Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 26

The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)

When you’re short of a record that you know everybody will like, Urban Hymns is always a great choice – triumphant and upstanding in any company, and spanning a wealth of musical genres.

This now legendary record is a landmark in 90’s popular culture, and in my opinion, shits all over anything Oasis ever did. A genuine British masterpiece. Bitter Sweet Symphony – to this day The Verve’s most successful single – was a seminal release in British music history. Fusing classical chamber music with contemporary indie-rock is no mean feat. Performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, and written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the score to this track stood untouched for years before Richard Ashcroft got his creative mitts on it and wrote a lyric. The finished product is definitely a contender for single of the 90’s.

If that wasn’t enough of a revolutionary opening, the album rolls into Sonnet, another of the four big singles off Urban Hymns, and one of the outstanding examples of Ashcroft’s urban songwriting. It’s also extremely difficult to get melancholy to soar; though Ashcroft seems to find it easy. The Rolling People is Zeppy in its eye-closing heaviness and oblique escapism, perhaps with a splash of U2’s Achtung Baby era. “I just can’t make it alone” sums up the core of the record. And, if U2 meets Zep isn’t enough of a mesh-comparison to wet the lips, I suggest you take up crown green bowls. 

The Drugs Don’t Work is a necessary sombre; utterly sincere and affected from former junkie, Ashcroft. An endearing message to younger people about the perils of addiction. The mass of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries – these very human songs rang a huge collective bell. It’s the relate-ability of Ashcroft’s craft that makes this so compelling and accessible. Four songs in and you know you’ve definitely got a serious record on your hands.

Catching The Butterfly is, again, reminiscent of the industrial sounds used on U2’s Achtung Baby, and Neon Wilderness an immersing, spacial jam written by guitarist Nick McCabe. Ashcroft was quoted in the early 90’s saying ‘history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there’ – turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. These songs are now fabled – take Space And Time for example – an atmospheric, wistful ballad that marked the hangover of Britpop. Just superb, as one might say on a Sunday afternoon nursing a pint. Suberb.

Weeping Willow is deeply and emotive. Comparisons have been drawn to Radiohead here, and why not. It’s a  groove that leads brilliantly into the album highlight, Lucky Man. I was fifteen years old when I became obsessed with this amazing single. I vividly remember being immersed in some History coursework on Native Americans when I first heard it, and it quite simply opened up another dimension in my mind. That intro is just mesmeric. And so very, very simple. A magical achievement, both from a songwriting and recording perspective. I’ve performed this song myself hundreds, if not thousands of times for live audiences, and it never fails to be one of the best received of all live tracks – simply because of its stature. A song that defined an era, not just in my own life, but the lives of many. A song that, long after The Verve are forgotten, will still be an enduring part of the woodwork. And let’s face it, how many amongst us can consider themselves a lucky man?

Just when you’re wondering where this record can possibly go after that audible hurricanethis band pull out another piece of musical treasure. One Day, a sublime, experimental ballad shows the delicacy and poetics involved in Ashcroft’s craft: “One day baby we will dance again under fiery skies/One day maybe you will love again, love that never dies.” Immense depth of feeling from such a young musician, and justification for their often touted Space Rock / Shoegaze hybrid label.

Ashcroft’s memorable and everlasting tunesmithery bleeds and swoons and crashes and howls. Urban Hymns has far outlived the band, and many of its contemporaries. It’s also worth mentioning that the rest of the band need equal affirmation since Ashcroft often swamps the limelight: Simon Jones (bass), Peter Salisbury (drums), Nick McCabe (lead guitar), and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards). I hope that Urban Hymns sits snugly on every music lovers’ shelf, and is dusted off occasionally as a reminder that there was something worth caring about in the 1990’s.

It was, of course, Liam that snarled: “Is it my imagination or have we finally found something worth living for?” The answer, back in 1997, was yes: Urban Hymns.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Roger Sargent / Shutterstock

Top track trio:

Lucky Man

One Day

Velvet Morning


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 25

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Radiohead, as a concept, is a tectonic plate – constantly shifting, constantly tense, constantly threatening to explode. They are so far out on the edge, still, after all these years, that they’re gripping our reality by a thread. I’ve learned to love that about them.

every time they bring out a new record you literally have no idea what to expect. You’ve got AC/DC, who write the same song over and over again (brilliantly, I might add), and at the other end of the spectrum there’s Radiohead, who you wouldn’t waste a single pound on by making a prediction. They almost intuitively reject their last project in the next one – distance themselves, you could say, like an ex-lover. i’ll never forget the first time I slipped A Moon Shaped Pool into the CD player and heard Burn The Witch. My God. In fact, I think that’s pretty much all I could come up with. It was weeks later, after multiple listens, that I realised how weighty and epochal and downright bloody great it was.

The once slightly weird and maybe even unhinged 90’s indie band aren’t young men anymore. And I’d encourage you to ignore that rather laborious description I’ve just presented of this band since they are so much more than that, and then some. They are the Pink Floyd of their own generation, in fact. Massive statement, I know. I’m not making direct comparisons – just analysing the gravitas of this music and their body of work. Thom Yorke is the paranoid android come to fill our alternative ears with joy. And on this record, Radiohead’s ninth studio outing, he, along with other founder members Colin Greenwood, Jonny greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Segway, certainly do that.

Good luck trying to decode the likes of Decks Dark and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, but if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones, the swell of ambience pouring into the ears is majestic regardless. I love Desert Island Disk; a moody, art-rock masterpiece that hides much more than it dares to show. Ful Stop is surely a snippet of futurism – neurotic and slippery – it’s almost incomprehensible when wondering how you’d write something like that. Dazzling, and almost pretty, which would possibly make a Radiohead purist puke. Sorry.

Of course, a Radiohead record wouldn’t be complete without some sort of monstrous foreboding or suffocating gloom – and neither would we want it to be. Identikit is an unsettling lyric that employs the influence of classical chamber music. It leaves you wondering if Thom is a closet bubbly bloke or as melancholy as some of his music is. Most. In a good way. This is a band still travelling without moving, and long may they feel the itch if they keep making records like this.

The Numbers is shit-hot, groovy, borrowing-from-early-70’s dimly lit cult Funk and Soul curvature. I’ve read that back, but I’m not changing it. Listen to bass and tell me you’re not enchanted. And so we have a record here that is Art-Rock at its finest. Some mistake Art-Rock for pretentiousness, but I prefer to consider it imagination. This is a band that seem to be as imaginative as ever thirty years into their career, so don’t expect hit singles any time soon.

The charts, are you listening? MEOW.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Burn The Witch

Desert Island Disk

The Numbers


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 19

Stephen Bishop – Careless (1976)

What a very special record this is.

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.

Oh, by the way. I let the postman off.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Stephen Bishop

Top track trio:

On And On

Never Letting Go

Careless


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 11

Arthur Brown has that slightly unfortunate (or fortunate?!) problem of being remembered as a one hit wonder. The Whitby-born British singer songwriter, heralded for his outlandish flamboyance and theatrical, banshee bewailing, had that single….

Yes, you may remember.

He was the loony-looking stick-thin shaman dancing about in a flaming helmet screaming ‘I am the God of Hellfire!’ on those grainy, pixelated snippets of late 60’s footage. Fire, his only enduring single release in a career that is worthy of so much more, reached No. 1 in the UK in August 1968 and No.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 a few months later. It not only snatched him from the underground shadows of psychedelic obscurity and into the global spotlight, but saw him emerge as the Godfather of the kind of shock rock that would inspire Alice Cooper, Kiss and Marilyn Manson, amongst others.

As a result of the emphatic success of Fire, its parent album The Crazy World of Arthur Brown reached number 2 in on the UK Album Charts and number 7 in the US. That, in itself, is achievement aplenty. However, critics have suggested that the aforementioned massive single, Fire – a terrific, if not eerie brain-worm – was solely responsible for the album’s success. I beg to differ. I think this is a stunning record, which offers so much more than a disappointing one-hit-wonder slog through baggage. In fact, Fire isn’t even the best track on it.

Arthur Brown has a voice that can only be described as a gift. Who or what gifted it to him is up for debate. I mean, the guy is eccentric to say the least. Weird, even. A completely free-spirited man with zero inhibitions, and a knack of hypnotising you with his unexpected ascents from deeply resonant monologues to compelling falsetto screams.

If you ever get chance to see Arthur live (he’s touching 79), you’ll never be the same again. I’ve had the pleasure twice. The first time he was supporting former Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert Plant, and performed the vast majority of his set either lying inside a wicker sack or cavorting in the audience. The second time, after I’d recovered from the trauma, he was performing his own headline show in The Robin, Wolverhampton, and was equally as colourful. I was older then – I’d seen much more shit going down on the streets and in the sewers, so Arthur wasn’t quite as intimidatingly martian. In fact, I met him after the show (see pic below) and managed to get a signed record – the real shock was that he was so indistinguishably normal. The God of Hellfire was, in fact, just Arthur. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Arthur Brown (centre), me (right) and my mate, Greg (left)

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown is the cornerstone of Brown’s wild, dramatic live-rock-theatre. Prelude/Nightmare, and Fanfare/Fire Poem, the poetic and somewhat narcotic openers, precede Fire, and build the sort of tension and anticipation that you rarely hear on a record. The angelic declaration: “There’s only one way out – go bathe yourself in fire” at the beginning of Fanfare is both eerie and profound in equal measure. Time/Confusion is such a beautiful comedown, and the menacing Come And Buy that follows enough to make you hide in bed pull the sheets over your head.

Yes, it’s a dark record – but that’s the heart of the appeal for me. Brown’s voice is spectacular on his cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, I Put A Spell On You. I mean, this guy can really sing. Don’t be fooled by all the pomp and ceremony. At the root of it all is a very special singer. There’s some amazing musicianship on this album too, not least on closing track I’ve Got Money – a raucous, soulful swagger.

Much bigger names have failed to have an album as successful on the world stage as The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. You don’t top the charts on both side of the Atlantic on the strength of just one song. The proof is in the pudding. This is a great and timeless album, and just about as cult as it gets.

Fire…I’ll take you to burn…Fire…I’ll take you to learn…

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Todd V. Wolfson

Top track trio:

Prelude/Nightmare

Fire

Come And Buy


Being early doesn’t always pay…

The year was 2010.

And, sorry, I’m going to ruin the story straight away by assuring you that everything ended well.

However, it began terribly.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood announced a really unexpected joint tour – and by joint, I don’t mean two separate sets – they were promising a full show on stage together. I got straight on the phone to my bandmate Adrian and spilled a million reasons why we had to be there. He listened patiently then informed me that his arm didn’t need to be twisted up his back. And so, that was that.

The closest gig was at Birmingham LG Arena, so we booked tickets months in advance and excited ourselves stupid with every mention of it. After all, both these legends were getting on. Right?

The date of the gig was the 18th May, 2010. It was clearly written on the ticket. They had arrived at my house, and been filed away safely, away from reckless lurking hands ‘cleaning up’ or the overly-vexatious boxer dog. In fact, I’d slipped them inside my vinyl copy of The Beatles’ Blue Album. That was the Holy Grail in my house that no-one else dare touch.

I’ve always loved the feel of a concert ticket in my hand. They feel like freedom and possibility and exhilaration. I love the writing on them, big and bold…a famous name that promises to become a face, right in front of you. The curious hologram. The date – a moment of your personal history captured in print. That thrilling line of punched holes, ready to be ripped by a bored concierge with spots and sincere disinterest. The type that have no idea who the legends are you’re going to see.

Adrian, the great guitar player and co-singer in our regularly gigging duo, Little Wing, had nothing to do with the admin. I handled it, paid for it, and he simply reimbursed the cash. I was just about as experienced a gig-goer as anyone you could possibly meet from my generation. I’d watched hundreds, all over the world. I could reel a few off to impress you if you like? The Eagles in Melbourne, Australia. Chuck Berry in Luxembourg City. The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in Paris. Paul Weller in Benacassim, Spain. Leonard Cohen in Montruex, Switzerland. I could go on, but I’m sensing you hating me already.

The point being, I’d been on trains, planes, ferries, trams, buses, cars…basically everything but horseback to get to gigs. Logistically, for a daydreaming technophobe, I was pretty slick. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, how about this.

“Hey, Adrian, you ready for the gig this week?”

“Yes, great.”

“You fancy driving? We’ll split the petrol?” (Tactical – he’s not really a drinker).

“No problem. Let’s set off early and get there in good time.”

So, off we went on our two-plus hour jaunt down the M6 to Birmingham playing Clapton and Winwood CD’s, riling ourselves up for the gig of a lifetime.

Upon arrival in Birmingham we were surprised by the lack of traffic.

“I knew setting off early was a good idea,” Adrian said.

I’d spotted a McDonalds, so my attention was otherwise occupied.

“Yep,” I said.

When we landed at Birmingham LG Arena a short while later, we were even more astonished to see no cars in the car park. In fact, the whole place was a ghost town. The barrier was down, and when we approached the gate a baffled looking security guy stepped out of a small hut and approached the van.

“Can I help, lads?”

“Hi mate, yeah, we’re here for the Clapton / Winwwod gig,” Adrian said since he lingered at the driver’s side.

“The what?”

I leant over. “Eric Clapton,” I reiterated. “And Steve Winwood. Here. Tonight.”

What?”

I wanted to shout THE FUCKING GIG! but the genuine concern spreading across the bloke’s face stopped me in my tracks. Adrian turned to face me and that sinking feeling melted me into my seat.

“No gig on here tonight, Lads,” the Brummy chap said, hands aloft in apology.

“Fucking hell,” I whispered, pulling the tickets out of the envelope. The guy stuck around for the climax. “But it says here, the Birmingham LG Arena, tonight.”

The guy leant into the car to see the tickets in my hand. Then he slowly withdrew.

“That ticket says 18th May, mate. It’s the 11th today.”

Well, my ass fell clean through the van flooring. Adrian laughed. I sank back into my seat, horrified by my own stupidity. Other people might have punched me. Adrian said:

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

The only compensation for such a mistake was that we arrived a week early and not a week late, but it wasn’t round the corner. We made the best of the situation, and had a rather nice curry before making the trip home.

The following week we made the gig, on the correct day. We even got there for the correct time and sat in the right seats. We did really well. Clapton and Winwood were superb – a raucous mix of tunes from both solo careers, Cream, Traffic, Derek & The Dominoes, The Spencer Davis Group and some covers too. A career spanning retrospective by two of England’s finest. Clapton’s slowhand was on fire, and Winwood’s voice better than ever. Well worth the two trips!

© Southport Reporter

Anyway, we’re still friends. We still play music.

I don’t book the tickets anymore.