Sunday, June 30, 2013

'80s Band Names. The good, the bad and the downright ugly...

Aztec Camera is an odd band name but for me it kind of works. Some of their contemporaries weren't so fortunate.

Bananarama - Never mind the horrid music. That is a really, really bad name.
Haysi Fantayzee - Nice look. Great sound! Terrific name. Why didn't this catch on?
Josef K - A very good band with a very good name. Not sure about the look of that bloke at the back.
A Flock of Seagulls - Words fail me
Prefab Sprout - A truly great group. The jury is still out about the name.
Bow Wow Wow - Knowing Malcolm McLaren there may be some slightly distasteful reference here somewhere.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - You what? Like the band a lot nevertheless.
Wang Chung - You think their name and look is bad. Just wait until you hear their music.
Fine Young Cannibals - Excellent name. Nice pout!
Kajagoogoo - This is really the pits in every respect imaginable.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


I had a great conversation with my nephews and nieces down the road from my folks about music when I went round to see them yesterday. We talked about vinyl which a lot of their friends are going for these days and they told me cassettes are coming back too. Cassettes?

Now that is strange and even I'm not willing to go back to those. Still as I'm thinking about Aztec Camera it made me think about this.

Side one

  1. "The "Sweetest Girl"" – Scritti Politti (6:09)
  2. "Twist and Crawl Dub" – The Beat (4:58)
  3. "Misery Goats" – Pere Ubu (2:26)
  4. "7,000 Names of Wah!" – Wah! Heat (3:57)
  5. "Blue Boy" – Orange Juice (2:52)
  6. "Raising the Count" – Cabaret Voltaire (3:32)
  7. "Kebab Traume (Live)" – D.A.F (3:50)
  8. "Bare Pork" – Furious Pig (1:28)
  9. "Raquel" – The Specials (1:51) (replaced by "Bourgeois Blues" by Panther Burns on reissued version)
  10. "I Look Alone" – Buzzcocks (3:00)
  11. "Fanfare in the Garden" – Essential Logic (3:00)
  12. "Born Again Cretin" – Robert Wyatt (3:07)

Side two

  1. "Shouting Out Loud" – The Raincoats (3:19)
  2. "Endless Soul" – Josef K (2:27)
  3. "Low Profile" – Blue Orchids (3:47)
  4. "Red Nettle" – Virgin Prunes (2:13)
  5. "We Could Send Letters" – Aztec Camera (4:57)
  6. "Milkmaid" – Red Crayola (2:01)
  7. "Don't Get in My Way" – Linx (5:15) (replaced by "Magnificent Dreams" by Television Personalities on reissued version)
  8. "The Day My Pad Went Mad" – The Massed Carnaby St John Cooper Clarke (1:46)
  9. "Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher" – James Blood Ulmer (4:03)
  10. "Close to Home" – Ian Dury (4:13)
  11. "Greener Grass" – Gist (2:32)
  12. "Parallel Lines" – Subway Sect (2:38)
  13. "81 Minutes" – John Cooper Clarke (0:13)
Shame I wasn't hip enough to get it at the time. Still, this is for Andrew, Elena and Michael. Maybe sending letters will come back too...


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

bands that took their names from literature...

                                                                      The Doors

                                                                       Steely Dan

                                                                 The Go Betweens


                                                                       Heaven 17

                                                            The Velvet Underground

                                                             The Teardrop Explodes

                                                                          The Fall

                                                                       The Feelies

The Birthday Party - some discussion about how they got their name...

Monday, June 24, 2013

# 6 Aztec Camera High Land, Hard Rain

'We're going to do an acoustic punk song now. A song called 'The Boy Wonders'".

Roddy Frame lead singer, guitarist, songwriter and to all intents and purposes the focal point of Aztec Camera despite the clear contributions of  the others at this stage to their sound, look and appeal introduced the song of this name with these words for their appearance on The Tube early in 1983 and it all seemed incredibly apt.

Elvis Costello, the songwriter to whom Frame was being most readily compared to had gone on record to say that the commercial potential of the band and more specifically of Frame was limitless. They had just signed to Sire, home of Talking Heads and shortly Madonna. They had alternative credibility and the support of the independent sector, evening radio, the major music weeklies The NME and Melody Maker and it also appeared as if given their looks and talent and their eagerness to sell records the new glossy alternative Smash Hits would be interested too which would surely soon put them on heavy rotation on daytime radio.

There were clear and immediate precedents for this. Bands like The Human League, ABC, Soft Cell, The Associates, Simple Minds, Echo and the Bunnymen, Japan, The Teardrop Explodes, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Adam and the Ants were crossing over from being obscure cult concerns to having major pop hits and becoming genuine pop stars literally from one month to the next.

Aztec Camera were apparently next in line on this conveyor belt to fame and riches and it seemed clear they were being groomed  (an unfortunate term given their tender years and the predatory nature of Pop Svengali/ managers going back to the1960s), for massive and long term global pop success.

Aztec Camera's first single, Just Like Gold,  Postcard Records 1981

High Land Hard Rain was released in April 1983 to launch them seemingly on this inevitable trajectory. It was a glossy pop product. Typical of its day in some ways, though not in others. What wasn't entirely clear was whether the band could break big and maintain the indie credibility they'd built up over the previous three years since Frame and the rest of them had signed to Postcard Records not long after his sixteenth birthday.

A rather different set of bands were crashing the mainstream at pretty much the same time as those previously mentioned and they were a lot more immediately mercenary in terms of their approach, look, sound and ambitions; Haircut 100, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Altered Images. None of these maintained credibility for long after their first hits although this was still a desirable quality for both bands and record labels even as late as 1983 or 1984. Which camp did Aztec Camera want to be in? Could they possibly find some compromise between the two? Or would they crash and burn.

The cover images of the album are the work of David Band,  contemporary of Frame's, studying at the Royal College of Art at the same time as the band made their fateful move to London. Band has sadly died recently . When he was in his early twenties he and the art collective he worked for produced a number of memorable and stylish record sleeves for Altered Images and Spandau Ballet . I'm certainly no devotee of most of these two groups' recorded works, with one probable major exception, but these sleeves are just great. Pop Art Picasso.

It's all so reminiscent of the times. 1980 to 1983 in the UK, for me one of the great moments in pop history. The Face and Smash Hits seizing control of the pop wheel from the inky weekly music papers. Bands from the regional capitals, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh jostling for chart positions with their London contemporaries. Even daytime radio was good. Top of the Pops on Thursday and The Tube on Friday. I was coming of age and I'm grateful I did so then.

In this case it's young men, barely old enough to shave but already with a sure grasp of literature, poetry, politics, and pop culture and history. Dressing up as twee cowboys. Nostalgia is really beginning to overcome me here.

"From the mountain tops, down to the sunny street,
A different drum is playing a different kind of beat."
This to me is still pretty great thirty years later. As a way to start your first album, as your opening lines on your first hit single, as something to sing to teenage girls from a stage, as your first ever mimed lines on Top of the Pops, as a couplet to bemused middle aged ladies on Pebble Mill at One. As a way to go against the grain. To sell records without selling out. The guitars are acoustic but they're pretty muscularly acoustic throughout this. It's well sustained.
It's definitely and knowingly a throwback to the sixties but I can't think of anyone who played acoustic guitars quite like this in that decade except perhaps Dylan and Love who were both punks before their time and wielded guitars as channels of aggression. Much more so than here although for me the influence of both is clear. 
The Camera aren't wimps, just romantics, there's a difference. Quite fitting for a band from East Kilbride. a part of Glasgow which would produce The Jesus & Mary Chain a few years down the line, (though they might have been from another side of that town).
"I hear your footsteps in the street,
It won't be long before we meet."
That's rather romantic whichever way you look at it and not bad as poetry even if you might dismiss it as being written in the sixth form. I'd like to see what you wrote. 'Street' rhymes with 'beat' rhymes with 'meet. It's obvious.

Frame is non-committal throughout. He's obvious and oblivious, count him in, count him out. 'They call us lonely when we're really just alone.'  He's read his Colin Wilson and his Sartre. He's engaged and political, but waiting for the shout. Ultimately for me, like much of the album coming up it's about how you feel when you're seventeen. A whole gamut of fragile and contradictory and worldly and knowing and self-absorbed emotions but you're certainly not willing to commit yourself fully - except to romanticism. But Frame is wise beyond his years. This is a cliché but it's indisputably true. He's aware of his finite self but also that others matter. Respect to the Boy Wonder. 

Incredibly, this was the only genuine hit single on the album at least in the grown up chart. The band got on Top of the Pops and Frame had his hair done for the occasion. It reached Number 18, a lower position than it deserved probably due to the fact that it had been a Number One hit on the indie chart earlier on in the year and most of the core fans already had their copy with the cute cowgirl on it and weren't going to shell out again for the David Band Picasso guitar sleeve.

The song was also significant, not just as their breakthrough, but as their departure note to the indie sector. They left Rough Trade for whom they'd released a couple of successful singles, for WEA,  much to owner Geoff Travis's regret although the label did retain a distributing deal with the band, at least for the UK. They also left a mark on the group that joined Rough Trade just as they were preparing to go, The Smiths and particularly Johnny Marr.
Around the time the Smiths recorded their debut 45 'Hand In Glove' in a single day on a small self-financed budget, Rough Trade Records released 'Oblivious' by Aztec Camera, a group built largely around the almost impossibly prodigious teenager Roddy Frame. Johnny Marr was all too aware not only of Frame's talent, but of Aztec Camera's indie credentials, and in late March, as 'Oblivious' threatened to deliver Rough Trade its first hit, boarded a train to London with bassist Andy Rourke, walked into the Rough Trade warehouse/offices, and asked to see the man in charge, Geoff Travis. The thing he did not know was that Aztec Camera were already set to leave the independent for major label pastures and that Travis was determined to hold on to whichever act he could replace them with. Travis had the ears to recognize something special about the recording of 'Hand In Glove' handed to him that day. He then had the smarts to offer the Smiths a long-term deal. Johnny Marr, in turn, heard 'Oblivious' as a joyful pop single full of chiming guitars and knew that he had to match it.

The Smiths: "This Charming Man"
…And this is what he came up with, a musical tour de force which, with only their second single, propelled the Smiths over the indie parapets and into the pop charts. The song's initial recording, for a John Peel session in September 1983, wears the influence of 'Oblivious' all too prominently: "That was me pulling my finger out because Roddy got on the radio," said Marr of the influence."
Back to High Land Hard Rain and the song which comes next, The Boy Wonders, probably the band's signature tune. I vaguely remember rooting around Kingston Upon Thames record shops when this album came out and buying it at just about the same time as I got Neil Young's Harvest.
This makes perfect sense to me as whatever else Aztec Camera had in common with the other New Pop bands breaking through at this point in time they were pretty much the only ones wearing Buffalo Springfield, Love, The Byrds and Lovin' Spoonful influences on their sleeves rather than Bowie or Kraftwerk ones. It's clear in the fringed suede jackets and shades they wore onstage and the way they carried themselves. The Smiths, R.E.M and The Go Betweens came as logical follow-ons from this. Sensitive, bookish souls with love of sixties pop music.
Much of this was a love letter to Frame's brothers and sisters sixties record collections, (he was an unexpected youngest son, more than ten years their junior). He knew his Dylan, his Simon & Garfunkel his Neil Young and certainly his Burt Bacharach. And he certainly understood Burt better than Noel Gallagher ever would.
The Lovin' Spoonful's Do You Believe in Magic had been pretty much the theme tune of Postcard Records when it had emerged three years earlier in Glasgow partly as an antidote to long coated Manchester and Liverpool bands' gloom and bleakness. Aztec Camera, like Orange Juice was resolutely sunshine, optimists music.
It was only round about this time that it became fashionable again to listen to this kind of stuff. This was the process I was going through when I first started buying records. All the time that I was discovering first the Teardrops then the Bunnymen and from there to Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Smiths, The Pale Fountains, The Go Betweens, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, R.E.M and the Paisley Underground bands I was also rooting around and buying their original formative influences.
Boy Wonders is a call to arms for sensitive types. Frame had already been through plenty of changes, before even coming to the public eye  and this is where he'd got to after a decade of thought and practice. At nine he'd lain on his mother's bed with the lights out listening to Quicksand and the Bewlay Brothers from Bowie's Hunky Dory. By thirteen he was obsessed with The Clash and covering or aping their songs in a band called Neutral Blue. By sixteen it was jazz, cocktail lounge, Sartre, Dylan, T.S.Eliot, Keats and sixties west coast pop. By eighteen he'd moved to London. But he remained quite aware of where he was, what he'd escaped from and why.
High Land I imagine is a play on Highlands and Hard Rain a Dylan reference. It's the way Frame's mind seems to work on here. The puns aren't coincidental. They're highly polished, absolutely original, almost visionary which may explain why Costello loved him so much. They're also very knowing and immersed in pop culture another thing that would have attracted Costello who was cut from the same cloth. This album cover comes to mind for example. It would have been one that Frame was very familiar with.
 Love comes in slurs on Hogmanay in East Kilbride. Frame knows he's in a dead end, 'pastel paper pink over grey...the poor excuse they peddle as their prose'. It goes on as far as he can see in every direction and he has no choice but to get out. He has made no bones of hating school and is bursting to leave.
 "I think things should be better. I think there should be a better place. I don't think anyone should be bored at all. I think it's just that people lose touch and fall into boredom. I used to be bored at school. But then I left and discovered interesting things like reading."
 'Waiting, waiting...'  He's looking around him and listening in to the conversations and realising that he's a different breed from those around him and there's nothing left to detain him here.
'I came from high land
Here the hopefuls have to hesitate
Now this boy wonders
Why the words were never worth the wait

                                                                  Waiting, waiting
In pastel paper pink over gray
We wrap, wrap, wrap and chuck, chuck away
The poor excuse they peddle as their prose
                                                       Dry your tears, tie your tongue
 and you're never sixteen
And I'll give you a glimpse
 of the hard and the clean
And my traveling chest will be open to you
And boy will you learn that you haven't a clue
I even asked my best friend but he could not explain
It hit me when I left him
I felt the rain and called it genius
Called it genius'

This is confident stuff to say the least. Frame has sorted out a formula lyrically and musically that works for him and he sticks to it with clinical precision from here on in which makes this a very consistent, clean pop record and one that rewards replaying. It also suggests the album's greatest weakness, the fact that it often fails to draw blood, as I'll come back to later.
There are no jagged edges here but there are hidden depths. His lyrics rhyme pretty much right the way through and if they don't they scan. It's not 'Moon in June' stuff because Frame is too sharp for that but there's doubling and coupling going on throughout.
 Third song Walk out to Winter continues in a similar vein and gloriously so. 'It wasn't youth we hit the truth.' These songs overlap, complement and supplement one another and the album is all the better for the fact that they do. The Strummer line is surely almost universal and can be recognised by anyone who has ever left home even if you would never have chosen to put Clash posters on your wall. It's all about the urgent, immediate need for departure, getting your gear, getting out of here, not looking back at what has gone before. Anticipating and embracing the golden promise of the future. The few sweet short seasons that will happen only once  It's almost  like some Scottish Beat Generation anthem. The call of the road. Frame actually uses the word 'generation' here to underline his sincerity which is almost tangible.
'This is life, this is life.'  
This is remarkably strong. The only thing I don't love about it is the drumming, of which more later. The guitar work, general instrumentation and lyrics are astonishing. To my mind all three of these opening tracks should have been Top Twenty singles and gone on to become generational touchstones. They should also have been big in the States but ultimately they were marketed poorly by the wrong people to the wrong people. They were almost thrown away.

Boy Wonders was never released as a single. Walk Out To Winter reached Number 64. None of this makes the remotest sense to me. Meanwhile Haircut 100 and (David Frost favourites), Culture Club were devouring the Top Ten. The album was seen as a commercial success at the time but it was not the success it deserved to be given its quality. Debut albums like this are few and far between.

The Bugle Sounds Again comes next and it takes the pace down. It's a ballad I suppose though I'm ashamed to say I'm not exactly sure what the technical, musical definition of a ballad would be. This seems to fit. It's another romantic, emotional highpoint. I've no clear idea what it's about, though the military connotations in the lyrics are difficult to avoid. As with Boy Wonders and Walk Out To Winter there does seem to be an adolescent generational pact being struck against the ball and chain conventions of impending adulthood. Or perhaps it's just about the 9 to 5 that being in the record business and constant touring imposes on musicians who just want to play.

In any case it's chock-a-block with quotable lyrics:
                                   'Grab that gretsch before the truth hits town,
                                    You whispered to me as they fell'

                                    'The vampires made their killings,
                                     Filled their pockets up with shillings
                                     Saying someone has to pay'

                                    'The cards are on the table now
                                    and every other cliché
                                    Somehow fits me like a glove
                                    You know that I'd be loathe
                                    To call it love.'

For me none of Frame's contemporaries hit this maintained level of sheer romance and sincerity. To some degree, he himself was never able to sustain it beyond this album but I'm not sure he's ever really got his dues for managing it to such a degree on High Land, Hard Rain.

This leaves Side 1 with just We Could Send Letters to go. The best song he ever wrote.

                 Sorry this is cut short. Interesting to here Roddy on electric for a change. The Tom Verlaine debt is clear

This seems like the product of a bygone age. It's further away from us now than it was from the emergence of Elvis at the time it was released. Pop culture and history are hard to understand. You can still hear plenty of music that sounds just like this - Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, countless indie bands. But it has different DNA. Youth was different then. It always is.

I still have every letter I received from friends and people I was interested in or involved with romantically when I was in my teens or early twenties. This correspondence was indescribably precious. Aztec Camera made their recording debut on Postcard Records and their first B Side was We Could Send Letters. They weren't alone. Every bookish band of the time was concerned with this stuff. R.E.M's Letter Never Sent, The Go-Betweens Part Company, Morrissey was a voracious letter writer, (writing frightening verse, to a buck toothed girl in Luxembourg).

It mattered receiving a letter from someone and you poured what you could of yourself into your letters when you wrote to them. But the very fact that you were writing almost certainly meant that you were apart and that geographical distance could imply intense emotional and possibly physical pain. Frame understands it and writes about it here better than anyone else I know.
This is the song on the album where he finally gets his knife under the surface. Once again he's talking about 'making tracks' (I imagine also a play also on recording music, setting his diary in vinyl) but this time departure means loss. He's having to say goodbye to something or someone he loves. 'Four years won't mean that much to me' is surely about a couple parting when one of them goes to university. The relationship can't survive. They rarely do. They almost certainly will eventually stop sending letters. One of the couple will experience a knowledge they can't share and the relationship will end.
 I'll quote the rest of the lyric because it speaks best for itself. Frame is so sharp here. To me the implication seems clear. Whichever route you take when you leave you will end up becoming your parents in some shape and form, ('the people in the village know') and perhaps in the end though it's the last thing you want when you're sixteen, this is not such a bad thing. But it's a painful process and a painful realisation. It's almost as if Frame is rejecting the person he's left behind to stop himself from having to recognise it.
'While you were gone I reached another town,
They couldn't help me but they showed me round,
And now I've seen what you can't understand,
I'd try to lead you but I'd crush your hand.

Because the people in the village know, it doesn't matter
ere you choose to go the end's the same.

I found some blood I wasn't meant to find
I found some feelings that we'd left behind
But then some blood won't mean that much to me
When I've been smothered by the sympathy you bleed.'
His guitar work here is the best on the album. It's virtuoso stuff. For once he's willing to extend the length of the song beyond the standard three or four minutes the other tracks are limited to because the emotions and themes he's wanting to convey require and deserve  it. It's almost six minutes long but you wouldn't know it. I'll listen to this as long as I'm alive. Now I've written about it and really given it thought, it will always sound different to me from this point on.

You get the impression that Frame was rather pleased with the chorus of Pillar to Post, the first song on Side B and their second and last Rough Trade single before leaving for WEA. They start the song with it, they finish it with it and sing it six times in all during the tracks duration. It's one of the happiest songs I know.

                                                    'Once I was happy in happy extremes,
                                                     Packing my bags for the path of the free.'

It's that same theme again, departure. There are some great turns of phrase again, which of Frame's songs don't have them. I particularly like 'my melancholy rose'. and 'I love the flames like I love the cold, I'll learn to love the life of the could I, could I, could I,' where he's embracing the future with open arms like some carefree T.S.Eliot. There's a sure grasp of melody and lyrical assurance here that other songwriters would kill for.

Next song, Release, slows it down then speeds it up again. It starts almost as cocktail bar jazz. In contrast to Pillar to Post it's almost all verse and very little chorus. It's the most unconventional song here and shows how far Frame was willing to stray from conventional rock structures.

Nobody at this point could play this way except perhaps Mark Knopfler which may explain why Frame asked him to produce the band's second album (boo!). Release focuses on the obsessions of youth. Or though they seem like obsessions at the time, in retrospect they look more like flirtations. Love, booze poetry, putting the world to rights, politics

                                     'The loch is overflowing, the sun has shed its light,
                                 And all that's left to warm your breast's the wine we stole tonight,
                                    Bottle merchants both of us, overdosed on Keats
                                We smashed them all and watched them fall like magic in the streets.'

The song has some romantic political sloganeering, meeting at the gates, storming the palace, 'a red, red flag for a souvenir'. Frame is undoubtedly red by political persuasion. Elsewhere he states his respect for Scargill and Livingstone. He wasn't alone. It was the conventional stance for pop stars of the day. It all seems a little sad in retrospect knowing what was coming up.

Frame was a labelmate of Scritti Politti's Green on Rough Trade and would have been aware of his argument that it was possible to bring intelligent and challenging ideas into the mainstream. The charts were the only place to be. Much of this album goes along with this approach. Frame's certainly trying to say something and doing so throughout. It's all highly admirable.

At thirty years remove it also sadly seems a little naïve and perhaps overestimates the taste of the general public. In the end, despite the commercial success the band did manage, which was considerable, they were still preferred in terms of sales and media coverage by Thompson Twins, Wham!, Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw, bands and artists that said precious little at least to me.

Much of what happened in the charts as the eighties progressed were frankly grim. You were forced to look away from the mainstream for quality as one by one the Post Punk and New Pop bands failed and faded. Aztec Camera lasted longer than most.

Lost Outside the Tunnel which is halfway through the second side has always been one of my absolute favourites. It's teenage melodrama. It's classically simple. The guitars (almost Spanish flamenco) go full pelt and it employs a simple echo device on the vocal which is highly effective in term of providing the required atmosphere of loss, disorientation and turmoil.

                                             'I'm lost here by myself and lost outside myself.'

It's a Highland response to A Forest. It's wonderful.

With next to last song Back on Board you definitely get the sense that the album is winding down. This is blue eyed soul. Frankly as a whole it's a genre of  eighties pop music that really wasn't for me . The Blow Monkeys, Hue & Cry and Deacon Blue all had stabs at it amongst countless others too vacuous to mention and none of them found their way into my record collection. It was all far too mannered and glib and too close to Luther Vandross for my tastes. Frame once again shows how it can be done if approached with appropriate sensitivity, sincerity and frankly talent. It's a song about being redeemed and blessed. It has an almost spiritual grace. Frame manages to achieve all this simply because he has an innate grasp and deep musical and lyrical affinity and empathy with this stuff.
Back on Board segues into Down the Dip a sweet, brief acoustic closing song. It's title was inspired by an East Kilbride pub called the Diplomat which Frame frequented. It's a last pint before departure. Frame is 'holding his ticket tight'. A last chance to rail against the prevailing political ethos, 'all you need is greed,' 'the hollow men who never got the groove'. He's going down The Dip with you. Two and a half minutes and pretty much perfect.
High Land, Hard Rain has always meant a lot to me and it means more now. It describes that part of your life when you are constructing your identity, deciding what kind of adult you want to be. It's about bidding farewell to friends and family and making your own way into the world. It's sweet, sensitive, incredibly skilfully realised and deeply sincere.
The album is only marginally let down with the passing of time by a slightly chintzy production which could be tougher and leaner, more in line with the albums of Frame's sixties heroes. David Ruffy's electric percussion also occasionally jars and drags us back to an era when the linn drum briefly was king. It's not nearly enough to break the spell for me.
Frame went on to make several very strong albums and singles. He achieved a fair degree of commercial success and was always critically respected because his talent was pretty much undeniable. The focus of his following records moved onto soul and love as he himself matured into adulthood. For me however he never quite captured the moment as he did on this album where his theme was the youth he was experiencing and observing in others. It's  a beautiful object and a historical artifact. One for the ages. Cheers Roddy!


Aztec Camera - High Land, Hard Rain


The next album up will be the best LP ever made about being 17. Coincidentally this came out when I was 17. This may give you some idea about whether it will get a positive review or not.  It's also I suspect the best album ever recorded in Eastbourne.

The Scottish Tintin - Roddy Frame

Other good albums and sleeves with the bands that made them on the cover...


Note the finger on the washboard. It was removed by the record company.

Why is it that Manchester bands, with the exception of The Buzzcocks don't put themselves on their record covers. Draw your own conclusions!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

# 5 De La Soul 3 Feet High & Rising


The first thing to say is that the album cover is just indescribably fabulous. Surely top ten of pretty much any list in terms of what it says about what's going to happen on the record inside. Off the top of my head I can think of possibly What's Going On, There's a Riot Going On, Marquee Moon / Horses (both Robert Mapplethorpe photos) and Astral Weeks to compare. Ok perhaps Kind of Blue and Exile on Main Street too. Now I've got on that train of thought I'm thinking of others, but I want to focus on 3 Feet High & Rising today and keep on doing so until I finish writing this.

My copy of this record, has spent most of the last twenty years four or five albums back mid-way or towards the back of piles of my records when really that sleeve alone should make me place it right at the front for pretty much most of the year or go the whole hog and frame it, hang it on the wall and buy myself another copy to house the album that I play. Alright. This is geeky stuff and very male geeky stuff. But I'm not alone. Records have this kind of inexpressible value to many of us.

So, to that sleeve. A lot of it is down to how distinctive from one another the three core members of De La Soul are. The smart guy, the boffin and the goofy one. Kelvin Mercer, Vincent Mason and David Jude Julicoeur. Posdunos, Mase, Plug One and Two (sorry I'm not an expert on this stuff).They're all framed just staring straight ahead and you get the sense that they've sat around for a while together and come to a group decision on this. None of them will take precedence. They're a posse. Though not a gang. There isn't the remotest sense of menace which is the hallmark of so many Hip Hop albums of the time and ever since. This is Daisy Age. But they're not hippies as they go on to stress on the record. This is a lot leaner, hipper and more eclectic than that.


The three De La Souls are neither happy nor sad though it does seem that all six of their eyebrows are slightly arched (if it's possible to arch both eyebrows at once for effect). They're certainly not giving much away at all except conveying the fact that you'll probably enjoy this and maybe should buy it.. They're definitely not grinning from ear to ear and this is just as it should be because what you'll hear when you get round to putting the record on is deadpan and phenomenally deadpan right from the off. Subtle. And something not quite like anything you've ever heard before. It has to be said in fairness that they are laughing their butts off in the shot of them sat on a sofa on the back cover. You do get the idea that this is probably not Public Enemy's new record. This back sleeve gives the track listing, beautifully laid out in plasticine, pink, yellow, green and blue.

It's Sesame Street. Of course it's Sesame Street. Not to say so straight from the off would be doing this remarkable album cover and the content inside an enormous disservice. It's The Banana Splits, it's The Monkees, The Jackson Five Cartoon, Hanna Barbera, (particularly the Hair Bear Bunch), The Looney Toons, The Partridge Family, The Muppet Show and so on. It's all the very best parts of childhood and you've got the best part of an hour of it coming up should you choose to listen.
The record as it unwinds confirms precisely this vibe. There's a vaudeville, variety show organ and then the introduction from the mic. 'Hi, all you kids out there. Welcome to 3 Feet High & Rising!' and we're off.
What goes on over the next fifty minutes or so is just pure pop joy. It's American daytime children's broadcasting complete with regular ad breaks. It slips every now and then into something more adult (on Ghetto Thang, Say No Go,) or pretend smut (De La Orgee) but never veers remotely towards X Certificate territory and the tone remains ultra confident and determinedly upbeat. The singles leap out at you of course. How could they not? Magic Number, Eye Know, Say No Go, Me, Myself & I, Buddy. That's a pretty unbeatable run of 45s..
The samples and scratching make it seem like someone is twiddling furiously round their radio dial. The choice of tracks sampled is like someone rifling through an unbelievably eclectic record collection and giving you five second bursts of each. The way they blend it so seamlessly with their tracks' momentum is quite remarkable. The juxtaposition of Steely Dan, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone and Lee Dorsey on Eye Know is a particular triumph. But it's difficult to pick out individual examples because it's the cumulative effect of the concept as a whole that's so impressive.
You can hear the rhythm and rapport of years of playground games on the streets of Long Island. It feels a little more middle class than some more authentically 'street' hip hop but I'm not going to fault it for that for a moment. It has to be one of the most inventive records ever made in any genre.. There are French language lessons and public service announcements .There's doo wop and local radio, there are white pop soul crossover hits (Average White Band and Hall & Oates' fabulous I Can't Go For That).There are Black soul icons; James Brown, Ben . King, Funkadelic, Michael Jackson. As with many debut albums, their whole lives are laid out before you. It's lovingly assembled and brilliantly achieved.
There are loping drumbeats and sloping riffs. It's American Pop Culture on black vinyl. There are guest appearances from Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Jungle Brothers who slip effortlessly into the mix and complement fully what's going on. This is a genuine movement of positivity. It rarely misses a beat. It doesn't date. It's still a quite astonishing document and soundtrack of a particular time and place. The scratches on my record sound like they might have been on the original pressing.