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Reviews: '60s soul, '70s punk, '80s dance and 50 years of Tubular Bells

Box sets galore, with added Brian Blessed.

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary Celebration

Cleopatra

As 50th (although, right now, it’s still the 49th) anniversaries go, Tubular Bells is one of those albums that felt nailed on for some kind of grandiose extravaganza. Thus far, however, this album (plus the accompanying UK tour) appears to be the best we can hope for… meaning Mike Oldfield is either playing his cards very close to his chest; or, he’s saving his energies for something else.

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Either way, your opinion on this release is very much rooted in how deeply you respect and enjoy tribute acts. And how heavily you subscribe to the justification that, just as classical music continues to exist wholly through fresh interpretations of the original composer’s vision, so modern music should be permitted the same indulgence.

That’s a debate for another time. For now, it must be said that Royal Philharmonic at least have form - it was they who, in 1975, recorded the original Orchestral Tubular Bells; and, while both Oldfield and his occasional collaborator David Bedford are absent from this rendering, in terms of a listening experience, if you enjoyed the first one, you’ll (mostly) enjoy the new.

The arrangements are generally faithful, with occasional flourishes and flirtations to add an air of surprise to the set. Full marks, too, for the renditions of what are probably the best known parts of the album, the opening theme that paid dividends for The Exorcist, and the side two sequence that was given 45rpm single status back in 1973.

That said, however, there are several caveats, most prominent being the arrival of actor Brian Blessed for his trademark bellowing through the “master of ceremonies’ role so exquisitely played by Viv Stanshall on Oldfield’s original album. Like his spin through the “caveman” sequence on side two, it doesn’t work.

One can also wonder why the Orchestra felt the urge to follow the headline performance with excerpts from subsequent albums Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn and Crises (a very underwhelming “Moonlight Shadow”). It’s not their birthdays, after all.

At the end of the day, then, you get what you expect - a supremely confident rendering of one of the modern era’s most significant musical compositions. If, however, this is the extent of Tubular Bells’ golden jubilee celebrations, we are all entitled to feel just a little hard done by.

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Various artists

1980 - Brand New Rage

Captain Oi!

Like a funhouse mirror held up to the long running Now That’s What I Call Music series, the Cherry Red family’s ongoing series of punk-and-thereafter anthologies represents the single most concerted effort yet to fully depict the birth, growth, development and, ultimately, the fate of the UK punk explosion.

It’s astonishing, when you think about it, just how briefly it flourished… a couple of singles in 1976, a flood in ’77, and already the initial rage and energy were being reshaped. By 1979, the punks of yore had shot off in a hundred different directions, be it funk, dub, electro, dance, pop - you name it. And deep in the grassroots undergrowth, a host of new bands was stirring and demanding to know “why?”

Punk’s second summer is largely regarded today as the age of Oi!, which in turn translates into a skinhead-led outpouring of colloquial accents, Cockney inflections, working class worries and, cementing the cliché into place, an outpouring of right wing violence and antagonism.

All of which is true… in places. But never to the extent that history insists, and never to the exclusion of the music’s other energies, as the three CDs in this package reveal.

No less than 75 tracks take us from the pre-Ant Music Adam to the oft-overlooked The Wall; from the pleasantly-named Auntie Pus to the near-novelty Splodgenessabounds; from the Disco Zombies to “Disco in Mosco.” We do get our fair share of Oi! Bands, as the Angelic Upstarts, Discharge, the Cockney Rejects and the Exploited slam into view, and the staying power of punk’s first wave is reflected in great cuts from the Boys, the UK Subs, the Stranglers, and the Vibrators.

Stiff Little Fingers’ “Nobody’s Hero,” Anti Pasti’s “No Government,” the Upstarts’ “Last Night Another Soldier,” Bad Week’s “City Life”…. Stylistically, it’s a solid roar. Little attention is paid to the more-or-less simultaneous Mod revival, the 2-Tone boom and the electro scene, for example. But it doesn’t need to be - the focus here is on the punks and their pals, whether they are regrouping after death (the Ruts) or dissolution (the Damned); rising up or falling down, or simply chugging around pub and club circuit, always the support act, never the bill topper. And it’s terrific, beautifully loud and delightfully disrespectful.

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Various artists

Kids On The Street: UK Power Pop and New Wave 1977-81

Cherry Red

But if all of that is a little too rough for you, here’s the friendly face of the post punk diaspora. In terms of the late seventies UK, “Power pop” itself was never much more than a media invention in search of some bands, but the handful who did heed its clarion call can certainly be ranked among the most gleefully fun on the circuit

The Pleasers, the Flys, the Boys, the Jags, the Vapors, the Motors and the Records, all had their moments in the sun, and while Kids On The Street eschews their biggest hits, their contributions here are never less than worthy.

From that simple base, things fly in all manner of directions, 77 tracks spread over three discs rounding up giants, gems and jackasses with sharp-eyed aplomb.

In terms of name recognition, the likes of Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen,” Wah! Heat’s “Don’t Step On The Cracks,” XTC’s “Towers of London” and the Vibrators’ “Baby Baby” highlight their respective discs, but lasting fame and Top 20 hits tell only a fraction of the story here.

This was an age, after all, where the suicide of a beautiful socialite (the Boomtown Rats’ “Diamond Smiles”), the downfall of western civilisation (the Ruts’ “Babylon’s Burning”) and a love song to having electrodes stuck to your skull (Radio Stars’ “Nervous Wreck”) could all become major chart hits.

Where old punks, new mods and dour Liverpudlian art students met on a level playing field. And where independent labels had as much of a grip on the Top 40 as the doughtiest old major.

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Various artists

Ain’t Nothing But a House Party - 60s and Early 70s Club Soul Classics

Strawberry

It would have been very easy for the compilers to stick a “northern soul” tag on this box set - inaccurately, it is true, but no more so than a vast proportion of the other collections that bear that badge.

In opening itself up to a wider interpretation of the UK club scene of the age, however, …House Party… stands instead as a reminder of just how prevalent soul music was on the circuit of the pre-disco day; and serves, too, as a follow-through of sorts to the same label’s earlier digest of homemade sixties soul, Gotta Get a Good Thing Going.

Several names are repeated from that earlier set, although the focus now is on the songs, as opposed to the singers, with only the ordering of the discs reflecting geographical concerns - the first two concentrate on American releases, the third on homegrown material, but if you put all 89 tracks on shuffle, you’d be hard-pressed to detect any difference.

Some huge names file through. A healthy helping of Motown acts includes the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Edwin Starr and Junior Walker; Stax is represented by Rufus Thomas, Booker T, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. We hear the early stirrings of the Philly soul explosion, and some choice cuts from the Invictus catalog.

The emphasis, however, is on the records that got people dancing, as opposed to spending their money. A few big hits do pop up (“Band of Gold,” “There’s a Ghost in my House,” “Love on a Mountain Top”), but they are very much in the minority. For every “Move On Up” (Curtis Mayfield), there’s a dozen “Witchcraft In The Air” (Betty Lavette) and Darrow Fletcher (“The Pain Gets a Little Deeper”), and a lot that you won’t instinctively remember the moment you see their title.

Hearing them, on the other hand, is a reminder of just how vast and varied what we used to called “soul music” could be, and the days when a night out clubbing was as vital a part of one’s musical education as any music paper or radio DJ.

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Various artists

FAC 51 the Hacienda - 1982

Cherry Red

The Hacienda was the Manchester nightclub launched by Factory Records in May, 1982, a key player not only in the electro years of the early eighties, but also within the Madchester scene that closed the decade. But, whereas mention of it today tends to bring back memories of the local bands that were launched from there, the club’s DJs were also instrumental in launching a host of other careers, too, via playlists that cared for nothing more than what New Order’s Peter Hook, penning the booklet’s intro, describes as “a state of mind.”

Hook, in fact, was heavily involved in compiling the set, alongside the Hacienda’s first ever DJ, Hewan Clarke, and while he regrets his erstwhile bandmates’ refusal to allow their own “Everything’s Gone Green” to be included here, it is otherwise hard to fault the four discs within.

Across sixty-four tracks, of course, it would be impossible to cram in every significant record that filled the Hacienda dancefloor that year - a point brought home in the booklet, where Clarke’s own top tens for the year point out a few of the biggest omissions - Wham!’s “(Young Guns) Go For It,” Grace Jones’s “Nipple to the Bottle,” the B52s’ “Rock Lobster.”

But Culture Club’s “I’m Afraid of Me,” Shalamar’s “A Night To Remember,” Haysi Fantayzee’s “John Wayne is Big Leggy” and the Psychedelic Furs’ “Mack the Knife,” are all here, and very often in their extended 12-inch form, much to the benefit of Hey Elastica’s “Eat Your Heart Out,” the Banshees’ “Slowdive,” and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache.”

There is no single genre on display here, and no sense of time, either, allowing the discs (like the DJ) to slide from newies to oldies, from Blancmange to the Temptations, from ABC to Kurtis Blow, from the Valentine Brothers to Grandmaster Flash.

Thrilling, too, is the knowledge that great swathes of the package have not been collected to death in the past, especially when you get into the 12-inch mixes, and it was they that were the lifeblood of the clubs of the time; they, when you hear them for the first time in however many years, that remind you why you liked this or that particular record in the first place. That moment in the extended version of Soft Cell’s “Torch,” when the song’s protagonist falls into starstruck conversation with the object of his affections, remains priceless. And this entire package follows suit.

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Various artists

Music for New Romantics

Cherry Red

And if 4 CDs dedicated to the Hacienda (above) aren’t enough, here’s a further three that fill in a few more of the gaps, while covering the kind of music being pounded out of other UK clubs at the same time. No duplication, but one notable gap is filled… “Everything’s Gone Green” is here! Alongside more or less a decade’s worth of music that soundtracked the blitz of New Romantic dancehalls that pocked the city streets.

It’s a wild assortment. The first disc is largely focussed on the kind of music that was big at the dawn of the New Romantic era… glam rock themed Bowie Nights were a popular attraction, so Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, Wayne County, Iggy Pop and Mick Ronson headline a selection that also reaches out to Nina Hagen, Grace Jones, Roxy Music and the Sweet.

From there, we slide into the first year or so of the synthiboom… Tubeway Army, early Human League, OMD, Thomas Dolby, Visage and Spandau, but again with plenty of detours - Siouxsie & the Banshees, Magazine and Nightmares in Wax, the proto-Dead or Alive combo whose one and only single, “Black Leather,” has to be heard to be believed.

The final disc then stretches into purposeful dance music, from Sister Sledge to ABC, Coati Mundi to Lipps Inc, but never loses sight of the overall thrust of the box.

Radio hits rub shoulders with dancefloor fillers; silly novelties with po-faced seriousness. How great to hear the RAH Band’s “Crunch” again, in the context of a sweaty basement in the darkest corner of north London. The Flying Lizards’ Money” moving into Telex’s “Moskow Diskow”… and for that to shift into Throbbing Gristle’s “Hot On The Heels of Love”!

We recall how close to fostering a funk revival Spandau Ballet used to be; how the Cure might have fared had they not been labelled Goth; and how far-sighted Marianne Faithfull was. “Broken English,” opening the third disc, predicts almost everything that was still to come.

More than anything else, though, Music for New Romantics completely blows the lid off the legend that synthipop was weak and feeble, just an out-of-tune voice warbling over a succession of bleeps and burbles. In its own way, it was as subversive as punk.