UK Jive (The Kinks) – Album Review

“UK Jive” Was A Major Commercial Failure When It Was Released In 1989.

“UK Jive” Was A Major Commercial Failure When It Was Released In 1989.

An ignominious flop, “UK Jive” (1989) was the penultimate album The Kinks were to issue. It suffers from the problem that also bogged down The Who’s “It’s Hard” and several other ‘80s albums, namely just too much social observation in lieu of real melodies.

The biggest offenders are arguably “Entertainment”, a quasi-punk song that lacks all articulation and “War Is Over”, one meditation on war too many (and one lacking the brave wit of “Arthur” at that). The title track is also routinely derided, owing to its abusive ‘50s mannerisms (reminiscent of acts like Sha Na Na) and the sampling of the Who’s “My Generation” during the fade.

The rest of the album, now, is not really that unapproachable. “Aggravation” is heavy metal that works (unlike most of the cuts on “Phobia”, the final studio album by the band), as does the emotion-high “How Do I Get Close”. Granted, Dave’s riffing on that one is a bit predictable, but the song has a nice vocal arrangement and a great flow on the whole.

And “What Are We Doing” is a minor gem, if only because the melody somehow sounds so fresh. Maybe it is the punctual horns that keep things going, maybe it is the original rhymes Ray employs. The fact is the song just works, and it is one of the cuts that will drive you back to the disc.

I must admit I am not that thrilled by “Loony Balloon”, a shuffly number about the doomed fate of the planet. Maybe the problem is its actual duration – it is almost as long as “Aggravation”, but whereas the album opener intelligently combined many different sections (a la “Another Brick In The Wall), “Loony Balloon” is virtually five minutes of the same. And the first minute alone is not that engaging, the harsh truth be said.

I am, however, very keen on “Now And Then”. I think it is the one piece of effective observation yielded by “UK Jive”. The lyrics are not that much better than the ones offered on the songs that don’t cut it, but the stripped beginning which eventually gives way to a full flourish makes it stick clearer (and truer) in your mind. And the sardonic “Down All The Days” (a poke at the upcoming elections) is also a nice distraction. Continue reading

Combat Rock (The Clash) – Album Review

Not Counting “Cut The Crap” (1985), “Combat Rock” Was The Final Album By The Clash. It Was Produced By Glyn Johns, And It Saw Release In 1982.

Not Counting “Cut The Crap” (1985), “Combat Rock” Was The Final Album By The Clash. It Was Produced By Glyn Johns, And It Saw Release In 1982.

This was The Clash’s final album. And no, I haven’t forgotten that thing released by Strummer and Simonon backed by a bunch of scabs in 1985 named “Cut The Crap”. “We Are The Clash”, my ass. That was a tremendous blunder, and the band knew as much – no tracks from it were included on the otherwise career-spanning “The Clash On Broadway” (1991).

“Combat Rock” was conceived as the direct sequel to the ambitious “Sandinista!”, an album that many felt had been weighed down by Strummer’s own aspirations. He clearly wanted to move the band into other styles (with black music topping the list), and Mick Jones wanted to stick to rock & roll. Those differences could not be reconciled, and Jones was to leave the band after touring “Combat Rock” – an experience that included opening for The Who during their whole farewell tour, and playing to highly disinterested audiences at that.

Originally, “Combat Rock” was to be a double album named “Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg”. However, when experienced producer Glyn Johns was called in to oversee the recording he convinced the band to release a single disc.

Everybody hated “Combat Rock” at the time. Shareef didn’t like it, and neither did the punks and the press. The charge was that the band had “sold out”. That only made sense if you looked at the singles that were issued: “Know Your Rights”, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah”. The first two were simple songs in the worst sense of the word, and the other was a funky number that became their biggest seller in the US. It was a more respectable song than the other two, but the finger-popping melody made for instant criticism by people who wanted the band to stick to their rebellious selves. They once had fought the (unsanctioned) release of the poppy “Complete Control”. Now, they were willingly releasing a radio-made song themselves.

In actuality, “Rock The Casbah” was largely the work of drummer Topper Headon. He played the drums, bass and keyboards on that song. According to the rest of the band, The “Casbah” riff was one he had been toying with for ages. When recording Combat Rock, he went into the studio one morning and put all those instruments down. Strummer came up with the lyrics after reading how people would be lashed on Iran for owning rock records. Much later down the line, he reportedly cried when he learned that American pilots used the expression “rock the casbah” as a euphemism for their bombing missions in Iraq.

The argument that the band was selling out made just no sense when one played the full album. To begin with, there was precious little radio-friendly music there. In fact, there was virtually no rock & roll to be found anywhere.

Don’t spin “Combat Rock” looking for variations of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” because you are not getting that. You are getting reggae on “Car Jammin’”, the world beats of “Sean Flynn”, the pop of “Inoculated City”, the funk of “Overpowered By Funk” (complete with an impersonation of Tarzan!) and even a collaboration with poet Allen Ginsberg. Continue reading

A Single Man (Elton John) – Album Review

For The First Time, Elton Recorded An Album Without The Help Of His Life-long Collaborator Bernie Taupin

For The First Time, Elton Recorded An Album Without The Help Of His Life-long Collaborator Bernie Taupin

A Single Man was issued in 1978, two years after Elton had announced his first retirement.

The title of this album should be taken almost literally – Elton had sacked not only his entire backing band, but also his loyal lyricist Bernie Taupin. For a couple of albums, that crucial chair was to be occupied by Gary Osborne (one former half of Vigrass & Osborne, the duo that came up with the original version of “Forever Autumn”).

Technically, I find Osborne more interesting than Bernie – he has a firmer grasp on complex rhyme schemes (“Madness”), and alliterates purposefully (“Shine On Through”). In terms of content, now, his songs can be even more misguided and clueless than Taupin’s when he is not careful. You have two glaring examples here: the single “Part Time Love” (banned on some territories such as Russia on grounds of condoning underage sex) and the plain silly and puerile “Big Diper”.

On the contrary, the songs in which Osborne bites the bullet and ventures on his own instead of referencing Taupin are mostly tasteful. “Madness” is a good example, and the first truly good song that he and Elton crafted together. An anti-war protest, “Madness” is the sole foot-stomper of the whole album, and one of the songs that sticks for everybody.

The other is the aforementioned “Part Time Love”. Leaving aside the unfortunate lyrics, the song combines one of Elton’s most fluid melodies in years with one of Paul Buckmaster’s most grandiloquent orchestrations. Note that “A Single Man” was to stand as Buckmaster’s final collaboration with Elton for over a decade – they reunited for the “Made In England” album in 1995, when Elton was sold as an adult entertainer on the strength of “The Lion King” OST.

And the album also has some shades of that stylistic diversity that defined the most emblematic works of Elton during the previous decade. There is gospel on “Georgia” and some Latin percussion on “Return To Paradise” (a song which could have been way better – it ends up sounding too saturated for its own good). And “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” is a blues number that actually works, although not necessarily owing to Elton’s contribution – it is guitar player Tim Renwick who provides the song’s most memorable passages, aided by another fine arrangement by Buckmaster. Continue reading

Chris Rea (General Introduction)

Chris Rea Was Born In 1951 in Middlesbrough.

Chris Rea Was Born In 1951 in Middlesbrough.

There are only two guitar players that make me stop whatever I am doing and listen as if each note they are playing were nothing short of irreproducible both technically and sentimentally by anybody else.

As you already know, Richard Thompson is one of them. And now I’d like to introduce you to the other one. Like Thompson, he is also from England. But their styles couldn’t be more different.

Chris Rea is a slide guitar player that spent the first part of his career playing rock & roll until a miraculous recovery from pancreatitis made him decide to devote the rest of his studio life to the blues.

And unlike Richard Thompson, Chris Rea did have hits. His 1989’s album “The Road To Hell” brought him out of cult obscurity across the whole of Europe. “The Road To Hell” will always stand as one of the most meaningful works in a decade that was not that remarkable otherwise. The album offered a razor-sharp study of the stray ways of modern life without ever stooping to the gratuitousness of other contemporary acts.

And the commencement of Rea’s career in 1978 was actually quite auspicious: the song “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)” almost cracked the Top 10 in the US, and remains his most popular song in America to this day. Both that album (named “Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?”) and its follow-up were produced by no other than Gus Dudgeon. Rea has always bemoaned that Dudgeon’s approach was unsuitable for his blues-derived material. The truth is that Dudgeon made one thinly-disguised attempt after the other to have Rea sound like pop acts that had given him worldwide recognition such as Elton John. Chris was to eventually record some of those songs anew later on. Continue reading

Leather Jackets (Elton John) – Album Review

"Leather Jackets" Was Issued In 1986, And It Is Regarded As One Of Elton John's Biggest Failures. It Was The First Album Since "Tumbleweed Connection" To Yield No Top 40 Singles.

"Leather Jackets" Was Issued In 1986, And It Is Regarded As One Of Elton John's Biggest Failures. It Was The First Album Since "Tumbleweed Connection" To Yield No Top 40 Singles.

It is generally accepted that the ’80s were spotty years for the vast majority of artists that had careers which had commenced in the previous decade (or decades). The other day I was talking with a fan of Bowie that made some of the most venomous comments I had ever heard in my life about anybody regarding Ziggy Stardust and his output during that decade. And from an entirely objective viewpoint, I can’t speak much better about my favorite bands – The Who released only two albums back then, and they are traditionally considered artistic dead ends in themselves. Although I am fond of “Face Dances” (and quite fond of it at that), if you were to look at it objectively the disc is just an intermittent reminder of what used to be, whereas “It’s Hard” is inexcusable. For its part, even XTC (a band that is characterized for not stepping out of line) missed the boat with the release of “The Big Express”. And there is Elton John.

The decade had started on the wrong foot with the release of the “Victim Of Love” album, and it was to be a bumpy ride from that point until he (sort of) reinvented himself in the ’90s as an adult entertainer. Some of his worst-selling albums ever came during the ’80s, and while some of these discs weren’t really that bad (The Fox), some deserved all the stick they got. And this is one of these.

“Leather Jackets” is the kind of album that can only be listened to with one finger on the fast-forward button. It produced no hit singles at a time in which Elton was known for churning them out quite easily, and Elton was later to disown the album completely. The album was also the last Gus Dudgeon would helm for Elton – he was given a second chance after “Ice On Fire”. Sadly, the soft rock approach he applied just buried the bits that could have been interesting (like Davey Johnstone’s guitar), driving another definitive nail in the coffin and ending a truly memorable partnership in an unnecessarily low note. Continue reading

Full Moon Fever (Tom Petty) – Album Review

"Full Moon Fever" Was Tom Petty's Debut. It Came Out In 1989, And It Yielded Three it Singles.

"Full Moon Fever" Was Tom Petty's Solo Debut. It Came Out In 1989, And It Yielded Three Hit Singles.

An immensely accomplished record, “Full Moon Fever” was Tom Petty’s first solo album. It was released in 1989, right after The Traveling Wilburys’ beloved debut. Jeff Lynne was to helm Petty’s record, and both Harrison and Orbison would lend their talents too. That was the reason many pronounced “Full Moon Fever” the “true” continuation to “The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1”, and they also took the fact the next recording issued by the Wilburys was called Volume 3 at face value.

Well, that is always something which could (and will) be disputed and counter-disputed till the rivers all run dry. But everybody will always agree on something: Petty came up with a wondrous record from start to finish.

Five tracks were released as singles, and three of them have become staples of classic rock stations: “Free Fallin’”, “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream”. “Free Fallin’” is a dexterous study on growing up, with somehow childish verses at the beginning that eventually give way to a sudden, mature conclusion in a way that is beautifully startling.

On the other hand, “I Won’t back Down” is as cocky as its tile suggests, and it is the one cut to which George Harrison added backing vocals. The song was to be covered by Johnny Cash for his third American album, “Solitary Man”.

Finally, “Runnin’ Down A Dream” rocks and swings in equal measures, showcasing Petty’s influences in a distinct way. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” references Del Shannon in the first verse, and the song that is mentioned (“Runaway”) was actually covered by The Traveling Wilburys. It is now found on every remastered edition of the “The Traveling Wilburys – Vol. 3”. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” was written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne along with Mike Campbell. Campbell also got together with Petty to compose “Love Is A Long Road”, a song that fully recalls the sound of Petty’s combo. Yet, the production by Lynne gives it a sheen of its own, and the song was rightfully issued as a single. Continue reading

The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 – Album Review

"The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3" Was To Be The Final Release By The '80s Supergroup

"The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3" Was To Be The Final Release By The '80s Supergroup

The second (and final) record by the Traveling Wilburys surfaced in 1990, and it was to be titled “Vol. 3”. This is widely thought to be a joke suggested by George Harrison (who was the unofficial leader of the band) to send fans scrambling for an album that never was. We know he did suggest the title, but I believe that it was a two-fingered salute to bootleggers rather than a joke – the amount of “unofficial” Wilburys records that came out after the first volume was unbelievable. And many also consider Tom Petty’s first solo disc (“Full Moon Fever”) to be the “lost” Wilburys album – it was produced by Lynne, and every Wilbury (except for Dylan) collaborated, albeit marginally in most cases.

The fact remains that after a universally-praised record that rejuvenated everybody, this new volume was released. The main difference telling one record from the other? The first time around, the guys were having fun. Now, they were getting down to business. The joviality was somehow missing the second time around. The professionalism remained, and so did the camaraderie. But not the lovable goofiness.

The passing of Roy Orbison surely had a big impact on the band, and the fact that both Dylan and Harrison penned songs that were truer to their ‘80s selves rather than genuine Wilbury music was the tipping point. Songs like “Where Were You Last Night” (Dylan) and “You Took My Breath Away” (Harrison) pointed to each artist’s worst tendencies during the previous decade. And the one joke of the disc was incredibly forced – “Wilbury Twist” had rampant instrumentation but they were trying too hard to revive something that the first time around flowed so effortlessly.

Speaking of rampant volume, the album’s first single (and its first track) was the heavy “She’s My Baby”, a song that always makes me think of Pete Townshend’s “My Baby Gives It Away”, only that the characters in the Wilbury’s song are far, far meaner and darker. The track (which did very well in the charts) also featured Gary Moore on guitar – he definitively had a field day. Continue reading

Jump Up! (Elton John) – Album Review

1982' "Jump Up!" Was A Misstep After "The Fox", Although If Featured The Massive John Lennon Tribute "Empty Garden"

1982' "Jump Up!" Was A Misstep After "The Fox", Although If Featured The Massive John Lennon Tribute "Empty Garden"

Those who claim that Elton’s albums through the ‘80s were collections of substandard songs that had only a couple of substantial cuts thrown in can point their fingers at albums like “Jump Up!” and goad fans of Captain (formerly) Fantastic to no end.

The record was dominated by songs like “Dear John” and “I Am Your Robot” – cuts that were fluff at best (although “I Am Your Robot” achieved a nice, crunchy guitar sound), whereas bathetic material like “Blue Eyes” basically redefined the meaning of the expression “show me an open window and I’ll go through it”.

Most of the troublesome numbers were penned by Gary Osborne, one of Elton’s most frequent lyricists during the ‘80s. But Bernie Taupin also had some input on the album, and it was him who ultimately provided the best material for Elton to work upon. If we leave aside “I Am Your Robot”, that’s it. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” (not to be mistaken with the song by The Kinks of the same name) might have been clichéd, but Elton sounded truly at home when singing it, and the same went for the album closer “All Quiet On The Western Front”.

And the indisputable achievement of the whole record (and one of the few compositions that always receives praise, even from big detractors of Elton) was the work of the diminutive lyricist from Lincolnshire. Of course, I am speaking about “Empty Garden”, John Lennon’s eulogy, and a piece that anchors the whole album on a territory that is somehow more respectable. I consider it the best John/Taupin tribute, way ahead of “Candle In The Wind” and “Cage The Songbird”, and a song that proved that while Elton could only produce sporadic hit material during the ´80s, when he did deliver the goods the result was masterful. Continue reading

Pack Up The Plantation: Live! (Tom Petty) – Album Review

“Pack Up The Plantation” Was The First Live Album By Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It Came Out In 1986.

“Pack Up The Plantation” Was The First Live Album Ever By Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It Came Out In 1986.

Southern Accents” proved so contentious that less than one year after its release Petty and The Heartbreakers issued their first live album, as if they were to exorcise the previous offering from their systems and prove to fans and critics alike that they could still rock like they meant it.

The album was to be named “Pack Up The Plantation”, and many different configurations exist. To begin with, we have the original LP/Cassette release that was accompanied by a live VHS in which some songs were added, all of them good (specially “Don’t Do Me Like That” from “Damn The Torpedoes” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” from the previous record). The original album (which was a double LP) was repackaged as a single CD that had a different running order and which dropped two tracks: “You Got Lucky” (a great loss) and “I Need To Know”.

Still, the album in any incarnation is a lot of fun. The “Southern Accents” contingent feels more endemic to the band thanks to the rawness that any live setting provides, and “Rebels” in particular is a showstopper.

As it is the case with live albums, some songs have different arrangements – the most noticeable is “The Waiting”, rendered solitarily by Tom until the band thunders in during the middle eight. Elsewhere, “Breakdown” is stretched quite a bit, and the part where Petty starts an adlib that degenerates into an almost babble is amusing, even when it doesn’t precisely make the song any better. Continue reading

In Time: The Best of R.E.M 1988 – 2003

In Spite Of Some Omissions Like "Shiny Happy People" & "Drive" This Compliation Portrays The Band At The Peak Of Their Hit-making Powers

In Spite Of Some Omissions Like "Shiny Happy People" & "Drive" This Compliation Portrays The Band At The Peak Of Their Hit-making Powers

R.E.M. became an unstoppable force during their stay at Warner. This single disc compiles most of their ineluctable hits along with some rarities and previously unreleased tracks to keep collectors entertained.

All of their Warner albums are featured; “Automatic For The People” is the one that has more tracks in (4 in total), whereas the least represented discs are “Out Of Time” and “Monster” (only one track each – “Losing My Religion” and “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” respectively). And the remaining discs (“Green”, “Up”, “Reveal” and “New Adventures in Hi Fi”) are summarized in two songs per album.

Even someone who isn’t that well-versed on their catalog will spot some omissions that are bitter to swallow. Both “Shiny Happy People” (“Out Of Time”) and “Drive” (“Automatic For The People”) have been excluded. “Shiny Happy People” might be one of the stupidest songs since the dawn of time, but it was their one and only Top 5 hit both in America and in Europe. The band has professed its deep abhorrence for the song. Fair enough. But Radiohead does not omit “Creep” on anthologies, no matter how much they grew to detest it.   Continue reading