Amanda Palmer And The Grand Theft Orchestra: Theatre Is Evil (2013)

Over on my “industry” blog Channel Nowhere, I used occasionally to post a “Top 10 albums of the year” type thing. 2013 was a decent year for music with releases from the old guard leading the field – ZZ Top, The Cult, Van Halen, Neil Young and so on. The top spot, however, went to Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, of which I had the deluxe download version, having been a cheapskate-level Kickstarter backer.

In the years since, Palmer’s output has been hard to keep up with. Via the Patreon crowd-funding platform, she regularly issues individual songs, EPs and so forth. There have been Bowie and Prince tributes and more besides, including an album of duets (recorded with her dad), a book – and a baby. There’s even been a solo vocal/piano version of Theatre is Evil in its entirety, Piano is Evil. Coming up is a new studio album recorded in collaboration with Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots. I haven’t heard half of that lot, but I’ll catch up in time.

In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting Theatre is Evil, having recently picked up a copy on CD – it’s a handsome object, a slip-cased three-panel digi-pack with a lavish lyrics-and-art booklet.  What follows here is an updated version of the original review I posted as part of that “Top 10” piece from 2013, which began: Much heralded due to a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, it would be too easy, amongst all the stats and admittedly startling figures, to lose sight of the fact that this is a superb album

Out-with being only slightly familiar with the music of her punk cabaret duo, Dresden Dolls, I first became aware of Amanda (Fucking) Palmer a few years ago, when doing some industry research regarding sales and distribution models (sorry to break it to you folks, but it ain’t all glamour, this business we call show).  It was about the time that Palmer had ditched her previous label, Roadrunner, and released what was for me the song of 2010 (Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass).  This led me to check out her sole Roadrunner release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? which turned out to be an apparently effortless fusion of rock, cabaret, prog, electronica and more; great songs, all backed with a bunch of cool videos.  I was sold.  Then there was an excellent 2011 EP, Nighty Night, as part of art-rock supergroup project 8in8 which was, you guessed it, one of my favourite releases of that year (although I gave her ukelele-led Radiohead covers album a miss, what with not being a fan of either Radiohead or the ukulele).

Palmer’s second ‘full-on’ solo album, Theatre Is Evil – actually her first with impressive new band The Grand Theft Orchestra – builds on everything that came before it.  There are kitchen-sink arrangements, the sound is huge, and the influences are much as described before – cabaret, prog, art rock, electronica, with hints of straight-up rock, pop and punk.  There are echoes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and David Bowie which are largely subtle, part of the musical palette. Other references are made more knowingly with a pair of back-to-back tracks – Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean – giving nods to the same Prince song (I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man) while still managing to sound entirely distinct from each other (Melody Dean also quotes My Sharona both musically and lyrically), and on Bottomfeeder, guitarist Chad Raines stylistically quotes Count Ian Blair’s work from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to great effect.

Most importantly though, underneath all the ambitious instrumentation and clever intertextuality lies a set of great songs, brilliantly performed.  Palmer delivers like Patti Smith meets Debby Harry by way of the theatricality of Tim Curry or Freddie Mercury, with the latter’s penchant for a piano flourish. As a lyricist she combines the raw poeticism of Smith or Lou Reed with the verbal dextrousness of Ani DiFranco and the unsettling frankness of Loudon Wainwright III, crafting pieces that are at once funny and moving.  This is best illustrated by The Bed Song, the only solo piano/vocal performance on the album, telling the story of the core of a relationship unravelling from the beginning to the very end, as melancholy as it sounds but still taking time out to name-check Van Halen and Slayer. Scoring huge “album of the year” points right there, obviously. Meanwhile Do It With a Rock Star comes on like a hard-edged party anthem spin on Wainwright’s plaintive Motel Blues.

So there you have it.  In a year in which I took great joy in the on-form output of the hoary rock gods of my youth, Amanda Palmer knocked me out by outdoing them all. I said in that original Channel Nowhere piece, “Theatre Is Evil is a stunning album – maybe the first Great Album of the decade”. I stand by that – four years on it’s just as commanding. 

Theatre is Evil -

Check out Amanda Palmer’s website:


Prince: Chaos and Disorder (1996) - 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”.


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 …



Just look at the state of this place …

You may recently have noticed a slight change hereabouts. Hideously-titled sister blog Tapes For My VCR has been subsumed by Tapes For My Walkman. There are various reasons for this, chief among them the fact that I was finding it difficult to keep the separate blogs individually updated on any kind of a regular basis, so I thought if I lumped them both together I’d be able to keep up a reasonable writing schedule. Of course, since making this change, I haven’t uploaded a bastard thing.

There are various reasons for that, too. Problems with my latest album release, unexpected gigs, other writing that needed/needs tending to. Prince died.

A quick scroll through this blog will give you a hint that Prince is kind of a big deal to me. His death gave me pause, which I mean quite literally, certainly in terms of writing this sort of thing. Once I did write about it, I found the result was more of a personal-and-musicianly piece, so I published it over on my personal/musicianly blog, Channel Nowhere (if you want to check it out, click HERE).

I’ve currently got a dozen or so posts sitting half-written. I’m looking at finishing them up now so there could well be a few updates in quick succession over the next few weeks. Also, since combining the two existing blogs has shifted focus away from the original concept, there’ll likely be some other changes – starting with a new title.

Then again, there’s always the possibility I’ll just ditch the whole thing. Try not to let the suspense interfere with your tea.

Psych-rock double bill: Experience (1967) & The Undertaker (1994)

Only two titles but a quartet of firsts for Tapes For My VCR – first music videos featured, one of which is also the first documentary; first short films and first double bill.  Contain your excitement, please, and read on …

Experience (1967)

This is Peter Neal’s half-hour swinging London documentary/performance mashup, all about The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  There are dated-in-a-good-way interview segments in which Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell pose the questions to camera and Jimi riffs good-naturedly on the answers, and dated-in-a-bad-way narration from Alexis Korner.  Live footage of Purple Haze and Wild Thing from the Albert Hall mixes with early ‘pop promo’ type clips (Foxy Lady, for instance is set to footage of a lady wandering about swinging London, being foxy).  There is some backstage stuff and famously, the wonderful live-to-camera acoustic take of Hear My Train a Coming.  It ends with a lame, tacked-on-after-the-credits ‘video’ for Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), cut to affected footage from the film.  It doesn’t look too recent so may have been the promo for the 1970 single – it doesn’t belong on the original film, though, which serves as both an entertaining relic and possibly the single most significant piece of film on the band (as distinct from Hendrix himself) outside of D.A. Pennebaker’s Jimi Plays Monterey.

The Undertaker (1994)

A hot ’90s chick (Vanessa Marcil) walks into a random building in search of a telephone on account of it’s 1993 and mobiles are not yet mandatory.  She’s told she can use the phone as long as she’s quick, as there’s a rehearsal on.  During the ensuing call she argues with her boyfriend (“Victor”, Prince pseudonym fans!), gets upset and takes an overdose of pills.  She then wanders into said rehearsal to witness Prince fronting a power trio of the old school in an empty venue (Paisley Park, naturally).  They launch into a half-hour plus of psychedelic heavy blues funk rock jamming and ohdearlord it’s good.  From here in, the ‘overdosing girl’ is a framing device and an excuse to use some instantly dated video effects, as we’re kinda sorta supposed to be watching through her eyes.  One track cuts while she has a quick vomit break – then it’s back to psych-rock heaven.

Brand new tracks (“6 LIVE DIRECT 2 DAT TRACKS” as it says on the box, as well as the studio track Dolphin which would resurface on the following year’s The Gold Experience) sit alongside off-the-cuff renditions of live favourite Bambi and the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman.  The epic title track is the two note bass riff from Sly Stone’s Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey stretched out to ten minutes of muted anti-guns-and-crack lyrics and massive, face-melting guitar solos.  Make no mistake, this whole film is about Prince the Guitar Hero; effects-drenched funk rock thick with the heaviest electric blues, his playing is nothing short of fantastic.  The super-tight rhythm section of bassist Sonny T. and drummer Michael Bland doesn’t disappoint either.

Directed by Parris Patton, The Undertaker (alongside live video The Sacrifice of Victor) was released on VHS and possibly Laserdisc with very little fanfare in 1994 as part of a flurry of contractual obligation business between Prince and Warner Bros – this was during the “slave”/Artist Formerly Known As Prince period.  Indeed, The Undertaker was itself a cause of dissent between Prince and Warners, as he had wanted an audio version released as a giveaway with the magazine Guitar Player but the label was having none of it.  Since that initial video release, it has never appeared on any other format.  Which is a pity as The Undertaker, whether taken as a short film (it clocks in at 40 minutes) or a video album, is one of Prince’s most interesting and downright rocking releases.

Tapes For My VCR - Prince and Jimi Hendrix

Experience: sell-through 90s reissue, £2 online;  The Undertaker: bought new on original release.

Prince and The Revolution: Parade (1986)

Picture if you will: it’s 1986 and a teenage me has a cinema entirely to himself while watching a brand new release.  This remains the only time in my life this has ever happened.  The film in question? Under The Cherry Moon, starring and directed by Prince.  His first film since Purple Rain, co-starring Jerome out of The Time, Kristen Scott Thomas and Steven Berkoff, it’s a black and white romantic comic tragedy set in a curiously timeless south of France (It’s the Eighties!  No, it’s the Thirties!).  My solo-viewing experience is apparently repeated the world over: the film dies on its arse and is now largely forgotten.

Happily the soundtrack album is something else entirely.  While the music that makes up Parade is indeed drawn from the movie’s soundtrack, lyrically and thematically the connection is at best oblique.  The character name Christopher Tracy is held over from the film but there’s no obvious link to the narrative.

In my youth I was all about the guitar and Prince didn’t disappoint, quickly becoming one of my very favourite players and it was largely his harder rocking output that drew me in.  Parade, then, should have put me off – after the guitar-heavy double whammy of Purple Rain and Around The World In A Day, suddenly there’s hardly any evidence of the man himself playing lead guitar with the album’s principal flavours being jazz, pop, psychedelia and even folk.  Of course I loved it.

The production is a massive, kitchen sink affair, bossed by dense percussion melding human (Prince, Bobby Z., Sheila E.) and machine, while horns, acoustic guitars, keyboards, strings and voices all have at it without ever sounding cramped.  Inevitably all of this is based on a foundation of multi-tracked instrumental backing by Prince on his tod. Nevertheless, The Revolution is in full flight here, with Wendy (Melvoin) handling much of the guitar work and Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss shining on “horn” and trumpet respectively.  And the songs – damn!  There’s no obvious bowing to commercialism here, the tracks fading through each other, opening with the summery Christopher Tracy’s Parade, lyrically ambiguous psych-pop at its best before giving way to the funkier New Position which in turn gives way to the almost unsettlingly odd I Wonder U, percussive and moody.  There is balladry here too but it never descends into the syrupy soul gloop Prince could be guilty of from time-to-time.  The album’s pervading quirkiness and a strong European sensibility seems to lift the balladic material – Under The Cherry Moon is effectively old-school Charles Aznavour crooning given a falsetto twist and Venus de Milo an unexpected and lush instrumental, while Prince channels his inner Serge Gainsbourg for Do U Lie?, which leaves no accordion unturned in its bid to evoke a Parisian cafe vibe.

Elsewhere there is one of the great track pairings, with the deeply funky hit Girls and Boys exploding into the thunderous Life Can Be So Nice.  Great stuff.  Mountains, kicking off side two (or, “End”, side one being “Intro”), is power pop on a Phil Spector level and Anotherloverholenyohead is surprisingly intense funk rock.  Kiss is the biggest hit here, and it holds up perfectly, the stripped down David Z. arrangement recalling When Doves Cry and Wendy’s enviable rhythm chops coupled with her classic wah-guitar break making everything just so.

The album closes with a long (near seven minutes) and genuinely affecting acoustic ballad, Sometimes It Snows In April:

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war, just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before, a whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend – those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again but sometimes, sometimes life ain’t always the way”

Something of a left turn, Sometimes It Snows In April is a sparsely arranged live-in-the-studio performance by Prince, Wendy and Lisa (Coleman) which wears its Joni Mitchell influences with pride.  Still, it somehow manages to organically round out what really is a perfectly sequenced album.  The temptation is just to flip the tape and listen over – which I did.

Like most of Prince’s material, Parade is readily available on CD or download.  Although not in the commercial league of Purple Rain, it did sell in its millions, enough certainly to ensure that relatively inexpensive vinyl and cassette copies can be had online or from your local second-hand wreckastow.  I got my copy of the tape – in good order complete with nice fold out inner to accommodate the notes and artwork from the gatefold LP package – for just a couple of quid online. - Prince and the Revolution Parade

Hindu Love Gods: Hindu Love Gods (1990)

Imagine a world in which REM replaced Michael Stipe with Warren Zevon before going into the studio to record a bunch of covers that would end up forming one of the great alt.blues albums.  Can’t picture it?  Well, try harder.  Back in 1990, it totally happened.

I always find it at the very least weird just how few people remember this album.  Including me; I’d forgotten all about it, more or less, until I was working on Jim Dead’s Ten Fires album a few years ago and we were discussing what kind of studio sounds to aim for.  I kept coming back to Crazyhorse and this.  Perfect live-in-the-studio vibe, good and raw.

Ten tracks, all covers, drawing deep from the well of real Americana – classic blues (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters etc.), folk (Woody Guthrie) and a couple of contemporary gems too.  Recorded for fun during a few drunken “off nights” while working on a ‘proper’ Zevon album, it flows perfectly.

The album kicks off with two Johnson numbers (Walking Blues and Travelling Riverside Blues) before blindsiding us with a stripped down, ragged take on Prince’s psych-pop classic Raspberry Beret.  Later Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Dixon-penned Wang Dang Doodle is followed by a note-perfect Battleship Chains (known to me and most folks, I’d imagine, as a Georgia Satellites number).  The feel throughout is just what you’d expect from an REM-related project, bearing in mind this is before they were the mild-mannered mandolin botherers of Losing My Religion et al, and Peter Buck steps up for a few surprisingly Stonesy Americana-infused blues leads.  Guthrie’s Vigilante Man rounds things off, and it’s a perfect fit.

This album’s relative obscurity remains a mystery to me, particularly given the pedigree of its participants.  I picked up a copy of the tape in excellent nick for £3 (happily, by 1990 cassette packaging was competing on a more even playing field with other formats than previously, so it’s a long fold-out inlay with credits, photos and so on).  It looks like, out-with the used market, current availability is download only but second hand copies are easy to come by. 

However you can get your hands on it, you just should.  What a fucking album. - Hindu Love Gods

Fishbone: Fishbone (1985)

Fishbone was one of my very favourite bands in the ’80s and ’90s – never did catch them live though (which is true of a lot of my favourite ’90s bands, no recollection why).  Truth and Soul was my favourite of their albums at the time but I also had a lot of love for the self-titled debut mini-album, which I recently found on cassette alongside their It’s a Wonderful Life EP in a charity shop for 10p a throw.  An insane bargain and a good excuse to listen to them for the first in a long time.  On a Walkman, yes.

I’ll get to It’s a Wonderful Life in a future post but in the meantime, the mini album, Fishbone, is fantastic (some call it an EP but, come on, it’s six tracks and over 25 minutes long).  For a relatively under-the-radar release from a band which never really broke commercially, there’s considerable pop-cultural resonance here, with two tracks being notably ripped off and sampled.  Opener U.G.L.Y’s chorus (“U.G.L.Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you’re just ugly”) went on to become a cheerleader chant via the movie Wildcats a year later.  From there it eventually ended up (uncredited) as a pop song by Daphne and Celeste about, what, ten years ago?  Remember Daphne and Celeste?  No?  Well, I’ve just reminded you.  You’re welcome.  Anyway where its cheesy pop reiteration seemed to be a celebration of bullying, the Fishbone original is an attack on the then US administration (“All the children’s suffering lies in your hands/Unless the commies are gonna heed your demands/Your mind is twisted and your flesh is warm/You scare me sick ’cause I just want to get out”).  In amongst all that, in 1995, the last track on Fishbone, Lyin’ Ass Bitch, was sampled by Prince during his ‘artist formerly known as’ period for Billy Jack Bitch from The Gold Experience.  Happily, Prince gave credit where it was due.  Then, in 2011, when Republican US presidential candidate Michelle Bachman appeared on popular TV chat show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, house band The Roots played her on with the pre-chorus section of Lyin’ Ass Bitch.  A genius touch which caused all manner of controversy at the time.*

Although the band incorporated a lot more rock, punk and metal influences in later releases, their early output was much more ska-oriented and Fishbone is basically a rockin’ ska release.  Only V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F. (that’s “Voyage Through The Land Of The Freeze Dried Godzilla Farts”, apparently!) breaks the mould, mixing as it does an odd, almost proggy, vibe mixed with P-funk touches and the kind of crowd-rapped vocals and new wave punk-funk The Red Hot Chili Peppers had pioneered with their 1984 debut.  Otherwise it’s uptempo ska all the way, great horn arrangements and brilliant bass playing (Norwood Fisher, yes!).  Party at Ground Zero is an epic favourite but it’s Lyin’ Ass Bitch that takes the prize.  Featuring guest lead vocals from co-writer Lisa Grant, it’s a laugh-out-loud, cheerfully mean-spirited break-up song with a killer chorus and an unforgettable end vocal ad-lib from frontman Angelo Moore.

As for the tape itself?  Looks decent and plays like new.  Result! - fishbone

*Cheers to me old mucker Michael Greer for the reminder on the Michelle Bachman story.