Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is one those artists, like Prince and The Cult, who I kind of liked in the Eighties and then abandoned because I lost interest in their later work.

I'd read about Springsteen before I heard any of his music. In the Stellenbosch Municipal Library there was copy of the 1975 issue of Time magazine with Bruce on the cover. I do not recall whether the library also had Newsweek, who put Springsteen on its cover at the same time as Time. Anyhow, the piece, as I recall it, told us about a new street poet New Jersey kind of guy, with a big band behind him and a powerful work ethic and even more powerful huge rock and roll sound who was here to save the world, or at least to entertain us. At the time Springsteen meant absolutely nothing to me and for all I knew it was just some hype by Time magazine to boost the career of a flavour of the month artist.

When "Born to Run" eventually roared from the radio speakers I was immediately hooked. It was powerful, it had a great chorus and the lyrics seemed to be about reality yet also mythical. Those opening chords still thrill me viscerally every time I hear the song.

Other than that I knew nothing about the other songs on the Born To Run album. The record was available in my local record store but for some reason I never asked to listen to it or even had any intention of buying it. My musical focus was elsewhere. I'd bought a copy of Circus magazine with a somewhat gushing review of the album and from I could glean about the music I gathered that it would not really be to my taste and that the rest of the songs were not as mighty as "Born to Run" and so I left it.

Over the next few years I read a lot about Springsteen, mostly in NME where, for example, Tony Parsons was very effusive in his praise of Springsteen's material circa the Darkness On The Edge Of Town release, which surprised me because I had thought of Parsons as a punk booster.

I might have heard "Badlands" on the radio at the time and I liked it but by then I was kind of firmly set in my resistance against buying Springsteen's music. To a degree the idea of a rock band with a large horn section put me off; at the time I did not even particularly like the urban blues style of BB King with his big band. I also felt that there was so much hype surrounding Bruce that I could only be disappointed when I listened to a whole album.

Chris Prior used to play some tracks off the first two albums and these jazz funk (as I thought of them) infected rock song with semi-Dylanesque lyrics were not hard or simple enough for my taste and the words were just too much nonsense. I can understand why it took a while, and a sea change, for America and the world to catch onto Springsteen's talent.

My mate Emil Kolbe bought a copy of The River when it came out, perhaps in Japan, and left it at my flat for a while. I listened to it once and realised, apart from "Hungry Heart" and "The River" itself, which had been on the radio a lot anyway, that I really did not like this kind of rock and roll at all. The slow songs seemed forced and silly in their street seriousness and really dragged, and the fast songs were just all these car songs that quickly became boring to endure. The double album was just too damn long.

In 1983 in Windhoek, Marius Rijkheer, one of my neighbours at the Officer's mess, who was a big fan of the New Jersey fireball, had a copy of Nebraska, the solo album that sounds exactly like the soundtrack to assist in the contemplation of suicide. I'd thought Leonard Cohen made downer music until I heard Nebraska; then Cohen seemed almost excessively upbeat by comparison.

Rijkheer copied the album for me onto a cassette tape and I listened closely to it. It was very strange that anyone in Springsteen's commercial position at the time would want to release an album not only of him on his own but also of such gloomy material. Where The River could have been good music for a party, Nebraska was just good for depressing you even further than you might have been before you started listening to it. Perhaps it is a work of pure genius but to this day I think of Nebraska as an album of demos Bruce got his record company to release because he could. Having said that, the title track and "Atlantic City" are great songs. After that the songs started melting into each other and by the end of the first side the focus is gone.

Marius Rijkheer was a Law Officer like me and in 1984 when I was a candidate attorney based in the Strand he was a public prosecutor out in Caledon. When I had occasion to visit the Magistrate's Court in Caledon I looked up Rijkheer and we had lunch together. He drove to our lunch spot and played a cassette tape of Born In The USA while we drove. This album was to be the record with which Springsteen went from success to mega worldwide success and I would imagine I would have heard "Dancing In The Dark" on the radio by then but it was pretty much a pop song compared to the more rock oriented other tracks on the album and I was impressed by that first cursory exposure to Born In The USA.

The album became a phenomenon of huge proportions. It seemed that about half of the songs on the album were played as plug tracks (perhaps they were actually released as singles; I did not buy singles and was under the impression that they almost no longer existed) on the radio over the next two years, while the album chalked up mega sales. Before 1964 Bruce had been big in the States and popular elsewhere and afterwards he was global rock hero.

I still resisted buying the album, partly because of the hype and partly because I was not convinced that I would want to listen to his music over and over again.

My cousin Raymond Solomon had a different opinion. I think he might have been a fan since Born to Run but in any event he had the records of Born to Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The USA and somewhere in 1985 or 1986 I borrowed these 3 albums and copied them onto cassette tape and this was then the first time I listened to either with any kind of attention.

Regarding Born In The USA my first surprise was that I immediately recognised a song that had not yet received any radio airplay, namely "Working On The Highway". I recognised it because it was in the set of All Night Radio. My favourite local band of that time, who had been playing "Working On The Highway" without informing the audience of the identity of the songwriter. They also did "Pink Cadillac", which might have been a single B-side.

As the set contained mostly self-penned material and because the Springsteen tunes fitted in so seamlessly I was none the wiser and simply thought Steve Louw had managed to write two great tunes. I would imagine that I was almost alone in the audience in my ignorance. The other people around me probably knew well that All Night Radio was doing cover versions.

Be that as it may, I immediately liked Born In The USA, despite the slightly tedious familiarity of so many of its songs, a lot better than Born To Run where the street poet intensity of most the songs left me cold and made me wonder whether this was not some elaborate joke on Springsteen's part. How could anyone be so serious about this?

Apart from the title track the only other song from Born to Run I unreservedly liked was "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", which I'd heard before and could have been the B-side of "Born To Run" and which was the best other rocker on the album. The overall impression was that the songs were slow, ponderous and almost ridiculous. "Meeting Across The River" was almost a pleasure because it was so short compared to the longer narratives.

I get that the E Street Band is very much a powerhouse of swing and melody and rock and that the emotional depth of the songs is enhanced by the R & B styled big band alternatively playing sensitively and slowly or loud and frenzied as the mood dictates, but it is still not a sound I could instinctively love.

Born In The USA is, for all its pop production sheen, more of a traditional rock album with more fast songs than slow songs and with the heavy myth-making somewhat downplayed. It is indeed the kind of record where every song is good and the whole sounds like a greatest hits package. Given how many songs were taken from it as singles, it might as well be. I don't think Bruce ever managed that kind of popularity since and probably never wanted pop success again.

However, the really big revelation was Darkness On The Edge Of Town. For me this is the great Bruce Springsteen master work and his most effective and affectless album. Where Born To Run for the most part sounded too sleek, bloated, overblown and very calculated, Darkness On The Edge Of Town sounds rough, raw, tight and about as spontaneous as Springsteen could get in the studio. These tunes rock furiously, like "Badlands", "Adam Raised A Cain", "The Promised Land" and "Streets Of Fire" (with the most ferocious guitar solo Springsteen ever recorded) and the slower songs like "Something In The Night" and the title track, do not come across as ponderous or anywhere near as pompous as "Thunder Road" or "Jungleland" from the previous record. . The band rocks harder and Bruce plays really loud, aggressive guitar that truly tears the room apart. This was my kind of rock and to this day Darkness is my top favourite Springsteen album and in fact the only album, apart from the Greatest Hits set from the mid-Nineties, that I've bothered to buy. The only let down on Darkness is "Racing In The Street." It sounds like a reject from Born To Run and builds up painfully slowly and I really don't get the point of the story. Perhaps it is because I did not grow up working class in New Jersey.

This is pretty much where I stopped taking an active interest in Springsteen's music. "Brilliant Disguise" from Tunnel Of Love (1987) got some radio airplay in South Africa, as did "Human Touch" from the eponymous album and "Better Days" from Lucky Town, both 1992, but I do not know whether they could be called great hits and after that Springsteen kind of disappeared from South African radio, which might be a reflection on the state of our rock radio, but I did not much like any of these songs anyway. The radio songs sounded too pop and too twee for my liking and the hubris of releasing Human Touch and Lucky Town almost simultaneously as separate albums instead of as 2 halves of a double album, gave Bruce a hit of a comeuppance. Those two albums were staples in discount bins at record stores or in second hand CD stores for years to come. I was not prepared to buy them even at a massive discount.

In 1995 I did buy the Greatest Hits album because it had a good selection of the best tunes without the tedious ones that surrounded them on the albums from which they were taken. For my money, apart from Darkness, that is the best way to listen to Bruce: do some cherry picking and avoid the dross. This compilation is 15 years old by now and possibly out of date and there has been The Ultimate Springsteen collection since, and a series of albums with previously unreleased tracks form the vaults for the Springsteen completists who wanted to hear demos, out-takes and alternate takes.

This particular practice is an interesting marketing tool of the digital age. From Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series and The Beatles' Anthology series onwards there is now a general adoption of the idea of trawling through any major act's back catalogue of unreleased material with the idea of releasing just about everything ever recorded by the artist based on the assumption that fans will want to hear and own everything. There is also some historical interest here in getting to know an act developed well-known songs, from demo to early version to popular version, and of how the act developed over time from uneasy beginnings to assured globe conqueror. Jimi Hendrix had been something of a victim of this practice given that many early posthumous releases were substandard studio jams tarted up for release, but nowadays the rationale is about presenting the whole of an artist's body of work than simple exploitation of dead superstar.

This piece was inspired by one such archival release. There is a boxset of previously unreleased material from the recording sessions for Darkness On The Edge Of Town plus a remastered version of the album itself and concert footage on DVD, and a cheaper 2 CD version of just out-takes from the sessions.

It is telling that Darkness has been selected for this extensive revisit and not Born To Run, but apparently the Darkness sessions were incredibly fruitful because of the injunction against Springsteen at the time that prevented him from releasing anything although it did not stop recording or live shows. In my opinion, though, Darkness get this treatment and deserves this treatment because it represents Springsteen at his best, at the height of his powers, on the edge between cult (albeit a large cult) success and mass popularity, while he was still thin and hungry looking and before he buffed up and started looking a bit like a caricature.

Darkness On The Edge of Town is the best Springsteen album ever.

Nowadays there is a lot of Springsteen music out there: old stiff, new stuff, live albums, live DVDs and so on and I guess all of it is very worthy and of high quality but I have almost no interest in any of it. Bruce Springsteen may be the most colossal superstar rocker of the past forty years, an American icon and a universal myth, and his talent and gifts and work ethic are undeniable, yet his music has very limited appeal. I do not fancy the great American working class myths he concocted, even after he left that world behind, and too often the overcooked, superheated effect the words and music combine to thrust in my face, simply put me off. In some ways Springsteen has been the Celine Dion of rock: he can invest too much and often very much superfluous emotion into the mundane in an attempt to exalt the base.

As far as I understand the Springsteen approach to life and music he is very much the proponent of the myth that rock and roll can save and sanctify. On the basic level it is simply the story of a lonely loser who makes good in the entertainment industry; from working class lack of prospects to endless possibilities as rock superstar. This is obviously not a new story by any means as the career of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and many other can illustrate and it is very much Bruce Springsteen's own story. I can understand that music can a great deal to a person. For many years music carried me through rough patches, it was the constant in my life, though in my case it did not mean that I made music, I simply bought lots of albums and spent a lot of time listening to music. Where I am different to Springsteen, then, is that music did not change my life. It gave me a passion but that was about all.

I also have a more realistic and non-mythologised appreciation and understanding of what music is and means to me. It is entertainment and has many aspects and many practitioners. It is a business as much as it is an art. By and large musicians all want to make a living at their craft and most probably want to make a lot of money and become famous.

Bruce Springsteen sees, or professes to see, something transcendental and holy in rock and roll and to me that is a tad stupid. Perhaps he sees it like that because it did rescue him from poverty and struggle and gave him a better life than he could have hoped for had he stayed in Freehold or Asbury Park, New Jersey, and worked at some menial job. The blue collar workers of the USA must have known what he was talking about because they were still stuck in their ruts but for a middle class kid like me in South Africa where my past and prospects were very different this fervent claim that music can be redemptive seemed preposterous. Sure, you can become very successful if your musical career takes off but it is far-fetched to claim that somehow God, or whatever rock deity there is, intervened just because you had the music in you and it had to come out. There are plenty stories of how music careers did not redeem and led to early, untimely death or destruction of the self. Lots of aspirant musicians struggle all their lives and never make it big, some have a brief window of success and then lose it again. Springsteen is like every motivational guru who tries to tell everybody to do just what he did to be successful. Unfortunately successes like Springsteen's are the exception to the rule. Rock and roll redemption is highly individual and selective.

Bruce Springsteen is a towering, legendary figure in rock music, not particularly an innovator or taboo breaker but the best example we have of someone who grew up on the first wave of rock and roll, internalised its beat and aspirations and made something entertaining of it, fusing all kinds of elements of the music, and at the same time convinced his fanatical audience that he had something to say to them and about them that was a heartfelt and true and elevated their banal and mundane lives to a plane where myth virtually becomes real. On top of that comes the equally legendary live shows where the phrase "hardest working man in show business" leaves cliché behind.

With Bruce you got a deal that was more than just fluff and young men, mostly, want music that seems substantial and is not just bubblegum. Of course it is all just a schtick, even if the schtick is about sincerity and community but perhaps the good thing about the schtick is that many fans can identify completely or partly with the characters Bruce writes about. Almost all his men are called "mister" and the women are invariably "Mary" and the land is the industrial heartland or just the hardscrabble back country where poverty and bad luck coexist with struggle and failure. Where decency and principles rule. Where true values triumph. Where Everyman is any man but also universal man.

Would I pay to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert if he were to tour South Africa? Of course I would if the opportunity arose. There was no chance of seeing the young Bruce in action but I understand that he still works as hard and that the shows are still awesome. One has to go to see the legends, even the elderly legends, if the opportunity is there. And it must be an unsurpassed thrill to hear the opening bars of "Born To Run" and to know that this is one roller coaster ride that is actually nothing but fun.





Monday, November 29, 2010

Eric Clapton Presents Clapton

I am the kind of selective Eric Clapton fan who just about only buys his blues releases and over the past 20 years I've bought Unplugged (1991), From The Cradle (1994), Me and Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J (2005). By and large I've skipped the pop / rock releases over the 40-year period since the breakup of Derek and the Dominoes. The only "rock star" Clapton albums I own are 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974). because it was an important record for me in my school years, and Slowhand, because of "Lay Down, Sally" and some tasty old school country rock and blues. The pop stuff from the Eighties, the Phil Collins years, so to speak, does not appeal at all.

Although I got to know Clapton's music through his version of "I Shot The Sheriff" it was his work with John Mayall and Cream that really fired me up. The solo career contemporary rock and pop experiments left me cold, as is the case with so many rockers from the Sixties and Seventies who hit their forties in the Eighties and did not quite want to let go of commercial success and yet did not really accomplish much of lasting value. For me Eric Clapton is a bluesman and the trilogy (of a kind) represented by From The Cradle, Me and Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J are my favourite Clapton albums because he digs deep into the blues, is honest in his approach to a music he obviously lives as much as I love it and does the blues proud without pandering.

On the front cover of Clapton (2010), the latest release, Clapton has the face of a guy in his mid-Sixties but with the hairstyle he once had in his mid-Eighties commercial heyday and this is kind of weird as the music as determinedly rootsier and simpler in concept, execution and production than the Phil Collins years. Although the band backing Clapton mostly sounds like a blues band, it is not exactly a blues album for the reason that some of the tunes are basically show tunes, albeit played with a blues sensibility. There is only one Clapton tune and lots of covers of slightly odd choices of song and I am almost reminded of the eclectic almost blues stylings of Bob Dylan's most recent work, but where Dylan's blues sound like pastiches and often are reworkings of familiar musical tropes with a combination of clichéd blues lyrics and Dylan's own take on tradition, Clapton plays it straight. He simply does his own versions of a selection of songs that must be personal favourites.

Clapton's voice is also not nearly as croaking as that of the latter-day Dylan and this means he brings a lot more warmth to his interpretations. Hs blues guitar is always to the point, fluent and subtle. This might be the mellow twilight album of a rock superstar (thankfully not exactly the Great American Songbook pretensions of Rod Stewart) but the bottom-line toughness of the music is undeniable and this is the kind of old fogey record I will listen to a lot, much as Unplugged really caught my attention back in 1991.

This is where he should be, with a sympathetic band, elegant arrangements and a relaxed atmosphere, and good songs. Forget the pop stuff or the introspective singer songwriter stuff. Clapton must do what he does best and what he does best is the blues, with a touch of country thrown in for effect, and for my money Eric Clapton is the ultimate white bluesman of the last fifty years.



Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Machineri Revisited

When I saw Machineri at Zula in Long Street in June 2010 I quite disliked what I heard and said so in print. Some while later the band responded via their Facebook page and ostensibly commended me on my awesome and intelligent review. As the "review" was brief and scathing I guessed that Machineri were being sarcastic.

The other day I bought my wife the latest South African edition of Cosmo, their annual "music" issue. Guess who is featured in a full page spread, with large photograph and brief text? Machineri!

I guess it helps having some heavy PR. IF you can persuade Cosmo to give you a bit of hype as hot new young guns, somebody must know somebody and be working hard on your press and publicity. The Cosmo hack tells us the band mixes up a blend of rock 'n roll, country and blues and calls it music to feed our soul. We are also urged to get to their live shows. In the photograph Sannie Fox wears a short, thin summer dress beneath some kind of jacket, with short socks and comfortable shoes, and gives a shy yet bold look. Kind of like Maria McKee back in the day.

This expensive publicity made me wonder whether I'd missed something in Zula. Had I got it all wrong?

In passing I should mention, apart from favourable comments about my Nico Burger piece, that most of the responses to my blogs, when there is any, are from people who think I'm a clueless bastard for slating their favourite artist or maybe their mate. I guess any recognition is better than none and if means that unflattering pieces draw attention, then I should be even more like a blunt object in my battering attempts against crap music.

Machineri at Zula was loud, shrill and not very entertaining. There was no sign of country or blues. I trusted my instincts and called it as I saw it.

Anyhow, Machineri succeeded in drawing me to their Facebook (maybe I should now become a friend of theirs) and MySpace pages. After listening to the studio version of Machineri music I thought it good and even proper to re-evaluate the band and perhaps change my mind altogether. Now I do get the rock 'n roll, country and blues references. Machineri in the studio has some smarts, some musical sense and is long on the subtlety their bludgeoning performance had nothing of.

Damn! I like this stuff!

On MySpace the band displays its wares: a mini album of tunes that I find I cannot buy and download. Now that I have listened to the studio version of the tunes the band might have played at Zula, I am most distressed that I cannot download the songs to listen to more often.

This music is quite good!

"The Searchers" is allegedly inspired by the John Wayne / John Ford movie of the same name and the first impression is that Sannie Fox sounds like Jefferson Airplane period Grace Slick and the second impression is that his song almost has a grand tune and that it ain't half bad. Is this the hit?

"Drop Us A Line Ladder Operator" (I am a sucker for mysterious titles like this) is driven by a glorious lead riff, propulsive bass, freak out lead guitar, popping drums and gleefully thrilled vocals about a subject that makes no sense to me.

"Stranger on the Water" sounds like slowed down early Grand Funk Railroad, with touches of Blue Cheer, fronted by a less tense Siouxsie Sioux. That's a positive.

"Cukoo Child" is scuzz rock Howlin' Wolf style backing, psych fuzz guitar and an almost sweet vocal. This is the Nuggets tribute.

"Shunting Train" mauls the Delta theme of railroads with some spooky blues. It ends rather abruptly just as I am starting to enjoy the ride.

"Machine I Am" has an Eastern music effect and sounds like budget psych-pop, Grace Slick again, and has an almost anthemic chorus. It ends on wordless wailing and a bit of raga rock styling.

Obviously I listen to this stuff with ears attuned to music from the mid and late Sixties and early Seventies. Jefferson Airplane is one of my top favourite bands of all time. I owned the first Blue Cheer album and the first couple of Grand Funk Railroad albums. The original punk rock of the Pacific Northwest area of the USA, and the bands enshrined in the Nuggets and later Pebbles compilations, especially the stupidly lysergic dumb ones, rock in an awesome way. I hear this kind of influence in Machineri, whether they know this older music or not.

Machinery is not doing anything new, except perhaps for the role of Sannie Fox's guitar in the line up (and, hey, is a woman playing a guitar in any way still a novelty as Fox says in her Cosmo quote?) but from the evidence of the recordings they are doing something fun and rocking. The production values of the demos (as I think of them) need some boosting but I guess that will come with time and budget. For now, Machineri probably deserve the attention they are getting. Machineri does not sound like most of the bands on the scene and I guess they never will. If this is blues rock for the current millennium I am all for it, as blues is my passion and basic, primitive rock 'n roll my heart's desire.

The chances of me ever hearing Machineri live again would probably be quite slim. I would however shell out for a CD or downloadable tracks when available.

Never let it be said that I have blind prejudices.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Albert Frost: Devil or God?

Albert Frost must be one of the premier session guitarists in South Africa today, and is also a star in his own right, I guess. The last time I saw him play was on the stage at De Akker in Stellenbosch as part of the Blues Broers reunion tour and then he was the epitome of stylish cool in a dark suit and black shirt and I guess it must be Armani, taking my cue from the indication on his Devils & Gods mini-album where it says he is sponsored by Emporio Armani. Damn! It's straight out of the tradition of sharp dressed bluesmen and jazzbos.

He plays damn fine guitarist too, either in the blues vein or as modern rocker and judging from this album he is a useful songwriter.

My connection with Mr Frost is twofold, one aspect from the mid-Nineties and the other from early 2003. this is how it goes.

In the mid-Nineties the very young Albert, still finding his feet as axman, joined the Blues Broers as second guitarist behind Nico Burger. Albert's dad was the late Frank Frost who drummed for the Broers. Young Albert was a tasty and unflashy guitarslinger who showed much promise. My recollection is that at first he stuck to rhythm guitar, and slowly but surely built up towards playing solos. Hs influences seemed to be Nico Burger himself, who was not a showboating type and who preferred making his licks speak volumes through their precision and impact. For the rest Albert probably also dug early Eric Clapton and Peter Green and perhaps Mike Bloomfield and, as I learnt much later, Jimi Hendrix.

After Nico left the band Albert replaced him and became the man. He is the guy you hear playing the six string all over the Blues Broers' CD albums. He is the guy who, along with Simon Orange, who gave the band that edge so many other local so-called blues bands lacked, and still lack. They had a sophistication of attitude, attack and sound that updated the somewhat clichéd blues sound and brought a touch of psychedelia to the purist tradition.

I followed the Broers for a long time and rated all of their guitarists very highly for different reasons but in a sense John Frick, Nico Burger and Albert Frost were of a piece in their approach in the context of the group. Each of them served the song and supported the other guys and when it was time to solo, they made their stand with a sense of melody and timing and subtle power that impressed more and more as time went by.

Although I will concede that Dan Patlansky is probably phenomenally talented his obsessive homage at the altar of Stevie Ray Vaughan really grates. To paraphrase the comment on Jack Kerouac, that what he did was not really writing but just typing, I want to say that Patlansky is not really playing the blues, he just acts out what he believes blues to be. Obviously I cannot truly tell whether Albert Frost is a bluesman through and through, and his prodigious achievements as session musician probably means that he doesn't, but he sure as shit sounds like one when he plays the blues. To put it another way: I would bet that Frost can imitate Stevie Ray Vaughan as well as Patlansky can but that Patlansky could never quite sound like Frost.

The second connection came about when Albert Frost released his debut solo album, Catfish in 2002. At the time I subscribed to the online magazine SA Rock Gazette and Carina Laubscher was contributing her unique voice and views on the musicians she encountered in Pretoria and Johannesburg. She wrote a piece on Catfish and made it known that it could be ordered from her. I would have bought it just because it was a blues album from a guy I respected but Carina also praised it unreservedly. As it seemed that the album was not available in the shops I e-mailed her to request a copy. From this innocuous enquiry a steamy, long distance romance of sorts developed, completely unexpectedly. To me anyway. It was one of the weirdest things ever to happen to me: that a woman could declare lust for me simply because of an e-mail exchange and then some phone calls. The thing never went beyond being a tenuous long distance interaction. If I had been braver it could have developed but I was also extremely cautious about getting involved with someone who could fall for me, in a manner of speaking, simply because I wrote alluring e-mails.

Anyhow, Carina sent me the Catfish album and I wrote an appreciation of it as well. The set is divided into electric and acoustic and is for the most part composed of covers, except for 2 versions of Frost's own "Kammakastig Land" and he does a bit of Hendrix, a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a bunch of other electric blues artists. The solo acoustic tracks are hot as successful as the electric tracks because they sound too rushed and lack the power of the Frost trio. "Kammakastig Land" is a great song, though not particularly a blues tune and it would fit in well with anything else on Devils & Gods.

Albert Frost has not defined or restricted himself as strictly a bluesman in the same way Dan Patlansky has, and he is probably better off for it, especially because Patlansky additionally defines himself by his ability to "do" Stevie Ray Vaughan and this is severely limiting. If you've heard one Patlansky album you've pretty much heard then all, though True Blue is a bit of an exception due to the varied fare on offer. On the other hand Albert Frost has refused to be tied down to one signature style. This has a lot to do with his role as boss session guy where he has to play the style that fits the artist he backs and to my mind this ultimately makes him far more talented than Patlansky.

Blou Kombuis (2000) is an exciting live collaboration between Koos Kombuis and Albert Frost where Kombuis does a bunch of his hits, playing his acoustic guitar with electric backing by Frost who provides the light and shade that subtly fleshes out some bare bones performances by a man who can sound pretty boring just by himself. It sounds as if a lot of fun was had by the two guys on stage and for all I knew Albert was just vamping improvs behind Kombuis.

Arno Carstens formed New Porn after the first hiatus of the Springbok Nude Girls and released Another Universe (2003) as a solo album (perhaps because the band name was a tad risqué) with Albert Frost as the guitar master of a very fine, powerful modern rock band that blew me away when they played at Wellington in October 2004, headlining over Afrikaans acts like Skallabrak and Akkedis. The other bands sounded kinda rinky dink compared with the monolithic power of Arno Carstens' backing band. This is where I realised that Albert Frost was no mere blues wannabe but possibly the most versatile guitarist active in South Africa today. The album is every bit as powerful and the guitar parts are as inventive.

From there it is a straight musical line to Devils & Gods even if a couple of years separate the two albums. The music is a mixture of what I like to think of as slightly lysergic rock with pop smarts and a little blues just for old time's sake. The craft and nous lie in the ability to make magic with a stringed instrument yet also being able to write a decent tune and good lyrics. The words are not completely cliché free, but they sound honest and deeply felt and the way Albert Frost sets his guitar on stun most of the time more than makes up for any lyrical shortcomings. I am not a car aficionado and it would perhaps be silly to use a vehicular metaphor to explain what I mean, but to me this album is Albert Frost in a muscle car, not yer obvious Ferrari or Lamborghini or Porsche; perhaps a 1970's Mustang, perhaps a vintage Bugatti, where design, function, style and power make a hugely powerful package that is undeniably much more than the sum of any set of parts.

I like this album a lot, even given that I was prepared to like it no matter what even before I listened to it. Where Patlansky's albums tend to be disappointments because I expect so much more, Albert Frost delivers more than expected.

It is my hope that he will keep delivering superlative music for years to come.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fleetwood Mac: Rumours

Rumours (1977) was Fleetwood Mac's world conquering AOR masterpiece, or something like it. The band went from one of the UK's best, and most purist blues bands, to naff MOR rock, to the pop rock titans of the late Seventies, releasing an album that held records, along Dark Side of the Moon and Eagles Greatest Hits, as one of the ultimate best sellers of the Seventies, and of all time.

As an example of how all pervasive the record became, is that even Radio Xhosa (as it then was) played "Go Your Own Way", the first hit single hit the album. Radio Xhosa did not play much rock music at all and it was a great wonder to me that they selected Fleetwood Mac to be their token rock act. In fact, I don't recall any other rock tune being played on the station in the period between 1979 and 1981 that I listened to it.

It took me a while to realise that "Go Your Own Way" was sung by a guy, Lindsay Buckingham, and the guitar sole it played out on was so freakily wonderful that I loved the song not only for the weird vocals but for this melodic yet driving guitar sound, and Lindsay Buckingham was also responsible for that.

A couple of other songs were pulled as singles and became big hits too, but none had that element of astonished surprise that "Go Your Own Way" gave me.

Back in 1977 and 1978 I was not the kind of music fan who would buy anything as commercially huge as Rumours. More to the point: I was far more interested in the music and story of the first version of Fleetwood Mac, with Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. I preferred Fleetwood Mac as a blues band to Fleetwood Mac as an AOR band.

In fact, when Rumours was released, I thought of this as almost a new band, then knowing very little about their history in the years between the demise of the blues oriented band and the ascension of the AOR monsters. I had not even taken notice of the release of Fleetwood Mac (1975), the breakthrough album that preceded Rumours.

In 1980 I did deign to buy Fleetwood Mac Live because I liked live albums that were also greatest hits albums, and this one was better than most. It is a splendid album and I would absolutely buy it on CD if I ever find it again.

My mate Emil Kolbe bought a Japanese copy of Rumours on one of his overseas trips as flight steward for South African Airways. He did his National Service stint straight after Matric and then joined SAA for a couple of years, saw the world and saved enough money to pay for his studies at the Film School at Pretoria Technikon. I started my law studies directly after Matric and deferred my National Service for 5 years, while I studied and built up a record collection.

Anyhow, Emil owned a copy of Rumours, (and also Heroes Are Hard To Find, from the early Seventies) that he stored at my flat for a couple of years and then kept in a box at home and finally gave to me when he got married and tossed out superfluous stuff. By that time the vinyl surfaces of both the long players were so full of static or scratches that both records were unplayable. I kept them with my other Fleetwood Mac records until I gave away the whole bunch in 2009.

All of my records were stored in boxes in a garage for about 3 years, since the time my wife and I bought the flat I'd been living in and moved in together. There was no longer any space for my record collection. As it was, even my much larger CD collection had to be packed away in wardrobes. Anyhow, over time water got into the garage and unfortunately the box with the Fleetwood Mac records was right in the way. When I picked up the various boxes with records to dispose of them, the Fleetwood Mac box fell apart and when I opened it up just about all of the albums inside had been ruined.

Fleetwood Mac Live and Tusk were amongst the ruined batch. They were the only examples of the Late Seventies output of the Mac that I owned. The great majority of the other records were all of the blues band Mac. The AOR Mac had a very limited appeal.

The big story about Fleetwood Mac circa 1977 was the resurrection of a British band that was almost moribund, though still coasting on the name en Sixties reputation, by 2 young Americans with a fresh new approach and a sex appeal that the Brits lacked. And in Lindsay Buckingham they found a genius songwriter, guitarist and producer that suddenly gave the band an edge again. Not to mention Stevie Nicks's fey post-hippie appeal and her strong song writing. With Fleetwood Mac and Rumours the band ascended to heights unimaginable in 1974 and put them alongside the other giants of the era, and they have not slipped from that position even if commercial success is no longer that stupendous.

The other thing, particularly around the making of Rumours, was the stories of the convoluted sexual and interpersonal relationship twists and turns within the band, principally the breakups between Buckingham and Nicks and between Christine and John Movie, which led to some inspired song writing and strange interactions in the studio; and the tales of drink and drugs consumed in the making of the album. The oft told tale is of how LA was "awash in a blizzard of coke" in the late Seventies and this probably means that the making of Rumours was no different, from the substance usage perspective, than any other major album from the era. Rock stars always did drugs and at that particular time and place rock stars, seemingly without exception, did a lot of coke.

The Fleetwood Mac of 1977 seemed very glamorous. The publicity shots showed the 2 women in long, semi gypsy dresses and boots and the guys wore satin and blue denim with white shirts. Back in the day rock stars dressed up and did their best to look different to the rest of us. Today bands mostly dress down in street styles that make them look just like the rest of us. A group photograph of a band could just as well be a group photograph of a bunch of work colleagues on casual Friday. The difference could also be that bands no longer want to be rock stars; bands want to be seen as musicians and as simple, regular folks.

Fleetwood Mac were anything but regular. There was the mop headed, handsome Lindsay Buckingham who like an entry in a Magic Dick (from J Geils Band) lookalike contest. Stevie Nicks was tiny, fey, and esoteric and far out glamorous; she gave new meaning to the title space cadet, or so it seemed. In her struggle days she cleaned houses to earn a living while Buckingham, then her lover, lived for music. Mick Fleetwood was the giant drummer, a man with two balls dangling on a rope between his legs. He looked almost twice Stevie Nicks's height. At one time he and Nicks were lovers. This must have made for interacting conjugations. Christine McVie was the much more down-to-earth English rose type who once played blues piano for the Mac (as Christine Perfect) and wrote plain, simple yet very affective love songs. John McVie was the bassist, a small guy, married Christine, was part of one of the best rhythm sections in blues or rock and preferred the simple pleasures of rock star life.

Together this group looked like a bunch of twee soft rock fashion plates, but they rocked on record and on stage and produced killer music. Not many bands get this kind of second chance and when it came Fleetwood Mac's way they grabbed it. It must have bemused Fleetwood and McVie to contrast their earlier success as rootsy bluesmen with their unbelievable success as glam rock stars who sold more records than just about anybody else. If I read the essay in the insert to the deluxe anniversary edition of the album (with second CD of out-takes and demos), Rumours has sold some 48 million copies worldwide since 1977. That is a lot of albums.


In 1977 Rumours was not exactly my cup of tea as an album. At the time my favourite bands were Dr Feelgood and Cream, I was just starting to build a collection of blues albums and my general take on rock music was that faster and louder ruled. I liked primitive sounding music that rocked. Synthesizers, the electric piano and the funky clavinet sounds then so popular on so many records, were my pet hates. In fact I avoided bands that had a keyboard player, although this was a tad silly. I loved rockin' boogie woogie piano, it was just the modish reliance on crappy keyboard styles I disliked intensely.

Even the phrase Adult Oriented Rock stuck in my craw. I was about 18 and did not understand how rock could speak to adults much less be aimed at them. And why did it have to sound differently and be more mature and staid than rock for the kids? The thing is that I am now 51 years old and still listen to rock, and though I am now more open to the tasteful use of synths I still absolutely hate the sounds of the Fender Rhodes electric piano so beloved of so many "anthemic" AOR bands, even today. I still prefer primitive, three chord rock to the music made through intellectual application to one's craft. Don't give me endlessly reworked sterility with ten chords, modulations, weird time signatures and crazy shifts in key. Do give me fuzz tone, three chords and a visceral attack to the gut and the feet. Of course there are exceptions but my basic tenet is: simpler is better.

Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band by the time they recorded Rumours. I would imagine that Buckingham and Nicks had absolutely no blues background. The other band members had moved away from it in any event when the band became the McVie's and Fleetwood plus guest guitarists, mostly American, and the musical strategy was to write and perform music that appealed to a middle class American audience with middle of the road tastes.

The most immediate impact on me was the sound of the solid, driving rhythm section, pushing the music forward at a deliberate pace. It was not flashy or showy, just a pulse that anchored the keyboards and guitar and melodies. It was not funk but to my mind Fleetwood Mac had the closest to a funk power rhythm that any band of that era ever had. Not only did the bass and drums add power to the performances, they also mitigated the AOR stuff on top. This is a formula that Bonnie Raitt adopted some years later when she made achieved her breakout to stardom.

Once you've absorbed the pulse, you start noticing the musical colouring added by the layering of other instruments. Although Lindsay Buckingham is a superb guitarist the Mac was not a guitar band; Christine McVie could tickle the ivories with the best of them but the Mac was not a keyboard band either. At worst one could say that Buckingham emphasised guitar in his tunes and Christine underpinned her songs with her keyboards.

Stevie Nicks combined these elements for her songs. It seemed she wanted filigree and solidity all at once in the same song, depending on the mood of the lyrics.

"Go Your Own Way" was my immediate favourite even though I was confused over the gender of the singer, as it is a motoring slow burning rocker with a killer guitar coda. Along with "Hotel California" , "More Than A Feeling" and "Don't Fear The Reaper this tune epitomises late Seventies AOR and sold gold rock for me. These tracks should be in every Seventies masters of rock compilation just because each of the is a stunning blend of power rock and hook. Lindsay Buckingham also succeeded in writing a painful lyric that struck a chord with me and his high pitched vocal seemed so androgynous that the words could be the scream of anyone who's been hurt.

I do not quite know why "Dreams" was the really big hit off Rumours. Perhaps it was because the record was a hit and by the time "Dreams" was released the album was fast becoming an event in itself and the single was being played by radio stations that usually only play hits and was being bought by an audience that only bought hits. Of course, the success of this single must have driven album sales as well.

I quite liked "Dreams" as well, not so much because I thought of Stevie Nicks as sex on tiny legs, but because the tune was of a somewhat different stripe to the standard pop single of the time. It sounded like thinking aloud. It sounded like the musing of a wounded yet stronger and wiser creature. It appealed to the stunted romantic in me.

I did not like "Don't Stop" at all because this, in contrast to "Dreams", was much too straightforward and optimistic and almost boosterish. No wonder some American presidential candidate appropriated if for his campaign somewhere in the mid-Eighties. It took a couple of years, and probably the Fleetwood Mac Live album before I could appreciate that Christine McVie was a damn good songwriter. She was more rooted in common sense attitudes than the fey Stevie Nicks, and that is perhaps the difference between growing up in the UK in die Fifties and California.

I must admit that I think mostly of Stevie Nicks songs when I recall Fleetwood Mac's hits but on close examination many of the best songs actually came from Christine McVie.

Eva Cassidy made "Songbird" into a hit (posthumously?) and it was only when I studied the songwriter credits in the booklet to the deluxe re-issue of Rumours, that I saw McVie is the composer. Now, that is a standard that should be a nice little earner for Christine McVie for the rest of her life. Apart from Courtney Love's cover of "Gold Dust Woman" I cannot quite see that many of Stevie Nicks's songs will ever become standards. That is a very different level of song writing.

Listening to Rumours again after many years reaffirms to a degree why I did not like the record in the first place. The reason is that it does not truly rock hard enough for my tastes. Back then I thought it kind of sucked, except for "Go Your Own Way" and perhaps "Dreams", precisely because the production sounded too pristine and immaculate and smoothed out too many edges and smothered whatever rock attack there had been. Not that Fleetwood Mac sounded much like a rock band to me. They had become just a superior rock band, a soft rock band at that. My tastes have probably become more sophisticated over the intervening years and I have become more tolerant of music that I once considered beyond the pale, but it is still difficult for me to love Rumours in any unconditional way. It is not visceral enough. It is too slick. It seems to pander too much to a mass audience. I expect that the latter belief is mostly ex post fact. No doubt the band never expected the almost unimaginable success they would have with this album.

I will probably always prefer the blues Fleetwood Mac to the super successful Fleetwood Mac because the blues band is rawer and to my mind more powerful than the AOR of the later version but I will give kudos to the 3 Brits and 2 Americans who recorded Rumours for producing a record that must have struck a huge chord with the popular audience. Not everyone can do that. I guess Hootie & The Blowfish, with Cracked Rear View, can claim something similar, but none of the individual members of Hootie (hell, apart from Darius Rucker, who were they?) ever had the same iconic solo careers of Lindsay Buckingham or Stevie Nicks and the band itself had no glamour, were not rock royalty or even rock Euro trash. Hootie represents worthy journeyman rock that got incredibly lucky and without the talent or obsessive drive to get that lucky again. Fleetwood Mac were big as a blues band, big as an AOR band and gave us big individual stars. The Stevie Nicks or Lindsay Buckingham solo albums are absolutely worthwhile owning (and I did own a few in pre-CD formats) and so are Tusk (which I actually rate far higher than Rumours as a coherent body of work) and Fleetwood Live. As I do not know any of the later albums at all, I cannot comment on them.

Tusk received a bit of a critical drubbing on releases, perhaps because it was too different and too sprawling compare to the succinct and compact Rumours, but I liked it immediately and still prefer it to Rumours. On Tusk the rockier tracks rock harder and weirder than ever and Christine McVie hits a really consistent high in sustained quality of song writing and Stevie Nicks's songs are truly spellbinding and moving. It seems that Tusk took a lot longer to get together than Rumours did, probably because the band had more money to spend on studio time, they had the monster of Rumours to follow and may have been scared shitless at the prospect and wanted to delay the follow0up as long as possible and Lindsay Buckingham apparently decided he now had the licence and incentive to go as crazy as he could with his songs and his production. For my money Tusk should also have been the giant commercial success that Rumours is, and it should absolutely be regarded as on creative par with its 2 predecessors.

The thing is that Fleetwood Mac probably played it fairly safe on Rumours, making a follow up to Fleetwood Mac and not attempting to break new ground. Fortunately the song writers had the topic of dysfunctional relationships and terrible break-ups as source material and could fashion some very memorable tunes from that source material, but just as some actors win Oscars not for their best performance but more as a consolation prize for being previously overlooked, I think that the success of Rumours had more to do with being at the right place at the right time, and making the most of a situation, an image and a couple of really great songs, than with the intrinsic value of the album as a whole. Obviously the humongous success colours the way one sees the album but I believe that a lot of that reverence has been generated because of the huge success. That success is seen as being a signifier of worth in an ex post facto argument.

Rumours is pleasant enough to listen to but hardly compelling listening if one ignores the back story. It is one of those albums where one can understand that the non-threatening, non-edgy style of music combined with a handful of hit singles was what made the package attractive to so many people all over the world. It is superior pop and often superior pop is best experienced in compilations where there is no let up in the endless series of hits. When almost-filler is on the same record as the hits, the hits shine brighter on the one hand yet on the other hand also cannot lift the whole into a different space altogether.

This is what Rumours is: technically highly proficient, musically polished, thematically coherent, conceptually incisive, and still viscerally lacking.











Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Pretty Blue Guns at Zula

It's been a few years since the last time I dressed up and went down to Long Street for a bit of fun and it's been even more years since I've been to a venue like Zula Bar to watch a band kick out the jams.

This occasion was the launch of a brand new video for the Pretty Blue Guns song "Pills" from their debut album Cutting Heads. I really like this album, and rate it as one of the best local rock albums of the recent past, but then I am somewhat biased because I particularly like this type of gritty, rambunctious yet melodic blues rock and fell for the Pretty Blue Guns' sound from the first time I heard one of their tunes on a free CD with SL Magazine. They've been playing gigs all over the place but for practical reasons I have never been able to get to any. So, when Alette de Beer from De Plate Kompagnie advised me the band would be at Zula in Long Street, virtually on my doorstep, it was an occasion I could not allow to slip by.

There was a time, and unfortunately it really is very long ago now, that I was a fixture at just about every local gig in Cape Town and environs and was fully au fait with the bands on the local scene. These days I have to follow the goings on through press and Internet and just buy the albums of bands I like, or sometimes just out of interest. Local music is good and on par with what the rest of the world offers but even so there are few bands or albums that are truly great. Cutting Heads offers the sound, attitude and songs that grab me and I wanted to find out whether these boys can cut it on stage as much as they do in the studio.

At about 21h45 I arrive outside Zula in the back of Rikki cab, the kind that gives a pseudo-authentic London flavour to Cape Town and is very useful to get around in the city centre, especially on weekends when they are on call 24 hours a day. Long Street is buzzing. It usually does, in almost any kind of weather, on any given weekend night and this night is slightly more special, as Ghana is playing the USA in the first game of the knockout round of World Cup 2010. The importance of the game is that Ghana is the last African team left in the competition and has so far advanced further than any African team ever and stands a chance of moving one level up if they can beat the USA.

I'd never been to Zula before and for some reason I expected something high-tech and ultra sophisticated, and that shows how out of touch I am with the Long Street scene. A clue to the reality should be that Zula is in the space where The Lounge used to be. The Lounge, along with Mr Pickwick's, was the first Long Street hangout for the hip set, about 17 years ago, when it was just a place to go before or after clubbing, to have a drink and lounge. It was fairly primitive and as it hardly featured live acts I hardly ever went there.

There is a rope outside the front entrance, to organise major queues of people as and when they occur, I guess, like the ones one always see in movies, with a security on a high chair just outside the door. Just inside the door there is another dude with woollen cap pulled down low, who takes my money and gives me a stamp on the inside of my wrist. He meticulously ticks off that he's just admitted one more person. The entrance fee is R30 but he doesn't have enough change for the R100 note I give him and gives me R60 change. Oh well, I can afford the loss.

I bound up the stairs and find that most of the interior walls of the old Lounge have been knocked out. There is a bar immediately to my right, an open doorway in front of me and another doorway leads to a stage area to my left.

The place is packed. There are a couple of television sets tuned to the game between Ghana and the USA and in the main room a very large screen has been set up for a broadcast of the game. Rows of seats are in place in front of the screed, which makes the space look like a primitive small town town-hall movie show. The seats are fully occupied. Behind them there is a standing room only crowd. More people hang out on the balcony overlooking Long Street.

I turn to the bar and buy a single Jameson's on the rocks for R18. The barman who serves me greets me as if he knows me (as far as I know we rank strangers to each other) and for the rest of the evening he pours me a single Jameson's as soon as he sees me back at the bar with an empty glass. This is marvellous. I almost feel like some kind of VIP. Maybe it is because I am slightly overdressed for the place. I wear pointy boots, my tightest jeans, dark shirt and black leather jacket. This could well be an old fogey's misconception of how to be a sharp dressed man whereas the average punter at Zula is somewhat more casually attired.

I start taking stock of my surroundings. As I've mentioned, the Zula is just one big open space, with sprung wooden floors and walls painted red. I am immediately struck by the resemblance Zula has with the Indaba Project, then at the top end of Wale Street, where I'd spent so many nights back in the period 1986 to 1988. Zula is not high tech; it is not suave and sophisticated. It looks just like the cheap kind of club joints Cape Town used to have back in the old school days and the vibe is much the same, and even the types who hang out there, taking into account an apparent weighting towards tourists, are similar.

My guess is that I am about 30 years older than the average punter at Zula tonight and to a degree I feel just as alienated in my surroundings as I felt when I was in m late twenties and clubbing every weekend. One other weird thing is that, once the football is done, the music played by the DJ is mostly from the Sixties and early Seventies: there is Janis Joplin, Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin. The most recent act on the playlist is The White Stripes, and the hippest selection is The Stooges doing "1969" off their debut album.

The bad news is that the score between Ghana and the USA is tied after full time. I'd already mistimed my arrival by getting to Zula when there was still about 20 minutes of ordinary time play left. My heartfelt wish is that one of the reams should score before the end of normal time so that I would not have to wait through 30 more minutes of extra time or, God forbid, a penalty shootout. As it turns out, the game went into extra time and Ghana scores early in that period, yet the game has to go on for the full extra 30 minutes. Ghana beats the USA 2 - 1 and goes through to the quarter finals. Kudos to them, though I could not really give a damn.

The crowd at Zula, however, is extremely happy to see the Yanks beaten and an African team go through. Outside in Long Street passing motorists hoot, vuvuzelas honk and the party is on. Long Street is where it's happening.

Inside the Zula the first band of the evening sets up. In passing I must also mention that it is kind of peculiar to be at a place like this so early in the evening to listen to bands who'd undertaken to be done by 23h30. Back in the day one went out only at midnight. You may go to a pub during the early part of the evening, but the serious clubber waited until midnight to hit the nightspot of his or her choice.

Anyhow, Machineri (I have no idea what this arty misspelling signifies) is first up on stage. Machineri consists of a tall, thin woman with long blonde hair, loose shirt and tight jeans, playing a guitar and singing; a guy with lanky hair falling over his face, loose T-shirt and guitar; and a drummer. The band has taken the White Stripes, Kills and Black Keys affectation of eliminating the bass player to a new twist. There is no bass player but there are 2 guitarists. The woman's function with her guitar is to emphasise the bottom end, to give a bass guitar like effect, while the other guitarist riffs and plays lead. Furthermore the woman wails the songs over the top of all of this.

To be perfectly frank, I immediately actively dislike this crap. Though the woman has a strong voice, it is wasted on the tuneless rants that pass for songs. The riffing sounds like a cross-breed between boogie, blues, shoe gazing, funk and punk and that is not a compliment. I guess there is a structure of sorts and that the band has actually rehearsed this stuff but a lot of it sounds like they are making it up on the spot and not in a good way. There is a quote from Shakespeare about a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. This is Machineri. If this band ever becomes massive, I will probably look like a fool for dissing them like this but that's all right. They suck tonight and if they do not get some actual tunes together, or have more interesting arrangements, they will keep on sucking. And not in a good way.

Machineri walk off, and take half the drum kit with them. Then the various members of The Pretty Blue Guns shamble on and start setting up before we take a moment to watch the video being projected on the screen where we had just watched the football match. I know the song, "Pills, very well: a well tasty piece of sleaze rock. The video captures the feel of the song quite nicely with lots of sexy, sleazy, scuzzy imagery. The look is cinema verité, You Tube slice of home recording, very hip and unsettling. I wonder if MK, or any other local TV channel will ever play it, as it seems a tad risqué with its sex and drug references.

Once the visual are done the band launch into its set. Andre Leo is front and centre in loose T-shirt and tight pants that kind of look like leggings to me, and he leans into the microphone, one leg slightly raised and poised behind him as if he is about to rush into the audience. He is the front man and the star and I guess he knows it and plays up to it. A cute kid and he can sing and strum the six string. Brandon Visser is at the rear of the stage. He plays a Gibson 335 style guitar, is blonde and looks the somewhat overly plump side of stocky. The guy who stuffs his face with too many pies. He plays tasty lead guitar though, a bit of slide on "Devil Do" and just super confident blues rock rhythm. Greg Thompson is the second blondie in the band, affects a grunge like plaid shirt and shares the front of the stage with Andre Leo. He gets into his bass playing and throws as many rock star shapes as Leo does. Clearly he believes a bass player can be as glamorous as any lead guitarist and he is probably a bit of eye candy anyhow.

Lucas Swart plays drums in the background and I do not get a good look at him but he does his job quite efficiently.

Apart from Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" The Pretty Blue Guns play pretty much their album. After the first or second number the pedals in front of Leo malfunction and while this is being attended to Thompson and Swart get a drum and bass groove going on. The crowd is forgiving anyhow and do take the brief interruption in their cheerful stride. According to Leo he wants to get the slower songs out of the way so that the band can rock out and the audience can dance. I find this interesting because, as far as I can tell, the Guns basically play medium paced songs; some may be louder than others but essentially there is nothing that is that much more pacey than anything else.

"Devil Do" gets a slot mid-set, and there is a massed sing-a-long with participation from the team who put together the video, and damn me, but they look more like rock stars than the guys in the band. The audience also knows the words and sing them loudly. A great time is had by all. It should have been the final number. It's made to be the monster party jam at the end of a rousing set.

The band careens on, however, rocks out nicely and entertains us for an hour or so. No encores. It was kind of warmly nostalgic to see a band disassembling their drum kit, amps and cables after a gig. They have no roadies; this must mean they are still paying heavy dues. If I had my copy of their album on me I would have asked them to autograph it for me.

The crowd leaves the room, I have a final drink and then I leave too, pondering what this evening means to me in my life.

The Pretty Blue Guns play with an effortless power; they have an obviously charismatic singer who underplays his appeal but who should be a pin up on the local scene. They play a type of music that is way outside the current rock fashion and bring a lot of hip smarts to it. The tradition is very old and they seem to love and respect it and obviously see no reason why they cannot add to this tradition from their personal, and I suppose, South-African perspective. The vocalist from Machineri announced that the Pretty Blue Guns would be playing some blues for us. Maybe she was being ironic, maybe she has no clue what the blues actually is, but The Pretty Blue Guns do not play blues even if their song titles may contain the word "blues." They play a very exciting, innovative, contemporary blues rock that is neither self-important nor overtly ironic. If I knew what the boys listen to at home, apart from the influences mentioned on their webpage, I could tell you more about the role of blues in their respective musical educations.

Was this a great performance? Probably not. It was good and entertaining fun but it was also your basic club gig where you run through your repertoire for an audience who already knows your stuff and this means you do not have to work too hard to get their attention. The guys had fun, especially Leo, and they are professional and proficient. I would have liked to have heard them at their first gigs, to be able to track the improvement over time. I think they are now at the crossroads where they must come up with new material to perform at the gigs. The debut album is a year old. They need new songs. They need to progress. Bands of their stripe generally tend to be jam bands that play a lot of different songs in their sets, not just their own, to show off instrumental prowess. Pretty Blue Guns aren't there (yet) and maybe will never be. The current musical mode in South Africa does not encourage the concept of jamming. The older, more properly blues bands, and the blues based rock bands, always had guitarists who thought of themselves a hot shot enough to play solos in each song. In the popular rock music of today, the type practised by so many local bands, the guitar solo is not cool and just about absent from any song, no matter how many guitars there are in the arrangement.

My evening at Zula was very much a journey into the past on a psychological level as the venue, the crowd and the act on offer were all so very reminiscent of the Cape Town scene of the late Eighties. One difference is that those bands hardly ever released any recordings and the majority of the bands on the scene are now forgotten by everyone except for the fans. Another difference is that the type of joyous blues rock the Pretty Blue Guns play was not exactly the type of music one heard too much. We had All Night Radio and Any Driver and that was about it. The basic Eighties alternative band had more in common with Machineri, sound wise and conceptually, than with the likes of Pretty Blue Guns. The bands were very serious, very much intent on doing something different, not to fall into the perceived trap of "rockist" cliché and almost pathologically avoided rock, preferring instead to pursue a course of wilful difficultness, with the emphasis on the cult. Not only did they never make or release music videos, they barely released any recordings.

The local bands of my youth seemed not to care for commercial success or decided that anti-commercialism would be the most politically correct stance. My sense is that The Pretty Blue Guns not only want to have fun with their music but want as much commercial success as possible. I would want them to achieve commercial success though I am prepared to concede that they will most probably never be the Parlotones or Freshlyground or Prime Circle. And that is a good thing. Pretty Blues Guns are not like most of their peers and do not sound like most of their peers and they should remain as individual as possible.

Enough about the band, what about me? As I've mentioned, I felt a great deal of déjà vu tonight and not all of it is wonderful. When I did go clubbing on a regular basis I was very much alone and a loner and was utterly alienated from my life and surroundings and though I was compelled to go out at night, to go check out bands, almost just not to have to be at home, I hardly ever had fun going out. I went to the gig, danced my ass off, had a couple of drinks, spoke to no-one and went home alone. There was not much joy in this lifestyle.

At the Zula Bar those memories came back. Once again I was alienated from the other people in the crowd but this time it was mostly because of the age difference. I enjoyed the Pretty Blue Guns experience but beyond that the evening out was a bit of a chore. Will I ever go back to Zula? None of my friends hang out there (we are not of that generation anymore, and most of them never had that kind of inclination in the first place) and if there is no band that interests me, there is hardly any point going there.

Do live gigs interest me anymore? I almost want to say: no, they do not. I've done the small club gig and know the vibe. In 1997 and 1998 I made an effort to go to gigs in central Cape Town, mostly at The Purple Turtle, and was often quite irritated by the bare surroundings and primitive sound systems and that I was so much older than the other punters. I also went to a couple of gigs during the last year or so when The Brass Bell in Kalk Bay still had rock bands on a Saturday afternoon and saw some of the big names from that era, but the experience was disappointing when compared with the hey days of the Bras Bell some 10 years before. Then I stopped going out at night, mostly because I had not car and had no friends who had an interest in local rock. Over the last 12 years I've been to a handful of gigs and some of them were good, only because of the band and not necessarily because of the venue or the crowd or the other hassles of gig attendance one has to contend with.

Maybe I am too old for that shit. It's so much easier and more comfortable simply to buy the album and listen to it in the comfort of my own home.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blur versus Oasis

Blur and Oasis were arguably the most important British bands of the Nineties. Blur adopted an Englishness that kind of kick-started the whole Britpop thing and became quite popular in an intelligent low-key way, before breaking up, or just taking a long break. Oasis were exponents of big, dumb rock and became phenomenally huge and then faded into being a Rolling Stones type of commercially successful yet creatively empty.

IN 1994 I bought Parklife and Definitely Maybe on the same day at the same record shop in Cavendish Square. I'd read a lot about both bands and had heard the "Girls and Boys" single on the radio but I don't think I'd heard anything by Oasis at the time.

When I listened to the two albums back to back I found that I preferred Blur even though their English inflected pop music was not as much to my taste and the gigantic guitar rock sound of Oasis. It came down to my irritation with Liam Gallagher's voice and vocal mannerisms. He was allegedly the best British rock vocalist of his generation but to my mind he was possibly the worst. There was little emotion in the voice and he had the excruciating habit of extending single syllables into many. Damon Albarn had a less individual voice but sang more conventionally good. The Oasis guitar wall of sound ultimately became too much where Blur obviously valued song craft and production.

I played Parklife quite a lot and listened to Definitely Maybe a few times. When The Great Escape came out and I saw it at Vibes Music I bought it immediately although I did not yet know anything about it. I completely ignored (What's The Story) Morning Glory? when it was released and even when it became an enormous hit.

Ultimately I bought every Blur album up to 13, and only bought (What's The Story) Morning Glory? 14 years after its release when I found it at a Cash Crusaders shop. I had in fact bought Blur's debut album, Leisure, in about 1992 because I had read good things about them in Select magazine and because I thought the album cover photograph was great, but it was stolen from me in 1993 and I never bought a replacement copy, mostly because I did not think of it as such a great album.

The Great Escape was not to wonderful either. By this time I was no longer keen on the Blur pop sound and lyrics about colourful characters that may have been no more than figments of Damon Albarn's imagination and this is no doubt the Blur album I've least often listened to. There was the great fight at the time with Oasis for a number one single and even if Blur won the battle, I thought the winning song, "Country House", was very twee and even stupid without being exciting or interesting. As far as I was concerned Blur was a spent force, perhaps successful but no longer compelling listening.

With "Song 2" my attitude changed completely. "Beetlebum" came out first and I quite liked it and almost thought they had returned to the heights of "Girls and Boys" but the very punk "Song 2" got me back into the fold. It was your perfect slice of 2 minutes' worth of riff, excitable vocals and arresting hook. No wonder "Song 2" broke Blur in America. It was simple yet effective and energizing. It made an old punk like me want to pogo again

The album was Blur, and it is kind of strange for any band to give its fourth album an eponymous title. It is more usual for the debut, but I guess this album was a kind of debut of the new Blur who were so over Britpop and no longer prepared to peddle the cheeky pop chappies image. Some reviews suggested that Blur represented such an about face that it would be commercial suicide. As it turned out, "Song 2" helped make it a very commercial proposition.

I also bought Blur (as was the case with 13 the next year) from Vibes Records, and as had been the case with The Great Escape, I found it when I was merely browsing, without specifically looking for any Blur product. I bought it without considering whether I really wanted it but I guess "Song 2" was as compelling a reason as any to own this album. When I took it home and played it for the first time, I also found that the album was an overall musical success and much more to my taste and liking than its predecessor, or any of the preceding albums. This music was different, darker, more skewed and much more satisfying as a piece of work than the Britpop Blur.

Then came 13, which was the breakup album, after Damon Albarn had parted ways with Justine Frischman and was feeling very sorry for himself. Once again Blur moved away from their previous sound, very far away from the Blur of 1994, and made music that resonated and hit home, emotionally and musically, and made me believe that Blur had at last found a proper, intelligent rock groove. There was gospel, weird post-rock shapes and superior melodic pop. For my money this album is the Blur masterpiece, but I would pair Blur and 13 as two of the best British albums of the Nineties.

About 4 years after 13 and during the making of the Think Tank album, Graham Coxon left the band. By then I was kind of over Blur and the British scene as a whole and never had any intention of buying Think Tank, despite the very positive reviews it received. In any event it seemed to me that the absence of a guitarist would tend to make the music more keyboard and sample oriented and therefore less rocking and this prospect did not excite me. By and large I am into guitar pop and rock.

Somewhere between Blur and 13 I finally got around to buying Modern Life Is Rubbish, the album that was the first of the trilogy that ended with The Great Escape. It was far better than the third album of the group and it was perhaps because the songs were more ambitious and yet also simpler to appreciate. But ultimately it was also an album that appealed to me only so much. The sound of the record is not the type of music that I had listened to before that and still does not truly float my boat to this day. I like more basic, primitive rock music. All this clever pop stuff is all very good but it appeals more to my mind than my gut. I guess that is why it paled after a while.

Today my Blur albums are packed away in a box in a spare room and for a while I seriously considered giving them all away. I cannot think I would ever want to listen to Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape all that much again, I would imagine that the same would really apply to Blur and 13 as well Blur relates to a certain time in my life, when I still made an effort to follow the music of a contemporary band and I do not do that much anymore for any but South African bands. The other thing is that I never listened to Blur type music in the ordinary course and Blur represented some kind of anomaly in my musical taste.

I suppose I bought the Blur more for what they represented than out of a genuine interest in, and love for, a weird kind of parochial British pop.

After Definitely Maybe I ignored Oasis, even as I was buying all those Blur albums. I did not like the music all that much, mostly for the reason of my dislike for Liam Gallagher's vocal performances, and could not understand why they became so massive in the UK. It was almost because of the phenomenon that (What's The Story) Morning Glory? became that I refused to buy it, although I should have at least investigated the music behind the mega success. Never mind, I was quite happy to ignore it and just read about how massive Oasis was becoming.

There was massive hype when Be Here Now was released. One of the songs was on a freed CD that came with a magazine I bought and it seemed kind of nice but by then I had developed a mindset that militated against buying any Oasis product and that resistance has lasted up to now when Oasis is still a major band but seems to me to be a modern day Rolling Stones where the brand is the thing, not the product the band puts out. The odd Oasis single played on local radio seemed quite nice and solid in a pleasurably dumb rock manner but did not motivate me to spend money on Oasis. Not even on a collection of B-sides or a later greatest hits album.

The drought was broken in 2005 when I found the DVD Known To Millions, companion to a live CD of the same title, in a French supermarket at a budget price. When I eventually played the DVD, and I have yet to play it all the way through, I saw that it was visually a pretty boring record of an enormo Oasis gig somewhere. This is the late period Oasis from the period of Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and the set list consists of old favourites and more current numbers but over the length of the DVD the songs do tend to start sounding the same and because there is very little to stimulate the eye (the band just stands there and plays) my attention started wandering. I might just as well think of it as a CD album; put it on and walk away and do something else without bothering to watch the so-called action.

In 2009 I finally bought (What's The Story) Morning Glory? because I found it cheaply at Cash Crusaders and finally found out what the hype had been all about back in 1995 and 1996. The sound is more traditionally produced that than the wall of sound of the debut album and songs are therefore more conventionally tuneful and appealing. By this time I had already heard a number of the songs, such as the title track, "Roll with It", "Wonderwall" "Champagne Supernova," and "Don't Look Back In Anger ", and the collection feels like a bit of a greatest hits collection. Very nice album, Liam Gallagher's voice still grates, but it is not a bad little record. I still do not understand why this album caused the band to go so massive. In my opinion the original underwhelmed reviews were spot on, as much as the overenthusiastic, overblown reviews for Be Here Now nowadays seem slightly silly and hysterical, the product of music journalists who did not want to be wrong again.

I have not listened to Definitely Maybe in years and I do not listen to Morning Glory all that much either. I still feel no compelling reason to acquire any other Oasis product though a formal greatest hits album may be an option. Oasis are now old hat, rock monsters going through the motions because that is how they make their money and not because they still matter or have relevance. Noel Gallagher made his mark and it was a large mark and he will go down in rock history for his achievements but in 20 years' time Oasis will be as much of a novelty nostalgia act as the Rolling Stones have become despite all protestations to the contrary.

On Easter weekend 2009 Oasis played at the Coke Zero Fest in Somerset West, Western Cape, as the headliners, above the likes of Snow Patrol and Panic at the Disco. It was a money gig for Oasis. They walked on stage, ran through the usual suspects of their hit repertoire, finished with "I Am The Walrus" and walked off. It was a big sound, it rocked, the audience went crazy for them and it was oddly unsatisfactory. The most I could say for the experience was that I had never thought I would see Oasis live and at least they are not officially a nostalgia act.

The war between Blur and Oasis in the mid-Nineties now seems quaint and silly and not particularly relevant in the bigger scheme of things. I guess you had to be there and perhaps you had to be a publicist for either of the bands or their respective record labels. To make a comparison with the Beatles and the Stones is somewhat odious and I think the more apposite comparison would be between an act that specialised in the clever musical idea and either well observed vignettes of real life or dark autobiography, and an act whose leader boasted of how many musical ideas he's lifted from the likes of the Beatles and where guitar power was the main thing and the lyrics were facile and seemed to be written just to give the singer something to sing. At the end Damon Albarn was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and to try apparently difficult music, while Noel Gallagher never revealed himself in his lyrics and has been content simply to keep on refining his basic blueprint.

It is also fatuous to try to define which was or is the better group. They were both good in their chosen field and both deserved the success they attained and who knows who will have the most standards if the fashion finally gets around to the Nineties in the same way the Eighties have been so thoroughly revisited for so long now.

Britpop waxed and waned in the slipstream of Blur and Oasis begat dozens of traditionalist guitar bands. If there has been a longer lasting influence from either it seems too early to show.

Blur dissolved at the right time, before the music got repetitive or bland or just superfluous. Damon Albarn has proved that there can be second act in pop by having a very interesting solo career and piloting Gorillaz to superstardom. Graham Coxon has released a bunch of solo albums ranging from raging full on rock to quite pastoral stylings and if he is not as wildly successful in this as Albarn is, he is absolutely gaining an immense reputation for what he is capable of. Alex James had a side-line pop career, kept on partying and got rather literate as well and I have no idea what he is currently doing. The same applies to Dave Rowntree. For all I know he races model cars in his spare time and raises a family fulltime. There was a Blur reunion of sorts in 2009 for live shows. As far as I know there are no plans for another album but it could still happen.

Oasis releases a new album every couple of years and keeps ton touring and the Gallaghers keep on battling each other. It is a show that can keep running for a long time, for as long as money is to be made from the brand, anyway.

No doubt there will be financial reasons for intermittent Blur reunions.

Both bands will be best served by a "greatest hits" or "best of" compilation to explain to posterity what the fuss was all about way back when they were young and fresh and there was a new optimism in the UK led by New Labour and the media hype of Cool Britannia. In due course there will be the box sets with unreleased tracks, either outtakes or demos, and the adoring notes of long-time fans that never stopped believing. Hey, it's nothing but rock and roll and if you are lucky you can symbolise an era or zeitgeist and make money at it as well.