Sunday, November 30, 2014

Off The Wall: Pink Floyd's angry young man turns 35

In writing yesterday’s post on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the concept album Genesis released in November 1974, I was knocked about by the realisation that, presciently, it was an unwitting blueprint for The Wall, the Pink Floyd and - face facts - Roger Waters’ opus, released this very day in 1979.

Both are double albums, both are constructed around complex narratives, and both ultimately lead to the principal behind the concept leaving the respective group. One in considerably less acrimony than the other, it must be said. But whereas the Genesis album was a rights-of-passage fantasy, The Wall was an altogether more ambitious and brooding affair that delved deeply into the dark depths of Waters own neuroses.

Principally, it provided a platform for Waters to address numerous demons, including his father’s death at Anzio in 1944, the audience alienation that stemmed the increasing success Pink Floyd had enjoyed post-Dark Side Of The Moon, and even world politics since the end of the Second World War.

The first brick of The Wall, if you will, was laid during the Floyd’s 1977 tour for the Animals album, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Drummer Nick Mason recalled, in his brilliant memoir Inside Out, that group of fans close to the stage who were “probably high on chemicals and definitely low on attentiveness” were loudly shouting out song suggestions to the band. On catching one of them calling for Careful With That Axe Eugene, Waters lost it and spat at the fan.

The episode left the entire band deflated, but none more so than Waters who became severely affected by his lack of control and the realisation that Pink Floyd had lost its connection with the audience, a key tenet of the punk movement that was targeted such bands at the same time.

For the next year Waters worked in isolation on two concepts that he presented to the band in July 1978 as suggestions for their next album: one would become his debut solo album, The Pros & Cons Of Hitchhiking (a brilliant record to this day, built around the concept of a man’s dream in real time).

The other was The Wall, the story of a washed up rock star - Pink - struggling with a collapsing marriage, paranoid and descending into a morass of stereotypical rock star distractions, and drifting into fascism as a consequence.

In the process, Waters would address the separation that had plagued him - first that of being forced apart from his father by war (Waters was just five months old when his father, Eric Fletcher Waters was killed) and second, the distance that had clearly started to form between him and Floyd’s fans.

With the band “less inspired” [Mason] by Pros & Cons, The Wall was chosen as the project to go for, though it is not known how enthusiastic the other three were about having their next album more or less prepared for them. Mason certainly felt that the fully-formed demo tapes were an issue: “The level of contribution by the other members of the band made it a bone of contention,” he wrote in Inside Out. “Perhaps the very completeness of Roger’s demo made it difficult for David or Rick to contribute much.” Tensions had been building for some time between Waters and Gilmour, but when Pink Floyd entered London’s Britannia Row Studios in July 1978 to start working on The Wall, “The potential volcano of future discord was,” says Mason. “Still dormant”.

The acrimony to come - which saw Wright sacked by Waters, only to be reinstated on wages for The Wall’s epic tour (ironically, he was the only member of the band to make money on the tour as a result), and then Waters leaving the group in 1982 and then trying to sue them to prevent further use of the band name - has been well documented.

There have, though, been apparent moments of thaw since. The band’s one-off reformation for Live 8 saw an awkward on-stage hug between Waters and Gilmour (though Wright’s death has put paid to any further talk of a reunion, and Gilmour, in particular, has said that their latest album, The Endless River, will be their last). And even Gilmour and Mason joined Waters on stage for a performance in London two years ago of his revived stage show of The Wall.

The album, on the other hand, has certainly endured. Like the Genesis album five years before it, The Wall is mad, stunning in places and awful in others, as all double concept prog rock albums should be. And while it may not be in the same league as some of the most vital albums of the last 40 or 50 years, The Wall stands up today as a piece of grand performance art, built around some of the best songs of Pink Floyd's entire career. And a large dose of melancholy.

Punk had set out to see off bands like the Floyd and yet, here they were, two years after punk’s last globules of phlegm had dried up, almost going the extra length to stick two fingers up to the Pistols, et al. And the fact that it was released on the cusp of 1980 meant that, like Abbey Road, Tommy, Let It Bleed and Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, that bridged the 60s and the 70s, The Wall played a distinct role in ending the decade that had produced so much enduring music, before giving way to a decade that became arguably about a lot of over-produced froth.

In the world at large, The Wall also came about during a period of, at times, nerve-wracking instability: Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, Reagan in the White House, and Russian rhetoric warming up the Cold War. An album about alienation and political failure told through the eyes of a narcissist rock star was timely, even if it did come from one of the so-called dinosaurs.

Two weeks before The Wall was released, Pink Floyd delivered a prelude in the form of the controversial single Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), which went to No.1 in the UK and became the nation's somewhat subversive Christmas No.1 for 1979. With the album being completed around the time that the former Tory education minister Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in the previous May, there was a delicious irony about school children - myself included - running around playgrounds singing “we don’t need no education”.

Perhaps, though, even more subversive was the song’s 4/4 disco beat. Prog rock is best known for its obscure time signatures and epic single tracks, but with disco still in vogue in 1979, some were even fooled into thinking the Floyd had sold out and gone down the Rolling Stones/Rod Stewart/ELO route.

They hadn’t, it was just that producer Bob Ezrin had seen the potential for a single. To say Gilmour wasn’t a fan of the idea is putting it mildly, but Pink Floyd ended up with the distinction of Britain entering 1980 with, as it’s No.1 single, a disco song from a prog rock band with its roots in 1960s psychedelic wigouts. I don’t think it gets any more bonkers than that.

Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’s deceptive infectiousness drew in audiences to the The Wall and its not so deceptive darkness, and it is the total work that commands assessment.

One of the problems with concept records is that it is often hard to work out what the concept was to begin with. Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, even Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours Of The Morning all carry some sort of narrative thread. But with The Wall - and through its stylistic mish-mash that ranges from the broad rock of In The Flesh to the theatrical, Lionel Bart-esque nature of The Trial - the thread of the darker areas of Waters’ psyche is never far away.

As pretty as it is, with Gilmour’s acoustic guitar, Goodbye Blue Sky is a heartfelt and profoundly painful reference to the war that took Waters' father from him; Nobody Home brilliantly conjours the image of rock star on the verge of madness ("I've got nicotine stains on my fingers/I've got a silver spoon on a chain/I've got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains/I've got wild staring eyes/And I've got a strong urge to fly/But I got nowhere to fly to") while Hey You peers beyond the brink of insanity. Comfortably Numb - essentially a cut-and-shunt between a Waters song and something Gilmour had been working on for a solo album - creates, ultimately, the greatest Pink Floyd track of their career, blending light and dark as it jumps between childhood memories and a hazy present, while also featuring one of rock's greatest ever guitar solos.

There has never been any doubt as to whose album The Wall is, but it has provided a substantial amount of material for the post-Waters Floyd, including Gilmour's own solo performances, of which Comfortably Numb has always been a high watermark.

Waters, though, has made it a more personal legacy. Two years ago, when I saw The Wall show at the Stade de France - with its staggering staging eclipsing that of any previous productions -  it was clear that Waters still found the work to be a useful outlet for his anger, modifying its 1970s politics to embrace Israel and Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate excess and even the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

© Simon Poulter 2014

"All those years ago when I wrote this piece," Waters told Billboard magazine in 2012, "I thought it was about me, and about feelings that I had about my Dad being killed at Anzio [in Italy during World War II], how much I missed him, and the fact that I'd made some really poor choices in relationships with women - all of that crap. Which it was."

And he added: "But in the intervening 33 years, I've realized that...the power of the metaphor lends the story a much more universal vision and appeal. So I've come to realize it's not about me. It's about anybody that has suffered the loss of a loved one in some kind of conflict, whether it be war or something else. It's about the problems we all face with errant authority, or all the difficulties we all have in relationships with one another, whether they're sexual relationships or political/international relationships."

Waters is 71 now and a little mellower. But not much. "Some people have been asking Laurie, my wife, about a new album I have coming out in November," Waters wrote on Facebook ahead of Gilmour and Mason releasing The Endless River.

"Errhh?" he continued. "I don't have an album coming out, they are probably confused. David Gilmour and Nick Mason have an album coming out. It's called Endless River. David and Nick constitute the group Pink Floyd. I on the other hand, am not part of Pink Floyd. I left Pink Floyd in 1985, that's 29 years ago. I had nothing to do with either of the Pink Floyd studio albums, Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, nor the Pink Floyd tours of 1987 and 1994, and I have nothing to do with Endless River. Phew! This is not rocket science people, get a grip." So that's us told.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Genesis of a guilty pleasure: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway at 40

When I entered, as a career, the murky world of music journalism 28 years ago I attracted instant pariah status amongst older, more weathered colleagues on account of openly being a Genesis fan. 

My colleagues were baffled as to why such an 18-year-old pup should be into a hoary old prog rock band, and not the hipper fare of the day. Now, given that this was 1986, a year of No.1 singles by such whippersnappers as Diana Ross, Chris De Burgh, Billy Ocean and Cliff Richard, it's hard to know what contemporary taste had to do with anything. Of course, what I should have been into was the indie darlings of the day, Nick Cave, New Order, The Smiths or The Cocteau Twins. But, no. My musical tastes included this band of two halves.

40 years ago this month, Genesis released their seminal album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, regarded by some as 'their' Dark Side Of The Moon, their Quadrophenia. And with the Blu-ray Disc release of the BBC documentary Together And Apart, featuring the band's so-called 'classic' line-up in a room together, awkwardly discussing their shared history, it's time to reassess them.

The first thing to agree upon about Genesis - and it is one endorsed by the band and experts alike - is that they've never been cool. In their earliest, Peter Gabriel-fronted incarnation they lacked Led Zeppelin's rock'n'roll rawness, Pink Floyd's avante garde acceptability, or even Bowie or Roxy Music's art rock credentials (they were, though, fans of Bowie, and supported The Dame in March 1970 at The Atomic Sunrise festival at London's legendary Roundhouse). Even the Stones got away with a dreadful flirtation with disco. And at least ELO or Queen could always be branded as guilty pleasures.

By 1986, when I began to sharpen my pencil, they'd reached a peak of stratospheric success - and soon, saturation. Imagewise, they were a group of fortysomething Rockbroker Belt musicians, lacking neither the aesthetic appeal of younger stars or precious music press-approved artistic recognition. But they had still become stadium superstars. Such success had been a long time coming, but had accelerated with the 1980 album Duke delivering their first hit single in the US (Misunderstanding), and a year later with Abacab - a conscious effort to sound different - and released shortly after Phil Collins had landed his hole-in-one debut solo album Face Value.

The release of Invisible Touch in June 1986 came in the midst of Collins becoming one of the world's biggest pop stars (he remains today one of only three artists to have sold more than 100 million records, collectively in a band and as a solo performer, the other two being Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson). This, however, overwhelmingly overshadowed his origins as a truly gifted drummer, and his populist appeal became fused with that of the band he'd been a member of since 1970. Whether his Genesis bandmates liked it or not, Collins was drawing new fans on the back of his solo success - and his near-ubiquity in the mid-80s - performing twice at Live Aid, three hitfest solo albums including 1985's No Jacket Required, production and drumming jobs for just about anyone (Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Tears For Fears, Howard Jones), his US No.1 with Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey (Easy Lover), and even a proper acting role in an episode of Miami Vice.

Invisible Touch was their most commercially successful album yet, going straight to No.1 in the UK (when such an achievement actually meant something) and peaking at No.3 in the US, shifting 15 million 'units' worldwide and spawning five heavy MTV-rotated hit singles (including 'that' one with the Spitting Image puppets). In the same period, guitarist Mike Rutherford had broken US chart ground with his Mike + The Mechanics side project, while even old boy Gabriel rode the commercial wave for the first time with his most successful album to date, So and its Stax hats-off Sledgehammer.

It had never always been thus. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, released on November 18, 1974, confounded fans and critics alike - and still does. It was their sixth studio album since their Jonathan King-produced 1969 debut, From Genesis To Revelation, with its New York Mining Disaster-era Bee Gees pastiche The Setting Sun. By 1974 they had a built a reasonable following - obscurely and particularly in places like Italy and Belgium - and had even bothered the singles charts with  I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (though they bizarrely opted out of the promotional opportunity of performing it on Top Of The Pops - it ended up being danced to by Pan's People...). 

They had enjoyed some critical acclaim, and some commercial success, but they were still regarded as interesting, rather than essential. Albums like the heavily King Crimson-influenced Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound  - with their wiggy keyboard solos, brilliantly obtuse guitar riffs, 'dawn of Time' Mellotron expanses and whimsical lyrics - leaned more to Lewis Carroll and Tolkien than the American blues-based rock and roll that the mainstream was into. These records were brilliantly clever - but perhaps too clever.

The Lamb didn't necessarily change their commercial fortunes, but it consciously moved them into an earthier musical approach without totally abandoning the obscure time signatures and fantasy themes of their previous recordings. 

It was a concept album, constructed around the story of tough Puerto Rican, Rael, getting sucked into a New York fantasy underworld. Narratively, it pitched somewhere between West Side Story and King Lear, with Gabriel branding it "a kind of punk Pilgrim's Progress", an interesting reference point, given that punk was stirring in 1974 New York. To consider The Lamb the origin of punk might be a stretch (and an irony, given that Genesis were often cited by British punk bands as the focus of their ire), but Gabriel's description fits. 

Songs like its title track, as well as Back In N.Y.C. and The Broadway Melody Of 1974, have an attitude at the polar opposite of the almost-Dickensian themes of their previous work, while in the album's single, Counting Out Time they tackled sexual experimentation in a manner that ten years later Frankie Goes To Hollywood earned a Radio 1 ban for.

As with any double-concept album, there are good points and bad points. Brian Eno's guest appearance, applying his 'enossification' (essentially a lot of weird noises) on The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging, which closes Side 1 of the first vinyl disc, is one of the less obvious plus points (in return for Eno working on The Lamb, Collins was 'loaned' out to Eno for a drum session). For the live shows of The Lamb, Colony Of The Slippermen would find Gabriel playing the Slipperman 'character' dressed in an oversized rubber costume covered in what looked like sweaty testes of varying sizes. Infamously the suit restricted both movement and the singer's ability to sing into a microphone, creating no end of frustration for the other band members.

The Lamb has, however, plenty of gems, too. Carpet Crawlers is a piece of understated beauty that builds from the quietest of arpeggiated electric pianos to a choral crescendo, and remained a live favourite for the band for many years after. The Waiting Room evolves from a swirling pool of nefarious noises to a triumphant groove, intentionally marking a transition from dark to light, while IT, the last track on Side 4, gallivants the entire concept - and Rael's journey - to a satisfying conclusion. Back In N.Y.C. - which was covered by no less than Jeff Buckley - blasts out of the beginning of Side 2, all street and 'what of it?' bravado, while In The Cage remained a justifiable live favourite throughout the band's post-Lamb career.

Of course it's too long - what concept album isn't? And parts of it are just bonkers. But then in 1974 you could make overlong, bonkers concept albums. And while The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway today is still far from a favourite album of all Genesis fans - from any of the band's respective eras - it deserves to be recognised more highly as one of the albums of the early 1970s.

"It wasn't," Collins has said, "a record company album", but then Genesis weren't signed to a normal record company: Tony Stratton-Smith, the former sports journalist turned bon viveur founder of Charisma Records famously gave them free reign and an open cheque book to make music not limited by the expectations of a fanatical accounting department, as is so common today in the record industry. Not a great business model, mind, but an admirable spirit towards artistic stewardship.

Intended to be, from the outset, a double album that allowed the band to produce something more creatively extensive, The Lamb ended up creating tensions that almost ended Genesis for good, and saw Gabriel leave at the end of the 1975 tour in which they played the album in its entirety.

It was a situation very prescient of Roger Waters' acrimonious split from Pink Floyd half a decade later: a double-concept album, that separated the singer and main songwriter from the other band members, but established an epic in the canon in the process. For The Lamb, Gabriel had taken on writing the story concept and the lyrics, with Rutherford, Collins, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett working almost in isolation on the music. 

Part of the album was recorded at Headley Grange, a somewhat dilapidated Hampshire stately home where Led Zeppelin had recorded parts of their fourth album, including Bonzo's legendary drumming on When The Levee Breaks. It was hardly the ideal of 'getting it together in the country' as the house had a reputation for being haunted and, as Genesis discovered when they turned up, infested with rats feeding on the waste that previous bands had not bothered to clear up. More gruesome details spared.

Somewhere in all of this Gabriel had had his head turned by Hollywood director William - then a hot property following The Exorcist - who'd been interested in the singer's abilities as a story writer (the back of their 1973 Genesis Live album contains one of the surreal and mostly improvised tales Gabriel would tell between songs while the band endlessly retuned their 12-string guitars). Around the same time his first daughter was born, but with a very difficult birth, leading to frequent studio absence which, to the-then still young group, placed further strain on the band dynamic.

Group  politics in the classic Genesis line-up were always a thing, and rooted in the band's origins. Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks, along with original guitarist Anthony Phillips, formed Genesis at Charterhouse, the English public school more used to turning out high court judges, diplomats and cabinet ministers than rock bands (the teenage Rutherford had his guitar confiscated when schoolmasters considered it a symbol of long-haired rebellion...). 

With their classical education and somewhat refined upbringing on the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire borders, their teenage rebellion was a lot different to that of their heroes, The Beatles, growing up in Liverpool, and maturing on Hamburg's ReeperbahnThey were all, though, fans of Fab Four, as well as the Stones, The Who and other contemporaries. Gabriel was also a huge fan of Otis Redding (he still cites a 1967 Redding show at Brixton's RamJam club as his all-time favourite gig). Banks was the classically trained pianist, while Phillips and Rutherford developed a unique telepathy through their beautiful and at times ethereal 12-string sound. 

Phillips left in 1970 after struggling with stage fright. At the same time, the band went through - in a somewhat Spinal Tap manner - a sequence of drummers. And then came Collins, the stage school-trained former child actor from Hounslow. Famously Collins arrived early for his audition at Gabriel's parental home in Chobham, Surrey, and was dispatched to the swimming pool where he listened to all the other auditionees and noted their errors. He aced the audition. Rutherford is said to have worn a smoking jacket.

Then, in early 1971, guitarist Steve Hackett joined, bringing in a highly innovative playing style (face facts, Eddie van Halen, it was Hackett who invented the 'tapping' technique!) along with a darkly aloof nature , though this was more to do with being a somewhat reserved individual - even by this group's standards of English reservedness -hidden behind a thick beard and even thicker glasses.

Gabriel and Tony Banks had been close friends at Charterhouse, but their individual stubbornness was often the source of tension (Hackett maintains - semi-jokingly - that a lot of this was rooted in unresolved classroom squabbles). 

Collins, with his cheeky-chappie end-of-pier schtick provided much-needed levity. Crucially, he applied a jazzier, more soulful drumming style which also helped loosen things up. People do tend to forget, when razing him for apocryphal tales of divorce-by-fax and mis-associated politics, that he was a truly exceptional drummer, better by far than a Moon or a Bonham.

The Lamb, Gabriel's eventual departure, and the album's exquisite 1976 follow-up, A Trick Of The Tail, introduced Collins - reluctantly - as lead singer, and effectively started the journey that would lead to the dizzy heights of global superstardom ten years later. With Hackett leaving after 1977's Wind & Wuthering album (another creative high point) and the landmark live album Seconds Out, the Banks/Collins/Rutherford three-piece set about transforming into a pop-rock band with their hit ballad Follow You, Follow Me from the ...And Then There Were Three album, with Duke following (an album that heavily influenced Keane, it would appear).

Whether they like it or not, and whether their fans like it or not, Genesis have always been a band of two halves. Gabriel's departure in 1975 to "either do a Bowie, a Ferry, or a furry boa and hang myself with it" marked a thin but eventually significant rubicon. Shorn of Gabriel's vision, the new four-piece Genesis found a warmth that had rarely existed before. Collins is understandably reluctant to be seen as the reason for it, but his stage persona and natural charisma connected with audiences in a manner Gabriel's eccentricity and bizarre costumes hadn't. But it wasn't just the singer - musically, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering evolved the band sonically.

With hit singles - romantic hit singles - their following changed again, with audiences no longer comprised of intense men in army-surplus greatcoats furiously taking notes, but including, you know, girls. Eventually they'd evolve fully to become the wacky MTV funsters of the 1980s (Collins, the former child actor, may have been cut out for turns as comic Southern preachers and Mexican bandidos, but the clinically reserved Banks and the admiral's son Rutherford always looked mortifyingly awkward in those videos).

What didn't change, indeed, what has never changed, was their reception from  certain sections of the music press. But here's the thing: as I later discovered, the very post-punk writers who castigated me for being a Genesis fan at 18 also routinely had albums like Nursery Cryme and Selling England By The Pound in their collections, usually alongside Dark Side Of The Moon and at least one King Crimson record. 

Punk was supposed to have done away with bands like Genesis, but in truth it wasn't prog rock, per se, that punk hated, it was the gargantuism of mid-70s rock in general. The mountains of cocaine, the immense distances formed between band and fan by playing giant American arenas, and tours judged less on their artistic merit as the number of juggernauts and Boeing 707s needed to transport everything and everyone. 

Clash drummer Topper Headon did, once, come up to Phil Collins at an airport and declare him to be cool. Lord knows what Headon was on at the time, but it's a small indication of the fact that Genesis in general have been partly victims of their own success, and partly victims of people not bothering to give proper consideration to their music. Yes, the early albums had songs as maddeningly bonkers as their later work could been infuriatingly trite. But in any of their so-called eras, there is music to savour, music which, with objective appreciation, could compete favourably with the Englishness of Blur, the jazz chops of Weather Report, or, dare I say it, spirt of The Clash. 

Don't believe me? Go to Spotify and find out. And if liking Genesis is still a guilty pleasure, it's not one I'm ashamed of. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Back in the saddle: Bombay Bicycle Club at Le Bataclan, Paris

© Simon Poulter, 2014

For those of you playing the home game, Britain's Daily Mail has a thing about the BBC. On any given day, the newspaper can be found seething, on behalf of cardigan-clad middle England, about anything it can spitefully pin on the venerable broadcasting institution - from indignant stories about the Top Gear team's transgressions to obscure rants about cutlery in the Broadcasting House canteen.

Bombay Bicycle Club must be thankful for so far being off the Mail's radar, but it can only be a matter of time before they, via their abbreviated name, fall within the crosshairs. After all, the quartet from London's Crouch End are clearly in the ascendancy. Their fourth album, So Long, See You Tomorrow went to straight to No.1 in the UK, and next month they will headline a sold-out show at that gargantuan art deco cavern, London's Earls Court Arena, on what will be its final show as a historic rock venue (see Floyd, Zeppelin).

Le Bataclan is a more modest venue, and a more modest audience, too, but one no less enthused by the brilliantly infectious guitar-driven electronic pop that has been the foundation of the still-ridiculously young four-piece.

Bombay Bicycle Club. (l to r) Suren de Saram, Jamie MacColl, Jack Steadman, Ed Nash

Guitars, however, were noticeably less prominent on this year's acclaimed album So Long, See You Tomorrow, on which principle songwriter and singer Jack Steadman applied a more worldly approach, influenced by his travels throughout Asia in particular. 

This is evident from the off in Paris as BBC kick off with the album's opener, Overdone, with its Bollywood samples. Limbs in the crowd are already twitching. While there may be less guitar and more electronic dance pop on the album, in concert, Steadman and Jamie MacColl spa with their six strings, like cooler, twentysomething versions of Joe Walsh and Don Felder on Hotel California, playing in double-tracked syncopation of their sprightly, high-necked guitar sound. 

© Simon Poulter 2014
So Long, See You Tomorrow is coloured from somewhat different hues, but BBC in concert have an infectious energy, underpinned by Ed Nash's assured bass work and the exhausting-to-watch power drumming of Suren de Saram, augmented by vocalist Liz Lawrence. Thus, the breezy, 80s pop-flavoured Come To, also from the latest record bounces along, its township jive groove causing limbs to twitch even more. 

Shuffle a little later on gets the audience participation going further, with hand-clapping in evidence as the audience begins to frug mildly to the UK and US hit from 2011's A Different Kind Of FixThe gentle, melancholy Lights Out, Words Gone - with its bitter refrain "Keep your old and wasted words, my heart is breaking like you heard" brings the mood down a little, before Your Eyes from the same 2011 album restores the frug level.

On record, the tonal differences between A Different Kind Of Fix and So Long, See You Tomorrow are more pronounced, but live the contrast is subtle. Luna, with its expansive, global groove brings forth the Asian influences that informed Steadman's writing, blending rhythms you could easily imagine associated with a future World Cup, with Nash's buzzing, fuzz-boxed bass and Lawrence's perfectly pitched counter-vocals.

For all their reputation as up-for-it electronica dance merchants, BBC have a pastoral side. Their 2010 album Flaws covered a lot of acoustic ground - including John Martyn's Fairytale Lullaby - and Ivy & Gold brings out an Unplugged interlude, with a lot of wood and strings (and even a mandolin) being plucked on stage.

In fact, when you take into account the quiet, moody Eyes Off You (which, at the back of Le Bataclan was a struggle to hear above the always-annoying French bar chatter), a cover of Swedish popstrel Robyn's With Every Heartbeat, and the closing number Carry Me, which throws back to 80s rave music it's clear there are many dimensions to BBC, all of which add to their live appeal. Even How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep - the bonus track on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack that didn't actually appear in the film itself, but nevertheless cleverly marketed BBC to a teenage audience - transitions well from uneasy and sparse album song to competently fill out the venue.

© Simon Poulter 2014

Every band usually manages to include in their live shows the one dud to send everyone off to the merchandise stand or the bar, but BBC's infectiousness notably kept the audience nailed to the spot throughout all 21 songs - a generous set, on top of support from the thunderous Childhood (whom I'd only seen early this month in Paris as opener for Johnny Marr). 

What Steadman lacks in out-and-out showmanship, he and his band more than adequately make up for in other departments. Having just reconsidered Tears For Fears for the 30th anniversary release of their Songs From The Big Chair, there are compelling parallels to be drawn with BBC - not least an intensity and earnestness, but also the layers of electronica and rock. As they prepare for the UK arena leg of their tour next week, with that Earl's Court date on December 13 as its finale, this is an already hugely popular band that, with the right care and the desire, can make the leap to filing the biggest venues on a regular basis. They really are that worthy of it.

Image: Bombay Bicycle Club/Facebook

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same songs, different space: Songs From The Big Chair remixed

There was a time when you knew you were getting older when policemen started getting younger. But for the music fan in particular these days, it’s the reissue of a favourite album that provides the starkest of reminders of advancing years.

Every so often, however, a record company will repackage an album of genuine nostalgic value. Some - like this year’s re-release of Led Zeppelin's first four albums, lovingly curated by Jimmy Page and stuffed into sumptuous boxes with a bounty of extras - happily prise open the wallet.

“If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag,” says Steven Wilson, who when not making records of his own has developed a neat sideline remixing the back catalogues of rock luminaries such as Yes, King Crimson and Jethro Tull.

Now he has turned his attention to a classic album of the 1980s - Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair, which has just been re-released for its 30th anniversary (yes, 30th) in a variety of formats including a six-disc “super deluxe” box set featuring four CDs, two DVDs, tour programme and book - with Wilson supplying stereo and 5.1 surround sound remixes of the original album.

© Steven Wilson
For someone so closely associated with progressive rock - either through his own albums (including Porcupine Tree, which he founded, and Blackfield with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen) and remix projects so far - working on such a quintessential 80s album (both in form and sound) might come as a surprise. When Universal Music offered Wilson to take his pick from a list of 80s ‘catalogue’ albums, Songs From The Big Chair stood out.

"I think people have assumed I'm only interested in working on albums from the 70s progressive rock era,” says Steven, "but nothing could be further from the truth. I like all kinds of music, and grew up with bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division and Tears For Fears. As much as I love [the prog bands], doing this and the XTC catalogue has been a bit of a breakthrough in getting to do the music I enjoyed as a teenager.”

Recorded in 1984, with the first single - Mother’s Talk - released that August, Songs From The Big Chair was Tears For Fears’ second album. But far from being the "difficult" sophomore effort of tradition, the follow-up to The Hurting went on to sell nine million copies, with hits like Everybody Wants To Rule The World and Shout pitching Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith to global heights only U2 could rival them for at the time.

"Songs From The Big Chair and its successor Sowing The Seeds Of Love were - along with the albums Trevor Horn was producing at the time -  the gold standard for anyone of my age aspiring to be a producer,” says Wilson. "I never aspired to be a musician or a guitar player, I aspired to being a writer and producer, someone who made these epic records. Albums like this and Propaganda’s Secret Wish or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasure Dome all conveyed a sense of musical journey. They were clearly made by people who’d grown up listening to the classic albums of the 70s but were bringing the new technology of the 80s into the studio. Pop records that had the same ambition and scope of those great progressive rock albums of the previous decade.”

For the remixes, an album as sonically quintessential 80s as Songs From The Big Chair presented an interesting array of challenges. "There was a massive difference in terms of recording philosophy,” Steven says. "Even though there was only 15 years between an album like [Yes’s] Close To The Edge and Songs From The Big Chair, the philosophy of recording had completely changed.”

Part of that change with the Tears For Fears album was the changing technology used on it: "You have to listen to every sound on the master tapes,” says Steven. "Suddenly I've got this album where some of the sounds are difficult to identify, because this was recorded at the birth of sampling and digital synthesisers like the Emulator and the DX7. Now you’re listening to more impressionistic sounds because of the advent of sampling technology.”

The other big change is the amount of cavernous echo producers were using."Artificial reverb was used very sparingly in the 70s - a little echo on the voice, a little on the guitar, but that's about it,” Steven explains. “Then in the 80s, everything sounded like it was being played at Wembley Arena. Trevor Horn started that massive cinematic sound. The intimacy of 70s recording had gone - the drums sound massive, the keyboards sound massive, the vocals are huge, everything's enormous.”

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
Although Wilson’s stature in rock music has come about from performing with Porcupine Tree, his solo albums and numerous side projects, his focus as a producer and writer informs much of his remixing work.

“Firstly, it’s always an honour to remix an album that I genuinely think is a masterpiece, as I do with Songs From The Big Chair,” he says. "Secondly it’s wonderful to be working with the people who created the music, and to be able to learn something about how they made the record.”

"You learn in two ways: firstly, by communication with the artist,” Steven says of Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal who personally oversaw the remixing project. “But you also learn from the act of deconstructing and reconstructing the music, figuring out how they put the tracks together. Being able to get inside the music is such an education. I’m the kind of person who likes to feel that there is something I can learn and bring back into my own music."

When the original album was released in early 1985, Songs From The Big Chair figured heavily in my sixth-form listening, an experience I share with Steven who is eight days my senior. Almost 30 years on, and with modern digital audio replacing the poorly copied cassette tape I listened to while working on A-level homework, there is much to enjoy about listening the album all over again.

"The nice thing about going back to an album like this now is that you hear references that you totally missed at the time you first heard it,” says Steven.

"When I hear I Believe now, it’s completely Robert Wyatt. It was actually written for him to sing [Roland’s favourite album of all time is Rock Bottom]. Clearly I didn’t know that at the time - I just heard it as a classic 80s pop ballad - but now of course I hear Shipbuilding.

"Similarly, when I now hear Listen I hear influences from Pink Floyd or David Bowie’s Low; when I hear things like Working Hour I hear references back to classic rock music filtered through a ‘modern’ sensibility.”

Pop music in the 1980s may get depicted as sugary froth, but Steven notes the darker hues that Tears For Fears - and many others - were painting in the era of Cold War and Thatcherism. "Shout is SO dark, not just lyrically but musically too; not just in its lyrics but in its almost Wagnerian music, too! That was something people seemed to pull off in the 80s, especially with a band like The Cure. Today we don’t hear any of that in the mainstream. Pop is pop, it is happy, jolly. Back in the 80s, some of the mainstream pop music was so dark - Two Tribes for example. A lot of that had to do with Bowie’s Berlin period - Low and Heroes. They had a big influence on many of the bands like Tears For Fears and Gary Numan."

The actual process of creating a surround sound remix of a classic album like Songs From The Big Chair is, says Steven, a careful process. "The hard part is not letting down the people that know the album like the back of their hand. That is where the fans’ perspective is so important. That’s why I won’t work on albums I don’t love. If I’m not a fan, I’m not the right person to do it, because you’re trying to create a new experience from an old record. You don’t want it to be jarring - you don’t want people to say 'that’s wrong' or 'that’s not how I remember it'.

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
"The objective is trying to make it seem like if someone didn’t tell you it was a new mix, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Of course, if you’re intimately familiar with an album, you will pick up on small details, but I wouldn’t want a more casual listener jumping out of their chair screaming 'that sounds different to how I remember it’.

"With surround sound, you can’t please everyone - so the challenge is to create something that feels cohesive, that doesn’t feel like all the glue has been taken out, all the ingredients have been pulled apart and sounds fragmented in surround sound. You have to try and make it feel like it’s coming from the same place sonically, but still get that immersive feeling as well. That’s something which comes from personal preference and personal taste."

There are, of course, music fans who’ll scoff at the idea of turning an album they once listened to in a flat, analogue form into something with a somewhat different soundscape. And there will be those who will be jaded by the battles of the 1990s and early 2000s as consumer electronics empires took each other on with rival formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. But while mainstream entertainment might, today, be more about downloads and streaming, there is still space for high-quality physical formats. "Anyone who says they don’t like multichannel sound should remember that we’ve been listening to multichannel for 50 years,” says Steven. "Stereo is multichannel sound!”

While the consumer masses are quite willing to go out and buy the latest high-definition TV and buy Blu-ray Disc box sets, high-definition audio still feels like a minority interest. "It’s probably down to the marketing people for not pushing audio excellence in the way they’ve pushed video excellence,” Steven feels. "Early on a lot of record companies rushed to release albums in surround sound, and a lot were done quite badly. When this began there were plenty of movies that could be easily released on DVD or Blu-ray Disc in surround sound, but to do music and rebuild the music from scratch, there were a lot that were just rushed."

"It feels like it’s taken ten years for the concept to catch up with itself,” he adds. "Now you’re seeing Blu-ray releases loaded with value. Of course there are examples of people looking to issue ‘yardage’ rather than quality, but if you look at the XTC reissues that I’m involved with, Andy Partridge is putting an extraordinary amount of extras on them. The Drums & Wires album that has just come out as a Blu-ray Disc and a CD package, it’s got something like 120 tracks on it. Demos, instrumentals, sessions, alternate versions, B-sides, outtakes, video material it’s like a box set on a single disc.

"With the first generation of SACD releases record companies seemed to rely on just putting out the album with perhaps a bit of tweaking to the mastering, and that was going to justify people spending £15 on an album they’d already bought 12 times before. You’ve got to offer something new, some extra value too. That’s why these deluxe edition box sets have done so well. If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag. The Led Zeppelin albums are the epitome of this concept - if you love those albums, it will be something you will treasure."

Steven says that, despite the perceived decline in sales of physical music formats, high definition audio is actually growing, along with the hipster trend of vinyl ownership. "I recognise that a lot of the audiophile audience are getting on a bit,” he says, "but they’ve got the time, the money and the inclination to rebuy the albums they used to listen to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They want something new from it and they want some sort of enhanced sonic experience. That’s probably who I’m working on these records for. I also know that these projects can be the catalyst for people going out and buying surround systems, just so they can hear all these great records in a new way."

Wilson's enthusiasm for bringing back to new life old albums comes, he says, from what he gets out of the projects: "Working on these remixes is an education. But they also give me a sense of completing a circle with albums that I grew up being influenced by, that you could say are in my musical DNA. I’ve always used the analogy that it’s like cleaning the Sistine Chapel - you don’t want to change what is there, you just want to make it ‘shine’ brighter, to give something back."

Having just completed recording work on his fourth solo album, due to be released next February, there are still plenty of albums Steven would love to have a crack at remixing in surround sound. "When you think of albums that would sound great in surround sound, shined up and remixed, it’s an endless list!” he says.

"At the top would be Kate Bush’s records, but also Michael Jackson’s classic albums - they would sound phenomenal in surround sound! I’m amazed they’ve never been done, to my knowledge. The classic Bowie albums - the Berlin trilogy for example - as well. These are just some of things I’d love to do. There’s always the possibility, as more of my work gets out there. The Tears For Fears project is in that category - if you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing something like this album I would have said it was extremely unlikely, and yet here it is!"