Monday, 15 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 16 (Intro)

Ho! Ho! Ho! Welcome to the first of our two Christmas special newsletters which have been carried to you by virtual reindeer sitting on a virtual sleigh, pulled by the members of Slade as penance for that Xmas single that seems to be everywhere again this year. Well, there’s not much news to tell you about again this week - except that Christmas is coming and the Spice Girls’ wallets are getting fat. Again. Still there’s enough material here to fill a Pink Floyd concept double album, so if you’re still in search of some CDs to fill some stockings stay tuned for our handy guide to the best AAA releases of 2008!

Beatles news: Firstly, though, a small addition to last week’s article about the Beatles I-tunes downloads saga. Paul Gambacini was debating the issue on his radio two programme on Saturday night and guest Pete Waterman had some unusually interesting comments (alongside the usual plugs for Kylie and Jason Donovan). He said that if the Beatles do issue all their material in one go as planned then we could well see the first ever top 20 or even top 50 chart filled by a single artist, possibly for weeks on end if enough Beatle fans have converted to using MP3s and suchlike. It would be interesting to see which Beatles track comes top too as fans and newcomers should have the whole of the fab four’s 1960s catalogue to choose from (we reckon it’ll be #1 Hey Jude, #2 Yesterday and #3 A Day In The Life). Alas, though, the EMI/ Apple dispute is still going on, making this whole paragraph redundant for the time being the EMI/ Apple cry seems to be ‘don’t let me down’(load)! (Why haven’t the BBC used that joke yet? Do they not know any Beatles B-sides for goodness sake?!)

CSN news: Crosby, Stills and Nash will be touring in America next year, but with a very interesting difference. Like the Rolling Stones before hand they are inviting fans to nominate their favourite songs now for inclusion in their set lists next year – only this time it won’t just be one song that’s chosen from a handful of selections but a more or less complete gig. I know we Brits won’t get to see them perform on their American tour but a) this site might make it to a worldwide search engine over the Winter without me realising and b) chances are the trio will follow it up with a British/ European tour, hopefully following the same idea. So get your nominations in now and visit            . Personally, I’d love to see the band revive Crosby’s ‘Laughing’ (not performed regularly since Crosby-Nash’s concerts in the early 70s), Stills’ ‘Word Game’ (which was last a setlist regular in 1976 and – to the best of my knowledge – only performed on Stephen’s solo tours) and Nash’s ‘Another Sleep Song’ (which was most likely only performed once, for Graham’s solo appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974). What other CSN songs would readers like to see them do? And is anyone lucky enough to get tickets?

Hollies news: Sorry for the late mention, but guitarist Tony Hicks made a rare radio appearance as Suzi Quatro’s guest on Radio Two last Saturday. Speaking about his influences, Tony chose the music that had inspired him, including the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Monday Monday’ (he and Graham Nash attended the recording session apparently – I’d not heard that story before!), Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Don’t Run And Hide - a Hollies cover from the rare Everly Brothers album ‘Two Yanks In England’ (on which the duo are backed by the Hollies, along with guitarist Jimmy Page) and, err, a meandering song by Foreigner. We in Britain haven’t heard Tony talk at this length about his music for ages (though he used to be on German radio a lot not long ago I believe) so this was a welcome early Christmas present from Radio Two (I think its still available from the BBC’s online I-player for a couple of weeks if anyone missed it).    

It wasn’t mentioned on the above programme, but Tony Hicks (Hollies guitarist 1963-present) is also celebrating his birthday this week (he turns 65 on December 16th), along with Keith Richards (Rolling Stones guitarist 1963-present, although if you needed me to tell you what group he was in you’re probably looking at the wrong site!) who also turns 65 on December 18th (who would have thought looking at them that baby-faced Tony Hicks was the elder of the two?!) and Carl Wilson, who would have been celebrating his 62nd birthday on December 21st. Anniversaries of events this week include: George Harrison’s deportation from Hamburg after being found playing with the Beatles in a Hamburg club while under-age, an event which effectively splits the group up for a couple of months (December 16th 1960); The Who call it a day – for the next seven years at least – after playing a ‘farewell’ gig in Toronto on December 17th 1982 and the Beatles begin their first and only stage show, ‘The Beatles Christmas Show’, with a performance at Bradford Gaumont on December 21st 1963. Forget the lukewarm reviews of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ on telly at Boxing Day – this forgotten segment in the fab four’s history was actually the first poorly received Beatle enterprise in the general public eye and it too has a Xmassy link. , Alas, though, us post-60s fans will never know for sure – unlike the godawful Take That and Girls Aloud concerts on over Christmas this year no one thought to record it for posterity!

Last Minute Yoko Ono News: Mrs Lennon is celebrating 50 years of being an artist with an exhibition of many of her works in London (Gateshead I think, but my shorthand let me down taking down this news item this morning!) Lots of the displays will be well known to Beatle fans, including an ‘Imagine Peace’ banner, a video of the JohnandYoko Amsterdam bed-in for peace and, most movingly, a step-ladder leading up to the word ‘yes’ written on a ceiling (the art piece that brought the pair together at a similar back in 1968). Sadly, there has been no mention of the Yoko trademark ‘grapefruit’ on any of the news reports – get that book reprinted Yoko! Whether your avent grateful or avent garde a clue (joke copyright George Harrison 1969) it might be worth a trip if you’re a fellow Beatlesnut.

News, Views and Music Issue 16 (Top Five): Releases Of The Year 2008

♫ We end this newsletter and wave an early goodbye to 2008 with our latest top five – the best releases of the year. It’s not been a vintage year for fans of AAA artists by any means, but we have had a smattering of juicy re-issues (with an emphasis on complete unreleased live performances this year I’ve noticed) and a few return-to-form new releases to savour throughout 2008 and beyond.

5) “Bark”/ “Long John Silver” (Jefferson Airplane, 1971/72). It may seem strange that I’m listing probably the two worst records out of a handful the original Airplane ever made as one of the best CD sets of the year – especially as this set has no bonus tracks included - but there’s a reason for my madness. These two sets may not be vintage Airplane but they are far too good to have waited a staggering 21 years since the first sale of a CD player to be re-issued and re-released, especially ‘Bark’ which has more than its fair share of minor gems lurking between the filler material. Both albums are also a case in point for how good CD mastering can be when it’s done right – both albums sounded horribly, often unplayably murky on vinyl, as if the Airplane’s fine band interplay was going on down a wind tunnel somewhere just out of ear-shot. While neither album sounds ‘clear’ in the traditional sense on CD, it’s still nice to hear them in their ‘true’ state at long last and both of these neglected and rather unloved sets are in firm need of appraisal. Alas, though, it’s a sign of our times that I never saw this set in the shops even once – I had to order mine from a mail order catalogue and even that doesn’t seem to be listing this CD set anymore.It’s worth seeking out though, if only to hear Grace Slick insulting the world in German – because, as she correctly guessed, the American censors would be too lazy to translate it!  

4) “The Present” (Moody Blues, 1983). Another album long long loooong overdue for a proper CD re-issue (it came out as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it set in the late 80s which I have never seen once in 15 years of collecting all things Moodies, even at some exorbitant price in a second-hand shop), this set and its two companions (‘Octave’ and ‘Long Distance Voyager’) are often overlooked in the Moodies’ back catalogue. None of these first three reunion sets can compare to the band’s original seven – but then what can? ‘The Present’ is a particularly sturdy set, full of glorious Justin Hayward ballads, a classic moody Graeme Edge piece, some of the better uptempo John Lodge songs of the later Moodies era and Ray Thomas seemingly going mad at the end of the album – all pretty much for the last time, sadly, as in my opinion only Hayward seems to be intermittently on form on any of the band’s later albums. And like all good Moodies releases, it’s commercial and catchy without sacrificing depth; full of then-contemporary technology without sacrificing the classic late 60s sound that the Moodies mined better than pretty much everyone in their day. Alas the bonus tracks on all three sets were a bit of a let down but, hey, it’s Christmas, forgive and forget.   

3) “Déjà vu” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young DVD, 2008). Social commentary is always a hard thing to control in popular mainstream music – ignoring issues going around you for the whole of your career can make an artist seem ‘soft’ and unimportant, while throwing yourselves into a cause head-first puts off all of your fan-base that don’t think the same way as you. But CSNY at their best – whether solo, in pairs, as a trio or, rarely, as a quartet – have always done their best to reflect their times and give their fans a voice that otherwise might not be heard. For the first time in too long, this Neil Young dominated DVD finds the band flying head-first down the ‘social comment’ road, with every song on this 2006 tour a dig at George Bush’s ‘fake’ presidency somewhere down the line. The audience at the concerts don’t know what to make it, half of them cheering and half of them jeering, but for CSNY fans with open minds this tour souvenir was a welcome reminder of how brave and how special this band really are. All together now, ‘Let’s impeach the president for lying…’

2) “Electric Arguments” (The Fireman aka Paul McCartney and Youth, 2008). I doubt they’ve even heard of my website, but since my review for this album (newsandreviews 13a) every critic in the land seems to have joined in and called this album ‘McCartney III’ in honour of the two experimental, improvised albums that came out either side of Macca’s Wings discography. Temporally escaping from his world tour band for the first time in three albums, this is the special, experimental side of McCartney’s character that we don’t get to see very often and – after more or less 15 years in the wilderness – few of us ever thought we’d see throughout a whole album again. Performing under a pseudonym and giving full reign to his improvisation skills seems to have given Mr Macca new lease of life at long last, freed of his huge overbearing weight of a musical past and allowing him to go back to actually enjoying his music. Linda, always the biggest supporter of Macca’s more eccentric tastes, would have been dead proud. Heather Mills, on the other hand, seems to have been uncharacteristically stunned into silence after the release of this album and its uncharitable Mills-slaying opening track. More please Macca!

1) “Pacific Ocean Blue”/ “Bambu” (Dennis Wilson, 1977 and unreleased recordings, mainly from 1979). We Beach Boys fans have waited for a proper CD release of this album for so long, it positively hurt. And, unlike many ‘lost gems’ (Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ firmly excluded) this album didn’t disappoint. Here’s drummer Dennis Wilson at the crossover point of his life – his voice already gruff and lived in after years of excess and success, but still functioning well enough to put his sorrows into words and with oh so much on his mind. The second CD, full of tracks from an unfinished but still album-length follow-up release ‘Bambu’, is just as good if not better. Taken together, these two projects sounds like Tony Asher’s confused and lovestruck lyrics from ‘Pet Sounds’ set to the raging, ever-changing and always engaging music of ‘Smile’, all set to heartbreaking orchestral accompaniment, Dennis’ razor-sharp heartmelting voice and a large dollop of help from fellow genius and baby brother Carl Wilson. Which, as almost any Beach Boys fan will tell yopu, as good as music is ever going to get. Take ‘Smile’ out of the equation (and the Hollies’ long-lost 1973 album ‘Out On The Road’, issued in the UK for the first time in 2005) and this album is a strong candidate for best release of the decade by any artist. It was certainly the highlight of my year.      

Other new releases of the year you might have missed:

♫ Belle and Sebastian “The BBC Sessions”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Déjà vu Live” (soundtrack CD)

♫ David Gilmour (and Rick Wright) “Live In Gdansk

♫ Graham Gouldmann and Kevin Godley aka 10cc “Clever Clogs” (live DVD with new material)

♫ Grateful Dead “Live In Egypt 1978” (previously unreleased live recording)

♫ Jefferson Starship “Tree Of Liberty” (a series of covers of ‘influential’ songs)

♫ The Kinks “Music Box” (6 CD box-set with a dozen unreleased tracks)

♫ Moody Blues “Octave” and “Long Distance Voyager” (first proper CD issues of old material)

♫ Oasis “Dig Out Your Soul”

♫ Rolling Stones “Shine A Light” (DVD and live soundtrack CD)

♫ Cat Stevens “Tea For The Tillerman” (Deluxe Re-issue)

♫ Brian Wilson “That Lucky Old Sun”

♫ Neil Young “Sugar Mountain” (one of Neil’s ‘Archive’ live recordings from 1968)

 Well that about wraps it up for another issue – see you next week for our last newsletter of 2008 and our last here at the AAA before our Winter break (set to include the top five AAA-related Xmas songs!) Happy listening till then!


Johnny Cash "The Xmas Collection" (News, Views and Music 16)

“There’s a choir outside of my house singing ‘Silent Night’, for any little thing that’s gone wrong Christmas makes it right”

 “The Christmas Collection” (Johnny Cash, compilation first released in 2003 containing music recorded between 1963-1980)

R.I.P. Woolworths, beloved shop full of bargain CDs unavailable anywhere else. Survivor of almost a century of changing public tastes, numerous recessions (don’t belive a word of the press reports that are making out the credit crunch to be the ‘worst in living memory’, it’s not even matched the 1991 early 90s recession yet) and the poor sales of the Spice Girls Greatest Hits CD. Never more will cash-castrated music fans like myself hunt down your shelves for an exclusive bargain, never more will we find ourselves automatically drifting off to the Woollies shop doorway even though we are meant to be going somewhere else (hey, I can’t help it – I just feel this shop calling to me sometimes). How apt, then, that the last item I will probably buy in one of my favourites shops is one of the last reviewed for this year’s newsletters.

Alas, though, like many a cheap discounted Woollies CD, what we have is not so much a missing, neglected gem as a small handful of missing neglected gems nestling amongst several tracks that should have remained hidden. Johnny Cash has appeared in Woolworths more than most down the years, mainly because his early material is already out of copyright and cheap to re-issue and, alas, a quick catch-all of any artist’s early recorded-in-three-days repertoire is unlikely to be their greatest work. This set is slightly different, with the majority of Christmas-related songs released in the 1960s rather than the 50s and a couple dating from as late in the Man In Black’s career in 1980. What we get is a potpourri of Cash’s Christmas-themed records, including the poorly-received ‘Christmas Spirit’ (1963), the marginally more popular ‘Christmas and the Cash Family’ (1972) and a handful of flop singles. Christmas never seemed to suit the dark tones of Cash in the eyes of the public but Johnny never pretended to be a Perry Como at Christmas – what we get here are mainly dark cautionary tales told in a gravel voice, with a few up-tempo tracks to interrupt the flow.

None of these are among Cash’s best works, but then neither are most Christmas-themed records – what we get instead is affordable background music for when we wrap our presents and fall over trying to put an angel on the Christmas tree yet again, just like we did last year. The most interesting pieces are Cash’s own and a handful of these deserve to be better known – the bouncy set closer ‘That Christmassy Feeling’, the moody ‘Christmas As I Knew It’ and especially the brief but compelling ‘Who Kept The Sheep?’ sound the equal of many of the better-known (too well known?!) carols included here. Alas, the rest of the CD is Cash getting his tonsils round some particularly dreary arrangements of all the old suspects – ‘O Come All Ye Faithful, a particularly funeral ‘Joy To The World’, ‘Away In A Manger’ (which seems to have become ‘Away In A Mangle’ given Cash’s torturous vocal here), ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ – even the usually upbeat carols like ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Silent Night’ sound faintly depressing in their new setting here. A surprisingly sprightly ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and the lesser known ‘Peace IN The Valley’ are easily the highlights of the usual suspects, with a pace and power missing from many of the other seasonal over-produced tracks here, especially given the no-good-narrator in the latter track looking forward to happier times, a precursor of the persona that’s going to serve Cash well at his peak during his prison concert albums of the late 60s. Still, though, there’s no getting away from it - if it’s a miserable Christmas you’re looking for this year, look no further than this set. Opener ‘Blue Christmas’ is about the most happy-go-lucky track here! If only Cash had covered some of the more unusual and too often forgotten carols in his gorgeous gravely tones  – ‘The Star Carol’, ‘Riu Chiu’ and especially the drop-dead beautiful why-the-hell-don’t-more-people-record-it-even-outside-Christmas ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ – this set could have become a late contender for re-release of the year.

The biggest Christmas Turkey of all, though, is wife June Carter’s how-can-Johnny-keep-a-straight-face, my-folks-were-poor-and-still-gave-us-love monologue ‘Ringing The Bells For Jim’. Yep, that’s right, the family have no money but still manage to give most of that away to a family who lived down the street with even less and the narrator tells us verse after averse that he fought his brother but still gave him his treasured whistle for Christmas to tell him that he loved him. Half of me still wants to go ‘aaah’ after writing that list, but hearing all this delivered in a monotone vocal for the longest three minutes of your life, well, it’s enough to make you choke on your brussel sprouts. But Christmas is a time for forgiving and there is still much to enjoy on this CD. Cash’s vocals are never less than magnificent and are often better than that, his songwriting is at its best on many of the later self-written tracks and the choir who keep sticking their noses in every time a track from the 1963 album crops up aren’t as irritating as many a Christmas Choir. If you like Johnny Cash this album is worth standing in a long Woollies closing down sale queue for – it just might not be the first thing you bring down out of your loft come next year. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫ (4/10).