Randomising the record collection #20: BASF C90 (no tracklisting)

#9098 – BASF C90 (no tracklisting)

20 cassette 1

20 cassette 2

I have four cassettes in my collection with the inserts missing. They’ve been sitting there for years, keeping their mysteries sealed. I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to find on this C90, so this is really rather exciting. If you’re me.

Although I note with concern the inscription “PERRY COMO 40 GREATEST” on the second side, in my dear departed Dad’s handwriting, I also note with relief the application of Sellotape along the holes at the top edge of the tape. Younger readers – if I have any – may not know this, but you could protect a cassette from further recording by punching out these holes, thus preserving your priceless recording for posterity. Clearly, my dear departed Dad placed great value on his home-taped Como. But there was always a loophole, and that loophole’s name was Sellotape. Lay your tape over your holes, and bingo: re-recordability.

OK, so what have we got?

1. Don Henley – All She Wants To Do Is Dance

Oh dear. This is not a track I remember (so thank you, Shazam), and it’s not a track that I would have chosen to keep, either. Where did it come from? Was it taped from a friend?

“Forget about those pistol wavers” says an enigmatic Paul Gambaccini over the end of the track, just before it cuts off. Aha, so this was taped off the radio. There may be more Shazam moments ahead. I hope there are.

2. Simple Minds – Don’t You (Forget About Me)

We must be in 1985: the year when the wheels came off the wagon, bringing a golden era for chart pop to a dull and worthy end. In which case, pickings may be slim.

3. Animotion – Obsession

“And I’ve grown to have a strong feeling for it. You might call it a craving. A love. An obsession.”

That’s Gambo again, introducing the track. Simple Minds entered the UK charts in April, Animotion in May. Time-wise, we’re homing in.

“Up five places to nine”, Gambo later informs us. So this must be a recording of his weekly US singles chart countdown: broadcast by Radio One on Saturday afternoons, if I recall correctly.

4. DeBarge – Rhythm Of The Night

So far, these tracks all scream 1985 drabness. I don’t own any of them in any other format. Instead, they’re all the sort of thing that I would have dutifully unpaused my tape deck for, without ever falling for any of them too hard. An exercise in Keeping Up, basically. And, oh, I had to Keep Up.

5. Madonna – Crazy For You

“Madonna moves up one place in the American Top Ten, from Four to Three.”

OK, so we’re not going to be stuck with this chart countdown for the full 45 minutes. Forgotten nugget excavation may still lie ahead.

I know this song backwards, so I’ve amused myself by searching for the chart in the Billboard archive. Here it is, then: April 13th, 1985.

Hold up! That’s exactly seven days before the Saturday that I met K, my future partner. In that case, I might give this tape a title: The Week Before You Came. Because if this was what I’d been doing with my Saturday afternoons – hovering over pause buttons for Animotion and DeBarge – then I was in need of urgent rescue.

6. USA For Africa – We Are The World

I’m trying to remember when I gave K’s predecessor the heave-ho. (We only lasted a couple of months. It was all wrong from the off.) I have a distinct feeling that it was later this very evening, at the Sir John Borlase Warren pub in Nottingham’s Canning Circus.

This tape is taking on historic proportions.

And this track feels like it may never end.

“Until next week”, says Gambo, unwittingly prophetic.

7. Katrina and the Waves – Walking On Sunshine

This is the first song on the tape that I subsequently went out and bought. She was on the telly the other week, helping to judge this year’s UK Eurovision entries. Her microphone was up the spout, and it never got fixed. I felt for her, stuck in that eternal Eurovision loop.

8. Bronski Beat & Marc Almond – I Feel Love (medley)

I catch a snatch of Mike Read, introducing the track. I think we’re still in the same weekend in April; maybe this was the next show.

I’m picturing myself in my small rented room in Douglas Road, my University finals a couple of months away, without the faintest clue what I was going to do after graduating. They’ve been portraying this state of naive denial on the current series of Fresh Meat. It has struck a chord of recognition.

The tape blips momentarily in the pause between the end of “I Feel Love” and the start of “Johnny Remember Me”, its medley partner. Schoolboy error, Mike. Come on, you’ve been doing this long enough.

9. Bronski Beat – Close To The Edge

Shazam tells me this was the version that appeared on Bronski Beat’s patchy remix album Hundreds & Thousands, rather than the original version on the B-side of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. I had completely forgotten about this track. It’s decent enough. The arrangement is a bit Hi-NRG by rote, but my tolerance was always high for that sort of thing.

10. The Pogues – Repeal Of The Licensing Laws

This rollicking instrumental was on the B-side of “The Boys From The County Hell”, which I own – but this sounds like it could have been from a live session instead.

11. The Pogues – Streams Of Whiskey

…which the count-off and slight microphone distortion on this track confirms.

Are we going to get the full session, then? That would be nice.

12. Perry Como – Delaware

OH HOLY FUCK.

Is this the least witty novelty song ever written? Some of the puns, all derived from the names of US states, barely make sense. (“How did Wiscon sin, boy?” WISCON ISN’T EVEN AN ACTUAL NAME, GAH)

13. Perry Como – Moonglow

In fairness, my dear late Dad’s taste wasn’t always this excruciating. He liked The Carpenters, Bobbie Gentry, Carly Sim….

Oh wait, the tape has ended, cutting “Moonglow” short.

Praise be. And pray for me as I flip it over, to the side marked COMO.

14. Seconds Of Pleasure – Pull Me Up

“Pull me up, pull me up, pull me up, reach out and save me” – I couldn’t identify this track, which sounds like a cross between Carmel and The Creatures, with a sparse supper club feel and copious use of harmonica. Shazam and Google could tell me nothing. And then, thankfully, John Peel appears, giving me both artist and title.

15. Skipworth & Turner – Thinking About Your Love

The recording quality is suddenly much rougher. The track fades after less than a minute, as Kid Jensen’s voiceover reveals this as the Network Chart show. Reception issues, or had I swapped from the hi-fi to the ghetto blaster?

16. Mai Tai – History

Bargain basement Sister Sledgisms – and as such, very 1985 again. We are still in late April or early May. Was this still The Week Before He Came, or was I still doing this sort of thing during our early courtship?

17. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

Or was I back alone in my room, ostensibly for revision purposes, but letting the urge to Keep Up distract me yet again? It’s a wonder I got a 2:1, it really is. Ugh, this track.

“A big drop for U2” says Jensen. A quick bit of chart-hunting points this recording towards late May, a month into our blessed union. Oh dear.

18. New Order – The Perfect Kiss

There’s something haunting about the sound quality of this rough radio recording. It’s a type of sound that I don’t ever hear any more. It doesn’t altogether diminish the splendour of this splendid piece of work.

19. The Untouchables – Free Yourself

I thought they were a US ska band, but this is bar-room Blues Brothers  soul revue fare. Were Hepworth and Ellen bigging it up on Whistle Test? I bet they were.

20. Scritti Politti – The Word Girl

What bliss this is. I finally got to see Scritti four years ago. It was also the first time I saw Sleaford Mods, who were supporting them at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. After the show, I nervously approached Jason outside the venue, and bought a CD copy of Wank for a fiver, which he extracted from the pocket of his big coat. They’ve done all right for themselves, haven’t they?

21. Five Star – All Fall Down

The first time I came across Five Star, they were performing this, their debut hit, on Pebble Mill, a lunchtime TV show, in front of a clutch of nonplussed grans. Strewth, did I ever do any work?

22. Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease

By this stage, Depeche hits were getting a bit interchangeably Blah, were they not? “Master And Servant”, from autumn 1984, was the last that I bought. Then came “Blasphemous Rumours”, and I got off the bus.

23. The Style Council – Walls Come Tumbling Down

In which Weller got political again, and student lefties like me rejoiced. Since the collapse of the miners’ strike two months earlier, there hadn’t been much to rejoice about. I remember this closing a Whistle Test, and Andy Kershaw getting quite carried away.

24. Paul Hardcastle – 19

Shortly before meeting K, I went to London for the weekend, heard this everywhere, and returned to Nottingham impatient for its release. For a few weeks, this was THE tune. Then we all got sick of it. A prime example of what Grandmaster Flash used to call a “used groove”.

25. Perry Como – Days Of Wine And Roses

The surface noise is shocking. My dad didn’t treat his records with much respect. Perhaps it was left out at a party, and copped for a sticky slosh of Watneys.

26. Perry Como – Where Do I Begin

Not a patch on the Andy Williams version, the theme from Love Story, which Father used to play on 8-track cartridge in the car on the morning school run.

I’m channeling care homes.

27. Perry Como – Without A Song

A live recording, with the traditional smattering of applause after the titular opening line. This collection reached Number One in 1975, which means that Marcello Carlin has written about it at length on Then Play Long. Go and read him, he’ll tell you more than I ever could.

The tape ends here, with around 30 seconds of silence. It was unlike me to have skipped writing out the track listing. Perhaps I had intended to wipe over the rougher tracks on Side Two, before finalising the tape. But my recording-off-the-radio days were drawing to a close, and this might even be the last such tape that I worked on. As a single man, and as a student seeking displacement activity, I’d had plenty of time for these things. But as a partnered graduate entering paid employment, other priorities were taking over.

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Randomising the record collection #19: Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007

#3362 – Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007
(3CD, 2007) (Discogs tracklisting)

19 folk awards 2007

As its cover explains – and as I can’t be arsed to paraphrase – this triple CD comprises “22 tracks featuring all of the nominated artists for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards plus a 6 track bonus CD featuring all the finalists for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards 2007“. This is the first of three such packages in my collection; I’ve also got the 2008 and 2010 editions, but skipped 2009. (I wish I hadn’t skipped 2009. I don’t like gaps.)

During the middle of the last decade, I rekindled an interest in contemporary British folk, which had lain dormant since the days of Steeleye Span and the odd track taped from John Peel. A new generation was coming through, with a keener sense of musicianship than their somewhat clod-hopping folk-rock forefathers, breathing new life into what had felt like a stale genre. John Spiers and Jon Boden’s 2003 album Bellow kickstarted me into paying attention, and by 2007 I was familiar enough with the scene to recognise a decent proportion of that year’s finalists.

I’m going to take this one track by track, pausing and blogging my way through. This may take some time.

1. Show Of Hands – Roots

Inspired by a remark from Labour minister Kim Howells, who had described his idea of hell as listening to “three Somerset folk singers in the local pub”, “Roots” was conceived as a polemic on the perceived eradication of English tradition within popular culture, and the need to maintain continuing links with that tradition. There’s certainly no doubting its ear-grabbing forcefulness – it’s all but impossible to listen to the track without giving the lyrics your full attention – but when it came to divining the band’s full intention, things became rather less straightforward.

And everyone stares at a great big screen: overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens. Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps. And we learn to be ashamed before we walk, of the way we look, and the way we talk. Without our stories or our songs, how will we know where we come from? I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack – it’s my flag too and I WANT IT BACK.

It felt to me, listening to “Roots” for the first time, that the song was sailing on the edge of dangerous waters – and so it didn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the BNP proceeded to make unauthorised use of the track in a campaign video. Appalled by this turn of events, Show Of Hands had the music removed – and to underline their position, they went on to join the Folk Against Fascism movement, which had sprung up as a response to further far-right attempts to co-opt British folk culture.

When I saw Show Of Hands perform in 2008, I was struck by their incorporation of Indian raga elements in some numbers, and relieved by the cultural open-mindedness which this suggested. “Roots” closed the show. I scanned the bellowing crowd, and saw nothing to cause further concern.

So, OK then. It’s a rousing tune, I’ll give them that. But I still can’t quell a certain queasiness.

2. Karine Polwart – Daisy

“…don’t give them all you can. Why don’t you keep a few more cards in your hand? I know you’ll only say a thing you believe to be true, but there are people in this world who don’t think like you do.

You have to wonder if there was any significance in the sequencing here. A gentle reproach? You could read it that way.

3. Spiers and Boden – The Old Lancashire Hornpipe / The 3rd. Beekeeper

I always liked their jigs and reels the most. Sprightly and fresh.

4. Kris Drever – Green Grows The Laurel

Sporting a tune that The Guardian’s Robin Denselow would almost inevitably describe as “sturdy” – it’s been his adjective of choice for many a decade – this is a soft lament for a lover turned untrue.

5. Shona Kipling & Damien O’Kane Flighty Girls / 7/8 Tune / Ferret-Panting

Kipling’s burbling accordion is paired with the strumming of Kate Rusby’s husband, to pleasingly frisky effect.

6. Julie Fowlis – Biodh an Deoch Seo ‘n Làimh Mo Rùin

Performed in Scottish Gaelic by a singer from the Outer Hebrides, whose star rose considerably further as the decade progressed. This is taken from the album which preceded Cuilidh, her widely acclaimed breakthrough. It’s sweet enough, but I prefer Fowlis when she’s full-on fallumping. (That’s not an actual word, but it’s how K and I always describe her. Onomatopoeia, I think you’ll find.)

7. Martin Simpson – Love Henry

A merry Appalachian murder tale, much covered, and here consciously re-Anglicised by Simpson – which doesn’t altogether explain the bouzouki, but there you go.

8. Swarb’s Lazarus – The Brilliancy Medley and The Cherokee Shuffle

Having first performed it on Fairport Covention’s Nine (1973), champion fiddler Dave Swarbrick revisits the medley, in the company of another Fairport exile. It’s a live recording, which captures Swarbrick’s dervish brilliance in full flow.

9. Nancy Kerr & James Fagan – Locks And Bolts

Nancy Kerr guested with Martin Simpson, two tracks earlier. Now Simpson returns the favour, for a traditional tale of distressed damsel rescue. Inevitably, blood flows.

10. Salsa Celtica – Grey Gallito (The Grey Cockerel)

Guest vocalist Eliza Carthy does a fine job on this surprisingly effective Cuban-style arrangement of a trad tune, in which a premature cock sends Willy fleeing his lover’s chamber too soon. Arf, cock. Arf, Willy.

11. John Tams & Barry Coope – Vulcan / Steelos

Recorded live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the medley opens with a thickly accented dialogue between Lucifer and Vulcan, as the former warns the latter of a new threat to the Sheffield coal industry: “I’ve signed up another demon and it’s ‘im you’ll come to fear.” The demon’s name? “Maggie sez his name’s MacGregor. It wont be t’last you’ll hear of ‘im.” This segues into a work song in commemoration of Sheffield’s equally ill-starred steel industry, unaccompanied save for handclaps.

12. Bellowhead – London Town

We’ve now reached the second disc. Here, Spiers and Boden return as members of Bellowhead, for a superbly arranged tale of guilt-free robbery from an equally thieving “lady of the night”. I was grinning along until I got to the pay-off: “Come all young men and listen to me, if you meet a pretty girl then use her free.” That’s not very nice, is it?

13. Tim Van Eyken – Barleycorn

Although “John Barleycorn” is a folk standard, I’ve never knowingly heard it before, which I guess is what happens when you ignore a genre for three decades. Apparently this version uses a different melody and chord structure, drawing praise for the way the music recontextualises the story (a resurrection parable, using the metaphor of harvesting barley for ale). A most effective piece of work. I’m not sure that I need another version now.

14. Waterson:Carthy – Jack Frost

We’ve just finished watching the recent TV adaptation of War And Peace, so this song serves as an instant reminder of how Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow was defeated: not by an army, but by the Russian winter. That said, the specific reference to Napoleon has been removed from this update of Mike Waterson’s 1970 composition, here voiced by Eliza Carthy (her second appearance on this collection) and accompanied by Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and, once again, Tim Van Eyken. The mood is appropriately bleak, Eliza’s fiddle swirling in the wintry mist.

15. John McCusker – Stella’s Welcome To Kamloops / The Kings Of Innishboffin / Sean Maguire’s

I first heard this Scottish fiddle virtuoso at the home of a blogging compatriot from the good old days. Maybe this was one of the pieces I heard. Stirring stuff, right up my street.

16. Nic Jones – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me

A Seventies live solo recording, unreleased until 2006, by an artist who was obliged to stop performing in 1982 following a serious road accident. I was given a copy of Penguin Eggs, his fifth and final album, for my fiftieth birthday. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and so is this: sung with a light chuckle, and immaculately picked. We’ll return to this song later.

17. Seth Lakeman – The Colliers

Lakeman’s surprise nomination for the 2005 Mercury Prize did much to popularise folk’s new breed, and Freedom Fields, the album from which this track is taken, sold well enough to graze the Top 40. It hasn’t worn well; there’s a pop sheen to the production which flattens the arrangement, and the “hold your fire” refrain grates from the outset. Its inclusion spoils what had been a great run.

18. Chris Thile – Wayside (Back In Time)

It comes as a bit of a jolt to hear bluegrass, and the thin, buried vocals and muddy production don’t serve Gillian Welch’s song well. A couple of rambunctious instrumental breaks hint at skills that are probably expressed best elsewhere.

19. Vin Garbutt – Punjabi Girl

“Her eyes were bright and black as night, like jet on Whitby shore. Her cheek possessed a patina no tulip ever bore. Her loveliness and Eastern dress placed others in the shade, but never yet did I regret the choice of this dark maid.”

Everything about this makes me cringe. Let’s move swiftly on.

20. Martha Tilston – Artificial

A trapped office worker’s lament, let down by some trite rhymes. Not for me.

21. The Devil’s Interval – Silver Dagger

An unaccompanied three-part rendition of an old folk ballad, best known in its Joan Baez version. Stately and foreboding.

22. Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor

And so the maestros conclude the second disc, which is only right and proper. A splendidly gory ballad, climaxing with a triple tragedy at a wedding, performed straight and unadorned by Carthy and Swarbrick. Everything is in service of the song – and when the song’s this strong, that’s often all you need.

23. Ewen & Megan Henderson – Banks Of The Allan Water / The Furze Bush / Donegal Barn Dance
24. David Delarre – Roundabout
25. Ryan Young – Catharsis / Humours Of Tulla / Mitten’s Breakdown
26. Last Orders – O’Keefe’s / Unknown / Campdown Races
27. Ruth Notman & Bryony Bainbridge – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me
28. Wilber – Vestapol

Finally, a quick whizz through the bonus disc, featuring the six Young Folk Awards finalists, all performing live at what must have been the same event. The duetting Henderson fiddlers do a proficient job, although a little more lack of caution might have served them better. Delarre’s solo guitar technique is impressive, and I’m surprised we haven’t heard more of him. Ryan Young, a solo fiddler, must have been very young when this dazzling display was recorded; really, this is quite superb. Last Orders, an instrumental four-piece from the north east of England, were the eventual winners; their playing is spirited and uplifting. Notman – the only finalist whose name I recognise – and Bainbridge cover the Nic Jones song from the second disc,  Notman singing and strumming while Bainbridge’s fiddle offers a delightfully inventive counterpoint throughout. 15 year-old Wilber, another solo guitarist, covers Stefan Grossman adeptly, but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the four earlier performers.

I wasn’t expecting much from this disc, but its highlights far outstrip some of the material from some of the more established acts.

And we’re done. This was a slog at times, but ultimately it was rewarding to give each track full attention; too often, I let folk music waft by on a weekend morning, and it deserves more than scented candle status. (All those deaths!)

That said, I’m hoping for a 7-inch single tomorrow. Stuff to do, people!

Randomising the record collection #18: Aivaras – Happy You

#4107 – Aivaras – Happy You
(CD single, 2002) (Discogs tracklisting)

18 aivaras

“Watching the sunrise, beautiful red skies, hoping this day will never end…”

My memory of “Happy You” is forever anchored to a specific place and time: a taxi ride at dawn through the streets of Tallinn, complete with spectacular red sky, returning to my hotel from a long night out that had begun with the 2002 final of the Eurovision Song Contest. How apt it seemed to my booze-addled brain.

This, the Lithuanian entry, was the last of 24 songs to be performed on the night. A late place in the draw usually guarantees a decent result, but the hapless Aivaras finished in 23rd place, much to our surprise. Here’s what I had to say about it on Troubled Diva at the time.

Well, we liked this one, even if nobody watching at home did. There is no clearer illustration of the difference between the forgiving nature of the amplified vocal sound in the echoey hall, and the merciless nature of the microphoned sound coming through Europe’s television screens. In the hall, we merrily dance and sing along to one of our favourite little ditties. Across Europe, a hundred million viewers clasp their hands to their ears in horror. Hey, how were we to know that Aivaras could barely hit a note? Or maybe we were just seduced by all that gorgeous Lithuanian knitwear. Yes, that was probably it.

I can’t make any great claims for “Happy You”. Its appeal is mostly context-specific, of course – but even fourteen years later, its winsome good cheer takes me to a happy place. As for the rest of this promo CD, given to me in Tallinn by a friend with press accreditation, “Honey” is a pleasant enough companion piece, while “Rock Me, Lithuania” is best forgotten about – particularly its rock-based, needlessly extended “Oldies” version.

The fate of poorly performing Eurovision finalists is not always a happy one, as I discovered when reading Tim Moore’s unexpectedly poignant Nul Points, in which the author tracks down some of the contest’s zero-scoring performers. Thankfully, Aivaras emerged from the fiasco unscathed, completing a philosophy doctorate in 2005, and taking up a position as Senior Fellow at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. I guess that’s taking the “philosophical in defeat” concept to its logical endpoint. Good for him.

Randomising the record collection #17: Eternal – So Good (CD1)

#4689 – Eternal – So Good (CD1)
(CD single, 1994) (Discogs tracklisting)

17 eternal so good

Listen to the Tree Men Full On Mix.

Some days are easier than others. Having just spent 25 minutes listening to four consecutive remixes of the same song, I barely even want to think about them further. But rules is rules, so here goes.

This is the first of two CD singles bearing the title “So Good”, neither of which carries the original version of the song which became Eternal’s fourth UK hit. As was standard practice at the time, the second CD single was released a week later, to increase and prolong sales. It’s trailed on the inside of CD1, complete with track listings, this allowing Eternal fans to salivate over the prospect of buying the West End Dope Jam mix all over again – for yes, exactly the same remix appears on both versions, in a remarkably shoddy act of shortchanging.

Canny Eternal fans who might have considered skipping CD1 entirely, and saving their pennies for CD2’s altogether better deal – the remixed radio version of “So Good”, plus two previously unreleased songs – were further wooed by CD1’s inclusion of “3 free prints”, but it’s likely that many would have snapped it up without examining the small print, ending up with four unwanted extended manglings of the song which they thought they were buying in the first place. Ah, the Nineties music industry.

To compound the cruelty, CD1 opens with the worst mangling of all – the Tree Men Full On Mix – which ditches the song entirely, salvaging a single line from a single member of the band (“so good, so good, oh baby”) and looping it incessantly. Instrumentation is reduced to a synth brass line and an organ figure, similarly looped. There’s a wholly new rhythm track, which strips out the light, sweet R&B syncopation in favour of a bog standard commercial dance template – and worst of all, there’s a jarring sampled shriek that runs literally all the way through the track, for the thick end of seven minutes. It’s an appalling piece of half-arsed hackwork. And yet it’s the lead track of the entire two-CD package. Go figure.

The same organ figure resurfaces on the West End Big Organ Mix, which reintroduces the vocal and plonks it over a tolerably serviceable handbag house arrangement. It’s a pale shadow of West End and Sybil’s cover of Harold Melvin’s “The Love I Lost” from the previous year, but it will just about do.

The West End Dope Jam mix cleaves more closely to the original, with a slower tempo, a more R&B-slanted feel… and, aargh, that bloody sampled shriek again. Finally, the Joe And Pain Remix inserts snatches of Maze’s classic “Joy And Pain”, which do nothing to lift the song; in fact, the whole thing is a bit of a muddled, indistinct mess.

“Original version of So Good available on the album Always & Forever“, the inside insert helpfully informs us. You can almost see them smirking at suckers like me, who sleepwalked their way to the tills at HMV without conducting due diligence.

I didn’t buy CD2. Meanwhile, “So Good” peaked at 13 on its second week, making it the first Eternal single to miss the Top Ten. The group’s chart fortunes swiftly bounced back, and they continued to have Top Ten hits for the next three years. I even bought a couple of them. I hope they were better deals than this.

Randomising the record collection #16: Royal House – Can You Party

#8148 – Royal House – Can You Party
(12-inch single, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

16 royal house

It’s the autumn of 1981, and I’m 19 years old. I’ve taken my first tentative steps towards coming out; a few close university friends have been told, all of them sworn to secrecy. But viewed wholly from the outside, the gay world looks alienating and terrifying. I cannot imagine that it holds a place for me.

None the less, I need to know more. I’ve spotted copies of Gay News on sale in a city centre newsagents. It’s time that I bought one.

My heart is pounding with fear. What happens if I run into someone I know, on my way back from the shop? I can’t let them see what I’ve bought. I need to hide it for the journey back.

I hit on a solution. First, I’ll buy an album. Then, I’ll slip the newspaper inside the sleeve. That way, even if someone asks what’s in my bag, I can just slide out the record cover.

The trouble is, I can’t think of anything that I want to buy right now. I’m in Revolver, flicking through the racks in a state of nervous agitation, trying to find something worthy of purchase.

Oh, this will do. It’s a double album, and I only half want it, but it’s the best that I can find.

Jacksons-liveThe Jacksons Live! opens with drum rolls, applause, a fanfare. The music stops, and a Jackson brother hollers to the crowd, thrice over, drawing louder cheers each time.

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

It’s the autumn of 1988, and I’m 26 years old. I’ve been on the gay scene for six years, and I’ve been partnered for three and a half. Every Thursday night, I’m the DJ at Fever, a mixed alternative club night “for lesbians, gay men and their friends”. My friend Mark promotes it and runs the door. According to the wry strapline on our flyers, we’re “An Equal Opportunities Dancefloor”.

House music is nothing new in Nottingham; thanks to Graeme Park at The Garage, we’ve been dancing to it since the summer of 1986. Up until this spring, dancefloors to the south of us have been a bit sniffy about it, but now they’ve caught up. The fabled 1988 “summer of love” passed us by – we just carried on as before – but the big house tunes in Nottingham are now the big house tunes everywhere.

Most weeks, I compile a Fever chart, based on dancefloor reaction. They’re handwritten – we don’t yet have PCs – and I keep them in my Filofax. My current Number One – it spends around three weeks at the top – is the latest track from Todd Terry, who releases tracks under different names.

On this one, he calls himself Royal House. It’s basically a re-jigged version of the previous Royal House 12-inch, “Party People”. Both are based around the same tiny snatch of one of the very first big house tunes at The Garage: Marshall Jefferson’s “The House Music Anthem”, also known as “Move Your Body”. On “Party People”, this annoyed me; I just wanted the original riff to continue in full. But on the more forceful “Can You Party”, the elements snap into place.

This time around, there are more vocal samples. Some of them are already well-worn; Todd Terry is a bit of a hack in some respects, but he’s having his moment, and the tracks work on the floor. So, there’s Malcolm X (“too black… too strong”), and there’s another slice of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice…

…and there it is again, already familiar to my dancers thanks to The Original Concept, Simon Harris and Bomb The Bass, but did anyone else recognise it from that seven year-old live album?

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

From timorous closet case, wrestling with internalised homophobia, to co-founder of what we were almost certain was the first mixed alternative gay night outside London, Terry’s Jacksons sample bookended my journey.

Randomising the record collection #15: Prince – Lovesexy

#2900 – Prince – Lovesexy
(CD, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

15 prince lovesexy

For the second time in three days, my randomiser has given me Prince – and also for the second time in three days, it has given me an officially documented (oh yes!) year-end favourite. There’s the confirmation, in the Filofax in the breakfast room dresser: Lovesexy topped my Best of 1988 list, beating off competition from Tracy Chapman, Pet Shop Boys, Michelle Shocked and Trio Bulgarka.

I’ve sometimes wondered about that choice. Didn’t I love Parade and Sign Of The Times more? Was Lovesexy really their equal, or was I just surfing the back end of my Prince-can-do-no-wrong fanboy wave, before Graffiti Bridge sent me crashing into the rocks? Or perhaps I had been overly influenced by the glories of the Lovesexy tour, which I caught twice – most memorably at Wembley Arena, still one of the greatest shows I have ever witnessed.

This morning, played on the CD bought many years later rather than the LP bought at the time, it sounded utterly magnificent, my top pick of the random choices to date. I was expecting at least a few fillers; not so. It peaked early with “Alphabet St.”, the best Prince party jam of all, and then peaked again with the sublime “Anna Stesia” (at the end of the LP’s first side) and the ridiculously infectious “Dance On” (at the start of Side Two).

On “Dance On”, the drumming alone floored me. I checked to see who was playing. Sheila E, surely? Like almost everything else on the record (apart from the opener “Eye No”, a full band piece), it was the man himself. Writing about Lovesexy on Then Play Long, which discusses every UK Number One album from July 1956 to April 1990, my longtime blogging compatriot Marcello Carlin suggests that its “skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm […] must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass“. I am minded to agree.

Unlike yesterday’s Odelay, whose inventiveness rarely seemed to serve a purpose much beyond demonstrating the artist’s cleverness, the inventiveness of Lovesexy – and oh, there are so many fresh ideas on display here – is always pressed into serving the song, heightening the emotions and quickening the pulse.

Yes, there’s rather a lot of God here – people have called it Prince’s gospel album – but even though I don’t really do God, I can’t help being struck by the passion that is being expressed. This is his truth, and he has chosen the height of his fame to deliver it. It cost him sales – well, that and the lack of potential hit singles, and that cover art – but perhaps staying at Number One wasn’t his goal anymore. (Although in fact, Lovesexy became his first chart-topping album in the UK.)

I was expecting to be slightly underwhelmed, and instead I got to enjoy 45 minutes of brilliance. A morning well spent, then.

Randomising the record collection #14: Beck – Odelay

#1909 – Beck – Odelay
(CD, 1996) (Discogs tracklisting)

14 beck odelay

People of my age will have become familiar with the standard cycle of retro-ism: the music of ten years ago seems stale, the music of twenty years ago feels cool, the music of thirty or more years ago has become classic. In particular, the “two decades old = cool” aesthetic has long made itself apparent in the pop music of two decades later. Thus there were Fifties influences running through Seventies pop, from T. Rex to Darts. There were Sixties influences running through Eighties pop, from the mod revival to Marc Almond & Gene Pitney. There were Seventies influences running through Nineties pop, from Erasure’s ABBA EP to French filter house. And there were Eighties influences running through Noughties pop, from electroclash to La Roux.

But here’s the thing: I’m not seeing a repetition of this cycle in the current decade. Sure, there’s dash of Eurodance here and a sprinkling of shoegaze there, but the whole notion of Nineties Cool hasn’t really taken root. (Or maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch. But I think not, eh readers?)

All of which is by way of a long preamble (yep, stalling for time again!) to Odelay: a record from exactly twenty years ago, which still feels as stale to me now as it would have done in 2006. At the time, its magpie approach to genre-plundering, while not exactly new (hello Coldcut!), did still sound ground-breaking. By playfully splicing previously disconnected styles of music together – from hip hop to garage rock via blues, soul, country, grunge and lounge – he created something that sounded absolutely like Now, just as Prince did ten years before with yesterday’s “Kiss”. But that was then, and this is now, and Beck’s Now still feels stuck in Then. Are you still following this?

So I listen to Odelay, and I catch myself thinking: this is what a Silicon Valley startup millionaire would play in the car, to remind himself of when he first felt “edgy”. And I think that’s because the passing of time has somehow neutered the record’s original boldness. Sure, this often happens, but it has happened to Beck in a more specific way – because after two intervening decades in which tribal genre barriers have collapsed, we now live in a world where anything can be spliced (or at least playlisted) with anything, quite free of friction. This has robbed Odelay of its capacity to startle. And once that’s gone, what do we have left? A whimsical collection of mildly surreal ditties about nothing much, that’s what.

To be fair to Beck, he addressed this lack-of-substance problem in subsequent releases, accruing the sort of songwriting gravitas that eventually led him to Morning Phase, 2014’s critically acclaimed comeback.  Morning Phase wasn’t for me, though – and to be fair to Odelay, there are still plenty of pleasurable moments along the way: a deftly dropped sample, a cute tune, a groove that gels.

Perhaps it needs longer to hibernate. Perhaps “Odelay-esque” is still a journalistic cliché waiting to happen. Perhaps.