Reviews - 1977, Soft Hearted Scientists, A Year in the Country, Tear Gas, Jack Ellister, Hollywood Stars, Sendelica, Bones UK, Avant Pop, Be Bop Deluxe, Climax Blues Band

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1977 - The Year That Punk Broke

(Cherry Red - 3CDs)

It’s official.Punk Rock is now older than even the hoariest of the Boring Old Farts it was born to batter.Forty-two?I’ve met fossils younger than you, maaaaaaaaan.

It’s strange that nobody has thought of doing this before.Well, they may have thought of it, and even put out a half-hearted stab at it. But after decades of our ears being filled with forensic surveys of every last smidgeon of sound to be produced during 1967, finally the calendar has clicked forward a decade.Across three CDs, 1977 is at long last dropped beneath the microscope, and it says much for the magic that was in the air that year that even with 87 tracks, there’s still room for a second volume.

We’ll get to the omissions later.But first…

Eighty-seven tracks, arranged as close to chronologically as you could wish, from the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” to Norman and the Hooligans, from the tiniest indy to the fattest major, from A (the Albertos) to almost Z (X-Ray Spex), and not a misstep in sight.The pub rock contingent that so blithely set the stage for punk is here, and so are the handful of bands (Ultravox! paramount) who were already looking beyond three chords and a spiky haircut; so are the weirdos and the wacky ones, the beligerents and the bandwagon jumpers.

It’s a collectors paradise.Spin Cycle cannot even begin to tel you how thrilled it was to discover the original single mix of the Snivelling Shits’ seminal “I Can’t Come” lurking within, sandwiched between Wreckless Eric and Slaughter and the Dogs; and every potential pucrhaser of this package will have a similar “come to daddy” moment as they peruse the track listing.

We follow punk’s rise from surly infant to chart-bothering delinquent - hits by the Stranglers and the Jam set that ball rolling; misses by Radio Stars and the Maniacs remind us how it could have rolled even harder.

But there’s an even sharper lesson here.Four decades on, punk rock is still seen by some as a snotty upstart disruptor that tore into the comfortable world of beardy prog merchants playing interminable revisions of their grandparents’ classical collection… is still regarded as an ugly, ill-mannered fist in the face of all the hard work that true virtuosos and real musicians had put into their pre-punk careers.Like, “how dare these talentless toerags out-sell the latest [insert your favorite mid-seventies yawn-fest here] album?They don’t even own enough drums to play a week-long solo on!”

And it’s true, not every song here is a cold-cut gem.As there are in every musical insurgence, there’s a few tracks that probably could have remained in their makers’ dreams alone. The overall sense and sensation, however, is that 1977 was the single most thrilling year for new… as in “out with the old, in with something exciting”… music since at least 1967, and maybe even 1957.

The Boomtown Rats, the Tom Robinson Band, Motörhead, Sham 69, all caught at the dawn of their careers.The Tyla Gang, Graham Parker, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Chartreuse (former members of Cockney Rebel, fact fans), the Doctors of Madness, stepping boldly from past to present, to prove they knew what was about to happen all along.Velvet John Cale pops up as a producer; former Pink Fairy Twink appears as a member of the Rings, and another Fairy, Larry Wallis, unleashes one of the singles of the year.

Elsewhere, too, the past is still alive and kicking if you look deep enough - covers of the Kinks, the Beatles and “Mony Mony” are delivered respectfully enough to prove that it wasn’t the past itself that punk was trying to erase, just the elephantine excesses that made the new noise so crucial in the first place.

And so to a quick grumble about what isn’t here. No mention of the reggae that so fruitfully cross-fertilized with punk throughout the year.No sign of the Pistols, the Clash or the Adverts. Nothing from the Live at the Roxy album, and no real acknowledgement of the American (read New York) contribution to the year.But there again, was there room for them?Add one, you’d have to remove something else, and this box set is perfect as it is.So, let’s hope for a second volume… and, at the same time, let’s pray for a few follow-up editions, for ’78 and ’79, and maybe back to ’76 as well.

After all, it’s been done for the sixties often enough.

A Year in the Country

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Echoes and Reverberations

(A Year in the Country - CD/DL)

Continuing its quest to map in music those corners and currents of modern England that the old has never left behind, A Year in the Country turns its attention now to the impact of television upon the culture, by exploring the locations - both real and imagined - that will forever be imbibed by the ghosts of broadcasts past.

It’s a fascinating theme, all the more so for its absolute subjectivity.For fans of Doctor Who, for example, it remains difficult to pass by a funeral monument without resisting the urge to whisper “don’t blink”; non-fans, on the other hand will just look at them blankly and suggest they consult an ophthalmologist.The specter of King Kong still haunts the Empire State Building; Quasimodo still swings from the Notre Dame bell ropes.Echoes and reverberations, indeed.

There are no such universal icons here; rather, this is cult viewing in excelsis.Dom Cooper’s “What Has Been Uncovered Is Evil” started life in a graveyard that served as a set for a Quatermass movie; Sproatly Smith’s “Gone Away” revisits a scene from the post-apocalypse adventure The Survivors; the Heartwood Institute’s contribution is titled for the Ribble Head Viaduct, to invoke the movie No Blade of Grass.If you’ve seen them, you’ll understand.If you haven’t… you should.

The flavor of each piece, however, is suggested by more than the artist’s own creation.Field recordings, made in the places where each show’s influence hangs heaviest, underpin every composition.

For Grey Frequency’s “King Penda,” conjuring the spirits of the wholly fictional Penda’s Fen TV show, a visit to the church where a number of sequences were shot, was sufficient: “A recording of the church door opening and closing was utilised primarily, along with a section of me walking through the empty building, seating myself at the organ and opening the wooden console cover.”

It’s a simple device, but an effective one.The sound of falling rain underpins Field Line Cartographer’s “Mr Scarecrow”; the manipulated sound of a rolling bottle pays tribute to Tristan Cary, who composed the original music for the aforementioned Quatermass, as well as adding a fresh layer of sonic weirdness to the music itself.

And, as always with A Year in the Country releases, every fresh listen adds another layer of understanding - or, perhaps, misunderstanding - to the experience, to conjure fresh and further phantoms around the dimly remembered moments of a decades-old TV show.

Sendelica

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Cromlech Chronicles IV - The Door into Summer

(Regal Crabomophone - 2LP)

Sendelica/Secret Knowledge/The Orb

Windmill

(Strange Fish - 12-inch single)

It seems like forever since the last edition of the Chronicles was delivered, but what is time when you have all of space (rock) in which to unfurl yourself, and a three-sided double LP that itself is divided into three solid pieces - jams in the hands of less focussed minds, but journeys in the grasp of Sendelica, with sign posts as well for those who care.

The three titles - “Lightstar,” “Saturnalia” and “Nine Miles High” - say something for where the band members’ ears were at at the time, although they are certainly no more than launching pads for all that will follow.

Indeed, how sobering it is, in this fiftieth anniversary of all things Woodstock, to discover that a new release by a Welsh band should sound more in tune to all that the festival allegedly represented than absolutely any of the fare served up that long ago weekend.And if that sounds like mindless flim-flam, compare Sendelica’s “Lightstar” to the Dead’s dark variety.Onstage at Yasgur’s farm, the latter’s a bowl of cold noodle soup. In a studio perched alongside a prehistoric monument, the other’s a four course repast.

Out the same day as the album, “Windmill” is a 12-inch dedicated to author and literary agent Helen Donlon, who passed away last summer, so it’s only fitting that her partner, journalist, author and longtime Sendelica supporter Kris Needs, should dust off his 1990s Secret Knowledge persona and convene a reunion with vocalist Wonder Schneider, to abet Sendelica through their tribute; nor that the Orb, with whom the duo worked, should weigh in too.

Spread across four mixes, “Windmill”’s a gorgeous piece of music, deeply moving and deeply personal, too - the windmill of the title refers to the site where Donlon was laid to rest; the Orb’s remixes include elements taken from a recording of Donlon herself, at the Breaking Convention conference the year before her death.Sonically, it’s about as far as you could get from the wild frontier-busting of the Cromlech Chronicles.But this is Sendelica.You never know what you’ll find.

Bones UK

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Bones UK

(Sumerian Records)

British born, but now based in LA, Bones UK are probably best known for their astonishing contributions to the last Jeff Beck album.And anybody wanting (or fleeing) more of the same is going to have a similar response to this, their self-titled debut album,.

Sonically, Bones UK - vocalist Rosie Bones, guitarist Carmen Vandenberg - are the end result of a lot of what passed for music over the past twenty years.Not an amalgam, however, so much as a really cunning anagram.With a lot of different letters thrown in to confound you.

In terms of energy, they’ve been compared to early Nine Inch Nails, which is occasionally accurate, but its desperately misleading all the same.Because there’s far more to ferret out as well.

Post industrial thunder layered over savagely broken hip hop, chants like anthems, guitars like jabs, and then “Black Blood” drip feeds unabashed sensuality over chiming balladry.Apparently, an early associate once asked the duo want they wanted to sound like.“Black leather jackets, snakes, motorbikes and sex,” they replied. They got it.

Nowhere is this better expressed than on a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” originally recorded for Howard Stern’s Bowie tribute.It’s faithful, or at least that’s what it tells you.But, delivered with a laconic swagger that retains the essential electronic pulse of the original, it adds the patina of grimy streets and gritty back rooms that Bowie had worn far too many suits to pull off.

Every track leaps out, from the frenzied “Pretty Waste,” an early single, to the pretty “Black Blood,” their latest.“Leach” leeches classic R&B flavoring; “Limbs” sheds a whole new leering light on the old “the knee bone’s connected to the toe bone” rhyme.“Filthy Freaks” is pretty much just what you’d hope for with a title like that,

This album’s been a long time coming - Bones UK were probably ready to record it two years ago, only for the Beck call to whisk them into a whole new orbit.But they didn’t put their own dreams on hold.They put them in a bottle, stuck in a cork and then left them on the stove to bubble and boil.Bones UK is the sound of the whole lot exploding.It’s glorious.

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Lullabies for Catatonics - A Journey Through the British Avant Pop/Art Rock Scene 1967-74

(Grapefruit/Cherry Red - 3CDs)

Weird and wonderful, yes it is.Three CDs whose contents really don’t hang together in any meaningful manner, for who among us could ever relate 10cc to the Crazy World of Arthur Brown; Procol Harum to Comus; a young David Bowie grinding “Waiting for the Man” to “Colonel Fright’s Dancing Terrapins”?

Three CDs that affect to tell the story of a musical genre that never existed; whose contents weave from folk rock to the edges of glam; from reformed sixties beat merchants to proto-new wave pioneers; from proggy jazz rock to revivified music hall novelties… all of which winds up among the most manically cohesive and enjoyable compilations that the era in question could ever ask for.

Okay, so maybe we were a little disingenuous.Art rock has always been a flourishing concern on the fringe of the British post-psych era, regardless of whether the term itself has ever been defined with any clarity… any attempt to remedy that omission can only be applauded, and the fact that that remedy is spread across forty-nine tracks only amplifies the achievement.

Likewise, avant-pop is one of those phrases that scholars have bandied around for some years, even if its most renowned practitioners… Slapp Happy and Hatfield and the North among them… are oddly absent from this package. Their precursors and peers are here, and maybe that’s what matters.

Because what does impress, beyond the sheer weight of future star power that is wrapped up in the package (Genesis, Yes, Barclay James Harvest, Renaissance, Be Bop Deluxe) is the realization that the vast majority of acts here were signed to major labels.A similar box could easily be compiled from around the current music scene, but it’s tiny indies and ambitious nobodies that would be signing the licensing paperwork.Not… well, you name them.Decca, EMI, Phillips, Pye, these were the behemoths of UK business, but somewhere deep in the bowels of the staff room was the man or woman who came into work one day to announce, “hey, I just signed Gnidrolog [or whoever] to the label.”

Forget the bands, forget the music.Those are the people we rally should celebrate and, in its own way, that is exactly what this box set does.

We’re not going to get all hyperbolic and describe this as the most adventurous music you’re ever going to hear - heck, we’re not even going to credit the record companies for all of it.The Bowie track (recorded with his then-band, the Riot Squad) is just one of several that didn’t find release at the time… cuts by the Ayers/Allen-era Soft Machine, the End, Dantalion’s Chariot, Giles Giles & Fripp, the Velvet Frogs, Bachdenkel and Arthur Brown languished likewise, and that’s just across disc one.

What’s interesting, though, is that - in many ways - their contributions are among the least freaky in sight.The future Crimson showstopper “I Talk to the Wind” is a lovely song, but the version here sounds more akin to the BeeGees than anything else, a plight that is rendered all the more visible by its proximity to the Strawbs’ determinedly demonic “The Battle.”

Meandering as it does in chronological order, we do sense things calming down as we reach the end of the advertised timespan… cuts by Mick Ronson, Be Bop Deluxe and 10cc seem almost plain-Jane in comparison to what came before, while Renaissance’s “Mother Russia” could easily have been supplanted, and surpassed, by a selection from one of their earlier albums.

Such observations really don’t matter, though.Any collection that can take us from Matching Mole’s “O Caroline” to Fuchsia’s “Me and My Kite”; from Curved Air’s “Vivaldi” to the Third Ear Band’s “Druid One,” and position them as just four of the poles around which this box set revolves… a collection that can do that is worth its weight in “but, wait!” and “what about”s, and if you’re still confused about what the music means when you reach the end of disc three, then rejoice.It means you avant garde a clue, and that’s the whole point of the exercise.

The Hollywood Stars

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Sound City

(Burger Records - CD)

Long before more than a handful of ears had heard it, Kim Fowley’s Hollywood Stars project was a legend.Widely discussed among the progenitors of punk rock by those who find roots in everything, they were schemed as the West Coast’s answer to the New York Dolls - the biggest difference being, the Dolls released two albums before breaking up.The Hollywood Stars simply recorded two, and neither made it out.

Not until it was too late, anyway.But the first, Shine Like a Radio: The Great Lost 1974 Album, has been knocking around for a good few years, and now here comes the second, recorded in 1976… and sounding it.

Sound City is everything you could want it to be, a bruising barrage of ten songs in little more than half an hour, punchy glam-inflected powerpop riffola… a bit lumpenrock in places but hey, that’s what radio liked at the time, and the Stars certainly have a better grasp of what made glam rock glitter than the majority of their period peers.Points, too, for eschewing the metal route that certain other contenders chose to pursue.

In fairness, Sound City is not as great a shock to the senses as its predecessor, but it wouldn’t be - we already had some idea of what would happen, and the Stars don’t disappoint.But in that alternate reality where everything Kim Fowley touched, and much of what he let go of as well, turned instantaneously to gold, the Hollywood Stars remain one of his platinum acts.

Tear Gas

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Piggy Go Getter

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - CD)

There’s not many album titles better than this.Indeed, on the (admittedly rare) occasions Piggy Go Getter turned up in used vinyl emporiums throughout the early seventies, as many people snagged it on the strength of its title as did so for Tear Gas’s other claim to fame - with a touch of reorganization, but no overt reappraisal of their energy or imagination, this was the original Sensational Alex Harvey Band without Alex.What more encouragement could you require?

Piggy was the Scots outfit’s debut album, recorded in 1970 and it sounds like it, gracefully poised somewhere between hard rock and country blues, with a touch of twisted balladry filtered around the edges, and Zal Cleminson’s guitar already a chiming beast of intricate beauty.According to the liners, it was recorded in a week and that makes sense.Piggy rocks with an immediacy that makes its 36 minute running time simply speed by.And that’s despite opening with what is probably the weakest track in the band’s entire two album oeuvre, “Lost Awakening.”

But it’s followed by one of the strongest, “Your Woman’s Gone and Left You,” and from thereon in, there’s not a dull moment.From the yearning “Night Girl” to the anthemic “Nothing Can Change Your Mind,” to the driving “Living for Today,” and onto the utterly irresistible drama of the closing “Witches Come Today,” Piggy is one of those albums that… if you’ve not heard it before… will leave you wondering what your ears have been doing for the last forty-eight years.

And, if you have, it will thrill you in its remastered incarnation, not only because it sounds so fresh, but also for the booklet’s reproduction of the original album’s cartoon gatefold.You may not ken every word, but it’s almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

Jack Ellister

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“When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”/“Supernaut”

Soft Hearted Scientists

“Please Read Me”/“Moths Mistook Us for the Moon”

(both Fruits de Mer - 7-inch)

If there’s a single incey-wincey criticism that can be laid at the door of Fruits de Mer it is, speak it softly, the label’s slow drift away from the wham-bam sequence of super-psych cover versions that were the label’s early raison d’etre, into the… perhaps more artistically pleasing… realms of original material.

It’s never has been a full-on betrayal, and it isn’t now, either.Of the four tracks spread across these two 45s, only the Scientists’ b-side is a band composition; elsewhere, Roy Harper, Black Sabbath and the Bee Gees come under the microscope, and the end results are glorious.As, indeed, is the Scientists’ song. Indeed, with a title like that, how could it not be?But still there was something very snug and reassuring about the old regime.So all hail the powers for demolishing that.If you really need snug and reassuring, go to the library.

Ellister’s take on Harper’s “Cricketer” is as gentle-sad as the original - he is accompanied, he explains, on a grand piano that belonged to his Polish grandfather, that Jack and his dad smuggled out of the country some thirty years ago, and his playing is haunted by the romance of the instrument’s biography.

“Supernaut,” on the other hand, sounds like it’s piping in from a room next door, while a herd of percussionists bang around on your furniture.Slower and considerably (despite that description) more relaxed than its Ozzy-squawked prototype, it’s a welcome addition to the tiny, but so exquisitely formed canon of Fruits de Sabs covers.

Likewise, in Bee Gees land, is the Scientists’ take on “Please Read Me,” a first LP track that may not be among the Gibblings’ best remembered numbers, but when you hear it here, you’ll wonder why.And the moth song is simply classic Scientists, a gentle ballad that evokes the era without even trying to ape it.And that, perhaps, might be how and why the label has got away with escaping the gravity of its early reputation.Because it’s the mood, not the music, that was always the focus.And we knew that all along, didn’t we?

Be Bop Deluxe

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Futurama

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - 2CDs)

There’s a four CD edition of this, stuffed with radio sessions, a concert recording and a surround sound mix that is getting good reviews from whoever has heard it.Spin Cycle is not among that fortunate crew, but the truncated edition is nothing to sneeze at, even if….

Even if you are effectively buying the same album twice.Disc one features the original, and still flawless stereo mix of the album as we first heard it, in 1975, as Be Bop’s second LP; disc two repeats the party once again, only this time remixed by one Stephen W Tayler, and it’s probably safe to say that if you have lived with the old album for the last 44 years, then touching one hair on its beautifully coiffeured head is akin to repairing the Venus de Milo.Yes, it has its faults, but it’s perfect as it is.It doesn’t need remixing.

Such hijinks now seem to be an integral part of the modern reissue market, however, and who are we to complain… a bunch of stick-in-the-mud traditionalists who still think “wireless” is a quaint old term for the transistor radio. What matters is, an album whose working title of Futurist Manifestos was a lot more far-sighted than its makers ever realized is reborn today as a swish deluxe packaging, with lengthy liners by mainman Bill Nelson, a host of fine photos and… and… “Maid in Heaven.”

Was “Maid in Heaven” Be Bop’s finest hour?Maybe, but even if maybe not, it’s certainly in the top few, and the fact that it’s less than two-and-a-half minutes long only heightens the achievement.Everything that we loved about Be Bop is subsumed into this one number, and its lurch into “Sister Seagull,” with its cheeky “You Really Got Me” intro, was one of the musical peaks of 1975 - as the band themselves understood.They appeared on television’s Old Grey Whistle Test around the time the album was released, and they performed the same two songs, in the right order, there as well.

So they are the highlights, but truthfully Futurama in full is an album to throw yourself into for the long haul.As are Be Bop Deluxe themselves.Here’s to the next in this fabulous series.

Climax Blues Band

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The Albums 1973-1976

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - 4 CDs)

Excellent though they were, the Climax Blues Band always felt like one of British rock’s also-rans, one of those groups who were always worth listening to, but whose records never truly screamed “you must play me now.”It was just nice to know they were there.

Of course, a lot more people felt that way after “Couldn’t Get It Right” landed the Climax Blues Band with a monster hit in 1976, just months shy of the group’s tenth anniversary, and it kind of landed them with another, three years later, when Pink Floyd surely unintentionally borrowed the song’s signature riff for “Another Brick in the Wall”… play them back to back sometime.It’s quite uncanny.

There were other hits, too - “I Love You” in 1980, “Gotta Have More Love” a few months later.But that’s slim pickings across a career that has now churned out twenty-plus albums, of which this box set contains four particular favorites - 1973’s FM Live, 1974’s Sense of Direction, 1975’s Stamp Album and 1976’s Gold Plated, the home of that first hit and still the album that most people are familiar with.

Originally released as a double, FM Live was recorded in concert in New York in 1973 and, assuming you’re coming at the band for the first time with this box, it’s a nifty round-up of their earlier material, and an essential introduction to what’s coming next.

It’s strange; for a group that has been around for so long, and has released so many records, Climax Blues Band suffer from an almost total lack of documentation.Both their official website and their Wikipedia page are scant on detail, to say the least, while this package doesn’t do any better as Esoteric’s traditional love of thick, detail-packed booklets is overlooked in favor of a poster with the track listings on the back.

Surely there was something to say about them?Or do we just allow the music to do the talking?

In which case, The Albums 1973-1976 is somewhat akin to sitting in the bar with a dear old friend, and not really saying much to one another.You enjoy their company and it’s great to see them, and occasionally a shared memory will arise.Each of the albums has its moments of majesty, each has a mood that moulds itself to your ears, and each will find a place in your heart.You probably won’t play them very often, it is true.But it’s nice to know they’re there