Prince: Chaos and Disorder (1996)

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - chaos and disorder

In amongst everything being written about Prince (my thoughts here), this album hasn’t had much of a mention – even this review was largely written up before the news of his death.  A pity, as Chaos and Disorder really is an unjustly overlooked gem which is well worth searching out, particularly if you’re a fan of his rockier tendencies.

Part of the career-damaging run of contractual obligation releases towards the end of his symbol/AFKAP phase, Chaos and Disorder was not a success.  It spawned only one minor hit single and barely troubled the album chart here in the UK.  However, of all those releases, from 1993’s Come to 1999’s The Vault: Old Old Friends For Sale, this is by far the most interesting.

Opening the album, the title track is in-your-face heavy funk rock at its best, the arrangement having started life as the end-jam from early live versions of Peach.  Lyrically though, it’s a social commentary-led close cousin to the likes of Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy‘s Dance On.

Prince as guitarist is to the fore throughout – Zanalee is straight-up blues rock while The Same December and Into the Light are spiritual psych-pop numbers which would not sound out of place on Around the World in a DayDinner With Delores, the aforementioned hit, is more of the same, a great wee track cut from the same cloth as Starfish and Coffee.

Of the eleven tracks only the more overtly commercial, poppier funk number I Rock Therefore I Am and the bizarrely cod-country tinged Right the Wrong don’t quite cut it but there’s still enough outrageous instrumentalism going on to keep things interesting.  The closing track Had U (a slight song, built on a Mellotron-like guitar and vocal), is ostensibly a relationship number but we know it’s really about Warners, with the last words on Prince’s final album under his original contract for the label being “fuck you – had you”.

PCADA

1996 tape in good order, £8 online (late 2015).  Unavailable in any format for a while but look out for that cynical reissue programme anytime now …

 

 

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ZZ Top: Fandango! (1975)

Following 1973’s Tres Hombres and released in 1975, Fandango! was ZZ Top’s fourth album. Again produced by Bill Hamm, here the 34 minute running time is divided between a live side and a studio side.   The studio cuts are a match for Tres Hombres in quality but the live element stops it quite equalling its predecessor’s status as a classic.

The three live tracks that make up the first side are good, rough and raw.  Kicking off with Texas Blues perennial Thunderbird (curiously credited to ZZ Top though it’s a Nightcaps cover) and Jailhouse Rock, it’s a covers-heavy set with the only originals a retread of Rio Grande Mud‘s Backdoor Love Affair and a new song Back Door Love Affair No. 2, both here in a medley with Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy and John Lee Hooker’s Long Distance Boogie.  These are enjoyable enough, hard rocking numbers but it’s all fairly heavy-handed, particularly in Backdoor Medley, and the overall effect is one of “you had to be there”.

The six track studio side, however, is a thing of wonder – it’s no mystery that half of the cuts here made it to 1977’s The Best Of ZZ Top. The side kicks off with the brilliantly titled Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings which is a perfect piece of ’70s rock.  Then there’s Blue Jean Blues.  One of the great electric blues ballads, its melancholy air serving as a backdrop for one of the finest blues leads you’ll hear.

Balinese offers up a slice of straightforward Southern rock before the loose-limbed Mexican Blackbird, with its killer slide and affectionately unromantic lyric  (“If you’re down in Acuna and you ain’t up to being alone/Don’t spend all your money on just any honey that’s grown/Go find the Mexican Blackbird and send all your troubles back home”).

Heard It On The X is a propulsive paean to the Mexican radio stations of the ’60s, all of which were known by call signs beginning with an X.  Tush is one of those songs that always seems to have been there (it was probably the Girlschool version I knew first). A stone cold classic.

The part live/part studio format isn’t one that’s easy to get right. ZZ Top tried it again in 1999 with the underrated XXX.  Cream did it in the ’60s with Wheels of Fire, though that was a double with one disc studio and one live; in the ’90s, both Sabbath and the Stones garnished live albums with a couple of studio cuts (Reunion and Flashpoint respectively) but the only other “half-and-half” release which really got it right, that I can think of, is Loudon Wainwright III’s Unrequited (released, like Fandango!, in 1975.  Maybe it was a thing).   The two types of performance and recording often don’t really gel and that’s the issue with Fandango!  The studio side is so damn good you can’t help but want more.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - ZZ Top: Fandango!

Original Warners paper labels issue, about £4 online.

Motörhead: No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (1981)

I’ve deliberately avoided writing an obituary-style piece on Lemmy.  There are many of those out there, better and more insightful than anything I might have contributed.  Suffice to say I am a huge fan of Motörhead.  As a musician, they’ve long been a massive influence (I’ll Be Your Sister was a regular part of my solo blues set for a fair few years and the Dog Moon Howl track Punching Walls was intended as a cheeky wee Motörhead nod).  I was looking forward immensely to seeing them in Glasgow this month.  Sadly it wasn’t to be.  Lemmy’s death took the wind out of my sails somewhat, half expected and yet utterly inconceivable – the unstoppable force that stopped.

I’ve been trawling through the albums and various live videos and the likes and in the end the best way I could think of to remember Lemmy was to listen to No Sleep ’til Hammersmith with a Jack Daniel’s or two.  So I did …

Jesus, what a band Motörhead were.  Proof?  Not only did they have Ace of Spades in their arsenal but they could open with it – a great version at that – and not have the gig go downhill from there.  The many highlights here include: Stay Clean, with its awesome bass solo, those great slightly-psych leads from Eddie Clark on Iron Horse and then there’s No Class with its riff lifted from ZZ Top’s Tush, improving on perfection.  Overkill, the template for the entire thrash scene and still the best.  Furious.  Phil Taylor’s drumming.  Oof.  On We Are the Road Crew, Lemmy’s lyrical skills and knack for looking at things from an unexpected perspective bring us a “rock’n’roll excess” song but from a roadie’s vantage point (“Another bloody customs post/Another fucking foreign coast/Another set of scars to boast/We are the road crew”).  Capricorn is a heavy slab of moody psych-rock.  A real favourite of mine, betraying Lemmy’s Hawkwind roots (and, as per his introduction, his idea of a “slow one”!).  His war/militaria obsession comes to the fore in Bomber, as classic as it gets with this version giving the original studio cut a run for its money. Motörhead, the song, finishes things on a high.

No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is one of a clutch of live albums from the ’70s and early ’80s which were arguably their respective artists’ definitive statements.  Certainly, it stands with Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous and UFO’s Strangers in the Night among the greatest of live rock recordings.  It might be perfect.

I always knew – the only way
Is never live – beyond today
They proved me right – they proved me wrong
But they could never last this long
My life – my heart 
Black night – dark star
Capricorn

Tapes For My Walkman - No Sleep 'til Hammersmith

The original Bronze tape refused to play so a Castle reissue made do.

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres (1973)

By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts,  ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more.  Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough.  With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.

Classic cuts abound:  Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since.  Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets.  La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.

That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).

There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat.  Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from?  Goin’ up or gettin’ down?”  Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).

Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist.  Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still).  However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres.  One of the Great Albums.

ZZ Top Tres Hombres

Original Warner’s tape, paper labels and all that, decent playback, about four quid online.

 

Waylon Jennings: Leavin’ Town (1966)

Leavin’ Town was Waylon Jenning’s third full-length album release, his second for RCA with production by Chet Atkins. Though worth a listen, the album is most notable, as with much of Waylon’s early RCA output, as a prime example of what he would soon be railing against as he went on to spearhead the Outlaw movement.  Here, much of the vibe is conventional, Waylon’s non-mainstream sensibilities just about making themselves felt in the choice of some of the material.

The title track, a Bobby Bare composition, is an enjoyable piece of light country pop given teeth by some stinging lead guitar, likely from Jerry Reed (Atkins’ go-to studio player at the time, present on many of Jennings’ RCA sessions of the mid-’60s). If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go is a standout due to Reed’s unmistakable guitar arrangement, here on Dobro rather than his signature nylon strung instrument.

Next up is a Harlan Hubbard song, with a title losing enough in translation to tickle the funny bones of any British schoolboy.  It’s called Time to Bum Again.  Alright.  Settle down.  Once the culture shock passes it’s a nice enough number with the Dobro to the fore.  There’s more Hubbard balladry later on this side; clearly Waylon was a fan, as the following year he recorded a whole album of Hubbard’s songs (Ol’ Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan).

The rest of the side is ballad heavy, mostly typical of Nashville’s Countrypolitan sound if a touch more “down home”.  In amongst that there’s the odd welcome Tex-Mex touch, and Time Will Tell the Story, the first Jennings original of the album (his only sole writing credit here).

Side Two shows clear signs of Waylon’s genre-stretching approach with its folkier/rootsier vibe informed in part by the use of writers from a distinctly non-Nashville background, Rod McKuen and Gordon Lightfoot. Kicking the side off, though, is a Mel Tillis number, You’re Gonna Wonder About Me.  It’s good but seriously hampered by overdone “heavenly Chorus” backing vocals.

For Lovin’ Me, the Lightfoot composition, sounds like “proper” Waylon, steeped in his rock and roll origins.  It’s a great track, easily the best on offer here.  However the McKuen song, Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name, is a real relic of its time, suffering from cloying lyrics and more of those overwrought backing vocals.

Anita, You’re Dreaming is a co-write between Waylon and Don Bowman which fits firmly with Waylon’s later ballad style, bringing to mind the likes of This Time.  Falling For You is another Tex-Mex flavoured number surprisingly written by legendary steel player Ralph Mooney who would go on to be a fixture in Waylon’s touring and recording band.  The album finishes with another Jennings/Bowman cowrite in that same ballad style, I Wonder Just Where I Went Wrong, with its brief Doors-like organ break keeping things interesting.

Leavin’ Town is a pleasant enough 29 minutes with a few standout moments. If you’re hoping for Outlaw-style material though, you’d be best to look elsewhere.  As for early Waylon, there are many reissues and compilations drawing on his first, independent and somewhat more rock’n’roll release, JD’s, which are more than worth your time.

Tapes For My Walkman - Waylon Jennings - Leavin' Town

The tape, an ’80s budget reissue in excellent order, was bought for about a quid online.

AC/DC: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)

I’m pretty certain that every vinyl collection, no matter how modest, contains at least one copy of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I know mine does – at least I know now, after noticing it last night. Unnecessary cassette purchase number 33 and-a-third, then. Oh well; as good an excuse as any to revisit a classic.  The tape is another with a rejigged running order and it seems odd on first listen that it doesn’t kick off with the mighty Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap itself (instead it’s the big finish). However, there are various versions of the album with differing tracks on other formats anyway, so it’s pointless being precious about the sequencing. Clearly the band wasn’t. Regardless, it all adds up to nine tracks with exactly the right kind of no-nonsense production.

AC/DC, during the Bon Scott years, was the perfect rock band. Pure rock and roll, unadulterated and uncompromising. The rhythm section was gnat’s-chuff tight and, in Angus Young, they had one of the great firebrands of lead guitar. As if that wasn’t enough, the lyrics, delivered in Scott’s demented schoolboy snarl, were often several cuts above average. The Chuck Berry archetype of storytelling on a girls-and-cars template viewed through a dissipated alcohol-fuelled haze.

Most of the songs here are classics in their own right. Squealer is gleefully mean-spirited, Ain’t No Fun Hangin’ Round to be a Millionaire lives up to the promise of its title, Rocker is a manic 12-bar gem and Problem Child is what I believe the young people nowadays would call “awesome”. The closest thing the album has to filler is There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin’, and I could handle a whole album of that. The only sour note struck is on Love at First Feel, its amorality writ large. Another great song title to be sure, but nearly forty years on in a post Operation Yewtree world, it’s hard not to wince at lines like “I didn’t know if you were legal tender but I spent you just the same”.

There are a couple of atypical standouts. Mellow blues Ride On is a surprisingly melancholy exercise in self-reflection (“Got another empty bottle/ And another empty bed/ Ain’t too young to admit it and I’m not too old to lie/ I’m just another empty head”). In contrast, wilful puerility and double entendres are the order of the day for Big Balls: “Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress/ But when they’re held for pleasure they’re the balls that I like best/ My balls are always bouncing to the left and to the right/ It’s my belief that my big balls should be held every night”. The fact that Frankie Howerd never covered that one still rankles with me. Life is often unjust.

Tapes For My Walkman Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap AC/DC

So. Classic album. Original tape, paper labels and all that, plays perfectly. £2 off the internet. Can’t complain.

Queen: Queen II (1974)

Queen II is the closest Queen ever got to a concept album (with the possible exception of Made in Heaven), thematically split into Side White and Side Black – the former written largely by Brian May, the latter entirely by Freddie Mercury.  Co-produced by the band with Roy Thomas Baker and Robin G. Cable, here prog, metal, psychedelia and pop combine with lyrics rooted in fantasy to create an overall dark, gothic atmosphere.

The funereal instrumental Procession is an early example of May’s signature guitar orchestrations which sets up the first of two epics on this album, the dramatic Father to Son. With late-’60s The Who serving as an influence, an opaque lyric and layered guitars-and-vocals populate a multifaceted structure before fading through to White Queen (As It Began).  A gorgeous prog ballad, White Queen‘s fantasy imagery is lent weight by the melancholy-to-bombast spread of its instrumental arrangement.  Some Day One Day is one of a handful of great psych-pop numbers written and often, as here, sung by May during Queen’s ’70s heyday.

The side ends with the rude awakening of Roger Taylor’s percussive rocker, Loser In the End.  Apparently not buying into the fantasy themes cooked up by Mercury and May for the album, Taylor (billed here for the last time as Roger Meadows-Taylor) instead offers an acerbic take on cutting the apron strings, arrived at via a memorable drum intro and some caustic soloing from May.  Significantly, Taylor’s lead vocal serves to remind that there was more than one great singer in the band.

Side Black, Mercury’s brainchild, is full of lyrical invention and musical audaciousness.  Kicking off backwards, Ogre Battle is brutal, Queen at their heaviest, the whole band in full flight with May’s guitars commanding the most attention.  This glorious racket is still fading out when some spirited harpsichord playing heralds The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.  Mercury’s musical take on the painting by Richard Dadd turns what is essentially a detailed description of that painting’s narrative into some entertainingly florid wordplay (“Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown/And a satyr peers under lady’s gown/Dirty fellow … Tatterdemalion and a junketer/There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter/He’s my hero”). All this against a baroque mix of multi-tracked vocals, pianos, guitars, John Deacon’s impressively intricate and melodic bass playing and even Baker on castanets.

The brief piano/vocal interlude Nevermore hardly prepares us for The March of the Black Queen, the antithesis of May’s White Queen.  Long, ambitious, complex and batshit crazy, there is so much going on in there – including, I swear, bell ringing – it beggars belief.  At one point the song builds to an ear-crushing crescendo with multi-overdubbed everything before stopping in its tracks to make way for a solo Mercury vocal taking on the subjects of angels, love and joy, though lyrically it’s otherwise a character study of an evil fairy queen.  Or something.  We’ve got “Water babies singing in a lily-pool delight/Blue powder monkeys praying in the dead of night” while people are put in a cellar and tortured with baby oil and something distressingly called “nigger sugar”.  It is completely unhinged.  After six and half minutes of this mentalness, acoustic guitars start fading through and we’re in Phil Spector territory for Funny How Love Is, which ends the seamless five-song cycle.  Then it’s That Piano Riff, and the album bows out with the still-impressive Seven Seas of Rhye.  The band’s first hit single, it is a reminder that, even at their most Top of the Pops friendly, Queen could still be more than a little out there.  The song fades on an old-school organ-and-crowd singalong of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside.  Of course it does.

Queen II marked the start of a near-untouchable five album run, completed by Sheer Heart Attack, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and News of the World.  Queen’s other albums are worthwhile, some of them even great, but to me that run is just about perfect.  No filler, no compromise.  “No synthesisers”!  Of the other four titles in that list though, only A Day at the Races comes close to matching Queen II‘s dark vibe, undercut as they both are with wit, measured absurdity and a rarely matched creative daring.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com  - Queen: Queen II
The tape I picked up is a crappy Fame reissue.  EMI put out no-frills versions of some of its back catalogue in the early-mid ’80s under the Fame imprint, perhaps because their existing budget label MFP was by that time mostly associated with the easy-listening and MOR of the day.  Here there are no lyrics, not much in the way of credits and even the sides are listed simply as “one’ and “two”.  Whatever, it was cheap – about a quid online – and still plays well.