Monday, 30 December 2013
"Don't be surprised by the way I am, the way I think and act, there's too many rules, I really can't choose, I can't let these chains hold me back" "So what you're saying doesn't matter to me, I'm making my plans all alone" "Broken dreams and promises giving you the runaround, they tie you up they tie you down, your life is built on shaky ground" "You're getting tired of standing still, ambitions that you must fill, I know it's hard but I'll be here to help you reach, you've gotr the will, you've got every reason for being here" "No sense in dragging on past our needs, let's not keep hanging on, if the fire's out we should both be gone, some people are made for each other, some people can love another for life, what about us?" "Give me one good reason why you say goodnight and mean goodbye"
Lulu "Independence" (1993)
Independence/There Has Got To Be A Way/Restless Moods/I'm Back For More/Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms//How 'Bout Us?/Until I Get Over You/You Left Me Lonely/Rhythm Of Romance/I'm Walking Away/A Place To Fall
I can't tell you how much it warms the heart to see one of my beloved AAA artists doing really well after a spell away from the charts for far too many years. Shockingly it had been eleven years since the last time Lulu released an album of all-new material - and it will be eleven years before she releases another one (2004's 'Back On Track') - so the very fact that 'Independence' exists was enough cause for celebration at the time. Lulu may have looked and sounded as if she's never been away, but after a series of flop albums in the 1980s (as hard a decade for Lulu as most of our other AAA bands, strange after an actually pretty good 1970s the few times Lulu was 'allowed' to make records) the only recordings she made in the seven years between 1986 and 1993 were covers of 'My Boy Lollipop' and, err, 'Nellie The Elephant', which will give you some idea of how most record companies saw her back then, literally as another 'Millie' who never grew up. No record label had wanted to touch the singer, with even her big champion of the 1970s David Bowie deemed as past it by the 1990s (his revitalisation won't happen will the 21st century). Despite a pretty good 1970s
The only reason this album exists is because of the gamble Tina Turner took recording Lulu's greatest song in twenty-five years 'I Don't Want To Fight No More' - amazingly Lulu's debut as a songwriter (in collaboration with her talented brother Billy) at the age of 42. Turner didn't really know who Lulu was ('To Sir With Love' is the only real hit Lulu had ever had in America) and chose the song on merit, which was both a boost to Lulu's confidence and encouraged her to shop around for a 'full' album. Even with this 'hit', several record labels turned Lulu down - including several 'old friends' who simply refused to see her, which all but broke Lulu's heart according to her autobiography (also entitled 'I Don't Wanna Fight'). The only reason 'Independence' exists is because EMI subsidiary 'Dome' was looking for a 'maturer' artist who were easier to handle than the young things passing through the label's hands and the release of the song 'Independence' as a single was Lulu's most successful release in 17 years (it even made #1 on the dance charts, which might not sound that impressive now but this chart more than rock and pop was fiercely fought over back in the pre-Oasis days of the 1990s).
Between them 'I Don't Want To Fight No More' and 'Independence' set the tone for an album full of songs about breaking free, growing up and living alone (although frankly this would have been a better album had Lulu recorded the former song - sadly her version is quite a rarity now). Lulu had a bigger hand in choosing the songs for this album than she'd had since her Atco years in the early 70s (Mickie Most and David Bowie were such strong figures Lulu didn't really get much input) and they all reflect her state of mind at the time. Her much-publicised marriage to hairdresser John Freida had recently collapsed and - for the first time since she was 16 - Lulu was single and fighting for custody of her child Jordan (as 'Dome' were an English company, Lulu had been forced to leave her son with her dad in an American school - she describes this in her autobiography as being a cruel reminder of her own pop star beginnings, when as a 15 year old she's had to move to London and leave her mother in Glasgow for the sake of her career). Just as hard was the split between Lulu and her manager of twenty years Marion Massey, who'd effectively become Lulu's surrogate mother when she left home for London aged 15 and who'd stuck by her thick and thin (Lulu probably was right to leave though, however painful: Massey wanted to keep Lulu 15 years old and she'd have never made this album under her wing). Losing the three most important people in her life at once (obviously counting Jordan, who mainly stayed with his dad) must have been hell and clearly had a huge impact on this album. Despite having written 'I Don't Want To Fight No More', all of these songs come out fighting in one way or another, either reflecting on mistakes in the past or refusing to make the same mistakes in the future, songs that are lyrically deeper than most Lulu albums and almost all of which seem to 'belong' together in comparison to the 'collage of styles' approach of many Lulu albums. In many ways, it's 'Lulu's most 'independent' album, made at a time when people expected the least from her and let her get on with things, so it must have been glorious to see this album do so well in the charts (Lulu's most successful since 1967 in fact).
However, there are two frustrating things about this record that prevent it from being the masterpiece it might have been. Despite her new-found talents as a songwriter as erudite, open and honest as all the great names Lulu once envied, she only gets one co-credit on the whole of the album. Brother Billy, who'd stuck by her through thick and thin, doesn't even get that which seems ludicrous to me - surely the songwriting team had just proven themselves beyond all doubt with one of the biggest hits of the decade? Even if there were no readymade 'hits' at hand, surely the pair should at least have been encouraged to have a go at writing album tracks together? Thankfully follow-up album 'Back On Track' (2004) does the sensible thing and have the pair work together for half the album, although frustratingly again the pair's best song of the period ('Take Me Where The Poor Boys Dance') only appears on the album as a 'bonus' track in an inferior remix. And that's the other frustrating thing about this album: despite its success (the album just missed the top ten, but a peak of #11 was still extremely good for a small budget label and an artist who'd last scored a hit 17 years earlier) there will be no follow-up to this album for eleven years, by which time any interest in Lulu had long since died. It shouldn't have been like that: so much of Lulu's career seems to be one of missed opportunities and bad career decisions and the lack of a true follow-up to 'Independence' is one of the most frustrating of all.
After all, in 1993 (and indeed now) Lulu still has the looks, the talent, the character and most importantly the voice. She should be revered as the UK's greatest female singer (seeing as the Americans got lucky with the birthplace of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick) and this album should have been the start of the most successful period of her life.
Like many an album released in 1993 'Independence' is also a tad, well, 'noisy'. Just as the 1960s didn't really stylistically start till 1963 (and 'Please Please Me'), so the 1990s only really got going and found its own identity in 1994 (before you laugh the 2010s haven't got going yet in 2013, sounding just like the decade before). As a result 'Independence' sounds like all those other AAA productions from the 1980s/early 1990s we keep moaning about for tinny digital drum effects, keyboards that sound more dated than anything from the 1960s does to modern ears and a general sense that the band are playing in separate cities, never mind studios. Lulu is by far the most soulful thing on the record and it's a shame that the rather anonymous backing doesn't help her more on an album that's actually quite emotional and heartfelt. That said, for all the sterile recording and occasional songwriting anonymity Lulu herself is on terrific form across this record. There's no reason she made such a splash with the title track: every other person of Lulu's age (42) was still trying to sound young and 17 again (close competitor Cilla Black being a case in point), but Lulu is deeper and punchier than in the past. The last time we wrote about Lulu on this site was for 1968's 'Lulu's Album' when we praised half the album for having this sort of punch but also passed on our frustrations at how twee and girly the rest of the album often was. That isn't a problem here. Lulu is at her vocal best across this album, making the most of lesser material.
Apart from the title track there were two real talking points critics and fans made about this album. The first is the successful duet with Bobby Womack 'Back For More', which was successful enough to spawn a whole album of duets ('Together'), although in common with the speed of most decisions of Lulu's career it didn't come out for another nine years. Womack is best known to us AAA fans as the writer of Rolling Stones hit 'It's All Over Now' as well as several hits for himself in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Bobby may have had a completely different upbringing to Lulu (although there is a case to be made that his home-city of 'Cleveland' is the American equivalent of 'Glasgow') but the pair's careers were very similar. A child star who saw his life turned upside down when his first song became a hit in his teens, Bobby worked closely with his brother before watching his hits slowly dwindle and becoming 'stuck in the past' according to most record labels (a drug habit in the 1980s didn't help, about the only thing he didn't have in common with Lulu). By 1993 both were hungrier than ever to be in the music business and were in a similar position of needing a 'hit' to help them bounce back with. Lulu had always been a big admirer and their collaboration seems to have been a natural fit according to most reports, successful enough for Lulu to have tried the scheme again with another 11 singer-songwriters on 'Together' (of which only old friend Paul McCartney, appearing on a 'rap' version of 'Let 'Em In' of all things, is the only partnership as successful as this one). 'I'm Back For More' is, like all the album, depressingly poorly mixed, with an emphasis on what sounds like a chestful of percussion thrown on the floor for every second beat in the bar, but the interaction between Bobby and Lulu is priceless. A smaller hit than 'Independence' but still more successful than anything the pair had achieved solo throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it's one of Lulu's proudest achievements that she helped kick-start Womack's career again. Admittedly, like Lulu, this kick-start seems to have been much delayed (Womack won't release a full album after this until 2012's popular 'Bravest Man In The Universe'), but the decision to put these two similar stars together is a good one.
Similarly, Lulu was brave enough to approach her ex-husband Maurice Gibb and her ex-brothers-in-law Barry and Robin for help when it came to choosing the songs. Despite what the papers have always tried to say, Lulu and Maurice were always on friendly terms after they parted in 1973 and Maurice wrote songs for her right up until 1976 (and then only stopped because Lulu moved to America to be with John Frieda and David Bowie, for family and career reasons respectively). The Bee Gees hadn't been having a great period either in the late 1980s/early 1990s, their comeback hit 'You Win Again' in 1987 - like Lulu's 'Independence' - not really leading to a consistent run of releases for some time. 'Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms', which seems to be primarily a Barry Gibb effort despite the three-way writing credit (its interesting that he's the only Bee Gee pictured with Lulu on the back cover), isn't classic Bee Gees and doesn't bear comparison with anything on the Gibb brothers' next album 'Size Isn't Everything' (1994), arguably their best album since 'First' in 1967 however well their 'disco' albums might have done. What's interesting, though, is that this song is clearly addressing an 'old flame', pleading with an unknown 'them' to forget the years that have passed them by and the mistakes made. Admittedly this is not unusual a theme for songwriters - and The Bee Gees had sung about regrets and lost love more than most - but the brothers must have been aware that they were writing this song for one of their ex-es and how it would look. Maurice remained married to his second wife Yvonne (who he'd wed in 1975, the same year Lulu married John Freida), but their relationship had hit it's own problems as recently as 1991 when, in an alcoholic stupor, Maurice pulled a gun on his family (she rushed to Bary Gibb's house for moral support and Maurice bravely quit drinking after a long stay in rehab that was all over by 1993 when Lulu came calling). Long dismissed by critics and even the pair themselves as a 'mistake', the marriage between Maurice and Lulu may indeed have occurred when the pair were 'too young' (he was 20, she was 18), but underestimate it at your peril: the pair shared a close bond right up until Maurice's sad early death in 2003 and it too often gets 'overlooked' when people discuss either star. Lulu would only have been human if she spent this period wondering 'if only' after splitting up with John Freida, wondering if her life might have been better with Maurice after all (who had even turned his back on alcohol for good by 1993, one of the main reasons that had broken up their marriage in the first place).
With two big names 'back on board' for the album, in many ways it's a surprise that 'Independence' wasn't bigger. But then, this is an album about old friends getting back together who haven't had a single hit in five years between them, trying to give the music charts one last roll of the dice. Nobody expected the album to be a hit and at the time both Bobby Womack and the Bee Gees were old names too. So good on record label 'Dome' for allowing Lulu to go back to working with people she felt comfortable with, instead of coupling her with a hip-and-happening wannabe youngster who dictated how the album went from the start. That said, there are way too many names you won't recognise in the writing and production credits for this album for my liking, which seems to use a new producer for every song. That's never a good sign of a 'healthy' album and it may be that, expecting this album to be a flop, 'Independence' was recorded piecemeal with Lulu being passed around studios to anyone who had an interest in working with her rather than any great 'feel' for the direction of the album. What's puzzling, though, is that even with all these names involved it somehow all sounds the same (even the Bee Gees production).
'Independence', then, gets much right: Lulu finally gives up trying to hold on to her cute-15-year-old image and makes great use of her soulful, gorgeous voice that has more passion in one note than a whole chart full of boybands can manage. Working with two old friends is a great move, helping their careers as well as her own, and the simple fact that Lulu had the guts to stand up and make another album when nobody wanted to know should be applauded. She's rightly proud of the album and the success it was, despite having very little interest or support from anyone and it rightly launched her 'comeback' alongside singing Take That off the stage the following year with 'Relight My Fire' (where Lulu proves to have a stronger voice than all five members singing at once!) and her own artistic triumph with 'Take Me Where The Poor Boys Dance' later in the decade . For the sheer courage needed in taking hold of her career and giving herself another chance, instead of simply fading away like everyone expected to, 'Independence' is a success and a triumph of the highest order. Not all of the album lives up to the title track, however, and by her own admission Lulu was 'lost' during the making of this record at times, when technology had moved on so fast and progressively that she didn't have a clue what all her various producers were doing to her voice and backing tracks. Too much of this record plays 'safe', trying to make Lulu sound like every other hungry teenage wannabe out there, instead of working to her strengths and the fact that Lulu had just had two huge hits about growing older and being maturer. A whole album of songs like 'I Don't Wanna Fight' 'Independence' and 'Take Me Where The Poor Boys Dance' or simply an album full of songs penned with brother Billy would have transformed her career for good, instead of allowing 'Independence'; to simply be the latest upward swing in a rollercoaster of a career. At times 'Independence' is a tough album to listen to, with an awful contemporary surface sheen and a good half album of songs that are actually no better than the songs Lulu was given to work with in her troubled 1980s career. But at times - on the title track and the two 'collaborations' especially - this album shines with such a golden glow you can't help but applaud. And above even the worst songs on the album sit that wonderful voice, undimmed by the years. She 's still a real 'Lulu' on this album, even if she isn't a real 'Lulu of a kid' anymore.
'Independence' might not sound that startling now for fans who've got used to seeing Lulu as older and maturer and the fact that she's tried for the past 20 years to stay as contemporary as she can (to mixed success), but boy was it a shock when this song came out. Despite the fact that the 1980s and 1990s saw even more women releasing records than in the 1960s and 70s (particularly in Britain), most of them were bright new young things - you just didn't see anyone in their 40s making records (even Grace Slick retired in 1986 claiming 'it's outrageous for a middle-aged women to get up on a stage singing rock and roll). The only competitors were Cher and Cilla (who both weren't quite back on the scene just yet) and Tina Turner (who, as we've seen, scored her biggest hit of the decade with one of Lulu's songs). 'Independence' might sound production-wise as if its ticking every contemporary trendy box on the list, but lyrically it's an astute and brave choice, doing for older women what 'Respect' did for younger women in general (and Aretha Franklin in particular) in 1966. Interestingly, like 'Respect' (an Otis Redding song originally) 'Independence' was written by two men. Leon Ware wrote the song along with Winston Sela after working for years as a producer, most famously with Michael Jackson on the days Quincy Jones didn't bother to turn up. Like 'Respect' there's nothing gender-specific about either lyric yet somehow it makes more sense as an anthem for suppressed women rather than as a general cry for freedom. Lulu, having gone through a painful divorce splashed across all the papers - she was married to one of the three hairdressers even non-fashion icons like me have heard of and no it wasn't Vidal Sassoon as so many reports get wrong - clearly has an affinity with this song and sings the hell out of it, sounding deeper and older than she does across the rest of the album. Lulu must have particularly relishes this song's lines about how 'I've never known what it's like on my own' after being alone for the first real time in her life. The song's best feature is its ability to cover all bases at once: those who simply dream of escape or are enjoying it get to sing along to that thrilling chorus and feel good ('I want my independence! I want my freedom!') However those who, like Lulu, had second thoughts about breaking up and were torn in two got lyrics that sound genuinely reluctant and puzzled in the verses ('Don't be confused, please understand, I couldn't respect your wishes more!') This is a song that demands freedom in one breath and then begs, pleads and negotiates for it in the next: one of the very best expressions of 'Independence' made, certainly in the 1990s. Of course, this being the early 1990s in particular, the song sounds flat and tinny now, Lulu surrounded by so many ghastly contemporary features that threaten to out-do her. Of course, this is just what she needed to do at the time and she probably wouldn't have got anything released in 1993 without trying to sound contemporary, but in retrospect it's deeply wrong to hear such a soulful song performed by such a soulful singer to such an anonymous and empty backing, the one thing that prevents 'Independence' from ranking alongside Lulu's very best. It's still very good, however and clearly an important song for Lulu - and not just in sales terms either.
'There Has Got To Be A Way' by Sami McKinney, Kenney Moore and Allee Willis (the last of whom will go on to write one of the world's most irritating theme tunes to one of the world's most irritating TV shows, 'Friends') kind of pulls in the same direction, though not as cleverly. The song has a couple on the brink of splitting up both wanting to get back together but so trapped in their own unhappiness they can't see a way forward, wondering what the best thing to do is. Having re-read Lulu's book 'I Don't Wanna Fight', it's interesting how close the words to this song are to what she says to both her husbands, Maurice Gibb and John Frieda. In her experience (and we only have Lulu's word for it so far - sadly Maurice never did get to write what would have been a fascinating autobiography) Lulu was the one doing all the negotiating while her husbands didn't even want to admit there was a problem. However, this song is about both halves trying to find common ground, so this song may have been wish fulfilment more than anything (one of her most quoted examples from her book is sending Maurice to a marriage guidance counsellor with whom he was diplomatic and sorrowful, before coming home to tell his wife 'he said I was magnificent and the marriage is great - but he thinks you're a crank!') Alas this interesting scenario doesn't have any memorable hook and the melody is completely forgotten once you've finished playing the track. The backing singers are also at their most obtrusive here, sounding awfully anonymous and soul-less, especially when compared to Lulu's soaring lead.
'Restless Moods' is miles better, as a song at least if not production. Co-written by soul singer Ruby Turner, this is more the sort of material Lulu should have been given in her youth (she was always and r and b fan - as demonstrated by 'Shout!' , popular in her shows even before she got snapped up by Decca). However the older, deeper Lulu is probably more suited to a song that doesn't work like ordinary songs: it's the closest Lulu ever came to a dance record, this one, with a hypnotic groove and no real separation between verses and choruses, with long held vocal lines meaning that you can't tell when one phrase stops and another begins. This time around it's the narrator whose faithful, putting up with her husband's changing moods before sighing in the chorus about 'broken dreams and promises giving you the run around'. The best couplet in the song comes from the narrator's breaking facade at trying to pretend everything's normal: 'When people laugh 'cause laughing's fun, you toss, you tun, you wanna run'. The album's slow burner and quiet highlight, more subtle than most songs and surpremely irritating production-wise (could the drums be any louder and more out of synch with the rest of the song?!), but a tad better than most of Lulu's material of late and a good chance for her to show off her vocal skills.
'I'm Back For More' is the second most popular song on the album after the title track, a well received duet with Bobby Womack that boosted both singer's flagging careers. As we've discussed, the pair are a natural fit: both are child stars fallen on hard times and wanting to create art through their hardship. The duet was at Lulu's suggestion, apparently (who'd long been a fan of Womack's) and they make a great team, egging each other on throughout the track. You can see from this song why Lulu figured doing a whole album of duets later would be good - but not one of her choices (even close friend Paul McCartney) are as sympathetic to Lulu as Bobby is here. Full marks to the record company for not trying to pair Lulu with somebody young and trendy which would have been a disaster - this tale of two veterans of love having played around and come to the realisation that they were better off with each other after all has to be by two 'maturer' singers. Interestingly, this isn't a Womack song (he's better known as a writer rather than a singer) but one by Motown producer and occasional singer Ken Stover (who worked a lot with Marvin Gaye). It would have been fun to hear Lulu and Maurice singing this one, with its references to 'love regenerated' and how 'it's better the second time!' Again the production does its best to sink this song, but the two singers are simply too good to let that happen.
'Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms' is the Bee Gee's specially composed song for Lulu - and again it continues the album's themes of regret and breakup. This is by far the happiest song on the album, however, with the narrator imagining they're back with an old flame in their sleep and loving the memory. It's so tempting to see this song as wish fulfilment on Maurice's part and the Gibb brothers must surely have realised how this song would like, although in that case it's odd that this song has so many of Barry's characteristic touches and that it's him who both produces this song and sings his characteristic high backing vocals on it. The song itself has far more in common with the Bee Gee's late 80s recordings ('You Win Again' especially) when they also suffered from glossy contemporary productions obscuring their heartfelt songs and it's a shame that Lulu wasn't given one of their batch of songs from slightly later in the year (the following year's 'Size Isn't Everything' finally sounds like a 1960s band reinventing themselves in the 1990s should). The opening verse, with its references to 'another lonely Monday morning where I don't want to face the world outside' are actually more interesting than the rest of the song, whole the second verse's sudden moment of realisation that 'you never co-operate or share your love with me' sound like Maurice repeating back at Lulu what she used to say to him for real. The part of the song that's remembered, though, is the typically anthem-like chorus , which in typical Bee Gees style is actually saying something quite different to the rest of the song. Curiously Lulu sounds less comfortable with this song, even though it's closer in style to the sort of brainlessly happy song Mickie Most tried to get her to sing (the song sounds slightly out of her range, perhaps it was changed so Barry would find it easier to sing? Certainly he sings very well on it). Another of the album's better songs.
However the best song on this album that 'nobody' knows (i.e. which wasn't a single or co-starring somebody famous) is side closer 'How 'Bout Us?' Writer Dana Walden was a member of the sadly forgotten 1980s band Champaign (who were named after their home city in Illinois, by the way, although combining champagne and campaigns sums them up pretty well too). 'How 'Bout Us?' has a beautiful soaring melody that's born for a singer who has as much oxygen in her lungs as Lulu that's easily the best on the album, the Gibb Brothers' contributions included. The lyrics, too, are perfect for this album with Lulu quietly summing up why she wants to be on her own again. The first verse concludes 'if the fire's out, we should both be gone' before asking over and over in the chorus the question that Lulu must have been asking herself for the past few years: 'some people can love another forever, some people can't, so how 'bout us?' She even concludes sadly 'I'm not trying to end it all', before listing a whole load of reasons why that's exactly what she's reluctantly concluded to do. There's a rather lacklustre middle eight in there somewhere ('Are we gonna make it girl? Or drift and drift and drift?'), but a middle eight is usually the sign of a songwriter who cares about his craft and it's noticable that this is about the only song on this album to give us one, which speaks volumes about the craft and care in this song. Even the production is better here than elsewhere, the backing harmonies actually sounding harmonised and with a proper guitar sound and a marvellous saxophone part which drifts dreamily across the song (yes, despite haranguing them every other review I do like sax solos played the right way and when a guitar can't play the same part better!) even the drums sound just about palatable! Overall, this is might well be the single greatest Lulu song of the 1990s that Lulu herself didn't write (not that there's an awful lot of competition that decade!), with Lulu not only singing something suitable for her older, maturer self but that sounds instantly as one with her younger self.
'Until I Get Over You' , alas, features a nosier production than ever before and Lulu has never sounded more out of place as she desperately tries to sound both modern and heartfelt in what is again an older person's song. Lulu - or more likely someone helping her with the album - has clearly had their ear to the ground for obscure 1980s acts and two of this song's three writers Climie, Fisher and Morgan are from short-lived band Climie Fisher (guess which ones!) along with a Nashville songwriter who wrote many of that band's best known songs as well as a few for Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. This song is noticeably more alien to Lulu's usual style - she's clearly trying to sound like the original rather than herself - and she struggles again with this song. The lyrics, despite being written by much younger writers, fit the album well though: the narrator tries to move forward with her life and to forget a past love, but she finds herself 'frozen in time'. The words even get a bit Ray Davies-ish, with Lulu seeing lovers everywhere she goes and haunted by times past. I'm not so sure about the 'live it' and 'forget it' rhyme and the keyboard solo - which appears to be played on a casio keyboard that even my school would have rejected for sounding too out of date and cheap - is atrocious, but otherwise this is another classier-than-normal song that gives Lulu a nice lot of emotion to play with.
'You Left Me Lonely' by songwriter Errol Henry is a little more anonymous, alas. Another slow-burning song, which doesn't so much bloom into a chorus as slowly unravel, it finds the narrator again fixating on her past and feeling that she must move on 'though it is so hard to do'. Recognising that change in people is inevitable and that couples have to hope they change in tandem with each other, this song asks to be appraised afresh without any thought given to their 'old' self ('Take a look and tell me what you see'). Unfortunately, without a proper melody or a hook to go with it, this sounds like something a drippy boy band would come up with rather than something in keeping with Lulu's reputation. The backing singers are also unbelievably intrusive on this song, the effect exaggerated by keeping Lulu's voice so far down in the mix, while the drums couldn't have been noisier if they'd been played by Keith Moon in a drumstick-breaking contest! Only a nice but again lowly-mixed Spanish guitar part and a subtle trumpet part comes close to lifting this song anywhere out of the ordinary.
'Rhythm Of Romance' isn't the Nils Lofgren song of the same unfortunately (darn it, there's another one I'll have to add to my 'AAA songs with the same name' article....I knew there was another one in hiding!) and it would have been a far better choice. Another rather pedestrian MOR ballad, I really expected this song to be better given that one of the song's two writers (Kerry Chater) came from 1960s band Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and is only three months older than Lulu, so should be writing something more for her age bracket than the 'teenagers' who are actually writing more suitable songs for her on this album. The song sounds deeply out of place on this album, too, being about infatuation and the start of a 'new' romance rather than the end of a new one. Admittedly the chorus is quite catchy and could have been a really good part for someone with a voice more suited to the song (err Gary Puckett, strangely enough), but Lulu isn't bluesy enough to smoulder the way the song demands. Not one of the album's better ideas, which makes Lulu sound like Kylie Minogue during her Jason Donovan days. Ironic, really, that a song about embracing the past should be tied to music and production that sums up everything about an era you've tried hard to convince yourself to forget!
'I'm Walking Away' is better (what isn't?), with a moody keyboard opening that adds a prog rock atmosphere to the album and at last a sense of urgency to proceedings. It's not what you'd normally expect to hear from Lulu, but she seems to have had more input into this song than any other - not least because it's her sole writing credit on the album (alongside co-writer Steve DuBerry, who wrote the music for 'I Don't Wanna Fight' too). Unfortunately the song proper isn't as good as the ear-catching opening and certainly is no match for 'Fight', even if it treads the same weary paths of wanting to leave for a better life but not being entirely sure if that's the right decision. The music sounds like a Take That B-side (and believe me, that isn't a compliment) and you can almost hear the backing-singers-on-stools-clutching-microphones as the song continues. Lulu's lyrics, while spirited, doesn't match the other songs she was writing in this period and the chorus is especially trite and annoying ('I'm walking away don't ask me to stay, I'm walking away from you') without the lyrical sweep or compacted drama of 'Fight' or 'Poor Boys'. That said, there are some interesting and clearly heartfelt lyrics in here, some observations that wouldn't have been in the songs of Lulu's younger self: 'I wanna stay as friends, give it time...we'll see' (which isn't what narrators in teenage relationships say). Still, though, considering that Lulu at least had the chance to prove herself after her first hit as a writer on this album (heck, her first song as a writer) and with so much clearly to say after this most turbulent period in her life that she couldn't find something deeper to say than 'I can't take it, you can't take it...wooooh!' I too am walking away unless the second half of this album improves!
But oh dear 'A Place To Fall' is worse still. Imagine a breathy ballad even Starship would have rejected for being too cloying and you're halfway there - quite why a singer with the breadth and range of Lulu thought she could get by with coasting on a song like this goodness only knows. It's not as if author Chuck Jones didn't have a pedigree writing for various people during the 1980s (and no, he isn't the Looney Tunes director most associated with the Road Runner cartoons), but the problem is this song - which does seem to have been written specifically for Lulu - sounds like all the others and could have been by anyone. Drippy, dippy and distinctly unhippy, the narrator of the song even starts off by referring to her lover as a 'boy' - which really sticks out as being wrong on this album about growing older. This time the drums behave - comparatively speaking - but dear God this time there's a slap bass in the way of Lulu's voice, sounding spectacularly wrong, as if it's so loud it just happens to have been picked up from a neighbouring studio by accident. There isn't even a real chorus to this song either, just an elongated verse that always seems to keep coming back to the title phrase. Easily the worst song on the album, despite the competition for much of this album's second half.
Now, the album proper ends with a brief reprise of 'Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms'. My CD copy doesn't have that track (it features a rather noisy cover of 'Take A Piece Of My Heart' instead - which isn't much of a substitute to be honest), but I do remember it from my old vinyl copy (yes, even though this record came out in 1993 - that's how up-to-date I was with modern technology back then!) It's a bit pointless, really, so I'm not surprised they missed it out on the CD. It's that Bee Gees song back again, but slightly slower and more wistfully, with an emphasis on the background rather than Lulu. It kind of works, though, in the sense that the song and the dream that inspired it now seem to be a fading memory as the narrator has to get back to the harsher side of life.
Overall, then, 'Independence' is a bit of a mixed blessing. The first side is genuinely inventive starting with the defiant title track, resurrecting the careers of Bobby Womack and the Bee Gees and ending with 'How 'Bout Us?', the best Lulu cover in years (1976 to be exact). But oh the second side - as so often happens with Lulu she grasps hold of her career in both hands, shows just what a fine and wide-ranging voice she's got and then she ruins it all by recording the kind of bland filler material any singer who can string a couple of notes together can do. Lulu can do so much more than that, as she proves so often on the first side of this album, with 'Independence' a record at its least impressive when she's at her least 'independent' and too obviously taking cues from the succession of hip young things brought in as producers (apart from Barry Gibb, anyway). However, the fact that this record exists at all, almost ten years on from Lulu's last album and after the singer was rebuffed by every record company going, is a triumph for which Lulu should be rightly proud. At its best 'Independence' is exactly the album Lulu needed to get herself 'back on track' (to quote the natural 'follow-up record', delayed till 2004), showing off how much she deserved this chance, how much she's learnt during her 'missing years' and how she's so much more than a 1960s has-been everybody assumed retired when she hit 20. Lulu is one of the UK's greatest singers and while half of the album does nothing to add to that claim, half of this album does with style. It's just unfortunate that, after claiming her independence so vocally and proving all her detractors wrong with her biggest charting album in 25 years, Lulu won't make the most of the promise of this album, ending up becoming more famous for her looks, her makeovers and her B-list TV shows than for her true genius, her voice (and her secondary, just discovered genius for writing lyrics). The sort-of follow-up to 'Independence' (the extraordinary self-penned 'Take Me Where The Poor Boys Dance', like much of the better side of this album) won't come out till 1997 by which time, whatever the single's obvious worth, it's all too late. Overall rating - 5/10
Alright, so in 2013 our analogy finally fell apart. If 2010 was like 1963 (lots of Beatles and Searchers), 2011 was like 1964 (Hollies, Kinks and yet more Beatles) and 2012 was like 1965 (The Who, The Beach Boys and even more Beatles), then sadly 2013 was nothing like 1966. Indeed, there was only two bona fide 'new' releases the whole year (with Neil Young's latest poised just as we write this review) and they featured Paul McCartney trying to sound modern (who didn't go solo till 1970) and Beady Eye, all of whom weren't actually born in 1966. Both albums were promising, though, not quite masterpieces but still a step in the right direction, which puts 2013 a nose ahead of 2012 (when The Beach Boys reunited to poor effect, Neil Young and Crazy Horse released a weird album of American covers and Paul McCartney became a crooner, briefly - strange AAA albums all). Where 2013 loses over previous years, however, is in the dearth of classic re-issues: we finally had the much delayed Stephen Stills box set, yet another Beach Boys box set, The Beatles at the BBC volume two and another in the McCartney deluxe editions, but even this was down on years gone by. The list of AAA documentaries has been especially poor, particularly on radio, where the cloud hanging over the profession thanks to the Jimmy Saville scandal and all the knock-on effects leading to arrests of other leading DJs and presenters has rather killed off the momentum of new product. What we have had has been rather good though and finally some of our less appreciated AAA stars have been under the spotlight, including Otis Redding and Mark Knopfler, alongside yet another Who documentary on 'Tommy'. Shockingly there hasn't been one proper 're-issue series' all year, so we've scrapped our 'best' and 'worst' entries for this year - but on the positive front this is the first year in our site's five-year history where we haven't had to write an obituary for one of our stars. Long may that continue in 2013!
What we do have is a promising list of possible releases for 2014: Neil Young has already announced yet another new album in the dying weeks of this year (so we won't have a chance to review it before publishing this alas: we'll add it to next year's tally instead), David Crosby has announced his first solo album in twenty years in January with some help from Mark Knopfler (a nice bit of AAA cross-pollination there!), CSNY are still talking about the release of a box set celebrating their 1974 world tour, which has been promised since 2011 and has now grown from a simple re-issue of the record-breaking Wembley concert (which the band are afraid to release in full because they sounded 'jittery all night' - they sound pretty good on my semi-official copy I have to say) and the next Paul McCartney deluxe edition has been announced as 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound', even if a release date hasn't been given just yet. Speculatively, Noel Gallagher might have a new album on the cards too. Alas the Belle and Sebastian album that looked on the cards for this year never materialised, ditto the new CSNY record although as the band played Neil's Bridge School Benefit concert in October it might be back on again, Beady Eye appear to have split up or at the very least been heavily delayed by a nasty accident that left guitarist Gem in hospital for the past few months and the vague talk about re-issuing The Beatles' 'Let It Be' seems to have been replaced with this Christmas' rush to get 'Beatles at the BBC 2' into the shops. As ever, we'll keep you posted on what everyone is up to during the year and probably into the next pair beyond.
THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
1) Stephen Stills "Carry On"
Much-delayed, the Stephen Stills box - compiled as ever by partner Graham Nash - finally arrived in shops seven years after the David Crosby set 'Voyage' and five years after the Graham Nash set 'Reflections'. Like the other two, it features several juicy unreleased items squeezed between a generally fair and comprehensive selection of songs from Stills' solo, CSN and CSNY careers as well as Manassas and the Stills-Young Band. The difference was that Stills' eclectic output means that the set was extended to four CDs rather than three as with Crosby and Nash. The packaging was a sumptuous as ever, full of lots of photographs that had never been seen before, although it's sad to see that most of the writing was taken up by two rather boring career overviews rather than the revealing song-by-song analysis of the other sets (Stills really doesn't like talking about his songs and it speaks volumes he's the only member of CSNY not to pen an autobiography - yet!) While this set was particularly useful in terms of released performances, (I already had all of Crosby's and most of Nash's albums on CD, but there are so many, lots of them rare, Stills solo LPs from the 1970s and 1980s there were lots I was missing) it's the unreleased material that appeal the most in these sets and what we had was a bit of a mixed bag. It's wonderful to hear a high-pitched 17-year-old Stills warbling Ed Wheeler's classic 'High Flying Bird' on a student radio station (tapes of which weren't even known before this set came out, never mind bootlegged), ditto one surviving tape from what became the Stills-Young Band album 'Long May You Run' back when it was intended as a CSNY reunion (legend long had it that Stills had slashed the tapes with a razor-blade to stop them ever being released - so where the heck did this version of 'Black Coral' come from?!) The much-bootlegged early version of 'Little Miss Bright Eyes' and Stills' unreleased 1979 latin number 'Cuba El Fin' are also nice to have on a proper shiny CD at long long last. As ever with these sets, though, a great deal of the 'unreleased' material turned out to be remixes that aren't that different (barring an abandoned latin freakout on the front of 'First Things First', that took me by surprise) and a lot of the live rarities on CD4, when Stills is losing his voice or his ideas, are dispensible (the awful 'Man Alive' album from 2005 ends up being better represented than 'Stephen Stills' or 'Manassas', which is just plain wrong!) You could quibble with the track listing too: Stills' greatest song (says us anyway) 'Word Game' being replaced by the poppy 'Mariane' is the one that gave us apoplexy in our review - but there's enough here to keep collectors happy and more than enough to give fans new to Stills' talent something to celebrate. Cheaper and smaller than the McCartney deluxe editions, but with more music and more rarities without stinging on size or packaging, these three CSN re-issues got the balance about right I'd say and my shelf now looks very handsome with the large 'C S and N' logos sitting on their spines! Not perfect, but very very welcome.
2) The Beatles "At The BBC Volume Two"
We said nearly five years ago now on this site that Apple got it wrong - most of the casual public thought 'Anthology' was dragged out at six CDs full of some awful filler and yet felt short-shrifted by only two CDs of BBC sessions. There's enough great performances from 'Pop Go The Beatles' alone to make a lovely five CD set, never mind all the others shows the fab four appeared on between 1962 and 1965. Raw, punchy and often under-rehearsed, they reveal - especially in the earlier recordings - a band that could really play and knew each other inside out, the closest we'll ever get sadly to what they sounded like in their 'Hamburg' days. The first volume of the BBC sessions released as long ago as 1993 did the sensible thing, with alternate BBC versions of all the band's most famous singles and a majority of the songs exclusive to BBC recordings. This second set complements the original nicely, though, with alternate versions of those famous hits, some album tracks like 'Misery' and 'There's A Place' that sound particularly fine in these versions and better yet the first official release for a small portion of the 'banter' between songs, revealing the fab four as natural comedians and a delightful mix of the proud and humble (George even gets the band to say 'hello' to his mum 'who listens to Saturday Club...because it's the time she's outside doing the digging!') The One Show had a reunion of a lot of the people who wrote in recently and - although they mucked it up by not taking it seriously as ever - you could feel the warm nostalgic glow in the room as the Beatles, who used to represent a bright brave new future, now represent a golden rosy past. While on the surface this set is less interesting than the first (the only songs collectors won't know are a still-muddy recording of 'Dream Lover' from the band's first appearance in October 1962 and the Hamburg favourites 'Lend Me Your Comb' heard in an alternate version on 'Anthology' and some less than fab covers of 'Glad All Over' and 'Sure To Fall' (the weakest of the Beatles' BBC-only covers), you do get a better sense of history from this second set, with more 'context' in the shape of the speech and the fine extensive liner notes. This second volume is a better representation of what those Beatle BBC shows were all about, when an hour on saturdays was a teenager's only real chance to hear 'their' music on the BBC and when they had to put up with the 'elder generation' presenters to get to even that. This set should have come out years ago - and there's easily another three volumes to come if Apple and the BBC choose to do them that way - frankly, they should. This is 'The Beatles with their trousers down', which Lennon wanted to ape with 'Let It Be' and hearing the band so young and so full of life is a wonderful experience indeed.
3) Beady Eye "Be"
While not quite as groovy or full of as many peaks as the Oasis spin-off's debut album, 'Be' was even more consistent and evidence of what a great band Beady Eye are/were (depending on whether this is indeed their last release or not, as threatened). For some reason the public have very much decided on Noel's half in the Oasis mud-flinging wars that have been going on the past few years despite the fact that a) it was Noel who actually ended the group (even if he didn't throw the actual tangerine that split the group - a long story we've covered on many issues now) and b) Beady Eye are making the better music (Noel's debut album was a bgunch of superb Oasis outtakes and some ghastly new songs). A winning mixture of Oasis noise and something further, Beady Eye have all the swagger of old but a quiet, still heart that allows them to indulge in long slow ballads and electronic effects Oasis would never have dared to use. Liam, especially, has grown tremendously in the new setting, opening his heart to his brother in the plea for forgiveness 'Don't Brother Me', the spooky and sparse 'Second Bite At The Apple' and the Coalition-rousing 'Flick Of The Finger'. There's nothing here to match the wonderful 'Wigwam' from their first album (The best Oasis-linked song in many a long year), but there also isn't a 'bad' song on 'Be', which manages a very consistent vibe and texture throughout. I really hope this isn't the end of the band, because they've proved themselves to be way ahead of the opposition (poor Noel seems to be stuck working with either Take That or old enemies Blur on his next LP, depending which rumours you hear), even if they're hopelessly out of fashion for now.
4) Paul McCartney "New"
We reviewed this album in full not long ago, but to sum up: 'New' is a mixed record that isn't quite as inventive or consistent as Macca's stint as 'The Fireman' in 2011 but is a big improvement on his other 'pop' records of the past decade and a huge improvement on his last release, the standards 'Kisses On The Bottom' where the only good thing about this onslaught on the 'Great' American Songbook (which Macca can out-write in his sleep) was that it was still a lot better than Rod Stewart's efforts on the same theme. On the plus side, Macca sounds happy again after a troubled decade with Heather Mills and is back to writing love songs again: 'Hosanna', for new wife Nancy, is as good as any in Macca's great canon. His newest batch of songs reflecting on his 'ever present past' also result in 'Early Days', a song all but guaranteed to make Beatles fans cry, while he doesn't turn away from the sadness and harshness of life as he often does, coming up with a magnificent ending in 'Road' (a very dark song) and 'hidden track' 'Scared', which digs even deeper, with a haunting melody that follows you around long after the CD stops playing. If only the rest of the album was up to this standards then 'New' would easily be our album of the year: but alas Macca seems too keen on making this a 'pop' album, straining too hard to sound contemporary and many of the other songs are twee or poorly written with some awful rhymes, or in some cases both ('Queenie Eye' especially, is the worst McCartney song in many a year which even Ringo would consider too facile to sing). A mixed bag, then, but at its best 'New' is a reminder of how great Macca can still be and hints at the possibility of an even stronger album next time around...
5) The Beach Boys "Made In California"
We'll start with the bad points: there already exists a perfectly good Beach Boys box set released in 1993, which could and should have been re-issued instead of this new one so fans could enjoy it without having to fork out the pricey amounts it now sells for on Amazon and Ebay. Wanting to avoid repeating the same tracks as before, this is basically a 'second-best' box set, mainly designed for fans who already own the first set and none of the band's actual albums (frankly if you're into the Beach Boys enough to own the first box set, you already own all the albums too). This six CD set is also pricey in the extreme, suggesting that the Beach Boys are just trying to flog more product. And yet, even having pulled six discs for '30 Years Of Good Vibrations' in 1992, the Beach Boys made so much wonderful music during their career that the lesser known music on this set is often extraordinary, every bit as good as the better known material. 'Lonely Sea' 'Busy Doin' Nothin' 'Baby Blue' 'Solar System' and 'Angel Come Home' especially are as good as any of the better known and loved hits and fully deserving of re-appraisal. The unreleased material is astonishing, too, given how many previous Beach Boys 'rarities' sets there've been over the years, including some recently unearthed unbootlegged BBC sessions, some stunning vocal-only mixes, no less than 17 live recordings (which are mainly ropey but fun and occasionally quite different to the album versions) and five completely unreleased songs (sadly mainly from later on in the band's career, but still mighty interesting to hear). The packaging, too, is done with care and a lot of love - certainly more care and love than the awful Beach Boys reunion album last year.The biggest surprise? A full 'Meant For You', the 30 second song that kickstarted the 'Friends' LP extended to ninety seconds of complete joy and another stunning eight minute medley of a capella sections from 'Smile' that's as perfect as perfect can be. You could argue that the Beach Boys deserve better, that fans have already got almost everything here and that we'd much rather the complete sixth disc of rarities had been released in a 2 CD pack with the outtakes spread across the rest of the set, and you'd be right. But there's a lot of wonderful things about this set too, which is more than worthy of the Beach Boys name and even in a decade pretty spoilt for lush expensive Beach Boys sets this one is special, though sadly not definitive.
THE BEST TV/RADIO DOCUMENTARIES OF THE YEAR
1) Otis Redding Night (TV, BBC4)
An unseen-for 45-years Stax Revue night from Norway was an excellent starter, featuring Sam and Dave and a whole load of B-list soul stars warming up the crowd before an exuberant Otis Redding bounced on stage treating us to a typically breathless 20 minute set (although Sam and Dave were actually better, I thought). However the main course was sensational: 'Soul Amabassador', a new documentary about the late great gentle giant of soul that portrayed him a bit more fairly and deeply than most other documentaries I've seen. Otis' family were fully involved with the project, with the shots of Otis' widow Zelda still in the home he bought for her all those years ago more moving than any of the actual recollections in the film. Booker T and as much of the M Gs backing band as possible also contributed, clearly still in awe of their former singer but not as keen on making him out a 'saint' as previous documentaries. Otis comes across as troubled, not so much the self-proclaimed 'mr pitiful' of his songs as 'mr worry', concerned about his family, his fans and his career prospects. Otis really was on an amazing journey the last year of his life and across 1967 had blown away the crowds at Monterey but was already onto a 'new thing', inward-looking sad songs of which 'Dock Of The Bay' should have been the first, not last. A worrier who hated spending money but too often splashed out, a gentle giant who nobody wanted to cross because he had a fierce temper when provoked and a family man who poured his heartout to his wife but wasn't afraid of straying, Otis finally comes across in 3D as a real person, which is the most you can ask of any documentary. Along with some rare footage and some excellent talking head interviews, 'Soul Ambassador' was a moving experience indeed.
2) David Frost meets Paul McCartney (TV, Al Jazeera TV)
One of the last things David Frost did before his death was a new series on Al Jazeera TV interviewing celebrities closer to his age range and many of whom he interviewed the first time 50 years before. Macca was his best subject, as willing as Frost to dig a little deeper than normal and opening up about his early pore-Beatles day and the pressures of fame. We got to see Macca re-live his life via specially chosen clips that brought on anger (Allen Klein) and tears (Linda), with several 'minor' characters in the Beatles story brought to life at last (particularly Paul's dad Jim). Macca has never spoken at such length about his mother Mart's death from cancer, the money troubles of their family or his early exploration of music before and while the interview loses its way a little on the more frequently-told stories of Beatles and Wings, even these are handled well, Macca more open than normal about the Beatles' split and his love for his two colleagues who are no longer here. Ever since the end of the Heather Mills debacle, Macca's handling of the media has been exemplary, more open and honest and less grudging than it was before. Macca's in a good place right now and more willing to talk about his mistakes, which is heartwarming to see. David Frost's gentle probing and the chance to talk to someone whose clearly done their homework also help bring out one of the best interviews Macca has ever done. Let's hope the set of 'David Frost' al jazeera interviews (already the best news channel on freeview, beating the BBC, ITV and Sky hands down) comes out on DVD sometime soon in tribute so more people can see this great interview (which I was lucky enough to find by chance!)
3) Mark Lawson meets Mark Knopfler (TV, BBC4)
The nearest equivalent to David Frost is Mark Lawson, whose similar quiet style and love of research puts him a nose above most interviewers. Mark Knopfler isn't the easiest of subjects: shy, often monosyllabic and far more interested in talking about his heroes than himself, Knopfler hasn't done an in-depth interview like this since his Dire Straits days, so it was quite a coup for BBC4 to get him. He doesn't let them down, either, showing off his collection of guitars, filling us in on his early years (although I'd still like to know more about his days as a reporter in Newcastle and teacher in London) and revealing just why he's happier to play for smaller crowds alone or with a small band than he was to fill arenas with Dire Straits. Sweet and honest, with a self-effacing humour, Mark Knopfler's always been a sketchy but likeable character and this interview was highly successful at filling in some of the things we didn't know.
Other recommendations: The Who "The Story of Tommy" (TV, BBC4, a nice summary of a complex story, although still not as revealing as Pete Townshend's interview on the 'Tommy/Quadrophenia/Live Hits' DVD set) and "The 50th anniversary of 'Please Please Me' (TV, BBC4, which saw 14 'guests' re-creating all of The Beatles' first album's 14 songs in Abbey Road Studios no 2 in 'real time' 50 years to the day - some were better than others but the 'links' on the album's history were interesting, especially the story behind the album cover).
THE BEST DVDS OF THE YEAR
1) Paul McCartney and Wings "Rockshow"
Recorded in 1976, released belatedly in 1980 and killed off by Macca's drugs convictions and the death of the group not long after, 'Rockshow' has been off our shelves for far too long. A full concert given in the Cow Palace arena by the 1976 McCulloch-English line-up of Wings, a lot of this music is subtly different to the 'soundtrack' live album 'Wings Over America', though the songs are much the same. Wings have finally transformed into a great band, with a charge for the rockers and a quiet space for the ballad that only Macca's currently band has ever matched again, with Jimmy McCulloch , Joe English and Denny Laine making for a tight little band for Paul and Linda to join in with. Denny's 'Time To Hide', in particular, is the highlight of the film, while the chance to see (as well as hear) the earliest performances of Beatles songs by their author on stage since 1966 (many of the like 'Lady Madonna', for the first time) is a special occasion indeed. The opening one-two-three punch of 'Venus and Mars' 'Rockshow' and 'Jet' is also a superb beginning, the crowd on their feet from the first (even if they all sit down again by the time of 'You Gave Me The Answer'), while rare closing encore 'Soilly' proves that Wings were among the best rock bands around in 1976, building to a real crescendo of sweat, vim and vigour. Not everything about this DVD - also part of the 'Wings over America' deluxe edition release - works, the show is still incomplete, running to 2 hours 20 minutes instead of three and a lot of it is shot in the dark, which gets a bit wearing after half an hour or so. But take this as historical footage (very few concerts had been shot on film before this one), accept a few songs go a bit wrong ('Yesterday' and 'Long and Winding Road' aren't up to Beatles standards while 'Picasso's Last Words' is a bad idea all round, even segued with the surprising choice of 'Richard Cory') and this is still as good as a live DVD as you'll find.
2) The Rolling Stones "Return To Hyde Park"
By contrast the Stones' latest DVD is bang up to date, a record of their summer and to-date last concert, a surprise return to Hyde Park the band had last played in 1969 in tribute to Brian Jones (I notice the show wasn't free this year, though). The Stones are on good form - much better than they were at Glastonbury - with special 'aah' moments throughout (Mick Jagger walking out in his 1969 'dress' and explaining 'I got this out of my 1960s wardrobe and it still fits!....if I loosen it a bit), Mick Taylor's return to a band he last played with in 1976 prior to the four shows performed this year and an epic elongated last encore of 'Satisfaction'. Yes the track listing could have been a little more daring, yes Ronnie Wood still seems as out of place in this band as ever (even unfit and unpractised Taylor plays him off the stage) and the arrangements of so many of these songs are so set in 'stones' that at least half of this show is interchangable with any made in the past 25 years. But the Stones are clearly having fun, enjoying their time in the spotlight and the sheer amount of fans out to see them and still turn in their best live show on DVD outside 'Some Girls Live In Texas' and their original Hyde Park appearance.
3) Grateful Dead "Sunshine Daydream"
I haven't seen it all yet, but 'Sunshine Daydream' - a lengthy Dead concert from 27th August 1972 released as a threre CD/one DVD set - finds the Dead on fine form. Never the most active of bands, their static appearance isn't always built for viewing, but the crowd of deadheads are watchable in their own right. The tracklisting is a good one too, like the 'Europe '72' album come to life as a visible concert and includes a handful of semi-rarities such as 'Black Throated Wind' 'Promised Land' and 'El Paso' (not released on albums at the time, although they've been on a few 'from the vaults' re-issues since). An epic 'He's Gone' and a daring 'China Cat Sunflower are better still. Begging just one question: where has this film been for 42 years and why only release it now?!
THE MOST DISAPPOINTING RELEASES OF THE YEAR
1) The Moody Blues "Timeless Flight"
When are some of these bands going to learn that some of us are on a tight budget? Admittedly the music in this epic box set of 17 CDs is generally superb - the studio stuff anyway - but every good Moodies fan already owns this music several times over now and asking us to shell out a whopping £130 for the privilege of some nice packaging and two so-so concerts is ridiculous. This set seems to have gone down very well, winning a 're-issue of the year' award at some big music do, but if so then the judges have got their copy for free - they haven't had to pay for it like we have. As for longterm fans, yes the new concert from the Blue Jays at the Royal Albert Hall is a great show that surprisingly escaped the bootlegger's clutches (featuring an especially gorgeous 'Who Are You Now?' and the best live version of 'Question' yet) and the 1983 shows promoting 'The Present' are quite interesting (we've not had the chance to hear many songs from that under-rated album done live before - and they sound pretty good!) But these are collection-filler curios at best and the talk of 'rare' outtakes and BBC radio sessions heard before the set come out turn out to be simply the (admittedly generally excellent) bonus tracks from the set of deluxe re-issues of Moody albums that came out a mere five years ago (and cost a fortune to buy at the time anyway). Repeating so many of these albums on CD and 'super CD' formats is daft too: fans want one or the other, not both, so wouldn't splitting the set into two cheaper lots be a better idea? Also why are there no solo albums here - all of them rarer than the Moodies albums proper, some of them never released on CD - as well as the same tired choice of album tracks (almost everything included in the 'Time Traveller' box set of 1998). Yes the majority of this music is stunning and yes it all looks gorgeous (the freebie limited edition csasette - a replica of a Moodies compilation taken into space on one of the Apollo missions - is a particularly neat touch). But surely either a shorter set concentrating on true rarities or a much bigger set encompassing every track, solo and together, without the repetition would have been better still? I'd save your money if I were you... (you can donate it to our site if you've got that much to spare!)
2) Paul McCartney and Wings "Wings Over America" (Deluxe Edition)
The weakest yet in Macca's deluxe edition series, this is another - like 'McCartney' and 'Band On The Run' to some extent - that seems to have been released despite the fact that there's nothing that excitingly new here bar the chance to have all the period songs together in the same place and with a few new photographs thrown in (plus a book this time, made up of illustrations made by the band's 'official illustrator' Humphrey Ocean which tells you everything about this style-over-substance set). As you may have read above, the 'Rockshow' DVD that comes with this set is genuinely gripping, the greatest line-up of Wings on terrific form and it's been hard to get hold of for far too long (actually it's still too hard to get hold of - I still haven't seen the DVD anywhere although I know the video well). The only problem is, it's our separately from this set at a fraction of the price and you really don't need to fork out £140 for a remastered edition of 'Wings Over America' which has never been out of print, a few edited highlights from the soundtrack of that show (which isn't terribly different to the 'America' triple album anyway) and some nice photos. Admittedly there's a nice unseen Linda McCartney book of photos thrown in too and a replica of the tour booklet that's a nice souvenir, but surely for a set costing so much money there ought to be more actual recordings here (the band's set of overdubbing sessions to 'sweeten' the sound still exists, as probably does the 'original' mix of the album before these were added). What gets me more is that there are other Wings/McCartney albums with oodles of outtakes and rarities available (take your pick from 'Red Rose Speedway' 'Venus and Mars' 'London Town' 'Back To The Egg' 'Tug Of War' and 'Press To Play' which could all double in length easily, while there's a whole unreleased album from 1987, 'Return To Pepperland', that could come out on 'Flowers In The Dirt') so why release this scraping-of-the-barrel set near the beginning of the re-issue series, not the end?
3) The Who "Tommy" (Deluxe Edition)
Talking of milking a cow long past it's saturation point, this is the seventh re-issue of 'Tommy' on CD, which has now appeared as 1/2/4 and 6 CD sets. This time around there's a series of Pete Townshend demos, which are genuinely fascinating, both for the chance to hear Pete sing these songs instead of Roger and to hear a few 'changes' that took place in Tommy's evolution ('Amazing Journey', a squawling ten minute psychedelic journey of noise and chaos is even more 'amazing' than the finished product), but for goodness sake - previous sets have released four, then six, now 24 of these demos. Why not do us all a favour and release them all properly from the beginning? What's weirder, too, is that so many of the 'stuio outtakes'; from the previous special edition of 'Tommy' have gone missing - surely we should be getting more with each release, not less? The replacement - a live version of 'Tommy' from Canada included in an even more special edition/expensive edition, is also pretty poor too by Who standards - certainly no patch on the classic 'Live at Leeds' version of the rock opera. Yes the packaging's nice and if you don't already own this album then the 2013 version is arguably the version to get - but blimey, who could possibly want to buy this album who doesn't already own it? And I can't honestly tell you to spend your money on it because, like busses, there'll probably be the fourth version in a decade along sometime soon collecting all of us this stuff together and probably more. We're not gonna take it, I tell you, never did and never will...
Other non-recommendations: "Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Live" An expensive (£20) hour-long concert of most of a not very good album that sounds even worse live, plus two rather unappetising music videos that aren't half as interesting as even the bad Oasis ones.
THE BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR
1) "Hosanna" (Paul McCartney 'New')
This song may only be a month old (to anyone outside the studios at least) but McCartney's latest quiet album highlight has already become a firm favourite for me and my mp3 player. revelling in the joy of being in love again, this is McCartney full of praise that he's finally found again the love and hope he's spent so much of his career discussing and searching for. A modern hymn, 'Hosanna' sounds both as complete as if it's been around for hundreds of years, like the best McCartney songs, and a step into somewhere new, with an edgy voodoo-ist backing that makes time sound as if it's standing still before running backwards. This is another silly love song lyrically, but the tension in the music and the older, maturer McCartney allowing his vocal to crumble with age and emotion means that this love sounds hard fought for. The experience is a truly moving one and - for me - this is McCartney's best song in 12 years, maybe even longer. Hosanna indeed.
2) "Talkin' 'Bout You" (The Beatles, 'BBC Volume 2')
Oh how we moaned at Apple and the BBC for missing out this song when they compiled the 'first' set of fab four BBC sessions. One of the few Beatles BBC covers unreleased on album and not added to that first box set, it's one of the band's greatest ever interpretations of an American standard, a Chuck Berry track that presumably never made it to album because both the Rolling Stones and Hollies got their first. Taking its cue from both, this leering song is slowed down to a mid-paced sneer, halfway between the Stones' pure blues and the Hollies' histrionics, Lennon channelling his inner teddy boy on a song that both ogles and idolises the girl of the narrator's dreams. The rest of the Beatles cook up a storm behind him, with Ringo's snapping drums far more on the ball than usual, ending up with a performance that could easily have graced period album 'With The Beatles' and been better than a good half of it to boot. For those who haven't heard it yet (as it's been much bootlegged down the years), this is another chance to hear the young energetic Beatles at their finest, back when they were wild and dangerous and raw.
3) "Don't Brother Me" (Beady Eye, 'Be')
A weary plea for peace, this is another fine Liam Gallagher song that clearly reflects on the sudden and undignified end to Oasis, no matter how many times he tried to dodge the subject of this song in interviews. Alternately petulant, goading, whining, cajoling, pleading and genuinely regretful, this epic song is quite a journey, name-checking Noel's recent songs as well as his own ('Did you shoot your gun?')before pleading 'come on, give peace a chance!' The song then doesn't so much end as transmorphosise into a hazy enveloping world of ghostly synths, glockenspiels and electronic trickery that shouldn't work but surely does. Yes, nothing on 'Be' quite matched the highlights of last album 'Different Gear, Still Speeding', but on songs like this and 'Second Bite Of The Apple' Beady Eye prove that they have a far bigger canvas than Oasis had in their final days and still know how to go somewhere enticingly new, with so much still to say.
Other recommendations: The Moody Blues "Where Are You Now?" (Live Version) - the best of the previously unreleased stuff from the Moody Blues box set, with this gorgeous and rarely performed song capturing the Blue Jays on a good night at the Royal Albert Hall in 1976 (this CD should have been released separately, though, not stuck in a £140 box set), The Beatles "Lend Me Your Comb" (another 'Beatles at the BBC' song and another that more than deserved to be on the first set, although an inferior Anthology version means this one isn't quite so special) and Stephen Stills "Cuba El Fin", an exciting jam that's the 'missing link' in the much loved set of Stephen Stills' songs about his latin american heritage, from the 'Carry On' box set.
That only leaves us to bid 2013 a fond farewell with our collection of our best articles of the year, as nominated by our readers. We had two of you giving suggestions this year, so again these might not be all that comprehensive, but nevertheless they offer a good range of what we wrote about at the AAA during this year. And what a year it's been, dear reader: max The Singing Dog returned to Youtube, we raced past our target of 100, 000 hits (we're now around 160,000) and our articles have been re-posted and re-tweeted by Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, the official Lindisfarne page and, err, Dr Who News. So anyway enjoy again (or for the first time if you've only just joined us) some of our best extracts from the year, along with links for where to read them:
THE BEST AAA ARTICLES OF THE YEAR
1) Top 101 Songs: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-max=2013-04-22T02:30:00-07:00&max-results=7
After being challenged to deliver a 'top ten' of our favourite ever songs, this project got slightly out of hand (heck, it was a struggle deciding on my top 100 songs, hence the fact that this became 101 top songs, a neat reflection of our 'core 101 reviews'). However, we had fun writing it and while you always want to back and change lists like these, it does reflect quite neatly the hidden depth of the AAA catalogue and all the goodies out there that ought to be better known. Our only 'rule' was that a song couldn't be 'well known', which we took to mean 'a top ten hit'...
2) DVDs Special: http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/news-views-and-music-issue-176-aaa-dvds.html
This article, from way back in January, was our first post of the year and our now 'traditional' slot to bring you a 'special edition' of all things Alan's Album Archives (we know from practice that the 'first post' of a year is often the one newcomers look at - so giving you a new angle on every AAA band rather than details of one is the best way of letting people in to our mad world slowly). This year it was all about Alan's Album Archives DVDs, every single one that we knew about at the time (we've updated a couple since), ending up at an eye-watering 42,000 words. It appears to have been a 'hit' with our audience, some 2886 of you having read it at the time of writing, our fifth most popular post. As ever the entries are listed in alphabetical, then chronological order.
3) April Fool's Day: Max The Dog's AAA Museum: http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/news-views-and-music-issue-7114-maxs.html
We love fooling with time on our April Fool's editions and taking a break from bringing you 'real' AAA events and releases so we can instead 'imagine' a few. After sending our characters forward to the near future, distant future and back to the past (in a parallel universe where everything happens at once), we thought we'd give poor Max The Singing Dog a break and have him as the worn-out robotic host of an Alan's Album Archives museum. Yes, some of the exhibits have stopped working and by the time of issue 1,000,000,000,000,000 our readership isn't quite as big as it was in our heyday a thousand years earlier, but a steady stream of guest-visitors nostalgic for the 21st century means we're still popular around the galaxy. Oh and if Robo-Max starts acting funny again, just give him a slap from us would you?...
4)Longest and Shortest Average AAA Running Times: (link not available yet)
Well, this took a few of my fading braincells I can tell you. After confidently saying that Oasis' "Be Here Now" had one of the longest average-running lengths per song of any AAA album I thought I'd better go back and find out what the other competitors were. The results may astound you! (Well, they might, if you're easily astounded anyway...) As if that wasn't enough, we then decided to review 'Sufin' USA' by the Beach Boys and the quest then started for the shortest average-running lengths per song of any AAA album. The results are closer than we expected, resulting in a lot of head-scratching, broken calculators, an awful lot of swearing and what we think is a genuinely pioneering article...
5) Dr Who "Lost and Found": http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/dr-who-lost-and-found-script.html
Finally, back in the Spring, when I had a bit of spare time on my hands (for what was probably the last time what with one thing and another) one of my readers said that I always seem to mention Dr Who a lot on my site (our April Fool's Day articles generally have a column on what the Dr's been up to, whatever incarnation he might be in at the time)and had I thought about expanding one of my 'fake' Dr Who stories into a proper story for this, the 50th anniversary year? I wasn't getting anywhere with any of my 'fake' stories until I suddenly had a dream about the plot of this new adventure 'Lost and Found' and, having woken up I was desperate to know what the ending was. We even followed it up with another three stories although they, err, got a bit out of hand (the Master was back for 'Remastered', filling the world with Spice Girls music that could only be prevented by downloading the complete Alan's Album Archives website in one go!) so we only printed two ('The Vikings' is available to download on this site too - check out the very bottom of our 'contents' list below) It's got nothing to do with Alan's Album Archives, but some likeminded fans might find it fun to read...
And that really is it, not just for this article, but for the whole of this year. Thankyou for being one of our Alan's Album Archives readers during the past 12 months. We've grown quite considerably this past year and hope to do so again in 2014, when we'll be inching closer to our goal of covering every single AAA album somewhere around the end of 2016. It's quite a task, but we're having fun doing it and aiming to become the most detailed (if specific) album review site on the internet. Welcome those of you who've only just joined us on our adventure, happy travels to our older readers who've been with us for a long time and a time-delayed 'hello' to those of you reading these pages years and years after they were written. We love you one and all! Have a super 2014, which is sure to be full of news, views and music all the way through!
Monday, 23 December 2013
Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant "The Animal's Christmas" (1986)
The Annunciation/Creatures Of The Field/Just A Simple Little Tune/The Decree/Incredible Phat/The Friendly Beasts/The Song Of The Camels/Words From An Old Spanish Carol/Carol Of The Birds/The Frog/Herod/Wild Geese
Well here we are again, dear readers, near the end of another year when thoughts turn to mistletoe and wine, even if for the musical among us, it's how to get 'mistletoe and wine' off the bleeding radio. Alas, after five years of yuletide favourites, this is the end of an era. Unless the likes of Neil Young or Paul McCartney surprise us in the future (stranger things have happened after all), we only have one more AAA Christmas album to bring you, dear readers and it's this one: Art Garfunkel's well received but poor-selling album which is quite unlike any other Christmas album you'll ever hear. It was entirely written by Art's friend and regular songwriter Jimmy Webb and is a whole new reading of the nativity play, not from Mary and Joseph or even Jesus' point of view, but re-telling the story of how the animals of the kingdom saw the birth of Christ unfold. Taking in cats, camels, frogs and geese, it's probably safe to say it doesn't feature the animals you're expecting either (what, no little donkey?!) Written as a 'favour' from Webb to his local church in Tuxedo, New York (not all that far away from where Garfunkel grew up), 'The Animal's Christmas' was never intended to be a 'public' album and so is as far removed from all the other 'pop' albums Garfunkel made as you can imagine. Part pure grand opera, part pure 'Captain Beaky' (contemporary Jeremy Lloyd and Keith Michell creations that mix Beatrix Potter and the Bash Street Kids), it has a sound and solemnity quite far removed from our other AAA entries ('Beach Boys Christmas', The Moody Blues' 'December' and various Beatles Christmas fanclub records).
Interestingly the project wasn't written for Arty directly, even though he and Jimmy Webb were and are good friends and Arty is one of the few pop/rock singers disciplined enough to tackle what is in essence a work closer to an oratorio. The early 1980s were a difficult one for Garfunkel, who'd spent far too much time and effort working on a 'new' Simon and Garfunkel album that never came out and a reunion concert in Central Park that was a nice idea that got too huge too quickly for the pair of them (not having a great time himself, Paul decided that the first draft of 'Hearts and Bones' was too personal and thought he'd be better off singing it solo, wiping months of his partner's work without actually telling him). Vowing that he'd never be 'sucked in' by the commercial end of the music business again, Art vowed that from now on he was going to concentrate on music for the sake of it, a vow he kept with his deliberately un-commercial 'Scissors Cut' album, the predecessor to 'Animal's Christmas'. Originally this project was to be performed at the local church once, perhaps the next few Christmases too if it was successful, and Art felt a real 'connection' with Webb who was also turning his back on music for money-making ends. Throwing in his lot, he agreed to perform the main roles (the narrator and 'Angel Gabriel', who more than one fan reckoned Art resembled anyway), turning up as a 'surprise' guest at rehearsals.
The marvellous reaction from everyone present on opening night came as a shock to everyone, as 'Animal's Christmas' isn't that easy a work to understand. There are no real melodies, what 'fun' and less solemn lyrics there are seem often buried behind obscure Biblical-type speak and although the story sticks probably closer to the original Bible source than almost every other re-telling of the story the emphasis is on human ignorance and stupidity rather than sweet talking animals as the name of the album suggests. There are no famous carols, no 'nicked bits' from popular Christmas songs and not one sleigh bell in sight - in fact I'd go so far as to say this is the last real genuinely traditional biblical project of the 20th century (if you can think of any exceptions, by all means send them in to our comments section). Encouraged, Webb decided to make the work bigger and better for 1984, developing much of the middle section of the album and giving Garfunkel a much bigger role than before. Shocked, everyone involved found word of mouth about the year before had made 'The Animal's Christmas' an even bigger hit and suddenly record companies were flocking up to record the project.
Not wanting to make any 'real' money from it, both Webb and Garfunkel were reluctant at first. It speaks volumes that the recording of the album was split in two, with 'sections' taped during December 1983 for a quick release, but only really starting up in earnest in December 1984. The fact that the album missed it's Christmas deadline and actually came out in January also suggests that no one involved was trying that hard to have a festive best-seller, which is a good thing: while not the flop you might be expecting from the description, 'The Animal's Christmas' wasn't a great success either and it's one of those albums whose good points are al the better for being uncovered unexpectedly, from an album you weren't expecting much from. The bad news is that 'Animal's Christmas' is one of those semi pop-classical music hybrids that grows on you with each repeated playing - which isn't something you're likely to do with a Christmas record between February and November every year. 'The Animal's Christmas' gets overlooked very easily, both by accident and design, and lies almost forgotten now in the discographies of both Webb and Garfunkel, despite the fact that the pair arguably spent more hours on this project that any other across the 1980s. Officially there has been a CD release for it, in the late 1990, although I haven't seen it anywhere and - perhaps because of the festive connotations - nothing from it has appeared on any Art Garfunkel compilation yet either. Alan's Album Archives is the home of lost and forgotten music, so it doesn't surprise us that we're reviewing an album hardly anybody bought and even less people played - the question is, do we recommend going out of your way to search for a record that's mighty difficult to track down?
Well, as ever, the answer is yes and no. Taken as a whole this might well be one of the dullest albums of your life on first hearing. There's nothing to break up the monotony of the London Symphony Orchestra rising and falling, seemingly at a whim with nothing to do with what the King's College School Choir are doing. At times Art's voice is strained past the point of recognition and although the 'extended' parts of the album are clearly better built for his soaring soprano, he gets precious little space to show off what he can actually do. The story that the songs tell is at once over-familiar and oblique, mixing the stories about the immaculate conception and no-room-at-the-inn with new cameos for camels and 'incredible phats the cat' that seem almost blasphemous against such holy musical surroundings. sadly none of these characters are given much of a chance to develop themselves, either, and if the ultimate goal of this work is to show that there is a better side to humanity after all then it's a shame that the cantankerous inn keeper and nasty King Herod come across as more interesting characters than any of the 'nice' animals who actually believe that Jesus is the son of God. Jesus himself is barely mentioned - which is a brave thing to do for such a religious work - usually referred to as 'the baby' and only occasionally as 'The Son Of God'. It would be like singing a whole book of Christmas carols without using the words. The children's choir is also a lot closer to 'Grandma We Love You' than, say, the one that appears on 'Another Brick In The Wall' and even though the words the children sing are often quite dark and daring for this sort of thing, it always comes out sounding too sweet. Even at its best this album has bitten off more than it can chew and there's nothing here to approach with the best work of wither Webb or Garfunkel and if Art is struggling with his vocals then that's nothing to the problems promising but less extinguished singer Amy Grant has with the piece.
And yet, you can't dismiss this album too easily either. Taken as a whole, there's a real mood about 'Animal's Christmas' that makes it hard to understand but easier to respect: the whole piece, cameos and all, seem to be leading onto a natural conclusion that's all but inevitable, the will of God. There's a real sense of something 'bigger' at work when powerful rulers like Herod and larger than life characters step aside because they 'know' what Mary and Joseph says to be true. While none of the songs individually are all that memorable, the effect and impact of hearing the full song cycle does stay with you for some time afterwards and certainly has had far more thought and heart put into it than all sorts of grotty Christmas merchandise. Art is not anywhere near his best here, but it's fun to hear him so far outside of his comfort zone and he pulls of an almost operatic part far better than pretty much anyone else in the same position could. Stern as the narrator, sweet as any number of animals, Garfunkel certainly has the range for this demanding role, even if the harshness it often demands from him doesn't come naturally to him. After almost a year of working on 'Hearts and Bones' and having almost no input, you can almost hear the cogs whirring in his head as perfectionist Art tries to work out how to make this challenging part even better and at times he's the most controlled, comfortable person in the room - even if it's a sparkling towering majestic room far bigger than that usually open to him.
At its simplest and humblest, 'The Animal's Christmas' also does a good job at capturing the spirit of Christmas better than even the Beach Boys festive albums do (we're not going to mention the appalling Moody Blues one for now!) 'Just A Simple Little Tune' is just about the best track on the album, perhaps because it's closest to what Art normally sings, and it's clearly about so much more than that: quiet understated moments of affection to kith and kin make more sense than whole verses about Jesus' birth, even if Christmas is all about religion to the listener (Christmas Day was a pagan time of celebration long before Christianity, after all). Also, there's nothing there that would have sounded out of place several hundred years ago. This is traditional, from the very 'heart' of what Christmas means and has always meant, dating back beyond the Christmas tree (a Victorian invention), the Christmas cards (ditto) and Cliff Richard (circa the middle ages). The fact that a forgotten 12th century Spanish Carol can be included at the 'heart' (or at least the middle) of the work with not much work needed to adapt it speaks volumes about 'The Animal's Christmas' and it's quest not to bow down to the gates of commercialism or dumbing down. Whether you like it or not - and for a lot of the time I must confess I didn't, both when I first heard this album and when I dug it out of it's Christmas tinsel for this review - it's hard not to respect something that risks so much to tell a story properly.
The work got and still gets unanimously positive reviews, though, even from pop critics who never usually come across this sort of thing which rather makes me wonder: did aybody really 'get' this work? Is it a case of the Emperor's New Clothes? (gee it's got an orchestra, it must be 'good' for you and all cultural, so we'll give it full marks even though I didn't understand a flipping word!') If so, then that's a shame. 'The Animal's Christmas' tries so hard to do away with all the rubbish that people speak about religion and music, as close to the 'source' as it possibly can. It needs us to say when it falls downhill and where it most falls apart is this: like many things worthy, you feel you ought to be watching and taking in, it also manages to be dull. The Incredible Phat - a cat who 'runs' the stables whatever the innkeeper says and leads Joseph and Mary to their safe place for the night - is a close cousin of The Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and TS Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book Of Cats', an extraordinary creature who sees more than mere mortals and ought to be the most memorable in a sea of fascinating creatures. Instead he passes by in the blink of an eye, having never actually done more than walk to a stable he always knew was there, despite the big build up his part in the story has. He's not actually incredible at all, he's an ordinary being caught up in an extraordinary story and that's what the whole work should have been about. Herod and co miss the real story unfolding before their eyes because they're too 'busy' talking about themselves and bigging up their own importance, leaving it to the humble animals to be more deserving and knowledgeable of what's really going on. Too often, though, each animal is introduced with a 'wow - how do they do that?!' persona they and us don't really deserve - had they been more like the nation's favourite Christmas animal the humble 'little donkey' and less like Mr Mestofeles, the amazing conjuring cat, 'The Animal's Christmas' would have got to the 'heart' of Christmas a little quicker still.
Still, if this album falls well short of the perfection it aims for then that's more because of how far it over-reaches itself. We've often said on this site that a poor album that has a go at trying something new is always preferable to a bland album that offers the same tired old things we've heard lots of time before and so with this album. Art himself called this work 'a gothic Cathedral of an album' and calls it 'the type of work that would have been given a papal commission long ago'. An album well out of time (1986 was perhaps the most commercialised year in the whole of music, what with the de facto tinny synth sound that seemed to be on everything back then and the sheer list of atrocious albums released that year, even by AAA members who should have known better), it's one of the few albums from the 1980s not to sound horribly dated to modern ears. The aim of this record soars way outside any of the musical boxes even the greatest of our AAA albums are naturally contained within and on that score releasing such an uncompromising uncommercial album as this one is one of the greatest achievements on our whole list. It's just a shame that, after such hard work and having been made for so many of the right reasons 'The Animal's Christmas' couldn't be just a teeny tiny touch more musical and a soupcon more joyous, so that even those of us who came to this album for Arty's voice rather than the music could find something deeply enjoyable to take away with us through the new year and beyond.
'The Annunciation' is a rather noisy opening. Art, an angel Gabriel, crashes in noisily on Mart's slumber without a by-your-leave with a rousing cry of 'hail!' Amy Grant makes for a rather sultry version of the Virgin Mary compared to normal, while Art is called on to shriek and shout so much it's a wonder he doesn't lose his voice. The 'twist' in this re-telling of the familiar tale is that Mary isn't just a virgin - she's never even had a boyfriend (Joseph isn't on the scene until later). Musically, this isn't so much a song as a recitative set to music. I seem to be alone amongst music fans here, but I don't feel that these sort of genres work that well in the context of albums. Pete Townshen'd written a few too over the years and to me it just sounds like someone singing a part they should really be speaking. The music is very much an afterthought and is constructed to fit round the words - you can understand why given the importance of the 'plot' to the album, but if you're listening to hear melodies as well then this is a particularly raw deal. There are also no animals in this song - you'd think the Angel Gabriel would be surrounded by a few birds or something wouldn't you? Bah! Humbug!
'The Creatures Of The Field' is closer in style to the rest of the album, telling the story of a concerned owl whose got a soft spot for Mary and wants to know why she's crying (how he slept through the sudden crash of 'Hail!' when the Angel first appeared goodness only knows). Alas the sheep don't know. We leave the song with Mary pacing up and down her room, unable to take the news in - and who can blame her? - and staring up at the stars. The owl's response is to sing her a lullaby to lull her off to sleep (that's ironic - most nights I'm kept awake by a nearby owl hooting with the strength with which Gabriel sings 'Hail!' on this album - perhaps I should lend him a copy of this album?) There is a decent tune here this time, finally giving Art something to get his teeth into and a lovely french horn part that double his lines that adds much texture and 'sorrow' to the scene. The children's choir are a little in the way here, though - clearly meant to be a sort of 'heavenly chorus' who can see things that we mere mortals can't, the way the song is structured means that they keep interrupting Arty whenever he's trying to sing.
'Just A Simple Little Tune' is my favourite moment on the album, the best mixture between the children-friendly animals and the adult-friendly religious fervour of the album. In a pre-cursor of the animals at stable who can offer nothing but their song, this is a cameo by the smallest, humblest creatures around to see events, determined to do their part in helping Mary's pregnancy. A cricket plays his legs, a nightingale sings harmony and 'a flop-eared hare dances a jig with a raccoon' , which isn't a passage I'm quite sure made it into the bible! This song is indeed 'just a simple little tune', but it actually has a tune at least and it's charming detail and quiet humble eloquence make it 'work' in a way that the rest of this occasionally high-brow album doesn't. This song might not be central to the plot as such and you could miss this song out without telling the story, but really it's integral: Nature is celebrating the birth of Christ even while mankind lies ignorant is the theme of this album and nowhere is that better explored than with this song.
'The Decree' is nice and melodic too, closer to the folk-rock of Art's own albums than anything else on this LP. Angel Gabriel seems to have more manners about him this time, entering subtly to view on Mary's progress without any cry of 'hail!' and actually caring for her feelings and how mankind might view her pregnancy out of wedlock, which didn't seem to have occurred to him before. Unfortunately, at the same time, Caesar Augustus is issuing a decree of his own concerning an extra tax and sending Mary and Joseph and others home to pay it (although this song's claims that he 'taxed the world' is a bit overstated: I doubt the American Indians, for instance, ever knew about it). The song tries to get dissonant and scary on the lines 'while she was great with child travelled through a country dark and wild', but at heart this is a happy song with the feeling that God's spiritual light will more than be enough of a match for man-made material darkness. Sadly there isn't an animal in this song, apart from the fact that Mary 'only had a donkey to ride'. Given his importance in the story, you'd think the poor donkey would get a full song of his own to sing?
'Incredible Phat' is a bit of a weird one. Forget what you thought you knew about the inn-keeper: he might think he's in charge but the inn was really run by his cat, the one with the weird name. A close cousin of the Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and Pink Floyd's 'Lucifer Sam', this is a mystical, magical cat who comes alive at night and sees things his poor mortal owners will never see. On paper this cat should be the single most incredible character of the story, sensing who this mysterious stranger is long before anyone else out of earshot (although given Gabriel's booming 'hail!' he probably woke up half the country anyway). Unfortunately he's barely mentioned, except in the last verse when he leads the party to safety and 'the warmest place on the coldest night of the year' - most of the song is taken up with the stupidity of the inn keeper, who cares more for the 'sheikh with three wives and the moneylender' because they have more money to pay. Well, Phat was having a 'saucer of beer' when we meet him - maybe he's a bit intoxicated and can't get his words out!This song's interesting detail not actually in the bible: the inn's name was 'The Elephant's Ear'. Did they have elephants in Bethlehem? I think not! Camels yes, elephants no. Sounding not unlike 'Breakaway', this song adds some nice guitar to the mix and Art sings with himself in harmony. The effect is one of the better sounding songs on the album, even if this sudden lurch from pure Christianity into pure novelty is a bit sudden and unskilfully handled.
'The Friendly Beasts' rounds out the first side with a traditional song that inspired the project, telling the story of the animals in the stable when Jesus was born, the first earthly creatures to greet him. The donkey, sheep, cow and dove all look after him and speak in turn of their vows of dedication to him and what they have to offer. Like many Victorian carols the result is awfully repetitive to modern ears and awfully earnest, but sweet all the same. The song (or maybe carol is a better term?) has easily the best melody on the album, however, soaring and beautiful and tinged with the melancholy of the story yet to come as well as the joy of the moment. Sadly, though, Art doesn't get much to do with this song, which is largely given over to the children's choir which makes the effect a little too cloying for its own good. Again, having done all the work, you'd expect the donkey to have a little bit better send-off from the story (isn't carrying Mary all that way slightly more important to the story than the Doves coo-ing baby Jesus off to sleep?) I'm also puzzled by the title - surely the animals in this song have proved themselves to be more than 'beasts', recognising their new savour long before the humans do (or is that the point, that the humans are really the 'beasts'?) And why has nobody looked up into the sky and gone 'gosh that star's big tonight innit?!'
'The Song Of The Camels, which begins side two, is based on a poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and yet it fits into the story very well indeed. With the three wise men riding on their back, the camels really are strangers in a strange land for this song, confused by the 'grass and shadowed plain and the splashing of rain'. As written originally, this song should have contained a 'surprise' ending whereby the camels carrying the most important men of their cities on their backs turn up, not at the palace as the camels expect, but at a lowly stable following a 'star'. Sadly the surprise is rather given away here, given the last 20 minutes spelling out the story! 'Camels'; is another of the better songs, however, fully engaging with seeing the world through animals' eyes, away from what the humans think and see, and frankly their story ought to be better known in the context of the nativity, especially the hardships they went through to reach Jesus. The last verse is especially descriptive as the camels drift back out of the story as mysteriously as the way they came: 'Back to the desert we paced our phantom state, and faded again in the sands that are as secret as fate, portents of glory and danger our dark shadows lay, at the feet of the babe in the manger...and then drifted away'. Musically this is another recitative-style piece, although this one is slightly more forgivable given how long the piece existed as words without the music, although it's a shame that Webb has chosen to replace a proper melody with awkward dynamics, that leave half the piece shrieking and the other half too quiet to hear.
'Words From An Old Spanish Carol' is next, the last of the album's songs with a 'traditional' origin. This old carol is about the celebration of the birth of Jesus in the natural kingdom, as one by one the animals go past the stable to salute their new king (including fish, bees, lambs, oxen, bulls, goats and a white bird). The stables must have been in one of the busiest nature sites around, nearby to a river, fields, heather hedgerows and 'far hills'! Only then do the local children, intrigued by the star, come shyly to see Jesus and light a candle for him. Art duets with Amy again on this song, although both are swamped by the full children's choir which recounts the tale over and over until you want to scream - like a Spanish equivalent of the Teletubbies (or a Cliff Richard's Greatest Christmas Hits CD). The weakest of the three 'proper' carols, this song deserved to have been lost, without the charm and wit of the other two and without a memorable melody to go with the song again. At least the words fit, though, with nature again much sharper on the uptake than mankind, who only notice Jesus because of natural phenomena (like the stars and the fact that all the animals have suddenly started acting funnily). Of course, if this was the modern day people would film the scene of all the animals offering their respect by putting it on youtube or making a mint from 'You've Been Framed'.
'Carol Of The Birds' is the turn of the feathered kingdom to pay their respects, disturbed by the giant star in the sky. Bringing their music with them, they cry out their songs across the skies and pass on the news of Jesus' birth ever further. Fittingly, 'Birds' is an upbeat piece, the most celebratory-like on the album and there are some neat touches from the woodwind section who do a god job of mimicking birds in flight. However, there's also a ghastly church organ playing most of the way through that nudges the whole piece uncomfortably down the religious route and a string section that sounds as if it's playing simply to try and drown out everyone else. Again, Arty's missing for much of this song, leaving the children's choir in command and the result is what should have been a light, fluffy song of joy buried underneath far too much weight. Had Art sang this song solo, or with just the woodwind, this might have been delightful: as it is it's a wonder Mary and co can sleep at all with all that racket going on just above their heads!
Do you remember a frog in the bible version of events? Me neither - RE lessons would have been a lot more fun has the 'Animal's Christmas' been a set text I have to say! The longest song on the album, at 5:15, this feels like more than a cameo too, with the plot of this song another of those incidental details that's actually the full story. Surprised by what's going on, and keen for the frog kingdom to play their part too, the frog gets a bit too close to the newborn infant and outrages everyone present. Laughing at him for his ugly features and his un-tuneful croak, the poor frog is made to feel most small and undeserving, but Jesus finds the frog's gifts of laughter and joy greater than any of the prettier songs the birds sing. Light from the Heavens then shines not on the bigger, prettier animals but on the humble frog, who is praised for doing his best and briefly given the gift of song, chosen out of all the animals as the 'voice' of nature to fill in the baby on life on Earth. Another of the album's better songs, 'The Frog' is a better parable than any that are actually in the bible, showing how even the lowly and unappealing of us have a voice that deserves to be heard and a beauty that works to our own ends. Sadly this song is another recitative-type, which means the that melody exists only to further the words and is instantly forgettable if indeed you ever noticed what it was doing in the first place. But here, at least, the use of a recitative is forgivable because the words are so strong and the story so integral to the plot. Interestingly this unknown frog is a lot better drawn as a character than any of the 'named' creatures, even though he doesn't strictly appear in the piece until a fair way through. Art is at his best here, too, clearly 'getting' this piece more than the more operatic and religious songs on the rest of the album. sadly, though, he doesn't get the chance to do his croaking impressions!
'Herod' is back in the story now and, like most of the humans in this nativity, he's so sure of his own importance that the response of all the animals to someone other than himself is confusing to him. The song starts off like a Horrible Histories jig ('Herod the curious was furious!') but ends up as the most Biblical-heavy on the album, quoting from the texts largely verbatim (although only in this version does he have a cackling pet raven, who yet again gets a rum deal from writers despite being quite a sweet little bird - I call that discrimination based on the colour of his feathers). Herod is on their tail but the swift disappearance of the animals means that Mary and Joseph know something is up and they flee to pastures new, Herod on their tale. It's hard to forgive the closing line ('Judas Iscariot, safe from his chariot, casts his eye over the land...') and the rest of the song isn't much better, another of the album's weaker tracks. That said, at least there's a bit of turbulence and tension in this song which, after 35 odd minutes' worth of peace and tranquillity, does at least shake the album a bit.
The album then closes with 'Wild Geese', hardly the animal I expected the album to end with. Pointing their way to freedom and escape, the geese swirl around the frightened travellers and protect them from Herod's soldiers on their path. Circling overhead, they cry 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!', celebrating the son of God's triumphant birth and escape. A swirling, dramatic song with church organs a blaring and the choir 'ahhh-ahh'ing like they've been possessed, this finale sadly doesn't feature much Art Garfunkel either, belatedly giving Amy Grant a great deal more to do (she's at her best here on this, the most straightforward part she's been given). Considering the journey we've been on, it's a shame to leave the album a) just as the plot's hotting up and b) on such an empty song, made up of the smallest number of verses and without much real input from the animals as characters. Like the rest of the album 'Wild Geese' is frustrating because while the idea is a good one and a fitting end to the story, it's not all that likeable as a song in its own right, too fussy and unmelodic for most people's tastes.
That said, even at its worst 'The Animals' Christmas' is a festive album with a strong story at the centre of it (the animal kingdom's quick acceptance of their new King and mankind's sheer ignorance) and a number of very good ideas, the most 'animal-like' amongst the songs working by far the best ('Just A Simple Little Tune' and 'The Frog', the two pieces here that really do work at conjuring up an alternate view of the usual nativity story). The few times he's allowed to sing something rather than speak-sing it, Art Garfunkel too is perfect casting, soaring away with the angelic voice of old and only really coming unglued when the story expects him to act harshly or carry too much of the plot. 'The Animal's Christmas' isn't an easy piece to perform (which might be why, despite the generally strong reception, it hasn't been performed outside New York) and is an even harder one of the listener to get a hold of, juggling several ideas and songs that aren't so much a collection of songs as orchestral accompaniment to poetry. This work could and should be even more moving than it is already, forced to decide for good between being an austere re-telling of the nativity with scary shadowy figures or a sweet re-telling of the story via animals and characters. This record tries too hard to have it both ways and ends up pleasing fans of neither side. But that said - at least this album tries to add something to the 'Christmas' listening experience rather than recycling the same old hat and everyone involved is at least trying to make this work. So, as it's Christmas, I'll give this one a cautious thumbs-up to those wanting something rare to put under the Christmas tree for their Art Garfunkel fanatical family member or friend or alternately anyone who likes their Christmas music religious, traditional and with children's choirs attached. 'The Animal's Christmas' is not for everyone - it's very much made for adults despite the cutesy name and the pre-teens who do most of the singing - but approach this piece of music in the right way and it may nicely surprise you all the same.