28 April 2005

Alvin Stardust - Be Smart Be Safe


What the fuck was going on in 1975? A nation badly in need of the punk revolution. People talk about how we needed it to rescue us from prog, but they forget about the other twaddle. The dreadful childish novelty element, from stage-school twats like Brotherhood Of Man to one Wombles hit after another. Bill Oddie was the fourth most successful songwriter in the UK in 1975.

And Alvin Stardust issued a strange looming cover of Cliff Richard's Move It. But that's not quite what we're looking at here today. We're flipping that single over to find its B-side, Be Smart Be Safe (The Green Cross Code Song).

In the early-mid 70s Alvin was a mean moody glam rocker. He also fronted a big advertising campaign promoting road safety for kids.

Alvin's followed on from the success of the one with Mud in where they all leave the house - dressed in their trademark sky blue and gold outfits with a clear implication they just wore them all the time - then Les Gray spots kids crossing the road between parked vehicles and goes and puts them straight.

Alvin is walking down the street in his leathers when he sees kids crossing the road without looking first. Grabbing them by the scruff of the neck he bellows 'you must be out of your tiny minds!'.

I remember it struck me as incongruous at the time. He was pretty sinister to us under-10s, frankly if he'd appeared next to me on the street I'd have bolted into the road to get away from him. He certainly seemed an awful lot more threatening than a beige Allegro.

Tufty the road safety squirrel was a much better idea; equally authoritative but not half as scary.

Still, for Alvin it wasn't just an advert it was a way of life, and he penned this song himself. Throwaway dirty glam guitar and ludicrous lyrics about road safety. Focus on the words and try not to laugh, see how far you get.

Network, the same cool folks who are issuing The Sweeney on DVD, have released Charley Live, a compilation video of loads of those hilarious 70s Public Information Films, including Alvin's 'you must be out of your tiny minds!'. The DVD version amalgamates it with 'Charley Says', a collection of animated PIFs.

Aside of the celebrity-fronted ones, this stuff is really creepy. They start with some innocent scene - kids playing, someone getting in their car - but with the ominous certainy that within 30 seconds something very horrible and probably fatal will have happened. Then when you watch the Charley Says compilation you get one after another with a chilling cumulative effect. Imagine if David Lynch directed 30-second episodes of Man About the House, Grange Hill and The Sweeney rolled into one.
It's really far out when you're bonced, the maddest weirdest stuff you'll see all year.

Be Smart, Be Safe - always use the Green Cross Code.

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

25 April 2005

Georgie Fame - Sitting In The Park


I've just spent a long afternoon and evening on my allotment which is in the middle of Hyde Park in Leeds. The houses round here are largely back to back terraces, and the houses that do have a garden generally don't do much with it; either concreted for car space or the classic rented accommodation mix of matresses, nettles and bottles. So, come a sunny day like today, everyone uses the park as one big communal garden, and it's a fab vibe, rammed with folks arsing about.

No surprise then that Sitting In The Park has been going round my head all day. It was written and orginally released by Billy Stewart on Chess records in 1965, the same year as his utterly gorgeous soul slowie I Do Love You. Both of those records push the same blissy buttons of reverie in me as Bloodstone's Natural High and a fistful of Chi-Lites and Delfonics classics.

Really, if you want a big favour out of me or need to tell me that you've accidentally burnt my flat down, just play me I Do Love You and Natural High first and I'm sure I'll be fine about it.

Despite Billy's wonderful work on Sitting In The Park, I'm giving you Georgie Fame's cover from the following year. Where Billy gave it a vocal backing, Fame went for brass with a great trebly Caribbean tone, augmented by floaty flute which perfectly counterpoints his low jazzy voice.

Balmy, languid, like dandelion seeds blowing past on a hot breeze, sparkling like sunlight on rippling water, this record has a perfect beautiful drifty summer feeling underpinned with just a pinch of melancholy.

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

19 April 2005

The Ska-Dows - Apache

Cheapskate Records

It's almost paradoxical how the stronger defined a movement is, the more cover versions it can do.

Punk was such a shocking break from all other musics, yet it was chock full of covers of non-punk tracks. The Stranglers doing Walk On By, The Jam doing Sweet Soul Music, and The Dickies doing Paranoid, Banana Splits, Sound of Silence and, well, most of their output.

Bowie, the great pioneer, has put a cover version on most of his albums, from Nina Simone's Wild Is The Wind, through the Beach Boys' God Only Knows to Morrissey's I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday.

The late 70s ska revival stayed on home turf a bit more, with the covers generally being ska, reggae and rocksteady tracks from ten or fifteen years earlier.

But then there was this, a low budget single from London, a ska version of the Shadows classic Apache. The dark tense twangy guiar line lends itself readily to ska (think The Specials' Rat Race), and doing a reggae breakdown bridge is inspired.

The cover is a work of comic genius, Hank Marvin tied to a stratocaster totem pole.

I know nothing about the band. Were they, as the name suggests and as would be just soooo great, an exclusively Shadows-covering ska band?

With that catalogue number I'm not sure if they or anyone else ever released anything on the label. That said, there was a weird single I used to have, a song called I Like Bluebeat done by a different band on each side (Cairo and The Outline). I'm not sure, but that might've been on Cheapskate as well. Same sort of music, same era, not unlikely, but it was so long ago that my mind can no longer dredge the precise detail.

Swift, uplifting, daft, and brilliant. This record could be installed in hospitals for medical use; if it doesn't make the listener grin broadly and want to dance then they can be pronounced clinically dead.

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

14 April 2005

impLOG - Holland Tunnel Dive

In-Fidelity Records
12 inch JMB-231

I can know almost nothing about where this record came from, and I find that to be part of its allure. I'll tell you what I do know.

I was living in Southport in the mid 80s and knew an effervescent scouser called Steve The Busker. He, like me, was a keen jumble sale and charity shop trawler with a particular penchant for records. He was the only person apart from me and my brother who loved disco at the time. More than that, we were the only people who saw disco as a form of soul music. Everyone else saw it as pathetic cheesy nonsense. A big part of that is because it belonged to a time that had become unfashionable, a time of flares and wide lapels.

The 80s was a time when individuality was breaking out. Sure, part of it was the selfish Thatcherite vision, but a positive part of it was the shedding of uniformity. Before the 80s there was a compulsory element to trends. To wear flares in the early 80s was to be a laughable buffoon. Flares were, in and of themselves, seen as comical. In the mid 70s, the same was true about drainpipe trousers.

But the 80s made great strides (couldn't resist the pun, sorry) for the freedom to carve out your own style and path and not be seen as just stupid and square. There are deeper implications of this in the freedom it granted to be different in other ways, to shed other kinds of conformity without being utterly ostracised.

This shift, which has continued apace to this day, obviously has many causes. But I reckon a key one is the ageing population. In the 60s and 70s we were overrun with under-20s so consequently there was a great cult of youth, things that were old were thought to be bad simply for being old. As the young are less of the population, so their vision holds less popular sway.

Also, as the last two or three generations have enjoyed a similar lifestyle they can relate to each other well and so appreciate each other's styles and creative expression. But in the mid-late 20th century, two or three generations back had been the World Wars, the Great Depression and suchlike; no wonder they couldn't really communicate with kids in the 70s and there were inevitable canyonesque generation gaps.

Anyway, so, there we were in the 80s, me and Steve The Busker listening to disco. He'd put me on to numerous records I'd never have found otherwise. Natural High by Bloodstone, which is quite simply the most beautiful record ever made. A gorgeous soft 70s soul slowie, listening to it is like sliding into a warm bath of chocolate duvets.

Actually, that's quite an unsavoury image if you think about it too long, but you get where I'm coming from. Like the Delfonics only much more so. These days you can find Natural High on the Jackie Brown soundtrack.

And Steve The Busker also put me on to some fucking weird shit. Top of that list would be Holland Tunnel Dive. A relentless cold electronic beat, a sharding tannoy vocal listing things that have died or run out or ceased in some other way... no bridges to burn, nothing to learn, no soul, no love, no dinner tonight, no woman, no cry, no respect, no equal rights, no garden to hoe, no seeds to sow, no food in the fridge, no TV shows, no emotion, no devotion, no trips to the ocean...

And then ending each verse - if you can call the segments that - with 'leaving for the other side, going to take a Holland Tunnel Dive' and a noise that literally sounds like a hoover kicking in, overpowering all other sound on the record. This was even weirder before I knew what Holland Tunnel was.

And on it goes. Until, once you've thoroughly entranced by the bleak metronomic quality punctuated by turbo vacuum cleaner, straight out of left field comes an absurdly chirpy bright bouncy sax break.

This was a favourite record to listen when I was first into smoking dope, it really stretches your head and makes you get your money's worth out of your drugs. One time the sax break caused a caned friend to have his mental scales tip and he ran out of the room with his hands on his ears shouting 'no trumpets! no trumpets!'.

Music reflects its environment. Runrig are the most tedious band on earth if you listen to them in London, like Big Country on mogadon. But trust me, if you're living on a Scottish island, Runrig sound fuckin great.

In the same way, Holland Tunnel Dive is a very NYC record, from the only place that could give you John Zorn, Sonic Youth and other things that sound like filing cabinets full of powertools being dropped down stairwells.

So who were impLOG? I've no idea. The label, In-Fidelity, is one I've never heard of before, its address is just a box number at Grand Central Station. I love that, it makes it feel a lot more exotic.

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

09 April 2005

Blondie - Sunday Girl (French version)

Chrysalis Records
12 inch CHS12-2320

People often rerecorded their songs in other languages in order to appeal to different markets. The Beatles redid She Loves You in German ('Sie lieb dich, ja ja ja'). Abba did so many in Spanish that there's a whole album of it.

But some artists have done it for reasons other than marketing. In order to make some point about the universality of the message, Culture Club recorded their monstrously absurd War Song in English, Spanish, French, Japanese and others. It was still shit in all of them, mind.

And then there's a third category. The ones who rerecorded the vocal in another language for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Silky-smooth 70s midnight soul merchants The Moments did Look At Me (I'm In Love) in French as the B-side of the English version, rather than to sell in anywhere French-speaking. The Teardrop Explodes did Treason in French in a similarly gratuitous manner. And Blondie did Sunday Girl in French, then tucked it away on the 12" of the single.

It's a weird effect, a song you know really well, the proper original backing and the right voice, but the words all different. It's kind of like seeing your mum if she'd just had a nosejob, or a mate who's just had their dreads cut off. It gooses me every time.

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

03 April 2005

Lord Rockingham's XI - Hoots Mon

Decca Records
45-F 11059

A piece of novelty fluff from the late 50s, this track nonetheless has a serrated lunatic energy and punch that makes it well worth a listen.

A romping primal rock n roll instrumental with daft breaks of spoken Scots, it's one of the few genuinely great and raucous British rock n roll records. That distortion on the intro isn't me badly encoding, the thing was deliberately released that way.

It kicks deep and hard and yet retains a strong sense of daftness throughout, making it a great dancefloor record. I've DJed this one at 3am during an all-nighter and had people go fuckin nuts.

Lord Rockingham's XI - and what a fantastic name for a band that is - were the house band on Oh Boy!, the late 50s ITV rough and ready competitor to the more staid Six Five Special on the BBC. At the time, these were the only TV outlets for any kind of rock n roll or pop music, and so the significance is not to be underestimated.

In point of fact, the XI's leader was the unennobled Harry Robinson, and there were actually 13 of them. They only released three singles, only two were hits, and only this one was a big seller (500,000 copies sold in the UK, number one for three weeks).

In the kind of thing that always seems more unsporting for novelty records than for more serious work, Oh Boy!'s creator Jack Good fought a legal battle with Harry Robinson for the Lord Rockingham name, culminating in a weird splitting of the rights.

There are one or two little biogs for the band online, and most end with the Rockingham thing. But there's an extra weird twist.

Ten years later - not long after an unsuccessful comeback attempt for Lord Rockingham's XI - Robinson was working as an arranger. In total contrast to the established structure and comedic overtones of Hoots Mon, he did the astonishingly beautiful strings on River Man by Nick Drake on the Five Leaves Left album.

As I've said elsewhere, Nick Drake is as good as music can possibly get. And River Man's arrangement is perfect, being like Drake's work itself, strangely ethereal, timeless, lilting, melancholic, balmy, intimate and otherworldly. A truly remarkable piece of work and as far removed from this rocking stomper as pop music could get whilst still being really good.

[MP3 removed to free up server space for new posts. Sorry!]