Prefab Sprout – this is one of those bands which emerged in the early 80s, along with Deacon Blue (see D) and Aztec Camera (see A). Lead singer, songwriter and musician was Paddy MacAloon, a superbly talented guy who revered the music of McCartney, Gershwin and Bacharach; he had a unique ‘pop’ sensibility. Their first album 1984s Swoon (which Paddy insisted stood for Songs Written Out Of Necessity) was pretty good, but a bit rambling and unfocussed, though songs such as ‘Don’t Sing’, ‘Elegance’ and especially ‘Cruel’, the last being their first really classic song. A great start which only got better with their next Steve McQueen in 1985. A much better album which contained classic songs such as ‘Faron Young’, ‘Appetite’, the hit single ‘When Love Breaks Down’ and my favourite ‘Desire As’ – with the brilliant line “Desire is a sylph-figured creature that changes her own mind.” I rebought the album on CD and it included a bonus disc of 2007 re-recordings; completely acoustic versions, sparse and almost demos – I couldn’t see the point as the original Thomas Dolby produced album was such a gem – but Paddy has always been an eccentric, he has apparently recorded whole albums and never released them as his muse, or for whatever reason he has moved on – he is a notorious perfectionist. Their third was titled From Langley Park To ,Memphis – but took 3 years to appear. It was a much more rounded and commercial album, more varied and more successful – if losing some of the charm of the first two idiosyncratic records. I really like it and the songs are excellent, especially – ‘The King Of Rock and Roll’, Cars and Girls’ and ‘Hey Manhattan’. This may be almost my favourite of the early records. In late 1985 Paddy had self-recorded and produced a batch of songs meant for release the following year. But the album Steve McQueen was such a slow burner that it was held over and only released as Protest Songs in 1989. These songs are quite stripped back and seem a bit undeveloped, as indeed they were. Still – not such a poor album really though not a favourite of mine I must admit. The only really good track is ‘A Life Of Surprises’. Much better was 1990’s Jordan – The Comeback. The only trouble with this admittedly superb collection of songs is that it is a double album and consequently far too long. Very few double albums really work; The Beatles managed it because they had 3 quite different songwriters so there was a great mixture of styles and textures; concept albums often work as they are telling a story – but Roddy’s songs all have a similarity of style and sound and even song structure – and with 19 songs it does get a bit boring towards the end. Saying that most of the songs are really good, if not some of his best. I particularly like ‘Wild Horses’, ‘Machine Gun Ibiza’, ‘All The World Loves Lovers’ and ‘The Ice Maiden’; tough there is really not a poor song on the record. Then, as so often seems to happen after 6 successful years we had a hiatus of seven years. In reality the albums, splendid as they are, which have followed have been Paddy MacAloon solo efforts; he has occasionally used session and old Prefab Sprout members, and credits the records as Prefab Sprout – but he plays almost all the instruments; piano, guitars and synths and even backing vocals. Still, saying that the records are pretty damned good. He has suffered from severe hearing problems and is a temperamental guy, having apparently recorded and then shelved several albums over his later years. But, fans like me scour the music press to hear of new releases which often slip out with a minimum of publicity; Roddy preferring to sit on his laurels and just make the music he obviously loves. 2007 saw the first of these releases with Andromeda Heights – also the name of the studio he built for himself. Well, although it got a cool reception from the critics, who love nothing more than treating an old favourite as a has-been, I loved it. A somewhat quieter record with a lot of slower tunes it still has that Prefab Sprout magic and is, as one has come to expect, immaculately produced. Best tracks are ‘Electric Guitars’ and ‘Anne Marie’. Then came a really great album – The Gunman – (2001). This was written around the time of Jimmy Nail’s Crocodile Shoes (see N), and a couple of the songs were sung by Jimmy on his albums. But these versions are simply knockout; the familiar sounds with a country twist and Paddy’s sublime vocals. Every song is superb but I particularly love opener ‘Cowboy Dream’, ‘Wild Card in The Pack’ and a surprise cover of ‘Streets Of Laredo’. 2009 saw the release of Lets change The World With Music. Not quite one of his best; still some lovely songs but somehow it sounds a bit flat and uninspired to my ears – best are ‘Ride’ and ‘Last Of The Great Romantics’. His latest (so far) is 2013 (and that is nine years ago!) Crimson Red. And another classic, so if we have to wait even ten or more years if they are this quality, well, I will wait. The album though is almost his best…just lovely, and the words so astute and clever. Best songs – ‘Adolescence’, ‘Billie’ and ‘The Old Magician’. I also of course have a Greatest Hits collection, which is sublime.
Robert Plant and Alison Kraus – Just one album Raising Sand (2007). Of course, Robert was the singer in Led Zeppelin (who I have bever bought) and this album is quite different, almost Americana; Alison was known as a bluegrass singer. I quite like the record, but I feel it is missing a bit of edge, it is really quite laid back and sadly most of the songs aren’t really strong enough. So, a pleasant listen but not in my top albums.
Portishead – this Bristol band almost single-handled created the trip hop genre; they formed in 1991 – Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow created the music which was enhanced and completed by the remarkable vocals of Beth Gibbons. Their album Dummy, released in 1994 was an instant hit and featured hugely in the BBC series This Life, a British sort of Friends only more serious. Anyway, the album is brilliant – very moody and the beats are amazing, but as always it is Beth’s haunting vocals that make it exceptional. Hard to pick a favourite track but ‘Wandering Star’, ‘Sour Times’ and ‘Glory Box’ stay in my brain longer than most. Their second album simply entitled Portishead came out in 1997; a bit harder in feel, with the vocals more pronounced really, but another stunning album. They really defined their sound with this record, especially on tracks – ‘All Mine’, Half Day Closing’ and ‘Western Skies’ – though the album should really be listened to as a whole piece. They toured, especially festivals for the remainder of the decade. But then they fell almost silent, releasing the occasional song on their website and had practically disbanded, with always the hint in the air of new material, for over ten years. They did release one live album…PNYC from a show they did in New York in I think 1998, which is pretty good; slightly expanded versions of songs from their two albums – nothing new. We then had to wait for almost a decade until 2008 for anything new. Third was a bit of a departure -a couple of tracks much louder and drums featured on most songs; especially ‘Machine Gun’ which was very loud. But somehow the album didn’t have the appeal of their first two. No other songs really stood out for me. And so far nothing since…constant rumours of a new album….but nothing materialises.
Pink Floyd – well, what can you say about this band? I first saw them in 1967 at Stowmarket…I got blind drunk and was blown away by them. Then again when they did The Wall live at Earls Court. I used to have almost all the early albums, but somehow I have never bothered to get them on CD…may still get them someday…who knows
We start with a film score Obscured By Clouds (1972) – this was the album they made a year before their first Masterpiece…and pretty good it is too; their signature (post Syd) sound was settling in; rather than the histrionics and experimentation of earlier albums they had with and just after Syd left the band – or rather the band left Syd. A lovely lyrical album with that instrumentation which lulls you beautifully and before you know it the album is finished and you want to hear it again. Best tracks are the title track, ‘What’s the Uh Deal’ and ‘Stay’. They took a break from recording their next album to write and record Obscured…and in some ways the albums are similar. Then came their first and possibly greatest masterpiece – The Dark Side of The Moon (1973) – it soon went to number 1 and has sold over 45 million copies since then. It is usually acclaimed as their finest album. There is a cohesion to the album, although not exactly a concept album, it tends to deal with the pressures of touring and the resulting madness (in part) of Syd Barrett, who had left the band five years earlier. Not a poor song on the record really, but if I must choose – ‘Breathe’, ‘Us and Them’ and ‘Eclipse’. It was truly and probably their last real group song-writing album too, with keyboardist Rick Wright at least co-writing about half the songs. Roger Waters provided many of the lyrics, and he would go on to be the main songwriter, whether through overwhelming force of his character or talent is debateable. They followed this with two years later with Wish You Were Here – an album devoted to the memory of Syd; all 5 tracks written at least in part by Roger. The opening track ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ continues as the closing track, both around 12 to 13 minutes long, it may well be their best single piece of music and is a collaboration between Rick, Dave and Roger, which has rarely been repeated. The songs also reflect the band (or Roger’s) dissatisfaction with the demands of the music business itself (biting the hand that feeds them maybe). The band were by now absolute superstars and could do exactly as they liked, which thousands of other artists must have envied. The earlier hints of paranoia in Roger’s writing became more obvious with ‘Welcome To The Machine’ and ‘Have A Cigar’. But maybe the overriding brilliance of the record is down to the piercing and poignant dripping guitar notes of Dave Gilmour, especially on the opener, when it is 10 minutes before Roger starts to sing the song. In some ways this is my favourite Floyd record. Animals followed and I never really liked it, it seemed harsh and musically not as interesting, and the lyrics (all by Roger) just bored me – so I have never bought it on CD. So, no review this time. 1979 however saw the release of their third Masterpiece The Wall. Almost a solo effort, at least in the conception and song-writing – this is a monster of a concept double album and is best listened to at one sitting. Almost impossible to pick out best tracks because it is really all of one piece – but of course, ‘Comfortably Numb’ stands out, but I also like ‘Mother’ and ‘The Thin ice’ and later ‘The Trial’ and ‘Waiting For The Worms’ are incredible. Much later they released (for the money I expect) a live recording of the album – maybe the one I saw; they only did a few performances – called Is There Anybody Out There. I bought it, partly for the lavish packaging and as a souvenir. The live version is pretty much the same as the studio one, except for a new intro and outro. So, I play it now and again, for the memories. Their next studio album was really the straw which broke the camel’s back, as Roger’s hatred of almost everything reaching boiling point. The Final Cut (1983) was really the final cut that this incredible band recorded; Rick Wright was side-lined to be a paid session player; Dave Gilmour reconciled himself to be a non-contributing guitar player and the drummer drummed on regardless. After this album Roger left the band for good. The album itself has a few good moments but really is poor, filled as it is with Roger’s almost snivelling laments; to be honest they should have called it a day after The Wall. The band did limp on, and made 2 more albums, which I bought, but which didn’t really excite me at all. I haven’t been tempted to buy them on CD. I did however buy their (to date) latest offering Endless River. This is a collection of what can best be called ‘leftovers’, various noodlings from their long career which never made it into real pieces or on to albums. A pretty pointless exercise, except for the revenue it must have made. My last offering in one of the many greatest hits Echoes…which does cover their early albums quite well; fave tracks – ‘Astromine Domine’, ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ and ‘See Emily Play’. A great band, who, had they been able to settle their internal differences could have gone on and on, instead of barely making it through the early eighties. Oh Well….of course Roger has gone on to make a handful of excellent albums in the complete Pink Floyd style (see W) but even he makes a fortune by touring his (admittedly superb) version of their classic albums.
Alan Parsons Project – I had heard the occasional track, especially by Colin Blunstone (see B) and knew that Alan was initially a record producer and engineer. He made a series of albums with guest session players and singers; these were concept albums – true prog-rock in a way. I think I may have bought a couple on vinyl years ago. I have a double album – The Definitive Collection – a compilation. Not bad but ultimately a bit boring, maybe as this collection lacks cohesion. Anyway, a pleasant listen but hard to pinpoint any tracks as distinctive.
Gram Parsons – another dead hero I am afraid. Gram’s real name was Ingram Connor 3rd, and he was from a wealthy family, but in the Sixties played in a number of bands, including one album (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) with The Byrds (see B). He was a notorious drug addict and hung out with Keith Richards, who wanted him to join The Stones. However, he drifted around and released 2 solo albums before his early death in 1973 at age 26. He had a soulful voice and wrote beautiful songs in an Americana style. He has influenced many later artists, but was fairly unknown during his life. I have his 2 albums on one CD GP/Greivous Angel. From ‘73 and the latter posthumously released in 1974. Almost timeless melodies and playing, and a sweet voice. But somehow it seems very ephemeral and just glides past my consciousness. Still – favourite songs are ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’, ‘The New Soft Shoe’ and ‘Love Hurts’. Many years later, in fact in 1999, his one-time lover and co-singer Emmylou Harris (see H) managed to persuade a few players to record a tribute album to Gram – Return Of The Grevious Angel. Featuring amongst others Elvis Costelloe, Lucinda Williams, The Pretenders, David Crosby and Steve Earle and produced by Emmylou who sings on a couple of tracks, the album recreates songs Gram wrote or sung on. A very nice compilation and the varied singers give it enough to keep you interested. Fave tracks are – ‘She’ (Emmylou), ‘High Fashion Queen’ (Steve Earle and Chris Hillman) and ‘Hickory Wind’ (Gillian Welch).
Tom Petty – One of the first MusiCassettes I bought was in 1976 – FM; it was a compilation of American FM Radio tracks, mostly from American albums not readily available in England at that time. The one that I liked best was ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I then saw an advert for Tom playing live at Hammersmith Odeon in a couple of days’ time. I went and saw him and was blown away; knowing only the one song and Tom having just the one album out, I was singing along to every song’s chorus and it was really one of the best concerts ever. That first album was self-titled Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers released also in 1976 and I still love it; it sounds fresh and to the point even now – basically it is pretty straightforward rock and roll, but with Tom’s sneering, almost Dylanesque vocals adding the required amount of attitude the album really rocks. Best songs ‘Breakdown’, ‘Luna’ and of course ‘American Girl’. A great start, which he followed up with You’re Gonna Get It in 1978. Not such an immediate album but not bad at all. Best songs – ‘When The Time Comes’, ‘Listen To Her Heart’ and ‘Baby’s A Rock’n’Roller’. Much better was his third Damn The Torpedoes (1979); much better songs somehow, or is it something else which makes you love one album and not another? Who knows? The first three songs are brilliant ‘Refugee’, ‘Here Comes My Girl’ and ‘Even the Losers’ but there isn’t a poor song on the record. This was the big breakthrough album for Tom and the Heartbreakers, where they finally became superstars. Next was Hard Promises (1981). Another good record, though for me it was a slight disappointment after Torpedoes…still I quite like ‘The Waiting’ and ‘Nightwatchman’. I used to have all his records (almost) on vinyl but am still catching up on CD. My next is Southern Accents (1985) which contains 3 songs co-written by Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics) who also co-produced these tracks. Stewart’s style is evident and is pretty good really; it seems to add a certain change of style, which was maybe coming anyway. Best songs are ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, ‘Spike’ and ‘The Best Of Everything’. By now the band were moving into a more conventional rock sound, maybe losing that radical edge along the way. Tom also dropped the band for a handful of solo albums. I tended to stop buying his albums, but did occasionally. Next is 1991s ‘Into the Great Wide Open’. This seems much better, more focused, better songs – the sound is now much less ‘rock’n’roll’ and more commercial too; Tom’s voice is crystal clear and the production superb; Jeff Lynne again, who seems to get the best sound from almost everyone he produces. Fave tracks are the hit single ‘Learning To Fly’, ‘Two Gunslingers’ and ‘All Or Nothing’. I don’t know why but I stopped buying Tom’s records around this time – maybe just too many others to listen to. But my last by him was a solo effort – though impossible to tell, as it sounds very similar to his other albums – Wildflowers (1994). I may get round to the others someday. But Wildflowers is an okay album too, though it doesn’t exactly excite me – best songs are ‘Time to Move On’, ‘It’s Good To be King’ and ‘Crawling Back To You’. And that is almost it. Tom and the Heartbreakers shared almost a year of tours with Bob Dylan, and I have a handful of bootleg concerts from that tour. Of Course, Tom made two records with the Travelling Wilbury’s (see T). I also have a double album of hits Anthology…..which is brilliant, though, like so many artists, I really love the early songs before they became Superstars. Tom died far too early at just 66…that was an incredible 5 years away…how time flies.