Reviews: Tony Banks, Bananarama, Flamin' Groovies, Ian Lowery Group, Mike McGear, Jump Up Calypso, Punk DIY, Woodstock

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Tony Banks

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Banks Vaults - The Albums 1979-1995 (7CDs/1 DVD)

(Cherry Red/Esoteric)

From Peter Gabriel’s soundtracks to Anthony Phillips’ sketches, and onto Phil Collins attempt to subjugate the entire universe with songs about being sad, the (ex-) Genesis solo songbook is one of the most disparate and, in places, secretly delightful of all such canons.

Not that that is necessarily a mighty accomplishment. Flip through Genesis’ 1970s contemporaries and the competition - with Yes and the Moodies at the top of the pile - doesn’t exactly creak with unfettered genius.Genesis, on the other hand… okay, Mike and the Mechanics were pretty dodgy, and you do have to be in a very peculiar mood to want to play the majority of Gabriel’s post-fourth album output.Phil Collins himself admits that things got a little silly during the 1980s, and Steve Hackett has now released so many albums that you need a second house to keep them all in.

And Tony Banks has noodled along, the most reclusive of the original line-up making, seemingly purposefully, the most reclusive of solo records.Hunt around - you rarely find his albums lurking in the used bins; seldom hear his non-hits on the radio; and have you ever met someone who’ll stroke their chin with their fingers then say, “Yes, Bankstatement really is my favorite album of all time”?

They’re out there.But they’re hard to find.

Not any more.Banks Vaults, as its subtitle insists, rounds up Banks’s entire solo output, not only under his own steam, but also his movie soundtracks and promo videos as well.And you probably didn’t know about them, either. Eight nifty little vids shot across the span of years, nestling happily on a DVD at the bottom of the box.

Everything is remastered and sleeved in mini replicas of the original LPs.The facts are documented in a 60 page lyric booklet… it would have been nice to have Banks himself talk us through the music, what prompted this and what influenced that, but he’s the reclusive one, remember?Let the music speak for itself, and all that.

We know not, then, why he chose to create new mixes for the first albums in the sequence, A Curious Feeling (1979) and The Fugitive (1983); why he opted to work with co-producer Steve Hillage for Bankstatement (1989); why he eschewed the involvement of any bandmates beyond hired guns Chester Thompson and Daryl Stuermer.

But the decisions worked then and they work now.A common criticism of the average “supergroup solo project” is that it’s either so left field that no way could the rest of the band could have recorded it, or that it’s effectively the sound of the band with the bandmates omitted.

Banks leans more towards the latter than the former, as you’d expect and probably hope.As the primary writer in the band, he’d effectively have required a complete mental rewiring to not sound a bit like Genesis.And A Curious Feeling, in particular, sits snugly within the same kind of area as Wind & Wuthering/And Then There Were Three, only without the former’s portentousness and the latter’s creakiness.

Moving on, it becomes apparent that there isn’t a single Banks sound, just as we discovered there wasn’t a single Genesis sound.Rather, by blending seamlessly into a succession of purpose-built line-ups, he demonstrates a fine grasp of whatever the market of the day was demanding, without ever losing the essential Banksiness of his writing and playing.

Thus, The Fugitive is clearly a child of the early eighties, as prone to bouncy, dancey electronics as it is to more laid back textures; Bankstatement is likewise the stomp of eighties-rocking Genesis, opening with the aptly-titled “Throwback,” and eventually throwing itself as far back as “Abacab” (“Queen of Darkness”).

It’s the most commercial album in the box, and maybe the most dated as well, but move on to Still and Banks is back in finely balanced Fugitive territory; and Strictly Inc is just fun from start to finish.Add the soundtracks, which are necessarily all over the place - technological pomp for one cut, moody symphonics for another; dangerously dance-able for another - and Banks emerges from the box set as one of the most (musically) successful and versatile supergroup solo artists in the entire pack, Genesissy or otherwise.

Bananarama

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In Stereo

(Absolute/BFD)

Back down to a duo after the thrills of the recent reunion tour, Bananarama - Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin - release their first new album in a decade, but neither time nor space have changed the one thing that always made the group so special.Which is… Bananarama are brilliant, probably the key pop group of the British eighties, one of the best of the nineties and, hurrah, one of the most enjoyable of today as well.

This has been a good year for returning heroes, and it’s probably no coincidence that, alongside the Specials’ comeback album, In Stereo is at the top of that pile.No coincidence because, of course, Special Terry Hall was one of the original Bananarama’s earliest cheerleaders and, while their paths have not really crossed since then, everything that he saw in their original untutored beauty has only grown more powerful over time.

True, Bananarama are more likely to pursue the sophisticated dancey-disco sound of their post-“Venus” adulthood than the naive pop confections that formed their early peak… a ‘nanas greatest hits collection that closed around “Robert de Niro” should be the soundtrack to everyone’s late teens and early twenties.But still there’s an unforced joy to everything they do, and In Stereo is like an evening in your favorite dance club, whether you want to have one or not, listening to your favorite dance hits - whether you have any or not.

“Love In Stereo” opens and sets the scene; “Dance Music” is exactly what it ought to be, and does not even try to disguise the duo’s love of Giorgio Moroder.Talking to Goldmine a few weeks ago, Woodward detoured onto a discussion of the late 80s Dance Decade box set, fourteen LPs of disco smash hits covering 1973-83.She and Dallin still listen to its constantly, and it shows - not in the writing, nor even the production.But in the sheer sense of fun that drives this album on… to the point where the extended mix bonus tracks that complete the album are almost a distraction from the album itself. Almost, but not quite.Bananarama 12-inch singles are a thing of beauty by nature, and these are no exception.

If you’re not already a Bananarama fan, there’s no point having even read this far.It’s way too late to make new converts out of listeners who’ve dismissed their past in the past.But if there’s even a slither of love still lurking in your soul…. or, maybe, a slither of soul still lurking in your heart… In Stereo will fill you boots with joy and your head with happiness.

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Optimism/Reject - Punk and Post-Punk Meets D-I-Y Aesthetic, United Kingdom 1977-1981 (4 CDs)

(Cherry Red)

Now this is a weird one.Punk, after all, was more or less founded on a “DIY aesthetic,” and there are so many box sets and compendium documenting that, that… well, what’s one more in a never ending pile?

Well, how about a document not of punk as it fell into the grasp of the major labels, for better or worse depending upon your love of Sandy Pearlman’s production techniques… but what it did when left to its own devices?

Indy labels, self-releases, the Ruts before they were Virgin’s, Cooper Clark before he went Epic, the Marine Girls before they were Cherry Red’s; this is punk and post-punk archaeology at its finest, ferreting out those self-taped cassettes and saved-our-pocket-money-to-make-a-single releases that pocked the scene at the end of the 1970s and which do still preserve some of the era’s most exhilarating music.

And that’s the key.Without exception, the bands here were working in almost complete obscurity when they made these recordings.A little local fame, perhaps, maybe a live review or two in the music press.But nothing that actually paid the bills, and there were certainly no A&R men waving checkbooks around.So they just got on with things themselves.The Shapes’ “(I Saw) Batman (in the Launderette)” would one day receive a play on the John Peel show… this is the song before that happened.

The Skids would make it big, but “Charles” is what they sounded like while small.The Sisters of Mercy are today synonymous with gothic rock.This is them when they were synonymous with nothing more than being one more band from Yorkshire.And so on.

It’s a patchy collection, as any gathering of almost 100 different bands must be.There are those acts who you know “got better” with experience (and money), and those who feel doomed from the opening chord.But that is not the point.

What matters here is that such a vast outpouring of new, would-be and hopeful talent even happened… the first and, in many ways, the last time such a tsunami could form without eating itself on the way.The 1982 cut-off date is significant; majors devouring indies, indies becoming majors, monsters mashing mavericks, the indy boom of the late 1970s was directly responsible for thoroughly realigning the music industry of the British 1980s, and creating the vampire squid we know and love today.What, after all, is the difference between a kid with a tennis racket posing guitar-shapes in the bedroom mirror, which is effectively what all these bands were doing, and making the same moves in front of a webcam, ready to upload to YouTube?Apart from the fact there were less people poised to laugh, of course.

As always with Cherry Red collections, the accompanying booklet is a joy to read through, capsule biogs of all the bands, photos and record sleeves littered throughout, and itself designed to fit the box’s theme.In other words, this may not be the most perfectly produced and exquisitely designed package you’re going to pick up this fall.But it’s one of the most effective.

Flamin’ Groovies

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Vaillancourt Fountain, Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco, CA: September 19, 1979

(Liberation Hall)

The Groovies Unleashed was a glorious beast, like watching the best-stocked jukebox in the world grow legs and declare that yeah, the records it played were all great in themselves, but wouldn’t it be fun if they sounded like this….

And they’d speed some up and slow some down, add fresh guitars and growling vocals, and out in the crowd, every oldie felt new, every singalong chorus was being sung for the first time, and even old Chuck Berry sounded somehow fresh and ferocious.

A glorious mash of Groovies own and others’ oldies - the final tally is approximately two covers for every original - this sixteen track live show makes up in excitement what it lacks in fidelity, but is eminently listenable whatever your mood.

Their grasp on “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Paint It Black” is a blueprint for everything you wish the Stones had done, while it still seems incredible, all these decades long, that “Shake Some Action” isn’t as indelibly engrained on every music loving soul in the world as… “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” “Around and Around” and “Let It Rock,” “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”

The Groovies Unleashed?This is the Groovies in excelsis, and the sooner someone sits down and compiles the sprawling multi-label, multi-source mega box set that their career demands, the better.You know you’ll be first in line for it.

Mike McGear

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McGear (2CDs/1 DVD)

(Cherry Red/Esoteric)

Ex-Scaffold, ex-McGough & McGear and, of course, younger brother to some pop star or other, Mike McGear was one of those lesser-sung, but nevertheless familiar faces that helped dictate the direction British comedy would take as it combined with rock’n’pop at the end of the sixties.

Both of those bands remain as listenable (and entertaining) today as they did at the time - more so, in fact, now we’re not hearing “Lily the Pink” every time we turn on the radio - and the absence of any family favors being publicly scattered across his work only increased our admiration of him.So when McGear did finally go into the studio with brother Paul and the rest of Wings, to record what would become his first solo album, the general reaction was more “what took you so long?” than a cry of nepotist envy.

McGear, the album that emerged from those sessions, would not prove a major hit. But for both McGear fans and Macca watchers, it remains one of either’s most satisfying projects, a blend of co-writes and covers (one solo McCartney composition, one Bryan Ferry) that you could compare to a superior Red Rose Speedway, but you probably wouldn’t want to. McGear has enough going for it in its own right, without inventing spurious talking points.

The Ferry cover, “Sea Breezes,” opens the set and it’s a joy, capturing all the nuance of the Roxy first album classic, but adding new dimensions of orchestration that Ferry himself surely drooled over.This was recorded, after all, at a time when Roxy Music themselves were still just two albums old, and the solo Brown Fury had yet to emerge.And catch the string-less version that opens the bonus disc.Oooh.

The gloriously infuriating “Norton,” the super-catchy “Leave It,” the b-side “Dance the Do,” the gentle “Simply Love You”… yes, there are moments that sound decidedly Wings-ish, and that latter is certainly one of them.But you can also catch ghosts of 10cc at play, and not necessarily because McGear was recorded at their studio, with their “Gysmorchestra” roped in among the instrumentation.It’s just a wonderful album that captures all concerned at a peak that they rarely captured again.

This is apparent from the bonus disc, which combines a handful of album out-takes and rough mixes with a mass of later and earlier solo McGearisms, all thoroughly enjoyable but none of them so beautifully bound together as those that comprise the album itself.

The package wraps up with two McGear interviews and the original “Leave It” promo video, all worth your time when you’ve listened through the album, and all as illuminating as the choc-a-blok booklet that tells the story… and we’ve not even mentioned the separate lyric sheet and poster!All around, a fabulous package, and this is what deluxe editions should really look and sound like.Except few of them start with such a great LP.

The Ian Lowery Group

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King Blank To (30th Anniversary Edition) (digital only)

(Beggars Banquet)

Just like it says on the tin, thirty years have now elapsed since the release of King BlankTo, titled in memory of frontman Lowery’s last band, and capturing everything that the original packed, plus…

This is one of the great rock’n’roll albums of the eighties, fed through its insistence that it’s one of the best of the seventies and nineties, too.The opening “Need” makes you think it’s “Wild Thing,” only a helluva lot louder, and the slashing guitars and locomotive drums thunder on from there, a kind of mashed up mix between Exiled Stones, So Alone Thunders, and a spaceship full of Daleks if they replaced their guns with the MC5, and we all played the Pink Fairies together.

And to think, the Lowery Group did all that at the height of what the UK media was calling the “second Summer of Love,” the heyday of rave, ecstasy and warehouse parties. Imagine “A Kind of Loathing,” all “Apache” drums and flick knife guitars, scything into that scene, and you’ll understand instinctively why the world needed this album, needed this band… and maybe, why it ultimately ignored them both.The late Ian Lowery remains one of the great unrecognized talents of his era; his catalog one of the great unheard monsters of the age.

But reissues like this, and those being spun out by Spectacle Music, are remedying that situation at last.And, if you’ve followed the story so far, you’ll already know why that matters.

various

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Independence Jump Up Calypso (2 CDs)

(Doctor Bird)

Continuing Doctor Bird’s spectacular series of classic ska/rocksteady LP exhumations, Independence Jump Up Calypso picks up on a ten track album released by Treasure Isle in summer 1966, adds no less than 46 bonus tracks, and spreads the whole thing over a fabulous two CD package.

The original album, celebrating the fifth anniversary of Jamaican independence, largely conforms to what it says on the cover, capturing the latest strands of calypso through the eyes of Count Lasher, Count Alert, and Lynn Taitt & the Baba Brooks Band, all Duke Reid productions, of course.

From there, however, it spills out into a far wider ranging study of Reid’s productions that year, the likes of the Silvertones, the Slickers, Eric Morris, Justin Hinds & the Dominoes and the ever present Supersonics house band all jockeying for space on the dance floors, and serving up a glorious time-and-space snapshot.

Capturing the music as the breakthrough ska sound began to shift, it would have ben easy for the compilers to just grab a bagful of the usual suspects. Instead, the bulk of the tracks here have never previously appeared on CD; a lot were never released outside of Jamaica and some have never been heard since the day they were recorded.

Not all of them are breathtaking - some, in fact, feel quite ordinary, and if you’re not a big fan of instrumentals, you’ll quickly figure out which ones they are. Overall, however, this is one of those collections that can just pay all day without ever getting old, and all of the next few days as well.Indeed, some might say that the headline LP is the least interesting inclusion in the package.

But we don’t really care what they think, do we?

various

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Woodstock: Back to the Garden - 50th Anniversary Experience (10 CDs)

(Rhino)

Two discs, ten discs, thirty-eight discs… how much Woodstock is too much Woodstock?Judging by the speed with which the megabox sold out, and its little brother is flying off the shelves, there’s no answer to that.It may be half a century old, it may be packed with bands that you probably haven’t thought about (let alone listened to) since the tenth anniversary, but if you remember, or were even alive through the original festival, this is the last Big Bash you’ll be seeing in your lifetime. Probably.

And on that extraordinarily uplifting note….

Neatly divided between onstage announcements and musical performances, and nailing itself firmly into its time capsule via the fifth and sixth words out of the opening Ritchie Havens’ mouth (“groovy… groovy”),the ten disc Back to the Garden may or may not include the very best of the larger package, but that’s a subjective viewpoint however you look at it.The point, really, is not the music itself, it’s the recapturing of what, whether you love it or hate it, was a watershed moment in the history of rock music.

More than any other festival, more than any other moment, Woodstock remains the peak of rock’n’roll’s belief that it could change the world, and the fact is, it did… just not in the way it hoped.Joni Mitchell got it right with her “Big Yellow Taxi,” all that stuff about paving paradise and sticking a parking lot on top of it.Timeslip the Woodstock-attendee into the world in which we live today, and they’d have been screaming “dystopia” before you could even show them the worst parts.And the fact that their own generation played a major part in creating that hell will only add to their dismay.Remember, a busload of despotic seventy year old CEOs today were mere twenty-year-old idealists when they went to Yasgur’s farm.  Possibly.

Ha!Maybe they should have been planting different flowers.

But the future was unwritten when Woodstock wound its way through a weekend, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to leave the house, find a puddle to sit in, and blast these CDs through your wireless headphones, and recreate… everything!Chip Monck’s iconic announcements, the hits from the movie that are nailed inside your psyche, the bands you’d forgotten (will the Quill fan club swell as a result of this collection?), and the ones you thought you’d tired of, all just file one after the other and what happens next is beyond your control.

Your mind floats back to all that you want to think Woodstock was, and suddenly you’re flashing peace signs at the cat, dancing topless around the yard, and having heartbreaking flashbacks to the days when wearing an army surplus greatcoat was the height of far out fashion.

And you realize that the ten disc box was the right way to go, because investing your ears in entire performances by bands you don’t want to listen to is just too forensic a procedure to deal with.But a few songs here, a couple of songs there, you get the feel without being overwhelmed, and even the dourest soul in the world could put up with a couple of songs from Tommy if they knew they’d be over soon and someone else would be on stage.The Dead’s nineteen minute “Dark Star,” on the other hand… well, that’s what the fast forward button was made for, with even Deadheads themselves acknowledging that this wasn’t the band’s most shining moment.

Thirty minutes of Canned Heat’s “Woodstock Boogie,” on the other hand, race past.

So welcome back to Woodstock, kids, and remember.Next time the world feels broken, please don’t try to fix it.You’ll only make things worse in the end.

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