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!
After the failure of their 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways, but then their second album Sound of Silence charted in 1965 and things got back on track. By Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), the duo were cooking on gas and Simon declared they had “made it”. A string of hit singles followed, and then he burned out. Little was done for a while, and then a meeting with The Graduate director Mike Nichols took place, during which Simon agreed to write some soundtrack music for $25,000. Mrs Robinson duly became a smash hit.
Bookends was the result of going back into the studio from 1966 to 1968, bringing together assorted singles and music written for The Graduate, plus other material. A Hazy Shade of Winter, At the Zoo, Punky’s Dilemma, Overs and Mrs Robinson comprise the earlier songs, then Fakin’ It, America and Bookends Theme followed. In the later recording sessions the duo became more experimental. Paul Simon hired viola and brass players, plus additional percussionists; for the first time he took a ‘hands on’ approach to production, and there were more solo vocal tracks, rather than the harmonies that had been the duo’s hallmark. Robert Moog himself was drafted in to deliver the bassline for Save the Life of My Child on an early Moog synthesiser. Simon later said that Bookends was where he “had most use of the studio” out of all his albums with Art Garfunkel. Produced by Simon, Garfunkel and Roy Halee, Columbia’s Studios B & E in Manhattan had rarely been so busy.
In the style of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, Bookends is a concept album – its themes being in Paul Simon’s own words, “youth, alienation, life, love, disillusionment, relationships and mortality” He had told Garfunkel, “I’m going to start writing a whole side of an album – a cycle of songs. I want the early ones to be about youth and the last song to be about old age, and I want the feel of each song to fit.” His wry observations about human nature are entertaining and perceptive. Garfunkel later explained that, “we were terribly impressed with Sergeant Pepper, and that shone a light on the path that led to Bookends.” Interestingly, while the Beatles record has a bright, vibrant, colourful feel, this record – released just ten months later – is much darker, as its monochrome sleeve artwork suggests.
Bookends received great critical acclaim, elevating the duo’s status from purveyors of well-crafted but forgettable folk-pop to “rock” artists on a par with Bob Dylan. Massively successful commercially, the album was released on April 3, 1968 and produced the chart-topping single Mrs. Robinson, and then itself reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic, going double Platinum in the United States. It signalled the arrival of Paul Simon as a true creative force in popular music, with America arguably one of the finest songs of the nineteen sixties. If you can’t find the 1998 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (UDCD 732) Compact Disc release, then get Sony Japan’s fine-sounding 2015 reissue (SICP 4703).
There’s no mistaking the period from which this classic album hails from – it’s just as much of its time as The Sex Pistols’ debut long player was of its, some six years later. Released on the 8th April, 1971, it proved the high watermark of the Canterbury folk-rock scene, and the last album from the original Caravan line-up of Pye Hastings (electric guitars, acoustic guitar, lead vocals), David Sinclair (organ, piano, vocals), Richard Sinclair (bass, acoustic guitar, vocals), and Richard Coughlan (drums). Three months later, David Sinclair left to form Matching Mole with Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt, and things were never the same again.
An eclectic blend of folk, rock and jazz, there’s a touch of Traffic and Family with slight shades of The Kinks too – but in truth In The Land of Grey and Pink sounds quite unique. The album title came from Richard Sinclair’s name for the band’s home county of Kent. Lead singer Pye Hastings – who’s the only remaining member of the original line-up today – has a distinctively relaxed, creamy voice which counterpoints with the fast, tight and ultra-syncopated playing from the rest of the band. His brother Jimmy was brought in to play flute, tenor sax and piccolo just for this album, and it brings a richer texture to the already lavish feel.
Complementing its rather Tolkeinesque artwork, the album’s lyrics have splashes of mysticism and magic to them – reflecting the psychedelic tastes of the time – and also a kind of fading pastoral Englishness. Nine Feet Underground dominates things, taking up all of side two of the original LP release. Twenty two minutes long, Dave Sinclair’s magnum opus is a series of five different musical themes with link pieces, and shows the band’s brilliantly dextrous playing to great effect. Hastings’ Love To Love You was the album’s only single, backed off with Richard Sinclair’s whimsical Golf Girl. All songs on the album are infectious and full of melodic hooks – delivered with great gusto.
Recorded at both Decca Studios and AIR Studios in London, production values are high. Many albums of this period sound murky or thin, but producer David Hitchcock made it big and bold with a wonderful clarity even by today’s standards. Despite the obvious quality of the music, In the Land of Grey and Pink did not chart – something that the band blamed on their label Decca. Pye Hastings was in no doubt of its virtue, remarking that this was when “the band began to peak.” Since its release it has received much critical acclaim, and has continued to sell ever since, never having been deleted. Many critics regard it as the quintessential “Canterbury scene” album.
The first Compact Disc release was back in 1989, and three more versions followed in 2001 and 2011. The final 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition [Deram 533 316-1] is the one to go for, with a number of additional tracks and a vibrant, expansive digital remaster thanks to Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. The Japanese SHM CD [Deram UICY-94328] is also worth having as the ultimate original mastering of this seminal Prog classic.
Just as the death of Elvis Presley on August 16th, 1977 was a tragedy, so too was the passing of Marc Bolan exactly one month later – for the many fans of glam rock, this was the real day that the music died. Bolan was a force of nature, an oddity and an eccentric. Like so many in showbusiness, he was tortured and traduced, yet had an impish charm that attracted teenage girls and boys alike. His manner was gentle, his music beautiful, and forty years ago this month he became immortal.
Marc Bolan’s early work was patchy. There was a lot of it, and as Tyrannosaurus Rex he often missed the spot with four rather laboured psychedelic folk albums to show for it. Bolan was a devourer of culture and used to drink it in; his early work was often charming but there was a sense he was highly self-conscious and just a little too concerned with what else was fashionable. Suddenly in 1970 however, he and his cohort Mickey Finn renamed the band T. Rex and released Ride a White Swan, and things would never be the same again.
Rex emerged blinking into the sunlight as a fully formed band complete with electric guitars and a bold new sound – thanks in no small part to producer Tony Visconti – that very quickly came to dominate the British charts, and then beyond. Bassist Steve Curry and drummer Bill Legend made a tight four-piece that began making highly memorable music, packed with great guitar riffs, infectious hooks and some very curious and often baffling nonsense lyrics. This found its ultimate expression in Electric Warrior, released 24th September, 1971, just six years before Bolan’s car crash that brought things to a tragic and cruelly premature end.
The band’s sixth album, it was the first ‘full electric’ one and a bold manifesto for the new ‘glam rock’ movement. Recorded in London, LA and New York, it reached number one, and went on to sell more copies than any other album of that year. Like so many great long players of that era, the sleeve was designed by British art design group Hipgnosis, and became an iconic pop art image in its own right. Its lead single Bang A Gong (Get It On) was a huge chart hit, and was swiftly followed up by Jeepster. It showed Bolan at his absolute height, releasing song after song that bothered the very top of the hit parade. Cosmic Dancer – arguably the finest song on the album – was never released as a single.
Pop music is of course disposable, but there’s something about this disc that really stands the test of time. More than just an authentic taste of the early nineteen seventies’ music scene, it’s a charming collection of songs that revels in its silliness. Packed with repetitive yet infectious hooks, the anthemic songs grow inside you. Electric Warrior is so likeable because it doesn’t pretend to be great art – yet despite those nonsense lyrics full of non sequiturs, it is unerring fun.
Those listening to Electric Warrior in hi-fi mode will be disappointed. It is however surprisingly fine sounding if played on truly top flight systems; in lesser hands it comes over as a bit of a dirge. A&M Records’ 2010 Japan-only SHM-CD (UICY-20105) release is the best of a bad bunch sonically, but the beautiful music still shines through.
One of the common criticisms of pop music – something that began to gain traction in the early nineteen nineties – is that it has effectively become trapped in an endless loop of borrowing from the past, and that there’s no new artistic innovation anymore. The High Llamas could be accused of this, because they channel The Kinks, The Beach Boys, 10cc and many other golden greats, but that’s only half the story. In truth, the band’s sound is infused with a variety of influences, yet still comes out as distinctively their own. One of the greatest pop groups that nobody’s ever heard of perhaps, they’re consummate musicians and – as Hawaii proved – fine songwriters too.
Formed in 1992, The High Llamas comprise four main soloists, with a vast array of additional collaborators. Lead singer Sean O’Hagan is a brilliant writer of breezy pop tunes who earned his stripes in eighties indie band Microdisney; if Steely Dan had come from a small town in Ireland where it rained all the time, this would be them! Highly proficient at guitar and keyboards, on Hawaii he was joined by John Bennett on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Marcus Holdaway on cello, harpsichord and piano, and Rob Allum on sticks. The album also features flugelhorn players, tenor sax, flutes and violins; its brilliance is that despite the complexity, it comes across as a simple, breezy collection of winsome pop ditties. As with O’Hagan’s former band, these can become quite dark, with acerbic vocals that go heavy on the cynicism but are still full of humour.
O’Hagan’s musical influences span nineteen fifties and sixties American pop to Brazilian jazz, film soundtracks and European avant-garde electronic music. There’s a good deal of Brian Wilson-style soft psychedelia too, and this comes to the fore in Hawaii. Indeed, he actually played at some Beach Boys gigs, and had also done backing duties for Arthur Lee’s Love a few years before this album was released. Just to make life even more interesting, at the time that Hawaii came out on March 25th, 1996, he had been working with several members of Stereolab in his Turn On side-project – and there’s more than a little experimental synthesiser work on this album too. The result is something that sounds like a kind of mutant outtake of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, done thirty years later.
Hawaii is a mixture of seemingly disparate themes – all united by the beautifully melodic, sauntering arrangements that tie it together. There’s a good bit of nostalgia, some thoughts on the effects of colonialism and occasional nonsense. Don’t expect any Roger Waters-style philosophical invective, or profound observations on the nature of being, however. Devoid of standout hit singles, this album is best listened to from start to finish, where you get the full benefit of its capacity to transport you to a charmingly whimsical world, packed with wry observations about humankind. It’s not the destination, but the getting there that counts, you see. Well recorded, beautifully produced but not an audiophile recording in the traditional sense, the original British release [Alpaca Park CD WOOL 2] sounds fine – but is best experienced through a serious digital source.
Released on 12th September, 1975, this was a difficult album for Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon had already proved one of the most successful rock albums in history, and not an easy thing to follow. Expectations were sky-high for the band’s ninth studio album, and there were advance orders of 250,000 in Britain and 900,000 in the USA; we already knew it would be the fastest selling Floyd long-player so far. What troubled fans was the direction it would take – each successive LP was a distinct move away from the last, so where would Wish You Were Here go? On release it got mixed reviews; critics decided it was barely a departure from DSOTM, and that the band was on autopilot. Some derided Pink Floyd as “passionless”, others said the new long player was “ponderous”.
In hindsight, these were hasty judgements. WYWH lacks the freshness and direction of its predecessor, but is more contemplative and rewarding. Musically it’s more reflective – soulful even – and shows the band at the height of their melodic power. Clever studio effects and the subtle use of early synthesisers give it a vibrant sound, one that’s a clever evolution of their previous masterpiece. David Gilmour and Roger Waters shared lead vocals and guitar credits, with the former playing keyboards and an EMS Synthi AKS and the latter an EMS VCS. Rick Wright did most of the keyboard work however, with Hammond organ, ARP String Ensemble V, Mini-moog and Steinway piano bolstering the sound. Nick Mason as ever supplied drums, percussion and tape effects. Guest singers were brought in to give a richer texture to the band’s sound; Roy Harper sang lead vocals on Have a Cigar, and the Blackberries did backing vocals on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, along with Carlena Williams. Jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli was even paid £300 for playing on Wish You Were Here, but was mixed down so low as to be virtually inaudible.
Lyrically, as the album’s title suggests, it reflects upon the absence of original frontman Syd Barrett from the group, conveying an underlying sense of loss and yearning. Roger Waters’ conceptual theme dominates the album, along with some vitriolic ranting against the music industry; Welcome to the Machine laments what Waters later called, “the lack of contact and real feelings between people”. Have a Cigar derides “fat cats” as it laments the superficiality of the business that had, by then, made all four band members impossibly rich. Ironically, Harvest Records was unable to get its parent company EMI to print enough copies of Wish You Were Here.
The Hipnosis-designed sleeve alludes to what photographer Storm Thorgerson called the band’s concern with an “unfulfilled presence”, and that people conceal their true feelings for fear of “getting burned”. The cover depicts two businessmen shaking hands, with one on fire. Pink Floyd certainly didn’t suffer, with over fifteen million sales worldwide to date. Recorded at EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios, it is beautifully produced and sounds superb even today. There are countless reissues of this rock masterpiece, with Analogue Productions’ SACD (EMI CAPP 33453 SA) being the one to have.
It was fifty years ago that The Beatles realised their most innovative and memorable album. On June 1st, 1967, the band’s eighth studio release appeared to mixed reviews by critics. It was the first LP that didn’t present the ‘Fab Four’ as cute, cuddly pop stars, and instead took a more mature view of the world. At the same time, it moved into more controversial thematic territory, with obvious drug allusions which earned it the tag, “psychedelic”.
Sgt Pepper brought a greater diversity of musical styles, with longer and more complex songs knitted together to form a single work. Rock writers praised it as the first ever “concept album” – a collection of songs with a single overarching theme, rather than a disparate and unconnected series of sketches. This made the album all the more significant – indeed it changed the popular music world forever. People still talk in terms of pop before and after this landmark release, as everyone from Pink Floyd and ELO to Stevie Wonder and Radiohead have taken this idea, and run with it.
The cover is graced by a clever photomontage of (then) contemporary British cultural icons. The Beatles – playing the role of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – appear in costume, in the middle gatefold section of the sleeve. Cue up the disc and we hear the band tuning up, then introducing themselves, and soon we’re into a sequence of brilliant Lennon and McCartney compositions – everything from With a Little Help from my Friends and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to When I’m Sixty Four and A Day in the Life. The John Lennon songs are more cutting and acerbic, the Paul McCartney tunes have a tinge of classic music hall, and are pure pop. Allied to this is the experimental sitar-infused George Harrison number, Within You, Without You.
The album’s themes are an eclectic mix of quirky folk ditties (“lovely Rita meter maid, when are you free to take some tea with me?”) and the emerging hippy counterculture of the late sixties (“picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies”). The album takes you into a new world that’s a varied mixture of emotions, but still the songs blend together seamlessly thanks to the brilliant George Martin production. He used the four-track Abbey Road Studio Two to great effect, creating new and unusual sounds whilst knitting everything together to give a single coherent feel. The stereo mix of the album must have sounded breathtaking to the lucky few who owned the equipment able to play it back in 1967.
Sgt Pepper is a bold and audacious album by a band at their creative peak, backed up by the most advanced recording technology available at the time, and brilliantly packaged as a pop product. Unsurprisingly, it was massively popular – hitting the number one spot in the UK for twenty seven weeks, and in the USA for fifteen. Now in 2017, it has sold over thirty million copies globally. There are myriad versions, but the definitive CD remaster (Apple Records 0602557455458) is a great way in to this superb album.
Upon the release of Village Green in November 1968, the album that everyone was talking about was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although almost a year old, it had a huge effect on pop music and sparked the move towards ‘concept albums’, of which Village Green is a fine example. Yet The Kinks’ new record wasn’t simply a pastiche of the The Beatles’ LP, it was a rebuttal. Whereas Lennon and McCartney’s writing championed all manner of other countercultural references, Ray Davies’s magnum opus was a celebration of everything run-of-the-mill. In an era where rock music was all about changing the world, The Kinks instead gazed lovingly back at the past.
“I go out of my way to like ordinary things,” said Ray Davies at the time of the album’s release. “I cling on to the simple values. I thought, why not write something about things you truly care about? I wanted a record that would not necessarily get airplay but would be played for friends and at parties. And I achieved that and it didn’t get any airplay at all. It became a cult record as a result. Somebody told me that I preserve things, and I like village greens and preservation societies. The title track is the national anthem of the album.”
Village Green is a series of cameos about a time and place long since passed. Its beautifully melodic and gentle music documents a lazy English town full of people obsessed about small things like “strawberry jam and all the different varieties”, while, “preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you…” Sung in a conspicuously English accent, where many of the band’s contemporaries were affecting a mid-atlantic American drawl, it is played with brilliant technical virtuosity, giving it a unique sound.
The Kinks began as an R&B band in 1963, playing US-influenced music. However, within four years they had become the most staunchly English of all their contemporaries. London born-and-bred Ray Davies was the lead vocalist, songwriter and rhythm guitarist, while brother Dave provided lead guitar and backing vocals. In their teens, they began playing rock’n’roll together and recruited friend Peter Quaife to play bass. By the summer of 1963, the group had a new drummer called Mick Avory, and the commercial success began. Ray became fascinated with playwright Noel Coward, and this gives Village Green so much of its colour. The album works best played through from beginning to end, when you can really feel the band’s unique chemistry. As Dave noted, “the family aspect and empathy that Ray and I have doesn’t go away – it was crucial to how we evolved.” Listened to this way, it feels wonderfully immersive, transporting you to another time and place…
Recorded at Pye Studios in London, it isn’t an audiophile recording by any stretch of the imagination. Although there have been multiple silver disc releases, the first 1993 Japanese pressing (Victor VICP-2094) is the finest sonically; the later 2004 UK release (Sanctuary Midline SMETD 102) also sounds mo
There has never been a time when pop music hasn’t been in flux. It’s one great big long stream of new and old styles being mixed together, and always has been. Yet in the mid nineteen sixties, it was surely at its most fluid, as traditional rock’n’roll gave way to Beatles- and Beach Boys-style pure pop, which in turn morphed into rock. In 1967, when the aptly-named Forever Changes was released, this was happening in earnest – and to make the album all the more significant, it fused with psychedelia too. Rock historians always argue that The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper was the first psych-rock album, but Love’s third studio album didn’t come much later. Released on the Elektra label in November of that year, it has come to be regarded as one of the most important long-players of the latter half of that amazing decade – even if at the time it only reached 154 in the US Billboard album charts.
Arthur Lee grew up in Los Angeles, California – and started his band Love in his late teens. Heavily influenced by The Byrds, his inclinations were towards folk-rock but soon found himself immersed in the LA hippy scene – even if, by all accounts, he wasn’t an unquestioning believer in ‘flower power’. He was highly competitive with the band’s other songwriter Bryan MacLean, and this caused great friction in the band which – along with intense drug use – lead them to split up shortly after Forever Changes was recorded. It shows, such is the album’s chaotic and patchy nature, although it is also a work of genius in some ways. It sports some of the sweetest, most beautiful and melodic music to come out of the nineteen sixties, with a wonderfully sunny and warm feel. Inside the lyrics however, you can feel Lee wrestling with his inner soul, and sometimes he comes out quite badly.
The songs reflect on a variety of themes, including love, life and Lee’s mortality, plus an early sense of disillusionment with what would come to be known as the Woodstock generation. Work started in June 1967 at Sunset Sound Recorders. A number of top session musicians appeared, and it gained beautifully arranged (by Lee) string and horn parts too, which run right throughout the album and lend it an epic feel. Neil Young, and Bruce Botnick – who had produced the first two Love albums and had just finished Buffalo Springfield’s Again – reputedly joined in with the arrangement to The Daily Planet. At the time of its release, Gene Youngblood of LA Free Express summed it perfectly as “melancholy iconoclasm and tasteful romanticism”. There’s certainly a sullen beauty to the songs that never fades with age. The musicianship is superb and Lee’s voice is both beautiful and fragile at the same time.
Sonically, Forever Changes can never escape the fact that it was recorded on early four-track analogue, but still sounds superb. Disc fans are spoiled for choice, with the first Japanese CD (Elektra WMC5-382) having excellent sonics, and the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab hybrid SACD (UDSACD 2131) sounding even better. There’s also a hi-res download from HD Tracks.
Along with Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, the staple musical diet of every British hi-fi show of the mid nineteen eighties was Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth. A complex and classy slice of (then) ultra-modern electronic pop music, it also sounded spectacularly good – hence it being such a favourite with manufacturers demonstrating their wares. Although a fine musical work, it cannot compare to Dolby’s debut album that preceded it. Packed with classic synthesisers, it sounds strangely timeless yet is still evocative of the period when electronics were making their way into mainstream pop. More than this, it’s a beautiful, contemplative and moody piece of music that pulls you into the eccentric world of a young man with a spectacular imagination.
Recorded at the height of the Cold War in 1982, thematically it’s rather dour and dark, and tinged with nostalgia. The polar opposite to the Human League’s glitzy Dare – also out that year – Golden Age of Wireless studiously avoids pop music’s normal preoccupations (fashion, fun, romance) and takes the listener into something of a Boy’s Own world of adventure. Dolby recalled how he was writing songs at that time, “in a huge and grim Victorian industrial building, with snow falling on the railway tracks outside, and me surrounded by short-circuited machines hacked together by a man called Igor. It conjures up a strange world whose ecology is rotting while the sheer overload of broadcasted data is nearing saturation point…”
The son of a scientist, Thomas Morgan Robertson received his ‘Dolby’ moniker from school friends who thought he dabbled with his tape deck too much. ‘Morgan’ was EM Forster’s middle name, the famous author and family friend from way back. In an era of one-fingered synth pop and dodgy haircuts, he was a virtuoso musician who performed as well as he programmed. He funded Golden Age from session keyboard playing for Foreigner. Luckily, producer Mutt Lange took his time, and the $500-per-day fees that racked up bought Dolby many weeks at respected high end British studios like Tapestry and Playground. His equipment list was minimal compared to some contemporaries; alongside two analogue synths (a Micromoog and a Roland Jupiter 4) was a PPG Wave computer controlling Simmons electronic drums. He borrowed the rhythm section from Lene Lovich’s band, and renowned guitarist Kevin Armstrong completed the line up. The whole album was recorded without any sequencing for the keyboard parts.
The album kicks off with Flying North, conjuring up dramatic scenes of traversing continents, and runs through classics like Windpower and the fun but throwaway She Blinded Me With Science, then moves to the contemplative Airwaves. One of Our Submarines is Missing is one of Dolby’s most beautiful compositions. With the proceeds from Golden Age, the man spent $140,000 on one of the world’s first digital samplers – the Fairlight CMI – and in doing so moved out of the sumptuous analogue landscape of his first album towards the colder, sharper The Flat Earth. The finest silver disc version is the Japanese pressing (EMI TOCP-6335), but the standard UK reissue (EMI 50999 2 67915 2 4) is also highly listenable.
“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.