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

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Slade

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

1973 – I was a bookish kid. Music brought me a little bit more out in to the world, I guess.. everyone wants to be a part of something, and we had our little cliques at school, kids who were allowed to have trendy haircuts and wider flappier bottoms to their school uniform trousers. I might have been a bit shy but I knew what I liked and when I had some money of my own to spend, a small collection of singles accumulated, piled on the BSR autochanger in the family radiogram. Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Wizzard, Bowie.. the charts, Top Of The Pops and Radio One was the daily diet. Tony Blackburn at breakfast and the wonderful Alan Freeman, interpersing hits du jour with blasts of classical music. “Greetings, pop pickers.. awright, stay bright!”.

But it was a tough task, in the early 70s, staying bright. Big smiles, mirrorballs, flares and lunatic disco partying every night, right? Nope. Football hooliganism, racism, militant trade unions, strikes, power cuts, the Irish ‘problem’, the Three Day Week, a clueless Conservative government. I may not have understood it too well at the time, but I felt what my family and friends were going through, and it was tough. But it wasn’t all bad: there was a ray of light piercing the gloom.

The light reflected from a mirrored top hat..

A touch of glam was what we, and Slade, needed. They’d pounded the UK circuit for years, as soul boys the N’Betweens and skinheads Ambrose Slade, before Chas Chandler rounded them up and pointed them in the right direction. A touch of flash, Noddy Holder’s astonishing razor-blade gargle, idiosyncratic bassist Jim Lea’s proficiency in adding colourful flourishes of violin and piano to Dave Hill’s sledgehammer guitar madness, and Don Powell’s gum-chewing metronome rat-a-tat propelled them to superstardom.

‘Sladest’ was my first proper album, save for those sketchy Pickwick Top Of The Pops records. My mate Jez Thomas and I rushed into Halifax on release day and I splurged.. at least I would have, had I not underestimated the price of the fancy gatefold-sleeved multi-pictured wonder that was ‘Sladest’ (it was £3.29, a horrendous price. All was not lost, a quick dash back to Jez’s dad in the car, begging an additional 30p from Big Jimmy. There are rumours he wants his 30p back, 36 years on).

It’s a truly terrific ‘Best Of’: fourteen tracks, eight of which entered the UK top twenty, five of which hit #1, mis-spelled titles and all. It contains the very essence of what Slade means to me: sharp hooks, belting choruses, rabble-rousing good-time rock music, with no frills (save those worn by the exotically coiffed, perma-tinfoil-clad Dave Hill). It doesn’t include any Christmas songs. It is still, pretty much, the most fun my ears can have.

It’s where I began. Play loud.

P.S. Part 2 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1976

Books New Music

Me, Cheeta

If you have a hankering for a rollicking tell-all tale of movie star excess, sex, violence, kidnap and bananas.. knuckle down to your local library (makes so much sense in these cash-strapped times) and badger them to get you a copy of ‘Me, Cheeta’, the autobiography of the world’s most famous chimpanzee, still going at the age of 76. Cheeta has a lot to say about Tarzan co-stars Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, the Hollywood movie machine, and much much more. Don’t be tempted to have a glass of something while reading it though.. you’ll be snorting it down your nose at the sheer preposterousness of the cheeky chimp’s litigious revelations.. if Marlene Dietrich was “one of the good Germans”, says Cheeta, “then the bad ones must be absolutely f*****g terrifying”. Maureen O’Hara inimitable? Not according to our simian raconteur: “Maureen was in reality highly imitable. I myself can do a reasonable Maureen O’Hara by simply screeching as loudly as I can and flinging my excrement around.”. Ouch!

Salacious, foul-mouthed and entertaining. Yep. Go on, check it out, you know it makes sense.

And now that we’ve established a theme, I’m looking forward to checking out more of Leader Cheetah.. I recently pricked up my ears at their Arizona-by-way-of-Adelaide take on alt-country.. Australiana, maybe? Damn fine stuff, whatever:


Bit Of A Blur – Alex James

I’m back. Another 24000 miles under the Captain’s belt, visiting the old country. Grabbed a couple of books for the cabin: this one which suits my grizzled old man countenance, plus Alex James’ biography.

Blur music: I put on several of their albums since I returned and.. truly great sounds. Gave the music scene a kick up the pants. I could have done without the Oasis battle, mind, but listening once again to Graham Coxon’s snaky guitar lines is reason enough to celebrate: Damon Albarn’s lyrics, the enthusiasm, even the Britishness.. all good. But the BritPop excess… dear oh dear.

I nearly finished the book. Nearly. I’d have thrown it across the room, but you don’t do that to books, do you? But if I’d had to read one more tale of matey high jinks with Damian and Tracey and Keith, I would have shredded it, no problem. The more famous he gets, the more uninteresting the tale. I genuinely liked the early history of the band and the insights into his childhood, but the story all goes to custard in a blizzard of cocaine, booze and boorish behavior. I know he admits he was living the rock and roll lifestyle the way he imagined it should be lived.. and that should be entertaining and the basis for a great memoir (Paul Trynka on Iggy, anyone?), but here, it’s just a repetitive barrage of pointless anecdotes.

He may be a reformed character now, who knows? The closing chapters probably would have told me he’s settled down, living in a house, a very big house, in the country, new baby and wife bringing perspective and clarity to his thoughts. But is Alex James now the kind of bloke that Alex James would want to live next door to?