The Stars We Are (2 CD)
Cherry Red/Strike Force Entertainment
Like David Bowie and maybe one or two others, it matters not how “huge” Marc Almond’s individual records are. In the eyes of his diehard fans, of whom there are many, he remains akin to an underground cult, beloved by a select few folk, and offered widespread approval only for the hits that he occasionally spills out.
The Stars We Are, from 1988, is a case in point. Buoyed by what would become a monster smash duet with Gene Pitney, “Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart,” and the UK Top 30 “Tears Run Rings,” The Stars We Are may not, ultimately, have become his biggest-selling album yet, but it was certainly his most visible. Particularly in the US where, more than thirty years on, it’s still the one that the dealer is most likely to produce when you ask if he has any Almond in stock.
It’s also the easiest Nico record to find. In what would become her last ever recording, she duets with Almond on “Your KIsses Burn.”
This two CD reappraisal of the album features the original LP, plus attendant b-sides across a sparkling-sounding disc one, including the original CD bonus track “Kept Boy” (another duet, this time with Agnes Bernelle), and the “hit” version of “Something…” - memorably, the original release featured Almond’s solo take on the song, before the hit necessitated a swift switcheroo.
That earlier (and, perhaps, purer) version now appears on the second disc, alongside ten remixes drawn from period 12-inch singles, and effectively offering up an alternate take on the entire album - all but two of the original vinyl’s ten tracks are present here, and include Justin Strauss’s invigorating take on “Tears Run Rings,” and the sensational “Blue Mosque Mix” of the closing “She Took My Soul in Istanbul.”
The case for a full, career spanning compilation of Almond’s other 12-inchers grows louder with every play. In the meantime, a third disc serves up a DVD of accompanying videos and is a lot of fun.
The Stars We Are is not Almond’s greatest album, but it would be hard to reach agreement on which one is. 1991’s Tenement Symphony, maybe? 1987’s Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters? 1996’s Fantastic Star? Last year’s Chaos and a Dancing Star? There’s a Marc for every mood out there, and you have to choose for yourself. In the meantime, any Almond reissue is a worthwhile enterprise and that brings us neatly to….
Cruelty Without Beauty (2 CD)
Reuniting in the early 2000s, Marc Almond and Dave Ball did not originally intend “reforming” Soft Cell. But the songs they found themselves writing, and the atmospheres that they built around them, made it clear that’s what they’d done. And, while what became the duo’s fourth album under the Soft Cell banner passed by more-or-less unnoticed… it didn’t even chart in their homeland… any fears that past glory was being prostituted for present gain were swiftly swept away.
The mini-hit cover of the Four Seasons’ “The Night” remains one of Soft Cell’s all-time most fabulous covers; the seething “Caligula Syndrome” one of their all-time darkest visions - and this from the band that brought us “L’Esqualita,” “The Art of Falling Apart” and “Martin.” “Monoculture,” “Darker Times,” “Sensation Nation” - drop the laser any place on the CD and Cruelty Without Beauty is contrarily cruelly beautiful. And a fitting finale (so far, anyway) to Soft Cell’s time together.
Only now it’s even better. Repackaged for a new age, two CDs are generously stuffed with new material - a clutch of songs on disc one that were recorded for the album but which never found their way onto it… much to Marc Almond’s subsequent chagrin, he admits in his liners. We are also offered the opportunity to experience much of the album once more, courtesy of seven freshly-made extended remixes. All of which defy the chill that normally attends such a designation, by proving extraordinarily listenable.
A handful of live tracks, mostly recorded around the same time as the album, round out the disc, and the overall impression is of a reunion that could easily have stretched to more than just the one album. But maybe one was enough. Soft Cell always left us wanting more.
Que Sera, Sera Resurrected (3 CD)
Truthfully, there’s only one Johnny Thunders album that everyone should hear, everyone should own, and that’s his immediately post-Heartbreakers So Alone debut. Subsequent offerings never even glanced toward those heights, rarely felt like more than a ragbag of odds and ends, thrown together as a brand new package, but rarely emerging as a “proper” album.
Thunders himself agreed, and 1985’s Que Sera, Sera saw him at least attempt to redress the balance. He almost succeeded, too. The album never hit the heights of its most illustrious predecessor, but at least it fell into a similar ballpark. And while sundry reissues, repackages and compilations have lessened the impact of the overall album, \returning to the original is a treat, nevertheless - and that leads us to this, a 3 CD deluxe edition that scatters remixes, b-sides and out-takes across a set that also features a full live disc, recorded in Geneva, Amsterdam and Lyon during 1984-1985, plus an entire new vision of Thunders’ original effort. And it is truly a beast of beauty.
Taking nine of the original album’s ten songs, then adding three period out-takes, Que Sera, Sera Revisited was first reprogrammed and then remixed (by ex-Vibrator Pat Collier), to form a cohesive whole that truly does match anything else in Thunders’ solo canon. Yes, even…. And that despite the mixes themselves remaining for the most part subtle - it’s just the feel of the album that shifts; its sense of purpose is honed and hardened, and the additional songs add genuine breadth (and breath) to the proceedings.
Of course, this is not the first Thunders album to have been “improved” by subsequent hands… the Heartbreakers’ LAMF long ago met a similar fate. Whereas that package simply offered an alternate vision of a flawed affair, however, without actually addressing the flaws, Que Sera, Sera Resurrected genuinely raises the bar. And when you fancy listening to the album in the future, this will be the version that you default to. No higher praise could be given.
Richard Hell & The Voidoids
Destiny Street Complete (2CDs)
It’s pure coincidence. But odd, anyway, that in the same month (or thereabouts) as one of Johnny Thunders’ eighties albums is re-presented in all its old and then brand-new glory, so his fellow founding Heartbreaker, Richard Hell, takes a similar approach to one of his.
Destiny Street was released in 1982, and anybody who’d been salivating furiously for Hell to follow up Blank Generation had probably already drowned in their own drool by the time it arrived. Five years had elapsed, with just a single (1979’s “The Kid with the Replaceable Head”) to break the silence. Well, that and the growing suspicion that if and when Hell did return to the fray, things would be very different.
Which they were.
Destiny Street was mostly enjoyable but still largely disappointing, with the reworked “Replaceable Head’ a stuttering misfire when compared to the original, and only a couple of tracks truly comparable to the highpoints of the original Voidoids.
Neither would Hell have disagreed with that, at least later on in life. “When I thought about [the album], I’d get a sinking feeling,” he writes in the liners, before explaining how, in the early 2000s, he discovered an old cassette tape featuring nothing more than the rhythm tracks of the original LP. Gathering together a new incarnation of the Voidoids (original guitarists Robert Quinn and Naux had both passed away), he rerecorded vocals, solos, lead guitars, and Destiny Street Repaired was the not at all deceptively titled result, released in 2009.
Still, however, Hell hankered for more, and the wholly unexpected discovery of the original master tapes (three of them, anyway; a fourth remains MIA) allowed him to remix seven of the original ten songs, throw on an unreleased extra, and then complete the LP with three songs from Repaired.
And that’s what we get here, all three versions of Destiny Street, spread across two CDs, with Hell’s own commentary stuffing the booklet, and - as if that’s not enough - a dozen further cuts that include the 1979 single, a heap of demos, and a final live track recorded at Robert Quine’s memorial service in 2004.
Now, we could complain and wish that the four separate sets had been spread across four separate discs. That the demos had preceded the original album on disc one. And that Hell might next turn his attention to 1992’s Dim Stars album, which deserves rediscovery as much as this disc.
For now, though, it’s just a joy to watch as an album that really didn’t live up to its billing in 1982 re-emerges thirty years on as the rightful successor to Blank Generation. And, like the Thunders album above, one which will supplant its predecessor the next time you’re feeling Hellish.
Iggy and the Stooges
From KO To Chaos: The Complete Iggy Pop & the Stooges Skydog Collection (8 CDs)
France’s Skydog label remains one of the most legendary and, in many ways, contentious enterprises in rock. Not quite dealing in bootlegs, but not exactly averse to being described as doing so, the label’s early years are littered with releases whose legal provenance has been questioned by sundry collectors, dealers and even participants. At the same time, however, where would history be without the pioneering steps taken by the Velvets’ Evil Mothers, the MC5’s “Borderline”… and the Stooges’ Metallic KO?
We’ve been here before, just last month, with Cherry Red’s repackaging of five shows from the Stooges’ final US tour in 1973-1974. You Think You’re Bad, Man? contains two of the shows included here (Michigan Palace October 1973 and again in February 1974). What we have here, though, aside from those original tapes, is the Metallic KO album itself, side one from the earlier gig, side two from the glass-shattering, flesh-rending, gut-clenching finale of the second.
First released in 1976, Metallic KO was the album that both solidified and, in many ways, enhanced everything you’d heard about the early Iggy’s penchant for onstage self-destruction. Three past Stooges studio albums were either long deleted or available only as pricey imports, and Metallic KO, too, was an import, but it was priced no higher than many domestic releases (mine cost £3.50 from a market stall on the King’s Road… no more than I’d paid for the latest David Bowie album). And, though the sound quality left an awful lot to be desired, you would not have wanted it any other way. The murk fit the menace that builds across side two, and finally flares into all out warfare as an obscenity-laden “Louie Louie” grinds and clatters to its close. Besides, breaking glass sounds better in mono
Arguably, Iggy has never made a more Iggy-like record than this. He probably wouldn’t want to, either.
Some twenty years elapsed before Skydog returned to the Iggy archive… there was an EP, again from the Detroit gigs, released in the late 1970s, but it was 1995 before We Are Not Talking About Commercial Shit appeared, at a time when Iggy’s own career had settled into a fairly humdrum routine of new albums and live shows, with the old sense of darkness and danger as smartly rehearsed as the songs that once epitomised it.
Commercial Shit, however, clawed back some of the old luster. It’s definitely patchy, thirteen songs (plus three newly installed bonus tracks) that journeyed from 1979-85, which itself was scarcely a Pop purple patch. But with a focus on odd cover versions and lost Iggy originals, the album serves up some riveting performances - the opening “Winter of my Discontent,” a ten minute “One for my Baby” and a compulsive medley of “No Man” and “Waiting for the Man” are all album highlights that translate into career highlights, while unexpected odds like “96 Tears,” “You Really Got Me”and even the Batman theme throw further jewels into the bag.
They also set the stage for another collection of odds and ends, Wake Up Suckers!, this time expanding its remit from 1972-1991, but largely suffering from familiarity… the earliest tracks (out-takes and Detroit tapes) were nothing really new, while live cuts of familiar songs from the 1980s (and one from 1991) scarcely set the soul afire. Which left two songs from the San Diego halt on 1977’s Lust for Life tour, to leave us begging for more from that source. Sadly, we didn’t get it.
What we do get is Acoustics KO, a DVD capturing a 1993 solo acoustic set that Iggy recorded for Spanish TV, plus a 1990 Paris gig; and Telluric Chaos, documenting the reformed Stooges 2004 Tokyo show. The first is surprisingly entertaining… the latter, surprisingly lackluster, with Iggy seemingly as concerned with discovering how many F bombs he can drop into a song intro as in remembering why the Stooges were worth reforming in the first place. The music’s great, of course, and band and singer are both in fine form. But if you slip from this show back to where we came in, you’ll definitely notice a difference. And it’s not for the better.
Halcyon Days: 60s Mod, R&B, Brit Soul & Freakbeat Nuggets (3 CDs)
The subtitle says it all - three discs of names that you may or may not be familiar with; that may or may not have been compiled elsewhere in the past; that may or may not demand repeated listens in their own right. But strung together in a clamshell box, thoughtfully annotated and sounding fantastic, Halcyon Days does indeed dip back into a picture of the past where everyone is watching Ready Steady Go, and then dressing up for a night at the Marquee and the Flamingo. Then home at dawn, a quick plate of breakfast, and it’s time for Saturday Club on the radio.
Yes, it’s roughly 1963-1967, from the peak of the beat boom and its bluesy underbelly, to the first lashings of the psych-still-to-come, and the line-up is staggering. All the expect old pros… Chris Farlowe, Zoot Money, Brian Auger, Geno Washington, the Artwoods. The period superstars - the Kinks, the Animals, the Pretty Things. The seventies icons in waiting… Rod Stewart and David Bowie. The ahead-of-their-timers, awaiting some future revival… The Creation, John’s Children, July, The Action, Fleur De Lys. And then, the names that are today familiar only from all those other boxes of sixties odds that have appeared - Truly Smith, the Bo Street Runners, Barry St John, David John & the Mood, the Trendbender Band.
And it’s great, a maddening whirl of ideas and ambitions, a reminder of the days when every new release could possibly be the greatest record you’d ever heard, and you envy those people who’ve been collecting these kinds of collections for ever, for the sprawling sixties jukebox they must now own. Just fill up the hard drive, hit random and play. The sixties may be sixty years ago. But boy, they knew how to make music.
Song of Seven (1 CD)
Of all the albums that have spun out of Yes across the decades, mothership and solo prolusions alike, it’s probably safe to say that very few possess the power to surprise any longer. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard them all so much - you don’t even have to like the band, and you certainly don’t need a musical bone in your body; you can probably still play “And You And I” and “Roundabout” on some kind of instrument, even if it’s just haircomb and tissue paper.
Jon Anderson’s first two solo sets are the exception to this dour rule. Standing proud of the pack, aloof and still alive, Olias of Sunhillow (1976) and Song of Seven (1980) sent him soaring high beyond anything the dayjob ever mustered… the old day job, in the latter case, as he’d recently left Yes for solo pastures, and was trying to wrap his head around the fact that his new label, Virgin, had decided he should become the new Phil Collins. When they disagreed, they dropped him.
Olias is due for reissue later this year, and it can’t come quickly enough. Song of Seven, on the other hand, is already here, niftily remastered and packaged, and it’s astonishing how fresh it still sounds… again considering what Yes were up to at the same time, and how ironically unDramatic that now feels. And, again, considering that four of the tracks, including the standouts “Some Are Born” and “Days,” were originally written for Tormato.
It’s a disc of two halves. Some elements (the title track in particular) do harken back to the swirling glories of Olias, while others feel as though Jon had at least considered Virgin Records’ Phil-shaped proposal. But only considered it. The Anderson voice necessarily elevates all that he does into a world of its own, but when his pen is the only one scratching out the songs, and his arrangements are the only ones in the room one cannot help but feel that, in some ways, Yes held him back… or at least stopped him moving forward.
He’d never admit it, I’m sure. But can you imagine how secretly disheartening it must be to write a song that you know is one of your finest, at the same time as having to smile as your bandmates add their own fiddly solos and amendments to the tune?
Song of Seven, like Olias, is Jon Anderson unleashed. And unbeatable, too.
Head Music 2 (3 LPs)
Fruits de Mer/Strange Fish
It’s nine years since Fruits de Mer… still a relative stripling in the world of record labels… released Head Music, a tribute to the Krautrock sounds that invigorated label head Keith Jones in his youth, and which ran, too, through the musical upbringing of much of the label’s roster.
Nine years, and Head Music remains one of the label’s finest releases. Which may or may not be why it was decided to make a second volume, seventeen tracks spread across three LPs, and while a lot of the names might be new to label collectors, the feel of the album remains the same; an affectionate nod, a cheeky wink, and a veritable A-Z (well, A-R) of genre giants revisited in delicious form.
Not every track is a cover - perhaps typically, the mighty Schizo Fun Addict pop up with a cut that is merely “inspired” by the Cosmic Jokers. But the inspiration is heady and so very well executed that, lurking between cuts covering Amon Düül II (by Das Blau Palais) and Michael Rother (The Legendary Flower Punk), it’s hard to spot the join.
Elsewhere, Brainticket (Rob Gould), Embryo (Revbjelde), Mythos and Faust (Das Blaue Palais again), Can (Jay Tausig and The Arthur Park), Edgar Froese (Black Tempest), Agitation Free (Tony Swettenham), Eloy (Vespero), more Amon Düül II (Cary Grace and Vespero once more) all grant name recognition to the album’s contents…if not necessarily the execution; while Kraftwerk throw three logs on the fire, Maat Lander’s delicious “Neon Lights” and Spurious Transient’s two-too brief-part ride down the Autobahn.
Musically, nobody steps too far out of character; you can’t pay genuine homage to someone else’s band if you’re too busy trying to sound like yourself. There are no false steps here, then; no error-strewn trials of patience. Just a solid two hours-plus of untrammeled imagination.
Krautrock, after all, was always more of a mood than a moment, which is how Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Can can all represent it on equal terms with Eloy, Faust and the original Amon Düül. It was the sound of a nation’s musicians reinventing what it meant to be musical, looking not back to what had been done before, but forward to what ought to be done in the future. And the fact that so much of the music… both in its original form, and across Head Music 2… still feels like ideas that are waiting to happen is evidence enough of their success.