Well, dear readers, that wasn’t the year we were after was it? Plague, riots, famine, wars, a near-collision with an asteroid, half the world on fire, the other half sinking beneath the waves, The Pentagon admitting UFOs were real, brain-eating amoebas (seriously!) and even (briefly) a spree of killer murder hornets, if 2020 had been a TV series we’d have all stopped watching a long time ago because it was too ‘far-fetched’. Goodness knows what happens in the ‘series finale’…At times it felt like the world had told us all to collectively go to our rooms and think about we’d done, to the planet and each other. There was a time I didn’t think we were going to make it, but here we are and the new year is only just around the corner (sorry this article is a bit later than usual by the way: we were waiting for Kevin Godley to put his debut solo album out and it didn’t arrive till December 17th!) It’s not been a classic AAA year by any means – most of our musicians were too burnt out for new work and I can’t say I blame them as I’ve got very little writing done this year too – but in amongst the difficult days were a few high spots, most of them courtesy of the ever-prolific Neil Young, the continuation of the Grateful Dead archive series , a sudden flurry of Pink Floyd-related DVD releases, an even more sudden flurry of unexpected Cat Stevens releases and an all-too-short Corona-virus concert that starred many an AAA band. For once the best thing I’ve heard all year isn’t an AAA album either – a quick plug for Kara Jane’s superlative album ‘It’s Still M.E.’ fundraiser for m.e. charities, which have the best songs about living with the condition this side of Belle and Sebastian and was recorded one line at a time to enable her to rest. With long covid in the news so much this year it’s been sobering to hear of so many people facing such similar obstacles to their health. It has though been so good to see the support between our two communities in this unwelcome health club we share.
As for us, well, it’s been a quiet year full of healing and contemplation and m.e. and covid crashes (interrupted by the odd album you can read about below played loud!) However we did reach two milestones this year: one million hits on the website (wow!) and one thousand books sold (triple wow!) A big thankyou to readers old and new – this year our old Friends Slack TV, Barnacle Bum, Cecilia, The Face Of Bo, Hokeyboy, Martin, Joel, Kevin, Kenny, Bethany and my Aunty Julie have been joined by new friends in Louwe (@ljvdboomen), Gregg and Maurice (everybody check out his brilliant ‘Love That Album’ podcast now! https://player.fm/series/love-that-album-2362756) This is also, I guess, a kind of farewell to you all as our last book (‘A Scrapbook Of Madness’) came out at the start of the month and I don’t have plans for any more. Instead there’s a philosophy-masquerading-as-a-sci-fi-come-romance novel due for the middle of 2021 (featuring a continuation of the relationship between clandusprods, belobrats and humans as explored in our ‘Aril Fool’s Day’ columns) and a long lie down! Never say never though. Writing Alan’s Album Archives has been one of the great pleasures of my life. The people I’ve met, the records I’ve heard and the places it has taken me are the journey of a lifetime that I will always treasure and there are of course many more wonderful records out there that need somebody to write about them. If no one else takes up the job in the meantime maybe it will be me again! In the meantime, though, there will be one final post at the start of next year with links to all the e-books (and hopefully some new places to buy them from if you don’t like using Amazon), plus I fully intend to come back and add my reviews of the years annually. Who knows? If enough AAA musicians get a move on I might even be back with ‘second editions’ of these books one day. Till then, though, this is a fond farewell from a grateful writer to the best readers in the world – I am so glad you came to visit and wish you much happiness, peace, love, light and the best music that ever there was.
(Best to Worst)
1) Neil Young “Homegrown” (Reprise)
Separate Ways/Try/Mexico/Love Is A Rose/Homegrown/Florida/Kansas/We Don’t Smoke It No More/White Line/Vacancy/Little Wing/Star Of Bethlehem
I must admit I wasn’t expecting much from this year’s lone release from the long-running ‘Neil Young Archives’ series. Unlike previous unreleased albums ‘Homegrown’ didn’t have the bootleg following of previous releases ‘Hitch-Hiker’ or the ‘gee-many-of-my-favourite-moments-on-later-albums-all-seem-to-stem-from-the-same-sessions frisson of ‘Chrome Dreams’. The back-story to ‘Homegrown’ didn’t help inspire enthusiasm: recorded in 1974 Neil was very close to releasing it but at the ‘wrap party’ his audience were disappointed by it and when somebody flipped the cassette over to play yet another abandoned album and raved about it (1973’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’) Neil put that out instead. Poor ‘Homegrown’, even its own creator didn’t love it enough to release it. Forty-six years on, though and it’s a revelation, a spooky haunted frightened little record that expands the infamous ‘Doom Trilogy’ to a quartet and finds Neil in the darkest time of his personal life until, well, now. The parallels between then and now are huge: as with ‘Time Fades Away’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’ in 1973 Neil has just buried a much-loved friend far too soon (pedal steel player Ben Keith, whose played on more Young records than Neil himself), as with ‘On The Beach’ America is turning to ruin (though it’s Trump not Nixon facing impeachment) and Neil has just broken up with a long-term partner (only here it’s actress Carrie Snodgrass who haunts the album, not wife Pegi). ‘Homegrown’ is a deeply personal album, recorded unplugged for the most part with Neil clearly drunk when he wrote some of these songs and stoned out of his mind when recording some others (the rambling stream of consciousness ‘Florida’ is every bit as weird as it seemed when written out as the liner notes to ‘Tonight’s The Night’). He sounds as if he’s about to be rock’s next casualty, lurching from one song of defeat to another as he goes back and forth between making it up with the father of his eldest son (and whom he still clearly loves) and walking away to pastures new. Along the way Neil compares the beauty of roses with the thorns that keep beauty safe (Decade’s ‘Love Is A Rose’ which finally makes sense in context), pierces the myth of true love and miracles (‘Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all’ in a career highlight from 1977 that here at the end of the album will make you cry), uses his own wife’s quotes as examples of why things will never work out (Try’s ‘I’d like to take a second chance, but shit Mary I can’t dance!’) and wakes up in a fever-dream in the surreal land of Oz only to realise that this is his new reality and his old life in Kansas has gone, destroyed by a tornado that was beyond his control (‘Kansas’). Across the album Neil goes through the stages of grieving in record time – the sad, the mad and the glad parts are all first-class as Neil evolves from aching loss to acceptance that things just weren’t meant to be. It’s the denial parts that stop this record being up there with Neil’s absolute best: we always knew that the title track was a dopey song about dope (though it sounds better here in its first, more ‘complete’ version than when Crazy Horse get hold of it in 1977), while ‘Florida’ is an experiment too far and ‘We Don’t Smoke It No More’ the laziest 12 bar Neil’s ever written (yep, even more than ‘Vampire Blues’!) However this album still wins our review of the year by a country mile with the powerful poignancy of ‘Mexico’ (Neil is shattered and desperate, ready to flee everything he knows to start his life all ver again), ‘Kansas’ (Neil at his at most scared and vulnerable as he wishes he was anywhere else) and ‘Vacancy’ (an angry turbulent rocker that’s still in so much pain as Neil wonders what alien has taken over his wife whose loving eyes which were once so full of life are now so empty) as strong a mini-trilogy as anything on Neil’s greatest albums. Neil’s archive sets are often at the top of our yearly lists, but this year’s unexpected and largely un-bootlegged gift might just be the best of them all. Download: ‘Kansas’ ‘Mexico’ ‘Vacancy’
2) Kevin Godley “Muscle Memory” (State 51 Conspiracy)
Expecting A Message/The Ghosts Of The Living/Hit The Street/The Bang Bang Theory/5 Minutes Alone/Cut To The Cat/One Day/All Bones Are White/Periscope/Song Of Hate/Bulletholes In The Sky
Releasing his first true solo album at the age of seventy-five is not something many artists could get away with, but as you’ll realize a few times across this fascinating, frequently bewildering, often infuriating album, the former 10cc drummer is not like most artists. This album is the most 21st century record I think I’ve heard so far by anyone, full of contemporary electro-pop that frequently sounds futuristic, more something a teenager should be coming up with in his bedroom than a rocker who was middle-aged before synths were even a thing. Working out what this album sounds like is deliciously impossible – at times it’s a melodic rap album, with Kevin spitting out rhymes with venom faster than you can say ‘goodbye Trump!’, at others it’s a slow creeping ambience album full of a poetic urgency about how mankind is running out chances to get his and her act together, at others it’s the most bonkers simple pop album ever made. If it sounds like anything it’s the last full work by Kevin, Godley-Creme’s ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’, released a full thirty-two years ago (and interestingly nothing like GGo6’s half-an-album collaborations with Graham Gouldmann fourteen years ago). With so many years away mostly shooting music videos for other artists, Kevin’s voice sounds less worn than many of his peers (especially the two either side of this review) and he still has that hugely impressive range from golden falsetto to dark sinister bark on a series of songs that never tested his range more. This is even a highly 2020 album (even if most of it was done in 2019) with Kevin working with a bunch of long-distance collaborators who sent him instrumentals in the post for him to add his touches to. In truth it should be credited to dozens of names – however the clever bit is that it still feels like Godley all the way through, from the political drabbing of ‘The Bang Bang Theory’ to the ‘Neanderthal Man’ style drumming and the high sarcasm in falsetto of the ‘Godley-Creme’ days. Sometimes this album works quite brilliantly: ‘One Day’ manages the hard task of being both deeply sarcastic and uplifting, ‘Ghosts Of The Living’ is a haunting song about, well, being haunted and the importance in forgiving when moving on from things that didn’t work, ‘Hit The Street’ a song from the last ‘roaring twenties’ set to this year’s boring twenties, veering from electronic landscape to jazz, ‘Five Minutes Alone’ is a song about dying and the things in life that really matter, set to the sound of a mobile ring-tone which works a lot better on disc than it does on paper. Sometimes it drives me mad: ‘Bulletholes In The Sky’ is bland cod-opera ballad, ‘Cut To The Cat’ is a bunch of butch distorted-voice robots debating a media-mogul future and spotting non-existent trends, ‘All Bones Are White’ a very modern song about inter-company politics and jealousy full of swearing and sarcasm set to a primitive drum beat. Throughout the whole album, though, Godley is trying to do things with music not only he but everyone else in the music business has never done before and considering the amount of ground Godley has himself covered the extra universe of possibilities this album opens up is incredibly impressive indeed. Oh and the album cover is brilliant too in a very 10cc-traditional way – inanimate natural objects aligned to really look like Kevin, from the colander-ears to the quite literally bushy hairdo. Download: ‘One Day’ ‘Ghosts Of The Living’ ‘Hit The Street’ ‘Five Minutes Alone’
3) Paul McCartney “McCartney III”
Long Tailed Winter Bird/Find My Way/Pretty Boys/Women and Wives/Lavatory Lil/Slidin’/Deep Deep Feeling/The Kiss Of Venus/Seize The Day/Deep Down/Winter Bird-When Winter Comes
Paul wasn’t expecting to make another record so soon after 2018’s horrific ‘Egypt Station’, but with lockdown cancelling his other plans and with time on his hands while staying with daughter Mary and his grandkids, the muse came calling in what Paul referred to as ‘rockdown’. Just as in 1970 and 1980 this is Paul fully solo, playing every last note himself and following ideas instinctively one overdub at a time (his drumming is particularly powerful this record). Where it differs, though, is that ‘McCartney III’ sounds more polished than any of his albums have for a while (a decade?) and certainly more than the improvised madness of ‘McCartney’ or the synths-in-the-kitchen ‘McCartney II’. Like its two predecessors, however, Macca III is a chance to expand on our idea of who Paul is and push his music into directions he’s never been in before and that’s where the album’s strengths lie – in being a very un-McCartney ‘McCartney’ album, with each and every roll of the dice on the cover. What it lacks, sadly, is that natural musicality that is such a McCartney trademark and the sense of being a comforting, fully enjoyable listen – but then I guess we do have all the other McCartney albums in our collection to go to for that. The first half is like a bullish Lennon record, feisty and full of guitars and drums that snarl and sting more than they soar, before moving on to a more spiritual, lyrical Harrison-like record that’s like a ‘Paul’ take on ‘All Things Must Pass’, anticipating death in the way that only a McCartney record can – with a smile and curiosity in what comes next. Interestingly there’s none of the urgency his fellow Beatle felt in his twenties – once a few noisier tracks at the beginning are out the way this is Paul’s calmest, most laidback LP for some time where with time to spare thinking Paul goes ‘deep’(well, relatively). Like many of us in lockdown Paul has been spending this period of isolation looking inward and so there are fewer characters than usual on this record (only the unlikely Heather Mills-style gold-digger that is ‘Lavatory Lil’) and much more about his own thoughts and ideas and especially his worries. Time and again the theme of death, of Winter, of birds taking Wing(s) to exotic and exciting new horizons abound, particularly on the stronger songs in the middle. ‘Women and Wives’ sounds like Paul passing on Grandudery advice to the grandkids he’s taken to tucking into bed every night, a deeper silly love song than usual about what it means to live and love from a man whose experienced it all (‘Many choices to make, many choices to travel…keep your feet off the ground and get ready to run!’) ‘Slidin’ is an out-of-body experience come-acid-trip that finds Paul peering through the windows-in-his-head onto the afterlife to come and (with true McCartney verve) looking forward to the exciting possibilities of what comes next. ‘Seize The Day’ meanwhile is Paul all over, a reminder to him and to us to make the most of every day in case it is our last. ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ is an eight minute epic, a blues prog rock song about the ‘other’ side of romance, when ‘you love someone so much you feel your heart’s gonna burst’ afraid of the mistakes and problems and things falling apart but how it’s still the most important thing in the world and the cornerstone for his muse (it’s all a bit repetitive to be the true classic fans and reviewers are claiming but the fact there’s nothing ese like it in one of the biggest catalogue’s in rock still says much about McCartney at aged 78). In the midst of all these unusual musical twists and turns ‘The Kiss Of Venus’ is the one song here that will last the test of time, sounding like the most natural McCartney song in the world but even that’s a whole new Broad Street for Paul to travel down lyrically, a debate on horoscopes and fate and planet placements that is set to one of Paul’s typically note-perfect melody lines. Then, after looking into the void and the bigger picture for the whole album with one eye over his shoulder to the enormity of that ever present past, Paul comes back to Earth for one last song dusted off from a George Martin session in 1992 that finds Paul the Mull of Kintyre farmer obsessed with the little details again. Like the rest of us Paul is heading back out to the real world after his enforced time indoors and in his own mind and tying up all the loose ends he can (as George once told his old friend, the art of dying is to leave life as completed as you can and Paul knows he still has much to do and say to us). Winter raises its head again, a time of endings and renewals as already heard on past classics like ‘Winter Rose’ and ‘Footprints’, but notably the setting of quite a few of the songs here (odd for an album started in Spring and reportedly finished off in Summer – no wonder the release date for this album keeps being pushed back later and later!) The result is an album that’s always thoughtful and wins marks for bravery (this time it really is ‘New’, unlike…erm…’New’! Even if that album’s highest points are yet higher) without yet embracing the heights of what Paul can do (such as the better halves of a ‘McCartney or a McCartney II). Like five out of six of the last Macca albums now we’re still left waiting for something we know this man is truly capable of (when ‘Electric Arguments’ pushed the boat out even more than this), with too many infantile lyrics and songs that fall short (‘Lavatory Lil’ is nonsense, even for a fan who found close cousin ‘Polythene Pam’ funny and the opening near-instrumental unusually ugly) or – very uncharacteristically – tracks that take a good idea but drag it on long past their welcome. Paul is still struggling massively with his voice at times as well, to the point where he sounds more like Waits than Wings – the sudden switch back to the 1990s at the end revealing just how bad those struggles have become lately after twenty years of constant touring. Oh and don’t get me started on the four pricey ‘exclusive’ coloured versions with one bonus track each, an even more cynical marketing ploy than the ‘Archives’ releases that cost hundreds of pounds but can’t pay another 10p to manufacture enough discs for all the content. By and large, though, this is a step in the right direction from the dark from an artist whose been badly lost to us for the past decade or so, with a greater wingspan than normal and so much more depth than his last album ‘Egypt Station’ it’s hard to believe that this is by the same artist. ‘You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone’ the (much-delayed) opening line of the record declares. Too right, Paul, we so will. Download: ‘Kiss Of Venus’ ‘When Winter Comes’ ‘Seize The Day’ ‘Deep Deep Feeling’
4) Belle and Sebastian “What To Look For In Summer”
The Song Of The Clyde/Dirty Dream #2/Step Into My Office Baby/We Were Beautiful/Seeing Other People/If She Wants Me/Beyond The Sunrise/Wrapped Up In Books/Little Lou Ugly Jack Prophet John/Nice Day For A Sulk/I Can See Your Future/Funny Little Frog/Fox In The Snow/If You’re Feeling Sinister/My wandering Days Are Over/The Wrong Girl/Stay Loose/The Boy Done Wrong Again/Poor Boy/Dog On Wheels/The Boy With The Arab Strap/I Didn’t See It Coming/Belle and Sebastian
How perfectly Belle and Sebastian. Just as the rest of the world are becoming more introverted, working on albums in their garage and living rooms, B and S remind of us of our recent past with the release of their first ever ‘proper’ live album (following a half-go on their ‘BBC Sessions’ disc), recorded July-November last year but which, with its constant audience noise and sometime participation, already seems like a lifetime ago. B and S concerts have always been so different to their studio counterparts – generally tougher and punchier, with a lot of audience participation. This makes this live recording a real treat, with most songs on this generously big double-disc helping sounding different to the original, whether it be the tougher rock and roll grooves (most of the past four ‘produced’ album songs sound more like the first four albums did), some terrific Stuart Murdoch ad libs (‘That’s not my racist president’ fits in nicely to the tag of ‘Arab Strap’ for instance, alongside the memory of how asking a girl out came to nothing ‘but at least we still have this song’, while 'I was burned by Boris Johnson...I can't think of anything to rhyme with Johnson' becomes an unlikely middle eight on 'Step Into My Office Baby'), the chance to hear the ever-under-rated Sarah Martin’s vocals in place of Isobel Campbel’s or in one place Norah Jones’ or the general mood of bonhomie as audience members are invited to come up on stage and ‘be’ the band for five precious minutes. This was always a moving part of their shows and now, under lockdown with no new gigs in sight just yet, it feels even more powerful (just check out the set’s title too: now there’s a good demonstration of this band’s optimism in the face of insurmountable odds with the promise that there are more gigs to come just as every other artist we cover is talking about retirement). This is surely no coincidence - if anyone knows the importance of feeling a part of the outside world then it’s m.e. patient Stuart – and the timing feels perfect for this set. Sometimes the revisiting of the back catalogue is sublime, such as a sitar/guitar rock hybrid re-arangement of everyone's favourite Nativity re-telling ' Beyond The Sunrise' or a highly postmodern 'Belle and Sebastian' itself, no longer a sad lonely demo made at home in the hope of what will be but a mass coming together of like minds who saw that dream come true. Admittedly, not everything works. The old traditional tune ‘The Song Of The Clyde’ is an oddball opener even by B+S standards, while the songs here from last year’s EPs project ‘How To Solve Our Human problems’ still don’t feel as if they belong to this canon yet. The album cover (a characteristic use of an audience member, uncharacteristically holding puppets of the band) doesn’t quite look right either (though the shot of Stuart's son Denny making his sleeve debut by clutching a puppet of god-dad Stevie Jackson on the back cover is very sweet). Oh well, there’s plenty more here to enjoy from all periods of Belle and Sebastian and sounding as good as ever it did, just different. Just check out the sweet music videos too which feature the band playing along to themselves while in lockdown, alongside some fan-sent videos, just so that newcomers still don’t quite know which one in the band is which. Download: ‘Beyond The Sunrise' ‘Fox In The Snow’ ‘Belle and Sebastian’‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’
5) Liam Gallagher “MTV Unplugged: Live From Hull City Hall” (Warner Music)
Wall Of Glass/Some Might Say/Now That I’ve Found You/One Of Us/Stand By Me/Sad Song/Cast No Shadow/Once/Gone/Champagne Supernova
Back in 1995 Liam left Oasis in the lurch so close to the recording date of their MTV Unplugged show that he can still be seen, worse for wear, sitting in the wings. That show went ahead and it’s an important show for brother Noel, who for the first time stepped out of his younger’s brother’s shadow and gave his interpretation of all his own songs back in the days when Noel was hot creative property and no one else could get a look in. Liam’s last minute substitution helped make Noel a face to know amongst casual music fans who only cared about the ‘singer’ and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say the largely ecstatic reviews of the elder brother’s performance changed the power dynamic within Oasis forever. Liam must surely have been aware of this history when he signed up to record his own solo show with the same franchise a quarter century later. This time most Oasis fans tend to view him as the reliable, creative one with a burning need to make ‘proper’ music while his brother is off making oddball dance albums with a girl whose role in the band is to play the scissors. He’s also the one making olive branches, with Bonehead joining him on stage for the first time since 1997 for a really sweet reunion (they get on so much better now – their twitter banter is what the social platform was made for). It’s a huge turnaround from the days when he used to be the ‘unreliable rockstar’ one and Liam makes the most of it, (un) plugging most of the best songs from his second solo album and re-claiming a few Oasis fan favourites that his brother has yet to touch in concert. After years when both sides of the brotherhood refused to touch any Oasis songs it’s a big moment and interestingly Liam treats them with more respect than the man who wrote them. He also gives his all in a performance that makes good use of his increasingly lived-in voice, even his backing band continue to be the weakest link, more of an Oasis tribute band than a throwback to the real thing. This record - Liam’s first solo live set and his first of any kind since 2000’s ‘Familiar To Millions’ found a splintered Oasis in a bad mood – is flawed in many ways; ‘Stand By Me’ is a nice song but still feels like an eternity to sit through, a shortened acoustic ‘Champagne Supernova’ never quite explodes, the setting isn’t ‘pure’ acoustic which seems like a missed opportunity and there aren’t any tracks from the two Beady Eye records or solo debut ‘As You Were’, both of which I would take over ‘Why Me? Why Not?’ anyday. Even the biggest Noel-hater would never take this set over the 1995 Oasis one, which back in the day was an astonishing and ground-breaking one. By contrast this is just a very professional set by a singer who puts his homework into his day job in a way he never used to. However at its best (Liam sounds so right on Oasis B-side ‘Sad Song’ it’s a wonder he didn’t sing it the first time round, ‘Once’ and ‘Gone’ are magnificent new songs that Liam sings the hell out of and it’s so great to hear Liam sing ‘Cast No Shadow’ again, one of the greatest songs of the 1990s) ‘Unplugged’ is a reminder of how far one of the best musicians of his generation has come and how much sheer guts he still has to offer a world all too full of artificial pop and nonsense. Download: ‘Sad Song’ ‘Gone’ ‘Cast No Shadow’
6) Grateful Dead “Dave’s Picks #33” (Grateful Dead Records)
Might As Well/Jack Straw/Dire Wolf/Looks Like Rain/Loser/El Paso/Ramble On Rose/New Minglewood Blues/It Must Have Been The Roses/Let It Grow/Bertha/Good Lovin’/Friend Of The Devil/Estimated Prophet/Eyes Of The World/Space/St Stephen/Not Fade Away/Black Peter/Sugar Magnolia/One More Saturday Night
There’s a general consensus amongst Dead-heads that 1977 was a golden year: after an 18 month hiatus and a sloppy 1976 tour the next year one was full of good cheer and tight performances before the drugs got hold, with the ‘Terrapin Station’ album adding a number of excellent songs to the set-list. Sadly it’s not always true, with as many doddery and sleepy performances from this year in the Dead’s long-running archive series as any other. However Dave Lemieux’s 33rd pick from Illinois that October is one of the good ones with an enthusiastic band clearly enjoying themselves on an unusual range of material (that isn’t exactly ‘rare’ but isn’t the sort of thing you see on every archive set either). ‘Let It Grow’, the second half of Bob Weir’s ‘Weather Report Suite’, is played super-fast as the Dead play a game of dare with each other the way they used to a full decade before, an epic eleven minute ‘Estimated Prophet’ has Phil Lesh pushing his bass to the limit and a slower ‘n’ spaced-out ‘Eyes Of The World’ has a very different feel to the way the band normally play it (Garcia’s solo, at half-speed to everyone else in the middle, is sublime even by his high standards!) Even Donna sounds good! Only an extremely short second disc running to a mere twenty-five minutes (without the ‘extras’ this series usually includes) lets the side down. Fittingly, this album became the Grateful Dead’s 100th ever charting album on Billboard, an incredible achievement that deserved to make more of a splash in the music papers than it did. Otherwise the Dead archive series have been few and far between this year with covid killing off the usual record day sales: there was an epic 15-disc set ‘June 1976’ that’s a bit hit-and-miss (the opening shows from Boston Music Hall and the closing one from New Jersey are all pretty good, but the two from New York’s Beacon Theatre are pretty weak by Dead standards, with the band never quite connecting all night). Meanwhile, Dave’s Picks #34 is a show from Miami on June 23rd 1974 that’s of more historical than musical value (it’s the long-awaited first return of Mickey Hart as second drummer after his three-year hiatus, the premiere of Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin’s musique concrete ‘Seastones’ which is more interesting here than other released versions and the only time the Dead played their box set rarities favourite ‘Let It Rock’, though the real highlight of the show is an almost reggae-ish seventeen minute take on ‘Dark Star’). Dave’s Picks #35 and #36 are both gigs from their least interesting decade of the 1980s and as such are most of interest to fans of Brent Mydland or those who attended the shows. You can tell how much Jerry Garcia is struggling at both gigs, taped a couple of years either side of his diabetic coma and his valiant struggle to re-learn how to play the guitar all over again, but these are a pair of good shows for Bob Weir. As ever with the Dead there are great things on both sets though: interestingly semi-rare B-side ‘My Brother Esau’ turns up at both gigs in two very different but equally interesting versions (the one from 1984 is almost free-form jazz, the one from 1987 a tough rocker), there’s a nine minute ‘Feel Like A Stranger’ that gets volume #35 off to a good start, an unusual mid-tempo waddling ‘China Rider’ that wasn’t often played by this time on the ‘bonus cuts’ (the show from the 19th April sounds way better than the one from the 20th to my ears and should have been the ‘main’ release), while volume #36 rocks with a tribute to Pigpen with a revival of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (though what the Pig would have said to the use of twinkly synths is anybody’s guess). Download: ‘Let It Grow’ ‘Eyes Of The World’
7) Neil Young “The Times E.P.” (Reprise)
Alabama/Campaigner/Ohio/The Times They Are A Changin’/Lookin’ For A Leader 2020/Southern Man/Little Wing
Comes a time when you’re drifting. Comes a time when you settle down. And comes a time when the country you’ve adopted in such sprawling mental chaos and run with such undignified incompetence that you have to take a stand and say ‘enough already!’ That’s the thought behind the second Neil Young entry in this year’s list as Neil backs Biden and takes Trump to task with a number of re-recorded minor gems from his back catalogue recorded solo in ‘isolation’ at Neil’s ‘Broken Arrow’ ranch (nicknamed ‘The Fireside Sessions’ these were mini-concerts streamed via Neil’s website). In many ways this hastily concocted album feels like a protest on a more personal level too, after an intense media fight between the Donald and the Shakey, as Trump used ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’ again and again in his campaign trail after Young asked him not too (clearly no republican has ever paid proper attention to what was actually the most sarcastic song in Neil’s canon, full of anger and bile aimed at Bush Senior’s version of America). ‘The Times’ is, as you might expect, deeply heartfelt and full of barely-contained anger and rage as Neil revisits songs that are up to a half-century old with smoke coming out of his ears that things are as woeful now in America as they ever were under Nixon. At its best this album takes pot-shots with glee and purpose, as on the re-worked ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’ from 2006’s ‘Living With War’ which now seems a lifetime ago as Obama is consigned to the past not the hopeful future. Only the first verse from the original remains with new lines about ‘building walls’ and ‘hiding in bunkers’ that prey on Trump’s vanity and bring him down to size. Best line referring to the protest outside The White House spurred on by the death of George Floyd: ‘Just like his brand new fence, the president’s going down’. There’s also a spirited take on CSNY warhorse ‘Ohio’ that always sounded good on acoustic where its bite stings with conviction. Neil often turns to his friend Bob Dylan in times of trouble and while ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ is as hokey a choice as Weld’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ on paper, on the stereo Neil’s interpretation breathes new life into words we know so well we’ve half forgotten. The rest of the E.P. though is a confusing beast. Both Goldrush’s ‘Southern Man’ and Harvest’s ‘Alabama’ feel like they are the right pot-shots in the wrong war, reflecting the Black Lives Matters protests but clearly dating to an older time when America was divided between Southern white casual racists who votes Nixon to protect their jobs and liberal Americans honouring the spirit of the constitution. This isn’t that war anymore. The problem with 2020 compared to, say, 1970, is that the villains are everywhere and this year has set family members and friends on each other more than any other since the American Civil War: there isn’t a neat divide anymore and all Neil’s likely to do here is piss off half his fan-base who might have actually agreed with him by labelling them racist because of where they live not what they think. ‘Campaigner’ too is an odd choice: when released on ‘Decade’ in 1977 it was a surprise, a shocking half-apology to Nixon for forgetting that he was a mere mortal. Neil wrote the song choked with sympathy as Nixon visited his sick wife in hospital in the wake of Watergate and was caught by the media in a moment of personal grief. In one news bulletin Nixon had gone from power-crazed dictator to someone as fragile and the rest of us and Neil saw the man he’d been pushing to get out of office for years as a victim as well as a villain. The difference is there is no redeeming feature about the figure in The White House in 2020 (at least, not yet – maybe when Trump physically becomes the loser we all know he is we might get some sympathy for him, but that day’s not here now) so ‘Campaigner’s plea that ‘even Richard Nixon has got soul’ has now become an angry and bitter song about how Neil wishes he knew back then how bad it would be now because Trump is even worse. That cheapens what used to be a pretty powerful song though and merely fills in places where ‘Long Walk Home’ ‘American Dream’ ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ ‘Crime In The City’ ‘The Restless Consumer’ (which fits Trump better than it ever did Bush Jnr) ‘Already Great’ ‘Forever’ and maybe even ‘War Song’ should be. ‘Little Wing’ is musically the best piece here but thematically the odd one out, a pretty little ballad about a fragile girl that Neil seems to have re-discovered since it appeared on ‘Homegrown’ and which sounds nice done like this, though what it has to do with the politics is anyone’s guess. Overall it’s an intriguing little EP that’s likely to get overlooked in Neil’s canon lost in between the hoo-hah of albums old (or at least unissued) and new, not to mention anachronistic whenever the next president of the United States gets in ‘cause you know how The Times fades away (maybe it’s Joe Biden though they say that he’s too old? They should have gone with Bernie Sanders if the truth be told, just please don’t vote for Trump again he’s too busy counting gold). I wish it was longer, I wish the selections were picked with a little more care, I wish it had a better front cover (Neil’s done the ‘profile on the porch’ thing before) and I wish Neil had re-worked the other six songs the way he does ‘Lookin’ For A leader’. But then I also wish America wasn’t in this mess, with the worst possible person to be in charge of keeping America safe in power right at the time of such huge crisis and loss, and at least Neil is standing up and being counted with this release however good or not it ultimately is. As for these times we are living through, it is a scary time and I hope we all make it. But if you’ve come to this book from the CSN one then you will also know that the darkest hour is always just before the dawn. Download: ‘Lookin’ For A Leader 2020’
8) Cat Stevens “Tea For The Tillerman II” (Universal/Cat-O-Log Records)
Where Do The Children Play?/Hard-Headed Woman/Wild World/Sad Lisa/Miles From Nowhere/But I Might Die Tonight!/Longer Boats/Into White/On The Road To Find Out/Father and Son/Tea For The Tillerman
In 2017 Cat Stevens invented a whole new genre: re-recordings of songs that had either been left unfinished or had slipped through the cracks. By and large it was a big success with new songs like ‘The Olive Hill’ and ‘Mighty Peace’ too good to leave unreleased and old friends like ‘I’m So Sleepy’ and ‘I’ve Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old’ making more sense in the voice of a seventy-something than they did in a teenager’s. With inspiration seemingly on the wane Cat has returned to the same idea, revisiting an entire album on a release that’s likely to be bigger than last time out, but not necessarily better. I can see why Cat chose this album rather than, say, ‘Teaser and The Firecat’. He’s been teasing audiences with a Zulu re-working of ‘Wild World’ for years now so that was one song in the bag, while the chance to add a new ‘father’ voice to a ‘son’ one from fifty years ago is a good enough hook to hang the rest of the album on. In the middle we also get the long awaited missing verse to ‘Longer Boats’ which yes does make a lot more sense of the song (its aliens as Viking invaders! ‘Line up and look around you may see them, guess they’re looking down on a lonely asteroid in a vacant void, dying but not destroyed’), although the spoken-word interruption and the switch to reggae is toe-curlingly bad. At least this new version adds something we didn’t see in that song before though: in-between these three songs this album doesn’t make much sense. Yes many reviewers are right to talk about how prescient ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ was about our increasingly impending ecological doom, but the original made the point perfectly – we don’t need another go. ‘Miles From Nowhere’ is a terrific song but this second version sounds like a stroll in the park rather than a terrified wander through the afterlife and ‘But I Might Die Tonight!’ has all of the urgency of a man wondering if he’s put the bins out on the right day. ‘On The Road To Find Out’, done in the bluesy style of 2014’s ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ is the worst casualty, a light-on-its-feet song about spiritual growth turned into an angry and bitter song of betrayal that doesn’t suit it one iota. Only ‘Into White’ and ‘Hard-Headed Woman’ are on the road to being as pretty or as impressive as their earlier selves and even then I’d still take the originals anyday. Back in 2017 Cat had the excuse that his younger self in 1967-1968 was poorly, tired and young, unable to put the vision he had in his head across and so deserved to have another go. In 2020 we already know that ‘Tillerman’ is as close to perfect as any album with an oddball song like ‘Longer Boats’ can be – we didn’t need another go, although it’s better than just another pointless re-issue of the album I suppose. Frustratingly, the entire album was re-released as part of the ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ box set just two months after its standalone release (which we all thought was going to be the only release). Anybody want a spare copy?!? Full marks though for the inventive front cover though, which might well be the best thing here: Cat updates his own cover with all the modern changes we’ve been through in the past fifty years: the Tillerman now wears a spacesuit (because our air is so polluted?), the children look at i-phones and wear headphones, whilst the bright sunshine has turned to a distinctly haunted looking moon. What will the cover look like in another fifty years one wonders? Perhaps every generation will get the ‘Tillerman’ it deserves… Download: ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ ‘Father and Son’
9) Davy Jones “It’s Christmas Time…Once More” (Not Too Late Records)
Winter Wonderland/Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer/Silver Bells/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/White Christmas/Melekalikimaka/This Day In Bethlehem/Silent Night/Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/It’s Christmas Time/White Christmas x 20
Talking of re-recordings, if any of ‘It’s Christmas Time…Once More’ sounds familiar to you, then that may be because you own Davy Jones’ 1991 festive album ‘It’s Christmas Time…Again’. Then again, maybe it won’t even if you own the album because it’s hardly the most memorable thing the Monkee did in his recording-packed life. A cheap filler album made between bigger and better albums, this one was originally made with the help of ‘Headquarters’ producer Chip Douglas and was inspired by The Monkees’ 1967 TV episode and a demo of ‘White Christmas’ (Included as a welcome bonus track) Davy taped with Chip that same year. Nine of the thirteen tracks appear here untouched, but new overdubs in the spirit of The Monkees’ own festive album ‘Christmas Party’ from 2016 allow fans to hear songs with overdubs featuring Micky Dolenz and his sister Coco, Davy’s daughter Annabel and long-time friend and photographer Henry Diltz (his ‘new-even-though-it-was-taken-in-1967’ cover – Davy as a surprisingly clean-shaven Santa Claus - is a big improvement on the original too). All are nice and probably are improvements with Annabel especially a pleasant surprise, her voice Just ‘Davy’-ish enough to show off the family genes, while the same goes for the two versions of ‘White Christmas’ that started the whole project off (and really should have been on the 1991 original). You have to say, though, that there’s nothing here that’s particularly special and especially nothing that comes close to the joy of ‘Christmas Is My Time Of Year’, the Nesmith-less reunion song sent to loyal fanclub members in the 1970s also taped by Chip (and a welcome chance to have Davy on ‘Christmas Party’). You kind of have to ask who it’s for: surely a straightforward re-issue of the album with these newbies as ‘bonus tracks’ would have made more sense than trying to re-sell an album that failed because it wasn’t all that much cop in the first place. Download: ‘White Christmas’ ‘This Day In Bethlehem’
(Best to Worst)
1) CPR “CPR/Just Like Gravity” (BMG)
Back in 1994 David Crosby had one hell of a year – in fact one hell of a few weeks. He so very nearly died of liver failure. His wife gave birth to their first son. And a son given up for adoption in 1962 and long lost suddenly came forward with news that he was about to be a dad (and Croz a grandfather). Luckily the story has a happy ending: Croz fully recovered thanks to a transplant, he finally got the family he always wanted and his long-lost son, James Raymond, turned out to be his greatest collaborator outside S N and Y with his dad’s love and talent for harmony, unusual jazz tunings, melody and lyrics. Once Crosby had a few years away to recover and tidy up some CSN projects it was inevitable he would form a band with his son and – with guitarist Jeff Pevar in tow – named his new band ‘CPR’, not just a CSN-style reference to their collective surnames but the idea that this band had given him a new creative re-birth just when he feared he might never be able to make music again. It wasn’t just in the name either as both albums, released either side of the millennium, are amongst the best things Crosby ever did (certainly since the 1970s). Though the albums have a jazzier, more mathematical feel (closer to the trio’s shared love of Steely Dan of CSN) the old trademarks of blissful harmonies, gorgeous unfolding melodies and stunning confessional lyrics are all there alongside a new sense of intimacy. Crosby’s life experiences inspires him to new heights with several career highs, especially on the first eponymous album: ‘Time Is The Final Currency’ (‘…not money, not power…’ the thoughts going round Croz’s head on what he assumed was his death-bed), ‘Somehow She Knew’ (about wife Jan’s comfort when Croz broke down watching ‘The Fisher King’ film with his friend Robin Williams, still scarred by the death of girlfriend Christine in a car crash back in 1970) and ‘At The Edge’ (as he stares out at the ravine, expecting to fall in, only to be saved by love). James is no slouch as a writer either, with ‘Eyes Too Blue’ and ‘Angel Of Mercy’ moving songs about love and loss every bit the equal of dad’s. Sadly though these albums came out in the days when CSN were having trouble getting record deals, never mind spin-off bands, and neither albums sold that well, to the point where only Americans ever really got hold of them at all (the import prices to Europe were ridiculous!) We’ve pleaded, prayed and cajoled for their re-release for decades and now, finally, they’re here. Sadly there are no extra songs and not much in the way of packaging (though Croz friend, campaigner and podcaster Steve Silberman has written some lovely new sleevenotes) and we only get the two studio sets, not the also-excellent live albums (‘Wiltern’ and ‘Cuesta College’). Even so, to have these two albums back on the shelves is a truly wonderful thing and they’re both easily the highlight of the re-issued AAA catalogue this year, CPR arriving just in time to breathe new life into lockdown. Download: ‘Time Is The Final Currency’ ‘That House’ ‘Eyes Too Blue’ ‘Somehow She Knew’
2) Cat Stevens “Mona Bone Jakon” (Universal/Cat-O-Log Records)
2020 saw the fiftieth anniversary of probably the two best Cat Stevens records ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘tea For The Tillerman’ and even though both were effectively plain acoustic-based records made just a few months apart each has been turned into its own epic box set. You wouldn’t think there would be enough in the vaults but in Mona’s case it works: there are no less than eight album demos, all of them subtly yet noticeably different to the finished versions. There’s an entirely unreleased song in ‘I Want Some Sun’, which may not be the greatest thing Cat ever made but it has the same simple yet profound charms of most of the album. There’s a DVD stuffed full with TV clips and promos (Mona being the one album from the post-Decca days that Cat actively promoted on television) including a full half hour show broadcast in France (and only available elsewhere on youtube), choice cuts from the BBC and Germany’s Beatclub and the rarely seen music video for the album’s middling hit-single ‘Lady D’arbanville’. Best of all you get to not only hear (as we have on bootleg for years) but see Cat’s first post-TB with-beard gig at the bottom of the bill at the Plumpton Jazz Festival and it’s amazing, with so many gorgeous songs getting their debut at the same time (you also get a vinyl copy of the soundtrack). No wonder Cat became a star. There’s a nice thick book that comes with the set too featuring the usual array of photos and sleevenotes (think the McCartney deluxe sets). I could have lived without the stickers of the front cover in different covers (it is, after all, a dustbin) and at £130-ish the price is a bit – well - rubbish, but overall this is a masterpiece of an album given a masterpiece of a box set treatment and I don’t have much of a mona bone to pick with it at all (unlike ‘Tillerman’ or the previous ‘Back To Earth’ box set from a few years back). There is also two-disc version out containing most but not all of the demos and a few of the live tracks which is probably plenty for most fans though it is really nice to have the ‘Plumpton’ set complete at last. Alas the ‘Tillerman’ box doesn’t hit the spot quite so well… Download: ‘I Wish I Wish’ ‘Trouble’ ‘I Think I See The Light’
3) The Rolling Stones “Goat’s Head Soup: Deluxe Edition” (Polydor)
The Rolling Stones deluxe sets have gone up and down our annual charts like a yo-yo, varying from the inspired (‘Sticky Fingers’ ‘Exile On Main Street’), to the average (‘Some Girls’) to the downright boring (last year’s ‘Gimme Shelter’, which didn’t even feature any bonus tracks). Thankfully ‘Goat’s head’ is one of the good ones, with a sparkling re-mix job (even the 2000s CD still sounded terribly muddy) and a whole extra disc packed with recently finished outtakes and alternate versions. The best of these is ‘Criss Cross Man’, which has long been one of my favourite Stones outtakes and is a delight to have out properly at last (it’s the riff from ‘Start Me Up’ added to proper words!) Not far behind though is the un-bootlegged ‘All The Rage’, a dark and brooding rockabilly number that’s a goodbye song every bit as cruel as ‘Yesterday’s Papers’, even if it still doesn’t sound quite finished. The daft ‘Scarlet’ with Jimmy Page filling in for Mick Taylor isn’t in the same league and is Stones-by-numbers, but at least it’s from a period when even The Stones on auto-pilot sounded good and the band are cooking up a storm by the time of the uncharacteristic extended fade. As for the rest a piano demo for ‘100 Years Ago’ loses the mystery and worry but gains from a strong solo Jagger performance where Mick’s diction is much clearer and his singing more confident, an early jam instrumental version of ‘Dancing With Mr D’ sounds far more dangerous before being watered down for the ‘Soup’ and a more Stonesy version of ‘Hide Your Love’ with a breath-taking Mick Taylor guitar solo beats the released version hands-down. Only a rather timid instrumental jam of ‘Doo Doo Doo Heartbreaker’ disappoints and even then not by as much as some other Stones re-issues. As for the ‘Live In Brussels’ disc, well we’ve had it before (as ‘The Brussels Affair ‘73’) and it’s not one of the very best, but think of it as a ‘free’ extra on what’s an unusually reasonably-priced disc by Stones standards and you won’t go far wrong. Goat’s Head was always the dark horse of the Stone’s 1970s catalogue for me, a record which I’ve always seen as the last of the great ones rather than the first that wasn’t so hot, high on dramatic thoughtful ballads and sudden moments of violent painful paranoia. I’m not sure the deluxe version made me enjoy the album any more as the bonus tracks could have come from any album really, but this is still a tasty brew and one that deservedly got to #1 in the charts again forty-seven years after it did last time (another extraordinary record I’m surprised the music press haven’t made more of). Hot stuff! Download: ‘Winter’ ‘100 Years Ago’ ‘Kriss Kross Man’
4) The Grateful Dead “American Beauty” (Rhino)
For four years now the Grateful Dead have been celebrating the half-century anniversary of their studio albums and 2020 sees a bumper crop with two of their most celebrated works. All of these albums feature not the studio outtakes or choice live cuts of previous releases (however see the next entry…) but whole unreleased concerts from the relevant periods. While the show added to ‘Workingman’s Dead’ doesn’t add much to the Deadhead’s collection (see below) ‘American Beauty’ is a whole different matter with one of the most popular and requested archive sets of them all. On the face of it using the February 18th 1971 gig at Capitol Theatre doesn’t make any more sense: it comes nearly four months after the album’s release (back in the day when the Dead’s sets changed by the day) and there’s a grand total of three ‘American beauty’ songs played that night (‘Truckin’ is unusually rough and ‘Candyman’ a bit slow till a blistering guitar solo rescues the second half, but a wah-wah heavy eight minute ‘Sugar Magnolia’ is just right and rarely sounded better). However it does make sense, because it hints at what comes next and the studio sequel to ‘beauty’ that never was. No less than five songs were debuted that night and all will become fan favourites, each of them sounding fabulous and full of life and verve: ‘Bertha’ (how daring to start the show with a whole new song and it’s one of the best the band ever played, snappy and tight!), ‘Playin’ In The Band’ (here a thoughtful and laidback song rather than the half-hour-long magnum opus it will become), ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (which here is short and sassy and fun), ‘Loser’ (a multi-layered song that changed everytime the band played it – this first night plays the narrator as a slimy snake, out to steal your face) and best of all ‘Wharf Rat’ (which here turns up as a seven minute moment of reflection in the midst of an epic ‘Dark Star’). There’s a whole bunch of old favourites well-played too, from Pigpen showing off on a particularly energetic version of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard To Handle’ to a ‘St Stephen’ that positively purrs along. As with all these sets there are excellent and informative sleeve-notes too and a sense of love and care you only get with the best record-labels like our old friends Rhino. The only down side is that you’ve paid all that price and you still don’t get the outtakes and demos for the album, which are released on a separate set (one which doesn’t have the remastered record). Was it really so hard to put the two together? Meet you here again on the 60th anniversary for the definitive edition of ‘Beauty’ maybe? Download: ‘Box Of Rain’ ‘Candyman’ ‘Friend Of The Devil’ ‘Attics Of My Life’
5) The Grateful Dead “American Beauty: The Angel’s Share” (Rhino)
Talking of which The Dead finally find an official home for the charming demos and early takes of ‘Beauty’ recordings that have been doing the rounds on bootlegs for years. Unlike, say, Pink Floyd the Dead always treated their demos as very rough guidelines so on the plus side everything here sounds very different to the finished LP even if ‘American Beauty’ ends up sounding less, well, beautiful than you’re used to hearing. That’s all the part of the fun, though, as you hear how Jerry, Bob and Phil’s first attempts at nailing the CSN-ish vibe of the record sounded and how these tracks would have sounded with Bill and Mickey giving them the full rock ‘n’ roll drum treatment rather than the more reflective pastoral folk-beat they will receive. All the album tracks are present in demo form bar ‘Box Of Rain’ (plus Jerry’s gorgeous ‘To Lay Me Down’ which he saved for his solo album) with Garcia’s much folkier demo of ‘Friend Of The Devil’ (planned as a giveaway for ‘New Riders of The Purple Sage’ and played in their style before the Dead asked for it back) and ‘Truckin’ (delightfully jolly and slapdash) about the best. We then get a whopping forty-six alternate takes which is effectively everything in the vault: the good news is you get to hear the Dead piece these classic songs together almost in real time, with studio chatter and ‘breakdowns’ along the way. The bad news is you’re going to get awful sick of ‘Operator’ (8 takes as poor Pig gets hoarser and hoarser), ‘Attics Of My Life’ (5 takes including a truly beautiful Garcia solo version), ‘Ripple’ (7 takes) and ‘Friend Of The Devil’ (a full 19 takes! The instrumental take 13 is a doozy) before the end of the last disc. A set best heard in small doses. Or better still as an appendage to the remastered album proper, so you can compare and contrast more easily. Also, they missed a track not giving this set the ‘alternate’ name for the parent album, ‘American Reality’, which would have been truly apt given that this is a set of outtakes. Download: ‘Friend Of The Devil’ (Demo and Take 13) 'Attics Of My Life' (Solo Version)
6) Grateful Dead “Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share” (Rhino)
There’s much the same to report for the sister set, which features a similar array of outtakes, breakdowns and rehearsals but only one demo this time around, for ‘New Speedway Boogie’ (hence why this set is a smidgeon behind in our list). On the plus side, though, none of the session tapes are missing this time so you get to hear every album cut being recorded in ‘real’ time: ‘Uncle John’s Band’ (6 takes), ‘High Time’ (6 takes plus some not terribly illuminating studio chatter), ‘Dire Wolf’ (a massive 14 takes), ‘New Speedway Boogie’ (10 takes), ‘Cumberland Blues’ (1 take) ‘Black Peter’ (5 takes plus yet more studio chatter), ‘Easy Wind’ (an epic 15 takes) and ‘Casey Jones’ (3 takes). While most of these takes sound much the same (and even more than ‘American’ this is a set best heard in small doses that would have been better on the disappointing album re-issue; see below) it’s fascinating to hear ‘Speedway Boogie’ in particular as it evolves from an earnest folk lament through to a clumsy acoustic blues into the dark edgy Altamont-referencing rocker it became. Do be warned though: for some odd reason this set seems to be much harder to find than its ‘American’ cousin (the good ol’ Grateful Dead store remains the best place to find it). Download: ‘Black Peter’ with a haunting guide vocal from Jerry and even some whistling!
7) The Kinks “Lola Versus Powerman and The Money-Go-Round” (Sanctuary)
There’s something oddly Kinks-like about using an original concept LP that damned the way the record business ripped off songwriters, musicians and fans to sell some extra moolah at Christmas time; I just can’t quite tell whether The Kinks are in on the gag or not. ‘Lola’ is a great album, not quite in the same league as ‘Village Green’ and ‘Arthur’ (but then what is?) and it’s good to see the band’s Pye farewell getting it’s due attention, instead of being lost underneath Kinky kompilations and a film soundtrack about a penis transplant (no, seriously). If you don’t know the album at all then you really need to hear it, in some form anyway (it’s one of only two Kinks albums to have two hit singles on it, ‘Get Back In The Line’ is a true karat gold Kinks klassik, Dave Davies is on top form and Ray Davies’ sarcastic side has never been funnier). However, like all the Kink super deluxe editions so far, it’s all a bit underwhelming and doesn’t add much you didn’t get with the plain old deluxe version at about five times the price. Ray continues his odd practice of stringing together outtakes and demos in ‘medley’ form rather than leaving them as historic museum objects (and he of all songwriters should know the value of that), so that even when the unreleased stuff is good (see below) it’s still hard to get a handle on. Otherwise there are the usual BBC recordings, period B-sides, the stuff Dave was getting up to at the time in hopes of making a solo album (a true lost masterpiece) and the legendary single version of ‘Lola’ (which has – wait for it – one whole new world thanks to a BBC ban on the word ‘Coca-Cola’; it’s still interesting that a lyric about cross-dressing that would at least raise eyebrows still escaped their attention completely). The unreleased material meanwhile add up to a raucous instrumental demo for ‘The Contenders’, a sweet unfinished song ‘The Follower’, a not-that-different take of ‘This Time Tomorrow’, a 1977 live rendition of ‘Get Back In The Line’ and the version of ‘Gotta Be Free’ from Ray’s performance in the very first edition of Play For Today ‘The Loneliness of The Long Distance Piano Player’ (somebody put that out on DVD now!) All of which is, you know, nice but not £100 nice. Admittedly the packaging is lovely and this time they’ve spent time on the ‘proper’ things too, with less coasters and bumper stickers than ‘Arthur’ (though you do still get a fancy badge) but a much more interesting book with new contributions by Ray and Dave. I still though can’t stop feeling that I’m just sitting here watching the money go round as everyone takes their share except the fans…especially the pricey vinyl pressing which reportedly sounds worse than the original (to be fair I haven’t got mine yet). Download: ‘Strangers’ ‘Get Back In The Line’ ‘Lola’ ‘Mindless Child Of Motherhood’
8) Neil Young “Archives II: 1972-1976” (neilyoungarchives.com)
There’s nobody else where I could describe an eleven-year-delay of a promised release good going, but ‘Archives II’ has taken only approximately a third of the time that ‘Archives I’ did. The timing of it has rather caught us fans off guard: we only had three weeks warning and Neil was deep in promoting his ‘Times’ EP at the time. The second epic box set is also not quite what we expected: it’s only being released in a limited edition of 3000 copies (so has almost certainly sold out by the time you actually read this), is only available from Neil’s website and rather than covering a decade as the first set did this one only goes for four-and-a-half years. Having said that, we fans feel we know a lot of this sprawling ten disc set already: the ‘Tuscaloosa’ show with The Stray Gators from 1972 and ‘Tonight’s The Night At The Roxy’ from 1973 came out last year, while the unreleased 1974 album ‘Homegrown’ turned up at the start of this one (and is reviewed above if you missed it). That’s three entire discs catered for; add in generous helpings of all of Neil’s studio albums that cover the period and that doesn’t leave a lot left over. Thankfully most of what’s left is brilliant or at worst infinitely fascinating, such as the long-awaited original tapes for ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (complete with drunken chat and an unexpected Joni Mitchell cover ‘Raised On Robbery’), The Neil bits from 1974’s abandoned CSNY reunion ‘Human Highway’, outtakes from the ‘Stills-Young Band’ album with much better harmonies than anything that made the record or a 1976 show at Japan’s Budokan (though this terrific gig is restricted to just five songs and no sign of the career-peak preview performance of ‘Like A Hurricane’, which might well be the single best thing in any of Neil’s archives). Thank goodness sense made them add a few electric songs at the end such a blistering ‘Cortez’, though frustratingly the greatest version of ‘Like A Hurricane’ simply ever that was played that night isn’t one of them). Much like the first Archives box everything is exquisitely packaged (though even for a completist like me the fold-out ‘vault’ poster is a little boring) and there are moments of casual brilliance littered throughout, almost incidentally. ‘Goodbye Christians On The Shore’ is at one with the other late 1974/early 1975 tracks, with one foot still in the ‘Doom Trilogy’ period and another in the much happier ‘Zuma’ frame of mind, a song that finds Neil waiting to jump ship and wondering where the new river-flow might take him. It’s hard to see past the charm of ‘Love Art Blues’ too getting its first official release on any product, however many times we’ve heard it on bootleg (‘My songs are all so long and my songs are all so sad’ is a killer opening couplet for any song) while Neil’s live take on ‘Greensleeves’ has to be heard to be believed. If you haven’t already bought them this set is also essential for the ‘Roxy’ and ‘Homegrown’ sets alone, perhaps the two best ‘Archives’ standalone discs so far. However, even after all the fuss and complaints regarding the first box, I can’t help feeling a bit short-changed: there’s even less here to make this set worth the increasingly ridiculous price tag (£210 – that’s over £20 per disc!) and while the tag-line insists on telling us how this is ‘Neil’s Most celebrated period’ I suspect many fans will struggle in vain to find much they recognise beyond ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Cortez The Killer’. There are also no blu-ray discs this time around for aficionados who like their hi-fi sound and in fact no visual footage at all, which is a great shame even given what we know exists, never mind what Neil has hidden away in his vaults. Perhaps worst of all is that at this rate it’s going to take an absolute age to get to the really interesting stuff (alternates from ‘Trans’ ‘Freedom’ ‘Mirrorball’) and yet I still probably won’t be able to afford ‘Archives III’ even if I start saving now. Update: Due to all the bad publicity Neil got from this set there are going to be two additional ways to hear it: Firstly, Neil Young’s Archive site is available for free until Christmas including the Archives II tracks (but be quick!) Secondly, there is set to be a ‘cheaper’ edition of the set released in March 2021, though how identical and how much cheaper remains to be seen at the time of writing! Download/Find in the archives: ‘Kansas’ ‘Cortez The Killer’ (Live In Budokan) ‘Goodbye Christians On The Shore’
9) Cat Stevens “Tea For The Tillerman” (Cat-O-Log Records/Universal)
‘Tillerman’ isn’t often an afterthought in the Cat Stevens collection but it is this year, mostly because a good two-thirds of the stuff in this similarly over-priced box (£130) is re-brewed stuff we’ve had out before. We criticised the ‘deluxe’ two-disc re-issue on its release in 2008 in our early days at Alan’s Album Archives for the odd decision to include only one ‘alternate’ version of each album track and then mostly live versions from Cat’s comeback years as ‘Yusuf’ when his voice (and arrangements!) are so, so different. Thankfully most of the 2006 live recordings have got the push this time around but all the 1970 live recordings at the Troubadour Club (which is also this set’s vinyl extra) and the KCET Studios are back here again (along with a couple of newbies premiered from ‘Teaser and The Firecat’ which came out a few months later) as well as two album demos (odd that Cat recorded less for this album than he did for ‘Mona’ or indeed ‘Teaser’, which is sure to be next year’s inevitable box set). Almost all the outtakes have been out before too on Cat’s career box set ‘On The Road To Find Out’, released back in the days when these things were sensibly rather than horrifically priced. This DVD is mostly made up of the easily-found ‘BBC In Concert’ show (endlessly repeated) or the KCET performance, itself out on video/a limited edition DVD as ‘Tea For The Tillerman Live’. Also, don’t get me started on the fact that we get a whole disc devoted to ‘Tea For The Tillerman Two’, just a couple of months after we all bought that set thinking it would be the only way we could get it (and a couple of nice tracks aside it really ain’t worth buying twice – see the review above). That means this box’s reputation rests on the admittedly excellent packaging (it might even be better than the ‘Mona Bone’ box on that front), four songs from a rare gig played at The Filmore East at the time of the album’s release (though all are songs from ‘Teaser’ interestingly), a short but fascinating alternate version of ‘But I Might Die Tonight!’ as featured in the ‘Deep End’ film soundtrack and re-recorded for the album, two songs recorded for BBC Radio and one more excellent outtake in the gorgeous ‘Can This Be Love?’, a song that would have been a very worthy inclusion on the original ‘Tillerman’ (particularly in place of ‘Longer Boats’). All of which are nice but hardly worth £130 assuming you forked out for everything last time (and even if you didn’t I’d say the ‘Mona’ box is still the more interesting of the two). For once I would stick with the two-disc set which is in its favour a lot more interesting than the 2008 model with the demos, outtakes and ‘Deep End’ track all present and correct alongside a handful of the better live recordings. Mostly, though, this tea is stewed; odd that two such similar sets released at the same time can vary so much in quality. Download: ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ ‘Miles From Nowhere’ ‘Can This Be Love?’
10) The Grateful Dead “Workingman’s Dead” (Rhino)
Poor Workingman’s. It was over-shadowed fifty years ago by ‘American Beauty’ and all these years on it’s just been trumped by that album’s re-issue! Even if this the Dead’s weakest album of perhaps their best year, though, I was hoping for a bit more to be honest. The bonus discs, a complete show from New York’s Capitol Theatre in from February 1971, aren’t bad by any means but it has little or nothing to do with the parent album and dates from nearly a year later. Only four of the album’s songs are played here and none are particularly interesting, special, rare, different or good. Instead it’s American Beauty’s ‘Ripple’ (here with a rare false-start) and an on-the-verge-of-country-and-rock ‘Sugar Magnolia’ that steal the show. At least until the grand finale when, after nearly two hours of playing comparatively short songs, the Dead finally stretch out on a seventeen minute version of ‘Good Lovin’ with an epic drum battle that does its best to compete with a with-it Pigpen whose really hitting his stride by the end. Very nice and everything, but not as special as it might have been. Download: ‘New Speedway Boogie’ ‘Sugar Magnolia (Live)’
11) The Searchers “The E.P.Collection” (Beat Goes On)
Back in the early to mid-1960s ‘extended players’ were big business. Cheaper than long-players but with more track to enjoy than singles, they represented an economic way of buying as many 1960s greats as possible. Even by Merseybeat standards The Searchers were successful too, with two #1s, another two top fives and another three top twenties (not bad for a chart full of Beatles, Stones, Hollies and Kinks most weeks). What’s more unlike, say, the fab four (who tended to stick their ragged covers on EPs instead of their better early album cuts) most of The Searchers’ E.P. tracks were amongst their best: gems like ‘Hungry For Love’ ‘Bumble Bee’ and ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’ the new de facto title tracks of some seriously fine music. There’s even a highly collectible EP of all The Searchers’ French-language recordings and while they’ve all turned up on various CD re-issues since even those are becoming hard-to-find and make most sense here heard all in one go. So why is this compilation in the lesser end of our list? Well, for starters the running order is crazy – it’s one of those AAA sets that grows in sophistication during disc one, then goes backwards midway through disc two so that you end up at the beginning again. When you’re a band that changed sounds as much as The Searchers did between 1963 and 1965 that’s a bigger problem than it sounds. There were also already two perfectly good and separately-released sets on the exact same label twenty years ago – long enough to go off catalogue true, but the earlier volumes trump this one in terms of packaging and detail. Also this volume is pointlessly missing E.P. track and Hollies cover ‘Have You Ever Loved Somebody?’ which seems a real shame given there’s plenty of room for it and no licensing issues whatsoever. Beat Goes On have had fifty-four years now since the release of the last Searchers E.P. so it seems sad to say that what could with a bit of tweaking be the AAA re-issue of the year (after all, the music is superb) ends up something of a damp squib. Download: ‘Since You Broke My Heart’ ‘Goodbye My Love’ ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’
12) Ray Thomas “Words and Music” (Esoteric)
A sweet tribute to the much missed Moody Blue who died in 2018 combining songs from his two solo albums with the odd recording from the band’s Denny Laine-era catalogue (presumably the ‘Justin ‘n’ John years were just too expensive to get the rights for). There’s definitely room in this world and on my Moody Blues shelf for a Ray compilation – even in the wonderful democracy of The Moody Blues it tended to be Ray’s songs that were the most over-looked – and as a far cheaper replacement to the ridiculously pricey re-issue of both solo albums together this is all very welcome. I can’t help but feel though that this compilation is a bit of a lost opportunity: only half of the two solo albums are here, the Decca recordings really don’t fit and the two 21st century recordings at the end (one of them first released on that pricey box a couple of years ago) really aren’t up to standard. The photo-shopped cover of an Octave-era Ray chugging up a superimposed hill is also a bit weird. As for the DVD, a 5.1 surround mix of the whole of ‘From Mighty Oaks’ but not ‘Hopes, Wishes, Dreams’ and just a couple of measly promo music videos makes this an odd marketing decision all round. At least the sleevenotes are really good, with tributes from Denny and Mike Pinder that are heartfelt and sweet (shame Justin, John and Graeme aren’t on there too). Ray was a great talent and his work deserves to be out again at an affordable price – just maybe not like this? Download: ‘Adam and I’ ‘We Got Love’
13) Neil Young “After The Goldrush” (Reprise)
The 50th anniversary edition of poor ‘Goldrush’ – generally regarded as one of the jewels in the Young canon – for once feels like a bit of an after-thought this year, surrounded as it is by ‘Archives II’ ‘Homegrown’ and the ‘Greendale’ set (see below). For a start, Neil missed his deadline by a full three months (the original having been released in September) and even then only on CD (there’s apparently an epic vinyl set due in March, though what extras we get on that we didn’t get on this year’s edition is at the time of going to press, unknown). The original is of course probably Neil’s most consistent album if not outright his best, with enough fiery rockers, beautiful ballads and poetic imagery making ‘Goldrush’ one of his rare albums to offer something for everyone. From what I’ve heard in the sneak preview the re-mastering has really boosted the sound too (my old 1990s CD was always one of the weedier in the Young catalogue). You get two recordings of sweet but slight ditty ‘Wonderin’, a song Neil didn’t release in the ‘real world’ until 1983 but heard here in two versions from 1969 (hitherto unreleased) and 1970 (as already released on ‘Archives I’ way back in 2008). The one we haven’t heard is clearly meant to belong on a re-issue of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, not ‘Goldrush’ at all making this doubly odd. Oh yes and the front cover features an ‘outtake’ – one where Neil is walking in Topanga free of strange passers-by or the weird solarising effect on his face (added originally because photographer Gary Burden knew not to use it when glancing at the frames because of the mysterious interloper – typically it’s the one Neil said he liked the best when he insisted on seeing all the shots days later). That’s all though – no demos, no live recordings, no full-blown session tapes and no great lost songs a la ‘Homegrown’. To be honest I would save your money – and if you’re enough of Young fan to buy everything else on this list this year chances are you don’t have any left anyway! Download: ‘After The Goldrush’ ‘I Believe In You’
14) Paul McCartney “Flaming Pie” (MPL/Hear)
Oh dear. Regular readers of this site will know that ‘Flaming Awful’ isn’t my, uh, favourite of McCartney albums so I must admit I did groan when I heard that the McCartney deluxe series had gone with this album rather than earlier ones more in need of the treatment (like ‘London Town’ and ‘Back To The Egg’, though rumours have it that one or both will be out by Xmas next year. Assuming we live that long and haven’t gone mad by then). However I was all set to be optimistic: after all there are some cracking B-sides from the 1997 sessions (most of which are better than the album’s best bits and all of which are better than its worst) and as with all these sets there’s the lure of unheard session tapes and demos. Plus surely the people in charge would have learnt from the ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ fiasco last time? (For those of you who missed last year’s review most of the best stuff got shoved out to a download-only website despite the fact that fans were already paying through the nose for the set; surely the least they can give us for £70-odd is another actual disc that costs all of 10p to physically produce). Alas no. ‘Flaming Pie’ is the worst McCartney re-issue on all fronts. First the album is by far the most modern of all the archive sets so far so it needs absolutely no re-mastering and doesn’t sound in any way clearer or crisper than the one I’ve had barely played on my shelf for years. Secondly it looks ugly – the ‘pie’ logo is a funny story (though even then it’s a Lennon story not a McCartney one, about how The Beatles were pre-ordained ‘because a man on a flaming pie came down and said you ‘are Beatles with an ‘a’ and we were) but it makes for an ugly cover and the photos of a mulleted Paul aren’t as good as others in this series (poor Linda, of course, wasn’t at her best during these sessions and died a year after the album’s release so there is an excuse, but it’s still the ugliest of all the Macca sets). The bonus ‘films’, often the highlights of these sets, consists of the ‘World Tonight’ documentary that’s still relatively easy to buy, beg or steal a copy of these days, plus a stilted interview with David Frost (sadly not the brilliant 2010 the pair did for Al Jazeera) and the ugliest music videos Paul ever made. We do get the first six episodes of ‘Oobu Joobu’ as featured on the ‘Pie’ era B-sides, but still in truncated form rather than full episodes (even just the McCartney bits would be fine, as copyright issues presumably block the bits about Paul talking to The Human League, raving about Neil Young’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ set or comparing his demos with Eric Stewart’s from the days when the pair worked on sons together, but no – large chunks of Paul’s chat are missing). Sadly there’s no sign of the other nine episodes which also included a rarity each at the rate of approximately one per episode. Yet again there are three songs available only as ‘downloads’ and of course they’re amongst the most interesting: rotten as ‘Beautiful Night’ is I’d take Paul’s first go in 1986 over the 1997 version anyday, ‘Somedays’ feels more intimate and spooky before the orchestral overdubs were added and ‘Calico Skies’ is the perfect song for singing round a campfire ‘Heart Of The Country’ style. On the discs themselves we get rarities that feel definitely less special: so many of these songs were acoustic anyway so the demos for tracks like ‘Somedays’ and ‘The Songs We Were Singing’ don’t add much. Others like ‘If You Wanna’ and ‘Flaming Pie’ itself somehow even sound more stupid and empty while Paul as sounds as bored singing a rehearsal ‘Beautiful Night’ as I do listening to it. The best few things here by miles are the demo for ‘The World Tonight’ which works better as a worried up-tempo paranoid blues than it did as a poppy polished single and Macca’s acoustic playing is, as always, one of the most un-sung parts of his long list of many talents. The ‘rough mix’ of the song with a wobbly guide vocal isn’t as good as the demo but also beats spots off the finished product, Paul sounding haunted and authentic rather than playing the pop game. There's also a delightful rehearsal take of 'Great Day' that knocks spots off the final over-polished version thanks to some really pretty harmonies from Linda Maca. Third in the success bucket is ‘Whole Life’, a song donated by Paul to an anti-drugs campaign heard here in an alternate mix, Paul’s despair at the people lost along the way to drugs (he surely had Wings’ Jimmy McCulloch in mind in part) shining through in an even rawer version. As for completely unheard tracks there are just two: the Paul ‘n’ Linda jam ‘C’mon Baby’ which is really just a fragment (and a creepy one at that ‘c’mon baby down to my place’ indeed!) and ‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’, a unique collaboration with poet Allen Ginsburg that features the poet reading surreal Robert Hunter-esque poetry while Paul gets out the fuzz-box for his guitar and his drumkit and creates a mini-McCartney III. On any other set a weirdo song about skeletons full of oddball slang and seemingly made up on the spot would be the nadir; here it’s one of the highlights of a set that’s as half-baked and indigestible as the original album. Personally I’d give this one a miss and save your money for ‘London Town’, a magnificent Wings album with a bit of something for everyone and hours of stunning outtakes and demos still sitting in the vaults. Download: ‘Somedays’ ‘Souvenir’ ‘Whole Life’ ‘The World Tonight’ (Alternate Version)
15) John Lennon “Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Remixes” (‘Beatles Solo’)
The problem with celebrating Lennon’s 80th birthday is that his estate already had such parties for his 50th, 60th and 70th that fans are still suffering hangovers (and paying off the price of previous sets). Rather than let the latest anniversary go unmarked, however, Yoko-via-Sean has sanctioned a full remix of 36 of Lennon’s greatest hits and most loved songs from the master-tapes. Which sounds fun in principle but in practice means that fans are forking out full price for the grand total of, maybe, two minutes’ worth of material that actually sound in any way different. There are five versions of this set in total with different tracks and running orders, which is just bonkers and time that could have well spent improving the packaging, most of which insists of SHOUTING THE TRACK TITLES TO US IN CAPITAL LETTERS and a decidedly unappealing shot of a bleary-eyed Lennon in a ponytail (is this the only shot we’ve got of John now that hasn’t been seen a hundred times before?) Yeah, sure, there’s a bit of extra time-delayed echo on Lennon’s voice at times and sometimes the engineers do the same to the drum sound too, while there’s almost a psychedelic thing going on in the chiming ringing guitars of ‘Mind Games’ that sounds much clearer than it ever did in 1973 and some nice echo on ‘Startin’ Over’ that nudges it ever closer to John’s original vision of a 1950s production (but an effect he probably couldn’t have managed in his lifetime). There’s also ‘Come Together’ from the ‘Live In New York City’ album which is, by Lennon solo standards, as rare as his things get (i.e. it still charted and you can still beg, buy, borrow or steal a copy – just not on Spotify). Oh and don’t forget the two postcards and bumper sticker, I guess. Or the ‘metallic lettering’ on the gatefold sleeve (seriously, this was put forward as a reason for buying this set on the youtube advert). But really? Is that all? Most of these tracks (especially the ‘Walls and Bridges’ ones) sound worse in these mixes, with stuff taken out that really should be there (the brass section, mostly). Lennon’s legacy isn’t going to be extended five minutes by this set and you sense Dr Winston O’Boogie himself would have put his foot through his record player at the very idea. Gimme some truth indeed: the truth is that this is a money-spinner done as cheaply as possible and John deserves better. Yoko is usually so much more careful than this. Download: ‘Working Class Hero’
16) Keith Richards and The X-Pensive Winos “Live At The Hollywood Palladium, 1988” (BMG)
Take It So Hard/How I Wish/I Could Have Stood You Up/Too Rude/Make No Mistake/Time Is On My Side/Big Enough/Whip It Up/Locked Away/Struggle/Happy/Connection/Rockawhile/I Wanna Be Your Man/You Don’t Move Me
A scruffy gig recorded during one of the last shows on the ‘Talk Is Cheap’ tour before Keith made his peace with Mick and got back together again for the Stones’ ‘Steel Wheels’ album the following year, this set was first released in 1991 and is something of an oddity perhaps best left in the vaults. Keith is an angry mood and his band are more like punks than the well-rehearsed flow of a Stones gig. On other occasions that sentence might sound like a compliment but here, without Jagger’s professionalism and Watts’ drumming to get him out of trouble, Keef just rasps through songs one after another in the exact same way so that they all end up one noisy blur. Even the good songs from ‘Talk’ (all but one of which are played here) and a couple of Keith’s Stones songs end up sounding devoid of all meaning and finesse here and even the presence of old pal Bobby Keyes on saxophone can’t hide the fact that this is a bad night. Only a surprise revival of ‘Connection’ from the ever-under-rated ‘Between The Buttons’ really does anything and then not always anything good. Frustratingly bootleggers know that the best performance from this gig (‘Little T&A’) and the most interesting (the Stones’ second single, the Beatle-covering ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’) alongside a passable ‘Talk’ track (‘You Don’t Move Me’) were all cut from the original release and that’s true here for the ‘vanilla’ one, only appearing on the pricey box set alongside a lot more packaging and a tour t-shirt (probably a replica, although I’d like to think Keith’s had a vault of these stashed away for thirty-two years just in case he ever needed them again). Even after a decade when the Stones have released anything in their vault that moves this one feels like the scraping of the barrel and is at times truly torturous. Perhaps its revenge for the famous night in 1972 when Chuck Berry chucked Keith Richards off the stage during a gig at the Palladium?!? Download: ‘Connection’
17) Neil Young “Return To Greendale” (Reprise)
Unlucky seventeen: Oh Neil, why do you have to do this to me why? Just as our favourite Trump-bashing Canadian legend seemed to have a clean sweep at the AAA Academy Awards comes the news that Neil is returning to what is easily my least favourite of the fifty-odd albums he’s worked on. Yes, the same man who didn’t release career highlight ‘Homegrown’ in 1974 can’t let 2003’s ‘Greendale’ alone. And I have no idea why. I mean, it was an album he wrote in his car on the way to the studio each day. It’s an ‘ecological soap opera’ where bad guys do bad things and good Grandpas snuff it and teenage eco-warriors do what teenage eco warriors do. To be honest the ewok roadies from ‘Live Rust’ or Lionel the mechanic from ‘Human Highway’ had more depth than the lot of them. In the seventeen years since release ‘Greendale’ has already been a pretty feeble film and an oddball graphic novel and now it’s a pretty feeble and oddball box set. So what do you get for your money (£100! That’s…£50 a disc!) this time? Bits of the Toronto solo show that year, which isn’t a patch on the ‘Vicar Street’ performance already out on the deluxe edition set on first release (and that’s nothing to get too excited about either, it’s just that Neil dumping his harmonica in a cup of disinfectant over and over is way more interesting than the music). Bits of footage of a bored looking Crazy Horse in the studio wondering what the hell Neil is putting them through this time. Sadly not enough of either if you’re enough of a completist to a) spend this kind of money and b) actually enjoys this sort of thing (I know, I know, some of you out there actually like ‘Greendale’ and I’m in a minority. I just still haven’t quite worked out why). Oh and Blu-Ray re-mastering of course, so that you can hear in super-duper-quality one of the albums that best displays Neil’s ‘first thought, best thought, only thought’ idea on a project that actually sounds better (i.e. grungier) the worse your hi-fi is. And two LPs, which given the amount of recycling going on in the melody department both sound largely the same. Oddly you don’t get the cinema film or the graphic novel, even though at that price I’d expect both of those and a free Lionel Trains lifesize tractor and bandit car (they did, in fact, release a ‘Greendale Express’ train model which is by far the best thing to be released with the ‘Greendale’ name on it since Postman Pat. I was hoping we’d get one for every album thereafter but, alas, there’s no sign of a Homegrown farmyard cabin, a ‘Psychedelic Pill’ pharmacy truck or a ‘Peace Train’ American Indian goods wagon). Feel the rain? Yeah thanks Neil I will, from the cardboard box I’m living in after buying this set and everything else you’ve put out this year. I like to think Neil is doing this just to mess with my head and it’s just a big practical joke because he knows this is the only Neil project I could find practically nothing good about to day (the release date was the same week as AAA Neil e-book ‘Here We Are In The Years’ after all). For God’s sake though Neil, let Grandpa rest in peace this time I beg you. Download: To be honest, I probably wouldn’t bother.
Songs Of The Year:
1) Neil Young “Kansas” (‘Homegrown’, Reprise)
Poor Neil. He’s just woken up from a bad dream but thank goodness the love of his life is sleeping next to him and all is OK. Or is it? The more he wakes up the more he realises that he isn’t in Kansas anymore and the world is strange and surreal. The world he thought he’d dreamt is the ‘real’ one and he’s lost and helpless, reaching out for help from people who aren’t there and who Neil admits he doesn’t know. The tune too is haunting, ‘Borrowed Tune’ crossed with ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, as Neil steels himself for a breakdown he knows is coming but hasn’t fully hit yet. As troubled and heavy as anything from the ‘Doom Trilogy’ but feeling even more personal, ‘Kansas’ was surely shelved for being too revealing about just how vulnerable the 1974 vintage Neil feels. In 2020 though, with Neil in a similar frame of mind after the divorce from and death of Pegi his wife of three-decades and the rest of us going through a surreal lockdown, it’s time for his humble simple little song to shine. The sound of a man clutching at straws to keep his sanity and not being able to work out what’s real anymore is the soundtrack to more than one person’s 2020 I reckon.
2) Kevin Godley “One Day” (‘Muscle Memory’, Secrets Of Conspiracy)
So many fine songs from this album to choose from, but this is the one that got to me most. Even though we’ve known about the track listing since February (and pre-covid, at least in Europe), ‘One Day’ couldn’t have summed up this bittersweet year any better. On the one sense it’s a love song to technology and its ability to hold us and our fractured lives together. On the other it’s a scared paranoid song about how that technology is replacing us, thinking and feeling for us so we don’t have to anymore. At times it’s deeply sarcastic as Godley praises the ‘more productive you’ this world is creating, who now has more time to fret and strive and agonise. At others it’s all brilliantly uplifting, a hymn to a world where we can achieve anything in the future, including using technology to truly make our lives better and set ourselves free. Musically this song has the perfect accompaniment, starting off as a chugging technological world full of marching synths and mechanical drum machines before adding the colour, bit by bit, so that we get slide guitars and overdubs that brighten our world without taking away from the brutality of the backing. Kevin’s vocal, too, may well be the best he’s recorded ever, held back tightly for the most part while his doubles sadly intone ‘one day’ in the background, only to reach out into space and soar on specific lines that make him sound so human and full of life, even in the midst of such drudgery. We think we’re heading for a happy end, a world where everyone can tweak the soundtrack of their lives endlessly, but no – the future means ‘there will be no new music’ as everything sounds the same and is re-sampled from something else, a frightening yet very true thought that stops us in our tracks all over again. A clever clever song but also one with so much heart.
3) The Rolling Stones “Criss Cross” (‘Goat’s Head Soup’ Deluxe, Polydor)
A gorgeous slice of everything that was great about the Stones in the first half of the 1970s, this strutting rock ‘n’ roll number has long been one of my favourite Stones bootlegs and the new more polished vocal from Mick Jagger somehow makes a fine song sparkle even more. It truly sounds like a cross-stitch: Mick is at his most sultry and teasing as he struggles to gain control over his emotions over a tight backing track where Keith and Mick Taylor weave some real magic, Bill pushes how far he can push his bass to go in the opposite direction to the others and Charlie stomps all over it and ties it all up with a bow that keeps everything together. Yes it sounds a little like ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Start me Up’, but I would take this riff over both of these, especially the way the song has room for both of the things did so well in this era: not just the shouty preening chorus but the bit of verse angst that comes before it. While this sounds like every other good Stones song of the era, though, the words are very different and hark back to ‘Goat’s Head Soup’s theme of things not being what they seem. It’s rare to hear Mick this lost and out of control, as he pleads for a girl to ‘save him’ that never comes, pleads for a ‘revolution’ and worries that he’s going to be trapped in this push-me-pull-you relationship forever, unwilling to stay and unwilling to leave. We’ve heard Mick sing ‘bayubaaaa’ many many times over the years, but this time it has a real chill to it, the sound of a man drowning rather than one reaching for a high-five as usual. How this track never made it to the original album, never mind the endless rarities/pretend rarities sets like ‘Tattoo You’ over the years, is anyone’s guess.
4) Paul McCartney “The Kiss Of Venus” (‘McCartney III’)
Shortly before lockdown Paul was gifted a book named ‘The Kiss Of Venus’ by John Martineau, about the structure of planets in our solar system and how they all relate to each other with sounds and music. The idea tickled Paul, who had first had a bash writing something on those lines for the title track of ‘Venus and Mars’ while he was still with Wings in 1975 (not to mention ‘Cosmically Conscious’ in 1968!) The book inspired a melody that’s totally McCartney, hopping all over the place to its own particular internal rhythm that sounds exactly like planets in orbit wobbling into place over and over. It also inspired a lyric that doubles as a metaphor for love and for life, as Paul debates the idea of fate and pre-destination as love inspires him to do the things he was meant to do and the distracting noise of humanity as ‘packed with illusions, our life is turned around’. By the end of the song he stands with his loved one as a mere speck of sunlight, all those human drives and tendencies blown away on cosmic winds that were running in the background all the time. It’s a pretty song, lighter on its feet than most of Macca III but the track that underpins the rest of the record as Paul becomes a passenger in a universe much bigger than he is, all with a typically deft McCartney musical touch.
5) Cat Stevens “Can This Be Love?” (‘Tea For The Tillerman’ Box Set, Cat-O-Log Records)
Another of our favourite AAA bootleg songs getting a first official release is Cat Stevens’ lost 1970 classic ‘Can This Be Love?’, now ‘finished off’ with a few overdubs so that we hear how it might have sounded as part of ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ (though thankfully they keep Cat’s anguished and powerful vocal despite a few flatspots here and there that don’t really matter). This is a sweet old song, presumably another of the handful written for model Patti D’arbanville who stood by Cat through his illness with TB before things went wrong. Cat sings proudly about how he’s love for the first time in the first verse and wants everyone to know it in the manner of his future love songs like ‘Can’t Keep It In’ or ‘Ready’, but in common with his other 1970 post-illness songs there’s a sense of frailty and doubt which here creeps in during the second verse. ‘Please be kind’ he pleads with his lover ‘for it’s my very first time’ and whether that be in the bedroom or in his heartspace Cat has never sounded more troubled (yes, even on ‘Trouble’). The chorus too makes him question himself: can this be love? It feels like love but, having never been in love before, how is he supposed to know? Together with a warm free-flowing melody this would have been one of the highlights of either of Cat’s best albums ‘Mona Bone’ and ‘Tillerman’ (though it’s on the latter box set most of these songs were written in the same time frame and the albums released just a few months apart) and I can’t give higher praise than that.
6) The Kinks “The Follower – Any Time” (‘Lola V Powerman And The Money-Go-Round Box Set, Rhino)
Premiered two months before the proposed ‘Lola V Powerman’ due to arrive in shops on December 16th. I could have done without the hokey spoken word parts. I would have preferred to hear this as a full unreleased (and unbootlegged!) song rather than to have it bookended with extracts from the parent album ‘Lola vs Powerman’. It’s clearly unfinished and runs to maybe a verse and a chorus. However there’s a lot of promise in Ray Davies’ abandoned song, which is an uncharacteristically uplifting track compared to the rest of his 1970 batch and could have been The Kinks’ ‘Hey Jude’. The song features an early use of a future 1970s Kinks stable (a lost lonely soul walking down a busy street where nobody knows him) and has Ray reaching out to a lost soul the way he will on ‘Misfits’, telling his audience that he will be there for them. Simple and one-dimensional it may be compared to the sheer layers going on across the caustic ‘Lola’ album, it also features a very rich melody-line, a thumping good vocal track and an early sign of the chords from hit ‘Lola’. It really should have made the album.
7) Rolling Stones “Living In A Ghost Town” (Standalone Single, Virgin)
I thought we would be knee-deep in songs about lockdown by the time of this second wave, but so far (some odd Van Morrison songs aside) we’ve had only one and strictly speaking this is a 2019 recording from a forthcoming still half-completed album that was slightly tweaked in isolation and then rush-released in April 2020 because it seemed so spookily true to real-life events the Stones had to roll it out. ‘Life was so beautiful’ splutters Mick ‘till we all got locked down’, walking through a town once filled with life that now seems empty. It’s the Stones equivalent of The Kinks’ ‘Welcome To Sleazy Town’, a place that always seemed to be awful till it got closed down and the narrator realises how much he misses it. The song then moves on to a lover wishing he’d self-isolated with his girlfriend and hallucinating her climbing into his bed. You can’t always get what you want it seems (especially with home delivery substitutes) but sometimes we always had what we needed and we’re bound to miss it when it’s gone. The music is your average modern-day Stones strut, woefully trying to tie reggae and rock together and Mick’s idea of an American accent with Jamaican overtones is still a poor fit for him. However the lyrics are spot on and the sudden lurch from laidback verses to an angry passionate chorus that still changes seemingly nothing about the languid lurch of the song really catches your ear. If nothing else this song is welcome as the first fully original Stones song since 2012 and bodes well for the album we’ve been half-promised for many years now, while Mick getting his harmonica out again is cause for celebration too.
8) Camelphat Featuring Noel Gallagher “Not Over Yet” (from the album ‘Dark Matter’, ‘Spinnin’ Records’)
I honestly don’t know what’s the biggest surprise: that Noel is working with musicians somewhere between a third and half his age, that a Mancunian has joined forces with two Liverpudlians, that Noel has released anything since the backlash over his public comments about not wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic or that the results are, against the odds of Noel’s recent run of form, pretty good. Admittedly not Oasis good, but then distancing himself from those days has kind of been the whole point of Noel’s past decade as he’s transcended deeper into the rhythmic music scene and away from melodic rock and roll. On his own Noel just doesn’t know what to do with this brave new world and his run of solo albums have been very rum indeed, but put him with people who know what they’re doing and he’s come up with a minor-key pop classic. The tension between the downward dog of the verse and the explosion into an upbeat chorus is still somehow very Noel een in such an alien world and even though that chorus is basically just the title repeated over and over it’s also the most genuinely joyous thing he’s written since the days of Britpop. His vocal is his best in a while too, a lovely soar that flies like a high flying bird at its own languid pace over the typically period busy track beneath him. The lyrics are, admittedly, the song’s weakest suit, a combination of cod-Oasis (‘A dream as tired as the sun, it belongs to everyone’), prog rock (‘Can you see the ancient lights of home?’) and unusually x-rated ideas (‘Be the angel in my bed!’) but even these have a few good moments (‘Leave the kids alone ‘cause the future’s caught in the crosshair’). If the next album sounds like this maybe I’ll actually have something nice to say about his solo career and maybe, just maybe, Noel’s increasingly problematic solo career is not over yet. Oh and no scissors in sight!
9) Liam Gallagher “All You’re Dreaming Of” (Single)
A standalone charity single released to raise funds for ‘Action For Children’, Liam’s single has a good chance of being at least in the run for a British 0Christmas #1 (he’s up against young singer-songwriter Sam Fender covering Lindisfarne’s ‘Winter Song’ no less – when was the last time we had two AAA songs battling for position? Though the way this year’s gone both will probably be pipped by The Spice Girls…) Written during lockdown when Liam was discussing with his now-usual band of co-writers that there weren’t enough songs of hope in the charts, this record was delayed when the singer said he saw ‘New York Christmas windows’ in his mind on the playback and a few lyrics got tinkered with. If I know Liam he had half an ear on writing another ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ for an era in which our war is against invisible virus particles. Which is a shame, because as a coming-together moment of shared shock and awe this single might have worked OK – as a festive release it’s all a bit treacly and easily the most inauthentic thing no-nonsense Liam has released in his solo career so far. Which is not to say that its horrible, just a bit dreary: there’s a nice lyric in there about needing miracles and the importance of stable, reliable love when the world seems to have gone monkeynuts (indeed a great line about the need for ‘kisses unrehearsed’ to match life’s uncertain moments). That tune though sounds like every Christmas dirge thrown into a blender and never has quite the pay-off it deserves.
10) The Beatles “Just Fun” (‘Lennon At Eighty’)
Little did a twenty-year-old John and eighteen-year-old Paul suspect that the song they’d just tossed off for fun while sagging off school somewhere around 1960 would become one of the biggest musical talking points of 2020. I mean, they didn’t even consider it good enough to finish it! However the inclusion of a quick busked version by Macca during a chat with his friend’s future son Sean for Radio Two made the musical world apoplectic. It is, after all, our first completely unreleased Beatles song since ‘Anthology’ in the mid-1990s and unreleased Beatles are always a treat to hear. However it’s also a song that both writers realised was going nowhere and was deservedly pushed off ‘Please Please Me’ (yes, even in favour of covers like ‘Chains’ I’m afraid). Those lyrics in full then: ‘We said our love was just fun, we said our love had just begun, well there’s no blue moon that I can see, there’s never been in history, because our love was just fun’. Hmm, I mean it’s no ‘Love Me Do’ is it? Personally I’d have celebrated the Lennon-McCartney reunion by repeating that great reel-to-reel of The Quarrymen at Woolton Village Fete that started it all and was broadcast a few years ago, recorded at random as a warm-up for the brass band that was coming round the corner. On such things are legends made.
TV/ Radio Documentaries Of The Year:
TV/ Radio Documentaries Of The Year:
1) “Ready Steady Go Night” (BBC)
What was your best night over lockdown? When the pubs opened? When you could see your mates again? The night Boris Johnson became the first prime minister to be sacked through gross incompetence? (Whoops sorry, that one hasn’t happened yet but I’m convinced it will come). Mine was a month into lockdown when all hell seemed to be breaking loose and BBC4 chose to give us all comfort with a dip into their vaults. I’ve been pushing for a documentary on this series for years: for Britains of a certain age it was the ‘cool’ programme ITV screened to the BBC’s more staid ‘Top Of The Pops’ where the cooler British bands and some passing American soul luminaries strutted their stuff in amongst a throng of hip dancing teenagers. If you’re young thing the best nightclub you’ve ever been too, but one with real music instead of that awful noise they have nowadays. If you’re American think ‘Hullabaloo’ but much more fun! Think of a band in the 1960s and they probably played there: The Beatles were an early hit, The Rolling Stones had such fun they even filled in for bands who weren’t there (miming to Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ in a hilarious skit that makes the most antisocial of AAA bands suddenly seem like old mates), The Beach Boys grinned their heads off, The Who practically lived there (though sadly most of their footage has been wiped) and Otis Redding got a whole episode to himself, back in the days when few people at home beyond his state of Georgia knew who he was. All these bands and more tended to give a little extra when they were on the show and the footage is a brilliant time capsule of the sudden spurt in 1965-1966 from Merseybeat to something a bit darker. The footage has been largely unseen since the 1980s after Dave Clark (of The DC5) bought up the rights to all the footage and kept it for a rainy day. That rainy day is very much now and the hour compilation of material was a really good selection of clips with many AAA bands (Otis wins but in a tough fight with The Beach Boys) and others (Dusty Springfield, an unofficial co-presenter, was never better) all looking and sounding fine. To go with the compilation we also got a new documentary looking at how the series came about and why it died out (basically by being too tied to a particular era, something TOTP avoided thanks to sticking so rigidly to the charts). Sadly not many of the AAA guys and gals appear but it’s still a really interesting and informative documentary. Superb. More next year please BBC4. And if you’re reading Dave Clark then how about some DVDs of this stuff?!?
2) “The World Together” (BBC)
What was the most surreal moment you had during lockdown, dear reader? The day you ordered a hundred toilet rolls ‘just in case?’ The moment when you realised you would normally be coming back from work at this hour but you’d just woken up and were still in your pyjamas? When you realised that the overgrown Sugar Puff Monster in charge of the UK was contradicting something he’d said the day before? Trying to explain to your youngest that even though the world was ending they still needed to do their algebra homework? Watching Liam Gallagher looking like your homeless man sing ‘Soapersonic’ while showing us how to wash our hands? Or the day you read all 30 AAA books back to back and had to rush to the opticians? For me the most surreal moment was watching ‘The World Together’ a collection of several music guests who had all ‘come together’ to keep Britain sane and thank the NHs workers who had kept us safe (though I still think they would have preferred a pay rise personally). This March programme feels like a fever dream now: all those stars in magnificent mansions in Malibu telling us we were all in it together while their broadband seemed to lag even worse than mine. All that peering behind them trying to read their book-shelves and wondering about their décor (of course Elton John would have that piano in that garden, but who guessed Charlie Watts had what looked like a giant public library at his house?) All that generational divide as youngsters and oldies alike went ‘who on earth is that?’ as some strange new name flashed up on screen followed by an old friends who looked a half century older without professional TV make-up. For the record we got two AAA performances. Paul McCartney was game despite being one of the few solo performers of the night, rattling off a fun take on ‘Lady Madonna’ on what we later learned was his daughter Mary’s piano (of course the McCartneys have a piano in their kitchen. There’s probably one in their bathroom and conservatory and upstairs cupboard too) even if, like every gig since circa 2012, Macca’s voice is shot to pieces. The Rolling Stones though stole the gig from everyone with a powerful unplugged version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ (the perfect song for my online shopping of the time). The band turned up one by one, with Mick starting the song with a rare shot of him playing acoustic while Keith lounged on a settee and Ronnie played in his hall before Charlie turned up, without a drum kit to hand but wanting to be a part of things so much he simply sat in a chair with some drumsticks playing thin air! It was the best they’ve sounded in years and for five precious minutes on a timeless classic that all generations would have identified with we didn’t feel anything like as alone. That’s the power of music in a nutshell. We really need a sequel.
3) “The Life and Death Of A Rolling Stone” (Smithsonian)
If you’ve noticed a tendency to cover British TV programmes in these annual reviews, dear reader, then that’s for the simple fact that we tend to get our documentaries from the rest of the world too late. Personally I can’t wait for all the American coronavirus concerts to arrive here next year, perhaps on the day we finally come out of lockdown (or even Australia’s corona concerts the day we go back into lockdown in 2022 because our government is still incompetent). The Smithsonian channel is pretty much our only exception offering choice up-to-date programmes broadcast mere weeks after the channel’s American counterpart, only in this case it’s a programme about an autopsy that was made fifty-one years ago. The show is presented by ‘Medical Historian’ (why was this job never offered to me by my career advisor?) Lindsay Fitzharris who seems to spend every episode permanently surprised. Gosh really, one of the Rolling Stones died? It was the good-looking blonde-one? He bought AA Milne’s house? Who knew? Why, only everyone likely to be turning in to a documentary on a Rolling Stone, that’s who. Next comes a surprisingly gruesome and utterly unnecessary re-creation of the autopsy in which the pathologist expert on hand dissects a realistic re-make of Brian Jones, including the way he was cut open, while a badly super-imposed computer-generated face of Brian is forced on top. Poor Brian. He suffered so many things in life he shouldn’t have to be facing this in death. The narration leaves a lot to be desired too. Well, says the presenter, if it’s a Rolling Stone who died then it surely must have been drugs! (Cue patient explanation ten minutes later that while yes the autopsy showed Brian Jones was a regular drug-taker he had none in his system the night he died and only the barest amount of alcohol). Hey Mick ‘n’ Keef had just pushed him out the band, so it had to be murder right? (Cue an equally patient explanation on why this seems stupidly unlikely, given that the other Stones were nowhere near, all had alibis and genuinely loved Brian, pain as he might sometimes be. As for the theory that ‘Brian was planning to take band the name he’d created for the band’ I’ve not heard that one before). So final thought: it must all have been a huge police conspiracy and cover-up because the powers-that-be wanted to make a Stone a scapegoat in the press (sure many of the police were automatically prejudiced and they didn’t exactly handle the case with 100% care, but Brian’s death wasn’t anything special to them and it sure looked like an accident from drowning, no wonder they shut the case as quickly as possible). However what was quite a silly and irresponsible documentary becomes gripping in its second half as we hear about the whacking great discrepancies between the four witness statements (who couldn’t even agree which of them found the body), the timing of the arrival of Tom Keylock (kind of the Stones equivalent of Mal Evans, who was particularly close to Brian) and lots of other witnesses who claimed there was a party of dozens if not hundreds there the night that Brian died (who all quickly scarpered the next morning). There’s also some fascinating archive footage (shot by Jones biographer Terry Rawlings in 2009) of Tom and Frank Thorogood, the builder who was doing work on Brian’s house in the months before his death and who even had a room there. Both look distinctly cagey when stood round Brian’s old swimming pool at his house thirty-odd years on and their candid comments about tiny lies and deceptions don’t put either of them in the best of lights. Both are long since dead now and their secrets have been taken to their graves. But there is enough in what this documentary has to say, particularly this footage, to make you wonder. As for me it always seemed the oddest possible way for Brian to die, given that he had been a champion swimmer in his youth and was if anything more comfortable in water than he was on dry land. As proven by the autopsy report he was actually in far better shape than most times he had probably been in his own pool and there are no signs of a sudden heart attack or even an asthma attack that might have caused him to lose consciousness and drown that way. My guess is that there was an altercation between Brian and someone, possibly Frank (who legend it found out earlier that day that Brian was going to offer him far less for his work than he had been promised). However I doubt it was murder as there were no signs of a struggle either – someone probably got angry and pushed Brian into the pool, walking off, without realising what they’d done or the effect they might have had on him. After all, something that’s always bothered me despite his supposed ‘death-bed’ confession: if he just wanted more money killing Brian wasn’t going to get it for him – he wasn’t exactly in the guitarist’s will and pretty much kissed goodbye to the money he was going to be paid anyway with the death of his client (not to say it couldn’t have been in an emotional frenzy I guess, but the evidence isn’t there for an attack or savage murder either, just manslaughter at best). Whatever the cause, there is at least some highly intriguing material here, although perhaps a bigger investigation ought to be why it was hidden away in a documentary that starts off so poorly.
4) “John Lennon At Eighty” (BBC)
A curious little programme this, which couldn’t decide if it was meant to be plugging a product, celebrating a life or working as therapy. Son Sean was the presenter, the first real time he’s spoken to us without being a programme’s ‘plus one’, with mum Yoko’s increasingly ailing health now she’s in her late eighties perhaps leaving this as a clue as to how Lennon’s legacy is going to be treated in the future. Reverentially, but with fun, seems to be the answer as Sean gets out his phone book and chats with three very special guests: half-brother Julian, Godfather Elton John (!) and none other than Paul McCartney. Dad would have been proud of the walls that were taken down and the bridges extended in this interview as Sean and Julian sound genuinely pally – a world away from the days when his mum Cynthia was suing Yoko and using Julian as her go-between – reflecting on what they remembered of John in two very different times in his life. Julian has buried many of his demons nowadays but still sounds wistful as he talks about how happy John seemed in New York, bringing up Sean while baking bread. For his part Sean is wistful for the home videos of Julian playing in his dad’s epic Tittenhurst estate back in blighty, poignantly revealing that he once tried to go to boarding school in England because he didn’t feel safe in crime-riddled New York in the 1980s (and after his father’s death who can blame him?) While their musical analysis wasn’t always as accurate (surely ‘Mind Games’ is very Beatley, while it’s ‘Steel and Glass’ which is the sort of song John would never have tried while part of the group), their extended chat sounds healing on both sides and it was a privilege to listen in. Elton, meanwhile, is still a gushing fan shocked that someone as cool as his part namesake would ever want to hang around with him and filling in bits and pieces about recording ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ and the subsequent wager than John would play Madison Square Gardens with him if the song got to #1. Sean, though, sounds oddly unaware of events backstage that put John and Yoko back together even though Beatle nuts know these stories well. It’s left to McCartney to close the two hour show which he does in typically ebullient fashion. Sean sounds a little edgy at first but Paul charms the pants off him in his usual inimitable style and soon the pair are chatting like old friends about travelling round Liverpool learning chords, that ‘Let It Be’ wasn’t as sad as often remembered, Paul forever talking to John in his head while writing songs een now and John and Paul becoming mates again before the end. The most moving part of all, though, is when Sean asks what his granny Julia was like and Paul says ‘oh, you would have so loved her’. A nice look behind the mask, though the two hours could have been edited down into one with no trouble at all (Not least because there’s a lot of music played from the ‘new’ remix album and all of it in full).
5) “Desert Island Discs: Cat Stevens” (BBC)
At last, following a seemingly endless succession of failed politicians and forgotten TV presenters, Desert Island Discs strands an AAA musician again – our first since compiling a whacking great list of them in 2012 (http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/search/label/Desert%20Island%20Discs) It seems odd that they hadn’t got round to speaking to Cat before, given that he’s the epitome of the intelligent, thoughtful celebrity with a fascinating past ripe for discussion. Cat was on fine form, speaking about all his old favourite subjects (how he got his name, his near-death experiences with TB and drowning, the difficulty he had in being the Western world’s most famous Muslim overnight) and some hard ones too (the fuss over the Salmon Rushdie fatwah still burns), but new-ish presenter Lauren Laverne barely seemed to be listening. There were some good moments, such as Cat remembering his days in his parent’s Greek restaurant near the West End and listening to concert-goers whistling showtunes (cue ‘America’, with Cat a much bigger fan of Leonard Bernstein than I’d realised), hearing The Beatles for the first time (cue ‘Twist and Shout’) and Cat’s reflection that he had a choice in 1977 between leaving to follow his heart the way he’d told his fans to do for ten years or be a hypocrite and keep making music, but that he hadn’t realised some of his audience would still hate him for his ‘betrayal’ still. He even cheekily chooses one of his own songs, ‘The Wind’, as being particularly special to him (which is always a bit of a cheat, I think, when musicians do that but at least it was one that was personal and fits the interview’s themes well). Mostly, though, this was a Cat interview by numbers with some curious discs (Cat took Stevie Wonder’s ‘Always’ as the song he’d save from the waves), curious luxuries (vitamins!) and an inevitable book choice (The Qu’ran). Oh to have heard Cat be interviewed by Roy Plomley instead…
6) “John Lennon: The Last Weekend” (Sky)
By and large I would have to say that Sean Ono Lennon’s handling of his dad’s big birthday has been quite a success. Sure the remixed greatest hits CD is a bit pointless but it caught the mass market enough to come close to making the #1 slot nearly forty years after his dad’s death and the cornucopia of programmes released from the vaults and handed to BBC4, Sky and ‘The 80s Music Channel’ alike (who ran a most excellent seven days of programmes, despite the fact that John was alive for a grand total of one year in that decade) have been mostly excellent. I’ve particularly loved the chance to see John and Yoko on the chat shows Parkinson and Dick Cavett again and the complete unedited 1975 edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test. There were welcome repeats too for full-length documentaries ‘The New York Years’ (made for Lennon’s 70th), ‘Above Us Only Sky’ (for the ‘Imagine’ re-issue bonanza of 2018), ‘The Making Of Imagine’ (from, ooh, aeons ago), the ultra-rare John ‘n’ Yoko home movie compilation to the songs of ‘Imagine’ and ‘Fly’ (watch John’s mother-in-law’s look of disbelief as her daughter plays billiards blindfolded, laugh at the all-white chessboard or brace yourselves for John nearly drowning Yoko when he gets his rowing boat stuck at his Tittenhurst estate, all to the rather apt strain of ‘how can I go forward if I don’t know which way I’m facing?’) There were even the complete collection of solo Lennon promos repeated (if you were patient enough) with rare outings for the ‘John only’ vocals to ‘Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him’ and the ‘Anthology’ outtake version of ‘I’m Losing You’ (in which backing band Cheap Trick are attacked by various Lennon line drawings!) Sad to report, then, that the centre-point of this extravaganza – and the only ‘new’ TV programme – was a bit of a damp squib (or a ‘damp squib’ as people seem to be saying these days). ‘The Last Weekend’ sounded like a good idea: we tell the story of John all over again using the interview recorded for the BBC by Andy Peebles which wrapped up mere hours before John was shot dead. However, this wasn’t the way I’d have done it: Lennon tells us an anecdote by his own hand, lots of talking heads comment on it and we move on. There’s almost no sense of the timeline here as, like John, we jump about from subject to subject and while I totally agree that this is a really poignant document as John talked in more detail than ever before about all sorts of things, you wouldn’t know that from the choices here which were all run of the mill. I also thought from the programme’s title that we would get more of a sense of that final weekend, of the fact that John had barely had time to digest his last session before heading to the studio to cut ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ and then walking unknowingly to his doom mere hours later. Weirdly, though, this documentary spend a lot more time talking about ‘the lost weekend’ than it ever does ‘the last weekend’ and there are other programmes out there that cover that better. If you don’t know your Lennon you must have been very confused indeed – and if you do know your Lennon you’re better off listening to the tapes or reading the full transcript.
DVDs Of The Year:
1) Roger Waters “Us and Them”
Breathe/One Of These Days/Time/The Great Gig In The Sky/Welcome To The Machine/When We Were Young-Déjà vu/The Last Refugee/Picture That/Wish You Were Here/The Happiest Days Of Our Lives-Another Brick In The Wall II and III/Dogs/Pigs (Three Different Ones)/Money/Us and Them/Brain Damage-Eclipse
Strictly speaking this is not a 2020 project at all: this is a compilation of shows tapes on Roger’s 2017-18 tours that were then screened in selected cinemas in 2019 and originally due for release on DVD and Blu-Ray at the start of 2020 before Coronavirus moved the schedule back to October (how odd it seems already seeing such crowds in one place). However if there’s a better summary of what the year has had to offer then I have yet to see it. While the track listing looks like another ‘greatest hits’ bill (though minus ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, surprisingly, and with ‘Comfortably Numb’ relegated to the ‘extras’ rather than included as part of the main show for some reason), this show is much much more than that. Every track here serves some political purpose, with song after song going for the jugular against phony world leaders bringing ordinary people to their knees. As early as the second song ‘One Of These Days I’m Going To Cut You Into Little Pieces’ Roger relishes the frustration and anger spilling over in the room of whichever arena his fine band are playing, every song adding up to a sort of elongated ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ where each track represents something wrong with modern society and where each theme is a brick in the wall of how we got here in this collective madness, to a point of time that feels like the end of days (even before the virus arrived to the party). Pink Floyd, never a band who liked you looking at them, were early pioneers of the video screen where every song was made to seem a bigger, bolder, better spectacle. Here, though, Roger somehow uses the video screens to make his songs seem more intimate, sharing with us individual tales of horror from around the world and making them all seem ‘human’, whether they be the plight of refugees unlucky enough to live in a country rich in oil that have been turned into a warzone by the Western world, real war footage of drones inhumanely searching out their victims, the child choir of ‘Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2’ dressed in Guantanamo jumpsuits like the prisoners of tomorrow or Trump’s increasingly stupid tweets admitting in his own words what hard work being president is and how out of depth he feels. Along the way we get some blistering performances including a thoughtful ‘Wish You Were Here’ (a song that has never meant more than it has in lockdown), a brutal ‘Welcome To The Machine’ (which has never resonated with such dispassionate scorn as here), a scathing ‘Pigs: Three Different Ones’ (where Roger gives Trump both barrels over and over and over again) and a hugely powerful ‘Us and Them’ (where the gap between the two, as shown on the video screens, has never felt greater than now). Along the way Roger sings the three best songs from his 2016 album ‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’ and nails them in a way he never quite did on the album, with heartfelt eulogies to lost love and lost lives echoing around the arena (plus has there ever been a better verse for 2020’s mixture of power politics and climate ignorance than ‘the temple’s in ruins, the banker’s getting fat, the buffalo’s gone, the mountain top’s flat, the trout in the stream are all becoming hermaphrodite, you lean to the left but you vote to the righty’?) Best of all though is a chilling rendition of the full eighteen minutes of ‘Dogs’, a song that always used to be about futility and frustration but here sounds like defeat, as one of the last ‘dogs’ standing feels powerless to stop the crushing descent of sheep voting in pigs who send them in to slaughter, ‘ground down’ by it all. There’s a moment just before the final verse where Doyle Bramhall III’s guitarwork, superb all the way through the show but especially good here, sounds like the last lashing-out of a wounded animal who knows that the vet is about to put him to sleep against his will at any minute. After a full two hours of sheer horror and terror ‘Us and Them’ could easily have become a depressing work (like, say, ‘The Wall’ film or even ‘The Wall’ album) but the whole is saved by a beautiful rendition of ‘Brain Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’ that acts like group therapy, telling us that we are not mad even if our world leaders are. Roger also tweaks the arrangement so that, an instrumental interlude later, we get the whole of ‘Eclipse’s uplifting message a second time as a laser prism explodes into the sky, blotting out the dark side of the moon as represented by a giant mirrorball and offering light at last. It’s a hugely moving moment, bettered only by the humble ‘Charlie Chaplin Great Dictator-like’ speech Roger gives afterwards to the end the show, pleading with the audience to take the love they are projecting to the stage and instead send it out into the world to the downtrodden people who need it most. Yes the show could have been even better (‘If’ Roger’s earliest song about Syd Barratt’s mental illness and his own guilty reaction to it would have fitted in superbly, as would ‘Nobody Home’ the song of increasing isolation from ‘The Wall’ an album which is curiously short-changed here, or ‘Perfect Sense’s pounds shillings and pence mentality to solving the world problems, or ‘Each Small Candle’ the finale from previous shows). But no matter. This is more than just another concert – this feels like a last gasp showdown between all that is good and evil in the world, a matter of nothing short of life and death, of pigs with sheep versus dogs, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Rarely has music sounded as if it mattered so much as it does here and if you’re here reading this then you already know how very very much music matters in a world that often makes us think that we don’t. Simply superb.
2) Nick Mason “Saucerful Of Secrets” (Sony/Legacy)
Interstellar Overdrive/Astronomy Domine/Lucifer Sam/Fearless/Obscured by Clouds-When You’re In/Remember A Day/Arnold Layne/Vegetable Man/If/Atom Heart Mother/If Reprise
If Roger excelled at recalling the Floyd’s peak years then his old bandmate is every bit at adept at re-calling the Floyd’s early years with his new band. I spent a great deal of the AAA Pink Floyd e-book (‘Remember A Day’, out now folks and cheap at a zillion times the price!) going ‘gee, I didn’t see that coming!’ Box sets, bust-ups, giant stone heads, there were so many unlikely events going on that I thought to myself ‘pigs might fly!’ Well, here’s another one: Nick Mason’s life since ‘The Division Bell’ in 1994 has consisted of one comeback concert (‘Live 8’ of course), an autobiography, opening his garden up to the public and multiple appearances on ‘Top Gear’ showing off his car collection. There’s been very little music at all (Nick jokes in the DVD at one stage about ‘taking the last twenty years off’) until suddenly, in 2018, Nick started touring again with latter-day Floyd bassist Guy Pratt and a few new friends. Their material was heavy on the early Syd Barrett-era Floyd, their song choice a mixture of the inspired and the outright bonkers (with nothing here post ‘Obscured By Clouds’ in 1972) and their performances impressively loose and spontaneous (compared to the last few Floyd tours anyhow) really capturing the can-do-anything flavour of the Floyd’s early days. Why, here’s even a light show at the back, for the first time since 1968! Nick, hired at the suggestion of Guy rather than the other way around, has you suspect little to do with this venture besides the name (a little like his ‘solo’ albums) and yet his drumming is inspired, free and loose and jazzy in all the right ways in a way it hasn’t been since, well, he recorded all this stuff originally. Guy, about as far away from predecessor Roger Waters as you can get, is genial and talented and brilliantly enthusiastic, getting to play all the Floyd songs you suspect he wanted to all along but were vetoed by David Gilmour. Guitarist Lee Harris is amazing, the musical love-child of Barrett and Gilmour. Keyboard player Dom Beken is the album’s secret weapon in much the same way Rick Wright was, the cushion that shields all the blows from guitars, bass and drums and keeps the wagon on the road. The weakest link is Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp – an unlikely substitute for the irreplaceable Syd as its likely to find – but at times even his guitar-work is impressively Barrett-like and his vocals just the right shade of darkened childhood. This band still haven’t performed many shows, with covid killing off the momentum of their tour just as it was getting started (this show at an old coaching shed at London’s Roundhouse was recorded in 2019, fifty-two years after Floyd last played there; as Nick put it during his promotion tour ‘at that point the venue was so new they’d only just taken the trains out!’) At times it shows, as the trouble with set-lists that take risks is you never quite know what you’re going to get (‘Lucifer Sam’ is awful, a noisy mess with improvised snippets from Disney’s ‘Lady and The Tramp’ of all things set to a punk backing, ‘Remember A Day’ is lumpy and clunky, not the flowing masterpiece of the band’s second album, ‘Atom Heart Mother’ is as dull and ponderous as it always was - though the medley in and out of ‘If’ is inspired I have to say - and the notorious ‘Vegetable Man’ is a good idea on paper but smacks too much of Syd in pain and forced to work under duress rather than a reminder of his warm, creative, brilliant self like the rest of the show, sticking out like a sore synthesiser). However at its best (‘Interstellar Overdrive’ is impressively close to the anarchic spirit of the original; ‘Fearless’ has never been prettier, ‘Childhood’s End’ is haunting in the extreme, ‘Astronomy Domine’ explosive and ‘Bike’ perfectly on the line between childhood innocence and terror) you can totally see why Mason has thrown his lot in with this band and why it’s more than just nostalgia. After a quarter of century existing only in box sets and history books and literally museums (one concert aside) Pink Floyd feel as if they are alive again, which is a miracle of itself. What’s more, you suspect that of all the million-selling albums and colossal achievements the band have made since 1968 this is the Floyd Syd would have enjoyed the most, a fitting update to the legacy of him and his four friends back when they were daring and the world was young and they had the capacity to do absolutely anything. Flawed as it is, mistakes as there are, weird arrangements and song choices as there sometimes may be, this band truly have all the courage, passion and charisma of the early Floyd at their best. I’d take it over the strained theatrics of ‘Pulse’ any day. All we got to say to you is ‘go buy’…There’s just one sad thing about this gig – that it isn’t the longer (and largely better) show performed in New York shortly afterwards where Roger Waters turned up unannounced to sing an utterly brilliant rendition of ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’! An even bigger pig and more unlikely flew that night, but this one was pretty good too…
Well that’s all from us for 2020. Stay as safe and well and as happy as you can in 2021 dear readers (as The Who once sang 'Got a feeling 21 is gonna be a good year...') and have a collawollaboola Christmas from all of us at Alan’s Album Archives !