Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Human League

(#7 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

Punk didn’t really hit the English northern industrial city of Sheffield as hard as it did elsewhere. “Rebel? What against? I’ve been doing it all my life, mate, every day. I work hard, I play hard and I’m nobody’s fool. There’s only one person in this world who looks after me.. and that’s me. Spotty London w*nkers with cheap guitars? What do I have to listen to that racket for? I want something a bit more glamorous, mate, something that takes me away from grey skies and the noise and heat of the steel furnace, takes me to a different place. Get away from it all, like. Dream a bit.”

1980 – The Human League had come to a grinding halt. A couple of albums of austere arty electronic noise, some critical acclaim but also a fair amount of ridicule from the mainstream, they stalled, unsure of a direction. At a time when virtually anybody with a synthesiser could get a hit (Numan, Foxx, OMD, Ultravox, Visage..) the League couldn’t get past first base.

The major players split. Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (perceived as the creative core of the League) went to pursue their electronic music ideal. Singer Phil Oakey, and director of visuals Philip Adrian Wright wanted to move in a purer pop direction, but how? Less than half a band, a tour looming, promoters insistent..

Down the Crazy Daisy one night, Oakey saw what he thought might be the League’s salvation. Two teenage girls on a night out, happy, dancing, they looked good together.. Phil took a deep breath and invited them to join the band and tour. Complemented by local musician Ian Burden covering on a variety of keyboards, the second line up of the League took its first few faltering steps.

1981 – New boy Jo Callis knew the value of a good tune, veteran producer Martin Rushent knew how to arrange. The League were a band. The accent was on songs, not style, and finding their soul, they produced one of the most extraordinary albums of the 80s in Dare. Rushent pulled all the strands together: listen to the album today, pick on any stray squiggle or bleep from the electronics, and it works in isolation as a hook, as music. As pop.

Three UK top 20 singles released before the album. The totally bonkers weeping and wailing of ‘Sound Of The Crowd’, the insistent miaow of the opening bars of ‘Love Action’. A semi-autobiographical song about relationships with an irresistible pulse beat? Made for the charts, just made for them. And the teaser for ‘Dare’ in the dreamboat chorus of ‘Open Your Heart’ – a ‘Blue’ song, for Abba fans (according to Phil – ‘Red’ songs were for Spandau Ballet fans).

Then the album, plus a massive hit and Christmas #1, no less, in the days when that actually meant something. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ racked up sales of more than a million, with its classic noir promo. Everyday girls, Joanne and Suzanne, not superstars. Top Shop and Woolworths. Roxy Music and Donna Summer. Dance round your handbag, get off your face on Southern Comfort and lemonade, and have a major hit record.

You can’t ignore the power of popular music. Not when it’s as completely lovable as this.

P.S. Part 8 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1984

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Muddy Waters

(#6 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1979 – I was still loving the blues, more often than not blasted out by a rash of speedy punky British R&B merchants like Nine Below Zero and The Inmates, so what’s a music fan to do but go back to the source, to find out where all that stuff came from?

I was lucky, as it happened, to find Muddy Waters at a time in his life where he was given license to do what he did best.. play the blues, of course.. unencumbered by studio chicanery, no pigeonholes, no commercial considerations (other than to put him back in touch with his fans), under the watchful eye of an empathetic producer and guitarist in Johnny Winter, and backed by like-minded souls sensitive to every on-stage and in-studio move of the Godfather of the Blues, the Man himself.

Muddy electrified and defined the blues for the post-war generation, and over the course of four late-period albums, put himself back in the spotlight for an amazing swan song. The live album was the one I bought first, quickly followed by Hard Again and I’m Ready, Grammy winners all.

Undisputably the real deal: I’d heard nothing like it before: the swarm of angry bees that was Johnny Winter‘s slide guitar, the unmistakeable tone of the slide of the King Bee himself.. Muddy, the black Buddha, pouring out the deep, slow blues (because that’s “where the soul is”, right?). The tasteful restraint of Bob Margolin and Luther Johnson, the contrasting bass styles of Charlie Calmese and Calvin Jones, the rumbling piano of Pinetop Perkins, the literal pattering economy of Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith on drums.. and James Cotton and Jerry Portnoy, who showed me that you could really play harmonica (rather than just breathe in and out of one and make a good noise). That’s quite some roll call.

And perhaps for the first time, the music I was listening to had space: it was concise and crisp. Not so much about what was played, but what wasn’t – creative tension, undertow, timing.. what ever you like to call it. Soul, most certainly. The unvarnished truth.

Muddy Waters was my conduit to a world of blues and soul music, past and present.. a path I’m still walking. Muddy passed away in 1983, but those six years with Blue Sky Records displayed him at full power – an essential final portrait of a legend.

P.S. Part 7 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1981

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Thin Lizzy

(#5 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste – a little sidestep here, maybe not so.. predictable)

1978 – Two years before, some of us were staying up all night at parties, deafened by The Song Remains The Same, mixing cider with Newcastle Brown and ‘waiting for the sun-rise, man’. In ’78, I’m still feeling the punk shockwave in the North of England, but I wasn’t going to entirely throw all that good old music away, even if it was the done thing. Punk (and post-punk and new wave) was vital, but some rock bands still fit like an pair of comforting old furry slippers or.. er.. (struggles for hipper analogy).. broken-in cowboy boots? Yep, cowboy boots. Definitely.

Gig-going at the time produced some.. eclectic line-ups. Bill Nelson (surely Wakefield’s finest rocker?) and Be Bop Deluxe at the Vic in Halifax, supported by punk poet John Cooper-Clarke. Rejuvenated 60s rock and rollers The Pirates, alongside obscure Cambridge band The Push and a Pakistani escapologist, at Huddersfield Poly. The best of both worlds, you could say. Country and western.

But here’s the seismic event, the blinding revelation of that fateful year: I didn’t have to listen to hard rock any more. I didn’t realise this at the time, of course, but I may as well have just given up right there and then. Hard rock didn’t die. Oh no. It just never got any better** than Thin Lizzy‘s Live And Dangerous.

Spiky little south Glasgow teenager Brian Robertson and Californian Scott Gorham complementing each other perfectly on guitar. The quiet genius of drummer Brian Downey – economical, fluid, sensitive  playing. And Phil.. a poet, a dreamer and impossibly cool. Such confidence.. foot on the monitor, punching the sky in such glee, a wink of the eye, a flash of his mirrored bass guitar. Lyrical songs: myth and legend – a man who loved to tell a tale and celebrate life.

The badge of the gig!The King’s Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester, the tour of the live album – 30 years on, I still remember the lights going down, sirens and red police car lights atop Downey’s drum riser, the stage fills with smoke.. Lynott steps through it on the opening chord of Jailbreak, raises his arm, and instantly my friends and I are just lost in the wonder of our first big gig. Christine and I still have our memories: I don’t know where Jon is these days but I’m sure he won’t have forgotten that night either.

Live And Dangerous (gently massaged, shall we say, by Tony Visconti in the studio) is electrifying from start to finish, genuinely the best representation of that line-up and the heights they scaled. Sure, Side 4 stumbles a little in the middle. Sha La La has a drum solo of more than a few bars and loses me somewhat (I’m sorry, Brian), and Baby Drives Me Crazy is just a rabble-rouser, but those two are bracketed with the thundering swagger of Suicide and a blistering The Rocker. No complaints about any of the rest.. Robertson’s properly tasteful solo on Still In Love With You, a lush Southbound, the shuddering funk of Johnny The Fox Meets.. and a damn near flawless paint-stripper of a Side 3: Don’t Believe A Word, Warrior and Are You Ready, plus THE all-time perfect hard rock moment when Cowboy Song segues into The Boys Are Back In Town, the pause in Phil’s “A cowboy’s life…. is the life for me” and BLAM. Fireworks, chills up the spine, out of your seat and dancing with delight. I’ve heard it a thousand times and it never fails to slay me.

We were lucky to see Thin Lizzy at the top, the zenith. Within a few weeks Brian Robertson had gone, Gary Moore stepped in, Brian Downey took a break (and did return) but despite a few bright flashes of inspiration in later years, Live And Dangerous was the pinnacle, for me.

Hard rock’s high water mark too.

** I grant you Motorhead’s debut (on white vinyl) and AC/DC’s Powerage come close, but when were they released? 1978. I rest my case.

P.S. Part 6 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: we put our leather strides away and move on to 1979

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Elvis Costello

(#4 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1977 – It was the look that got me. A kind of mutant Buddy Holly: knock-kneed, big horn rims, thrift store suit, turn-ups, Fender Jazzmaster. If a guy like this can be a star..

Declan Patrick MacManus pitched up at Stiff Records with a plastic carrier bag full of songs, a bristling punk attitude and the desire to tell the world all about it, joining a grab bag of artists punching well above their weight – Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Motorhead, Richard Hell, The Damned et al. – and ultimately making the biggest impression on me. I’ve probably got more Elvis Costello records than any other artist, but none better than his first.

Recorded in 24 hours at a cost of £2000 whilst Elvis extricated himself from his day job, My Aim Is True is thirty five minutes of frustrated ragged glory. Songs of love, loss and barely repressed anger, barbed insults and spiky puns. A hefty whack at the Fascist movement in Less Than Zero (subtly reworked for the US market by reference to Lee Harvey Oswald). The anti-love song Alison (does he want her back? does he want to kill her?). The smack in the mouth of Welcome To The Working Week – “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired..”. 82 seconds long and the best Album 1 Side 1 Track 1 of all time? Could be. Red Shoes and the snappiest line on the record – “I said I’m so happy I could die, she said ‘drop dead’ and left with another guy”. Bespectacled geeks rejoice, here is your champion! And there’s more..

It all burst out of Costello in a rush and a push: by the time of its release he’d moved things up a gear, his astringent lyrics married with increasing sophistication in arrangement and melody to produce the equally brilliant This Year’s Model only eight months later. He’d also acquired the Attractions – teenage keyboard prodigy Steve Nieve, inventive bassman (and future nemesis) Bruce Thomas and pub rock scene drummer Pete Thomas – and an aggressive demeanour, which led to some memorable moments on stage and off in subsequent years.

If you don’t have My Aim Is True, don’t delay, buy today. Costello’s later recordings might have finer melodies and more sharply defined lyrics, but for intensity and passion, you can’t beat it.  The US version also has the awesome Watching The Detectives – bonus.

Here’s a brooding Phil-Spector-a-like number from the album that you might not be too familiar with (live at Eric’s, Liverpool – 2nd August 1977):

Recommendation: track down the live bootleg called Angry Young Sod to get the best impression of Elvis in concert back then, playing My Aim Is True, looking forward to This Year’s Model.

P.S. Part 5 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: we move on to 1978

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Clash

(#3 in a series – 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1977 – Sixteen years of age. Every week a new NME to pore over, every week a fresh crop of original new music to investigate, the scene just bursting with life. It was hard to keep up. Each new acquisition felt more personal than it does today.. you’d found something special, with sounds that hadn’t been made before. Small dynamic record labels, a brilliant DIY design ethic, bands springing up from nowhere.

The NME pumped up The Clash like nobody’s business (the zenith a staggering nine page screed by Lester Bangs spread across three issues), so it was inevitable I bought the album. It looked fantastic, ripped up, fluorescent, controversial. It opened with a tubthumping flurry and a headlong rush into a new world.. “He’s in love with rock and roll, woahh..”. It was itchy, it buzzed, it had drive and determination, it had.. reggae! I was exhilarated but confused, and later to find out that the Clash were too – a Mott The Hoople fan who thought he was Keith Richards, a pub rock idealist posh bloke called Woody, a punk Stuart Sutcliffe following the dots he’d printed on the neck of his bass, plus a drummer who never quite fit (and not on the sleeve as a result). But somehow it all stuck together, glue in a brown paper bag, and The Clash rode a wave of disaffection, dodging brickbats and a hail of gob, committing the unbelievable heresy of signing for a major label, and becoming an ultimately irresistible live force.

To some it was just a load of Jackson Pollocks – rudimentary drumming, mindless terrace chants, fakers, charlatans, amateurs – but their paint splattered battle fatigues looked great to me. They didn’t articulate how I felt, but they did articulate how I thought I should be feeling. I was always a follower, but what a gang to be in.

The Last Gang In Town, no less.

P.S. Part 4 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: another one from 1977.

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Dr. Feelgood

(#2 in a series – 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1976 – fifteen years of age. I was gaining a bit of confidence. I explored and read about music avidly, heavily influenced by a string of young gun rock writers who plied their trade in the NME. Not the shallow travesty it is these days, mind: back then, it was a proper newspaper and you got your hands dirty, literally and metaphorically, when you read it. Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Tony Parsons & Julie Burchill.. I ate it all up. John Peel on the airwaves (on school nights, the transistor radio poised on my pillow) and Tony Wilson on the telly (just look at the schedules of ‘So It Goes’ in 1976 to see how things were changing).

I discovered ‘serious’ rock bands, lost patience with all that progressive widddly-diddly, but if it was based on the blues it took hold.. I ‘got’ the blues. And being British, the blues I got most was a sweaty stripped-down revved-up cheapskate version, purveyed by a gang of petrochemically-enhanced reprobates from Canvey IslandDr. Feelgood.

In some ways it was easier to imagine them plotting a bank job than playing music. Just look at the cover of ‘Malpractice’ – tell me it ain’t so. Lee very much the guvnor, stony menace spread across his grim features, speeding, gritted teeth, facial tic. Wilko the psychotic younger brother out on remand, leering over Lee’s shoulder, Lee holding him back. Sparko’s the fixer, the driver, the one with the array of appallingly sharp tools in his car boot. The Big Figure is the patriarch, an avuncular be-suited secondhand car dealer, a suitcase full of fivers and a weighty blackjack in his pocket.

Wilko’s flinty propulsive guitar style spawned descendents Andy Gill and Bill Carter (and propagated right on through to Franz Ferdinand and the like). His skittering choppy licks and wild-eyed lunging fit right in to the burgeoning punk scene.. the New York New (and No) Wave mafia checked the Feelgoods as a major influence, both muscially and sartorially. What could have more raw attitude than Lee Brilleaux’s harmonica work? Hell, if he could blow like that, so could I! So I did.

Early waxings were basic, live in the studio, captured by the legendary Vic Maile. Scratchy, distorted, wiry, an almost alien sound. Thrilling stuff, but the ‘ne plus ultra’ for me was the British #1 live album (limited edition of 20000 with free 7″ single) ‘Stupidity’. A whole extra level of excitement compared to the studio recordings, the locked-in groove of Sparko and The Figure, the furious interaction between Lee and Wilko, the workrate, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.

No crowd here on this video, but it’s the best. Lee’s jacket would famously not be cleaned as the years went by, Wilko’s guitar method would remain indecipherable (he’s just waving his right hand up and down, right? So where do the licks come from?) and the Feelgoods rolled on. Wilko departed, but Gypie Mayo took them to a new level of acceptance. Lee’s up in British R&B heaven now, god bless him, but his band was always an inspiration.

P.S. Part 3 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1977