Archive | June, 2016

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

8 Jun

Nancy_lee_album_cover

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:

plastic letters

…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

 

PublicEnemyItTakesaNationofMillionstoHoldUsBack

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.