So, what’s a hotwalker? Well, it’s a person (usually a stable-hand) who walks a hot, sweaty horse after a workout, or a sprint on the racetrack. Tom Russell has an interest in people for a start; much of his music is observational, or tributary, or reflective. But he also has an interest in exceptional people too, and this, the second part of his Americana trilogy, certainly features many of those. In fact, it’s a very unique listening experience which intersperses snippets of free speech (from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, hobo composer Harry Partch, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac and Little Jack Horton) with musical interludes. It’s a record – if you can call it that – that requires lamplight and your full attention. It’s useless without both.
Russell is an exceptional artist. He’s as earthy a singer-songwriter as you’ll ever hear who writes about the land and towns and cities and smog and people and words and poetry and music – basically a fascinating mix of the most organic parts of life, and then the the inevitable emergence of skid row. His music is a melting pot of many traditional genres, such as folk, country, folk-rock, and most poignantly, cowboy music of the American West. He has a particular fascination for the Mexico border, and paints landscapes with words in the most vivid way. His music has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, k.d lang, Nanci Griffith and many others of repute. He’s prolific too – he writes albums for fun and paints the most wonderful avant-garde canvasses. A bone-deep artist through and through.
This very original concept behind Hotwalker is a depiction of post-war Beat landscape, where drunks and roamers and lost poets and outsiders star in Russell’s journey into the soul of “the old America, where the big guilt, political correctness and chainstores hadn’t sunk in so deep”. Russell acts as narrator, and the soliloquies of Little Jack Horton, a carnival circus midget who hung out drinking with Charles Bukowski, are particularly fascinating. That high-pitched voice is clearly from a time gone by – and now, it is. He died shortly after these recordings were made. His tale about stealing a train with Bukowski after a heavy drinking session would seem certain to be fiction had it not been Bukowski that was involved.
The record is a sweeping, chug-along journey through rough-ass country talk, squawking jazz, stripped back and chiselled folky-blues, spooked parlour songs, hypnotic carousel waltzes and americana drama. There’s a nod to the Pope of Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, (Van Ronk) delivered in Russell’s neatly emphatic baritone, and I just love Border Lights for it’s deep-dive into “that delicious dark-eyed myth” of 1950’s Mexico where folk got high on cheap dreams and rum. There are countless Okies “hopped up on moonshine and amphetamines” in Bakersfield – turns out its yet another nod, this time to Gram Parsons and Buck Owens. Russell is such a wide-eyed writer with a love of recognising his own heroes and influences.
To some this may be a tough listen. At times it’s tuneless as recitations are made, but for me the whole package is an experience rarely found on record. Russell is a born storyteller, and this, essentially, is at the core of Hotwalker. It’s brave, but I wouldn’t think Tom gives a fuck. He pursues his art, and Hotwalker is certainly art. Live, this man is compelling too. A wonderful, cult discovery!
I want to begin by referring to a study carried out by Behavioral Scientist, Professor Patrick Fagan, who, with the backing of wireless company O2, found that music improves our emotional wellbeing by more than 20%. Music is also likely to help us live longer. Yes, that’s right. He’s saying that popping down the pub and watching that solo acoustic singer for the evening whilst nursing a beer could do your mental health so much good, you’ll live longer.
I’m in. You?
So, throwing yourself into a mosh-pit at a Metal gig, swaying away to the Blues singer, tapping your foot along to the Jazz band or dancing in the isles at a Pop concert could genuinely extend your life. A prescription of live music, suggested at least once a fortnight by Fagan, has every chance of improving your health, happiness and wellbeing. That, of course, is on the understanding that we don’t get absolutely spannered every time we go, which could be an issue for one or two amongst us. However, what positive news! I mean, it’s not rocket science that music and dopamine are clearly in cahoots.
This though, of course, is why many of us are really struggling right now.
On the evening of the 13th March 2020 I was at Phase One, an incredibly cool Liverpool gig venue for upcoming, emerging artists. Myself and co-radio presenter, Cameron Maerevoet, had been given guest-list passes to watch fast-rising Liverpool indie outfit, Seprona, supported by Portsmouth band, Flowvers. It would be the last gig I would attend until….well, that conundrum is yet to be resolved. And let’s face it – it doesn’t look like I’ll be going to any soon.
I’ve spent a lifetime tucked away in little venues watching bands, having a bevvie and thoroughly enjoying myself. The bands that night in Liverpool were great – both Seprona and Flowvers have bright futures. But there was something else going on in the room that night. A nervy, unsettling tension. This ‘virus’ that the news had been banging on about had taken the UK by the scruff of the neck and was starting to push us up against the wall. Covid-19 wasn’t just a rumour, or a news story in another country anymore. It was real, it was here, and people were anxious and confused about what was happening. There was even talk of places closing as a precaution. Yes, closing.
“Could be the last night we open,” the barman told me as I got the beers in.
“Really?” I asked, skeptical.
He clearly knew something that I didn’t. Just days later the country was in lockdown – the likes of which most of us never thought we’d experience in our lifetime. I remember remarking to friends that we were literally living in a science fiction novel. The bars were shut, the pubs and nightclubs shut, the shops shut, our liberties strangled. It all felt weird and frightening and completely….new. The stack of so-far-unused concert tickets on my shelf caught my eye every morning from that day on. Needless to say, none of those gigs went ahead in 2020. Not one.
I lost a fair few quid on concert tickets, since ticket operators and venues either went into liquidation or disappeared in a rather dodgy haze of silence. The worst loss was £90 at Southport Theatre – now shut indefinitely – on two tickets for Englebert Humperdink. Some may say I deserve it for ever entertaining such a show, but I like him, and that’s that. The 85-year-old probably won’t return to these shores now. That bird has almost certainly flown. And to be honest, who is in a position these days to lose £90? Another slap on the wrist for not keeping up with the modern world – I paid cash, and therefore couldn’t claim any credit-card compensation. You know, sometimes I feel like an alien on my own planet.
And so, to the issue. We’ve all endured nearly a year of on-and-off lockdown. I managed to play one gig in August when things were slightly relaxed, but I’ve still not seen any live music since March. It’s absolutely devastating to watch close friends struggling who are dependent on music for their income. There’s no sign of live music returning, especially since the latest wave of Covid-19 is more serious than ever. I can’t hide my frustrations – I’m fuming about the government response to the tragic situation the arts in this country finds itself in. One of the fundamental reasons that our country is globally admired is because of our art – our literature, our film industry, but our music in particular. The consequence of this pandemic could be absolutely catastrophic for live venues, theatres, arenas and festivals – the government haven’t done enough, in my opinion, to ensure that our sacred arts scene will still be there for us all, and the world, to enjoy when this is over.
As for Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, suggesting that those in the arts should retrain….what a bellend. With over 80,000 British people dead in this country because of the ineptitude of this government, maybe it’s our ‘leaders’ that aught to be retraining?!
Anyway, let’s not get too political.
The point of this article is to highlight the importance of live music in our lives. And it’s not just the actual music itself; it’s everything that goes along with it. Live music encourages us to socialise, gives us something to look forward to and get excited about, puts happy targets in our diaries, and often gets us to travel or book ourselves into a hotel in a different town or city, which is both stimulating and invigorating. During concerts we have life defining moments, tick off bucket-list hopes & dreams, get to see our heroes in the flesh, and justify the soundtracks to our lives. It’s rare that you don’t leave a concert feeling exhilarated, unless its Oasis or (if he’s in a strop – which is reasonably often) Van Morrison.
Live music is part of the fabric of our existence.
It’s beyond disappointing to walk past empty pubs, derelict bars and moulding nightclubs. Not a peep has been heard from the arenas for what seems like a lifetime. From the biggest acts in the world to local pub performers, the whole industry sits and waits. For some, the wait has already been too long. The financial consequences have been fatal. Venues have closed their doors for the last time, theatres gone into administration, and performers forced to find other work.
For enthusiastic gig-goers, the wait has been unbearable. Our mental health is suffering because of this, and future months, at least for now, look bleak. Studies that associate emotional health with longer life expectancy are no more relevant than now – the age of the pandemic. I’ve started to dig out some old concert tickets (i’ve never lost one), since fond memories are often a recipe for healing. I’ve been very lucky over the years. I’ve seen pretty much everyone you can possibly think of left alive that has any sort of importance in music during my lifetime of love for live music. A lot of great times have been had, but that’s for future stories.
For now, our priority is to survive. Dramatic, maybe, but that’s the reality.
Too many families have lost loved ones for us to think this is someone else’s problem. The hospitals are at bursting point and the NHS on its knees. Somehow it feels a little inappropriate to be so concerned with the live music industry when people are dying, but we need to take the bigger picture into account too or the after effects of this destructive virus will go on for decades. We have to preserve our culture, or we’ll lose a major part of our identity.
Stay safe, folks. Support musicians if you can during this awful time. Watch their livestreams and donate if you’re able, or better still, buy their records.
That is, if you want them to be there ready to play for you when the world comes back.
Born to missionary parents in Lima, Beth Rowley is a woman of the world who has paid her dues. She started at the very bottom, navigating the Bristol music scene, playing in pubs and clubs to those who don’t necessarily want to listen. She also studied under Soul singer, Carleen Anderson (who spent years in Paul Weller’s band) and also, as a schoolgirl, provided backing vocals for Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias. Excuse my cynicism, but if that isn’t paying your dues, I’m not sure what is.
The point being this – Rowley has a thickened skin because she’s not one of those artists who sang karaoke on The X Factor then became a star. She’s roamed the open-mic nights, packed her own gear into the boot, played the job-gigs and used such experiences to work out who she is and what she does. She’s also soaked up a wealth of musical and cultural influences on her passage to this record – primarily Blues, Soul, Gospel and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum. You can tell – and some would hold this against her – that she has swallowed the posthumous Eva Cassidy output too, though this makes the whole concept more charming for me.
Some of the highlights include Rowley’s take on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a song first recorded by Gospel Blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. There is a sincere warmth in her voice, and it feels like she means it when she sings “And if I should die / And my soul becomes lost / Then I know it’s / Nobody’s fault but mine”. It’s pretty damn convincing, and the music doesn’t intrude. The other cover, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released borders on a little giddy for the thematic nature of the song, but it’s still charming with its reggae slant.
The main issue here is the safe production. Some of these tracks could really soar at the risk of making some Radio 2 listeners spill their tea, and it’s a shame that the production team decided not to gamble. It doesn’t take much away from the song-craft though, or how well Rowley and Ben Castle (yes, son of Roy) have put their influences in a blender and spilt them all over this lovely record. It’s certainly refreshing to see a young artist realise such a traditional, authentic sound. Beth Rowley is certainly a great Soul singer – not at all an impersonator or imposter.
The two stormers on the record are Sweet Hours & Oh My Life. You can tell that she’s the daughter of missionaries by the fervour in her voice, and her vocal performance is no better across the record than on these two tracks. I’ve read reviews that criticise Rowley’s menace when singing these deeply spiritual songs, but for me her pitch is where it needs to be – somewhere between lost in music and gentle thunder. Again, I must touch on the fact that the production is so safe that it almost prevents Rowley from striding out of the shadows of her influences and assuming her own identity. I fear that this will forever be a bargain bin purchase for middle-of-the-road oh isn’t that lovely music (un)listeners, and it’s so much better than that.
I was gifted Careless by a fellow muso with twenty years worth of information gathering on my musical taste. It fell through the letter box one day with the kind of clink that makes you wince. Yes, the case was shattered, but the CD emerged like an untouched pearl. I put it straight in the record player and was instantly gripped. Like that moment when the music starts in a rowdy pub and it all goes quiet.
Stephen Bishop. The name had floated round in conversation for years, though any further investigation had never been undertook. Better late than never, as they say. When you think you’ve heard it all and then something this good appears it’s so exciting. It makes me feel like the search is endless – even if I live a hundred years (I’ll have to give the biscuits up, like) I think I’ll still be discovering amazing music I’ve never heard. Isn’t that great?
The album begins with the very intimate On and On, a delicate song with sublime production. It struck me that the audiophiles would be rampant with this record – it has that perfectionist element of Steely Dan about it. The irony about the following track, Never Letting Go, is that this is exactly how the song makes you feel. I find myself watching the seconds ticking down on the song and hating it when it reaches the end. Bishop’s voice is like silk mixed with hope mixed with bright white light and trust and a gorgeous, warm sunny day. Honestly, his voice – at times Paul Simon-esque, at other’s knocking on McCartney’s door – is just about as accessible and feel-good as I’ve ever heard.
Careless, the beautiful title track, features backing vocals from Art Garfunkel, and is probably my favourite on a stunning album. It’s very early, solo McCartney, with a totally unique melody. In fact, having mentioned Garfunkel, a host of familiar names feature on this album. Session regulars Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour are heavily involved, and there are even contributions by Andrew Gold, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton. Quite a roster for a debut record. Maybe they knew something that everyone else didn’t.
It’s got lazy Sunday afternoon written all over this album. Sinking In An Ocean Of Tears has something distinctly Boz Scaggs about it, with those emphatic horns and slight infiltration of 70’s Soul. Madge could well have been lifted from James Taylor’s debut record, and Every Minute written on a balcony overlooking the California surf. Maybe it was. Bishop’s sound is very scenic, and very emotive. Great music does that to you – places you somewhere and makes you feel something strongly. This music makes me feel very relaxed, satisfied, mellow and content. Little Italy breaks the mould slightly, with its slightly chirpier tempo – maybe one for late afternoon when the drinks arrive.
The album can be, at times, deeply introspective and moody. One More Night is personal, but again soaked in melody. He appears not to take himself as seriously as say, Jackson Browne, but the instincts to penetrate are there. Save It For A Rainy Day feels like the Bee Gees and solo-career Paul Simon have met on the street corner and decided to collaborate – and I mean that in as complementary a fashion as possible. Clapton rips out a tantalising little solo too that pulls an otherwise inoffensive record into rockier territory.
Bishop goes on to declare “I’ll be your Rock and Roll slave / I’ll be your warm sunny day” in the penultimate track, and for this 35 plus minutes that’s exactly what he is – serving us magnificent soundscapes as we lie back and inhale. The Same Old Tears On A New Background closes the record with a poignancy – it’s light but heavy, if you get me. He sings this like it’s the last song he’ll ever sing. That’s an achievement in itself.
Bishop has never been a chart star, despite this album making number 11 on the Billboard Album Charts, though he has remained in hot demand by movie studios to write or record title themes for their films. Most of his contemporaries from the 70’s wouldn’t have dared. He’s respected by the very best, and this is an absolutely brilliant, soulful, honest, immaculately crafted cult classic.
Before Marvin Gaye was tragically gunned down by his own father on 1st April 1984, he’d already secured his legacy. This masterful album, What’s Going On, was the primary reason.
Responsible for massive global hits such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and SexualHealing, this multi-instrumentalist and three-octave vocalist was one of the most respected and successful Soul artists ever to grace the stage. His death was a waste – shot dead one day before his 45th birthday – a consequence of many feuds within his parents’ home. Marvin’s tale is a sad one lined with gold. I’m here to tell you that, in my opinion, What’s Going On, Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, is the goldest of all his gold.
What’s Going On is a concept album written from the point of view of a returning Vietnam War veteran, who arrives back home to the country he has been fighting for to see nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred. At the time, music wasn’t used to such subversion, and his label, Motown, had no previous history or experience releasing such profoundly political music. This was no Standing In The Shadows Of Love, though in Marvin’s case, the heartaches had already very much come. The opening title track – a very personal and brave statement – is proof in itself. Motown boss Berry Gordy rejected What’s Going On, reportedly calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Thank God he woke up and smelt the coffee.
Whereas the track What’s Going On is the universal declaration of pain, What’s Happening Brother is the personal appeal that peels Gaye’s skin right back. The Funk Brothers are the band bleeding such bitter-sweet sounds all over this – already a landmark recording after just two tracks. Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) is a moody and ominous admission that speaks fearfully of heroin addiction, giving us a glimpse at Gaye’s declining state of mind.
Save The Children is an anthemic, atmospheric plea with a universal message of peace and salvation, and God Is Love a religious dedication, rather ironically, to his eventual murderer, Marvin Pentz Gay Senior. By now in his early 30s, Marvin Gaye would accept nothing but complete control over his music, and you can tell – this is not a man sat in the shadows watching others work the faders. This is the most avant-garde record that Motown ever released; the softest Marvin ever sang with the loudest metaphorical voice.
The album highlight, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), is a magnificent, masterpiece of a track. It has been inducted into The Grammy Hall Of Fame, and boy, do the ghosts of these tracks appear all around us today. It’s an album full of songs that probably resonate more with the state of the world now than it ever did then. There’s not just relevance at the time, but a massive foreboding throughout this record. Despite it’s sorrowful message about the mistreatment of the environment, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, MC Hammer, Todd Rundgren, The Strokes, Pearl Jam, Aswad and Boyz II Men.
Right On changes the landscape of What’s Going On, bringing in a Latin-Soul percussive element that is dominated by a flute – a beautiful change of mood and tempo. Wholy Holy is gospel – a hymn almost. Solemn but sensual. The closing track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), brings the record full circle, ending in the same stunning way that it began. And yes, it makes me wanna holler.
As far as Soul records go, I think it gets no better than this. Soul sensibilities pervading such deep, spiritual subject matter. The man had many personal demons, but he was an incredible musician. One of the finest. Rolling Stone Magazine voted Marvin Gaye #6 on their ‘Greatest Singers Of All Time’ poll, and #18 on their ‘100 Greatest Artists Of All Time’. A legend, and What’s Going On the peak in a glorious career. It’s a must own record for anybody into music. Full stop.
This record set a precedent for change within that genre. The album went on to achieve mass commercial and critical acclaim, being voted ‘Greatest Album Of The 20th Century’ by The Guardian in 1999, and in 2003 voted #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ poll. In 2004 the title track, What’s Going On, was voted #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time poll’. Huge plaudits for a song that was initially turned down for release.
“Mercy, mercy me,” his voice continues to plead, calmly, desperately, longingly, forever.
John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey –Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)
This is a record so thrillingly sinister it leaves Paranormal Activity firmly in the shade. It was copied for me by my mate Andy, who has a cunning ability to grip me with weird and wonderful new music. Not only do the guitars seep under your flesh, but PJ Harvey’s split personality exercise in trying voices on like hats prove totally compelling. I went out and bought the record immediately afterwards. And, I also have to say, that album cover is stunning. Organic, mysterious, gripping.
On the very first listen I was a little unsure about Dance Hall At Louse Point, simply because it was so left-field. It was a bit of a shock to the audio senses, to be honest. However, once I’d realised the importance of immersing myself in this deep, jet-black, eerie, rather hectic record, it all made sense. PJ Harvey is just about the most unique British songwriter there is. John Parish, on this occasion, forms the perfect Yin to her Yang. As an album it was panned by multiple major magazines – Rolling Stone being one – but we’ve all got a right to our opinions, right?
Now, I can’t butter this up – Dance Hall At Louse Point is extremely challenging musically as well as intellectually. Parish is a genius at writing demanding and inventive music, and PJ Harvey’s lyrical contribution stands up to meet it head on, baring her insides and whispering at shadows. I can only liken each song to two trains heading for one another on a beautiful smoky sunset. It’s not for everyone. It was certainly for me.
I was lucky enough to witness a very rare gig by John Parish and PJ Harvey in Birmingham Town Hall early in 2009, in which their second collaboration album, A Woman A Man Walked By, was the focus of their attention. However, they also revisited songs from Dance Hall At Louse Point with style – a magical night of cult entertainment, complete with shrill screams and flashing lights and art-rock wannabes everywhere and gothic imagery and moments of outstanding, frustrating, mesmerising, enigmatic weirdness. I seem to recall a stunning live version of the shimmering opening track to this album, Girl, in which you could have heard a pin drop.
PJ Harvey is somewhat of an enigma; a musical recluse and cult star, she has quantum-stepped in and out of the shadows during a stunning near twenty year career that started in 1992 with her debut record Dry. Her achievements since have been on her terms, which is why she is quite rightly one of the most respected female artists around today. Dance Hall At Louse Point is a major achievement in my eyes – a dazzling record that explores the unlocked rooms in music that most artists dare not dream of entering. Rope Bridge Crossing – a curious, confessional wronged-love song – takes the album closer to the cliff edge. That is a songwriting trait in which Harvey has become exceedingly proficient.
City Of No Sun is a frenetic and intimidating thrasher with idyllic, serene moments, slicing into the charming, acoustic That Was My Veil – one of the album highlights. Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool is a mixed tempo, experimental collage with lots of Gothic imagery – Nick Cave clearly rubbed off on Polly Jean. Civil War Correspondent shows Parish’s extraordinary ability to tinker with sound to paint unusual and percussive soundscapes for Harvey to work with. Her vocals are, essentially, the key strength of the record, but could not assume their power without this highly cerebral music accompanying.
Don’t let anyone tell you a record is too weird to listen to. That’s my motto these days.
Taut is an alarmingly intense, and in parts terrifying track of the likes I’ve never heard before. In fact, I’ve heard this particular tune described as ‘complete madness’ in one review. It’s rather difficult to disagree, though there’s a very fine line between madness and genius. It’s a somewhat industrial and confrontational. Overall a totally unique, if not bemusing piece of art school noise. You might describe it as fucking about, if you were more cynical.
Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil (Circle Around The Sun) is a sombre ballad, and Heela reminiscent of something off Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or at worst something by Floyd, and is interjected by a delightful passage of vocals by John Parish layering Harvey’s pleasurable drone. In fact, Parish’s voice makes you want to punch him and salute him in equal measure – and there it is, the penny has dropped. This is an album that gets on your tits so much it’s simply brilliant. Either that, or my trained ear is so untrained it’s untrue.
The only cover version on the album – a haunting and despairing Is That All There Is – kind of shakes the innocence out of the Hollywood Blockbuster. Nobody but Harvey could deliver this with such morbid sincerity. Title track Dance Hall At Louse Point is a cheeky and brazen instrumental, whilst the final track Lost Fun Zone is an uncharacteristic boogie infused by Harvey’s instruction: “Take me one more time.” I’m not sure where she wants me to take her, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to go. I find myself so exhausted at the end of this record that I’m ready to watch Mr Tumble with some Ben & Jerry’s.
This is by no means an easy record to get into. In similar fashion to Dr John’s Gris Gris, it is challenging from the first note until the sound of that final click. Even PJ Harvey’s own record label condemned the album as “commercial suicide.” However, I am a massive fan – it does something to me that is very difficult to explain. It’s a middle finger to the industry, its ballsy, it’s unhinged, it’s bizarre.
Dance Hall At Louse Point demonstrates artistic bravery, originality, and conviction, and I applaud PJ Harvey and John Parish for making such organic music.
I’d applaud you more if you had the balls to give it a chance.
For somebody with a Jim Morrison tattoo, it took me a surprisingly long time to get The Doors. But boy, when I got them, I really got them. They literally ended up under my skin.
The Doors, released in January 1967, was the debut album by the now-legendary American psychedelic-rock band, led by the zaney Lizard King and moonlight vocalist, Jim Morrison. Recorded in 1966 at Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood, California, it was produced by Paul A. Rothchild, and has not only ended up in the Grammy Hall Of Fame, but also included in the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress based on its cultural, artistic and historical significance.
So, yes, it’s a big deal.
In fact, this is one of the great albums of the 1960’s. Although it was primarily only a hit in America, it is now a globally recognised classic. Jim Morrison has become a cult legend since his death in Paris in 1971, immortalising the music of The Doors further – particularly heavyweights off this album, such as the doom-laden The End, which seemed to foreshadow his untimely demise. Complete with Oedipal speaking section from a deranged sounding Morrison, and built upon a hypnotic guitar riff, it is both bewitching and disturbing. Of course, throw a bit of death and martyrdom into the mix and music often becomes sacred. Maybe that’s because we know, as fans, that the chapter is forever closed? Or maybe it’s because martyrdom is duly justified? It’s contentious, but it doesn’t alter the facts. The Doors, despite its success and wide-reaching appeal, is a cult masterpiece.
This magical debut record is special for many reasons. None more so, of course, than the spiralling fable that is Light My Fire. The extraordinary performance by Ray Manzarek on the Vox organ is the feature of this pioneering, somewhat unhinged temptation…I mean, you wouldn’t want your little sister sneaking off to light Morrison’s fire, would you? It swirls and leaps like a blue flame through a vortex of psychedelic sounds for over seven minutes.
Break On Through (To The Other Side) – the album’s thumping opening track – was the first single release by The Doors, and became one of their staple songs. It was controversial because of its drug references (“She gets high!“), but demonstrated Morrison’s instinctive ability to devise poetic lyrics. After all, Jim Morrison was a poet, and true rock’n’roll isn’t complete without that dangerous edge.
Back Door Man, a stomping cover of Willie Dixon’s original, is delivered with all the sexual deviancy and angst that Morrison can muster. He delivers these tracks like sermons from the shadows, face in the dark, crotch in the spotlight. Soul Kitchen – my personal favourite on the album – is a surging, kaleidoscopic anthem that carries the fire from Break On Through. There’s something about going “Stumblin’ in the neon groves” that fills the mind with possibilities. John Densmore, the hippy on the drums, keeps a spectacularly metronomic beat.
Twentieth Century Fox is a stoner’s ode to a gorgeous girl, Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) the other riveting cover (interestingly enough co-written by Bertold Brecht) – yet another song loaded with danger and controversy, and End Of The Night a dreamy, hazy interlude. There’s a no-bullshit philosophy that permeates this record, and Morrison seems to thrive on revolt, disorder, chaos, and stirring his band into a sanitarium worthy frenzy. Had Manzarek not looked so much like a school teacher, and Kreiger a smacked-up high-school drop out, The Doors might have looked really menacing.
The Crystal Ship is a fantastic, progressive ballad with one of Morrison’s finest lyrics – so mature for a man so young. I Looked At You is a nihilistic boogie, and Take It As It Comes a decadent, mysterious but melodious belter – as intoxicating as anything Hendrix had to offer with the savageness and threat of Iggy Pop thrown in. Does that sound intriguing enough?
The Doors is an almost faultless collection of tunes. I became so heavily consumed by them in my late teens that I bought all their albums in short succession, and even made several homages to Jim Morrison’s grave site in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Their influence on my life has been phenomenal; Jim Morrison’s lyrics and posthumous collections of poetry have been huge inspirations for my own writing, and the amazing music created by Ray Manzarek, Robby Kreiger and John Densmore a soundtrack to my younger years.
If there’s one word I could use to sum this album up, it would be this: revolution.
Sebastien Tillier is a French musician, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who represented France in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2008 with his song Divine. Don’t let that put you off. He’s also produced songs for Dita Von Teese, as well as composing music for the French films Narco and Steak. Despite his Eurovision episode, Tillier is not a limelight-grabber; more an eccentric with a very individual approach and solitary direction. He is currently signed to Record Makers, a French independent record label, which released this album – Politics – in 2004.
Politics is Sébastien Tillier’s second album, and one that sparked lively debate about this new and rather mysterious artist. Upon listening to the record you’ll not be at all surprised to learn that he’s friends with French electronica masters, Air – they in fact own the Record Makers label. Their influence is all over Politics. I can also hear the likes of Hot Chip, Scott Walker and Jean Michel-Jarre in there too. The songs are sung in English, German and Spanish, and it has since emerged that he can also sing in Italian. He’s a talented cat, is old Sebastien, but the album is far from perfection. In fact, I’ve rarely been left so frustrated by such a contrast come the end of a record.
Some of this album is stunning. The likes of La Ritournelle is super slick, subtle French pop with the coolest of Air vibes. I’ve read that it has been often compared to Massive Attack’s huge hit Unfinished Sympathy, and I can hear it. The edginess and of that piano hook is equally as hypnotic. Bye-bye recollects Scott Walker in his heyday, Benny is eyes-wide-open quirky (if not a touch irritable), and League Chicanos a roving electro-tinged romp with McCartney-esque juxtapositions and a sublime Latino melody. The Parisian polymath’s sound maybe somewhat unfashionable (with at least one eye on disco), but the seducing synth of Wonderafrica – distinctly 80’s and shamelessly silly, is nothing short of absorbing.
The album has lowlights, too. La Tuerie is practically unbearable. I don’t know how many times the skip button has been employed but it must be two dozen. Also, Ketchup v Genocide is more like a Kraftwerk piss take than a serious entry onto the record, and Zombi a mediocre attempt at You Are What You Is-era Zappa. Maybe Tillier was scraping the barrel, or maybe he just doesn’t give a fuck. Either way, these detours detract from a record with immense potential. Politics would be much more memorable if it weren’t for Tillier’s loose quality control.
If you have an ear for electronica, particularly French band, Air, you’ll probably be fond of Sebastien Tillier. His music is certainly curious, maybe even charming. The good stuff is, actually, really GREAT. His cinematic splashes on the already loungy, laid-back French pop canvas demonstrate an artist with conviction and talent. I bought more of his records after Politics, and i wasn’t disappointed.
I was visiting a mate who I was playing in a band with at the time, and he lived right by a huge Tesco store that had very recently become Southport’s first 24-hour supermarket. I was sixteen years old, and my musical interest was sparked. We decided to walk down there late one night and check out the records – it was only a short wander through a few back lanes and alleys, through a derelict carpark and then into the lights. Those were the days when supermarkets were like record shops – and I had this strange compulsion to buy this unusual looking album on the shelf. Something about the artwork seemed to swallow me whole. I just knew, somehow, from the artwork, that I would like the music. Gut instinct is a curious thing, isn’t it?
The album was Bring It On by Gomez, and I had no idea at the time how odd this compulsion would turn out to be. Buying it purely on instinct, I had no idea that I was paying for a record from a band hailing from my own home town, Southport, and I had no idea that the guys in Gomez had attended the same college where I was studying at the time. I had even less idea that this would become one of my favourite records ever. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust those instinctive feelings and ride with them.
The strength of this brilliant debut can be measured by the fact that it won the 1998 Mercury Music Prize for Album Of The Year, beating off contenders such as Urban Hymns by The Verve and Mezzanine by Massive Attack. I mean, it beat Urban Hymns. Holy shit! That’s massive.
Spin Magazine called Bring It On it “a damn beautiful album,” and it went Platinum in the U.K almost immediately. It was a time where indie bands had crept from the shadows of the stage into the full glare of the spotlight. Britpop had raged, and a new musical assault was forming. It was beyond indie – a fusion of vintage with futuristic. Gomez were in the right place, at the right time, with the right record.
Gomez combine a very clever, steaming cauldron of American Blues, Jazz, Grass-Roots, R&B and warm, harmonious melodies on Bring It On. It’s endlessly inventive, with its paeans to local weed dealers, trippy marshmellow-stepping horns, rollocking studenty drinking ballads and accidental jams-turned epiphanies. I saw the boys back in 1999 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, where, funnily enough, Gomez were supported by a little known band called Coldplay. It was a great gig that demonstrated the depth of this unique line-up of musicians – and it only cost a tenner! Just imagine…
Bring It On begins with the russet tones of Get Miles, a captivating progression through colourful Americana tones. Whippin’ Piccadilly is a jaunty and truly British tune, which, whilst appealing to a slightly more commercial faction, also shows the songwriting diversity within the group. Make No Sound is folksy and brilliantly minimalist, 78 Stone Wobble a febrile two-step with a killer hook, and Tijuana Lady, the immense album highlight, a shambling, psychy epic. That’s a song with an afterlife, that one.
Other highlights on a warm and somewhat fuzzy record include the fascinating Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone, the clumsy but endearing Bubble Gum Years, and the groovy, driving Rock-release of Get Myself Arrested. Here Comes The Breeze is a kind of back-country sonic Blues that provides a perfect platform for Ben Ottewell’s rusty, prematurely smoked vocal, Free To Run a Country soaked ramble, and Rie’s Wagon something straight off an indie-bleached, mysterious Spaghetti Western.
Gomez are a cult band. They’ve never attacked the charts or become famed personalities. In fact, they could all walk down the street unnoticed, which is remarkable when considering their achievements. Their legacy is in their sound; a whimsical, often strange, a little gauche but always compelling melting pot of beguiling influences.
You don’t win The Mercury Music Award without something special going down. Michael Kiwanuka won it in 2020, and if you follow my blog you’ll already know what I think of him. You don’t make a record like Bring It On without being inspired.
Lou Reed has never quite settled well with me. I’ve got to be blatantly honest. When he was alive I just didn’t get him. Yes, ok, Walk On The Wild Side is a great track, as is Perfect Day. I was certainly roused by Coney Island Baby. However, I found the man incredibly pretentious and unnecessarily volatile. At times it was like he was out to rile his own fans, even. His gross unpredictability during his life, in my eyes, was all too often mistaken as interesting.
I mean, I guess I’m just going the long way round – the guy was a bit of a twat.
The one record, however, that Lou Reed was instrumental on that really gripped me was The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was the first record Reed was involved making, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico. And it has become a staple cult classic album – especially since this art-house, experimental trip through drug abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy was so heavily associated with artist, Andy Warhol. Hence the album cover.
It’s very strange, of course, how the music industry pulls its punches. It’s not strange that the major critics are usually failed musicians themselves. Upon release, this album was a flop. A commercial and financial failure that was largely ignored. Controversies surrounding the thematic content of the record led to the record being banned from record stores and radio airplay alike. But there’s no such publicity like bad publicity, is there?
Over forty years later The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the most revered and critically acclaimed records on the planet, reaching #13 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’. It was also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006 to commemorate its cultural impact. In other words, the fortune of this unique masterpiece turned on its head tenfold. In fact, it’s considered so profoundly influential that, without it, Punk Rock, Glam Rock, and Kraut Rock may never have happened.
The Velvet’s blurring of Pop music sensibilities with avant-garde, edgy, often disturbing subject matter and eerie instrumentation inspired the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Nirvana, REM and The Stooges, to name but a few. Would there have been Ziggy without the Velvets, for example? Bowie would have been a brave man.
Heroin, one of the most remarkably manic cuts of avant-garde experimental bluster you’re ever likely to hear, is a definite highlight on an unpredictable record. The 60’s inspired There She Goes steals from Dylan’s jagged sincerity, but also nods to the classic R&B sound of The Yardbirds and The Troggs. I’ll Be Your Mirror, sang by the strikingly idiosyncratic Nico, echoes something distinctly Mama’s and Papa’s – just a little darker. The Black Angel’s Death Song is a rather deranged, frenetic experiment akin to something on Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and European Son a funky groove that takes the album spiralling off somewhere else entirely.There’s just enough maudlin, just enough experiment in equal measure.
Sunday Morning is an airy, spacious pop ballad, yet still with those semi-sinister undertones that epitomise the record. I’m Waiting For The Man, a garage-rock satire on prostitution, is delivered with typical (somewhat tuneless) Lou Reed detachment. And yet, it works! I try hard not to like him, but on this record it’s just impossible.
Femme Fatale is a sparse opiate; a recording depicting a tragic story. Nico’s mysterious accent underpins the song with subtle power, before the seriously hot-blooded Venus In Furs scuffles through its mournful, lachrymose lament. Run Run Run is bluesy – a nod to The Doors in their Roadhouse-era glory, and All Tomorrow’s Parties a feverish rumbling anchored by a repetitive piano hook. A very unique listening experience.
It’s all rather bewitching to say the least, and evidence that these guys either had fabulous imaginations or a penchant for severe over-indulgence. Either way, it’s a highly original album. Producer and musician extraordinaire, Brian Eno, famously said that despite very few people buying The Velvet Underground & Nico upon its release in 1967, those that did went on to form famous bands of their own. It really was that influential.
Andy Warhol, who was credited with producing the album, and paid for the studio time to record the album, was clearly influential. That whole ‘Factory’ scene, and Warhols futuristic approach to life and art, permeated The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was a scene so unique – so one-off– that this fascinating musical project will be forever shrouded in mystique and legend.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is a piece of art in itself, not just a record. A remarkable, revolutionary piece of work.