Reviews: Be Bop Deluxe, Paul Weller, the Flys, King Crimson, Sheffield

Reviews of Be Bop Deluxe, Paul Weller, the Flys, King Crimson, Sheffield and others.
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Modern Music

(Esoteric)

The Be Bop catalog rolls on with the usual choice between a 2CD package that wraps up the original album and it’s new stereo mix; or a deluxe 5 disc version that adds BBC recordings; a period live show; and a 5.1 mix to the equation. And in either format, Modern Music reveals itself to be one of the most aptly-titled records of its age.

Released in fall, 1976, Modern Music was the successor to the band’s most successful LP yet, Sunburst Finish and, as such, was guaranteed a certain amount of commercial traction. What nobody expected was that it would also be the prophetic precursor to an entire new wave of music.

Rock, in the mid-seventies, was getting tired. Even among the prog-metal-rawwwk cognoscenti, there was a growing restlessness as another hero put out another album about hard lovin’ women drinking whisky with rock’n’roll-all-night-ing he-men, as they set out in search of King Arthur’s pet hamster in the mystic land of Notanuvadrumsolopleeze.

Mindless self-indulgence is great if it’s done with panache, flash and style. But, by 1976, things were getting very silly indeed. And very po-faced as well.On ice.

The UK pub rock scene had already registered some disapproval with the increasingly stodgy nature of mainstream rock; the fast-formulating punk movement would spray-paint more across the landscape.

But there was still room for maneuver; still a place for smart solos and tricky time signatures, odd observations and art school antics, and a handful of bands continued to pursue it.

Although all are oft overlooked by those who believe “punk” was nothing more than discordant three chord yowling and a volley of phlegm and abuse, the Doctors of Madness, as they unleashed their second album; Ultravox! as they completed their first; and Be Bop Deluxe, venerable veterans of four albums now, all pointed rock in new directions - ones which, once punk’s initial firestorm of rage had burned out, it would gratefully take. Only now it was called new wave, and its heritage seemed even murkier.

But play Television, Talking Heads, the Boomtown Rats or any of a host of lesser lights alongside anything by Be Bop Deluxe, and then say music had changed.Or, better still, ask how music had changed.

Easy, it wasn’t old-fashioned any more. It was… Modern Music.

Artful, angular, timeless and torrid, Modern Music still lives up to its title. True, the opening “Orphans of Babylon” shares more than its parentage with the previous album’s “Maid in Heaven” but once beyond that one moment of familiarity, it’s all change.

Indeed, by the time you hit the “Modern Music Suite,” ruminating on the band’s first American tour with savage punches “Honeymoon on Mars,” “Lost in the Neon World” and “Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids,” it’s clear that while Be Bop may still have had one foot in the old prog rock pudding, the rest of their body was screaming out for relief.

The result was an album that remains fervently questing, its contents short and sharply shaped enough that Be Bop would effortlessly live on through the coming of punk, and their memory would survive long after. No Year Zero demolition for them, just the satisfaction of knowing that finally, the world had caught up with their vision.

Of today’s CD options, the original mix remains the album’s most potent realization; the new stereo and 5.1 versions are cleaner and, perhaps, even more illustrative of the band’s vision, but they lack the immediacy of the first time around.

The BBC performances - some studio, some live - are electrifying; and the 1976 US radio broadcast that devours disc four replays a show from the band’s first American tour and makes a smart companion to Be Bop’s own Live in the Air Age.And the weird thing is, breathtaking though the whole package is, Modern Music is not even their best LP…..

Paul Weller

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In Another Room

(Ghost Box)

Now here’s an odd one to file alongside your Jam, Style Council and solo Weller albums: an EP that we can safely assume will not be chasing down “Eton Rifles” in the rush for best-seller status.In fact, listening to the four tracks here, you���d be a lot better off forgetting that you have even the slightest awareness of who it is making these peculiar sounds, and play it for the sake of fun.

In Another Room comprises fourbrief (the longest if just 2.19)pieces of instrumental and sound, piano based but smothered in sound effects and snatches of mumble, collages that the fan club will doubtless compare to “Revolution #9,” but only in as much as they’re not songs.But they are delightful.

There’s a distinct urban/suburban feel to the four pieces, bird song and insect buzz interspersed with the crash of jets and the rumble of traffic, and one is curious to discover what Weller would come up with had he a broader palette upon which to play.

Ghost Box, after all, is probably the market leader when it comes to the spooky end of the modern avant garde, with a host of albums that allow their makers to truly stretch their wings. The manner in which the closing “Rejoice” all but demands to loop back into the (utterly compulsive) opening title track suggests that maybe Weller’s next album should be… weird.

The Flys

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Today belongs to Me: The Complete Recordings 1977-1980

(Cherry Red)

If, by chance, you remember the Flys, chances are it’ll be for one of their two should-have-been-hits, either the truly ascendant “Love and a Motolov Cocktail” or the naggingly insistent “Waikiki Beach Refugees.”

Both represent the punky powerpop flowering at its earliest best, both insist that the Flys had it in them to zip up the late seventies like no other band on earth.And both, to remind us why that didn’t happen, remain the group’s finest few minutes.

Not that there is anything wrong with the remainder of their repertoire.Gleefully clashing the twitch of early Wire with the compulsion of original Buzzcocks, 50 songs spread across two discs that, between them, represent two original albums and a host of bonus tracks.

Ultimately, the Flys fell prey to the same contagion that devoured the remainder of the power pop pack - the fact that too many of their songs sounded more or less the same as one another. But two utterly incandescent early singles… three if you add “Fun City,” and more if you play through a second album that barely anyone bought in 1979… were more than most of the chasing pack strung together. And though the chance to hear them all once again probably won’t amend history’s dismissive memory of the band, it might change yours.

King Crimson

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In the Court of the Crimson King (50th Anniversary Edition)

(DGM)

It was inevitable, wasn’t it?Ten years since the 40th anniversary edition, Robert Fripp was scarcely going to allow an even more significant anniversary to pass him by, and next year is set to see a massive Crimso King box set rounding up every last bubble and squeak the band taped in 1969.

In the meantime, though, here’s a little ‘un to keep you going - four discs that break down as follows: a new Steve Wilson mix of the original album plus four instrumentals; an alternate album comprised largely of newly mixed out-takes; a third disc of out-takes and a blu-ray of everything.

And it’s fabulous. Spin Cycle generally resists the promise of new remixes of old favorites, but Wilson has definitely done himself proud on this one - which is more than can be said for his last have-a-go.

True the percussives do still occasionally sound a little cardboard-boxy, which was not the case on the original album.But the Mellotron soars as spectacularly as it ought to, and the relationship between that and Greg Lake’s vocal on “Epitaph” is utterly seamless.

The title track is utterly breathtaking, and the only hiccup is the fact that even Wilson’s dark arts were unable to do much with the annoying bits of “Moonchild” - which, let’s face it, is most of it. The inclusion elsewhere of the song when it was just a song gives us 2.21 minutes of Greg Lake and Crimson at their most tender.

And then there’s “Schizoid Man,” as tumultuous as you’d hope in remixed form, but even that is overshadowed by the second disc’s alternate version, with Lake’s vocals shoved back behind the band, and what was surely Fripp’s finest solo of the entire session.

None of which answers the question of whether we actually need any of this. The original album, after all, remains one of rock’s most perfectly realized statements of intent.No matter how well-executed any subsequent repackage may be, messing with the finished thing, or showing the math that went into it, can only diminish the perceived value of the 1969 edition, allowing listeners to second-guess which take was the right one on an album that was untouchable in the first place.

Think of all this, then, as Da Vinci’s sketches for the Mona Lisa, or George Orwell’s first draft of 1984, scholarly asides to the main attraction. The Crimson King has ruled over us for fifty years without anyone complaining. That’s not going to change.

various artists

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Dreams to Fill the Vacuum: The Sound of Sheffield 1977-1988

(Cherry Red)

One more in Cherry Red’s so commendable investigations into the local British scenes that were sparked by punk, and a well-planned visit to Sheffield, a dour midlands city best-known in an earlier musical age for giving the world Joe Cocker.

Which isn’t a bad contribution. But there would be more… so much more, in fact, that even with eighty-four tracks telling the tale of a decade, there’s still not room for Def Leppard.Ha.

But we do get (deep breath) Pulp, the Human League, Thompson Twins, Danse Society, Heaven 17, Artery, I’m So Hollow, Danse Society, ABC and Rapid Eye Movements (a band, had they only chosen the more popular abbreviation of their name, might have saved us all a lot of pain over subsequent years).

There’s also a berth for They Might Be Russians - positively the only band ever to take a health service brochure on venereal diseases and set it, verbatim, to music. “Don’t Try to Cure Yourself” remains one of the most original and, dare one say it, contagious singles of the late 1970s.With, as vocalist Russ Russian acknowledges in the liner notes, utterly genius backing vocals.

As is so often the case with this series, it’s the first two or three discs that offer the biggest bang for your buck, one fab new wave/post punk classic after another, and almost all of them cut at a time when their makers were subsisting in utter obscurity.

Even among the bands who did go on to bigger and brighter things, the urge to simply create far outweighs the need to keep an audience happy, which is why the original League’s “Dancevision “ is so much better than its bisected successors’ “Mirror Man” or “Fascist Groove Thing”; and the Thompson Twins’ “She’s In Love with Mystery” makes you wonder why they then fell in love with irritating pop songs.

The joy here, though, is in unearthing the things that you might never have encountered without this collection… things like Hobbies of Today’s “Metal Boys,” that melds Quark-era Hawkwind with the Banshees’ “Mittageisen,” and feels like a tank coming down the road towards you;Clock DVA’s “4 Hours,” which sounds like a bunch of disreputable snooker players plotting the end of the world in a room full of monkeys; and the wonderfully-named A Major European Group, who makes you wonder precisely which Major European Group they had in mind when they named themselves.

Much of the collection was drawn from odd singles and obscure compilations, but occasional demos dig even deeper beneath the surface - the I Scream Brothers’ “Avoid the Surgery” demo appears to have been recorded with the smoke alarm going; the Blimp are probably best-remembered for their drummer’s subsequent stint with Pulp; and Tsi Tsa’s “Billingham’s Island” is great mid-80s pop that should have gone a lot further.

Filed alongside earlier boxes focusing on Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland, Dreams to Fill the Vacuum does not pack as many future icons as the casual browser might be searching for. But played alongside them, it’s up there with the best.

One wonders where we’ll be going to next?

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