Friday, April 18, 2014

The Case For: Phil Collins

Phil Collins: In The Air Tonight

If Phil Collins had disappeared from the face of the earth at the end of 1981, this article would probably not be necessary. He would likely be remembered as a fine drummer who ably backed Peter Gabriel in Genesis, did a nice job succeeding Gabriel as a singer for a few solid albums, was an in-demand drummer for solo albums by other prog rockers, moonlighted in the fusion group Brand X and put out an excellent solo album, featuring one truly memorable track, featured above.

But Phil didn’t disappear, and after 1981, critical opinion of most of his work began to plummet in inverse proportion to his earnings, until he became sort of a punch line. And while it is hard to defend some of his more saccharine later efforts, on the whole, his entire body of work includes enough high points—including some after 1981—to support a claim for respect, not derision.

Collins joined Genesis in 1970, after the band had gone through a number of drummers. Unlike the other members of the band, who were from upper class families, Collins was a middle class kid, who had been a child actor and model (and an extra in A Hard Day’s Night.) After his first real band, Flaming Youth (in which he drummed, sang and played keyboards) broke up, Collins answered an ad, auditioned and joined Genesis, stabilizing the position as the band gained popularity. He quickly proved to be an excellent prog rock drummer, adept in both harder rocking styles and more atmospheric sounds, and able to handle unusual time signatures and patterns. I’ve previously written about “Supper’s Ready,” and you can go back and listen to it for Collins’ inventive drumming. Here’s a later song from the Gabriel era, “Cinema Show” that showcases his drumming (even if it is not quite as good as the Bill Bruford/Collins version from the Second’s Out album).

When Gabriel left, the band reportedly auditioned more than 400 wannabes before settling on Collins, and he proved to be a more than adequate replacement. Lacking Gabriel’s quirks and quirkiness, the Collins-fronted version of Genesis gradually simplified and poppified its sound until it reached massive popularity. Collins, however, was not the only one to “blame” for this change—his fellow band members, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks also wrote the songs, and were completely on board with the turn toward the mainstream. It would not have been possible, though, without Collins’ pleasant vocals, but he didn’t stop being a top drummer. Here’s a post-Gabriel Genesis song that again features Collins’ superb drumming.

At the same time, Collins played (and occasionally sang) with the jazz-rock group Brand X, in which he displayed a slightly different side to his drumming. Here’s a clip of a bearded and hairy Collins being interviewed on English television in 1979 before joining Brand X for a live performance.

Collins also provided drums (and vocals) on Steve Hackett’s first solo album, played on former Yes guitarist Peter Banksearly solo works, contributed drum parts to tracks on Brian Eno’s albums, including “Sky Saw” from the classic Another Green World, and played on Robert Fripp’s Exposure.

Then came the 1980s. Asked by Gabriel to play on his third (and arguably best) solo album (often referred to as Melt), Collins, abetted by producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham, used a booming drum effect, called the “gated drum” sound, which they may or may not have invented, on the song “Intruder.” It proved to be one of the defining sounds of 1980s rock. When Collins decided to record his first solo album, Face Value, he brought in Padgham as co-producer, and the gated drum sound was used to great effect in, particularly, “In the Air Tonight,” which still holds up as a great song. The rest of Face Value is also pretty good and quirky, and Collins makes good use of a horn section and some old school R&B arrangements.

Face Value was a critical and commercial success. Later in 1981, Genesis released probably its last good album, Abacab, which used both the gated drum sound and horns. And while there were the occasional good songs on later Genesis albums, and Collins solo albums, at this point, the dross began to outweigh the quality. Collins’ involvement with Brand X also ended at about this time, and, for all intents and purposes, Collins became a smooth pop musician, with most of the rough and interesting edges gone.

In an article in the New Musical Express a few years ago, prompted by Collins’ (now-rescinded) announcement of his retirement from music, titled “Is it Time We All Stopped Hating Phil Collins?” Tim Chester noted that while Collins is “responsible for some of the cheesiest music ever committed to acetate,” this "obscures some of his most genius contributions to music.”

So, go listen to the pre-1981 Collins (and the occasional bit of latter-day quality), and enjoy some excellent, interesting drumming, fine singing, and pretty good songwriting. And let the haters hate.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Buy! Anything. Other retailers are available

Accusations of April foolery around my last piece, within which I feinted off Chris de Burgh with damp praise. Heaven forfend! As if etc etc. By way of recompense let me now big up some true favourites of mine, the mighty Chumbawamba. Known best, clearly, for this , it is by no means the peak of their pedestal, although its classic quiet bit/shouty bit/chorus was always a recurrent theme in their repertoire, as this , from a decade before, demonstrates. This latter song had been  part of the first time, of many, that I saw them, at the first Guildford festival, and I was converted in an instant of the trumpet's first parp, as much by the lively performance art of the show, as for the beats, choral harmonies and general who gives a demonstrated by all 8 of them.

They actually started life as the disparate inhabitants of a squat in the northen british city of Leeds. Ironically, despite or because of their strong political stance, they were from the start labelled as anarcho-punks. By the 1990s they had gouged out sufficient instrumental proficiency, which together with the absorbtion of techno and rave culture, gave then an unusual status, with glorious pop melodies hand by jowl with unisonic chanting,  programming and some of the sweetest female singing outside a chamber choir. Add a who cares and liberal attitude to the use of sampling, and short snappy slogans, culled from and with diverse soundbites, used as quirky between song fodder, and you had their template. Their early recording history was scattered between various tiny indie labels, with cassette only product and records hastily withdrawn, for breach of copyright. 1994's Anarchy, with it's scarcely inviting cover of close up childbirth, was possibly the first breakthrough of sorts, and the first I bought, immediately after the show described earlier.

Time for another song, a 2nd one from Anarchy, being Homophobia, a strident condemnation of same. As well as the studio version, there was also a slightly different live version. See which you prefer.

Fast forward to 1997 and the Chumbas did the hitherto unthinkable and signed to a major label, EMI, taking no small amount of stick for this, perhaps having the last laugh as "Tubthumping became a massive world wide one hit wonder, with much of the profit being syphoned back to the agit-prop causes they had always supported. They had not finished, either, with controversy, with their infamous drenching of then british prime minister Tony Blairs deputy at a music awards jamboree, and suggesting their american fans could shoplift the LP if they couldn't afford it. 2 or 3 broadly similar LPs then appeared, with a gradual change becoming noticeable, and a conscious shift towards including traditional english folk motifs. Indeed, 2002s Readymades included songs built around the sampled voices of Dick Gaughan and Kate Rusby, amongst others, and archived material. See if you recognise where the guitar is lifted from.

In 2005 the band all but seemed to break up, or to, at least, stop, but within only a matter of months a small hardcore of the band was again heavily touring, this time as an all acoustic quartet, plus various others. For me this became my favourite incarnation, the old songs sitting perfectly in a now overtly folk setting, with folk clubs and folk festivals being their main stages. New songs aplenty poured forth also, taking full advantage of the consummate harmony vocals of their heavenly chorale, at odds, often with harsh lyrical barbs. My example here, maybe unwisely, is a cover  Nonetheless, I'm hoping you will go seek out more, from my whirlwind taster. My recommendations would probably be WYSIWIG, from 2000, and A Singsong and a Scrap, from 5 years later. I would also direct you to an excellent (auto) bigraphical book,  Footnote* by the everpresent Boff Whalley, guitar and choirboy vocals.

The acoustic band called it a day in 2102, closing down with this statement:
                             "We do, of course, reserve the right to re-emerge as Chumbawamba doing                                               something else entirely (certainly not touring and putting out albums every 2 or 3                                     years). But frankly, that’s not very likely. Thirty years of being snotty, eclectic, funny,                               contrary and just plain weird. What a privilege, and what a good time we’ve had."

I for one look forward to that day, in the interim having to make do with this , paid for years in advance, in a duly delivered promise to release on the death of it's subject matter, Margaret Thatcher. Probably fair to say they hadn't been big fans...........

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Case For: Zappa


Zappa Play Zappa: Peaches En Regalia
[purchase FZ version]

I must have been introduced to Frank Zappa in the early 70s. Although I don’t recall my initiation rites, I know for a fact that I was well-versed by the time <Overnight Sensation> came out: if hard pressed, I could probably sing along to the entire album – 40 years later.
Sadly for those of us who revered him and his music, Frank Zappa died a somewhat early death in 1993 (couldn’t be that long ago!)
Dweezil Zappa, you must know, is Frank Zappa’s older son. He is the man behind the band called “Zappa Plays Zappa”, a touring group that aims to bring his father’s music to a younger audience. In addition to organizing the band, Dweezil (not his original/legal/birth name, but now his legal name) plays the guitar. He has also had a hand in composing original music, though so far he has been nowhere near a prolific as his father.
As a long-time Zappa fan, I applaud efforts to keep Frank Zappa’s music alive & relevant.  I count him among the pre-eminent musicians of the Rock era: pushing the limits in terms of musical structure; certainly pushing the limits of lyrical contortion. He was among the first to break out of the standard “guitars and drums” format that was defining popular music by the mid-70s. Check it out:

She had that
Camarillo brillo
Flamin' out along her head,
I mean her Mendocino bean-o
By where some bugs had made it red

She ruled the Toads
of the Short Forest
And every newt in Idaho
And every cricket who had chorused
By the bush in Buffalo

Beyond his musical skills, Frank Zappa stood behind his beliefs: he was a frequent commentator about his political views – and, in retrospective, not far off the mark. A snippet from his testimony against parental controls to music content/lyrics in front of the US senate  (and Al Gore) back in 1985:
    He said: The major record labels need to have H.R. 2911 whiz through a few committees before anybody smells a rat. One of them is chaired by Senator Thurmond. Is it a coincidence that Mrs. Thurmond is affiliated with the PMRC?  
I hereby make the case that his legacy is worthy of preservation, and who better to do so than his son?
For your listening pleasure, one of my favorite FZ tunes, performed by his son:

The Case for : The Guess Who of the 1970's

From 1965 to 1970, from "Shakin' All Over" (#22, 1965) to "American Woman" (#1, 1970) , The Guess Who were Canada's top singles band, thanks to founding guitarist Randy Bachman and lead vocalist Burton Cummings. 1969 was an especially big year for the band with "These Eyes" ( US #6), "Laughing ( US #10) and "Undun"( US #22). Then, at the height of the band's success,  Bachman, a recently converted Mormon, bailed on the Guess Who.

  The Guess Who had two more big hits ,"Share the Land" (#10, 1970) and "Hand Me Down World" (#17, 1970). Then in 1971 they released The Best of the Guess Who ( containing a far out black light poster of the group!) and that's probably where most people stopped listening. It's definitely where most of the critics stopped paying attention.

     Huge mistake.

     Next to The Beach Boys output of the same period, no band deserves to have its albums re-appraised more than the Burton Cummings led Guess Who of the early 70's.

    Consider "Albert Flasher", the single from So Long, Bannatyne , an album full of infectious tunes that made one Rolling Stone critic cite The Beatles Rubber Soul in a search of comparisons.

Next came one of the greatest live albums of all time, Live at the Paramount. This is the one that had  Lester Bangs declare "The Guess Who is God!"

 In his review, Bangs continues :

I saw the Guess Who do this version of “American Woman” live a year ago, and I have never been more offended by a concert. Just as he does on the record, Burton Cummings indulged himself in a long, extremely cranky rumination on Yankee Yin, in a sort of fallen-out Beat poetic style:

 American bitch 
American cunt 
 American slut
 American lesbian 
American schoolgirl 
 American housewife
 American beaver etc., etc., etc.


 Wouldn’t you be offended by this Canuck creep coming down here taking all our money while running down our women? Sure you would! Until you realized, as I did, eventually, that that kind of stuff is exactly what makes the Guess Who great. They have absolutely no taste at all, they don’t even mind embarrassing everybody in the audience, they’re real punks without even working too hard at it.

At this point The Guess Who begin going through "revolving door syndrome" with Cummings the only constant. But he's on a roll.

    For the follow-up , #10, he delivers "Glamour Boy", a tribute to the cross dressing antics of Bowie and Bolan ( "For $37,000 you can look like your sister tonight...). The band could still fill an auditorium but the album stalled at #155 in the charts

   There would be one more hit before the assembly line of writing, recording and the road got to be too much for Cummings: the Top 10 1974 novelty tune "Clap for the Wolfman" from Road Food. There's a lot of good songs on this album including the catchy "Pleasin For a Reason" and the first single, a power pop number called "Star Baby".  It didn't matter. Guess Who fans were rushing out to buy the latest offerings from Bachman Turner Overdrive instead.

   In 1975 Burton Cummings went solo and the group disbanded. But not before releasing a batch of Guess Who albums that deserve to be heard. Especially by fans of classic, catchy pop music and lyricists strange enough to write lines like "Well, have you ever seen a Madras monkey?/Have you seen an Orlon eel?"

Well, have you?

By the way Burton Cumming has been especially busy on Facebook these days, sharing tons of memories and pictures

Sunday, April 13, 2014


OK, bit of a high hurdle here. Who, many be be asking, necessitating in me biting down hard on my tongue, hissing out, you know, that Lady in Red song, between blood and teeth. I gather it got to number 3 in the US, as well as having a ghastly and lingering saccharine permanence in the UK. Anyhow, put that thought from your mind, if you can, and the tale of it being the song he sang to his daughters nanny. Before bedding her. Or something like that. I may have muddled some aspects of the detail, but he has developed a somewhat odious reputation on this side of the ocean. Apart from his legion of fans, to whom he is a straighter Barry Manilow. (I have to be very careful here, with Wiki telling me Mr DeB is a prodigious litigator against perceived slights.)

A Spaceman Came Travelling

Buy it!

This refers to a much more innocent time, when, newly married, I was compiling the first of many subsequent tapes, made to celebrate our first Christmas together. I was also a member of my local public library, which had the novelty of a record (that's vinyl!) section, the last centurys version of illegal downloading, and came across a Chris de Burgh compilation, from which I purloined my titular song*. And I won't hear a thing against it. I still think it stands up, both as a song and as part of the ""Was-God-an-Astronaut" school of divinity. The fact I was a hefty fan of Erich von Daniken in my teens may explain this lapse from likelihood.
So what of his later stuff? Largely unlistenable tosh, but I dare say other opinions are available.
*For the reassurances of this readership, not to say Mr DeB, for fear of seeming to promote such lawlessness, please be encouraged that I have now downloaded this song from the source quoted. Or have every good intention to.