Reviews: Glam Rock, Suede, Jon Anderson, The Soulless Party, Rowan Amber Mill, Soul Power, The Wall, Ashtoreth & Grey Malkin, Be Bop Deluxe, Buzzcocks, Post-punk Funk, Conflict

by Dave Thompson
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1

Various

Oh! You Pretty Things: Glam Queens and Street Urchins 1970-76 (3 CDs)

(Grapefruit)

Just when you thought it was safe to take off your platform boots, another glam-tinged box set falls into your lap and, this time, the sequins have teeth.

Glam was never the sprinkling of ethereal fairy dust that its detractors liked to imagine; you need only look at the contributions made by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the New York Dolls, the Heavy Metal Kids and Silverhead for proof of that. And the fact that all four are present here only adds to this collection’s heft.

Yes, this is the thuggy end of the great glam rainbow, the bit that hangs out in pubs with its mates, carries a switchblade and doesn’t always say “please” when it asks if you were staring at its pint. And, while it’s true that some of its contributors are surely guilty only by chronological association, when you’re actually listening to the box at full blast, you really don’t care whether the likes of John Cale, the Pink Fairies, the Flaming Groovies and the Pretty Things are the most likely neighbors for Roxy Music, Mick Ronson, Jobriath and the Winkies. They work within the context of the set, and the set itself is (almost) flawless.

Roxy, ELO and Sparks kick things off, the latter with the “Barbecutie” b-side that remains among their hardest rockers ever. Later, Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten…,” Slade’s “Take Me Bak ‘Ome,” Wayne County’s “Queenage Baby” and the Sweet’s “The Six Teens” remain in solid “now that’s what I was expecting” territory, even as they grind their hips against the Kinks’ “Powerman,” the Troggs’ “Strange Movies” and Michael Moorcock’s “Dodgem Dude.” There was something magical in the air back then and everyone, it seemed, was breathing it. Even folkies like the Strawbs, rockers like Thin Lizzy and proggers like Curved Air.

A fabulous box, then, a sixty-six track sack of squirming, squalling, squabbling reprobates, proto-punkers and power proggies, street fighting cheetahs and glittered-up bricklayers, and a forty page booklet that lets you see what you’re listening to, and make your mind up from there.

Plus the whole thing ends with what are probably the two greatest songs about glam rock stardom ever written, Alex Harvey’s “Last of the Teenaged Idols” (which takes the story back to the 1950s, but let that not distract us) and Mott’s “Saturday Gigs.” “Did you see the suits and the platform boots? Oh dear, oh gawd, oh my oh my.”

2

The London Suede

The Best Of… Beautiful Ones 1992-2018 (2CDs)

(Edsel)

For a band that effectively lived and died according to the chronological parameters of the mid-1990s Britpop movement, Suede (we’re among friends; we can drop the US-only “London” prefix) ultimately proved the most resilient of them all.

Only the last of the original lifespan’s five albums, 2002’s A New Morning, truly made the bottom lip drop despondently, and after a decade spent doing whatever else they wanted to do (including three great solo albums from frontman Brent Anderson), Suede effectively picked up where their last true classic, Coming Up, left off.

That was 2013’s Bloodsports… more recently, The Blue Hour was effectively as good as anything they’ve ever done. And now this collection moseys along to tell the full story so far.

In fact, you have a choice of two full stories - a four CD version that effectively confines all the a-sides to discs one and two, and all the b-sides to the remainder… think of it as an expanded version of the old Sci Fi Lullabies collection. Or there’s the two disc set, which mixes and matches between the two themes and is, in fact, the most enjoyable of the two. The lulls get less time to remind us how dull they were; the highs get more space in which to spread out. And the highs are spectacular.

Suede’s initial run of singles, from “The Drowners” to “Stay Together,” was peerless at the time, and it remains so. But move on from there and the glories get greater. “We Are the Pigs” was a startling choice for 45 release, but its inclusion here clearly states that the band do not regret it in the slightest. B-sides “Killing of a Flash Boy” and “Europe is our Playground” were as good as anyone else’s number one hits.“Trash” is a sashaying slice of pure glam heaven; “Saturday Night” is radiant beauty personified; “Everything Will Flow” is yearning delight and, just three years old at the end of disc two, “Flytipping” spins us back to the majesty of Dog Man Star and Suede’s vibrancy remains imperious.

The packaging is no frills, and yeah, if you care about Suede, you’ve got it all already, on original singles and albums and the like. But jammed together into such a concise package, the two CD set not only condenses everything into a couple of hours, it might also be the most enjoyable couple of hours you’ve spent in ages.

3

Jon Anderson

Olias of Sunhillow (CD/DVD)

(Esoteric)

The pre-release portents weren’t promising. With the Yes-shaped mothership taking a well-earned rest, the individual crewmen all headed off to make LPs of their own. But Anderson was taking the brief a little further - he was making it on his own, as well.

Solo albums, of course, were a disease that afflicted a lot of mid-seventies giants, and the results were traditionally tawdry. And, again, the pre-release portents were ominous.

A concept album. A fantasy album. An all-the-things-about-prog-that-you-really-didn’t-like album. Yet the portents were wrong. Boy, the boy could write some good tunes. Gosh, he had guts when he didn’t have to pause them in mid-mauling so the piano player could throw in a three hour solo. And, though Anderson still sang in the same Yes register that itself was a proven acquired taste, it fit the melodies, it fit the lyrics (a lot of which, in fairness, remain indecipherable), and it magicked up a mood that saw Olias emerge not merely the finest of all the Yes solo records, but the peak of Anderson’s activities all decade long.

It’s still a great sounding record, and even more so when you tire of the stereo mix and succumb to the 5.1 assault. So much more going on, so many more pieces slotting into the picture, tribal percussives that dance around your head, keening chants that haunt the dark corners… Anderson himself admitted, listening to it recently, that it’s reawakened his urge to finally record a successor.

Olias of Sunhillow was released in the summer of 1976, at a time - the history books tell us - when the UK music scene was gearing up for the seismic shock of first wave punk, and the likes of Thin Lizzy, Dr Feelgood, Motorhead and Eddie and the Hot Rods were already setting the scene.

Yet it didn’t feel out of place, didn’t elicit another tired yawn, and ultimately, it didn’t fulfill any of the destinies that normally await a superstar-goes-solo prolusion. It was brave, it was bold, and it was blindingly fabulous. And it made even Yes non-fans wonder if they shouldn’t go back to the older albums, in search of more of the same….

5

The Soulless Party

The Black Meadow Archive: The Lost Tapes (CD/download)

Bandcamp

Time and familiarity have done nothing to lessen the legend and allure of the Black Meadow, that so mysterious spot in the north of England where… to put it bluntly… things happen.

It’s getting on for a decade since researcher Chris Lambert first went public with his investigations into the manifold phenomena that haunt the area, and the legends that take those hauntings back to medieval times. But… like the Bermuda Triangle, the Mary Celeste and the Tunguska explosion, the public’s appetite for more exploration has never lapsed.

Lambert keeps his research close to his chest, however. Indeed, his insistence that there are things in the Black Meadow that should never be revealed strikes many students more as scholastic selfishness (“it’s my secret and I’m not telling you it, so ‘nyah nyah’ to the lot of you”) than scientific caution.

Yet who are we to argue with Professor Brightwater, the man whose own work inspired Lambert’s, when even he says “the tapes should stay lost”? Maybe some things truly should remain buried.

Despite its title, this album does not lessen the mystery any further. Only the final track, an archive tape of Brightwater speaking following his arrest, sheds light on anything, and even that is simply a discussion of the mechanics of his research, as opposed to its conclusions.

The remainder of the album, however, should not be overlooked, as the aptly-named Soulless Partytake musical flight across the snippets of information that we do have, to tell mostly wordless tales of the hags, giants, Coyles and more that have been said to inhabit the area.

It’s a dark album, chilling in places, and as such the ideal companion for any contemplation of the mysteries of the meadow. Listen in conjunction with a rereading of the books; interrupt, perhaps, by replaying the original radio documentary; but always keep your eyes wide for the mists. Always.

4

Rowan Amber Mill

Harrowed by the Stones (CD/download)

(Miller Sounds)

There’s more folk horror to be found in the latest release from the suddenly, gloriously, prolific Rowan Amber Mil, and while the subtitle to this set declares it to be volume two of “cuts from the folk horror archive” (volume one, Harvest the Ears, appeared in 2018), don’t let such an underwhelming fanfare fool you.

Like that set, Harrowed by the Stones comprises a mixture of old and new material; like its predecessor, too, it arrives beautifully packaged within a metal tin, with art cards, buttons, stickers and a hand-numbered certificate. And, while it is a largely instrumental offering, the Mill’s traditional melding of potential movie themes with echoes of long-unheard folk songs conjures up an intoxicating (if occasionally, unsettling) mood that the song titles themselves only enhance.

A couple of tracks are familiar - albeit in alternate form, “Ocarina Procession” appeared on 2019’s Fields of Frost; “Blood and Bones” on 2010’s We Bring You a King with a Head of Gold compilation (well worth finding if you can). But even there, contexts dictates the mood of the piece, and Harrowed by the Stones, like Harvest the Ears, stands not as a gathering of offcuts and one-offs, but as a solid album… nay, achievement… in its own right.

Oh, and there’s a new RAM single, too, “A Picture of her Eyes.” More psychedelic than we normally expect from the Millers, and breathily vocal around the chiming instruments, it’s an absolute cracker.

6

Various

Soul Power ’68 (2 CDs)

(Doctor Bird)

Considering how thoroughly the Trojan Records catalog has been mined over the years, it seems astonishing that hitherto unknown discoveries can still be found - but here’s one. The original Soul 68 was a compilation of Duke Reid productions that never made it into production. But it should have.

A dozen tracks round up the usual Reid suspects - the Silvertones, the Melodians, the Conquerors et al. But, as is the norm with Dr Bird, it’s the bonus material that really catches the eye, rounding out disc one with nine further tracks, then stuffing disc two with twenty-one. Eighteen of the performances here have never seen CD before, three are wholly unreleased. And, in case you were wondering about the title, there’a a lot of soul on offer.

The Silvertones’ “In the Midnight Hour” and the Sensations’ “Baby Love” are the most obvious contenders. But reggae and R&B were never the strangest bedfellows, and with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics at the musical helm, any divisions are erased even further.

7

The Wall

A New Way to Peroxide (CD)

(Spectacle Music)

The Wall were one of the great unsung heroes of the UK punk movement, sadly overlooked throughout their lifetime but slowly gaining the respect they always deserved through the attentions of Spectacle Music, and late Wall frontman Ian Lowery’s brother David.

This set is one that, just a few short months ago, we thought might never come to fruition. Attempts to release a full survey of the Wall’s Small Wonder label catalog seemed destined to perish on the rocks of licensing difficulties. Indeed, in what felt at the time like an admission of defeat, Spectacle instead released an EP comprising only the demos that weren’t owned by third parties.

But progress was made, and now we have the album that was originally intended, a complete accounting of the Wall’s archive.

As with the EP (for those who missed it), the biggest draws will be the previously unreleased “Peroxide,” alongside three songs that the Wall recorded during sessions for their third single, shortly before Lowery’s departure.

That release (“Ghetto”/“Another Day”) went ahead, but only after Lowery’s original vocals had been wiped and replaced with the new frontman’s. These, however, are the original takes, with Lowery in full and fine form, and they’re joined by the original version of a third, similarly reworked, number, “One Born Every Day.”

New to this set, however, are both sides of the Wall’s first two singles, “New Ways” (c/w “Suckers” and “Uniform”) and “Exchange”/“Kiss the Mirror,” plus “Casual Labour,” a Wall live favourite that Lowery is caught rehearsing with his first post-split band. It’s a rough listen, but the energy and power that were hallmarks of the Wall in concert are alive and intact, and at last, the whole story can be heard in one place. It was worth waiting for.

8

Ashtoreth & Grey Malkin

Heretic (download)

(Bandcamp)

The third full-length collaboration between Hare and the Moon frontman Grey Malkin and Antwerp-based Ashtoreth, Heretic continues on along the same darkened corridors in which we encountered Pilgrim and Hermit. Of course it does. There’s still a long way to go before we reach the end of the passage.

Soundscapes that float between deeply foreboding and utterly scarifying offer up vague recollections of early(ish) Current 93, if Tibet had followed that direction even further. Whereas his efforts slipped most comfortably into an industrial setting, however, here the mood is wholly ruined castle or once-stately home, where the only company seems to be the whispers that punctuate your heartbeat, and the echoes that mock your footsteps. At least when the fractured choirs stop calling, and the monkish chants recede into the walls.

It’s great late night listening, and if you mess with your mp3 settings to merge the outro of the last track into the intro of the next, a solid wall of sound that will hold you rapt for fifty minutes. Precede it with the pair’s other albums, and the dark will never look the same again.

9

Be Bop Deluxe

Drastic Plastic (4CDs, 2 DVDs)

(Esoteric)

Bringing Esoteric’s career-spanning Be Bop Deluxe reissue campaign to a close (at least so far as the studio albums are concerned), and fittingly with the biggest box yet, Drastic Plastic was the band’s final album.

Released in 1978, Be Bop themselves were feeling a little past their sell-by date, and frontman Bill Nelson was clearly craving something new. But still itt was a shock to the systems of a legion of older fans.

Gone were the angular pop songs and deliberate melodies of old; gone, too, the sharp eye for those flashes of glam/prog that Be Bop would ultimately bequeath to a wealth of future followers (Television and third album Boomtown Rats paramount among them). Drastic Plastic landed in the heart of post-punk ’78 and sounded poster-punkier than any of the upstarts scrabbling around them. And just as influential.

Listen to “New Precision” and you can hear David Byrne taking notes. Follow the rhythms through “Superenigmatix” and any number of proto-funkers are learning the dances alongside you. And if the drums that open “Love in Flame” sounded any more hollow, you could stage a sweaty club gig inside them.

There are certainly touches of Eno’s rocky early moments at play here - if you’ve ever wished Before and After Science would introduce you to its favourite cousin, Drastic Plastic will take the bow. Across the original eleven tracks, of course, but also across the remainder of this thoroughly magnificent collection.

Bonus tracks proliferate. Non-album single sides, early versions and even earlier sessions, a disc of demos, some BBC tapes, a new stereo mix and a surround one too. And, finally, a bunch of video content that includes Bill Nelson home movies and a terrific BBC TV concert from the eve of the album’s release. You play through it and yes, you’re sad that Be Bop were over. But six discs make sure they take a long time going.

10

Buzzcocks

Late for the Train: Live and In Session 1989-2016 (6 CDs)

(Cherry Red)

Six discs, four of them unreleased. A companion to the Sell You Everything box full of regular studio albums that was our last trip down memory lane. And a reminder that bands may come and fads may go, but when Buzzcocks were at their very best, there were few groups who could touch them.

Picking the band up from just a short while after their 1989 reunion, the box opens with a stirring live Birmingham show that focuses wholly on the seventies back catalog. It’s effectively a greatest hits collection - fourteen of the eighteen tracks were either singles, b-sides or EP cuts, and the other four might as well have been.

How quickly they grew, though. Four years later (Worcester 1993), another live set serves up eleven new numbers and neither band nor audience’s energy flags no matter what they’re playing. The balance remains roughly the same across the rest of the set - Paris 1995, Finsbury Park 96, and the London Forum in 2006, and we finish with a discful of BBC sessions that is no less essential than its late 70s equivalent.

Some bands, reappearing years after their “prime” regard their back catalog as a burden of sorts. Buzzcocks saw theirs’ as a challenge, a bar over which they needed to leap with every new performance. And, most of the time, they succeeded. So it’s both fitting and ironic that the final song you’ll hear on the final disc is “Boredom,” dating back to their very first Spiral Scratch release. Fitting, because there’s a lovely circularity to it all. But ironic because boredom was something Buzzcocks never allowed.

11

Various

Shake the Foundations: Militant Funk & the Post-Punk Dancegloor 1978-1984 (3 CDs)

(Cherry Red)

Punk’s swift shift away from guitar riffs and into bass lines was not necessarily its most expected maneuver… trace, say, John Lydon’s leap rom “Pretty Vacant” to “Death Disco”; the Stranglers from “Go Buddy Go” to “Love 30,” Simple Minds from Johnny & the Self Abusers to “This Fear of Gods,” and the line of descent is so garbled it emerges as meaningless. It just happened, and this box set is the consequence.

In fairness, it’s not the perfect reflection of all that was going on at the time. No Public Image, no Gang of Four, and when you think of the subject matter, they’re among the first names to come to mind. But we do get A Certain Ratio, the Pop Group, 23 Skidoo and the Glaxo Babies, plus a host of acts that might not necessarily be immediately associated with the movement, but played their part in it anyway. Including Haircut 100, before they donned their favourite shirts.

The Passage, Medium Medium, Modern Romance, and the near X-rated savagery of Nightmares in Wax’s “Black Leather” all clog the dancefloors of your mind, and even those names that cause an eyebrow to raise - most notably, perhaps, poet John Cooper Clarke - work in the context of what’s around them.

Indeed, this is one of those boxes where it’s best to check all expectations at the door, and just let it play through. No sneaking a peek at the track listing, no thinking “hmm, that’s not what I expected from him.” You can do that later, when you need a rest. Which will be in precisely three CDs’ time.

12

Conflict

Statements of Intent 1982-87 (5 CDs)

Statements of Intent 19878-94 (5 CDs)

(Mortarhate)

Two clamshell boxes rounding up the complete recorded works of Conflict are also… of course… a celebration of that glorious musical seam that ran through the UK eighties underground, oddly positioned between Oi! and agit-punk, and as much at home in college gymnasiums as it was on the festival circuit.

Crass were the crowned princes of the movement, but Conflict ran them close and ultimately out-lasted them. Indeed, the first of the two boxes here, comprising their first five albums, pegs Conflict as a far more reliable outfit. No shooting off on jazz rock tangents for them; four studio sets plus the live Only Stupid Bastards Help EMI aren’t simply an object lesson in all that punk could have achieved if the pound signs hadn’t outweighed all other considerations, they also established Conflict among the most successful independent bands of the era - their debut It’s Time To See Who’s Who and 1987’s Turning Rebellion Into Money both topped the indy chart; Increase The Pressure and The Ungovernable Force reached #2. Bonus tracks add period singles and EPs.

The second box is a little patchier as Conflict neared their end, but still the highs effortlessly outnumber the lows, with the 1994 In the Venue giving us another chance to experience the might of Conflict in concert, and the three preceding studio albums all offering powerful remedies to whatever else was ailing the late 1980s/early 1990s music scene.

The tour de force, however, might well be disc five’s It’s Time to See Who’s Who Now, which rerecorded ten songs from Conflict’s earliest years. Drawn more or less equally from the debut album (whose title this set mirrored) and the accompanying singles, Conflict not only update the songs’ presentation, but taking a second look at lyrics, too… “what would we say if we were writing this song today?” It’s an intriguing premise, and the album closes the box set with chilling precision. 

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