Spin Cycle reviews: Hawkwind, Def Leppard, Neil Innes, Monochrome Set, Luke Haines and Peter Buck

Dave Thompson reviews new releases from Hawkwind, Luke Haines, Neil Innes, Def Leppard, Monochrome Set
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by Dave Thompson

1

Hawkwind
Roadhawks
(Atomhenge)

Considering how many Hawkwind compilations are out there, it’s odd that any single one should be held in the highest esteem by the faithful. Surely, there are sufficient versions of … well, everything… out there that it makes no difference which particular gathering you grasp. You’re always going to get “Silver Machine,” “Hurry On Sundown,” “You Shouldn’t Do That.” Who needs one more?

All of that is true, but still Roadhawks stands aloft from the crowd. For, not only was it compiled by Dave Brock… and that’s something that very few comps can claim… it was also put together with such an eye for detail and continuity that it is, in the world of “best of” collections, more or less as good as they get.

Released in 1975 at the end of Hawkwind’s time with United Artists, Roadhawks offers up eight tracks drawn from across the band’s career-so-far, and rounding up what were then two non-LP singles (“Urban Guerrilla” and, incredibly, the hit “Silver Machine”), an unreleased live track, the Space Ritual encore “You Shouldn’t Do That”), two reminders of their very first album and three more that travel through the last few releases.

Add one fabulous crossfade, and the positively genius juxtaposition of “Wind of Change” and “Golden Void,” and Roadhawks emerges the most cohesive statement of Hawkwind’s mission purpose as any of their regular LPs, and more so than many.

Astonishingly, this is Roadhawks’ first ever appearance on compact disc (to go along with the 180g vinyl edition), but the inclusion of a replica of the original album’s poster testifies to the package’s authenticity, just as the music confirms Hawkwind’s brilliance.

Reissued compilation of the year.

2

Def Leppard
The Early Years
(Universal)

Early, yes, but is it early enough? Early enough, for example, to remember when Def Leppard weren’t the biggest, brashest, brightest star to explode out of the heavy metal firmament; just a bunch of kids from Sheffield, plowing the London club circuit and reminding us that they’d have a record for sale the next time they were in town. Their drummer was 15 years old.

That was the sensibly titled Def Leppard EP, three slabs of bludgeoning riffola that looked out at the rest of the then-burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal crew and wondered if it even wanted to be associated with them. You can draw your own opinions about what it ultimately decided. But arguably, Def Leppard never sounded so vital as they did right then.

Do good quality recordings exist of those club and pub-era Leppard shows? Probably not, because you’d expect to find them here if they did. Early demos have been left to one side, too, and that’s a shame. Def Leppard may have become tighter, tauter, leaner and meaner as the years went by, but that early juvenile enthusiasm and energy more than made up for their absence.

You can hear it on the EP, and you can hear it on their first BBC radio sessions, for Andy Peebles in June 1979. Unschooled, unkempt, un-affected by the wash of interest that was beginning to rise up around then, Leppard swagger like a crowd of glam-slammeed Crash Street kids, high on cheap cider and old glitter discotheques. Imagine a punk rock Thin Lizzy tribute. That was the early Def Leppard. They were magnificent. Afterwards, they were simply great, and the afterwards is what this box concentrates upon.

The EP and the Peebles session are as far back as the contents go. By the time we rejoin them for another BBC session later in the year, the group was already poised to blast off… a major label deal was looming, the first album would be out after Christmas, high profile outings and theater tours awaited, and from there… arenas, America, the world. A different world which begat a different band.

Still The Early Years is more than worth your time, and it’s worth the five discs upon which it is pressed. The band’s first two albums are here in their remastered entirety, together with a terrific sounding Oxford New Theater show from April 1980, the aforementioned BBC sessions, a clutch of tracks from the 1980 Reading Festival, and a full disc of singles, sessions (a couple of unreleased) and remixes.

It’s an instant record collection for anyone who didn’t buy everything at the time, or who has simply burned through every other copy they owned, and beautiful packaging adds to the fun. Yeah, it could have been bigger and it should have been better, but the earlier stuff is out on the internet, and maybe that’s where it should remain. The Early Years, however, belongs in every home.

3

Neil Innes
How Sweet to be an Idiot (Expanded Edition)
(Grapefruit)

It doesn’t seem so long ago that we lost Neil Innes, so the arrival of this glorious reissue feels perfectly, if tragically, well-timed. Released in 1973, How Sweet to be An Idiot was Innes’s first solo album, and it captures him striving to shake off his reputation for comedy (or, at least, light-hearted) songs, in favor of a more serious approach. Serious, of course, being in the eye of the beholder.

The title track, after all, was a highlight of his live appearances with Monty Python, and is preserved with loving care and a laughing audience on their Live at Drury Lane LP. And, at first, you miss the audience response as the album’s gently orchestrated, softly rocking rendition rolls out. But is there any finer denoument in rock than Innes’ bellowed “[you’ve got] as much imagination as a caravan site”? And any sweeter response than the next line… “but I still love you”?

So a highlight, but not the album’s sole joy. Across its 11 tracks, and 10 bonus tracks too, Innes writes and sings the kind of pop songs that you know instinctively are too perfect to be hits, at the same time as you wonder how they weren’t? Even “Idiot” flopped as a 45, and that despite this particular version recreating the solo, piano-powered Python appearance; while there was no love either for “Momma B”; for “Recycled Vinyl Blues”’ commentary on the effects that the oil crisis had on the music industry; and, most compulsive of all, “What Noise Annoys a Noisy Oyster?” (A noisy noise, in case you were wondering.)

All of which remind us that, beyond the Bonzos, beyond Grimms and the Rutles, beyond any of his other, multitudinous associations, Innes was first and foremost a genius songwriter, and one whose catalog is in desperate need of a thorough re-evaluation. How Sweet to be An Idiot is a good place to start; let’s hope there’s more on the way.

5

The Monochrome Set
Little Noises 1990-1995
(Cherry Red)

Although history best remembers the Monochrome Set for the handful of years during which they originally flourished, late seventies through the early eighties, we should never forget that they reformed in 1990 and, arguably became bigger than they ever had been in the past. At least in Japan.

It was a Japanese label that convinced them to reform, and the Japanese people who established their first new album, Dante’s Casino, as one of the highest selling foreign records on the domestic chart that year. For a few weeks, in fact, it was the highest, and over the next five years, the Set released four more albums, all of which are rounded up here.

So that’s Jack (1991), Charade (1993), Misére (1994) and Trinity Road (1995), enjoyably poppy and embroidered with all the individualism that has forever hallmarked the band’s output. And while they’re maybe not lodged as deeply ion your memory as their eighties elders, still the later Set’s grasp of melody, melancholy and occasional patches of madness should always be in reach. Lovely packaging, too.

4

Luke Haines And Peter Buck
Beat Poet Survivalists
(Omnivore)

First, don’t allow the billing to mislead you. That is Peter Buck layering guitars and e-bow in the band, but Luke Haines is Luke Haines and that means, tightly surreal imagery and lyricism, wrestling playfully with ideas and themes that should never work in even an avant-rock setting… but they do.

It’s a world where seventies glam and cold war paranoia rub shoulders with New York sleaze. Where numbers stations proliferate on forgotten shortwave radio waves; and while Haines may not be the only person in the world who would rhyme “Donovan Leitch” with “apocalypse beach,” the idea that one is a radio station that only plays the other could have come from no-one else.

Musically, Beat Poet Survivalists is neither a progression nor a regression from the last half dozen Haines albums and/or projects. Even with Buck an equal partner in the writing stakes (especially noticeable as “Witch Tariff” opens up), Haines is who he is and he does what he does.

Which, in turn, means every new release is simply another excuse for us to immerse ourselves in the weird stew of left-field weirdness and doomwatch warning that he half-sings, half whispers out of musical moods that feel as unfettered as his lyricism. Again, lots of people may have written an unwritten Troggs song, but only Haines could have conjured “Ugly Dude Blues,” and when you listen to the lyrics, you know why.

We leave the album with the “Rock’n’Roll Ambulance,” a bitter-sweet all aboard for ageing rockers, and not one to play if you intend contemplating mortality any time soon. But “French Man Glam Gang” may be the highlight here. It’s “a novel that should never be written,” says the liner notes, and you can hear the ghosts of Haines’ Baader Meinhof project leaking through the keyboards. Yet the stomp feels like something that Iggy might have glimpsed around the time of recording The Idiot, but then abandoned to marinate for another 40 years. Play it loud.

***