An adventure in South East Asia. Part 2: “Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions”- Todd Phillips

21 Aug

Nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with getting there and planning the Cambodian part of my journey, I’d let my first port of call shift to the back of my mind, which is quite something when you’re about to arrive there.

I was actually enjoying the flight so much that I wasn’t thinking too much about Bangkok (Qatar Airways certainly make the travel experience a joy, but more about them on the way back as well as their blatant attempts to remind us of their future stint as World Cup hosts). Arriving in Bangkok from Doha, which is considerably warmer than England, and the first thing I noticed was the temperature. Underneath the air conditioning was a heat I noticed as soon as I exited the plane. Yeah well, I thought I was noticing it then; the hottest was still to come. So, there I was, with my own sweat pouring into my underwear like it’d been raining, trying to broach the language barrier in order to give the tuk tuk guy directions. My Bangkok baptism of fire! To be honest, his English was better than my Thai and he even attempted some rudimentary conversation while we whizzed along the congested streets. I just kept smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, while gripping the arms of the Tuk Tuk seat with sweat still pouring down my bum (I quickly learned that the high speeds make the thing feel like it’s about to go over on one side, but it never does).

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View from my first tuk tuk ride. It almost looks car fume free.

Now, here’s a tip for you, passed on by my very good South East Asia travelling friends (and it won’t be the last). When you arrive at Bangkok Airport, and you’ve got your luggage, keep going down. Follow the escalators as far down as possible and you’ll reach the rail link or ‘skytrain’. For around 24bt, you’ll get a plastic coin token to operate the barriers and that’ll be valid to the final stop in the centre of Bangkok, which is where you get off.

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My first experience of being in the centre of Bangkok was coming out of the air conditioned ‘safety’ of the train and covered station and into the dusty heat of the streets. Prior to becoming acclimatised, it felt like standing near a blast furnace. After dropping two layers of clothing which had gamely survived on my person to that point, I hailed my first tuk tuk and off I went! My Guesthouse was near the infamous Thanon Kao San. I say infamous, but it’s more pleasantly edgy than all out scary. Think of Las Vegas having a secret affair with Blackpool front and the offspring being hastily shipped off to South East Asia to avoid any embarrassment to Vegas. That’s sort of what Khoa San road looks like; bright neon signs fight for attention on the crowded walls, there are guesthouses and hostels and bars aplenty and the market stalls never seem to close, with the smell of fresh food permeating the night air. Known as ‘back packer’s paradise’ for many decades, the Koah San Road district was originally an area of canals, now largely built over, and was once a major rice market.

The heat in Bangkok means that although some significant tourist attractions aren’t too far away, you are usually better getting a tuk tuk or a taxi to reach them. The Ratanakosin area is the best place to start your exploration of the city, and offers Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace, which I’ll tell you about later.

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Wat Intharawihan

Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok

 

So Khoa San road is a good spot to stay on a first visit as it’s not far from Ratanakosin. It is in the Banglamphu area of (Phra Nakhon district) about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) north of The Grand Palace (more of which later) and Wat Phra Keaw. Journalist Susan Orlaean once called Khoa San Road “the place to disappear” for any travellers wishing to escape the West,  and anyone who has read Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel The Beach, will have an idea of the kind of opportunities for that kind of ‘disappearance’.

 

Ok, there are many tourist attractions in a city as large and as vibrant as Bangkok, but I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s cut to the chase and get the elephant in the room taken back to the zoo…no, I didn’t meet any ‘lady-boys’ and I didn’t go in a place with this type of sign outside:

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been absolutely fascinated to do so (‘yeah, I bet you wouldn’t’, say several readers) but I didn’t really see many and didn’t go looking for them. Which yes, I hear you say, would be the right decision, given the misogynistic hallmarks (at the very least) of such practices! Basically, if you want to see Thai woman ejecting ping pong balls from their vaginas, then I imagine you will have an absolutely astounding holiday. Equally , if you want some good food, culture and other adventures, you’ll be equally gratified. Well, ok, maybe ‘gratified’ was the wrong word to use there, but you know what I mean. You’ll be …happy!

So, no…no ping pong balls.

Lots of Bangkok street food though, which you’d be a fool not to try. It’s arguably the best street food in the world. I now have a serious noodle desire, and Pot Noodle will not cut it.

 

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Khoa San Road

According to Wikipedia, which I can back up as fact. Khoa San Road “…is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north to Ko Pa Ngran in the south…” Visas and transportation to neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, can also be organised.

One word of warning though, is to veer on the side of caution when dealing with street vendors and tuk tuk drivers and the like. My first tuk tuk trip from Khoa San Road was a minor disaster. An agreement to pay 100 baht for a trip to the Grand Palace and other sites, ended in numerous visits to tailors and gem shops. Because I made a point of challenging this (which is common practice), I ended up walking fifteen minutes to the Pace as the guy had just dropped me off, realising his scam was revealed. 100 baht is no big deal; just a few quid, but it was frustrating. Some tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots with the owners of businesses such as a tailor, and get commission from bringing in tourists. It’s not what you’ve asked for, so don’t be afraid to challenge this. Even better, I’d avoid any tuk tuk drivers down Khoa San Road, and pick one up elsewhere. For 100baht you might even get him to wait around while you explore the various sites. Seriously, they’ll be glad to do it, and before I put you off, most of the Bangkok residents are hugely friendly and honest people.

 

I’d arrived in Bangkok during a Buddhist festival prohibiting all sale of alcohol. Just so you understand, I wasn’t tripping over myself to get plastered and hit the town, but it did make my first impressions of Khoa San Road more subdued than they would normally be. One frustrating outcome was that any bars selling alcohol were closed, including the wonderful Altern the 13th Blues Bar, which I had to visit on my return visit. I’d check in advance about this sort of thing, especially if you’ve got designs on having an ice cool beer when you arrive.

Buddhism is, as you probably know, a huge part of Thai culture and is the majority religion by a significant margin. Buddhism permeates the life and culture of many South Asian countries, and the very least you can do before visiting is just educate yourself on the etiquette and customs, more to make your journey a pleasant embarrassment free one more than avoiding offending anyone. Wats (Buddhist temples) will require you to cover up your arms and legs, so simple considerations like that are what I’m talking about. I’ll write more about Buddhism later.

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Laksameenarai Guesthouse

The guesthouse I stayed in is one I heartily recommend. It’s a traditional Thai house, that’s been converted and was a welcome oasis of calm just five minutes from the hustle of Khoa San Road. If you’re in Bangkok you can do worse that book yourself in The Laksameenarai Guesthouse. It was truly great, with friendly service and comfy surroundings. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. Now, that’s just my recommendation, so feel free to shop around. There are more guesthouses and hostels in that area than you can shake your keys at. If you want to go upmarket, a plusher hotel room need not coast you an extortionate amount, but again, just spend a bit of time comparing prices and reviews. For westerners, Thailand is still good value for money. As I said in my Istanbul blogs, two years ago, some accommodation lends itself more to meeting people, which I would suggest is a better idea if you’re travelling solo. Even if you’re a bit more introverted, you’re going to want more than going back to the same four walls at some point. I met some nice people at the guesthouse, including a large proportion of Dutch people, who were unrelated, they just happened to all be there at the same time. The first of many late night drinking sessions occurred at Laksammnarai, which half the conversation in Dutch and half in English. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Double Dutch?

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Bangkok’s assault on the senses means that a few days is not really enough to truly appreciate it, and I was glad to be returning in a few weeks, so this blog will return to the Thai capital in more detail. Bangkok is a relatively young capital, replacing Ayutthaya as the capital in 1782, following the Burmese sacking of the old capital. It now has a population forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai, and has become one of the most vibrant and fashionable cities in Asia.

 

After a few days in Bangkok, my plan was to leave Thailand for Cambodia, which meant some careful planning on an early morning train and the not inconsiderable challenge of getting to Aranyaprathet, near the border, navigating tuk tuk journeys, border scams and immigration and a trip by bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Next time I’ll give you an almost fool proof guide to getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap without paying a fortune, and having an adventure along the way.

See you next time, on the Bangkok to Aranyaprathet express!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 1: Destination: Bangkok!

10 Aug

“What am I doing in this place?” was a question to enter my mind on several occasions over the last month, only equal in its regularity to “Why didn’t I come here sooner?” From the highs of seeing the awe inspiring remains of an ancient empire to the lows of being essentially stranded without a plan, I will share it all!

Regular readers will remember my trip to Istanbul two years ago, which I documented here and many of you gave me some positive feedback following those blogs. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d repeat the idea for another trip, this time a much longer one. As I also said two years ago, when I did those similar travel blogs, “…this is ostensibly a blog about creative arts, particularly music and film. But occasionally I do like to submit something a little more personal, which hopefully doesn’t drift too far from the blog’s remit”. Hopefully that still stands, and be assured, that all things creative will feature.

Back in 2014, I made the observation that “…as I was travelling on my own, I didn’t necessarily want to culture shock myself with a week in rural Peru or a sabbatical in Yemen. You’ve got to take these things in easy stages”. Yes, I can wryly laugh at that now (which, admittedly, was a sensible attitude to have for a first significant solo trip), because in 2016 I did go much further and really did aim to culture shock myself. I largely succeeded as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I also said that Istanbul was, “exotic and foreign enough without sending my usually high stress levels into outer space with worry about whether I was going to get by with no language or culture in common”. Again, this trip was almost going to be a deliberate attempt to push the boundaries beyond what I would have been comfortable with just two years ago.

Solo travel isn’t, as I’ve observed before, for everyone. It does require a certain level of tenacity and boldness. That isn’t to say I had those qualities in boundless supply, or didn’t make some significant mistakes on my travels, but it did make sure I got off on them in the first place.

 

Ok, so for one reason or another, for three weeks in July and August 2016, I ended up in Thailand and Cambodia in South East Asia; a long way from home basically, but fortunately with a plan. Sort of. What I was to discover was that having a plan isn’t the all ensuring preliminary against disaster I might have thought. When you’re in a very foreign land, with potential language and culture barriers, shit can, and often will, happen. Hopefully this series of blogs might help prepare any would be traveller to South East Asia, and hopefully we can have some laughs along the way.

 

My first advice would be to book your flights well in advance, if possible, in order to get them (much) cheaper. Prices apparently tend to drop nearer the time as well, but that’s not a gamble I would personally take. I left my purchases a bit too late, but you should be able to get cheaper flights than that. I booked through Qatar Airways, but I’ve been told Emirates have some good deals. Once you’re over there, things are generally quite cheap (and in comparison to some of the locals, you’ll have the money reserves of a king). Speaking as a westerner, that’s good news for a potentially cheap holiday, but those costs can rack up pretty quickly unless you’re mindful of what you’re spending. I’ll go into that in more detail later, but be assured that it is hugely affordable, but as with anywhere, it depends on how much you want to spend. You can make it as expensive as you want, in other words (or as cheap), depending on the type of holiday you want. Bear in mind that 1 Thai baht equals 22p or thereabouts, at the time of writing, and it will give you an idea of any comparative prices I might mention.

Doha airport

Palm trees and a giant cyborg teddy bear/lamp. Welcome to Doha International Airport.

My first connecting flight took me via Doha airport, in Qatar, which is an experience in itself. Looking like the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or a ‘60s Bond film (it even has a monorail), the whole modernist expression is topped off by a huge sculpture of a yellow teddy bear with a black lamp shade up its arse. Created by Urs Fischer, the sculpture was previously on display in New York and was auctioned off there, at Christies, going for $6.8m. The Qatar royal family have a vested interest in modern art, so that goes some way to explaining its inclusion at the airport, which only opened in 2013. It’s certainly an eye catching talking point, and often photographed by passing travellers. As for Doha Airport as a whole, it’s an excellent airport, and all the expected facilities are in place. However, I still have no idea of how you get out of the main hub. The crystal clear maps and signage tell you where everything is, except the exit. I did think of asking, but lethargy overtook me. I believe you could see a fair bit of Doha in the seven hours I had to wait, but I played it cautious on the way to Bangkok, considering that any risk of missing my flight wouldn’t be a smart move.

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But for me it was still exciting stuff: half way to Bangkok!

 

Next blog title: Touch down in Bangkok! Or…”You wanna tuk tuk?” Or… I love Bangkok long time! Or “…what the hell, it’s raining and I’ve got sunburn”

20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #10 Beth Orton: ‘Trailer Park’ (1996)

9 Jul

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My introduction to the music of Beth Orton sticks in my mind as it was quite random and quirky. I was stood in the local WH Smiths looking through some music magazine (that detail escapes me) and a female friend I knew from the local indie-rock club appeared next to me, saying ‘Hello’. She then spots a photo of Beth Orton in the magazine and tells me, “Oh, that’s Beth Orton. She’s great. She also looks like you, if you were a woman”.  Before I had chance to respond to this amusing and mildly audacious opinion, my friend said, “she’s great, you should give her a listen”. Gender swap considerations aside, I did, and nearly 20 years later I’m still listening.

Beth’s original mixture of folk and electronic is now a bit blasé, I suppose, in the sense that everybody else has done it since, but taken on its own merit this album still satisfies. At this point in her career Beth had already recorded a song written by her idol John Martyn (“I don’t wanna know about evil”), and Martyn’s influence looms large on Trailer Park, with the style never being completely folk, but blending into a beautiful ‘other’. The combination of acoustic guitars and beats leans more to the traditionally folky than the dance arena, despite the input of Andrew Weatherall and William Orbit. So Trailer Park is essentially a folk record, and its modern trappings don’t detract for a second from the fact that it’s a very British folk product; even the American desert landscapes in the videos can’t dilute that

The opening track “She cries your name” always evoked images of surf battered Scottish islands to me, and the slightly eerie sound staging used to put me in mind of a more electronic Wicker Man soundtrack. It’s a highlight of the album, and while Beth has always been lyrically vague, being able to project your own interpretation onto some of her songs has always been something of a pleasure.

The clichéd appraisal of Trailer Park was that it was the mid to late ‘90s clubbers album of choice when on a ‘come down’ after a night of raving. I’d say Trailer Park has more to offer than that, and remains an engrossing listen whatever your state of mind and body. Beth would follow this up with a more accomplished album (1999’s Central Reservation) and her talent has matured nicely over the two decades since. Still, Trailer Park still offers an aural comfort blanket of considered calm, and Beth’s sometimes fragile and haunting vocal gives the ambiguous lyrics some touching human quality. Trailer Park is an album that isn’t often shouted about, but one that I don’t think suits such bawdy advertising.  Go and give it a listen and you’ll be eagerly captured by its quiet charms.

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Beth Orton’s sixth studio album ‘Kidsticks’ was released on ANTI Records on the 27th May 2016.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #9: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: ‘Nancy and Lee’ (1968)

8 Jun

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I’m pretty sure I got introduced to this album when I borrowed a batch of a mate’s Nancy Sinatra albums around 1995. Well, I say my mate’s albums, but they were really his mum’s, who’d actually bought them in the ‘60s. I rated Nancy, if only for her collaboration with the great John Barry on the You Only Live Twice soundtrack. It was the side of ‘60s music that I adored as much as the twangy guitars and hippy antics. Full wall of sound orchestras and emotive soundscapes, but given a slightly surreal and psychedelic twist; it was easy listening, I suppose, but not quite what Andy Williams was doing. Additionally, Lee Hazlewood looked like my Dad, which makes Hazlewood’s appearance in numerous video clips all the more surreal and amusing to me.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra was an odd combination, but that was the point and why it worked so well. More recently Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have shown us a similar dynamic over three albums (as did Nancy and Lee), but Nancy and Lee was the first and here it feels like a series of fresh and unique takes on the duet. Hazlewood was the gravel voiced, world weary cowboy character and Nancy was the sweet but sassy girl next door, and the contrast brought the songs alive in a slightly subversive way that just wouldn’t be there if they were traditionally matched up. The story goes that Frank Sinatra asked Hazlewood to rescue his daughter’s recording career, and pen and produce her some certain hits. With this being Frank Sinatra, perhaps he made Hazlewood an offer he couldn’t refuse; either way, Hazlewood rose to the challenge and ‘Boots’ was a universal number one, quickly followed by the likes of ‘How does that grab you darlin’?’ and the start of a winning collaboration. That Lee Hazlewood would eventually come from behind the mixing desk isn’t as inevitable as you might think, as the man had a nice career of his own, but I’m so glad he did. Lee and Nancy sound like they’re having so much fun here, that when it’s not being strange and surreal, it’s all out goofy and slightly ridiculous, with Nancy playing up to the stupid blonde stereotype (which at no point truly convinces me) and Lee ramping up his sardonic drifter act.

The album isn’t a faultless product though, and I can admit that, no matter how much I love it. Their version of “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’ verges on the cringe worthy, and the fact that it opens the album does not bode well. But things improve and four tracks in we get the first Hazlewood original: ‘Summer Wine’. ‘Summer Wine’ is captivating, an oddly dangerous sounding and utterly sublime ballad. Once they stop goofing around these two metaphorically rip my heart out and throw it a few thousand feet in the air. It’s a brilliant tune, and it’s not the best here either. The two delights on side two of the original vinyl (‘Some Velvet Morning’ and ‘Ladybird’) are often cited as examples of psych-pop or dream-pop or something of that nature. Basically, they’re both slightly weird, by the standards of pop music in 1968, and probably now as well, and that edge (along with their epic wall-of-sound arrangements) makes them two essential listens. The ‘psych’ tag is misleading, as Nancy and Lee isn’t a psychedelic album as such, but then again, it is an album with psychedelic leanings. It’s just a few other things as well; it’s a strange little package if the truth be told, and that’s why I like it so much. Its easy listening made a bit hard. Like Nancy’s solo albums of the time, the orchestra and arrangements were by Billy Strange, who managed to elevate the music to a special, occasionally mystical, aural place of emotive class, somewhere between Phil Spector and a James Bond soundtrack. This is the more refined side of ‘60s pop, but with enough far out posturing to make you wonder what Lee had been putting in Nancy’s tea (and let’s be honest, it was probably that way round).

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #8 Blondie: Eat to the Beat (1979)

3 Jun

Eat to the beat

When I was about five, my exposure to popular music was slight, but I was aware of Blondie, although I’m not clear if I actually knew them by name, it’s just that ‘Sunday Girl’ had filtered through to my consciousness and its melody was quite addictive.

Childhood nostalgia wouldn’t be enough to keep a band high in my affections though. I really discovered Blondie in my teens. The ‘gateway’ album always seemed to be Parallel Lines (which is a very good album), or the 1981 Best of Blondie. After that, their back catalogue was a fascinating, but short journey from punk wannabes and Ramones mates at CBGBs to MTV pop stars releasing increasingly sanitised and uninspired material (I love some tracks off 1982’s The Hunter, but it’s clear from some of it that the band were on their last legs and Chris Stein clearly wasn’t well). As overjoyed I as I was when they returned in the late ‘90s (quickly scoring a sixth UK number one single in 1999 with ‘Maria’), the band’s defining output was definitely from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have cited Plastic Letters as my favourite Blondie album, and if you were round my home you’d probably clock the framed copy of it on my wall, signed by Debbie Harry herself. You’d figure I might like it a bit. But revisiting the band’s fourth album time and time again speaks more about my affections than an album sleeve in a frame. Eat to the Beat is, I reckon, Blondie’s finest hour. Not even Parallel Lines quite comes close to giving me the joy I get from this, and as much as I’ll always have a soft spot for Plastic Letters, it now sounds a bit tinny and unadventurous next to Eat to the Beat, where the album lets loose their most vibrant and confident collection. Sure, Plastic Letters is perhaps the last album where Blondie really sound like a garage band, and that’s a thrilling sound, but by Eat to the Beat they had refined their talent into something else. It’s got ‘Atomic’ on it, for crying out loud, and I’m not even sure if that’s the best track. Yes, ‘Atomic’ not the best track. That good an album!

Blondie were, and are, a far better band than quite a few music fans would have you believe. One criticism I often hear, is that they weren’t really punk. Well, that depends on your definition of punk (and in attitude I’d argue they certainly fitted the bill), but give me a band that can remain true to its own self while successfully experimenting with different styles and crossing genres. Blondie are that band. Who gives a stuff if that’s punk or not? Whatever sound they were making by this point, I’m not sure the band warranted the swelled ranks it had by 1979 with Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison on guitar and bass, and I can grudgingly understand why the Plastic Letters line-up of Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke spearheaded the 1998 reformation. Still, judging from the music, perhaps the extra musicians gave both Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat their notably ‘bigger’ sound; not quite in a Phil Spector sense, but you wouldn’t be far off the mark. By this point Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman knew how to get the best out of this occasionally ramshackle band, with its eclectic list of influences. On Eat to the Beat we have what you could call commercial pop, but we also have punk, reggae and funk. Yet, it all sounds full of the passion and irreverent sense of fun that characterise Blondie at their best. A couple of years later and it would all get tired, but here was a pop machine operating at its peak. Everyone brings their ‘A game’ and there isn’t one duff track (so much so that the band even made a video for every track, whether it was released as a single or not). From Burke’s emotive drum intro to ‘Union City Blue’, through the Motown homage of ‘Slow Motion’ and the art-punk of ‘Victor’, this is a cracking album.

I still love Plastic Letters though (and it really does have the better cover. The cover of Eat to the Beat is alright, and I love the cross hatch design, but Frank Infante looks way out of place on that cover and three of the band members got relegated to the back. I felt duty bound to put both sides at the top of the blog). As for the Plastic Letters cover I love it so much I’m going to put it here. It’s New Wave cool personified:

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…but you know… it’s great for a lot of different reasons, but Eat to the Beat is the pop behemoth. It makes me happy in the moment and yearn for better days before and ahead, and isn’t that the best thing about good pop music?

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order):#7 Public Enemy: ‘It takes a nation of millions to hold us back’ (1988)

3 Jun

 

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Hip Hop was a hugely existing and subversive prospect in mid to late ’80s Britain. Like the Northern Soul scene in the ’70s, the way us Brits took to Hip Hop was perhaps different from the American youth that had helped create and support it in the first place. Like other cult music styles before it, we still became exposed to it despite the lack of any mainstream support. For a start, Hip Hop sounded new and of the moment, as there were generally no guitars, and the electric guitar was the same instrument The Beatles had and we all knew it’d be a while since Paul McCartney had been one. So, for me, a certain vintage of Hip Hop, with its rhythms, clever word rhyming and sampled loops, has a nostalgic appeal. It’s developed since then, and is arguably much more mainstream than it ever was 25 years ago. Like any teenager, I first preferred the catchier tunes that would briefly trouble the charts. I used to adore Whistle’s “Nothin’ serious (only buggin’) and Run DMC’s ‘My Adidas’.

Public Enemy, however, were a different proposition altogether. They felt like a more serious and considered band, and what’s more, they also had a message of sorts. As a white boy in North West England, I did feel oddly privileged to be hearing this message and also a bit unclear on what my part in it was, if any. Maybe it was just to listen. Public Enemy seemed to be speaking for disenfranchised black American youth, but they had all the punch and attitude of a great rock band, and I think that’s why some of us Brit kids took to them. The Beastie Boys debut album, Licence to Ill, was also a popular choice around this time, but its place in my estimations has diminished considerably since the late ‘80s. It’s a great raucous party record, full of attitude, but it’s less than the sum of its parts I think. Besides The Beastie Boys would easily better that with the likes of Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication. Neither album features in my top twenty choices, but I’m putting that down to choosing albums I personally continue to go back to and I’m also trying to cover a few genres, and as such, A Nation of Millions is my Hip Hop choice.

What’s great about this album, for me, is how much is thrown into it. Instead of the result being a mess, it’s actually an aurally arresting mix. It’s an aggressive album at times, and I suppose it had to be, but it’s utterly captivating. Chuck D’s narratives are very much aligned with the empowerment of a minority, and that was a very punk rock idea, so that appealed to me in my teens. It would take far too long to list all the samples used in this album (‘Louder than a bomb’ even samples The Beastie Boys’ “(You gotta) fight for your right (to party)” so we got both bands for the price of one), but that’s another aspect of its attraction: it sounds like a hundred other things, but actually nothing quite like them at all. “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” even samples Queen’s Flash Gordon theme, and that makes me smile every time; that alone is worth the listen. It was an exciting call to arms in a way that sounded like our generation’s music and not our Mum and Dad’s. Additionally, an album which nostalgically reminds me of school days (through rose tinted lenses of course) but also sounds better than it ever did back then, is obviously an album to have wisely come back to.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order) #6 Fleetwood Mac: ‘Rumours’ (1977)

30 May

 

An album that was written and recorded while the band’s relationships were going through hell, the reason a whole generation of Americans spell the word ‘romors’ as us British people do and was the epitome of the AOR punk was trying to blast away? Not the strongest place to start in trying to sell this particular album to you, I suppose, although you’d likely be intrigued. But I think Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, has always had a bit of an image problem. But don’t let all that fool you; it’s an astoundingly good album.

I first heard Rumours in 1988, over a decade after it was released, and it sounded like an album out of time and at odds with the Fleetwood Mac I knew through Tango in the night.  Tango, the Mac’s highly successful 1987 album, was a polished and perhaps over produced comeback, copies of which were finding their way onto coffee tables across late ’80s Britain. I’d expected Rumours to be more of the same, and was met with a band sounding stripped of 1980s production styles, a fact which has left Tango sounding far more dated to 21st century ears. Still, despite my teenage hesitance, I could tell Rumours was a good album and I instantly recognised the opening of “The Chain” as the music from the BBC’s Formula 1 racing programmes. Of course, the album sold millions worldwide, and once held a record for the most weeks on the UK album chart (not sure if that still stands).  It certainly spent about 4 months at no.1 in the States. But it felt like music from another time and place in 1988, with the echoes of something deeper going on. The something deeper was the five people in Fleetwood Mac and their relationships (either with each other, or with outsiders), and I think that’s the clue to why this album still means something to me. There’s also a fairly memorable piece of cover art there as well, although what on earth Fleetwood and Nicks are actually doing in that photograph is open for debate.

Fleetwood Mac formed in the late ‘60s and found success as a blues rock band. Their biggest British single is still 1968’s instrumental “Albatross” (their only UK no.1 hit). Then of course, guitarist Peter Green went ‘round the bend a bit and set the precedent for all Mac guitarists. The most famous line up made their vinyl debut in 1975 after rhythm section and founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, with his now ex-wife Christine, hooked up with Californians Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Lindsay and Nicks were involved in a romantic relationship then of course (Oh…take it easy, boys…. Lindsay is a bloke). By then The Mac were an American (based) soft rock group that bore only a passing resemblance to Green’s Brit-blues combo. Yet for many, this is where the Fleetwood Mac soap opera started getting interesting, in a mire of trashed emotions and drug addiction with the plastic world of sunny California as a backdrop. The album can sound deceptively laid back and sunny, in that easy Californian way, but often the love songs are tainted with blacker moods; dual emotions.

It was all about love and hate, then.  The earlier Fleetwood Mac album must have been a breeze to make compared to the grief that went into making Rumours.  You could argue that if nobody in the band had had designs on each other, we wouldn’t have got such a great record. It wasn’t created in a melting pot of fidelity, that’s for sure. Stevie and Lindsey were separating for good, and Christine was musing on her past relationship with John. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood was going through his own bitter separation. That album was the sound of divorce on wax, whilst on a diet of cocaine. Serious shitloads of coke, by all accounts.

So even in 1977, I suppose Rumours was an album out of time. It didn’t have anything to do with Disco or Punk- the two most prominent styles of the day.I suppose it sounded oddly dated back then, a bit more 1967 than ’77, with some songs displaying laid back harmonies and a deceptive veneer of Californian sunshine. But if the music had the half forgotten kiss of the summer of love, there was no love being lost between some of the band. Yet that added to their talent for this outing, rather than taking something away. One thing to keep in mind, you see, is what a good band Fleetwood Mac was and is (especially in this incarnation). Whatever chaos there was between them, in the studio this was a band working in beautiful harmony. There is a distinctly different approach to the three main songwriter’s contributions, with Buckingham, Nicks and McVie being allowed to fulfill their own expression. Nicks, for one, is the sound of the ambiguous wise mystic in contrast to McVie’s more lyrically accessible stories of love and lust. But even in those commercially sweet moments, McVie is singing about love gone wrong. “You make loving fun” is about her illicit affair, not about her husband. By the time you reach “The Chain”, you’ll be stunned such a disfunctional band could produce something so tight and potent, throbbing with driving intent. The Mac never truly rocked out in the usual sense, but they could still surprise you. “Gold dust woman” ends the album with a menacing and melancoly melody, arriving in its dying moments to the sound of wails, dark heartbeat drums and the end of love.

Rumours is a bitter sweet collection of confession, blame, regret and possible reconciliation. It’s the sound of love gone wrong, put there by a group of talented but damaged individuals.

“ Well, here you go again”, sings Nicks at the very beginning of the album, “you say you want your freedom”. But what price for freedom? Is there another way? These are questions many of us will hear in our own lives at some point, and sometimes it feels like we get it right, sometimes not. Either way, it’s oddly pleasing to hear what Fleetwood Mac made of it all. If you open your heart enough you run the risk of being hurt and often that can mean being hurt badly. You may also hurt other people. Rumours is all about that. Songs like “Songbird” and “Dreams” are so perfectly poignant, that they could easily bring on tears. Yet with “Don’t stop” there’s hope for the future and a promise for a brighter tomorrow, with the earnt reward of experience. Just like real life, if you want it. A great record then, and one that’ll mean something to anyone who’s fallen in and out of love.

Also, when a band can still record and tour together over thirty years later, and make good music, you know that there’s a bond that made Rumours special and that bond keeps people together, even after so much pain. It might take Buckingham and Nicks a lifetime to truly forgive and be true friends again, but in some ways Fleetwood Mac is their life work and it remains a bigger concern than their strife. For all they probably had to forgive themselves for, and any regrets that might linger, I don’t think they need to feel any regrets about Rumours.

 

An alternative version of this post first appeared on this site five years ago.

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