Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Checked Drawers of Destiny

What's your favourite Black Sabbath album? Don't be coy now, I can't imagine that anyone who comes by this blog doesn't have a favourite Sabbath record. Me, I sometimes lean towards Paranoid, but if push comes to shove I'll probably choose the last decent album they made with Ozzy: Sabotage.

In the same way that Ozzy Osbourne is now famous for advertising World of Warcraft and yelling "Shaaaaron!", Sabotage these days is probably best known for appearing on Worst Album Cover of All Time Lists, rubbing shoulders with dodgy country and hip hop records. I've always thought that bands should be able to change or update album covers when they're reissued, in the same way that paperback books are (I'm sure Blind Faith would agree with this idea). Perhaps then, Sabotage would be looked at differently. Which it deserves to be, because it's a remarkable record.

It's remarkable because it's mental. It was made after Sabbath learned that they had been swindled out of heaps of cash due to dodgy deals and that despite having sold millions of records they were poor as church mice. Well, maybe not church mice. Agnostic mice. You know what I mean. Anyway, the resulting album is the Black Sabbath album that really should be called Paranoid. Songs display wild mood swings, gonzoid riffs one minute, chilled out hippy stuff the next: Symptom of the Universe, Thrill of it All, The Writ, none of these were taking their tablets according to the prescription. Sabbath were never really there for the nice things in life, but they never made anything else quite as angry and paranoid as Sabotage. The album is characterised by a furious and impotent anger at their problems, like Caliban raging at his reflection in the water. It's bloody brilliant. 

And then they got rubbish. Their next album, Technical Ecstasy, is awful. Full of songs with titles (Rock & Roll Doctor, Dirty Women, Gypsy) that even Whitesnake would have thought twice about. They never recovered.

Footnote: You know that little piece of music "Blow on a jug" that they tagged on to the end of the album? Well, I have to confess that when I first heard I wondered if it was really part of the record or if their record company had pressed the album on top of another one. My 13 year old self hadn't really figured out the whole record making process. To be fair to him, the record was the reissue on the cheap-as-chips NEMS label. Anything was possible with that crowd.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Real Champion

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm fascinated by those albums where a successful band loses the plot. The dogs of the back catalogue. Those Heavy Metal Titus Andronicuses that muck up the discography of your favourite bands and single-handedely shrink the size of the sporting arenas they play during their tours. And as wrong passes go, it's pretty damn difficult to beat Music From The Elder by Kiss.
We've done a lot of "Fuck Me Suck Me" songs and we thought we'd like to go a slightly different route - Paul Stanley, 1982
Kiss were in trouble in 1981. Sales had been falling dramatically over the last couple of years. For some reason, fans didn't really take to them doing things like releasing 4 solo albums on the same day. Or making low-budget sci-fi movies. Or going disco. Something had to be be done. So when you're a band who'd made their name with catchy pop-rock anthems, the answer was obvious: make a concept album about a boy selected by an ancient order of elders to be trained to combat the forces of evil.

The album kicks off promisingly. The Oath has a strong riff and rattles along impressively, until we get to the lyrics at which point Kiss fans hearing this for the first time must have been wondering why Paul Stanley was singing about forged tempered-steel blades and ancient doors lost in the midst instead of banging groupies. The the fun begins. I have this theory that the second track on any album will give you a measure as to what's in store and whether it's going to be a classic or a clunker. The second track here is Fanfare, which gives you a couple of minutes of baroque noodling on some trumpets. On a Kiss album. In reality, Fanfare is doing exactly what a fanfare should do - it's making an announcement. And that announcement is: Here comes trouble. Because the next 30 minutes or so are hilariously awful, sounding like a cross between This is Spinal Tap and those mid seventies Alice Cooper albums that people remember fondly but never listen to anymore. The final track I, is a decent piece of glam metal but it comes too little, too late.

Still, the low sales and poor reception to Music From The Elder had one positive outcome: it scared the life out of Kiss and spurred them into making the straightforward Creatures of the Night, their last really good album. After that it was all downhill: they took off the make-up and made duller and duller records, till they ended up looking (and sounding) like Cinderella's elder brothers.

A (surprisingly good) live version of The Oath from US TV around the time of the album's release is below.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Silverwing: Unarmed & Ready

 With the news that Mr H is going to unleash a NWOBHM special on an unsuspecting internet via his Get Ready to Rock Radio show, and that the playlist to this show will include Silverwing, I thought I'd share with you the photo above, one of the more striking band images from my collection of early Kerrang!s. Looking at the image what comes into your mind? The Lidl Duran Duran, perhaps? Grampian TV's version of The Six Million Dollar Man? So many thoughts can run through your head it's easy to see why Kerrang said at the time that they "remain an enigma outside of their home town of Macclesfield".

The full page photo appeared in Kerrang! no 14 (the same one which had Wikkyd Vikker among the bands in the Armed & Ready section) and overleaf we were also treated to "Silverwing's Personal Kolumn", which featured the band's answers to that odd questionnaire that Kerrang! sent out to bands at that time, where questions such as Date of Birth and Favourite Book shared the foolscap with Favourite Perversion and Size of the Prize. The answers to the questionnaire bring some long-forgotten flotsam and jetsam of 1982 back to your mind as, for example, "Sian Adley-Jones" and "Thereza Bazar" are listed among the answers to Sex Object. Then, lead guitarist Trevor Kirkpatrick catches you unawares somewhat by listing "T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Thomas Hardy's poems" as his favourite books. Unfortunately though, he then breaks the spell by then listing "OTT" as his favourite TV show and "12 year old girls" as his favourite perversion. 1982 was a different world.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fighting Your Way up the Charts

I was reading this post on Mr H's Bleat blog about when Heavy Metal bands would appear fairly regularly on Top of the Pops. Among the clips he has on show is the one above, Girlschool playing - alright miming along to - Hit & Run back in 1981 or so. I remember watching this, and I even went out and bought the single. Unfortunately, however, not so many other folk did, because the notable thing about this TOTP performance is that the single actually went down in the charts the next week. Which was quite an achievement because it was only at no. 44 or so in the first place. I bet they weren't expecting that. I bet their record company wasn't expecting that either.

A Singles Chart formed out of healthy sales is a cruel taskmaster. One of the thrills about following the singles chart back in the early 80s was watching one of your favourite singles fight its way up the placings. Singles had a lifetime, and you knew that if they'd gone up 5 or 7 places a couple of weeks back but only 1 or 2 places last week, then they'd probably got as far as they were going to go. This was annoying when they were knocking at the Top Ten: AC/DC still haven't had a Top Ten hit in the UK, their best placing is No. 12 (Heatseeker), while they've also been at 13 (twice), 14, 15 (twice) and 16. Even more bitter sweet was when your band's song stalled at No. 2. I can still remember the helpless frustration of watching Dr Hook's When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman stubbornly keeping Crazy Little Thing Called Love off of the top spot. Still, at least Queen already had a no. 1; Marillion surely knew they were never going to get closer to no. 1 when Kayleigh stalled at no. 2 in May 1985.

Later, as singles sales plummeted, Top Ten hits became ten a penny and it was quite normal for songs to appear on the charts in high positions and then go down the next week, especially if the band had a strong fanbase. I doubt if many of Iron Maiden's singles from the late 80s and 90s actually went up the charts. Maiden of course, have a no. 1 single: Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter. Still, it was only because loyal fans went out and bought the thing on the first week of release. It didn't count for much, not really, and a set list from their current tour makes the point: Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter is nowhere to be seen, while they finish with Running Free, which fought its way to the giddy heights of No. 34 in February 1980.