All Aboard The Skylark
This is, at a rough count, Hawkwind’s thirty-second studio album, released on the fiftieth anniversary of their first ever show, and on a scale of one to ten, with one being whichever Hawks album you thought marked the effective end of the creative voyage, and ten being whichever one you turn to whenever you need to hear them… it’s not bad.
In fact, it’s rather good.
So, a six? A seven? A lot of Hawkwind albums do seem to have landed around that level, particularly over the last few years/decades, and while you can argue that any Hawkwind is better than none, so long as they’re making the right noises in the right order, try making a similar claim for many (any) other bands of a similar vintage. It can’t be done. Not only have Hawkwind outlived all of their obituaries, they’ve outlived a lot of their obituary-writers as well.
Plus, how can you resist any album that opens with a track titled “Flesh Fondue”? Especially when it feels like they’re remaking “Death Trap,” only louder and even more violent than ever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a lot about All Aboard the Skylark that will put one in mind of past Hawkwindian glories. But there’s also a lot to prove that whatever laurels they may have rested on in the past, they’ve found some new ones as well.
“Nets of Space” is as experimental as anything they’ve done in a long time; “Last Man on Earth,” contrarily, is as melodic; and “We Are Not Dead… Only Sleeping” feels like a loose leaf from the flight log that accompanied In Search of Space. But the peak has to be as the closing salvo opens with “In The Beginning…” and “The Road To,” which echoes “Golden Void” in places, but is determinedly its own creation. Yes, it’s Hawkwind’s thirty-second album. But it’s fresh enough that you could believe it’s merely their eleventh.
Of course, this being such an auspicious anniversary, things would not be complete without an historical bonus of some sort, and so a second disc, Acoustic Daze, traces through eleven highlights of All That Came Before in, unsurprisingly, acoustic fashion. It’s an enjoyable listen, but not an addictive one. All Aboard the Skylark, on the other hand… it might just have gone up to eight out of ten. And when Hawkwind are that good, you know you need to listen.
Past Tense (3CDs)
Gratuitous Sax ad Senseless Violins (3CDs)
One compilation, one latter day repackaging, but together, these two boxes effectively tell, or remind, us all why we need to listen to Sparks.
They have not always been great. Even among the uber-faithful, there must be a handful of albums that have not been cracked open in years, or even decades. But even at the Brothers Mael’s ghastliest, there was always the sense that they were only another song or two away from coming up with something great again.
So we ignored Introducing Sparks because we knew Number One in Heaven was around the corner; we forgave Pulling Rabbits because we believed that “Change” was coming soon; and no matter how grisly Sparks’ late eighties might have been, Gratuitous Sax made fresh believers out of almost everyone.
Past Tense is a mostly straightforward “story so far,” boiling down 2013’s four CD Music for Amnesiacs box set to a more bite-sized three discs, but without ever losing the continuity that made the original box such an entertaining listen.
Opening with the super-early (pre-Sparks) demo “Computer Girl,” then taking well-aimed chunks out of each successive LP, disc one drives us through the 1970s, up to and including the Giorgio Moroder years; disc two reaches into the early-mid 1990s; disc three rounds up everything since.
And there’s a lot to admire, both among the familiar hits that drew us in in the first place… “This Town Ain’t Big Enough” paramount among them, of course… and the less familiar, but equally captivating likes of “Beaver O’Lindy,” “Singing in the Shower,” “The Rhythm Thief” and, best of all, the aforementioned “Change,” a thunderous 45 that threatened to relaunch Sparks in 1984 with as much power as “This Town” set them off ten years earlier.
Ultimately, it didn’t. Should have, but no. Another decade would elapse before Sparks truly jumped back onto the rails, when Gratuitous Sax swept aside the last few years of frankly damnable odds and ends, and re-established them as a force to be reckoned with. The album itself was not a massive hit, but the critics adored it and the old fans flocked back, all past indiscretions were happily forgiven and the album remains one of the most overall enjoyable comebacks of the entire post-seventies era.
Reissued now, the original single disc has been expanded across three, with the extra space rounding up rarities, demos, live recordings and the slew of remixes that accompanied the period singles – “(When I Kiss You)…,” “Now That I Own the BBC” and the utterly sublime “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’.” Elsewhere, “Frankly Scarlet, I Don’t Give a Damn” and “Let’s Go Surfing” are all hits-in-waiting, while “I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car” is as annoying, and therefore as utterly, unimpeachably wonderful, as “Equator” was, back in ’74.
The remixes, to be honest, are scarcely essential, any more than they were at the time. But the uncorking of the Sparks vault brings us a plethora of gems, including a dozen demos (Ron Mael vocal performances included), and five tracks from a projected EP with percussionist Christi Haydon.
It’s a glorious package, a drop-dead gorgeous album that has grown up to become the finest “deluxe edition” that Sparks have ever offered us. And lined up alongside Past Tense, the sheer breadth of Sparks’ genius is outweighed by just one thing. The sheer resilience with which they have weathered the past fifty years of often self-induced storm.
It all depends upon how much Dollar you want for your dollars, doesn’t it? If you just want the hits, and a disc full of remixes and extended versions, the basic two CD package will probably suffice. If you want all the albums, all the singles, all the mixes and a DVD-full of videos, there’s the full-strength seven disc box set. And if you only want the first album on gold vinyl, well… you’re covered there, as well.
Across a run of hits through the late 1970s and early 1980s, the duo of David Van Day and Thereza Bazar were the squeaky-pretty purveyors of some of the sweetest pop of the era. Too sweet, some said, and they are often written off as just another fluffy distraction from the stuff that people should have been listening to. A Certain Ratio, Throbbing Gristle, stuff like that. Probably.
But listen closer, and they did make some magnificent records, culminating in 1982’s “Give Me Back My Heart” – produced by a then barely-known Trevor Horne, but blueprinting virtually every effect for which he’d later become so renowned. Particularly that boo-boo-BOO drum sound from which it would soon be impossible to escape. Talk about a poisoned arrow, haha.
“Heart” appears just past the halfway mark on the twenty-one track hits disc, and the journey towards it is glorious. “Shooting Star,” “Takin’ a Chance On You,” “Hand Held In Black and White,” “Mirror Mirror,” this is excellent stuff. Sappy, but excellent. It’s what pop should always sound like, but very rarely does.
Better still, when you switch over to the remix disc, the chance to relive a few of the hits in extended form is only mildly spoiled by the fact that Dollar’s best singles didn’t actually appear as extended 12-inchers at the time. So we get latter-day (2006, 2019) stabs instead, but if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t notice, and the only real disappointment is that the full-length “Give Me Back My Heart” is available only in the mega-box, almost as if the compilers knew that that’s the one we most want to hear. But no, who’d be that cynical?
So, a classy package whichever format you choose, and a blast from an all-too-easily overlooked past as well. It does have its weak points (“Who Were You With In The Moonlight,” anyone?) But the highlights more than outweigh them… and we haven’t even mentioned “Oh L’Amour” yet!
Further Perspectives & Distortion: An Encyclopedia of British Experimental & Avant-Garde Music 1976-1984
The latest in Cherry Red’s only-to-be-applauded series of Close to the Noise Floor collections of rock’s most challenging extremes… titled this time in honor of the early 1980s album that was the grandaddy of them all… Further Perspectives is the usual blending of familiar names and forgotten heroes, but spinning further across the spectrum than ever.
From Robert Wyatt to the Pop Group; from Henry Cow to Robert Rental; from the Bodhi Beat Poets to Robert Fripp, Further Perspectives effectively demolishes all the stylistic and musical boundaries that are traditionally erected around sound… by which one means, you’d have to look a long way to uncover a comp that can place Blancmange alongside Test Department, and still make sense.
Indeed, with the exception of the original 1981 Perspectives And Distortion, wherein Lol Coxhill lovers were suddenly confronted with the Virgin Prunes, few indeed have so blithely mashed expectation with shock, and fewer still have carried it off with such aplomb.
Three CDs are a lot to fill, after all, but you can’t even accuse the compilers of trying to blend the fifty-eight tracks into some kind of cohesive sequence; artists are arranged alphabetically on each disc, and so we travel from Het to Hula to George Melly to “(Extract from) the Compassion and Humility of Margaret Thatcher,” without even a pause to catch our breath.
Ron Geesin rubs shoulders with Martin Hannett and Nico; David Toop with Chris and Cosey, and how far would your mood ordinarily need to travel to get from Lindsay Cooper to David Cunningham?
Not every track is going to thrill you, not every one will send you searching for more. But as a solid listening experience (accompanied, by always, by an informative booklet), this is one encyclopedia that is essential listening.