Another from 1983 (I always thought ’72 was The year but maybe ’83 was pretty good too) and what was this appearing like a quiet explosion on the music scene? The title was strange and the cover, imitating a Penguin paperback with a single industrial light was perplexing. But even more surprising – the original vinyl played at 45rpm and lasted just 7 songs and under 16 minutes of voice and abrasive electric guitar. But what a debut – biting words and biting chords and a ‘post punk’ feel. The cassette even had just one side recorded with the other left blank for you to put what you liked on it. I think it also had a sticker telling customers to only pay £1.99 for it. Bragg was, and remains staunchly left-wing, and his songs speak in an authentic voice of unemployment and the bitterness of poverty ‘To Have And Have Not’– but also of hope ‘A New England’ and love ‘The Milkman Of Human Kindness’. Every song is superb and Billy’s playing is strangely beautiful in it’s simplicity and his voice, sung in plain English, is great. He is still plying his trade and has a loyal following – but although his voice and songs have softened over the years, nothing can quite match the shock and amazement of his first debut album.
In the early Eighties there was a tiny new wave of intelligent new bands singing often beautiful and soulful pop songs; Prefab Sprout, Deacon Blue and my favourite Aztec Camera. Led by singer and guitarist Roddy Frame and drummer David Mulholland they released High land, Hard Rain in 1983 – the title I think refers to their native Scotland. The album was only a minor hit, but established them as a new force – part pop and part indie (though that label was hardly known back then). The album opens on the high note of ‘Oblivious’ and contains such gems as ‘Pillar to post’ and ‘Walk Out To Winter’, and my favourite, the melancholy ‘The Bugle Sounds Again’. They released six albums over 12 years before Roddy went solo, where his records were more infrequent and sold less well. They seemed to be unaffected by fame or the demands of the ‘Pop’ business and always retained their gentle blend of well-crafted songs and an immaculate sound. I still play them.
Well, not really his debut, as he had released a pretty poor album for Deram, self-titled – as, incidentally, this was originally. Though nowadays ‘Space Oddity’ is recognised as his real debut. A strange record in some ways. Of course it includes the brilliant number one it is named after, but most of the other tracks are quite different from his following albums (which never really followed any pattern anyway). The songs are really quite hippy, fey and downright strange in some ways – but, they have a way of worming themselves into your brain. I have always like the album – though I worked my way backwards after Ziggy Stardust. Best songs are ‘Janine’, ‘Unwashed and Slightly Dazed’ and ‘Memories Of A Free Festival’. A strange little record, but brilliant in its own quiet way – as, of course, everything he ever recorded became.
In 1981 a little known Avante-Garde performance artist released an album ‘Big Science’, which featured highlights from her 10hour stage show of spoken word and occasional music. Laurie played electric keyboards, violin and vocoder. Most of the music is sparse with plenty of room for her vocals, often spoken, sometimes sung. It is startling in its simplicity and originality. The success of the album was mostly the result of her 8minute single ‘O Superman’ which was championed by John Peel and reached #2 after a lot of radio play. Her songs are simple but catchy and totally unique. Best are ‘O Superman’, ‘From The Air’, ‘Walking and Falling’ and ‘Let X = X’. A completely individual album from a complete individual. Can’t imagine it happening today.
Multi instrumentalist Tom Scholz had been writing and playing in small bands since the late 60s, with little success. He made a demo tape, called Boston which was reviewed by Epic records who signed the band (which barely existed) in 1975 and insisted on them being recorded professionally. Scholz and a friend John Boylan tricked Epic by re-recording the tracks with a minimum of session players a
nd Scholz playing all keyboards and guitars. The eponymous album, released in ’76 sold by the bucket-load and singles released were big hits, especially on the new format FM radio. It sold over 17 million copies in America (and it still sells well)– and no wonder; it is brilliant. Lead track ‘More Than A Feeling’ is maybe the best, but there isn’t a poor song on it. On it’s own it almost created a sub-genre of soft-rock 70’s anthemic music. The tragedy is that Boston only released one other album, which was not so successful, and then Tom sort of retired, instead spending his time and money on developing electronic equipment. He has this century released 4 more albums under the name Boston, but none have caught the public’s approval like the brilliant debut.
I had a habit, which became an obsession, of buying CD singles – mostly at a couple of shops in Soho where they were often sold as promotions at about £1 a disc. I liked the format because you got 3 or 4 songs, often not on any album. One such was ‘Highway 5’ in 1991 by a band called The Blessing. I loved it, especially the deep and soulful vocals by William Topley; it reminded me of those classic black soul records of the 60’s, though the music was quite ‘rocky’. I searched out the album, which was full of great songs. It had a certain feel to it, as if the band had been playing together for years, but the songs were brilliantly melodic and very new sounding too. On top of this was that voice, so rich and evocative – you could swear it was some old black bluesman – but Mr. Topley was white. Best tracks are ‘Highway 5’, ‘Hurricane Room’ and the magnificent ‘Delta Rain’. The album sold quite well but slowly – over 125,000 – which was excellent for a debut. The follow-up sunk without a trace and the band broke up soon after. A pity, as I thought they were brilliant. Oh well.
The aptly titled debut album by the diminutive Icelandic singer Bjork Guomundsdottir (thank goodness she is known simply as Bjork) arrived in 1993. Technically she had released an album, as a child singer, in 1977 – but it is not generally recognised as her debut release. She had been in a pop group ‘The Sugarcubes’ but this Debut was a big departure from that. In fact, it was a departure from almost anything anyone had ever heard before – as all her albums have been. The shy half-smiling portrait on the cover belied her musical maturity. Well, this record was different, indeed there is nobody quite like Bjork. Love her or hate her, she has a style of singing and instrumentation that is both her own and instantly recognisable. Best tracks on this debut are ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Venus as a Boy’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’. At times it feels as if she is singing to an entirely different melody than the music – but somehow it works. Another great debut album.
An ironic title, as they were from the North, Hull in fact. Also the cover was controversial, to say the least (a woman fellating a gun). But the music was sublime….in fact, one of the very best English bands ever. Lead singer and main songwriter was Paul Heaton, formerly of The Housemartins. Later they were joined by a regular female vocalist, but on this album just Paul was singing mostly. But what a debut; from opener ‘Song For Whoever’, to abstract closer ‘I Love You (But You’re Boring)’ the songs are ironic and humorous, and even sometimes quite dangerous. The melodies are brilliant and they are both pure pop, and edgy at the same time. Though they went on to fame and fortune, this debut still holds its own. Best songs are the opener, ‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’, ‘You Keep it All In’ and the very sinister – but jolly ‘Woman In The Wall’ whose lyrics are almost nonsensical, absolutely shocking and yet very singalongable. A great album and superb debut – one of the very best.
2004 – and the musical scene appeared pretty dire, nothing really exciting happening, existing artists treading ever more turgid water. Oh – and hip-hop – aaaaargh. Then I read in Uncut about this album, and gave it a whirl. They are an ‘indie’ Canadian band, with vocals (often sounding hysterical, or at least frantic) by Win Butler and a wide variety of instrumentation. There was something about the sound that was different, hard to define – but they definitely had their own style. In fact, the whole album is of a piece, very easy to listen to, as one track slips into the next. Hard to say why I liked them so much; maybe novelty, as I never bothered to any any of their other records. Still, always a welcome return when I re-listen.
On the back of the single success of ‘Love me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’, the boys were rushed into Abbey Road studio 2 for a 12 hour session producing their first album. And what a record it was, 14 songs lasting just 32 minutes, which made you want to flip it over on the Dansette turntable and play it again. I was too young to have a record player, but a friend George Maycock let me tape it on reel to reel I got for Christmas in ’64. The disc went straight to number one, and ‘Beatlemania’ was created. No way of choosing best songs – but the closer by a hoarse John ‘Twist and Shout’ still brings me out in goose pimples.
In all the group recorded 11
albums in just 6 years, plus numerous Eps, and music for the films ‘Yellow
Submarine’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour. It
all ended in 1969, though the announcement was held back until 1970. At the time we were all sad, but in a way
this was by far for the best. We have those
recordings forever, and they came in with a bang and saved maybe their best
recording ‘Abbey Road’ for their swansong.
There has been far too much written about them, and still being written even now – but the best is just to put the records on and return (with us now) to those days of yesteryear.