29 May 2005

Lulu - The Man Who Sold The World


Following on from the Peter Noone post, here's another example of Bowie playing on a cover of his song by a second rate lightweight British entertainer.

Previously best known for her respectable cover of the Isley Brothers' Shout in 1964, and subsequently for doing Relight My Fire with Take That in 1993, somehow her path crossed Bowie's in late 1973 and he decided to do a single for her.

It was the twilight of Bowie's collaboration with Mick Ronson, and together they put together the tracks. There's clear Ronson guitar, albeit mostly in a low-key strum, and Bowie plays sax and does chorus vocals on the A-side.

The B-side is a slightly pedestrian version of the Aladdin Sane track Watch That Man that gives Lulu the chance to exercise that rasp in her voice that she used to such effect on Shout.

As with Peter Noone's Oh You Pretty Things, you've got to wonder what the vacuous no-mark who was singing thought of Bowie's lyrics of psychological turmoil, alienation and breakdown.

Bowie's career is littered with little dead ends and peculiarities (Peter & The Wolf, for fuck's sake). Expect more here as time goes by.

In the meantime, this excellent Bowie site has loads of great rarities (irritatingly, they're all in the .rm file format). Bowie singing in Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, Indonesian and German, as well as obscurities in English too.

[MP3s deleted to make room for new ones. Sorry!]

26 May 2005

Peter Noone - Oh You Pretty Things


When Peter Noone's manager Mickie Most heard the gazillion demos Bowie recorded in late 1970/early 1971, he decided that Oh You Pretty Things was the ideal launchpad for the solo career of the erstwhile Herman's Hermits singer and proto-Austin Powers.

With Bowie himself playing piano on this version that predates his own take on Hunky Dory, it's a marvel of clashing worlds.

Never mind that the song is about dark things, primarily the sudden onset of a schizophrenic episode. Paste on yer cheery gameshow host shit-eating grin and sing it for all you're worth, Peter.

Which, in point of fact, is not very much.

[MP3 deleted to make room for new ones. Sorry!]

21 May 2005

The Three O' Clock - Baroque Hoedown


I loved The Three O’ Clock. Like the classic mid-period stuff by The Jam, they take 60s pop and give it post-punk muscularity with psychedilic tinges. Teenagers making bright shiny intelligent Rickenbacker pop, sparkling textures shimmering with superb 60s harmonies, and always something slightly uneasy and occult swimming under the surface.

The darker side is referenced in their name, taken from an Aldous Huxley quote, 'in the darkest corners of the mind it's always three o'clock in the morning'. Them and The Doors; anyone else taken their name from a Huxley quote?

Lumped in as part of the brief 'Paisley Underground' scene of 60s-influenced alternative pop, a subgenre from which only one band ever made it big.

The Bangles were signed up by Columbia and given a shiny corporate makeover, knocking off the edges of weird and making them palatable for mass consumption. The Three O'Clock's guitarist and half of the songwriting team, Louis Gutierrez, also co-wrote Walking Down Your Street, The Bangles follow-up to Walk Like An Egyptian.

The Three O'Clock, by contrast, sank without trace everywhere outside the USA. There were several more albums, including a production job by Ian Broudie and a release on Paisley Park, but the shine and bounce of their first two releases mean they remain my favourites by far.

The discrepancy between their US and UK popularity left me a little unsure what tracks to put up here. Do I go with a couple of the best tracks? Or is that too obvious for people who’ve already heard of them?

I’ve got a couple of very rare tracks, but if the band are new to you I want to show them in a representative light. So I found a middle option; the opening two tracks from their debut mini-LP Baroque Hoedown.

In America in the early 1980s there was a great but sadly short-lived format for music; the EP or mini-LP. The fact that it had two names sort of describes what was so good about it. It was a five track 12” - more than a single but less than an album.

Before this, you’d had to buy either a single or an album. A single is just the one song, it’s no proof of the artist’s vision or worth. A good single could be a fluke, and the B-side was no way to test it as flipsides were often just dustbins for half-arsed material.

But to go out and buy a whole album by an artist you’re unsure about? What if that good single really was a fluke?

The rise of the CD and decline of the 7" single put paid to this dilemma. If you like a song on the radio you have to buy the album, which may well be a turkey. In effect, you’re being sold a £10 single with 12 B-sides.

Unfortunately, the increased playing time on CDs meant artists expanded their albums to fit the space allotted. As someone who grew up on punk and 60s pop, I hold concision among the top virtues in popular music. I remember wading through the 60 minutes-plus of PM Dawn’s And Now The Legacy Begins (yeah, right guys - it pretty much ended there too, didn’t it) becoming deeply fearful for the future of albums.

Things got even worse in the 1990s with the complete death of the single, which is why downloading became so popular. For all the record industry’s complaints about downloading stealing from artists, it’s often CD sales that are stealing from punters.

A big part of downloading’s popularity is the same reason singles were popular. The basic unit of pop music is the song. People want the song. If they like that song, they usually want to know more by the artist.

The mini-LP gave you a real taste of an artist. With five tracks, there’s space to do something a bit weird that on a single would leave you wondering which of the two tracks was the real direction. Yet on a mini-LP it still had to be tight, to the point, and the punter hadn’t had to splash out the time or money on a full album.

North America never shared the UK’s passion for the 12” as a standard format for every single. Also, the UK has always loved non-album tracks on singles (in the UK it was seen as making the single good value, whereas in the US putting the tracks on the album was what made that good value, The throwing on of UK non-album material is why the Beatles released several ‘extra’ albums in the US).

This meant that British artists had enough tracks around from singles from which good mini-LPs could be easily compiled (as with, say, The Jam or The Alarm). Alternatively, American record companies could test the Stateside water for a new British artist by trimming their debut album down to a mini-LP (as happened with The Waterboys).

New American artists specifically recorded mini-LPs. The first proper releases by many bands of the time were in the format. REM’s Chronic Town is a masterpiece example.

In these days of CD reissue, mini-LPs present a problem. REM tucked the brilliant Chronic Town away as bonus tracks on a compilation of 80s B-sides. Another of my favourite bands, The Church, only got around to reissuing their wonderful 1982 Sing Songs mini-LP in 2001. Many bands simply leave them deleted.

Baroque Hoedown is available as the bonus on the CD of The Three O'Clock's first album-proper, Sixteen Tambourines (for a couple of years in my mid teens that was my favourite record). The album continues in the vein set out on Baroque Hoedown, so do go get the whole thing if you like what you hear here.

If these tracks get a positive response in the comments (or if there's people saying 'I've already got this, gimme something I've not heard') I’ll put up the rarities as well.

[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

14 May 2005

Premiere Classe - La Fille Qui Rit

unknown label

Like my copy of Holland Tunnel Dive by impLOG, I got this record in the mid 80s off Steve The Busker and loved the obscurity. There was even less to know about this - the lyrics are in French and the record just bears a blank green label with felt pen saying 'PREMIERE CLASSE with POUPEE FLASH'.

The authenticity of the French vocal said it was from France or Belgium. The still-novel enthusiasm for the synths said it was early 1980s. Beyond that I knew nothing.

Whilst Poupée Flash is an inventive piece of electropop, it was the B-side that enthralled me with its soft seething dark charm. The gentle languidly playful vocal, the opiated mystique of an atmosphere in a keyboard driven pop song, the understatement of piece made me come back to it again and again when making compilation tapes for people.

I always had to credit it as 'b-side of Poupée Flash'. But in these days of Google I've just found out - like just now, the last ten minutes - that the mesmerising B-side is called La Fille Qui Rit. The record came out in 1982 on Polydor in France (Polydor 2056937) and was popular in Belgium and the Netherlands. It also commands high prices at online record shops.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

05 May 2005

Aztec Camera - Jump (loaded version)

12 inch : AC1T

As mentioned in that Smiths post, I have great respect for bands who put good stuff on B-sides. Fuck instrumental versions of the A-side, haven't ya got anything more to say?

Loads of my favourite artists had some of their best work tucked away as extra tracks.

As Peter Buck said in the sleevenotes to REM's 1987 B-sides compilation Dead Letter Office;

No matter how lavish that packaging, no matter what attention to detail, a 45 is still essentially a piece of crap usually purchased by teenagers. This is why musicians feel free to put just about anything on the B-side; nobody will listen to it anyway, so why not have some fun. You can clear the closet of failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes and, occasionally, a worthwhile song that doesn't fit the feel of an album.

I'd add another couple of categories - artists like The Jam, The Beatles and The Smiths who were simply so talented and prolific that they could release good albums and good singles with good B-sides; and secondly that great staple of the B-side, the inspired cover version.

Aztec Camera were great for B-sides on pretty much every category. There has been a B-sides album released in Japan (Covers & Rare, WEA WMC5-671), but it misses off a couple of corkers, and it should be available worldwide.

Not only did they use their B-sides for some gorgeous original songs, but they were masters of the unexpected cover. You can expect to see a few crop up on this blog in times to come. True Colors, The Red Flag, Dylan's I Threw It All Away and, for now, this. Van Halen's Jump, recorded only six months after the original, as the B-side of All I Need Is Everything.

It was the flagship single for Aztec Camera's second album Knife, and their first release since signing to a major label. Would the corporate muscle have pushed out the subtlety, intelligence and quirkiness that characterised the previous releases on Rough Trade and the legendary Postcard labels?

This B-side was here to make the answer plain. Roddy Frame (the band's one-and-only in the same sense that Matt Johnson is The The) utterly disarms the cock-rock and makes it a gentle tongue-in-cheek acoustic glide.

On the 7 inch, that's all there is. On the 12 inch there's the Loaded Version, where it carries on longer and a squealy widdly-widdly metal guitar solo comes in and rocks away, getting louder and louder until it drowns out everything else. Mental.

[MP3 deleted to make space for new ones. Sorry!]

01 May 2005

The Smiths - Jeane

Rough Trade

Before I get started on this wonderful lost Smiths gem, let me nudge you towards an article. Thurston Moore's written this piece about how cool mix tapes are. The bit relevant to us here is his conclusion;

Once again, we're being told that home taping (in the form of ripping and burning) is killing music. But it's not: It simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control music sharing - by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along - is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.

Go Thurston.

So then. It's 1983 and the Smiths release their second single, This Charming Man. The Smiths were a total bolt from the blue. The music was intelligent, melodic, mature yet swimming in youthful vigour and intent. The lyrics were not only so wry and literate, but depicted angles and situations not normally the preserve of pop writers. They were also one of the few bands who you had no idea what music they listened to at home. What the hell were their influences?

On top of this, they were one of those bands who clearly loved records as artefacts and were determined to give people something of real worth. A serious proportion of their singles weren't lifted from albums, and they came with B-sides and extra tracks that were not only exclusive to the singles, but were frankly as good as the A-sides.

Such a prolific output led to several compilations sweeping up those non-album tracks (Hatful of Hollow, Louder Than Bombs, The World Won't Listen), yet somehow Jeane slipped through the net and appears never to have been issued anywhere but on the B-side of the This Charming Man 7 inch.

A powerful urgent stomper of a track, the lyric has a lover finally conceding the truth to their partner, that their affair is over and their shared home now seems shabby and squalid. The angle, and the chosen details that describe it, were thoroughly arresting for me as an adolescent so used to that Stylistics attitude of 'I'm only poor but we have each other, I find my happiness when I look in your eyes' sort of stuff.

Jeane says precisely the opposite

The low-life has lost its appeal
And I'm tired of walking these streets
To a room with its cupboards bare
I'm not sure what happiness means
But I look in your eyes
And I know that it isn't there

Those words set against the pounding music, draped with Morrissey's falsetto; it was utterly captivating, proof that This Charming Man wasn't a fluke and this band could deliver us great things.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]