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.

 

Jerry Reed: East Bound and Down (1977)

An interesting wee release this.  Throughout the ’70s, Jerry Reed was still churning out albums on the punishing but standard Nashville schedule of two ten-song albums a year and, particularly with movies taking up an increasing share of his time, the occasional compilation inevitably took up some of the slack.  In 1977, Reed had co-starred with Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason (not forgetting Mike Henry, Tarzan fans!) in Smokey and The Bandit, boosting his already high profile.  Music for the film is credited to Bill Justis and Jerry Reed, although several other writers were involved, and a soundtrack album on MCA accompanied the movie’s release.  Reed was signed to RCA so, presumably as part of some sort of inter-label agreement, three of the Smokey and the Bandit songs were given their ‘own’ RCA album with the rest of the mandatory ten song total being compiled from earlier releases.  The notes list only the back catalogue cuts as having been previously issued, so it looks like East Bound and Down was the first release of the three Bandit tracks, beating the soundtrack album to the punch.

Side one kicks off with East Bound and Down itself.  Exuberant, banjo-driven fun, it’s firmly rooted in the harmonised electric guitar approach Reed adopted from the mid-’70s on.  By contrast, Lightning Rod (from ’75’s Mind Your Love), is a truly jaw-dropping acoustic instrumental drawing from country, bluegrass, flamenco and gypsy jazz to create a unique whole.  Reed’s nylon-string playing is staggering.  It’s back to Smokey and the Bandit for The Bandit, a rootsy ballad written by Dick Feller, with Jerry on full-on Nashville crooner mode and none the worse for it.  Led by the standard guitars/bass/banjo/drums line-up, there’s a slightly psychedelic wah-wah melody part where we might have expected to hear some steel guitar, which is a nice touch.  Bake, originally found on ’75’s Red Hot Picker, is another instrumental, this time highlighting Reed’s innovative fusion of funk and country.  It leads in nicely to the last of the Bandit cuts, The Legend, infectious storytelling balladry drawing comparisons between Reynolds’ Bandit character and Jesse James etc.

On side two all pretence at this being a ‘proper’ album go out the window as, fresh out of Smokey and the Bandit material, it’s all back catalogue from here.  There’s no obvious theme although the sequencing works well throughout, making for a good listen.

Framed (Ko-Ko Joe, ’71) is Leiber and Stoller’s rock and roll classic reframed (sorry) as an Uptown Poker Club-styled pice of Jerry Reed comic froth while You Took All the Ramblin’ Out of Me (Hot A’Mighty, ’73) is a reminder of Reed’s position as one of the greatest country songwriters there ever was.  Rainbow Ride, from ’73’s Lord Mr. Ford is a strings-saturated pop ballad that works, while Just to Satisfy You from 1970’s Cookin’, is a sweet psych-pop re-imagining of the early Waylon Jennings classic.  Love it.  Wrapping things up is Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right from When You’re Hot You’re Hot (’71).  Unlike Waylon’s own versions of this one, pure-voiced and tender, this a fun reworking of the Dylan original, a virtual re-write with a killer new arrangement and lyric changes (“You’re the reason this ol’ boy don’t walk the line …”).

As an album, Eastbound and Down works surprisingly well.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the compilation element is drawn from the strongest period of Reed’s recording career.  Definitely worth picking up.

At a guess an early ’80s reissue, the tape is in pretty good order and still sounds good.  This one was an unexpected transatlantic gift – thanks Mary!

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Jerry Reed East Bound and Down

Steve Earle: some albums (1986-1990)

I was mostly working in record shops when the ‘New Country’ thing (or was it ‘nu-country’?) was almost big in the mid-to-late ’80s, so I got to hear a lot more of those albums than I otherwise might have as a music-starved teenager in central Scotland.  Dwight Yoakam, Lone Justice/Maria McKee, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and, of course, Steve Earle were heavily marketed as alternatives to the sanitised, glossy mainstream country of the day.  There were ‘New Country’-branded stickers on the album covers, as if saying “Look!  it’s not all John Denver and Kenny Rogers!” – serving as a reminder that in the ’80s a lot of the apparent counter-culture figures were still on major labels, chasing airplay and MTV exposure right alongside Def Leppard and Madonna (which goes some way to explaining the horrendous over-production that plagued some of the recordings).

Anyway, I’ve picked up a few of those titles on tape recently.  Here are some thoughts on the Steve Earle ones.

Guitar Town (1986)

Earle’s first full-length album.  He was presumably being pushed as a Springsteen-type at the time, going by the small-town-working-class-gotta-get-outta-here chest-beating nature of the likes of Good Ol’ Boy and Someday (in which Steve’s Chevy is a ’67, as opposed to Bruce’s ’69 from Racing In The Streets).  There are some undoubted gems here though – the title track and Hillbilly Highway are standouts with a pleasing rockabilly touch throughout and some Luther Perkins-influenced guitar here and there.  Then there’s My Old Friend The Blues, as good as a song can be and more than making up for the mawkish Little Rock ‘n’Roller.

Copperhead Road (1988)

On its release this seemed to be a marked change of direction for Earle after Guitar Town and its follow up Exit O.  In retrospect, not so much.  Side one is a terrific collection of roots rock which I guess at the time just seemed to hit harder.  Now, it seems that most of this material could have been at home on either of the preceding albums.  There’s everything on here from barrelhouse piano to The Pogues, with legitimate classics including Johnny Come Lately, Devils Right Hand and of course Copperhead Road itself.  The tale of the son of a Vietnam vet carrying on a family tradition is the ‘rockiest’ item here, Celtic-flavoured country rock with a hint of Led Zeppelin.

Side two is a bit of a let down, though listenable enough.  MTV fodder throughout, assorted balladry and uptempo love songs, suffering horribly from Big ’80s Production (cheesy keyboards, oddly out-of-place programming and absurdly big “g’deesh!” drums – production here is by Steve Earle and Tony Brown) with Waiting On You transparently vying for the ‘New Springsteen’ title.  Not even the considerable talents of Maria McKee and Jerry Donahue can entirely save Nothing But A Child.  Maybe I have a particularly low sentimentality threshold but going out on a xmas song?  Odd choice.  Still a hell of an album, at least throughout its first side.

The Hard Way (1990)

Back in The Day, this was by far my favourite Steve Earle album.  Much to my surprise on doing a little Googlpedia reading I find it’s not highly regarded.  Oh well.

Apparently recording it was a bastard, as Earle’s addiction demons were getting the better of him.  Certainly it’s overlong (at not far shy of an hour) and overproduced (it may be from 1990 but Big ’80s Production gaffes abound.  Unwelcome, ill-fitting keyboards and absurdly gunshot-like percussion, all courtesy once again of the production skills of Earle himself, this time with Joe Hardy) and there is still some Springsteen chasing.  However, there are moments here that couldn’t be bettered as well as some fine songs in desperate need of a sympathetic arrangement.  Billy Austin, for instance is a powerful piece of songwriting hampered by a progressively intrusive keyboard-heavy arrangement and Have Mercy is robbed of what might have been an engaging fragility by the excesses of the production.  A close cousin to Copperhead Road, Justice In Ontario is an album highlight but those Big ’80s Drums – ooft!  “Can we have more reverb?” “No, Steve, there is no more reverb.  In the world.  We’ve used it all.”

I don’t know why I’m dwelling on the negatives here when the positives far outweigh them.  Check out the two, excellent, writing collaborations with Maria McKee – the straight-ahead country of Promise You Anything and the epic roots rock of Esmerelda’s Hollywood.  Great stuff.  When The People Find Out, Country Girl and Regular Guy are country rock done to perfection while This Highway’s Mine (Roadmaster) and West Nashville Boogie simply rock properly. Close Your Eyes is a tender track dressed up in more bombast but it works and serves as an effective album closer.

All in, the production and arrangement issues are problems endemic to their time but the quality of the material is more than good enough to compensate.  It might even still be my favourite Steve Earle album, as impressive as his output has been since then.

The tapes themselves I got for a couple of quid or so each online.  Copperhead Road has seen better days, The Hard Way is near mint and Guitar Town slowly died while I was listening to it (bloody thing).  Easy enough to source in the format of your choice, each is well worth checking out.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Steve Earle

Bob Dylan: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I’ve never been much of a Bob Dylan acolyte.  There’s a type of Mojo-reader (also Mojo editor, Mojo writer…) that worships at the Altar of His Bobness, throwing praise at his every croaky utterance, undeterred by mere accusations of plagiarism.  That’s not really me.

Bringing It All Back Home?  Wonderful. Highway 61 Revisited?  Oh yes.  Blonde on Blonde?  Fantastic.  Desire?  Good stuff.  Blood On The Tracks?  Aye, okay.  Other than that, there’s more quality material of course but he’s trotted out out mediocrity and shite in fairly equal measures.  He also popularised the rack harmonica, which is hard to forgive. Whatever; some of my favourite records are covers of Dylan songs (Jimi Hendrix’s comprehensive retooling of All Along The Watchtower and Johnny Winter’s immaculate Highway 61 Revisited are obvious examples, Roger Taylor’s odd, proggy/electronica take on Masters of War less so) and he gets points for the fact that he was actually in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.  Of course, he was also in that Hearts of Fire with Rupert Everett and Fiona but theres no need to get bitchy.

So then, the album (Dylan’s soundtrack for the great Sam Peckinpah film).  Regardless of his stellar reputation as a lyricist, I shouldn’t imagine many would rate Dylan as a particularly accomplished music composer and this is all too apparent on the opening pair of instrumentals (Main Title Theme and Cantina Theme) which drift by unremarkably.  They’re not even particularly well recorded, with one of the acoustic guitars overloading the mic noticeably throughout.  Still, the other instrumental on this side, Bunkhouse Theme is sweet enough.

The actual songs here, though, are very good.  There are three “Billy” songs on the album, entitled Billy 1, Billy 4 and Billy 7 respectively.  Just because.  1 and 4 are on side one and they’re both reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson.  Never a bad thing.  Perhaps Dylan was influenced by Kristofferson’s involvement in the film itself (he plays Billy – hardly a “kid” himself at the time but excellent in the role).  Regardless they’re nice pieces of country balladry.

Side two begins with Turkey Chase, a natty wee uptempo bluegrass instrumental replete with banjo and fiddle.  The other instrumentals on this side are Final Theme – there’s a flute on that one – and River Theme which serves as a short and sweet outro.  Song-wise there’s the third and final “Billy” – Billy 7, which drops the Kristoffersonisms and is perhaps surprisingly none the worse for it.  The album’s jewel, buried as the second song on side two, is Knocking On Heaven’s Door.  It would be perfect but for its brevity, barely clocking in at two and a half minutes where we could listen to it all night.  Over-familiarity with its multitudinous cover versions in no way overshadows the sheer beauty of the original, making it easy to cast Axl Rose’s strained warblings to the back of your mind and to mentally tell Eric Clapton’s cloying cod-reggae arse-gravy to fuck right off.

A first for Tapes For My Walkman – it’s only the sixth review overall, mind – this is an album I hadn’t heard before, at least not that I remember.  An interesting if slight listen, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a pleasant enough affair, peppered with glimpses of Dylan’s much vaunted genius and worth a purchase for Knocking On Heaven’s Door alone. 

The tape itself, picked up for a lucky £1.99 online, is an old one and in pretty decent playable order considering.  A couple of wee dropouts but that’s as bad as it gets.  Paper labels, pre-bar code with a surprisingly decent inlay which folds out to a nice wee Bob-centric still from the movie.  Still no musician or production credits but that was par for the course in the ’70s.  The track running order has been slightly re-jigged too (something that used to drive me nuts about tapes back in the day), to save all that pesky fast-forwarding between unevenly long sides.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Bob Dylan Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Bob Dylan Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid