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!
Despite massive chart success in later years, with a string of pop and disco-infused singles, Queen always thought of themselves as an authentic rock band, and a heavy one at that. Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), Brian May (lead guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar) were all closer to Hawkwind than 10cc in the great pantheon of music. Yet A Night at the Opera showed that the band had the ingenuity and imagination to move well beyond the genre.
Best known for the smash-hit single Bohemian Rhapsody, the band’s fourth studio album saw Queen as a fast-maturing combo that had just headlined US tour venues, wearing striking Zandra Rhodes-created costumes, with Elton John’s manager John Reid now aboard. The most expensive album ever recorded at the time, it was meant to be the band’s magnum opus – its Sergeant Pepper – and certainly delivered. It was released on 21st November 1975 to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a whimsical mixture of pop, heavy rock and even music hall – with the band unwilling to be pigeonholed musically. Tellingly however, buried deep in the sleeve notes is the phrase, “No Synthesisers!”, suggesting Queen still saw themselves as real, old school rockers.
A Night at the Opera has great strength in depth. It ranges from Mercury’s almost maniacal Death on Two Legs – a noisy and coruscating attack on the band’s former manager – to his jaunty, breezy Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon which has touches of George Gershwin. Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car is a powerful, hard rocking number that is dedicated to roadie Johnathan Harris’s obsession with his Triumph sportscar, while You’re My Best Friend is a touching John Deacon composition, and ode to his wife. Sweet Lady is a high tempo, distortion soaked hard rock number from May, then we go back to whimsy with Mercury’s Seaside Rendezvous. May’s The Prophet’s Song is Queen’s longest studio song and sports interesting effects, while Love of My Life went on to be a popular singalong at Queen concerts. May’s Good Company channels Dixieland and sees him playing a ukelele and singing. Mercury composition Bohemian Rhapsody needs no introduction; amusingly its working title was “Fred’s thing” until the final recording session.
Critics were divided about the album. Some believed it was Queen’s finest hour, and put them in the premier league of the world’s great rock bands, others saw it as grandiose and overblown. What is not disputed is that it put the foursome on course to become a great stadium rock band, just at that genre’s height. A decade later they went on to play the 1985 Live Aid benefit and made themselves megastars, with record sales now estimated at 300 million. A Night at the Opera – which itself sold over six million copies – was the start of all this, a powerful yet quirky concept album packed with infectious tunes and brilliant musicianship.
By modern standards recording quality is not great, but a serious front end certainly lifts it. The Japanese 2011 SHM-SACD release [Island Records UIGY-9513] is surely the finest, although the CD reissue of the same year is most enjoyable too.
Click here to listen to all our 2018 album picks so far on TIDAL
More than any other musician of his generation, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock moved jazz music forward. He was an important artist for Blue Note – a great label that defined the post-bop era of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Born in Chicago in 1940, the son of a government meat inspector, Herbie started playing classical piano from an early age, and was regarded as something of a child prodigy. However, his heart was in jazz, where he soon developed a style of his own. The Hi-Lo’s were an important influence, as he later explained: “That’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child… I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare was a major influence on my harmonic concept.”
At the tender age of twenty, he moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, where his reputation grew. Off the back of this, Blue Note offered him a contract, and Takin’ Off (1962) was the result. Watermelon Man caught the ear of Miles Davis, who signed him up for his band; he got to work with a stellar cast of young jazzers, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. During this era, he recorded some excellent solo albums such as Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965), which came to be seen as a template for the new jazz style. The two albums that followed – Speak Like a Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) are less celebrated, but no less beautiful…
The result was a beautiful, innovative sounding modern jazz record. Recorded in March 1968 at Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey, Hancock delivered some of his sweetest, most tender piano work, with brilliant accompaniment from Ron Carter on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. The alto flute of Jerry Dodgion, bass trombone of Peter Philips and flugelhorn of Thad Jones make for an unusual front line. The result is a rich but floaty sound with wonderfully lyrical playing. The harmonies give vibrancy and colour, the texture of the music is delicious, and the melodies are simple and catchy. “Of all the albums I’ve done, this to me swings the most”, said Hancock. For the best sound on silver disc, seek out the 1999 Japanese Compact Disc reissue (Blue Note BNST-84279).
Listen to all our 2018 AOTM suggestions on TIDAL
In the late nineteen eighties, Al Jarreau had one of the most famous voices in the world. As the singer of the theme to Moonlighting – the smash-hit US romantic TV comedy – his dulcet tones conjured up images of modern sophistication. It was the first time that many had heard him – despite being having been a jazz vocalist of repute for nearly twenty years by then. Smooth and creamy yet tonally rich and wonderfully expressive, Jarreau’s vocal style perfectly soundtracked the chemistry between the glamorous Cybil Shepherd and a raffish looking young Bruce Willis.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jarreau was forty eight years old when he recorded Moonlighting in 1988, effectively mid-way through his career. He sang in church as a child, educated himself up to Masters Degree level and then started singing in a nightclub in Marin County, California. In 1968 he went professional and quickly found himself on TV shows such as Johnny Carson and David Frost, soon beginning to write his own song lyrics to reflect his Christian spirituality. His first album, 1976’s We Got By, gave him fame and 1981’s Breakin’ Away brought critical respect. After his smash hit Moonlighting at the end of the decade, Jarreau focused on touring – and it’s this period that Tenderness showcases…
He collaborated with a veritable constellation of jazz and soul greats during this time, including David Sanborn on alto sax, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Marcus Miller on bass guitar and Joe Sample on keyboards. Released in 1994, Tenderness sees these musicians right at the top of their game. The song selection is unadventurous and clearly aimed at commercial appeal, but the quality of the musicianship is spectacular. Anyone with any interest in jazz, funk or soul will instantly be hit by the virtuosity of Jarreau’s band, which is breathtakingly tight despite recording in front of a live studio audience. The music conjures up a magical mood that’s louche yet beguiling; the worst criticism that can be levelled is that it’s rather ‘cocktail jazzy’, which is not to everyone’s taste.
Everything from Jorge Ben’s Mas Que Nada and Oscar Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, to Lennon and McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home and George Gershwin’s Summertime gets the treatment. Jarreau’s vocal style is distinctive, expressive and gymnastic in the way it runs around the melody. Each song is rendered in a refreshingly different way to the original, and there’s no sense that he’s trying to recreate someone else’s idea of it. The really impressive thing is how Tenderness plays as an entire album – it sounds ‘all of a piece’, whisking the listener away to a special time and place.
Even those who are not natural fans of this beautifully nuanced, butter-smooth music will be astounded by the way the album sounds. Mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab in LA, it is one of the finest sounding modern jazz albums ever made. There are no hi-res versions commercially available, but even the cooking Compact Disc (WEA 4509 93778-2) on a dCS front end sounds staggering, with an amazing sense of space and insight that most hi-res recordings would kill for.
Listen to all our 2018 AOTM here: https://tidal.com/play…/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3
Nobody’s really quite sure when the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined for music. Some say it was that line from Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, others think it came from Hawkwind. What everyone agrees on however, is that no one expected 1987 to be a vintage year for the genre. Indeed, by the mid eighties, things had taken a distinct term for the worse – there had been a real buzz just a few years earlier, with the likes of Saxon, Whitesnake and Rainbow propelling huge crashing tunes into the pop charts, but by the latter part of the decade many people seemed more interested in the emerging ‘house music’ movement. Then, a band that nobody had ever heard of before came out of California with a fresh, modern heavy rock record, infused with melodies catchy enough to be chart-topping pop…
Guns N’Roses released Appetite for Destruction on July 21, 1987. It was like a bolt from the blue, going on to sell thirty million copies worldwide, despite getting a lukewarm reception from critics who saw it as formulaic. Since then however, the band’s huge global success has forced many to re-evaluate it. Although not ground breaking in any way, there’s no denying that this great rock album hit the music charts with the force of a speeding freight train. Its singles (It’s So Easy, Sweet Child o’ Mine, Paradise City and Nightrain) were all very strong, the second and third releases becoming massive hits. Despite using a relatively obscure producer (Mike Clink) and being on an unfashionable label (Geffen), the band sounded like a supergroup that had been playing for decades, and at the top of its game.
Guns N’Roses comprised W. Axl Rose (lead vocals, synthesiser, percussion), Slash (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, talkbox), Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, backing vocals, percussion), Duff “Rose” McKagan (bass, backing vocals) and Steven Adler (drums, percussion, backing vocals). All were too young to have heard the classic Steppenwolf track at the time of its original release, yet played like they were steeped in heavy metal folklore from the beginning of time. Many of the songs had been well campaigned on the Los Angeles club circuit that the band had made their home. This gave the album a remarkably mature and sophisticated feel, considering that Axel Rose was just twenty five years old when his band hit megastardom.
Recorded at several studios around LA, this is a powerful and coherent sounding album that showcases the musicians’ obvious talents and makes a great statement of intent. The guys seemed to capture the sound of Led Zeppelin of fifteen years earlier, strip it back down to basics and then add their very own magic. Although derivative and in no way avant garde, the quality of the writing, playing and production on Appetite for Destruction is still so strong that it never needed to break new ground. After hearing this, a new generation of hard rock fans was born. For those seeking out their very own copy of this seminal ‘modern classic’ rock album, the original Japanese Compact Disc pressing (Geffen Records 32XD-821) sounds the best, with power aplenty.
Switch on a transistor radio back in the nineteen seventies, tune into any pop station, and alongside the sounds of Carol King and Rod Stewart, Glen Travis Campbell’s hits such as Gentle on My Mind (1967), By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1967), Galveston (1969) and Rhinestone Cowboy (1975) would ring out. By this time, he was star with ten Grammy awards under his belt. Upon his death last year, he had released seventy albums and sold nearly fifty million records, including twelve gold albums, four platinums and one double-platinum. Not bad for a boy from Arkansas who began his professional career as a Los Angeles session musician thanks to a chain of events starting when his uncle Boo bought him a five dollar guitar, back when he was just four years old.
Things really began to take off for Campbell in December 1964, when he became a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson playing bass guitar and singing falsetto harmonies. Yet it took another three years for him to reach his creative height with the album Wichita Lineman. Recorded in 1968 with his backing band the Wrecking Crew, the single of the same name achieved only modest chart success, but has now become what many think is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Written by Jimmy Webb – of MacArthur Park fame – Campbell’s treatment of it is sublime, with a deep, empathetic quality that reduces many people to tears. It ushers the listener into the solitary, lovesick life of a county workman. The story goes that while driving through Washita County, Oklahoma, Webb saw a lineman and, “put himself atop that telephone pole and put that phone in his hand.” Campbell later said that it alluded to Webb’s first love affair with a woman, who later married someone else.
Released on November 4th, 1968, the album featured Campbell (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Al Casey (acoustic guitar), Carol Kaye (bass guitar), Jim Gordon (drums) and Dennis McCarthy (piano). Al De Lory produced and wrote the beautiful orchestral arrangements. Wichita Lineman has its own highly distinctive sound, thanks in no small part to Carol Kaye’s bass guitar playing – she also guested on Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Simon and Garfunkel hits, and gives things a wonderfully fluid feel. As well as its iconic title track, the record sports excellent cover versions of standards from a variety of artists, including Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away and The Bee Gees’ Words. In truth, the album sounds a little disjointed, but the quality of the singing and musicianship is first rate. Had it not been blessed with a stellar title track, the other songs’ quality would have been more evident.
Thanks to Al De Lory’s genius and the class of the Hollywood-based Capitol Recording Studio, Wichita Lineman sounds spectacular – way better than most rock recordings of that period. Even the standard issue Compact Disc remaster (Capitol Records 7243-5-35229-2-6) from 2001 is blissfully rich, vibrant and expansive sounding, especially when played through a dCS digital front end.
Some rock bands find success later in life, and The Flaming Lips was one of them. Formed in Norman, Oklahoma in 1983, it took nearly two decades for the guys to really get traction amongst the music buying public. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was the album that did it; an unlikely collection of pop, psychedelica and squelchy electronics that glued the sound together. It’s hard to point out the band’s influences because this album is such a mishmash but think Neil Young meets Stereolab meets XTC and Robyn Hitchcock, and you’re some way there. One of its strengths is that it’s so hard to pigeonhole, from a decade where everyone from Eminem to The White Stripes were wearing their influences on their sleeves. The Flaming Lips inhabited their own unique world rather than flagrantly copying others.
The original line-up comprised brothers Wayne and Mark Coyne on guitar and vocals respectively, plus Michael Ivins on bass and Dave Kotska on drums. Mark duly left, leaving Wayne to take over as lead singer, then Nathan Roberts soon took on the drumming role. They were known for their striking live shows in the early years, and this caught the attention of Warner Brothers; 1999’s The Soft Bulletin crystallised the band’s gently psychedelic, ‘art rock’ sound, which showed traces of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. Recorded at Tarbox Road Studios in New York, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was released three years later, and showed the band to be at the height of their creative power.
A concept album of sorts, it sports Japanese anime artwork themed around guest musician Yoshimi P-We’s imaginary battle with robotic machines. Steven Drozd had joined – and then become a major force in – the band, picking up songwriting credits to go with his clever drum and keyboard work. Co-producer Dave Fridmann also helped with the songwriting, and the result was one of the most polished pop/rock albums of the new century. Released on July 15th, 2002, it was highly praised by critics and helped to break The Flaming Lips commercially. It’s an interesting – if slightly disjointed – series of reflections on love, the transience of life, emotions and artificiality. There’s a sci-fi feel to the proceedings, as Yoshimi’s story is told in the first four tracks, which segue neatly into one another.
Indeed, these opening songs Fight Test (a reworking of a Cat Stevens song), One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Parts 1 and 2 have a rather symphonic feel. Later on, the album becomes less structured and instead meanders along with beautiful ballads such as It’s Summertime, while the last track – Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia) – won a 2002 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. More usually heard in heavily guitar-based indie rock, Wayne Coyne’s plaintive vocals are an acquired taste, but really contribute to the album’s eerie sound. Heavily processed and full of electronic effects, it’s no audiophile masterpiece, yet still got a 24/96 DVD-Audio release (Warner Bros. 9362 48581-9). This remains the best way to hear it, although the original CD (Warner Bros. 9362-48141-2) is still highly enjoyable.
“That difficult third album” is often a major let-down. The band’s first is often rough and ready, and the second more polished – but where to go next? Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler had his ear on producer Jimmy Iovine, who had recently delivered Patti Smith’s epic Because The Night (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) and worked on Born to Run. For Making Movies, the creative force behind Dire Straits wanted a powerful, old-school rock guitar sound…
Formed in London in 1977, the band – originally called Cafe Racers – comprised Geordies Mark Knopfler (singer, guitarist and songwriter) and his brother David (guitar, keyboards, vocals) and Brummie friends John Illsley (bass, vocals) and Pick Withers (drums). The 1978 debut single Sultans of Swing was a huge hit, despite sounding nothing like the new wave music dominating the singles chart at the time. Their eponymous first album sold well, as did the follow-up Communique, which gave another fine single, Lady Writer.
At the time that Making Movies was released on October 17th, 1980, the band still sounded more like nineteen sixties rock than eighties pop – and therein lies its strength. The music didn’t sound fashionable but went on to achieve a timeless quality, while so many chart acts of that period have hardly aged well. Dire Straits was a no-frills group of four technically gifted musicians wearing the same tatty old T-shirts and flared jeans on stage as they did off, never trying to hide their pub-rock roots. Their very early work paid tribute to hard-living, hard working bands and studiously avoided singing about love – but by the time Making Movies came out, Knopfler was ready.
Iovine later reflected that, ”I think he wanted to take Dire Straits to that next step… to have the album really make sense all together, which I think it does. It’s a really cohesive album. He stunned me, as far as his songwriting talents. The songs on that album are almost classical in nature.” The more intricately crafted songs, plus the addition of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan – drafted in to the recording sessions – gave Making Movies the band’s most powerful, expansive and polished sound so far. It was all the more important because rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left Dire Straits during the first week of recording.
Its songs were little sketches, scenes from people’s lives. Although never regarded as a great lyricist, Mark Knopfler melded his dour, subtle observations with achingly beautiful rock music to dramatic effect. Tracks such as Romeo and Juliet, Tunnel of Love and Skateaway have a plaintive but romantic and dreamy feel. “The subtleties of emotion that he was trying to capture was something real special — it reminded me of Bruce, you know?”, said Iovine.
A platinum seller in the USA and double-platinum in Britain, Making Movies was an important moment for Dire Straits. It ushered in a more muscular and expansive sound, one which soon indelibly stamped their name on the eighties pop world. At the same time, it is perhaps the last ‘classic’ Dire Straits album – still recognisably similar to the band’s original Sultans-era sound. A superb recording made at the Power Station in New York, it is best heard on Bob Ludwig’s excellent CD remaster [Vertigo 800 050-2].
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.