the Fun of the Fair was the lad’s third album, a semi-conceptual effort that saw him both establishing himself as the great songsmith that rock history tends to forget he was (the man wrote “Rock On” and “Stardust” for goodness sake. Not even Paul McCartney could claim that), and as a cut above the teenybop poster boy that past hits had established him as.

Not that the album was bereft of hits…“Rolling Stone” was a foolish choice for 45 glory, but “Hold Me Close” is that rarest of things, a tender ballad that makes you shout out the lyrics.  And “If I Could” is just as good, if not even better” “Could you picture us / On a number nine bus / To Canning Town, we two.”  Purely poetry.

Elsewhere, the album rolls and rumbles triumphantly along, Essex both reinforcing and reinventing a self-image powerful enough for the whole shebang to be redeveloped as a stageshow a few decades later.   And while his next few albums would, sadly, begin his descent into the tiresome all-round family entertainer bag that the critics accused him of aiming for from the start, All the Fun of the Fair is Essex in excelsis.

So button your lip and love it.

6Rocket from the Tombs

Black Record (CD)

Fire Records

With two founder members and two rerecorded oldies unapologetically aboard, it would be easy to look at Rocket from the Tombs’ first new recordings since 1975 and wonder if this time traveling lark is all it’s cracked up to be.  I mean, there you were, thinking “oh back to the mid-seventies we go, snag ourselves some brown and yellow furniture,” and what happens?  Rocket from the bloody Tombs happens, is what, and if Black Record sounds even fragmentarily like the original line-up sounded….

Well, it does (the old The Day Earth Met… comp tells us that much), which means this is probably the most authentic sounding reunion of the past heavens-knows-how-long, and that’s only if you consider it a “reunion,” when all you have are two former members.  Maybe messrs Behemoth and Bell do over-egg the pudding by reminding us they did the original “Sonic Reducer,” then throwing “Read It and Weep” into the soup as well.  But Black Record would not have suffered without them, not when there’s eight other originals and a poisonous cover of the Sonics’ “Strychnine” in the bag, too.

As for whether 2015 needs a Rocket from the Tombs album… well, considering some of the other nonsense that has poured though our ears so far this year, why the hell not?  1975 didn’t particularly need them either.  But look what they wrought regardless.

7Eric Clapton

Slowhand at 70 – Live at the Royal Albert Hall (2CD/1 DVD)

Universal/Eagle Vision

Eric Clapton’s seventy.  This means he has already outlived (by a long chalk too, in some cases) many of the original bluesmen who sets his slow hand strumming back in his teens – and could, perhaps, claim to have added his own canon of classic blues to the catalogs they left behind them.

Two CDs and a DVD mark his birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall with all his tried and trusted friends – Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, JJ Cale, Bob Marley, Bobby Whitlock, Billy Preston, Joe Cocker – present in spirit alone, of course, but you can feel them gazing down happily regardless, because who among them could ever have imagined that that skinny kid from the Yardbirds with the over-bearing nickname (whoever calls their idol God these days?) would still be going half a century later, and still be churning out “Crossroads,” too?

Churning it well, as well.  Say what you like about Clapton (he’s heard it all before, anyway), but slice out those ghastly mid-80s from his career, and he’s always sounded like he’s playing in a pub, no matter how loud the audience screams for “Layla” (included here, of course), and he usually dresses like it, too.  So there’s no flash, no crash, no garish theatrics.  Just a good old fashioned bluesman playing good old fashioned blues, interspersed with hits and bits, and one more in that long line of Eric Clapton live albums that could have been recorded anywhere, anytime – and are worth hearing every time as well.

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