By Dave Thompson
Peter Hammill with the K Group
Madfish (4 CDs)
The early 1980s may or may not have been a golden age for Peter Hammill.Having departed Charisma Records, his home throughout the 1970s, following 1979’s PH7 (which was actually his eighth solo album, so there’s the abacus out the window), he’d since released two new albums - the independent Black Box, which represented his strongest offering since Over, and the major label Sitting Targets, which is a strong contender for his weakest yet.
Now he was back in indy-dom, and the word on the street was, he was planning to start a beat group.He was a little late… it was getting on for twenty years since anyone had even breathed that phrase outside of the history books, but hey, it’s Hammill.Let’s wait and see.
And rightly so.The constitution of the K Group was the first concrete evidence that Hammill’s idea of a beat group was a long way from most other people’s - two former members of Van Der Graaf Generator (bassist Nic Potter and drummer Guy Evans), Peter Gabriel’s current guitarist (John Ellis), and Hammill himself on vocals, guitar and keyboards.
A single appeared, “Paradox Drive,” and it was as un-beaty and, for that matter, un-single-y as anything else he’d done recently.And when Enter K, the band’s debut album, followed through on a similar wave, well… first Sitting Targets made a lot more sense, and the live show did the rest.We’d clearly misinterpreted what he meant by “beat.”
Not necessarily rated among Hammill’s finest abums, Enter K was nevertheless one of his most visceral, a position it retains today.Patience, its successor, was back to more familiar territory and does indeed stand proud alongside any of his previous peaks.But the K Group’s forte was the live experience and it was something of a surprise that it took until 1985 for Hammill to release a (double live) document of the experience, The Margin, and seventeen years more before a CD remaster delivered a full accounting of a K Group concert.
There is no shortage of live Hammill discs today… indeed, his most recent release, this year’s X/Ten, was recorded in concert and jolly good it is, too.But The Margin is something else again, a breathless performance that focuses in on what were then his last four albums, with occasional glimpses further back, rearranged with an almost punkish disdain for the extravagant niceties that the studio sometimes allowed him.“Flight,” the sidelong epic that dominated Black Box was alone worth the price of a ticket… “Modern,” “Porton Down,” “Happy Hour,” “My Experience,” “Patient,” they were just the icing on the cake.
And so to The K Box, which rounds up both studio LPs, the full live Margin and half-a-dozen b-sides, single edits and one out-take, then plants them all within a hardbound book whose dimensions are just shy of 12x12, but which sits proudly alongside the original vinyl regardless.Liners from Hammill and Tim Bowness (on whose latest album, PH is a guest) are supplemented by memories from the rest of the band and a wealth of largely unseen photos, while the remastering is as exquisite as any other you can name.
Indeed, remembering that the original vinyl was scarcely pressed on anything that even remotely resembled primo wax, this is one of those occasions when the eternal argument over which format sounds best, CD or vinyl, effortlessly favors those little silver coasters.But hurry!The K Box is a limited edition, and if 2012’s seven CD Pno Gtr Vox Box is anything to go by, that means it won’t be out there for long.
Cherry Red (5-CD Set)
Following on from similarly era-spanning collections dedicated to Manchester and Liverpool, Cherry Red’s gazetteer of British post punk now crosses the border to round up not simply a city, but an entire country’s worth of strivings, from the pure punk of the Rezillos, to the more ethereal sounds of Cocteau Twins, from A to Z, from here to there.
Via… 100+ bands that delve into every significant (and a few less so) avenue that British pop in general consumed, and therein lies what could be seen as a problem.Focussing in on a single city allows the listener to trace not only the wider picture, but also the development of a local scene, as those unimpeachable previous discs illustrate.This time around, the linkage is less palpable; there was never a single, identifiable, “Scottish sound” (well, not unless you count bagpipe music, which isn’t included here) , and so the bands are conjoined by geography alone.
Which is not a bad thing.Scotland’s contributions to the universe of post punk and beyondhave rarely been viewed in such glorious isolation as they are here; neither has the alacrity with which Scottish bands seized an initiative that the rest of the UK would follow.
Enjoyable though they are, early (1977-78) contributions to the box set are fairly workaday… the Exile, the Drive, the Valves, the Subs, Johnny and the Self Abusers were never among punk’s hardiest hitters.But then the latter regrouped as Simple Minds, and their first album’s “Chelsea Girl” remains the most perfect hybrid of Sparks, Roxy Music and something else entirely, with elements of Bowie and the Doctors of Madness spilling over from elsewhere in their repertoire, and great swathes of the future slathered over the whole.
The Skids broke through, a helter skelter rush of adrenalined art rock which ultimately spawned Big Country (absent from here, but their spirit lingers); Another Pretty Face, TV 21, Altered Images, the Cuban Heels, Scars, Thomas Leer, Fire Engines… the latter half of disc one, and the bulk of disc two are incredible, a solid burst of innovation and excitement which, again, may not boast much in terms of cohesion, but represents a creative upsurge that suffers only from a lack of overall context.
Listening to Thomas Leer’s contribution, you need to know how influential he was on the early electronics scene to truly understand the impact of “Don’t.”Ditto Josef K, within their selected style; ditto the Associates, ditto a lot of others.It is only when you reach the third disc, with the Cocteau Twins, the Waterboys, Strawberry Switchblade, Aztec Camera and the Jesus and Mary Chain all jostling for room, that you realize that maybe there is something to the geographical format, and that great swathes of what we now regard “classic” mid-eighties music were all emanating from roughly the same locale.If you consider an area of 30,000+ square miles to be a locale.
Things do calm down a little as the box continues on - disc four, with Primal Scream, the Primevals, the Soup Dragons and a pre-Garbage Shirley Manson leading Goodbye Mr McKenzie, has its highlights, but it also adds plenty to what collectors and dealers sometimes refer to as the Indy Landfill, and you need to dig deep to locate any must-hear-again gems that might be lurking on the final disc.But that is the neither the point, nor even a criticism.Any musical excavation of a decade-plus of new music is going to suffer its high and lows, and we enjoy or endure them according to taste. Besides, you don’t hear their name mentioned too often these days, but there was a time when Kurt Cobain’s love of the Vaselines (disc five) established them among the worst-kept secrets in modern musical history.
As always with their boxes, no expense has been spared by Cherry Red’s art department; the 68 page booklet is a small-print goldmine of info and illustrations, and the outer packaging disguises the box as a lightly-worn travel guide.The music itself is drawn from an array of demos, mixes, 12-inchers, cassette compilations, b-sides and album tracks, alongside the expected hits and misses, and there is so much scope for further investigation that five discs ultimately feel like a mere taster.
Yes, the box is concerned with the music of just one country.But, like the Soup Dragons sing, it feels like the whole wide world.
UMC/Virgin (2-CD Set)
There should probably be a law against twentieth anniversary reissues - not because the album’s themselves don’t deserve to be recognized, but because those of us who can still recall, as plain as the day on your face, the precise time and place when the album was released suddenly realize that “a few years ago” was actually a long time.
Mezzanine struggles to be acclaimed as Massive’s finest album, simply because Blue Lines hogged that honor long, long ago.But it’s certainly their second best and, in terms of darkness, weight and atmosphere, there’s very few albums of that particular age that can come even close to its beetle-clad beauty.
Remastered, it retains all that and more, but the real meat here is over on disc two, where almost the entire album is revealed through the eyes of the Mad Professor, remixer of such great renown that simply seeing his name attached to a project means it’s going to be better than anything else you’ve heard today.
He was no stranger to Massive at the time, having remixed the preceding Protection for release, and being strewn across a few singles and b-sides, too.But just as Mezzanine showcased Massive at their most majestic,so it would allow the Professor to step beyond reality, too.And the fact that the end results were never released at the time simply adds to their cachet.It’s taken twenty years for anyone to let us hear this.It was worth it.
An instrumental version of the Banshees’ “Metal Postcard” opens, retitled “Metal Banshee,” and no matter how great the original always was, this vision strips it back to the very heart of the song, that remorseless drum pattern, that stark riff, and rebuilds from there.In terms of “setting a scene,” it’s among the most powerful openers any CD could demand, and if the scene it sets is one of unrelenting dub bleakness, then all the better.
He does not tackle Mezzanine in its entirety, and the absence of “Man Next Door” is certainly a cause for regret.But “Angel,” “Risingson,” “Teardrop,” “Inertia Creeps,” “Exchange” and “Group Four” all are here, alongside the out-take “Wire” and the aforementioned “Banshee,” and there’s no two ways about it.It’s a stunning, staggering, stupendous achievement, a dub that delves so deep beneath the parameters of the genre that it all but exists as a separate entity.
Which doesn’t mean you should all rush out to hear it this instant.You have to like Massive, you have to like the Prof and you probably have to like dub as well. But if you want to have a dark and stormy night when the weather refuses to co-operate, turn up the volume, turn up the bass and you’ve got it.
MVD/Cherry Red (both 2-CD Sets)
The Residents’ remorseless march through the archive reaches the end of the 1970s - a divisive point, in hindsight, at which listeners either began to tire of the entire concept; or, contrarily, realized that they were now trapped for life within the world of the eyeballs.
Certainly the audacity of the group’s first two or three albums had now been superceded by a more art-for-art’s sake (or weird-for-weird’s sake) approach, although that was less the fault of the Residents than the realization that so much of what they originally pioneered had been pirated by artists elsewhere, and the only way to stay ahead was to keep pushing at boundaries.Regardless of whether the boundaries themselves needed pushing.
Eskimo, from 1979, felt strained at the time, whereas before the Residents merely felt strange; and Commercial Album, the following year, was a far more obvious joke than the earlier mindset would ever have contemplated.Beyond that, though, both remain components within what we might call the “vintage” Residents repertoire; still capable of shocks and surprises, still peering out from behind the scenery to flash a ridiculous grin; still a secret love that you kept even from yourself.And in modern remastered form, both feel a lot stronger than they ever did at the time - a sign of old age on the listener’s part, maybe, but maybe also a reminder that much of what the Residents influenced now sounds impossibly dated.The Residents don’t.
In keeping with other albums in the current sequence, both albums have been expanded across two CDs, via the sensibly titled Eskimo Ephemera and Commercial Ephemera bonus discs.And, similarly unsurprisingly, both range from the mildly uninteresting through to the instantly thrilling, as they draw on sources that leap from rehearsals to live shows to videos to out-takes.
The various permutations on the Eskimo suite, and the history thereof, are especially fascinating… the notion of an Eskimo Opera is tantalizing.The shift from the demo version of “Diskomo” to a completed take of what remained an out-take is a pleasing glimpse into Residential working practices, and the thirty-six bonus tracks appended to Commercial Album are littered with moments you can’t help but wish had made it onto the original LP, way back when.
So, another satisfying trawl through the archive, and there’s another thing to remember about the Residents.You may have tired of one concept, but there’ll be another one along soon enough.
Esoteric (3-CD Set)
Probably everybody reading this has their own vision of what the “underground” of the late 1960s entailed; of the music that undeniably fell into its grasp, whether purposefully or otherwise; of the music that was designed specifically to appeal to what we would now call a particular demographic (“hey man, hippy freaks are really big… let’s make a record for them”); and of the music which resolutely does not belong, no way, no how, nowhere.
Revolution, interestingly, has time for all three, but it does so in a way that utterly blurs whatever distinctions you might make between them.The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” was a number one hit in 1968; Love Sculpture’s 2000mph rewiring of “Sabre Dance” made the UK Top Ten.The Move’s mega-hit “Blackberry Way.”The Auger-Driscoll Trinity’s “This Wheel;s On Fire.”All so huge that they were ultimately as underground as the Empire State Building.
Jeff Beck rewiring an old Yardbirds smash; Deep Purple still trying to escape the “terrible xerox of bad Vanilla Fudge” tag that their first two albums so richly deserved.Traffic, Procol Harum, John Mayall, Ten Years After, the Pretty Things.The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band - another huge British hit, produced by no less than a pseudonymous Paul McCartney.It’s a great compilation, and its contents are well-chosen.But does it really live up to its title?
Again, that’s up to you.In historical terms, 1968 was the breakout year (or, at least, the beginning thereof) for so many acts that had hitherto labored in darkened clubs choked by the heady scent of funny cigarettes that almost any saleable sampling of period acts would fall into the trap of “too many hits.”
Even groups that could then have been considered unknown… the likes of Tull, Caravan, Genesis, Spooky Tooth, Barclay James Harvest, Fleetwood Mac and Van Der Graaf Generator… were either poised or destined to put obscurity far behind them.But is that really something we can hold against them?
Likewise, the CD age’s insatiable appetite for psychedelia of every description, and the modern “rediscovery” of bands that had long since been lost, were undreamed of happenstances in 1968.There’s fifty-two tracks across the three CDs herein, and maybe you have now heard them all so often that they’re part of the wallpaper.But if you let your mind, as well as your ears, slip back to 1968 itself, and contemplate the world from the perspective of someone who wanted to understand the underground, you could not ask for a healthier introduction.
Remember, the hits were only hits after they made the chart.Before that, for the six months or whatever that the Crazy World hung in fiery obscurity far from the cameras and grinning DJs, “Fire” was about as freaky as music got.Giles, Giles & Fripp were as weird, the Incredible String Band as eclectic, the Bonzos as bizarre.“They play absurdist reinterpretations of 1920s 78s.You really should see them, sometime.”
Take that step, and this box set makes perfect sense.Don’t take it, and it’s simply a whole lot of fun.
Tear Gas were a Scottish band that threatened to make a noise in the early 1970s, but were largely overlooked until…
…until they joined forces with a Scottish singer who had been threatening to make a noise through the 1960s as well, but was largely overlooked until….
Fans of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band know exactly where this is going.But still it’s worth remembering that SAHB Without Alex, though that name is best associated with 1977’s Fourplay album, were once SAHB Before Alex, and two albums for EMI’s Regal Zonophone subsidiry foreshadowed many of their future antics with remarkable precision.
Future SAHB players Zal Cleminson, Eddie (Ted) McKenna and Chris Glen, plus SAHB’s producer David Bachelor, are here captured on the first of the pair, 1971’s eponymous debut, and you can hear everything that Harvey heard when he first caught sight of them.Pounding and powerful when the hard rock mood hit them, but capable of some savage reverses too, Tear Gas is both an album wholly of its own time, and a template of sorts for where hard rock would soon be wandering.
Hindsight insists that they lacked a certain focus (and the future probably proves that), but even without their Sensational destiny, Tear Gas have a weight and heft that certainly places them at the forefront of the era’s club circuit, and probably deserved more than that.Indeed, as early as track two, a cover of Jethro Tull’s “Love Story” is all but indistinguishable from the version they would rerecord four years later with Harvey, while a five minute medley of “Jailhouse Rock”/“All Shook Up” feels exactly the kind of thing that he would have pulled out as an encore at the height of their time together.
But there we go again, wittering on about the Sensational Alex, when it’s the Sensational Band that should be the focus of our thoughts.So scrub all that and just inhale some Tear Gas.And let’s hope that their second album will be along very soon.