Ever since they began seeing release in the 1990s, material recorded live at Britain’s BBC studios has made a nice addition to the discography of any respectable UK band from the ’60s/’70. The Beatles, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Bowie, The Zombies…pretty much everyone but the Stones and Pink Floyd have put out a Live at The BBC disc (both recorded enough material there to release one). Now it’s The Pretty Things turn, and they’ve unleashed a whopper, with no less than four discs spanning eleven years, from their earliest session in October of 1964 through to 1975, one year before the band went on hiatus. With so much material there are some serious peaks and valleys for listeners to navigate.
The first disc is an absolute highlight, with twenty five songs charting the band’s 1964-1971 prime. Their origins as a tough as nails R&B band dominate the first ten songs, and they all sound fresh today. Whether paying tribute to the American blues songs that inspired them (“Big Boss Man” and “Roadrunner”) or lashing audiences with originals like “L.S.D.” or “Midnight To Six Man” (which gave this blog its name), the band play like they’re out for blood, even outstripping the ferocity of the studio versions in a few cases. The next two sessions capture the band’s heady psychedelic years, with S.F. Sorrow-era tunes like “She Says Good Morning” and “Defecting Grey” all sounding as good in the more immediate recording environment of the BBC sessions as their original album versions. The real revelation from these more experimental tracks is a wah-wah drenched number from ’67 called “Turn My Head” which, as far as I know, was never properly recorded in the studio. The final nine songs from 1969-1971 mix folkier numbers like “Spring” with heavier fare like “Sickle Clowns”. They’re interesting, but you can hear the band struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing times, unable to wow you like the newer sounds of Led Zeppelin or David Bowie (both of whom would play major roles in keeping The Pretty Things afloat in the ’70s).
The next three discs are awful. The ’70s could have been a great time for The Pretty Things – bands from the ’60s were treated like gods, David Bowie covered two of their songs at the height of his popularity, and they were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label Swan Song – but there were endless line-up changes (Phil May was the only original member) and the music they made during this period sucked so badly that nobody paid much attention. From the sounds of these sessions, the band were trying to find some kind of crossroad between The Who, Led Zeppelin and CSNY, but all they happened upon was a heap of turgid jazz-rock that has nothing in common with the band you loved just a few years earlier. The only respite you get from crap like “Onion Soup” or “Come Here Mamma” comes when they dip back into their earlier catalog (“Big City”, “Roaslyn” and “Route 66”). Not that these versions compete with the originals, but at least they’re brief and to the point.
Not only is 3/4 of the music on this set terrible, but, to add insult to injury, several songs on these discs repeat themselves. Not different versions of the same song – the same recording. This includes an entire five song set which appears twice on disc 3! I guess the thought in including them twice was that the 2nd versions came from a rebroadcast of the same set and have different DJ intros, but there isn’t a single mention of this on the packaging, which makes their inclusion seem pretty dubious. Besides, who cares about DJ intros? There isn’t a DJ alive or dead with enough of a gift of gab to make you want to hear live versions of “Havana Bound’ or “Love Is Good” more than once.
By all means, figure out a way to get your hands on the white-hot first disc of this reasonably priced set, but don’t expect the other three to do anything other than collect dust.
Pre- (r)amble: I don’t talk much about myself on this site, but it can be important to know something about the person choosing these albums. After all, a 19 year old college student will likely be into an entirely different set of music than a 65 year old who grew up listening to Beatles, Stones and Hendrix records when they were new. Anyway, I’m a 38 year old guy who had his first child in 2015. The combination of age and a child means I don’t have the free time to investigate new music as I once did (though I still spend a hefty amount of time on it), nor do I have the same patience for new bands that don’t impress quickly. I, and many peers at the same point in life, are largely relying on new music from old favorites for inspiration. So, when you read this, know that your writer doesn’t really care about Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, or any of the indie-pop/rap/R&B I see on most year-end lists. If other people dig it, that’s great, but it does nothing for me. I tried. Really, I did. But if that’s what’s cool I’d rather just listen to The Pixies for the 100th time (their self-titled album is playing as I write this). That’s the kind of person I am right now, and that’s the place this list comes from.
- Mercury Rev – The Light In You (Bella Union)
It didn’t take much for Mercury Rev to get Album of the Year honors in 2015. All they had to do was simply return to the achingly beautiful music they made on Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream. Great melodies, soaring orchestrations, and emotionally honest lyrics.
- The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Mini-Album Thingy Wingy (A Records)
Not sure if this should even count as an album, but it’s been a thin year for new music I loved, so here we are. MATW has seven songs covering a lot of stylistic ground including a 13th Floor Elevators cover, an instrumental, a song sung in Slovakian..etc., but the band’s aptitude for psychedelic songwriting is a constant.
- Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe – I Declare Nothing
Another album with participation from Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe. This time he’s collaborating with Canadian singer Tess Parks whose half-gravelly/half-dreamy voice is mesmerizing. Early listens had me thinking the album was rushed and the songs repetitive, but further listens reveal the genius lurking beneath the surface. Hopefully this is an ongoing collaboration and not just a one-off.
- Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats – The Night Creeper (Rise Above Records)
This was my most highly anticipated release of 2015. It didn’t live up to my unrealistic expectations, but anyone who has grown to love the band’s mix of Sabbath, Crazy Horse and the dark side of the late-‘60s will be happy with The Night Creeper.
- The Twerps – Range Anxiety (Merge)
The Australian band’s second album is an increasingly rare example of indie-rock done right. A summery-sweet mix of The Velvets, The Clean and C86 sounds.
- The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Musique De Film Imagine (A Records)
The final of the three BJM-related entries in this list, MDFI wasn’t a typical album, but rather a largely instrumental soundtrack to a French film that doesn’t actually exist. As film music it’s a total success, and Anton is working on more film scores to come, so that’s pretty cool.
- Sunder- Sunder (Tee Pee)
French band Sunder’s album was a small step down from last year’s album (when they were known as The Socks), but still a highly entertaining mix of proto-metal thunder and LSD-munching late-‘60s psychedelic mind warpage. The title of the album opening “Deadly Flower” neatly sums up the two side of Sunder.
- Royal Headache – High (What’s Your Rupture?)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only heard this album once, and it was on Spotify, through crappy headphones, while I was at work. So, take this for what you will but I thought this was much better than their debut. Kinda punky stuff (in a 1970s way), but with soulful vocals that make it far more engaging than it might have been otherwise.
- You Am I – Porridge and Hotsauce (You Am I)
More full disclosure: I’ve only had this album for about two weeks so I haven’t been able to spend much time with it. That said, I’m parking it at number nine for now because everything You Am I has put out for the past 20+ years is good and I don’t hear this being much different. Now, can they please get an American record deal? They recorded the thing in Brooklyn (at Daptone Studios) for chrissakes!
- Cold Beat – Into The Air (Crime On The Moon)
Another album I’ve only heard on Spotify through headphones at work (they were going to send me a CD to review, but flaked on it). Reminds me of early Blondie (and a forgotten NY band from a decade ago called The Hong Kong) thanks to Hannah Lew’s Deborah Harry-ish vocals, but with punkier music that sounds like Wire circa-Pink Flag, despite some synthy passages.
There’s an abundance of local punk scene oral histories available on the marketplace right now. It seems like every year or so a book like American Hardcore, NYHC, Treat Me Like Dirt, or We Got The Neutron Bomb comes out and immediately becomes a valued part of my rock library. That said, I approached Craig Ibarra’s oral history of San Pedro’s punk scene with a healthy dose of trepidation. The issue I anticipated was a simple one – the most well-known punk bands from San Pedro (i.e. the ones that would get the most ink) are The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust, both of whom I respect, but find their music too obscure and angular to enjoy. Oddly enough this was never a thought in my head once I dove into the book. Even if we’re talking about bands I don’t like or don’t know (some lesser known San Pedro bands get covered), the story of how localized punk scenes took shape in the ‘70s and ‘80s is always fascinating to me. San Pedro is no different in that regard, as author Craig Ibarra (who became involved in the Pedro punk scene at age 13 after hearing Black Flag’s Damaged) presents firsthand accounts from all the important local players, from musicians to scenesters in non-chronological order, but with a total cohesion that never comes across as disjointed or scattershot.
While the stories about misfit youths, clashes with law enforcement, struggling to find welcoming venues and labels, starting bands despite a lack of musical proficiency…etc. are similar to the ones read in other local punk histories, San Pedro wasn’t your typical punk mecca. It’s a port community within Los Angeles, with a large working class and Latino population, and definitely not the kind of place where people had an excess of money for punk accoutrements like leather jackets, high-tech equipment, or recording costs. Sure, it was geographically close enough to Hollywood that the Pedro punks would go there to see the Hollywood bands play, but it was also far enough that to fashionable members of the Hollywood scene, San Pedro may as well have been Iowa. The fact that they didn’t dress, play or act like standard issue punk rockers made San Pedro bands like The Minutemen the ultimate outcasts, the kind who are too out there to even find acceptance among other outcasts. The fact that they didn’t care probably made them cooler than anyone else. The book abruptly ends in 1985, with D. Boon’s death in a car crash bringing the Minutemen to a premature end, just as they were coming closer to making a national impact. It would have been nice if Ibarra included a brief section on the years after Boon’s death just to let you know that a local scene still existed (Ibarra himself began playing in local bands in the late-‘80s), but I guess that’s a story for another book. A crucial addition to your punk library.
Even though the Tall Dwarfs formed in 1981, the duo of Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate didn’t get around to releasing their first full-length album, Weeville, until 1990, having chosen to only release EPs throughout the 1980s. To me the album has always been something of a minor classic, and one of the best albums to come out of Flying Nun, the label which is to New Zealand indie rock what Motown was to Detroit R&B. The sound of the Tall Dwarfs is a hard one to convey with words, because it is unique to the two band members and their acid-skewed world view. The duo play all the stringed and keyed instruments, but the percussion is made entirely out of primitive loops. You’d think that would make them sound rigid and tethered to the repetitive simplicity of the rhythms, but they manage to neatly sidestep that trap with highly developed song ideas. The only artist I can think of that is somewhat similar to the Tall Dwarfs is Robyn Hitchcock. Not that they sound much alike, but both are steeped in the songwriting of classic 1960s artists (Beatles, Dylan, Kinks, Velvet Underground…etc.), but both attack it like artists coming out of the punk era (Soft Boys for Hitchcock, Toy Love for the boys in Tall Dwarfs), with an experimental sense of humor, coupled with flashes of aggression and surrealist imagery.
Weeville lets listeners experience all the different facets that make up the Tall Dwarfs’ music. Album opener “Log” is a piano-led ballad that could have come directly out of the Ray Davies or Syd Barrett songbook, but again, there’s something in the backwards sounds that crop up throughout, which could only have come from the Tall Dwarfs. The band’s punk roots get aired out on “Breath”, “Pirouette”, “The Winner” and “Ozone”, though the lo-fi performances and crazy lyrics have little in common with The Ramones, Clash or Sex Pistol’s kind of punk. My favorites among Weeville’s sixteen songs are the aforementioned Stooges/T. Rex romp “Breath”, the acoustic “Crawl”, and “Lucky” which features some very atmospheric slide guitar from Alec Bathgate. But really, all the songs are filled with interesting and creative performances that you should seek out. Also, don’t forget to check out the lyric booklet which has artwork for each song created by Knox and Bathgate, which is as fascinatingly twisted as the songs themselves.
Released one year prior to Weeville, Chris Knox’s solo album Seizure is like a reduced version of the Tall Dwarfs. The concept of live instruments over pre-recorded percussion is still the same, but without Alec Bathgate there to play Knox’s foil, and add another layer of vocal harmonies and instrumentation the minimalistic songs feel held down by those repeating loops. Knox’s songwriting and lyrics are still fascinating though, and working alone he explores more personal stuff like sexual identity (“The Woman Inside Of Me”), anger towards New Zealand’s music industry (“Statement of Intent”) and decaying sexuality (“All Men Are Rapists”). He also gets romantic on “Not Given Lightly”, which might have even been a hit in more commercially minded hands. The lyric booklet lacks the great artwork featured on Weeville, but Knox does aspiring guitarists a favor by listing the chord progressions to his songs.
These 2015 reissues from Captured Tracks don’t seem to add anything to the original versions except another record company logo. There’s no new liner notes, no bonus tracks, and the sound doesn’t appear to have been remastered.
The story of Creation Records usually focuses on the label’s biggest acts from the 1990s (Oasis, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Teenage Fanclub, to name just a few), but the truth is it took years for Alan McGee’s visionary indie label to find success, having been active since 1983. Creation released a steady stream of music during those early years, most of which received little notice until this five disc box-set, which gives listeners an almost complete look at the label’s formative years from 1983-85. You probably know The Jesus and Mary Chain’s mind-blowing records from this era, but they were an outlier of the Creation roster at a time when McGee made a habit of signing bands that burned with the ambition to participate in their local scene (which centered in around McGee’s music venue The Living Room), but lacked the ability to make songs which lived up to their enthusiasm. Basically this box-set is the sound of young musicians, songwriters, label owners and producers all learning on the job.
The first two discs recap Creation’s singles from ’83-’85 (minus Slaughter Joe and Les Zarjaz, whose songs were not available due to licensing issues). There’s over 50 songs on these discs, but only three could be called classics: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s apocalyptic “Upside Down”, Biff Bang Pow’s “The Must Be A Better Life” (essentially “Melt With You” for Orange Juice fans), and The Loft’s “Up The Hill And Down The Slope”. Among the rest are a few scattered signposts of the juggernaut Creation would become – The Pastels off-key melodies would inform My Bloody Valentine, Ride’s Byrds + effects pedals formula is taken for a test drive by Revolving Paint Dream, and Primal Scream’s jangle-pop debut single from 1985, “All Fall Down” is accounted for. There’s also a few musical detours that were intriguing, but were ultimately discarded as Creation matured, like the X-Men’s take on garage rock which is zany fun but forgettable, and The Moodists, an Australian import that had a lot in common with The Birthday Party and The Scientists. Most interesting of these is Meat Whiplash, who released a solitary single which sounds exactly like Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain and was even recorded by the Reid brothers.
The first part of disc three is split between rarities and album tracks from the early Creation roster, including a pair of Mary Chain demos, anemic songs from McGee’s early band The Laughing Apple, and ’70s post-punk holdovers The Membranes. The back half of the disc is made up of live recordings from The Living Room, featuring a handful of Creation bands (The Legend!, The Loft and Jasmine Minks) alongside various punk-era oddballs who had little enough to do with The Sex Pistols and The Clash that they were still viable underground acts in the early-’80s (The Mekons, Alternative TV and The Television Personalities). The sound is pretty lousy though, and I can’t imagine anyone returning to it very often.
Disc four houses demos from what are to box-set listeners, by now familiar Creation bands (The Jasmine Minks, The Moodists, The X-Men, The Legend!…etc.). Once again the sound isn’t great – a reminder of an era when demos were usually recorded on cassettes – but it’s nice to get additional looks at Meat Whiplash and The Moodists. Disc five comes from a half-dozen BBC sessions and gives you eight more tracks by The Loft (who had a nice New York proto-punk influence in their songs), interesting sessions from The Moodists and Meat Whiplash, as well as the lesser likes of The X-Men and The Bodines, the latter of which sound like an amateur version of Echo and The Bunnymen.
As has come to be expected, the sound on Creation Artifact is great, and the liner notes are almost as crucial as the music, containing a history of Creation’s early years and band biographies. While the music is rarely great, the excitement and enthusiasm is constantly palpable. The only question left – and it’s one I can’t answer – is, are you willing to pay box-set prices to hear that?
When Them debuted in 1964 with “Don’t Start Crying Now” b/w “One Two Brown Eyes”, the Belfast band immediately placed themselves on the cutting edge of the UK Invasion. The songs were steeped in the blues and R&B, but they were also rhythmically driving and dangerous sounding in an all new way. Them were not polite young boys, looking to hold hands and drink milkshakes. They were, as the punning title of their first album would tell you, Angry Young Them. Over the next three years they released two full-length albums and a handful of singles that were vital to the foundation of what is today known as garage rock. Plus they did the original version of “Gloria”, a rock standard if there ever was one, that’s been covered by everyone from The Doors, to Hendrix, to Patti Smith. Because band members came and went with alarming frequency, singer Van Morrison is the central character in the story of Them, as he’s the only person to play on every song on this three disc set. Even though he’s held in high public regard mostly for his successful solo career, he was at his unhinged best in Them, with his electrifying vocal style dominating blues standards like “Baby Please Don’t Go”, or “Bright Lights, Big City” as easily as covers of contemporary folk rock like “It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue)” (which would be sampled by Beck 30 years later on “Jack-ass”) and “Richard Cory”, or his own self-penned material (“All For Myself” is as convincing a blues song as white people produced in the 1960s).
If you purchased the 1997 double-disc set The Story Of Them, I hate to break it to you, but you need to trade it in and upgrade to this new collection. First of all, the remastering is fantastic, and Van Morrison’s liner notes are informative. More importantly, it includes the original versions of several songs which were presented in badly rechanneled stereo mixes on The Story Of Them, even using additional percussion which wasn’t part of the original recordings. Why Deram used these mixes (which date from compilations released on Parrot Records in the 1970s) is a mystery, but it doesn’t matter anymore, because now you can hear these songs as they were originally meant to be heard. Even better is this collection’s third disc, which includes previously unreleased demos and alternate takes, one song (“Mighty Like A Rose”) left off the previous compilation for space, and a half-dozen live songs recorded for the BBC. Many of these previously unheard versions are similar to the originals, but there is a noticeably tougher take of “Go One Home Baby” and an alternate take of “Turn On Your Love Light” with a different, and absolutely deranged, rave-up arrangement that doubles the length of the original. Again, I’m sorry but you just gotta buy this.