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20 Favourite Albums (in no particular order). #2: Bob Dylan: “Desire” (1976).

29 Mar

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Bob Dylan- Desire

I always recognised Dylan’s lyrical strengths, but it took me a fair while to really appreciate his musicianship. Even his vocals, long the aural equivalent of Marmite, are the expressive tool his songs need. There is character and authenticity in that voice that not all the innumerable Dylan covers have. Dylan’s ‘60s work still stands tall (particularly the ‘trilogy’ of Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde). But it’s Desire, his 1975 album (released in the new year of ’76), which has risen in my estimation. His band are so good here, and there are moments were you can hear every chord change and breath; it’s wonderfully immersive. It’s a hugely collaborative effort as well, with Dylan working with Jacques Levy on the lyrics and Dylans’ long time Columbia Records associate Don Devito is given a production credit here. The musicians are top class too: violinist Scarlet Rivera, bassist Rob Stoner and drummer Howard Wyeth of The Rolling Thunder crew, and vocalists Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakley. I’ll be honest here as well; I can recognise that the production isn’t always as tight as it should have been, given the quality of the songwriting, but the vocals and those amazing drums keep it vital and engaging.

Desire, is, ultimately, a flawed album. A case could be made for all Dylan’s albums being flawed in some way, as they never sound like they’ve got the production care the songs deserved, but as ever the songs do truly make up for any other minor shortcoming, and what songs they are. I have the fondest memories of “Hurricane”, “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Mozambique” blasting out of my ex-girlfriend’s VW van as we zipped down the motorway to the beach at the height of summer. She introduced me to this album. It’s because of her that Dylan’s earlier album Blood on the Tracks is such a bittersweet listen now; a cutting break-up album, as many of you will already know. That’s her album now and always will be; but this one? Well, this I listen to far more, and it’s a privilege to have got to know it. My favourite Dylan album.

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Who have you been a victim of? An introduction to The Stranglers.

13 Aug

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The Stranglers…what can I say about them? One of my first favourite bands, and although I rarely buy their new material they’re still a considerable live draw.

I first heard their music I was 13, which was a very formative age to hear them. At the time they were a little too ‘adult’ to my kiddie ears and compared to the other chart hits of 1986, I found “Always the Sun” plodding and boring. Now I hear it as a wonderful song which rewards far more than the average S/A/W record. Continue reading

Not Fade Away…The Rolling Stones at Glastonbury and why age is not a barrier to good rock performance.

5 Jul

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This last weekend, in a (very huge) field in Somerset, the Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts raised the bar once again on exciting things to do in a field. I’m echoing several other bloggers here, when I say that too much has probably been made of the event’s corporate nature, which in comparison to something such as V Festival, for example, isn’t really the case. Glastonbury has got huge, and has to operate as a viable business to survive. It’s a gargantuan undertaking; the erection of marquees, tents, stages, stalls, even buildings, to make up a temporary small town. That’s before we come to the almost countless performance artists and other contributors at work there. However well organised Glastonbury is, there is always someone, somewhere, moaning about how it doesn’t compare to smaller events (which should be obvious) and how it can’t compete with the memory of the counter-cultural happenings of the sixties. Well, no, it probably can’t; times have changed, and we didn’t really have a festival like Glastonbury back then anyway, if we’re to be completely honest. It’s origins lie in that culturally seismic era, but here we are today with a rather different beast; and it’s great. A huge English garden party in acres of farm land, with music and performance, with a subtle edge of suspect but ambient mysticism. Look, it’s summer. What could be better than live music, fun and games in a field with that great British sense of surreal humour and a background touch of the Arthurian?? Don’t knock it, it’s a great summer tradition.. Continue reading

Station to Station

1 Mar

David Bowie remains one of our greatest pop stars, from ‘60s Mod to ‘70s Glam Rock, to the enthusiastic embrace of new technologies and trends in the ’90s, through to the sophisticated pop/rock of the 2000s. However, I would argue that his single greatest album came when he was at his lowest ebb, disenchanted with fame, trapped by addictions and demons, and entering a fight to find creative relevance. These themes would colour his acclaimed late ‘70s albums, but the change began with his 1976 album. That album is Station to Station. Continue reading

Rumours

5 Feb

So, a bit more about music then…

All these years later and I still have no idea which is my all time favourite album. This isn’t a tragedy; I can’t imagine one being considered better than all the rest. There’s too much diversity. However, a very strong contender for favourite album came to me today, completely by accident.

There are many, many albums I treasure the existence of, and appeal for a multitude of reasons, but there is one that I find emotionally engaging as well as having a nostalgic value, that is also a creatively strong collection. It’s by a classic band who were around in the halcyon days of the ‘60s, although the line up had changed several times by the time of this LP.  So it’s not a Beatles album, or Bowie. It’s not The Doors or Dylan. It’s not a particularly ‘trendy’ album either. Infact when it was released it was pretty much the epitome of the AOR that punk was trying to blast away.

The realisation that this album was a strong favourite came to me when I was thinking of a recent romance and I thought, “You can go your own way.” I started to hum the song and realised what I’d always secretly known- Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is an absolutely fantastic album (and the reason a whole generation of Americans spell the word ‘romors’ as British people do).

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.