Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Margin Gaye bargain from the early days of CD

File under: Before the record companies knew how to market their back catalogue in CD format.

Again, no idea how much this one is worth, but what a twofer? Arguably Marvin Gaye's finest albums on one CD!

Bought in the mid/late 80s for £5, this is a classic example of the early days of CD, when there really wasn't much choice in terms of available back catalogue to buy. The record companies were trying to figure out this new format and were unsure whether people would go out and buy music on CD they already owned on vinyl. So the back catalogue stuff was chucked out at discount prices and in packages like this.

Soon enough, they realised people were embracing CD as a format; packages like this one were swiftly withdrawn and the individual albums were marked up to £15.

Rediscovering old CDs - RCA's Bowie releases

Due to a change of living arrangements (working in Hong Kong for an extended period) I am revisiting my CD collection. Have to say these old David Bowie CDs sound much better than I thought they would.
Probably the only CDs I have of any monetary value are the five Bowie albums from the batch released in the mid 1980s, and then withdrawn by RCA after they lost the rights to the Bowie catalogue. I haven't played them for years, preferring the vinyl experience. Well I've just played the Ziggy CD and blow me, it sounds great!

That got me thinking: I wonder if their stock has risen, or whether they are just worthless bits of plastic, like most CDs. So I searched online and discovered there is no end of discussion on the relative merits of the German and Japanese RCA Bowies (Nerd fact: mine are the German versions ). Also, it turns out the RCAs have stood the test of time because subsequent versions have messed with the formula. As one reviewer on Amazon commented, "the original RCA Bowie CDs from the 1980s were lambasted at the time as subpar, but actually did a pretty good job of staying faithful to the sound of the original LPs. They have held up very well in light of the reissues that followed: the anemic and overly bright Ryko reissues of the late `80s and the bloated, heavily compressed Virgin/EMI remasters of the late `90s, which remain the standard versions available today. However, it was the 30th Anniversary edition of Ziggy Stardust that represented the nadir of all Bowie remasters: it sounded worse than even the '90s EMI remaster; worse yet, it actually removed portions of the music and reversed the stereo channels." Bowie himelf is on record as having said the recent CD remaster sounded 'weedy'.

OK, so while that makes the case for the original vinyl even stronger, it should at least make these RCA CDs more collectible.  From a quick scan of various blogs and online resellers, it appears each of the CDs is worth at least $100 (US) and perhaps more given they are in good condition.

But hey, it's not about the money! What pleases me the most is they actually sound really good. So until I can get back to using my record deck, it's time to rediscover the joys of CD.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Vegetable Man - Syd Barrett's last Floyd recordings

(NOTE: Since I wrote this, it has been announced that a new boxed set of early Floyd material is being made available, including Vegetable Man and Scream Thy Last Scream. All you need is a spare $550!)


In this age when any well-known artist's every last demo and throw-away has been dredged up for fans to pore over, it remains astonishing to me that there was never an official release, even as bonus tracks, of Syd Barrett's last recordings as the leader of Pink Floyd.

Many Floyd fans may have heard the names of the songs - 'Scream Thy Last Scream' and 'Vegetable Man'. Few will ever have heard them. Every attempt to load them on youtube over the years has resulted in the posts having their audio removed by the copyright holder. What the f...? After all this time, if you are not going to release them, why not let those fans who might be interested have a listen?

Well now you can. Try this:

OK, they are raw and somewhat unhinged, but so is 'I Am The Walrus'. Nonetheless they are an important part of the Pink Floyd story, because it was Syd's inability to play the pop music game that hastened his departure from the group, just as much as the acid psychosis. He was the leader of the band, the principal songwriter and they wanted to have more of the magic he had produced on their debut album The Piper At The Gates of Dawn.

The story goes that the band and management put a lot of pressure on Syd to come up with more 'hits' after the success of See Emily Play in 1967.  But Syd had a singular artistic vision and understandably rebelled against the idea of being a pop star turning out three minute singles. Even without the drugs, his was an idiosyncratic vision; songs formed out of nursery rhyme lyrics, the 'psychedelic' sounds of the time, odd noises, studio trickery and added bars where the lyrics didn't scan properly. But it worked, on that first album at least, because the band believed in Syd and forced the studio engineers and producer Norman Smith to deliver on his vision.

But his erratic behaviour became intolerable for the rest of the Floyd (refusing to move his mouth when they were taping a TV show) and when the record company declined to release Vegetable Man and Scream Thy Last Scream, it must have been clear to the band they could not carry on as they were, which is why they brought Dave Gilmour into the fold. They claim they didn't actually fire Syd and bringing Gilmour in wasn't an attempt to force him out. They just decided not to pick him up on the way to a gig one day, and that was the end of it.

And they moved on, so it's understandable that the other members of Pink Floyd did not want to see these songs released. They are a document of one very talented man's descent into madness - as Dave Gilmour said "never to return".

But if it's acceptable to dredge up those last desperate recordings of Nick Drake, to reveal the dark despair of a song like Black-Eyed Dog, then I think it's equally valid for the world to hear Syd's last recordings with the Floyd, tracks that reveal not just his mental state but the culmination of a musical journey.

And for me anyway, there's an artistic statement being made here, however perverse. The band must have been in on it too, because both these tracks are essentially finished items. Acetates were made, ready for the single's release. There's no mistaking the psychotic whimsy at work on Scream Thy Last Scream - it's the work of a demented genius; completely uncommercial and, obviously for those close to Syd, too raw to be released, ever.

That's the strangest thing for me. After all this time, when compilation after compilation was released (Relics, A Nice Pair, etc, right up to the Echoes best of CD) the release of these tracks was never considered. No history of Pink Floyd will be complete until they are given a proper official airing. So until such time as I can work out a way of embedding the videos, here they are as mp3 download links. Enjoy. And RIP Roger 'Syd' Barrett, you crazy diamond.

Vegetable Man:

Scream Thy Last Scream:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

At home with the Lennons, 1967

Another picture of domesticity, but one that was to come to an end soon afterwards. It is the Spring of 1967 and John Lennon is putting his feet up at the family home he shared with first wife Cynthia and their son Julian in Weybridge, Surrey.  Surrounded by the traditional framed pictures and ornaments are the tell-tale signs of someone who has turned on to a new way of life, but has not quite let go of the old one. He's reading a copy of the counter-culture newspaper International Times and the cabinets are festooned with promotional stickers for Captain Beefheart's new album.
John's mind was clearly miles away from here. But while Paul McCartney was living in the heart of London, close to Abbey Road studios, John was cut off from all that and was going through what Cynthia described as his 'neurotic phase'. She said, "He didn't know where his life was going and he was fed up with being a Beatle. He'd spend a lot of his time in bed with a notepad. When he woke up he'd write a few words down and then maybe go over to the piano. He was basically dropping out. Everything he was doing outside the home was pretty high-powered."
As Derek Taylor attested, John also seemed to spend a lot of time taking acid, even once remarking one morning, as he was driving Taylor in his psychedelic Rolls Royce, that he had it for breakfast. 1967 marked a real turning point for The Beatles. Having unveiled their crowning achievement as a band, Sgt Pepper, in June, they had shed the final layers of their moptop image and were in full experimental mode musically. Though they were forced to keep the whole Beatle gravy train on the rails, they had become disillusioned with it all. They had stopped touring, so it was only in the studio where they were still in any sense a band. As it was, they "battled on against overwhelming oddities" through 1967 and 68 with Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. John's pursuit of something to make sense of his life brought about his fateful meeting with Yoko, the encounter that would lead him to, as he said, "break up a happily married state of boredom". In the meantime, the Beatles sought spiritual enlightenment from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
with son Julian, 1967
As Philip Norman writes in his biography of Lennon: "All four Beatles, kaftaned and beaded, sat at the yogi's feet to listen to his Buddhist wisdom. This was mysticism in an easily digested, tabloid form, instantly appealing to young earthly gods for whom real self-denial was unthinkable. His route to spiritual regeneration involved no special training, no memorising of complex prayers or incantations, and next to no personal inconvenience. It was bliss without the effort. "John wanted to take Yoko, but since the pilgrimage included wives, he had no choice but to take Cynthia. They stayed in a village on the banks of the River Ganges (Rishikesh) looking towards the snow-flecked Himalayas, though their living conditions were far from spartan. Their bungalows had hot water and western plumbing, and a handful of two-rupee notes bought extra home comforts, from chocolate bars to booze and hash. For all the Beatles, it was an enforced slowdown from the lunatic pace that had not let up for seven years, since they left Liverpool for Hamburg and their careers suddenly took off. Day after day, there was nothing to do but sit and think.
"John seemed happy, strumming guitars with Paul and George in the balmy sunshine and even holding hands with Cynthia. She was convinced their difficult marriage was entering a new phase of companionship and mutual tolerance. What she didn't know was that John was all the time receiving postcards from Yoko, which his minders had strict orders to forward to him in plain brown envelopes so she would suspect nothing. Often they consisted of a single thought, in Yoko's tiny, arty script: 'Watch for me - I'm a cloud in the sky.'"

Laserium - the Planetarium for stoners

In a galaxy far, far away, there existed a time when UK rock music fans could treat themselves to an evening at The London Planetarium for what was described as 'The new cosmic laser rock concert'. It was a fairly simple concept - take a bunch of rock and classical tracks and set them to entertaining laser visuals. Sit everyone down in a darkened room and project the images on the Planetarium dome. It was, of course, tailor-made for anyone who happened to have smoked a jazz woodbine or two before the show. The music, a mix of American rock (Joe Walsh, the Doobie Brothers), popular classical music (The Planets, the Blue Danube) and generous helpings of prog rock (Yes, ELP, Utopia, Genesis). I went to the London show on two or three occasions in the late 70s and also went to a one in New York around the same time (which I seem to recall was called the 'Eye See The Light Show'). The Laserium idea was actually developed in 1973 by an American filmmaker, Ivan Dryer. The Laserium shows  played in 46 cities worldwide and were viewed by over 20 million people. The Los Angeles show continued until 2002, a run of 28 years. It was great fun and a real treat to hear the music played through a good sound system too.

I have managed to find some footage from the original shows, including this one, the pening number of the 'Laserock' show, Automation Horroscope, by Nektar

Although the original shows at the London Planetarium only lasted for a while, from about 1977, the Laserium franchise is still going, though they tend to held in larger theatres nowadays in special events. Here's some vintage footage of those early Laserium shows and how they were put together.

And here is a radio advert for the London Planetarium show:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

At home with the Bolans, 1971

For a time in 1971 and 1972, before he was overshadowed by Bowie and the other Glam Rock bandwagon jumpers, Marc Bolan was unquestionably Britain's biggest pop star. In my archive I found these black and white photos which capture Bolan and his T. Rex band mates Mickey Finn, Steve Currie and Bill Legend as they are about to release the album Electric Warrior.
The photos were taken by Kieron "Spud" Murphy, who was also responsible for the original photo used as the image for the cover of Electric Warrior. The original photo, taken at Albert Hall, Nottingham on 14 May 1971, can be seen on the wall behind Bolan in the band photo. These interior photos and the colour photo here were all taken at the flat in Clarendon Gardens, Maida Vale, London, where Marc lived with his wife June Child. The band photo with Marc in the foreground was available as a poster with the album and has since been used as a gatefold sleeve and on the cover of a T. Rex greatest hits album.
Following on from the success of Hot Love, the Electric Warrior album contained the hits Get It On and Jeepster, which cemented Bolan's new rock style and created the greatest teen music craze since Beatlemania. But not everyone was taken in by Bolan's new direction. John Peel said his friendship with Marc and June effectively ended because Peel refused to play the new T. Rex single when it arrived at Radio One. He didn't specify which single it was, but having been such a fan of Tyrannosaurus Rex, he had to ask himself whether he would have played the record if he and Marc were not friends. He concluded that he wouldn't have.
It may seem strange, given that those early T. Rex songs were pretty good, that Peel would take that stance. But he obviously felt that Bolan had sold his soul to the screaming hordes. Whatever the merits of Marc's new direction, it was a hugely successful one and in 1972 the run of hits continued with Telegram Sam, Metal Guru, Children of the Revolution, Solid Gold Easy Action and 20th Century Boy. That he wasn't able to sustain it shouldn't detract from the sheer quality of his output in 1971 and 72. It's a wonderful legacy.  But as the photographer in the colour shot here (who is not credited so I can't name him/her) says, Marc was extremely vain and convinced of his own genius. Combine that with copious amounts of cocaine and it's not hard to see why he was destined for a short time at the top.

Here is a live studio version of Jeepster which I think captures the excitement of the T. Rex sound at the time. There's some contemporary footage included at the end of the video too.

and here's a version of Life's A Gas from the Electric Warrior album

and while we're celebrating this music, let's have some more. Probably my favourite of the 1972 singles. And Mickey Finn is a riot on this.

Here's an article from the Daily Telegraph that summarises Marc's life and career, warts and all:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

1971 - Led Zeppelin 'go soft'

With all the publicity and comment about the latest remastering by Jimmy Page of the first three Led Zeppelin albums, it’s as well to remember that in 1970/71, their new folkier direction didn’t go down well with many of their fans.

The faintly exotic and more reflective material on Led Zeppelin III has actually stood the test of time very well. It was the jumping off point for the various musical explorations that peaked with Physical Graffiti. Tracks from LZ III like 'Friends' and 'Gallows Pole' formed the core of the Page and Plant Unplugged release in the 1990s and those same tracks are still featured in Robert Plant’s solo concerts. 

But at the time, many fans felt let down that Led Zep III didn’t contain another Whole Lotta Love or Heartbreaker. The new material to be released on Led Zeppelin IV, and being aired on BBC sessions in April 1971, suggested there would be no return to the lemon-squeezing days of yore. A letter to the Melody Maker in May 1971, under the headline ‘Don’t go soft Zeppelin!’ sums up the mood:

“Zep sound great on Whole Lotta Love and their many earlier songs, but please leave the gentle songs to people like The Strawbs, who have grown up with their music and can do it justice. It’s obvious from Zeppelin’s performance on the radio last week, that they just don’t make it without the volume.”

The session to which J. Miller from Chester was referring contains this lovely coupling of Going To Cailfornia and That's The Way. Judge for yourself whether Led Zeppelin were out of their depth.

Other letters in this week’s mail bag included a fan of King Crimson suggesting since their reformation (after the break up of the Court of the Crimson King band)  “there seems to be no hope for any other group”.  No other musicians could compare, apparently. Robert Fripp would probably have agreed. 

And Roger B Bartley of London E12 describes Stevie Wonder as an “abominable popcorn merchant”. Wow, so he’s just produced Music of My Mind and was about to release Talking Book,  Innervisions and Fullfillingness’ First Finale. Mr Bartley, you jest.