Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Once I owned just over a thousand LP records; a very eclectic mix of genres. In 2009 I gave away all of them bar the first 2 Dr Feelgood albums. I had basically stopped buying or listening to vinyl in the early Nineties when I started buying CD albums. I now own more CDs than I ever owned records. Most of the CDs are albums I never owned before in any format but there is a good selection of them that represent the digital versions of well-loved records, such as my Bob Dylan albums, the early Cheap Trick albums, the first four Dr Feelgood albums, Exile on Main Street or Bridge of Sighs, and a bunch of blues albums. Over the years I've replaced some important records with their CD equivalents because the music had meant something to me when I was much younger. Not all of my records are worth replacing but every now and then I come across a CD of a record I once owned and had not listened to in years and suddenly want to hear again.

Foghat's 1978 album Stone Blue is an example that illustrates my point.

Foghat was a not untypical example of the blues and boogie crossover band making it kind of big in the USA and perhaps Europe without making much of an impact on the UK even if the members of the band were Brit expats in the land where boogie was king.

If I understood the story correctly Foghat started out as a kind of Z Z Top clone where blues was an important and predominant element in the mix, then more or less allowed the boogie element to take over, as this was what the teenage male audience in the American Midwest really liked, while still at least paying lip service to the blues, with some hit albums, particularly Fool for the City and Foghat Live before the band slowly but surely descended into what the NME was prove to describe as mindless boogie hell.

Dave Peverett was the leader end he and bassist Tony Stevens (who was no longer with the band by the time Stone Blue was released) came from Savoy Brown, one of the premiers British exponents of blues rock, who also started as an almost purist blues band before discovering how much money could be made in the USA if one emphasised populist boogie over purist blues.

As a Gonzo style aside: some time during the early Nineties Tony Stevens visited Cape Town and played a pick up gig on a Saturday afternoon at a so-called action bar at the corner of Strand and Bree Streets. A guy called Richard Hyde, who I knew through mutual friends, knew the people who would be playing with Stevens and came to me to borrow my Casio "super Strat" style guitar as the guitarist with the band did not have his own ax.

Anyhow, long before, in 1978, I read a piece in Hit Parader magazine where the band was interviewed about the then forthcoming release of Stone Blue. Peverett and second guitarist Rod Price emphasised that the band was following something a path towards a more blues directed sound since having something of a hit with the Muddy Waters standard "Just Wanna Make Love To You" to which they added a bit of that old Foghat magic.

As I was into the blues and liked blues influence rock and R & B this sounded interesting to me though I did not quite rush out to buy Stone Blue. In fact, as was the case with so much of my record collection, I bought Stone Blue because it was on sale at a significantly reduced price at one of the record shops I frequented.

Well before I bought Stone Blue though, I bought I bought a copy of the 1974 single "That'll Be The Day / Wild Cherry" from the album Energised. Sygma Records in Stellenbosch had a back room with a couple of trestle tables with boxes of old, unsold seven singles and, though I was not in the habit of buying singles I did trawl through these boxes because, once again, the singles were cheap and because there were a few interesting things, such as "Telegram Sam," by T Rex, "Sally Can't Dance / Ennui" by Lou Reed, "Never before / When A Blind Man Cries" by Deep Purple, "Rocky Mountain Way" by Joe Walsh, "Cum On Feel The Noize" by Slade and some others.

Foghat's treatment of "That'll Be The Day", the big Buddy Holly hit, was to amp up the energy level and turn it into a hard rock cry of rage. It was a runaway locomotive of relentless boogie momentum and impressed the hell out of me.

Apart from the impact of "That'll Be The Day", a major factor that influenced my decision (I did not simply records because they were cheap) is that the album contains no less than 3 blues tunes I recognised, namely "Sweet Home Chicago", "It Hurts Me Too" and "Chevrolet." In also knew that Rod Price played slide guitar and I was a sucker for slide guitar. Lastly, there was no indication of any keyboard player; it was just 2 guitars, bass and drums. At the time I did not like keyboards on records, especially not prog rock keyboards, but also not even blues piano. These factors, combined with the low price, made me risk the purchase.

Stone Blue, was a pleasant surprise. It was blues rock of a high calibre, with not much, if at all, mindless boogie; at least not in the way I understood boogie. The songs had a lot of tunefulness to them as well. It was not just a bunch of guys making it up as they go along. Rock lyrics were not known for being very articulate or even original in concept and design as they tended to be no more than words for the singer to sing so he had something to do in between guitar solos. On this album the verse, chorus, verse bit worked out quite well and the set of songs was eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable. For all that I would not say that Stone Blue ever became a top favourite album and it did not make me want to buy any other Foghat product. Not that I ever came across many of their releases. I think the follow up to Stone Blues, being Boogie Motel in 1979, was around and I did see Fool For The City in record stores in the Transvaal, as it then was, but that was it. Foghat was probably seen as a very commercial property in South Africa.

So, now I've bought (at a discount price, natch, at the large Musica store in the V & A Waterfront) a Castle Music re-issue pack of Stone Blue and Boogie Motel (1979)
on 2 separate CDs with the artwork of the original albums and sleeve notes detailing some of the history of the band and these recordings. Makes me wonder whether there are similar re-issue pairings of any of the earlier albums. I had never heard Boogie Motel before; it was Stone Blue that interested me.

Stone Blue was released in 1978, during the heydays of the then very current and hip New Wave movement of bands that survived and fed on the punk explosion of 1976 and although boogified blues rock may still have been big business in the USA it was not fashionable amongst the movers and shakers of the rock press, particularly the NME, my style bible of the time. It just goes to show that New Wave, which had the attention of the rock press almost to the exclusion of anything that was not New Wave, was even then only one more genre among many and simply benefitted from the publicity that the media gave it but that this was also no more than another example of hype and that it was no guarantee of any degree of quality or longevity.

Foghat would probably not sound too much out of place in the contemporary musical landscape even if blues rock is no longer the big nosiness it once was. The White Stripes and The Black Keys, amongst others, in their own ways have been and are torchbearers of that tradition and it is probably trite but true that the blues will never really die even if the old school bluesmen do. Every generation of musicians will produce its fair share of blues aficionados who may try to replicate the old music or try to make something contemporary of it, but will nonetheless keep the tradition going. In South African we have the very good example of Pretty Blue Guns who use blues influences as an infusion into a rock sound.

It is always slightly strange listening to an old favourite record for the first time in many years. It could be easily 20 years or more since I last heard any of the tracks off Stone Blue.

The title track is essentially a paean to the ability of rock and roll to uplift the beaten down human spirit. The lyrics are modern blues takes on age old themes, there is pumping bass and lots of agile, melodic slide guitar, and the theme remains that rock and roll can redeem. This is so very Bruce Springsteen but not in the somewhat pompous, overblown fashion that is his trade mark, or was when he was young. Foghat make a very simple statement: when I am feeling blue listening to rock music makes me feel better. Maybe they meant something universal and life affirming but my feeling is that they are just stating an obvious truth. For people who like music, that music can soothe and relax and revive. Bruce Springsteen's life may have turned around from imminent terminal sojourn in loserville to becoming the voice of his generation and quite wealthy too, but not everyone who loves music will experience such a significant life change simply, merely and only because rock and roll is important to them.

The point is, though, even if rock critics probably do not rate Foghat all that highly on the philosophometer and would dismiss the band as common denominator boogie purveyors, the statement made in "Stone Blue" is in its own, simplified way every bit as deep and meaningful as anything Springsteen might have expressed in more wordy songs.

And "Stone Blue" rocks quite nicely too, thank you.

Next up is "Sweet Home Chicago", probably after "Dust My Broom" the most covered Robert Johnson song ever, a staple of all kinds of blues musicians over the years, as it is a call to arms for bluesmen everywhere, elevating the myth of the southside of Chicago where electric downhome blues was born and nurtured, and the tune has a signature riff that promises a thrill ride as soon as you hear it. Foghat do not exactly elevate the tune into something better than just an above average work out but they do it justice and it kicks ass. The track opens with a neat bit of acoustic bottleneck guitar, as if the boys were going to get unplugged years before the term became common parlance but at the turnaround the acoustic turn neatly segues into the fast paced electric boogie shuffle developed over the rest of the track. This song is a text book example of exactly why blues rock can be so great when it is done right. Shuffle rhythm, piercing slide, that same pumping bass and solid drumming, with a tune and energetic singing. What more can one ask for?

"Easy Money" and "Midnight Madness" are the first of the originals on the album and they lean towards the funky end of rock, with the blues element present in spirit rather than form. In each case the lyrics are workmanlike – bands like Foghat never pretended to have a new Dylan in their ranks – but workmanlike can be good too, as long as it is not cluelessly embarrassing. The music is not just mindless boogie either. The tunes have memorable choruses and Dave Peverett can actually sing and carry a tune.

The elements that make up the Foghat sound never vary from track to track but are implemented in subtly different ways to ring the changes. There is a great deal of musical intelligence at work here that rock critics who dislike the perceived boogie genre would not appreciate. The thing is that I have heard a good deal of crap heavy rock from the same era as Stone Blue and, believe, there is some truly stupidly dumb stuff out there. This is not it.

"It Hurts Me Too" is an Elmore James number with a big, almost pop, hook and calls for lots of slide guitar. Like, "Sweet Home Chicago" it is a number that one can almost not fuck up if you simply stick to the basics. Foghat bring energy and commitment and skill and make a great version of a great song. It is not a transcendent version; I would almost say that Foghat are not that inherently genial, and this is where the limits of workmanlike can be reached. It is a good version and one cannot ask for better.

"Chevrolet" which starts off with a bit of acapella and plays out with a flourish of acoustic bottleneck guitar, is the final blues songs on the album and the passion and energy remains high. Foghat may emphasise the rocking end of blues rock but they do not turn "Chevrolet" into a heavy blues tune, the way Led Zeppelin strung together "The Lemon Song" from a couple of blues standards.

"High On Love" and "Stay with Me" are the original songs on the second side of the record. The first of these songs fits in with the prevalent style of similar highly tooled, polished mid to late Seventies hard rock with a pop edge. I'm thinking of Kiss, Agents of Fortune era Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick and Foreigner but there were many others. Not quite metal, not quite straight ahead pop. Big hook, harmonies and blistering guitar solos. "Stay With Me" also has the acoustic intro bit that slowly builds into a big, soulful rock ballad with a plaintive chorus. This is a great album closer; it leaves you wanting to turn the record over and play it from the beginning again, or to put the CD player on endless repeat.

Stone Blue was never one of the top favourite rock albums in my LP collection. Revisiting it after such a long absence was a very pleasant surprise. Perhaps the digital remastering has improved the sonic impact of the album; perhaps it simply sounds fresh but damn, this stuff is good! When the band takes off, particularly behind Rod Price's melodic, soaring slide work, it does get the toes tapping and it does bring a joyful smile to the face. Not all rock needs to be either mindless or esoterically intellectualised. Good time rock and roll is often just what the doctor orders and this, on Stone Blue, is what Foghat delivers. And plenty of it.

And then there is Boogie Motel. I cannot remember whether I ever came across the LP version of this album back in the late Seventies or early Eighties but I must confess that the name of the album alone would have put me off buying it. The title does make the record sound like some species of particularly mindless, stupid and obsolescent (given that it was released in 1979) type of music made by the kind of out of time dinosaurs punk was supposed to have disposed for good.

It is a mark of a true artist that he or she does not want to repeat previous success (Neil Young is the poster boy for this attitude) and Foghat may have had exactly the same belief about how they should follow up on Stone Blue. The approach must have been to avoid repetition, to bring something new to the table and, most likely, on the evidence, to make music that would fit in commercially with the prevalent skinny tie mode yet remain recognisably Foghat. Boogie Motel, therefore, is not Stone Blue part two; sadly, in my view, it would have been a better album if it had been Stone Blue part two.

The Foghat of Boogie Motel is more or less a commercially inclined boogie band. They wanna rock and they wanna do it in a slick radio friendly way. The fatal flaw in this simple plan is that the song writing does not hold up and the glossy production sheen just dims the light without making it truly romantic. The lyrics are not great, the tunes are thin and the music is kinda stodgy. This is by the numbers anonymous hard rock and by no means a vital, energising set. In my book a lot of dumb rock and roll is just what the doctor ordered and the problem with this album is that it is not dumb rock; it is not even stupid rock; it is misguided rock. Worst of all, there is no single track, unlike, say, the storming, stick-in-your-mind memorable "Stone Blue" off the previous album. It is one of the classic opening tracks of all time and a deserved drive time classic.

This is what so many critics complained of when they dissed boogie: it is anodyne, anonymous, mediocre. Title track, hidden late on the second side of the LP, stands out a little, with stabs of brass, a killer slide solo and a jazzy fade out with some jamming on saxophone, giving an almost New Orleans feel to the bottom line boogie. The band go a tad nuts on a classic rave up on the last track, "Nervous Release", that starts with echoes of Z Z Top, rocks hard, goes into guitar solo overdrive, has a bit of drum solo and a parody of Robert Plant's echoed vocalisations on "Whole Lotta Love" before hitting the riff and then playing out as if it were the finale of a really hard rocking live set. The album ends on the kind of high it ought to have kicked off with but for all that "Nervous Release" is still not the barnstormer the band may have believed it to be and it does not make one want to return to the beginning of the album. Whatever stuff Foghat had when they recorded Stone Blue was gone by the recording of Boogie Motel.

If Boogie Motel had been the first Foghat album I ever heard, I would never have bothered to look any further. I guess I was fortunate that Stone Blue was my introduction to this band.

I notice from the CD inlay card that there is a whole reissue program of paired Foghat albums. This is something to look out for though I will probably not make a serious attempt to collect any of them but if any of them come up at reasonable prices I might take a flutter.

The truth is that journeymen rockers can be inspired on occasion and punch above their weight every now and then. On the whole, though, and over the length of a career, the brilliant moments tend to be just that. I would imagine that one could make a seriously great compilation of individual Foghat tracks. There would be much less reward in buying everything they released because the likelihood is that there would be too much Boogie Motel and too little Stone Blue.





Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sex Pistols

Raw [Music Club, 1997]
live boot (Burton Upon Trent, 9/24/76) as budget-priced history--crude, kinda slow, a few rare titles, four demos added ("Substitute," "No Fun") **

(from Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide)

The Sex Pistols must surely have one of the best rock and names of all times. It was so bad back in 1976 and 1977 that not only could the band's music not be played on the SABC but the announcers were probably not even allowed to say the name. Many years later we had a home grown neo-punk band called Fokofpolisiekar with a similarly unpalatable (for some) name. I daresay, though, that the overall sound, vision and impact of the Pistols were far more disturbing and genuinely powerful instrument for change than almost any band since.

After I'd read the Julie Burchill review in the NME of Never Mind The Bollocks, the 1977 début (and only studio) album of the Sex Pistols I started pestering the owner of Sygma Records in Stellenbosch for a copy of the record. Given the long time between the publication of any particular weekly issue of the NME in the UKT and the date on which such a copy arrived in South Africa, this would have been in 1978. Since 1976 the NME had been carrying news and stories about the punk, and by 1978, New Wave bands that had taken the UK music scene by storm yet very little of this music was being played on South African radio and very few of the albums made it to Stellenbosch.

The guy at Sygma Records professed not to know anything about the Sex Pistols; he certainly did not have the album in stock. My impression was that he thought I was taking the piss. What kind of band would be called "sex pistols"?


The first punk / New Wave album I ever bought was Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, which I really only bought because it was cheap, being on sale at the bi-annual CNA record sale. At the same sale I bought Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and Status Quo Live. Goes to show how deeply committed I was to all things punk rock.

Anyhow, roughly a year after its UK release Never Mind The Bollocks made it to Stellenbosch and Sygma Records to boot. The owner must have wised up eventually. By that time I'd heard "Pretty Vacant" on Radio 5, as part of a 15 minute Sunday night slot presenting a BBC worldwide magazine programme on contemporary pop music. "Pretty Vacant" sounded very much a New Wave, as I understood the term, power pop song and nothing like the revolutionary, dangerous, wiping-the-slate-clean of dinosaur rock acts I had expected of punk rock after reading NME on the subject.

I had Julie Burchill's somewhat enigmatic and obscurantist review of Never Mind the Bollocks as a pre-listening guide to the album, yet it did nor prepare me for the music on the album, partly because she did not make much of an effort to describe the music. Essentially she said that Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook were as professional and accomplished as any of their contemporaries and that the music did not sound like the piss-poor efforts of a bunch of amateurs. Burchill spent a little more time on the lyrics, of "Bodies" specifically, to make a point about the vileness to which Rotten was capable of sinking. The overall impression was that the Sex Pistols had made a perfectly adequate yet unremarkable record with some unacceptable lyrics.

I realised where Burchill was coming from when I listened to the record for the first time. The Sex Pistols had a load of loud, buzz saw guitars and thumping drums and the 4 tunes that had been released as singles in the UK were quite entertaining. They had tunes, hooks, choruses. The works. The guitar sound, though, immediately reminded me of Slade, one of the big British glam rock bands of the early Seventies, and the type of band punk was supposed to replace. It was comforting to know that punk, not to mention the music of the most antagonistic and in-yer-face of the punk bands, was not all that different from music I knew and liked anyway. I also felt kind of cheated that punk was not as radical as I had hoped for. It must have been my naïve teenage ignorance that persuaded me to believe that the palace revolution could have been anything more significant than simply replacing the old orthodoxy with the new orthodoxy.

Never Mind The Bollocks ain't a bad little record. Not an earth shaking one but it's okay. "Anarchy In The UK" is one of the great album openers of all time and it is just pure and simply a great song that belongs with the big Seventies rock anthems. The other singles, "God Save The Queen", "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays in the Sun", are great pop songs too. Whatever it is that Johnny Rotten brought to the band, Glen Matlock's pop nous were what made the Pistols an enduring musical force to reckon with. I doubt that these songs, even if they were UK Hits, will ever feature on decent Seventies compilations but the Pistols belong with T Rex, Slade, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet.

The other songs seem more like the image of the Pistols as rude, crude and anti-establishment and are memorable mostly for Rotten's extreme vocal performances and the anti-social anger of the lyrics and the posturing.

The Pistols had one official album release and after the band's demise in 1978 many compilations followed with the single aim of extracting as much money as possible from the limited back catalogue, just to recoup the record company investment. The members went their separate ways. Sid Vicious died. Rotten started PIL and had a good run of albums into the late Eighties. Jones and Cook tried various projects of varying success and the same went for Glen Matlock. In 1996 the four original Pistols reunited for a 20th anniversary cashing in tour and, as far as I know, there have been a couple of those since then. The Sex Pistols brand is much stronger than any individual marks any of the gang of four might have had on their own.

There was a live album from the 1996 tour and then in 1997, as reported by Robert Christgau, there was the album Raw, which documented a September 1976 live performances by the young, well, raw, Pistols before they became really notorious. It was recorded before "God Save the Queen" or "Holidays in the Sun" and a handful of other songs that can be found on Never Mind The Bollocks.

In July 2011 I found the same album, now repackaged and called The Original Sex Pistols Live on the Hallmark label, at a flea market at the Gardens Centre. I had never, or at least not yet, replaced my vinyl version of the début album with a CD of it. Somehow it had never seemed necessary but now I am having second thoughts about it.

The good thing about the September 1976 gig is that it features Glen Matlock and is therefore quite an authentic document of the band at the time. The sound is low in fidelity though Steven Jones's guitar roars impressively and with a raw verve that is exciting enough to make one want to have been there and not only for the sake of the history of being able to boast attendance at one of the relatively few Pistols gigs from that era.

The set is not very extensive. There are most of the songs from the début album, minus the 2 singles mentioned above, "Bodies" and "New York" and plus a few cover versions like "Give Me No Lip Child", "Substitute" and "No Fun." The music is direct and to the point: very basic, relentless, no finesse. Rotten sings with gusto and says very little; at least there is not much recorded stage patter. At the end of songs some audience members applaud, some scream. Pretty much your average small venue rock audience. The deal is that the Pistols get in, get the job done and get out.

As the last flurry of pounding drums on "Problems", the final track, comes to an end amidst guitar feedback, Rotten shouts, "If you want more, you can ask."

Perhaps Johnny Rotten is mocking the traditional cry of the MC who wants to work the crowd into a frenzied request for an encore, whether the crowd is interested or not.


Someone takes the bait and replies, "We want more." At point the CD ends. We will never know whether the Pistols were show-bizz enough to please their audience with another song after they had just done their last song.

The Pistols debut was as lovingly polished as Nevermind some 15 years later and should have been a major hit and only one of a series of albums, much like the Clash or Damned, who were also part of the birth of punk, and who became as careerist as any of the dinosaurs they were supposed to have banished to the well-known dustbin of history. The Pistols shone brightly for a year or two and then imploded and left a legend. This is what needs to be printed. The Nineties return, however cynically embarked on, was a large scale cabaret act. The blues has no age and you can sing it from 16 to 76. Punk is not an old man's gig and there is something truly disturbing about the concept of a middle aged Pistols doing the rounds with their astutely adult take on the punk rage and outrage of their youth. If you cannot make money with your new stuff you might as well make money with your old stuff. Nostalgia is what it used to be.

All of a sudden I am of the opinion that the Pistols were as much part of my Seventies record collection as Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick or Aerosmith and if I can replace my LPs of those bands with CDs I should replace Never Mind The Bollocks with its CD version. I've just been holding out for the 2 CD remastered release with the extra disc of outtakes, demos and rare live recordings.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Skanking at the Pink Hall

Think of a pale pink church hall at the bottom end of Vredehoek where a cloud of incense and dope hit you as soon as you entered the room full of some truly alternative Capetonians. It was a mixture of Black and White, many very thin, dreadlocked males and women in long dresses and with ethnic headdresses standing around while the band was taking a break or dancing meditatively when it was on stage. Apart from the ganja, as we used to call it back in the day, the other predominant aromas were of the organic vegetarian food being cooked on trestle tables at the back of the hall and a weird body odour from the actual Rastafarians present, as if they washed with some peculiarly scented soap. It was, as the cliché has it, a heady brew. It was a lot of fun, even for non-Rasta, non-alternative me and I never missed a reggae night for the couple of years they were held at the Pink Hall. I did not eat their food or smoke their dope but I danced all night to their music.

Reggae spoke to me because of the deep bottom heavy yet nimble bass sound and that insistent "chicken scratch" guitar rhythm on the off-beat, with sweet melodies and infectious chanting over the top. It is groove music per excellence and great to dance to, even if I got the beat or skanking moves wrong.

In the period 1985 to 1989 there was always at least one reggae act, who appeared alongside the alternative rock acts at the anti-conscription events I attended (just for the music; I'd already completed my 2-year National Service stint) but the best reggae music was at the Pink Hall. This venue was a church hall, perhaps no longer used for the original purpose, on the lower fringe of Vredehoek, close to where De Waal Drive becomes Roeland Street. From 1986 through to 1989 and about once a quarter the Pink Hall hosted a reggae event, most often featuring 3 bands a night, mostly Sons of Selassie, The Spears and another band.

The audience was a mixture of the seriously alternative right on Cape Town crowd. Even the white people, male and female, had dreadlocks, everyone seemed to wear tie dye clothes with the de rigueur funky African theme, were stick thin and very deeply committed to a vegan lifestyle and politically correctness that eschewed racism, chauvinism, sexism, anti- Semitism, and espoused radical feminism and gay rights and freedom from the oppression of apartheid and freedom from conscription, and so on.

At the end of each song the vocalist praised Jah to the extent that I was wondering whether he was taking the piss or whether the church hall was in fact simply hosting a different kind of religious experience as alternative to the Christianity otherwise practised in the hall. Haile Selassie, apparently a god0like figure received his fair share of sanctified praise as well. It was rather odd for a non-religious sectarian White guy like me.

I really only cared for the deep reggae grooves and dancing the night away. I did not buy their food, smoke their dope or take their propaganda pamphlets. I did not mix with anyone or try to pick up weird looking, mixed up chicks.

The aroma of marijuana hung in the air and the band members openly smoked it on stage. I was always astonished that the police were nowhere to be seen. My belief was that the powers that be considered these reggae nights to be some kind of safe outlet for White radicalism, as the politics was pretty ineffectual and harmless and posed absolutely no threat to the status quo. It was all right to let the White liberals have their infrequent nights of solidarity with the oppressed. On the other hand, perhaps the police just did not know and nobody ever tipped them off about what was happening at the Pink Hall.

The reggae bands got a bit of exposure in the Cape Town press and it seemed to me that there was a significant Rastafarian movement on the Cape Flats and Black townships.

I do not know why the Pink Hall gigs came to an end. Perhaps the police eventually wised up; perhaps the owners of the hall got to know of the free dope smoking and did not want to have anything to do with it; perhaps the gigs were no longer commercially viable. Whatever the reason, the reggae scene at the Pink Hall in Vredehoek did not survive the Eighties. There may well have been a continuing reggae scene in the townships but as a cautious Whitey I had no intention of going there simply because I happened to like reggae.

Neil Young in the land of Zuma

Finally bought Zuma (1975) in HMV Oxford Street, London, on 5 May 2011, the last day of our European holiday that year. Know the live versions of"Cortez the Killer" from Weld (1991) and "Barstool Blues" and "Danger Bird" from The Year of the Horse (1997) but I'd never heard the other cuts.

Although plenty has been written about Neil Young's idiosyncratic waywardness in pursuing his muse since his first solo release in 1969 and the consensus seems to be, though he may have put out some below par albums in a 42 year career span, that essentially he can't do wrong. My opinion is that his most consistently worthwhile body of work consists of the albums released in the first ten years, from Neil Young (1969) to Rust Never Sleeps (1979), with the next 30 years being mostly hit and miss, with a lot of so-so music and banal, clichéd lyrics. The poet in Neil Young kind of burnt out with Rust Never Sleeps but I would imagine this to be an irony old Neil never intended at the time.

Anyhow, in that first decade Neil Young produced wonderful melanges of laid back country rock and some of the most rampant, hypnotic and intense rock music ever. There is just no beating Neil Young and Crazy Horse in full cry, as one can hear from the Fillmore East live set in die Archive series, Live Rust or any of the raging guitar cuts from Everybody Knows this Is Nowhere or Zuma.

It also seems to me that Young somehow felt, the older he got, that it was less and less important to be a rock poet and to write elliptical, allusive lyrics and concentrated on being pretty direct in his opinions and sentiments with a resultant loss in the value of the songs. If the tune and the playing could not carry a particular song onto a higher plane, the lyrics simply stuck in the craw because they were so trite and obvious.

My collection of Neil Young albums was put together kind of haphazardly, starting with the records of Rust Never Sleeps (My first Young purchase), Harvest, Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Re-Ac-Tor. Then I started off my CD collection with Decade, Ragged Glory, Weld, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Freedom, Trans, Harvest Moon, Unplugged, Landing on Water, Mirror Ball, Sleeps With Angels, This Note's For You, Everybody's Rockin', The Year of the Horse, Silver & Gold, Live at Fillmore East, Live at Massey Hall and now Zuma and Le Noise, which brings me right up to date.
Of these albums only Silver & Gold has been an outright disappointment. I do not care what artistic endeavour and level of creativity it is supposed to represents. It just kind of sucks.

You'll notice that (up to Le Noise) I do not own any Neil Young albums from the last 15 years or so, except for Silver & Gold and this is mostly because I lost interest in the music as a compelling passion. The same goes for Bob Dylan, whose mid-Sixties albums are the ones I find interesting. I did buy the two most recent releases and though they have been well-received by critics, and apparently the public too, the triteness of the songs and Dylan's severely croaky voice hardly makes these albums truly worthwhile listening experiences. On Blond on Blond, for example, or John Wesley Harding, Dylan sounded like a man who believed in what he was doing. Over the last decade or so Dylan and Neil Young sound like professional songwriters who must fulfil record contracts and have the ability, acquired through many years of application to their song writing craft, to write lyrics that almost sound significant yet are simply workmanlike and tunes that mitigate the banality of the words.

So. I have come to Zuma about 36 years after its release and after I have listened to a lot of Neil Young music. The first impression is that the music is a mixture of styles drawn from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold rush, Harvest and On Beach. This is good because these are good albums. And Zuma is a good album. Whether it is a great Neil Young record is debatable though. The songs are pleasant enough listening and the weight here is towards the more tuneful, retrospective cuts with even what should have been raging guitar workouts being quite restrained. Perhaps the problem lies in listening to Neil Young albums out of sequence and long after the event. Coming after On the Beach, and if I had bought the record in 1975, Zuma's impact might have been greater and more favourable. It does not have much of an impact now; not even as a previously unheard Young set. Perhaps the lesson is that one should not really be a completist. At some point the artist stumbles, or goes down an unfathomably silly avenue, and then the magic is gone. Or it is simply a case of too much of the same, or more or less similar, thing. Sooner or later stasis sets in and innovation no longer occurs and you realise that merely trying new sounds, techniques or attitudes do not by themselves make for interesting, compelling music.

My impression of Zuma is that Neil Young has collected a bunch of songs that reflect various aspects of his musical vision over the previous five or six years for quite pleasant listening experiences but not a revelatory listening experiences. Whether it is the country tinged balladry, the folky musings or the guitar workouts, this is Neil Young by numbers.

Makes me wonder whether I should bother with any other items from his back catalogue that have not been favourable already, like Re-Ac-Tor or Time Fades Away. If there is no longer any suspension of disbelief and not much belief, what is the point of being a completist collector of albums by an artist one admires?





Monday, July 11, 2011

The Dynamics

THE DYNAMICS        (RetroFresh)

This album is a compilation of everything The Dynamics released in the Eighties tracks and some tracks from a 1996 "comeback" album Organic! Cherry picking is great because this selection can make the casual listener believe that Organic! has something going for it, when in truth it is a deadly dull album. The real meat in this compilation are the early tracks recorded when The Dynamics was part of a mini-movement of South African bands who, in the face of a debilitating cultural boycott, discovered home grown mbaqanga and jive and mixed these local influences with jazz, funk and ska to produce a unique local product. "Thugs" is one of the great South African singles of the Eighties, and of all times, with a true air of menace and a killer groove, half Booker T & The MGs and half mbaqanga. No other track truly matches "Thugs" for intensity and verve, but they are mostly quite good fun. The Dynamics mutated from an exciting mbaqanga jive inspired band, through personnel changes and 15 years, into a less than exciting jazz funk conglomerate. This band is living proof is that improvement in the quality of the musicianship does not necessarily equate to improvement in the quality of the music. Technical mastery quite often leads to sterility and this is what happened to the Dynamics. The earlies tracks are by far the best. In the end there were no dynamics left at all.


ORGANIC! (TicTicBang, 1996)

Possibly organic, not particularly dynamic. The Dynamics were one of the first local bands to combine jazz, mbaqanga, ska and rock way back in the early Eighties and were by all accounts a very, uh, dynamic attraction then and had a song ("Thugs") that received a fair amount of airplay on the likes of Radio 5 and was popular in Cape Town clubs. The pressures of the struggle years and lack of commercial success in South Africa sent some of the members to the UK and by and by they returned to South Africa in the era of liberation to pick up the pieces of a musical career.. Organic! is the long delayed follow-up to cassette album only releases in the Eighties. The musicians are accomplished and try hard to be funky but they can't hack it. The rhythm section is stodgy, the horn arrangements are lifeless, memorable tunes are non-existent and, suicidally for a band that is meant to be driven by the groove, there is no truly killer jam to mitigate the lack of tunes. The metaphor here is of a band stuck in musical quicksand; the harder they try, the deeper they sink. Good background music for the undiscerning, drunken patrons of bars.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Oil City Confidential

I do not know whether I can ever fully describe the visceral impact the first hearing of the sparse, relentless shuffle and slightly off-kilter slide guitar riff of "Back In The Night" made on me when it was played for the very first time on South African radio in 1975 as a featured tune in a "juke box jury" type of program on Radio 5, which was then in the grip of a stifling disco format. This was otherworldly music; music from a distant universe where things look like similar products we have on Earth but are consummately strange and weird and unfathomable.


I knew nothing about Dr Feelgood but I immediately knew that I loved their music. Malpractice was amongst the first 10 LPs I ever owned and, along with Cream's Cream Live, one of the most played.


In late 1977 I wrote what, in hindsight, was perhaps a naively optimistic letter to the editor of the NME to request copies of all their clippings on Dr Feelgood. Wilko Johnson has just recently left the band. The review of Sneakin' Suspicion and the news item about the break up were the first and almost only rock press items I had been able to read about the band. Before that, there had been a mention in a Charles Shaar Murray piece in Hit Parader and a chapter in Mick Gold's book Rock on the Road, both of which covered the band up to the release of Down by the Jetty in 1974.


Dr Feelgood was my top favourite contemporary group at the time, one of my first independent discoveries of music I liked, and no else I knew had ever heard of, but I knew very little about them, apart from the basic history from supporting Heinz to spearheading the pub rock movement to being a bit of an influence on the punk bands that became prominent after 1976. I was desperate for information and I really wanted to be able to read the story as it unfolded, hence the request to the NME, which I was then buying every week. The NME kept me up to date on the London punk scene but I wanted to know stuff about Dr Feelgood.


NME never replied to my letter. At the time my first guess was simply that the editor or his minions were for political reasons not prepared to reply from an obvious Afrikaner from the pariah apartheid state of South Africa but by and by I also believed that the NME just could not be bothered. Or perhaps that they did not have a clipping service. Anyhow, it took about 25 years before I laid my hands on a proper biography of the band, albeit a very basic telling of the tale from the Wilko Johnson days toe the late Nineties when the band was still going, run by Chris Fenwick, without any of the four original band members in it.

Then circa 2006 or 2007 I came across a DVD and CD double pack of a Feelgoods show in South End. For the first time ever I could see the band in full-on, raging Canvey Island R & B mode at the height of tis first flush of success.

Now I could see the menacing posture of Lee Brilleaux in his white suit, stalking the front of the stage and barking out the lyrics to songs I already knew well but could now experience visually and Wilko Johnson patrolling the side of the stage with his chopping left hand, psychotic stare and darting runs all over the front of the stage. It was a riveting spectacle and I was sorely disappointed that I never had the opportunity to see De Feelgood in their heyday and would never have the opportunity to experience them now, even if the three surviving members of the original line up ever get back together, which appears to be unlikely.

I was very delighted to read about Julien Temple's documentary about Dr Feelgood in the shape of Oil City Confidential and I immediately contacted my brother in law in the UK to see if he could order it for me but it took about a year before I finally laid my sweaty paws on it during a UK visit in April 2011 when he gave it to me as my birthday present.

It seems to me that Julien Temple likes making movies about music. There was The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols, and Absolute Beginners, based on a Colin MacInnes book about beatnik London, and the documentary about Glastonbury, which I also own, and a number of others. His style is deadpan. He films what he considers to be interesting and let the subjects speak, without intruding much into the scene. It is almost a simple technique of pointing and shooting, with, I guess, the hard work left the people who do the editing and make a movie out of the raw footage.

Oil City Confidential mixes newsreel footage, contemporary footage and still photographs of Dr Feelgood performing live and interview footage with the band members and various hangers on. Most of the interviewees, particularly the band members, must be north of 60 by now and their interviews were obviously shot especially for this documentary. Lee Brilleaux, on the other hand is seen in two different interviews, one fairly early in the Feelgoods' career and the other one some years later, though we are not told when. Brilleaux's views are presented almost as contemporary as that of Wilko, Sparko or Big Figure but where he still looks young (yet strangely like a middle aged raconteur) the other three look like a bunch of retired lorry drivers. Not much rock 'n roll image there, but then, that was probably the anti-image that Dr Feelgood always had.

The guys share some anecdotes, some stories, about themselves and about each other. There is a slightly sad walking tour of Canvey Island, hosted Chris Fenwick, the "Fifth Feelgood" and long-time manager, who managed to hang on to the Dr Feelgood brand long after the four original members had left or, in Brilleaux's case, died and to a degree flogging a bit of a dead horse. When I read about the "new" Dr Feelgood still playing gigs, it sounded like a case of Dr Feelgood being a tribute band to itself. For my money Dr Feelgood means the original four, and perhaps John Mayo as well, but nothing beyond. At the very least Dr Feelgood meant Lee Brilleaux's voice. How could Fenwick have dared to keep the band going after Lee's death, if it were not simply for the sake of making money without proper regard for the meaning and legacy of the band? This is what I feel about him guiding an odd assortment of gawkers around Canvey. It is a pretty sad tour, pathetic really, and if Fenwick charges a fee for this empty exercise in nostalgia, he probably really needs the money.

Although Wilko, Sparko and Big Figure do meet up in a pub for a brief scene or two we never see them with Fenwick. The absence of a reunion with their manager, who was a Canvey mate from way back, could possibly be ascribed to their distaste for his commercial exploitation of their band name long after the sell by date. And perhaps also because, as has been the case with rock managers ever since the dawn of time, Fenwick has screwed them out of money. Wilko Johnson certainly makes some allusions to the usual record company double dealings that leave an apparently successful group penniless once all the accounting has been done.

The Feelgood story is more or less the typical rags to riches rock 'n roll story of a bunch of mates who make music together, first on a local level, then go to the big smoke, get lucky by tapping in on a new mode of presenting rock in pubs and then gaining a mass audience through live performances and then even having a number one album in the charts. Unfortunately the master plan went slightly askew after that. The songwriter and co-frontman leaves, the band soldiers on to early, second act success but then slowly and surely slipping down the ladder, always managing to draw appreciative audiences but having only moderate record sales and then one by one the founding members leave until only the singer is left en by and by he dies, though the manager keeps the band intact and functioning with none of the founding members.

My interest in the Feelgoods ended in the early Eighties, not long after Private Practice. It is unfortunate though that Julien Temple's interest in the band also ceases after Wilko Johnson's departure. Given that the band had a far longer history post Wilko than with him, it is disappointing that Temple does not cover the entire career if at least only to the degree of giving an abbreviated account of the next 20 years. There is mention of John "Gypie" Mayo replacing Wilko Johnson and the brief flare of second act success with the Private Practice album and "Milk & Alcohol" single, and a quick narration of Lee Brilleaux's last days and last gig. He died in 1994. We also learn that Wilko has had a quite successful solo career outside the band but that is about it. There is no indication of whether Sparko and Figure are still at all involved in music.

Dr Feelgood was never the biggest rock and roll band in the world and I would imagine only a select few in South Africa ever heard of them or bought their records. I have never come across another Feelgoods fan. The band was not even the biggest band in the UK although their influence stretched beyond pub rock and sweaty R & B. the best description would probably be that Dr Feelgood was a jobbing band, with a genius guitarist en songwriter and a mesmerising singer, who worked hard to earn a living and managed to build a fan base and who got lucky enough to have chart albums and singles during the early phase of a long career, that were strong enough to sustain that career well beyond the normal life expectancy of the average R & B band.

To me, however, Dr Feelgood represents something materially significant. Dr Feelgood was the first contemporary band I discovered on my own, with no peer pressure to influence me, and embraced passionately and wholeheartedly. The first 3 albums, Malpractice in particular, were a major part of the soundtrack of my late teenage life. I played Malpractice until the grooves wore out, so to speak. To this day the opening notes of opening track "I Can Tell" are still intensely exciting.

I was not exactly fanatical about Dr Feelgood. My room was not full of Feelgood memorabilia and I did not dedicate scrapbooks to them. Not that there was much about Dr Feelgood to be found in Stellenbosch, hence my letter to the NME. I did play the records a lot and did study the album sleeves and did ponder Wilko Johnson's lyrics. In fact, when I thought of being a songwriter, I wanted to be a modern R & B songwriter in the vein of Johnson who took blues themes and adapted them to his background and environment to make them relevant to a different time and place. In Wilko's worldview the concept of the Canvey delta was not that far removed from the Mississippi delta and was every bit as real. I would also have liked to play guitar like Wilko but that somehow never happened.

The major spin off from my interest in Dr Feelgood, as was the case with my interest in Cream, was that I started buying albums by the genuine article, the old school blues guys emulated by the Canvey boys. I was fond of Dr Feelgood's version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom" but Hooker's version was just bad and dangerous.

I am glad I own Oil City Confidential. The story of Dr Feelgood was no longer an unknown tale by the time I saw the documentary but there are some new spins and it is good to have more information on their formative days and to see the band in full cry in its heyday and to hear them talk. Wilko looks like a nut job and except for the difference in hairstyles, from pudding bowl cut to crazy baldhead, he looks and acts as weird the images from the late Seventies suggest he used to be. Wilko still plays killer guitar.

Where Lee Brilleaux represented the distinctive vocal sound of Dr Feelgood, Wilko Johnson's choppy guitar style gave the band its unique sound. The thing is that the absence of either would have reduced the band to something like the pedestrian collection of R & B journeymen it eventually became. Having said, I feel, if Brilleaux had left before Wilko, that another vocalist may have been able to do the same amount of justice to the Feelgood songbook, although probably not with the same presence as Lee Brilleaux, but no guitarist could remotely replace Wilko Johnson. John Mayo did not even try and I would imagine that none of his successors (on albums I have never heard) would have dared either, or be capable of imitating the signature Feelgood guitar sound.

This sounds as if I do not rate Sparko and Figure's contributions very highly but my point is merely that, even taking into account their individual skills and Sparko's apparently own unique style of bass playing, it was the frontline that distinguished Dr Feelgood from the competition.

This is why the idea of Chris Fenwick continuing to operate a Dr Feelgood band that does not sound like Dr Feelgood is such a travesty.

I have heard that nowadays Southend is the Essex answer to Las Vegas or Times Square and not worth visiting unless you like crowds of low rent party animals, Essex boys and girls, Eastenders, and the like, and miles of garish neon. Canvey Island does not look any more promising. It may once have been something of a favourite beach destination for the East End, but in Oil City Confidential it looks less like the Mississippi delta than ever before and more like the kind of place where unemployed and unemployable dregs of society have washed up and have stuck because there is no lower step on the food chain, with the giant oil tanks looming over everything. It is a masterstroke of the documentary that Temple is able to project moving images on these tanks to serve as background for some night time interviews. Anyhow, although I would like to visit Canvey someday, I am not sure that it would make any sense anymore. At best I would be able to boast I had been there. It would be like visiting Hertford simply because Deep Purple kind of originated there. I definitely would not do the Fenwick guided walking tour.

So: although I doubt that I will ever have the pleasure of attending a Wilko Johnson gig or the dubious honour of visiting Canvey, these are at least possibilities. I will never attend a Dr Feelgood gig and will have to be satisfied with the archive material in the 2 DVDs I own and my collection of CDS of the first 4 albums. For the sake of it I may still yet buy Be Seeing You, Private Practice or A Case of the Shakes, mostly because I used to own the LPs, but the "classic" quartet would be all I really need and if push comes to shove I would be satisfied with only Down by the Jetty and Malpractice. These two records represent the core of the Dr Feelgood I got to know and came to love.