This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
“Gimmick-mongering punks”, was how Rolling Stone magazine’s John Mendelsohn described the band in his original review of this album, at the time of its release in August 1971. Looking back forty five years later, with the band way up in the pantheon of rock and roll greats, it’s hard to fathom this – but before the release of Who’s Next, The Who was very much a rough diamond. This seminal album release changed everything.
A brilliant early seventies rock record, it saw the band on a creative high; fizzing with energy yet musically at the top of their game. The inspiration came from Pete Townshend’s stillborn Lifehouse project – a multi-media rock opera sequel to Tommy – and thematically is melancholic and world-weary. Yet Who’s Next soars with some of the most powerful and expressive rock guitar work ever committed to tape – courtesy of the Gretsch 6120 guitar that Joe Walsh had gifted Townshend just a couple of months before the studio recording. Townshend also makes extensive use of keyboards, with a (now) vintage VCS3 synthesiser that runs through most of the album. Keith Moon’s drumming is at its finest, trading some of his earlier histrionics for some beautifully fluid yet commanding stick work. Alongside Roger Daltrey’s soaring vocals, John Entwistle’s sumptuous bass guitar playing completes the package.
For such a great album, it’s a bit of a mishmash and lacks the grand concept that Tommy, for example, had. The highlight is unmistakably Won’t Get Fooled Again – which sounds as apposite now as it did then, as it bemoans the cynicism of the age. Musically it’s such a tour de force that the other songs have their work cut out, although several come close. The Song Is Over, Gettin’ In Tune and Behind Blue Eyes are all touching, tender ballads that turn into thundering rock, machine-gunned out by the band to spectacular effect. Baba O’Riley starts with a meandering synth section but is soon bolstered by Townshend’s crunching guitar chords and Moon’s bombastic percussion. Even the few fillers are compelling – My Wife races along in sea of guitar, funky piano and crashing hi-hats, while Going Mobile is a simple romp that wouldn’t be half as much fun without Moon’s breathtaking snare and tom-tom fills.
A Townshend production, with engineering help from Glyn Johns, Who’s Next is one of the better recordings of the nineteen seventies. Largely recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes, it’s beautifully balanced with a big, warm sound and firecracker dynamics that keep the listener wide awake. The 2008 UK CD (Polydor 527 760-2) was – unlike most remasters at the time – done expertly, and the result is something that’s joyous to listen to via a serious silver disc spinner. As is so often the case, the Japanese SHM CD (Universal Music UICY-93750/1) is even better still, with a fractionally smoother and more detailed general feel. Although neither matches today’s audiophile albums per se, both showcase this legendary British rock band at the very height of its powers, and are great fun. “A clearly-defined stylistic statement”, as the Rolling Stone rock writer said.
With widespread political unrest, nineteen seventies Britain was a turbulent place in which to live. However, the strife seemed to energise the creative abilities of many performing artists of the day, and the result was a musical golden age. Punk took hold of the second part of the decade and highlighted the seamier side of life, whereas the first half saw an explosion in escapist progressive rock music. It was into this category that Genesis fitted – a band which under the stewardship of Peter Gabriel won great critical acclaim, and sold many millions of LPs across the western world.
When Gabriel left the band, the effect was seismic; most thought that neither he nor the other members could ever do better. As it transpired though, A Trick of the Tail (1976) became one of the best selling Genesis albums, and Peter Gabriel’s eponymous first album (often called ‘1’ or ‘Car’, released in 1977) was superb. It is most famous for Solsbury Hill, often said to be one of the finest songs of that decade. A highly personal and reflective five minutes, it alludes to his decision to leave Genesis (“I walked right out of the machinery, my heart going boom, boom, boom”), although Gabriel’s writing style has always been vague enough for people to infer their own meanings from his songs, and so they have.
Solsbury Hill became a minor hit in the UK, but the follow up – Modern Love – was less successful. In truth, this album is best heard from beginning to end, where it becomes a seamless sequence of reflective rock songs – such as the aforementioned singles, the introspective Slowburn and Humdrum, plus the powerful Here Comes the Flood – alongside the quirky, whimsical Moribund the Burgermeister and Excuse Me. Indeed, there’s not a bad song on the album, and many would have been better celebrated had they not had to share it with Solsbury Hill. Upon release, the album reached No. 7 in the UK and 38 in the USA, but has continued to sell strongly for four decades subsequently.
Recorded between July 1976 and January 1977 at The Soundstage in Toronto, Canada (with additional material done at Olympic Studios and Morgan Studios in London), it surfaced on the Charisma label on 25th February 1977 – when punk was beginning to dominate the British singles charts. Yet Peter Gabriel 1 was its antithesis, with a slick sound from producer Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Alice Cooper) and a litany of great musicians including King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, bass player Tony Levin, drummer Allan Schwartzberg, percussionist Jimmy Maelen, guitarist Steve Hunter, keyboardist Jozef Chirowski and Larry Fast on synthesisers and programming.
Made at a time when analogue tape was finally capable of delivering excellent sound, and when multitrack studios were the norm (it was just a decade on from The Beatles’ four-track Sergeant Pepper’s, lest we forget), Peter Gabriel 1 sounded ultra-modern upon its release and is still pleasingly deep, dark and smooth now. The original Japanese pressing (Virgin Japan VJD-28015) is the best Compact Disc to have, while the British SACD (Virgin SAPGCD 1) is the finest sounding digital disc of all.
In a late nineteen seventies world still mourning the demise of the Sex Pistols, no one seriously imagined that a band of unlikely lads from Coventry doing covers of early sixties Ska music would ever catch on. Yet within a few months of this album’s release on October 19th, 1979, a new craze was sweeping the pop charts – ‘2 Tone’. Totally at odds with the mainstream post-punk pop and electronica of the day, it burned brightly for a year or two – and The Specials was its lodestar.
Two things defined the band – an abiding love for Jamaican ska music, and the wonderful spectacle of black and white kids coming together to celebrate it. The nineteen seventies was a troubled time in Britain’s history, with some popular support for extremist political movements – yet here were seven young guys of differing races championing their common love of music. With the first single from this album – a cover of Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 hit, A Message to You Rudy – the Specials burst open the dam, making a space for other acts on the 2-Tone label (Madness, The Selector, The Beat) to assail the pop charts…
Recorded in summer 1979 at TW Studios, Fulham, London, the album was produced by Stiff Records’ studio whiz Elvis Costello. He captured the rawness of the band brilliantly, going for a deliberately fuss-free ‘rough and ready’ approach, letting the consummate musicianship of a band that had been gigging on an almost nightly basis for years, come forth. Indeed, it’s a fascinating synthesis of the punk sensibility, with all its energy and angst, with laid-back Caribbean rhythms. Unusually, it fuses a number of old ska standards (Toots & the Maytals 1969 hit Monkey Man, Prince Buster’s Too Hot, etc.) with self-penned material from the band. This was gilded by the great trombone work of original ska legend Rico Rodriguez. New Musical Express called it “musically fathomless”, which alluded to the eclectic mix of styles and songs.
Lyrically, The Specials reflected the woes of that era – rising unemployment, alienation and a Britain in decline, unsure where to go after the end of empire. The dour, angst-ridden lyrics of frontman Terry Hall were a dramatic contrast to the upbeat ska tunes – and his acerbic delivery made it all the more menacing. Not a natural singer one might say, he was nevertheless a brilliant focal point for the band. His angry banter with live audiences made Specials concerts a unique experience, too! It’s fair to say that not all the band’s live magic seeps through onto disc, but still the album is uncompromising, demanding that you sit up and listen – or better still, get up and dance. Lynval Golding’s scratchy rhythm guitar, Jerry Dammers’ electric organ and John Bradbury’s muscular drumming all create a unique sound.
Don’t buy this album to make your system sound good – The Specials is more energy and adrenaline, than polish and poise. That’s why the original 1989 Chrysalis CD (CCD 5001) is the collector’s choice, whereas the 2015 remaster (Two-Tone Records CDLTTR 5001) sounds just that little bit cleaner. The magic’s in the music, and a great hi-fi will pull away the curtain.
House music was as important to young people of the late nineteen eighties as rock had been to the generation before them. Until then, electronic music had been either avant-garde (Kraftwerk) or pure pop (Human League), but was now being used in different ways. Primitive drum machines and analogue synthesisers were mixed with breakbeats (sampled, syncopated beats) and loops to create a fresh and original new sound. From this, Rave – the dance-oriented strand – emerged in the early nineties, and then came Jungle. This fused House, Rave, Hip-hop and Reggae, speeding things up from around 120 beats per minute to over 140. By mid nineties, pirate radio stations were broadcasting it non-stop, from the top of inner city housing blocks across the UK.
Drum’n’bass, as it became known, was like a musical black hole, sucking in everything around it. Many sub-genres of electronica were mixed up, creating a sound with timeshifts, weird vocal samples and massive slabs of synthesised bass alternating with electronic snare and hi-hat sounds, looped at up to 160bpm. The genre got more polished as the likes of 4hero, Omni Trio, LTJ Bukem and Goldie become familiar names in clubs up and down the land. The latter emerged as one of the leading lights. Clifford Joseph Price – to use his real name – became its public face, his gold-toothed smile and musical ingenuity soon getting him noticed. His first single Terminator was like nothing heard before. “It was the crucible of change – we were working out ways to joyride technology”, Goldie later said. “You didn’t get antibiotics by going the official way, you got them by accident. We were pushing the dance musical envelope every which way…”
Despite his prodigious talent, no one quite expected Goldie’s first long player Timeless to be the work of genius it turned out to be – or indeed such a commercial success. Released in 1995, it was a complex, multi-layered and at times quite beautiful piece of electronica. It was undeniably rooted in drum’n’bass but had grown up and out of this musical niche. Walsall-born Price had previously been a graffiti artist in both the West Midlands and New York, and brought his love of fusing styles to bear in his first album. It kicks off with the title track, which is an almost symphonic piece which changes pace and mood repeatedly, and is packed with his signature time-stretching and breakbeats. Angel fuses beautiful vocals by Diane Charlemagne to David Byrne/Brian Eno samples in a breathtaking way. Gifted engineer, programmer and producer Rob Playford proves a perfect conduit for Goldie’s boundless ideas, and there’s additional input from 4hero’s brilliant Dego and Marc Mac.
Released on Pete Tong’s FFRR label (FFRR 828 614-2), Timeless reached No. 7 in the British album charts, after which Goldie’s celebrity soared. Following a well publicised affair with singer Björk, he went on to appear in films including Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. His charity work later earned him an MBE in 2016, for services to music and young people. As its name suggests, Timeless is a classic – and still sounds dazzling today.
Much time passed between the formation of the band, and the release of their fourth studio album in May 1996. Indeed ‘The Manics’ started up a whole decade previous, and spent many of those years in splendid isolation. They conspicuously and deliberately failed to jump on the ‘indie-dance’ bandwagon that dominated British pop music from 1989 to 1992, making their assent to fame in spite of it. The Manic Street Preachers formed in Blackwood, South Wales, with James Dean Bradfield on lead vocals and lead guitar, Nicky Wire on bass guitar, Sean Moore on sticks and Richey Edwards on rhythm guitar. Their debut single, Motown Junk, attracted much media attention in 1991, not least because of the band’s striking ‘glam’ look which owed much to the New York Dolls, and latterly, Japan. Bradfield and Wire were media-savvy and came up with plenty of dramatic soundbites in interviews. Their debut long-player –1992’s Generation Terrorists – was going to be “the greatest rock album ever”, no less. Sadly it wasn’t, but the headlines had already been written…
By the time Everything Must Go was released, the band was more world-weary and less at ease – largely because of the trauma they had suffered from the disappearance of Richey Edwards, who abandoned his car beside the Severn Bridge on 1st February, 1995 and has never been heard from since. In interviews, he’d previously intimated that he was having trouble coping with the fame and fortune of his rock and roll lifestyle, and rumours abounded of him being clinically depressed. This set the tone for the first, post-Richie album, so perhaps unsurprisingly it has a plaintive feel running right through. Although highly musically accomplished, the Mike Hedges production nevertheless lacks the hard edge of the band’s earlier albums and is perhaps too polished sounding. Still, it did finally see the band’s career intersect with the Britpop mainstream, and the album went on to sell over two million copies.
Although Edwards never played on the album, five of his songs made it – including the superb Kevin Carter, about the Pullitzer-prize winning photojournalist who committed suicide. Elsewhere, Nicky Wire’s A Design For Life explores his working class identity, and proved one of the best singles of 1996. Australia sees him yearning to escape as far away as possible, while Everything Must Go is Wire’s touching farewell to Edwards. Dour in feel, this album is never going to raise your mood but it is powerful all the same, and sees the band acquire a gravitas that they had previously only aspired to. The playing is sharp, and the rich melodies and big choruses really push through.
Recorded largely at Chateau de la Rouge Motte studio in France, the album was also laid down at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire and Abbey Road in London. The sound isn’t quite up to audiophile standards, not least because it’s just a little too compressed, but it still delivers a gratifyingly punchy end result that gets the job done. The original Japanese silver disc sounds best (Epic ESCA 6446), with the British first pressing of the CD a close second (Epic 483930 2).
After years of searching for a new way forward after the shoulder-padded adult oriented rock of Foreigner and Jefferson Starship, the American music industry finally found itself with ‘a dog in the game’ in the late nineteen eighties. Nirvana was always destined for stardom, as its charismatic frontman Kurt Cobain was a fully formed rock star in waiting. Nevermind delivered this to him, although as history records, it was already getting late. In the weeks leading up to Cobain’s death in 1994, press reports suggested all was not well in his relationship with rock-chic Courtney Love…
Without 1989’s Bleach, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl wouldn’t have been ready to make the definitive rock record of the nineteen nineties. Tentatively titled Sheep, it was initially planned for cult indie label Sub Pop, to be produced by Butch Vig. So in April 1990, the band laid down eight tracks, until Cobain strained his voice on Lithium. The session went nowhere, but became an extended demo tape with which to shop around for a new label. Finally DGC signed them and offered a choice of big name producers, including REM’s Scott Lit. Surprisingly, the band stayed with Vig, and got a $65,000 advance to spend at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California in May and June, 1991.
The band had gigged so much together, and rehearsed the songs so often, that only a few takes in the studio were needed, and this shines out even now. The album sounds massively powerful and the playing super-tight, yet there’s an easy spontaneity about it which makes it all the more special. All the same, Vig had to work around Cobain’s mood swings; “he’d be great for an hour, and then he’d sit in a corner and say nothing for an hour”, he later explained. After the recordings were committed to tape, the band called in Andy Wallace to mix it – co-producer of Slayer’s 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss. Management was reputedly delighted with the massive, layered sound of Nevermind, but Cobain subsequently remarked, “looking back on the production, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record…”
Nevermind sounded shiny yet gutsy, becoming emblematic of the emerging US ‘grunge’ movement of that time. It included some great songs that would have worked in any decade, from Smells Like Teen Spirit to Come as You Are. The music had a directness and passion that made the emerging Britpop on the other side of the Atlantic seem lightweight, glib and contrived. Lyrically dark and sultry, it was in no mood to celebrate the hedonistic optimism of the new post-Cold War decade – unlike Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, across the pond. Rather – distorted, over-driven, minor key and faintly apocalyptic – Nevermind became the anthem to a new generation of alienated early nineties rock kids – even if, in truth, they’d never had it so good.
The Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (UDCD 666) CD from 1996 is the finest sounding version yet committed to silver disc, but the Japanese-market pressing (DGC MVCG-67 CD) released in 1991 comes close.
History is littered with the bones of old rock bands that fell by the wayside when their charismatic frontmen left to pursue solo careers. So when Peter Gabriel quit Genesis in the winter of 1974 after six studio albums, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Tony Banks must have wondered how they could keep things together…
Released in February 1976 on Charisma Records, A Trick of the Tail was ‘continuity Genesis’. The band stuck closely to their formula of dreamy, intricate progressive rock – infused with a dose of mysticism – that had previously done them so proud. The lack of Gabriel – a stellar talent and hitherto the force behind the band – made less of an impact than expected. Actually, whisper it quietly, A Trick of the Tail was actually one of the band’s finest early-period albums, despite the absence of their iconic frontman.
Collins took Gabriel’s lead vocal role. Live, he lacked the intensity, flair and charisma of his predecessor, but his voice was – by sheer coincidence – uncannily similar and this allowed the band to retain their trademark sound. Collins didn’t quite have the magic, but the rest of the band raised their game, collectively writing some fine songs and the result was a surprisingly powerful and romantic yet quirky long player. It proved the critics wrong, reaching third place in the British album charts, and doing very well Stateside, too.
The story goes that, having listened to over four hundred auditions for Gabriel’s lead role, the band went into Trident Studios to lay down backing tracks and Collins agreed to do guide vocals. Yet his performance on Squonk was so good that it convinced everyone he could actually front the band. “I didn’t want to not be the drummer”, he said, yet dutifully laid down lead vocals for the rest of the album. Later on tour, drummer Collins received support from Bill Bruford, but Trick of the Tail retains the former’s superb stickwork. His huge, crunching drum sound on uptempo numbers like Robbery, Assault and Battery is an interesting portent of things to come – a kind of prologue to In the Air Tonight, done nearly a decade later.
No progressive rock album is an exercise in understatement, but A Trick of the Tail is subtle enough to grow on you. Musically, it has big, blustering moments like Dance on a Volcano and Los Endos, but there’s also some richly nuanced and infectiously catchy ballads in there too, such as Ripples and Mad Man Moon. Lyrically, the album is more accessible and less pretentious than Peter Gabriel’s earlier attempts. Interestingly, he too moved to less flowery and ornate songwriting with his superb 1975 eponymous solo album.
Sonically this album is impressive, yet benefits from a serious source to cut through the complex multitrack David Hentschel co-production. It’s quintessential nineteen seventies British prog, with a tight snare sound, complex stereo mix and a light, dry bass. Across the midband, there’s masses of detail struggling to get out, including Hackett’s intricate 12-string guitar work. CD fans should seek out the original early nineties UK pressing (Virgin CDSCDX 4001), while the 2007 Japanese SACD (Virgin/Charisma TOGP-15011) is the hi-res pick.
Arguably, the only thing about this album that gives away its vintage is the snare sound. In a great many respects, from the instrumentation to the harmonies – indeed even the lyrics – Fables of the Reconstruction is a timeless piece of guitar-driven rock music that could be recorded at any time from the late nineteen sixties to now. That distinctively dry, over-damped sounding drum kit is all that dates it – popular in the nineteen eighties, it’s heard on countless records of that era from The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead to Lloyd Cole’s Rattlesnakes.
Released on June 10th, 1985, Fables was an odd album in the great scheme of REM things. The third long-player from the four-piece from Athens, Georgia – Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass guitar) and Michael Stipe (vocals) – it saw a band that grew out of the US indie post-punk scene finally discover its own sound, showing great maturity despite their callow youth. It marked their first and only collaboration with producer Joe Boyd, who’d previously worked with luminaries such as Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. It suited them down to a tee, channelling their folk roots, and melding it beautifully into late sixties Byrdsian psychedelic rock. Given this was recorded at the height of the Duran Duran vs. Spandau Ballet chart wars, REM couldn’t have been more unfashionable if they tried.
For a concept album steeped in the mythology of the eighteenth-century American south, it was a surprising choice to record it in a cold, rainy February London at Livingstone Studios. It’s certainly not your typical audiophile album – Michael Stipe famously said at the time that it sounded like “two oranges being nailed together”. Mastered in New York at Sterling Sound, it’s densely mixed but serious replay equipment really picks through to deliver the satisfying sound of a great rock band finding their form. Tonally a touch dark and dour, Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar work crackles out with great power – often submerging Michael Stipe’s gravelly vocals. Musically, it blends energy and intensity with subtly infectious but understated melodies, played in a loving way. Fables is nowhere near as showy as REM’s late sixties pysch-rock influences, but none the worse for it.
The album warps the listener back to tougher but more romantic times, as new world pioneers sought to build their own country. Stipe’s lyrics paint striking pictures of trains steaming through dusty landscapes, old timers sitting on their porches, American-Indian mythology, maps and legends. Inspired by the band’s heavy bout of touring the year before, it’s an affectionate reimagining of better days. In a sense, it almost attempts to be an US version of The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, although it’s less whimsical and darker in tone. The album that followed – Life’s Rich Pageant – is more accessible, easier to understand and overtly more political, but somehow lacks the dreamy idealism of Fables. It’s less of a grower, too.
One of those discs that just keeps getting better as you upgrade your sound system, this recording will reaffirm your love of serious hi-fi. Sonically, the original 1985 I.R.S. US pressing (IRSD-5592) and its Japanese CBS/Sony counterpart (CSCS 6082) are the CD releases to go for.
Some artists achieve stratospheric commercial success without ever playing an original note or penning an interesting lyric in their lives. Others are the exact opposite – making beautiful, challenging and distinctive music, while the world slowly passes them by. All they can achieve is critical recognition, cited as influences on other bands that people have actually heard of…
Such was the fate that befell Be Bop Deluxe – the brainchild of Yorkshire art school boy Bill Nelson. Popular music was never more faddish than in the mid-nineteen seventies, and his crime was to be a year or so late to the party. Shortly after Modern Music was released, punk indelibly stamped itself on British youth culture, and the world would never be quite the same again. Yet although Nelson’s playing had all the energy of this new movement, musically he was closer to progressive rock and stylistically borrowed from Roxy Music and David Bowie. In short, Be Bop Deluxe was just too eclectic to be fashionable in its time.
Nelson’s first album – 1971’s Northern Dream – was championed by cult Radio 1 DJ John Peel, and he soon signed to EMI’s Harvest label as a result. It was possibly a mistake, because it anchored the band into the progressive rock scene, at a time when glam rock was soaring. The Be Bop Deluxe sound was hard to pigeonhole, falling between the energy and immediacy of pub rockers like Dr Feelgood and Brinsley Schwartz, and the technical virtuosity and complexity of prog rock luminaries Rush. Added to that, there were distinctive art rock facets to the band, such as their striking science-fiction influenced look.
Be Bop Deluxe’s first three long players – Axe Victim (1974), Futurama (1975) and Sunburst Finish (February 1976) – were all slices of complex, multi-layered rock embellished by Nelson’s highly ornate solo guitar work. By the time Modern Music was released on September 3rd, 1976 it looked like commercial success was looming – but just over one month later the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK. Suddenly Nelson’s eleven minute-long songs with their complex, meandering twists and turns, just didn’t seem right for a world that now wanted snarling lyrics and simple bar chords. Modern Music was a great piece of work, but just missed the bus.
Fifteen songs are spread out over forty-two minutes, with the six-song Modern Music suite being the highlight. Written about the band’s experiences touring the United States, Nelson’s guitar soars through it in a way that Jimi Hendrix would have loved. Expressive and powerful yet beautifully nuanced, it’s no less memorable in the breezy Kiss of Light and melodic Ships in the Night, too. Meanwhile, his backing band (Charlie Tumahai on bass/backing vocals and Simon Fox on drums) and producer (Simon Leckie) provide skilful support. Indeed, the production is ultra-modern by the standards of its day, and the recording quality (courtesy of Abbey Road) excellent.
After the demise of the band in 1978, Nelson worked with soloists like David Sylvian, and produced and mentored The Skids – indeed, Stuart Adamson admitted his guitar work owed much to his friend Bill. The first Compact Disc pressing of Modern Music arrived in 1990 (EMI CDP 7 94731 2), and sounds surprisingly good for an album of that era, while the 2008 Japanese reissue (Harvest TOCP-70361) is the audiophile choice.
One of the great Scottish bands to come out of the post-Punk era of the late nineteen seventies – think Associates, Simple Minds, Altered Images, Josef K and Orange Juice – Cocteau Twins formed at a Grangemouth disco in 1979. Named after a Johnny and the Self Abusers (later, Simple Minds) song, the band signed to the 4AD independent record label in 1981, just one year after its inception. Comprising guitarist Robin Guthrie, singe Elizabeth Fraser and bass player Will Heggie, their first album sounded nothing like anything else around. Garlands was the stark, steely sound of distorted guitars set behind almost indistinguishable vocals, overlaid by an early, metronomic drum machine.
Even back in those experimental times, their debut raised eyebrows and the Cocteaus soon reached the NME’s independent charts, gaining a prominent fan in Radio One DJ John Peel. The band released a series of 12” EPs showing a more textured, layered and ambient feel – and the arrival of some well hidden but surprisingly infectious melodies. Head Over Heels followed, and the addition of Simon Raymonde to replace Heggie added a new dimension to the music, giving a gentler, more spacious feel. Fraser’s delicate but icy voice was used to greater effect as a musical instrument in its own right, with her ‘lyrics’ being made-up sounds rather than meaningful sentences.
1984’s Treasure was a masterpiece. It featured ten soaring songs and crossed over from the indie listings to the UK album charts, reaching number 29. The music was dense, with powerful guitar-driven arrangements and chiming digital synthesisers, in moderate measure. Many thought the Cocteau Twins had reached their finest hour, but this was yet to come, however. By 1985, bassist Raymonde had left to work with 4AD house band This Mortal Coil, so Fraser and Guthrie set to work on Victorialand, released April 14th, 1986.
One of the most mesmerising ambient albums ever, it is largely stripped of percussion and offers just thirty two minutes of lilting, reverberant guitars and gentle keyboards overlaid by an astonishing vocal performance from Fraser. Ethereal, dreamy and gently contemplative, the album was dedicated to a part of Antarctica named after Queen Victoria, and all its song names came from fragments of a David Attenborough book on the North and South Poles. Nonsensical song titles such as Lazy Calm, Fluffy Tufts and How to Bring a Blush to the Snow don’t do justice to the beautiful soundscapes they evoke.
For a mid-nineteen eighties ‘indie’ release, recording quality is excellent – clean and smooth yet expansive and immersive. The initial vinyl release was cut at 45RPM because it was felt that the more quietly modulated tracks were too noisy at normal LP playing speed. Very soon after, 4AD released a silver disc version (4AD CAD 602 CD), which is the one to have if you can’t source the first issue Japanese disc (4AD 30CY-1661). The 2003 remastered Compact Disc added little to the party, aside from upping the level and reducing the dynamic range. Pure as the driven snow, Victorialand still sounds so fresh that it could have been released yesterday – there really is nothing else quite like it.
Philip Oakey once said that he couldn’t have survived his teenage years without David Bowie and Roxy Music, but it was hearing Walter Carlos’s soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange that got him into making music with synthesisers. Thus began The Human League, a group which enjoyed considerable success in the late seventies with its experimental electronic rock. By 1980 however, the strains were showing between Oakey and Adrian Wright’s pop sensibilities, and the more austere electronica beloved of Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware. The group duly split in October 1980, with the smart money going on the future success of Ware and Marsh’s British Electric Foundation project, whose Heaven 17 spin-off achieved both critical and chart success with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang…
If we’re honest, few people expected to hear from Oakey and Wright again, but while the latter was teaching himself to play synthesisers, the former was teaming up with producer Martin Rushent and two schoolgirls he met at Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy disco. Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall joined as vocalists, and thus was born the new Human League. In July 1981 the silence was broken with the release of Love Action (I Believe in Love). It reached number five in the UK singles charts, and rather stunned the critics who had written Oakey off as a frontman without a plan. Ian Burden became a permanent member, and synth player Jo Callis was recruited from The Rezillos. The rest, as they say, was history.
In December of that year, Dare was released to ecstatic reviews from the influential rock press of the day, such as The Face and New Musical Express. Don’t You Want Me? reached the top spot both sides of the Atlantic the next month, and the band secured its place in pop history. It’s hard to understate the importance of Dare at the time of its release. The first all-synthesiser album to venture out of the avant-garde and into ordinary teenage bedrooms, it defined the synth-pop genre. The fashion-magazine inspired cover, along with photos of heavily made up band members, crystallised the ‘new romantic’ style.
Recording quality was excellent. The original LP was a thunderously good listen, showcasing the fat, sumptuous sounds of those early Roland and Korg analogue synthesisers. With their shimmering harmonics, it’s easy to see why these original synths are so sought after by musicians now. Oakey’s voice was sometimes off-key and the girls didn’t always hit quite the right notes, but the effect is sublime nonetheless. As its name suggests, Dare has attitude – a sense of its own importance and purpose in the great scheme of pop music things.
There are few pop albums that can claim audiophile respectability, but this is one. Unsurprisingly, it soon found its way to SACD in 2001 (Virgin SACD V2192) and this is the best silver disc version, with a wonderfully clean, pure and almost antiseptic quality. The 2015 Japanese SHM CD (Virgin UICY-25463) is also superb, and faithfully recreates the warmth of the original LP. All versions of this album have a crisp sound that takes people of a certain age back to the glory days of eighties electro-pop.
There was a time during the mid nineteen eighties when you could drive around the fashionable areas of any British city on a summer’s evening and hear this album waft gently out of the open windows. Like Simply Red’s Picturebook and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, it showed how the world was moving to more sophisticated sounding pop that mixed classic styles with a contemporary sound. Sultry, smooth and gently soulful, Suzanne Vega’s first, eponymous, album blended folk music and rock in a fresh and new way.
1985 was the year that the musical excesses of the early eighties – post punk, new romantic, early indie – finally faded away. That generation of music lovers was beginning to grow up and join the wider world. They kept their sense of edginess and art-school cool, but now wanted music to soundtrack their adult lives. Although Vega’s influences were folk greats like Joan Baez, James Taylor, Carol King and Joni Mitchell, this album brilliantly brought the genre into the eighties, with a more lyrically introspective and spiritual take on life. The protest songs had gone, but the folk sensibility was still very much alive.
Something else that Suzanne Vega left behind was nineteen seventies production values; this album sounded as fresh as anything released that year, and thanks to the relative sparsity of its excellent production (courtesy of Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye), has dated less than its contemporaries. It eschews the layered electronics – often piled on with a trowel – of many chart records of that time, sticking instead to a beautifully recorded steel stringed acoustic guitar overlaid by Vega’s fragile, softly textured voice. Light synthesiser backing is added to some tracks, but it’s all done in the best possible taste.
The singer – born of a British father and German/Swedish mother – grew up in the sunshine of Santa Monica, California. Vega had an abiding interest in folk and rock music, and watched the two blend beautifully in the nineteen seventies. She moved to New York to study English literature, where she sang in bars to pay her way through college. This not only got her the record deal that delivered this album, but it makes for something that is lyrically deep and poetic. The songs show her to be a fine wordsmith, giving an extra dimension to the usual ‘boy meets girl’ schmaltz that infested eighties pop charts.
Marlene on the Wall proved a surprise international hit, but the whole work is surprisingly strong – from the delicate Cracking to the dark Knight Moves. Along the way, we hear the beautiful Undertow, complete with lovely Synclavier work and backing strings, while Some Journey has a rousing electric violin solo. Neighborhood Girls has some captivating electric slide guitar, too. Overall, the album sounds sparse, spacious and detailed in a way that none of its antecedents from a decade before do. The simple beauty of the words and music shine through.
All versions of this album sound great, but the original 1985 CD pressing (A&M Records CDA 5072 CD) is superb thanks to minimal compression. The Japanese version of the same (A&M D32Y3037 CD), is the finest outright thanks to superlative disc pressing quality, but is hard to find.