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.




Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Time Fades Away (1973) is the one Neil Young album that he refuses to sanction for CD release and I do not understand why he thinks it is his worst album ever. For my money there are plenty of candidates for that status among his output over the last 30 years or so and if Silver & Gold could have been released in the first place there is no reason why Time Fades Away should not be released, even if Young cannot stand it. Anyway, he is plainly wrong if he believes it is such a bad album. It may not have turned out to be what he wanted for it, but for my money it holds up with anything he recorded in the Seventies and beyond.

Time Fades Away and On The Beach (1974) were the third and fourth Neil Young albums I ever owned because I bought them at a bargain price as part of a Warner Brothers "twofer" re-release campaign of the late Seventies or early Eighties, where they paired oldish albums by selected artists for mid-priced release. In this way I acquired not only the two Neil Young albums but also The Doors' LA Woman and 13 and Frank Zappa's Hot Rats and Waka Jawaka as double packs.

It took a long time for On The Beach to be made available on CD, perhaps because it has always been seen as a "difficult" album and not as commercial as the record company would have liked. To my mind Time Fades Away was the more exciting rock and roll album of the two and the one I found most immediately appealing. On The Beach needed more effort and time to appreciate.

Most of the tracks on Time Fades Away were recorded during Young's North American tour of 1973, in the wake of the huge success of Harvest, and the band is the Stray Gators, with David Crosby and Graham Nash on one or two tracks. From the visceral stomp of the title track to the ripping and roaring Last Dance, the album is a delight and a great record of what a Neil Young live show was like when it did not just feature the grungy mid-paced guitar workouts of Crazy Horse, but a band of varied musicians who could rock as much as they could be subtle and with songs that had melody and poetry.

I recorded the 2 albums on one side each of a C90 cassette tape and played that tape quite a lot back in the day when I still listened mostly to cassette tapes rather than CDs. Along with Rust Never Sleeps and Re-Ac-Tor those two albums made up the core of my Neil Young collection, until I eventually bought Harvest, and in die early Nineties started seriously collecting Neil Young on CD. I still believe that the albums from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Rust Never Sleeps probably represent the pinnacle of Young's oeuvre and is a body of work.

Never mind the "lost" years of Eighties experimentalism, the triumphant return as the Godfather of Grunge and the latter-day political and polemical approach, since 1979 and whether deliberately or through lack of inspiration, Neil Young has not much of anything that resembles a sturdy, long-lasting, worthwhile body of work. He can still rock out when he wants to, or go all country folk rock on us, but it seems to me that he writes lyrics just to be able to sing something or just say something and not because the spirit truly moves him. The melodies are still sublime and the voice always sends chills up my spine when he does the high lonesome thing, but over the length of any given album the trite and often baldly clichéd lyrics start to grate and one tries not to listen to what he say and concentrate on how he says it instead. For a songwriter who was thought of as something of a poet this is a terrible thing.

Over the past couple of years Neil Young has released a bunch of recordings from his archives, from a live set at the Fillmore East with the first incarnation of Crazy Horse to a solo concert in Massey Hall in Toronto to a whole box set of studio and live recordings of the very early years of his career when he was making the transition from folk rocker to folkie to rock star. Unless Young just wants to release everything so that one can get a complete picture of what he had done over the years, from juvenilia to mature work, one must believe that there was a selection process and that the stuff that is now commercially available is regarded as good stuff. This is a real journey through the past and I do not believe that every morsel is of the same high quality and some of it is pretty redundant, such as the various solo gigs. If you have Live Rust you pretty much have as much solo Neil Young as you need.

This vast project of trawling through the past makes it even more peculiar that Young refuses to allow a CD release for Time Fades Away. I know that album and it is pretty damn entertaining and no worse than, and really of a piece with, the period from After The Goldrush to Rust Never Sleeps and a damn sight better than Harvest Moon, Silver & Gold, Are You Passionate, Prairie Wind, and the like. In fact, I would like to see an expanded Time Fades Away with more songs from that tour as re-issue extras.