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 …

 

 

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.

 

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.

The Power Station: The Power Station (1985) & Living In Fear (1996)

When The Power Station was released in 1985, it was proffered as the supergroup’s attempt to mix The Sex Pistols with Chic.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the presence of Chic members Tony Thompson on drums and Bernard Edwards producing, this sounds nothing like that at all.  Not nearly punk, not remotely disco.

It’s a genuinely original sound, quintessentially ’80s, yes, but uniquely its own thing.  Andy Taylor out of Duran Duran’s crunchy, hard rock guitar mixed with John Taylor out of Duran Duran’s in-your-face bass against the backbone of Thompson’s powerhouse drums – which sound like he’s playing some upturned bins with a set of hammers.  All this and the occasional wall of synths and horns married to the smooth vocal stylings of Robert Palmer.  It shouldn’t work, really, but it does.

A mix of originals and covers, the original tunes are headed up by the stark funk rock of album opener and hit single Some Like It Hot.  Quality straight-ahead rocker Murderess follows, successfully mixing old-school riffage with horns and a nifty noir lyric (“I heard his breath escape/She left the gun on the floor/He left his key with me/I hadn’t been there before”).  Lonely Tonight is overly synth-reliant soul, the weakest thing here but working in context, while Communication features some tasty lead guitar from Andy Taylor bringing to mind Jeff Beck’s work from the same year’s Flash.  As does Go To Zero, which is a real album highlight, mixing up some contemporary prog influences with foregrounded bass and some of the best guitar playing on the album, from weird chord voicings to a fusion-esque outro solo.  Final track Still In Your Heart is an affecting sax-infused ballad with a rich, proggy keyboard arrangement.  The covers are a surprisingly effective take on The Isley Brothers’ Harvest For The World, performed as a Palmer/Andy Taylor duet, plus the second hit from the album, Get It On (Bang a Gong), a complete reinvention of the T-Rex classic replete with memorable guitar parts and a Bernard Edwards slap bass break.

After the album there was an eponymous video EP, a VHS release consisting of a recording-the-album documentary cut around the day-glo promo videos.  However, Palmer quit before the tour.  The band recruited Michael Des Barres but this line-up recorded only one track (Someday, Somehow, Someone’s Gotta Pay for the Commando soundtrack) before calling it quits.

A decade later, seemingly out of nowhere, The Power Station returned with a performance on Top Of The Pops of new single She Can Rock It. This was intended to herald the release of a new album. I may be remembering this wrongly, but the album release ended up being delayed to the point of public disinterest and even now Living In Fear is a comparative obscurity.  As a project, it was troubled from the start.  John Taylor had been part of the preproduction process but left before the actual recordings (he’s credited as cowriter on all nine of the original songs here), hence Bernard Edwards’ promotion to bass player as well as producer. Sadly, Edwards died before the album’s release.

I hadn’t listened to Living In Fear in years and was surprised at how well it holds up.  The intention was clearly to revisit the basic formula of the 1985 album: mostly original songs (nine to the first album’s six), plus two covers, with a supporting cast of musicians featuring many of the original’s session players.  The patented “upturned bins and hammers” drums are toned down and the general sound has been updated (as ’90s as the first album is ’80s) if still drawing from the same rock, funk and electronic influences.

The first side opens with a strong enough run of rock numbers – Notoriety (funky horns and some commendably nasty riffing), Scared (melodic rock take on a post grunge vibe), She Can Rock It (decent riff, with some cheeky Get It On references).  The album stumbles badly though with its first cover, a lumpen, unwelcome and seemingly endless take on Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.  This lessens the impact of Life Forces which is a prog-flavoured keyboard heavy number in keeping stylistically with earlier cuts Go To Zero and Communication, if not as strong.

Side Two starts with a nod to the Minneapolis Sound of the ’80s in Fancy That, not a bad track but strangely dated and out of place. Certainly it doesn’t hint at what’s coming – from here on in the album hits its stride, the next three tracks in particular taking no prisoners.  Title track Living in Fear is Zeppelin-structured and Sabbath-heavy.  Absolutley epic, and before you can ask “where the fuck did that come from?!?”, the aggressive alternative funk rock of Shut Up kicks in.  Good as Shut Up is,  the pressure is only upped by Dope: raw, dense and heavy as fuck.  A stylistic left turn gets us to Love Conquers All, Memphis Soul meets bare-boned British Blues.  It’s good stuff, with some tasty, gnarly leads from Taylor who takes on the lead vocal for the final track, a retooling of The Beatles’ Tax Man, tabla and sitar giving way to Edwards’ heavy funk bass riff and psych-rock guitar aplenty.  Not a favourite song of mine but this version works and makes for a decent album closer.

Lyrically, neither album strays far from the basic sex-and-relationships template that mainstream rock thrives on, with some pre-millenial tension raising its head on Living In Fear.  The occasional arresting image and nice turn of phrase are enough to keep things interesting, only occasionaly succumbing to pedestrianism.  In terms of performance, production and great music though, both albums deliver.  The first one is, I reckon, a classic of its era, more challenging and original than it perhaps seemed at the time.  One of a string of ’80s albums that basically set out the groundwork for the funk/rock crossover scenes of the ’90s, The Power Station stands as the best of them.  Living In Fear may be just a few too many “b-sides” over the limit for greatness, taking too long to find its stride, but those moments where the band really digs deep make for a rewarding listen. With Edwards’ passing and the subsequent deaths of Thompson and Palmer it’s unlikely if not impossible that we’ll hear more from The Power Station which is a shame as at their best they were a band greater than the sum of its considerable parts.ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - The Power Station Living in Fear

Physical copies of both albums are easy enough to find, whether online or in the real world, affordable in most formats (there was no vinyl release of Living in Fear).  A 20th anniversary CD rerelease from 2005 of the first album is well worth picking up as it contains the Des Barres Commando track and various remixes, all decently remastered, as well as a DVD featuring the ’85 video EP with bonus material.  It seems to fetch upwards of £20 these days, mind.  The tapes set me back about £4 each and are in good order, fold out lyrics and all.