Colin Hay…

“All around is anger, automatic guns
Death in large numbers, no respect for woman, or our little ones
I tried talking to Jesus, but he just put me on hold
Said he’d been swamped by calls this week
And He could not shake his cold…”

This was going to be another instalment in the “Tracks” series I started sometime ago -and have added to sporadically since -about Colin Hay’s ‘Beautiful World’. Except that every time I listen to ‘Beautiful World’ I end up cueing up another Colin Hay song and another… so I thought I’d have a bit of a ramble about and around the fella and his music. Or the bits of it that I know / like at least.

You see and there’s something so mellow and addictively charming about Colin Hay’s work that it’s something of a go-to when I feel the need to chill a bit and feel the air going in… and out… It’s also something of an uncomplicated palate cleanser as I wind down after the Springsteen marathon. He’s a bloody fine acoustic player and has a way with a song that’s both simple and affecting as well as a fair bit of humour. Perhaps it’s also the Australia connection to it that I enjoy like so many other things from Down Under.

Born in Scotland before moving to Australia with his family when he was in his teens, Colin Hay is perhaps best known to many for the pop-rock / new wave band he formed with his new mates; Men At Work. Aside from their ubiquitous hit ‘Down Under’, Men At Work rode the wave of interest in all things antipodean in the 80’s and scored international hits with songs like ‘Who Can It Be Now?‘ and ‘Overkill’ – of which Colin Hay would make a cracking acoustic version during his solo career:

Which is probably how Colin Hay solo found a larger audience courtesy of his playing it throughout an episode of ‘Scrubs’.  Hay went solo after Men At Work called it quits in 1985, his first album on his own following a couple of years later. Like all band leaders who go solo, it took him a while to find his own way, as Wikipedia has him saying: “After Men at Work, for the better part of a decade, I was stumbling around being unfocused. It was pre-internet, I really had to try to find my audiences by going out on tour. Men at Work really didn’t build a foundational audience. We came in as a pop band with enormous radio success; once that goes away and the band breaks up the audience tends to go away with it. You’re left with what you want to make of it. ”

Another Zach Braff vehicle – the 2004 film ‘Garden State’ – is where I, and I’m sure countless others, first became aware of Colin Hay, though. The film and its high selling (1.3 million copies) soundtack features Hay’s haunting ‘I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You’:

The song itself is from Hay’s 1998 album and my favourite of his, Transcendental Highway. It’s on this album – and it’s predecessor Topanga – that Hay really finds his voice as a solo artist. He even manages – with ‘My Brilliant Feat‘ – to muse on his former success and current situation; “A jack to a king and back, then you have to pay to play”. There’s not a bad tune on it and every album since has been what I’d call ‘solid’ to ‘pretty bloody good actually’, each delivering a few nuggets to add to the iPod at least. Occasionally bordering on ‘adult contemporary’, more often acoustic with wry lyrics and always offering proof that Mr Hay has a way of creating a catchy tune.

So, along with those included above I think I’d also give a shout out to those tunes gathered below.

Least to Most: Bruce – Darkness on the Edge of Town

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these… BADLANDS!”

Here we go then; my favourite and most-played Bruce Springsteen album and likely up there as a favourite album full stop, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The history surrounding Born To Run‘s follow up is well covered: following internal conflicts and examining of contracts, Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel entered a legal battle that would prevent Bruce from recording any new material until its resolution in May 1977. It’s a strange one to consider given how successful Born To Run had become but, after the protracted break from recording, Springsteen found himself in a make-or-break situation for the second time in a row. He now needed to prove that a) he still had it and b) Born To Run wasn’t a fluke and, for the record company too, that he was a viable artist.

When he did hit the studio, Springsteen was overflowing with ideas and songs and the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town marked the first of many protracted recording periods where more songs would be recorded than released – as proven by the wealth of strong material left off the album and included on Tracks and The Promise. I could just as easily play ‘best non-album Darkness track’ to ‘best Darkness track’ such is the quality of the cut songs.

Acknowledging that the “music that got left behind was substantial”, Springsteen has said that ““Darkness was my ‘samurai’ record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble.” In order to filter through the thirty plus songs – in a recorded and ready state, not to mention those in other stages – numerous ‘track listings’ and sequences were plotted* before the final selection and sequence was made ready for release in June 1978**.

As the now-released tracks show, the recording sessions found Bruce running through almost every conceivable structure – from gorgeous pop songs to old school R&B. When it came time to the crunch, though, the excess was cut, the songs were honed down to their essentials and the arrangements tight*** – a vast contrast to the Wall of Sound employed for Born To Run – with the songs recorded by the full E Street Band, tight and honed after touring since 1975, at once. Steve Van Zandt would earn a co-producer credit for helping Bruce tighten the arrangements.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best guitar album. Whereas Born To Run was written mostly at the piano, Darkness is clearly a six-string job and sees a return for those chops that had started to get space on The Wild, The Innocent… before being lost in the mix. Check out every live version of ‘Prove It All Night’ or the angst-driven ‘Adam Raised a Cain‘ or ‘Candy’s Room’:

Yes, the songs on Darkness are more serious – Springsteen, flush from Born To Run‘s success having returned home to find those he grew up with struggling with the blue-collar life he’d escaped had also weathered a lengthy and unpleasant lawsuit having realised that the wool had been pulled over his eyes- but they’re very well written and is perhaps the best example of his marrying the rousing (‘Badlands’) with the minimal (‘Factory’). Oh, and it also contains what I consider his finest lyrics on his finest song: “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”:

There’s a lot of fun on the album, too. I reckon if you get to a Springsteen show and they pull out a  rave-up on ‘Prove It All Night’ then nobody will be heading to grab a beer, they’ll be there singing along:

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s first album of maturity. It takes in and refines  everywhere he’d been and serves as a signpost for everything he’d go on to record later.

An album of defiance in the face of struggle that cracks along with an urgency and taut electricity. It’s my favourite Springsteen album and brings this Least to Most exploration of Bruce to an end.

*A look through the (very much worth investment) box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story will show just how many.

**Recording sessions were finished early January ’78 with mixing dragging on until late March with a number of mixes being toyed with and one (‘The Promised Land’) being changed as late as April.

***For evidence see the difference between Darkness‘ ‘Racing in the Street’ and ‘Candy’s Room’ vs ‘Racing in the Street (’78)’ and ‘Candy’s Boy’ from The Promise.

Blog Tour: Deadly Game By Matt Johnson

From the PR: “Reeling from the attempts on his life and that of his family, Police Inspector Robert Finlay returns to work to discover that any hope of a peaceful existence has been dashed. Assigned to investigate the Eastern European sex-slave industry just as a key witness is murdered. Finlay, along with his new partner Nina Brasov, finds himself facing a ruthless criminal gang, determined to keep control of the traffic of people into the UK.

On the home front, Finlay’s efforts to protect his wife and child may have been in vain, as an MI5 protection officer uncovers a covert secret service operation that threatens them all… Picking up where the bestselling Wicked Game left off, Deadly Game sees Matt Johnson’s damaged hero fighting on two fronts. Aided by new allies, he must not only protect his family but save a colleague from an unseen enemy … and a shocking fate.”

Crikey; it seems like only yesterday that I was reviewing Matt Johnson’s debut Wicked Game and stating that its author “has a very real talent and gift for thriller writing”. It was actually a year (and a day) ago whereas yesterday I turned the final page on the follow up; Deadly Game. And it’s a bloody good ‘un.

One thing that’s sure is that Matt Johnson knows what he’s talking about and writes with demonstrable knowledge when it comes to the details of both procedure and action, clearly writing from experience – lending a real sense of weight and reality to proceedings that’s all too often missing in the rush for action and flash.

Which segues nicely into another element of Deadly Game I enjoyed; the aftermath of events of the previous novel. It’s fairly common practice for lead characters to brush off explosive and violent occurrences like they were getting over an allergy. Not so here. Anyone who’s got any experience with trauma will tell you just what a fucker PTSD is and how you don’t just ‘get over it.’ Again writing from experience, Matt Johnson does a brilliant job of detailing Finlay’s struggles  – giving a thoughtful and insightful portrayal without turning it into a Psych 101 lesson like someone who looked it up on Wikipedia.

As skilled as he is when it comes to the procedurals and details, Matt Johnson is very much a talented thriller writer – and it’s when the gears shift and the pace quickens that he and Deadly Game really come into their own and the action scenes rip along with a real confidence and skill. The MI5/MI6 story line is especially well written and plotted too, the interweaving, long-game of that particular plot and the manner in which Johnson ties it into events of the previous novel proved a real highlight for me. It also suggests there’s more to come as, though perhaps it’s just me, I couldn’t help thinking that there a couple of loose ends with potential to grow further in another installment.

Upping the ante from Wicked Game and delivering a serious slab of a thriller, Matt Johnson’s Deadly Game is a blistering read well worth picking up.

Another great book from Orenda and a big thanks, again to Karen for my copy and do check out the other stops. 

Blog Tour: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

From The PR: “1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby.
2017.

Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame…

As every interview unveils a new revelation, you’ll be forced to work out for yourself how Tom Jeffries died, and who is telling the truth.”

Right then, here we are with Six Stories, one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while with something of a unique narrative approach – like a contemporary take on The Moonstone‘s multi-character narrative. One unsolved crime, six key stories as told, judgement free, to Scott King on his podcast  with listeners being left to form their own views on what happened – that’s the premise of ‘Six Stories’.  Six Stories, told as though an episode of said podcast, unravels the mystery of what happened to 15 year old Tom Jeffries who went missing one night on Scarclaw Fell before his body was discovered a year later.

Twenty years ago the death Jeffries had been ruled as ‘misadventure’ – his body having been eventually discovered in the mud of the Fell one night by Harry Saint Clemeny- Ramsay (who also adds a narrative thread in between the Six Stories) and his friends’ dogs  – but then what were Harry and his friends really doing out in the wild with their dogs, lamps and guns? Hunting? For what? Why had the body been missing for so long despite thorough searches at the time?

As each of the six stories unfolds we’re treated to more questions and intrigue, more revelations and head scratchers – thankfully ‘Scott King’ provides plenty of recaps and additional voices, corroborations from those outside the ‘six’ – for Six Stories is most definitely a very meticulously plotted and tightly wrapped story. Deeply engrossing and one that cost plenty of sleep – there’s so much here that made me flip back in the book to re-read earlier threads and some genuinely chilling moments that are capable of raising the odd goosebump or three and once you’ve gotten into the swing of the style it’s impossible to finish reading one ‘story’ and not want to plough straight into the next one to see what that character brings to the mix.

Those characters are all brilliantly written and their stories all so comprehensively well delivered – the multi-angle and narrator approach really keeps things rocking and gives adage to the notion that not every story is one-sided and events become increasingly detailed and multi-faceted with every witness’ version of events, though I will say these were either a pretty precocious bunch of 15-year-olds or I lived a sheltered existence. It’s strange but after you get into it – the first two ‘stories’ are not from any of the then-teenagers –  you really want to see how the Rangers have aged, what they’re like now after reading so much of what they were like then.

It’s hard to talk too much about Six Stories and its narrative style and how it goes on to deliver in spades without dropping an almighty spoiler but I will say that the final story and its revelation is an absolute belter and written / handled in such an accomplished manner as to leave the reader in no doubt that Matt Wesolowski is a  very much a  talent to keep an eye on.

Six Stories is a compelling and rewarding read with enough intrigue and mystery to keep you glued to the end. Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the Blog Tour:

25 Years of Alive

Blimey… 25 years?

Where does time go? Anyway, a quick share in between editing other posts: I’m loving this video that  Kevin Shuss (Pearl Jam’s videographer) put together to celebrate Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (thoughts here).

Pearl Jam are right up there at the top of my Unimpeachables list (I ought to write that list down really). I’ve been listening to the Vs/Vitalogy box (and the live album included) in the car for the last week or so and given that I believe this era  represents peak Pearl Jam I was most definitely heartened by the band’s published response to the ‘drummer debacle’ that had been stirred by their induction*:

This brings three things to mind:
1. Just how many years I’ve been loving this band.
2. They are a decent bunch of guys really
3. It’s been three and a half years since Lightning Bolt! What the fuck, guys? Get your arses in the studio already ffs.

*Though I, and many, are certainly not impressed by their cropping out of former drummers when it comes to photos on social media etc.

Least to Most: Bruce – Born To Run

“One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of my bed, working on song ideas, and the words ‘born to run’ came into my head… I liked the phrase because it suggested a certain cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music I was hearing in my head.”

There’s probably very little I could add to anyone’s knowledge or appreciation of Born To Run, an album that’s undoubtedly at the top of many a list and is very likely many people’s favourite album of all time. ‘Born To Run’ may have taken six months to write but it and Born To Run changed everything for Bruce, both in terms of sales / success and writing. This was the album that lived up to the promise of ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, maintaining its excitement and drive “while delivering it’s message in less time and with a shorter burst of energy. This was a turning point, and it allowed me to open up my music to a far larger audience.”

It was this song that made sure the world would become aware of Springsteen in more ways than one. Neither his début or The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had achieved the level of success that would make a record company throw money for studio time at him. He had to write something that would get him his last shot. He may be somewhat flippant about its origins (if not its impact) now but writing ‘Born To Run’  in early 1974 got him that chance – it was recorded during touring breaks (with drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter*) and an early mix was released to radio in November of the same year. It’s popularity on radio meant previous Springsteen singles began picking up more airplay and gave him validation to get to work on the rest of the album.

Like, I’m sure, it was for many, ‘Born To Run’ was the first Bruce Springsteen song I was aware of. Specifically the 1987 video from a performance shot during Boss Mania. What strikes me most about the song, and the album as a whole, is the poetry of the lyrics. How many other FM rock songs used a lyric like the “the amusement park rises bold and stark” or “beyond the Palace, hemi-powered drones” found in ‘Born To Run’? And if we’re talking lyrics, let’s look at how the album kicks off:

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” Or what about the “One soft infested summer” of ‘Backstreets’ or ‘Jungleland’ with it’s “In a bedroom, locked. In whispers of soft refusal and, then, surrender”? Bruce may have claimed that “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all” (I’ll admit the double negative still bothers me some) but from a lyrical point of view, Born To Run saw the volley of words on Greetings.., the romance of The Wild, The Innocent… turn into something much more direct and universal (earlier characters and scenes were much more specific, that ‘screen door’ could be anywhere) and coupled with a new-found confidence from years of honing his act on the stage to produce some of Springsteen’s most evocative and memorable lines.

Work on the album is something of a legend in itself – Springsteen aware that it’s his make or break shot, agonising over takes and layering track upon track (there’s close to a dozen guitar tracks on the title song) as he struggled to explain the sounds he heard in his head, it lead to a changing of both studio location and began the changing of the guard with Appel vs Landau when the sessions got bogged down… or even the number of takes it took to get Clarence Clemons’ finest performance just right…

The thing is that such ardent efforts can sometimes lead to something that just sounds overworked**. In Born To Run though, it equals magic. You don’t hear what must have been a stressful session in those closing minutes of ‘Jungleland’ or the fact that it took nearly 14 months to record an album that fades out less than forty minutes later than a harmonica swept it in. What you hear is an album of meticulous detail and ambition underpinned by a songwriter hitting his stride and not holding back.

It’s packed with moments of magic – the intro of ‘She’s The One’*** giving away to the Bo Diddley beat that Springsteen admits he wrote just to hear Clarence blast all over, the jazzy film-noir intro for ‘Meeting Across The River’, the “hiding on the Backstreets” refrain, every single second of ‘Jungleland’ but especially it’s mid-point swing and ‘this ain’t over yet’ sax break….

Every song on this album works on its own. The biggest ‘hits’ from Born To Run – the title track, ‘Thunder Road’ ‘Jungleland’ – all stand as great songs in their own right but (and I urge you to go and do so) work best when played in sequence, they belong together. They ebb and flow as a story across one magnum opus and create one of the greatest albums ever made.

I will say, though, that it’s worth making sure that you get a decent master of this album. The first one I had… the remastering for CD was pretty crap. The version (that I guess is now in standard production) that came with the 30th Anniversary box really jumps out at you.

*If you’re only gonna be on one Bruce Springsteen song….

**Ahem; Human Touch

***Bruce wasn’t even sure if he should put this one on the album

Least to Most: Bruce – Tunnel of Love

“Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You me and all that stuff we’re so scared of”

In June 1984 Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA. It was the most successful album in America in 1985 (the year following its release), shifted over 30 million copies, spawned SEVEN Top Ten singles, saw Springsteen shift from selling out arenas to stadiums and launched Boss Mania. Just as America’s celluloid heros took the form of muscle-bound Vietnam vets, a gym-enhanced Springsteen preached his own unique take of Heartland Rock to the masses from the radio to stages around the world and MTV as Bruce embraced the video format.

So how do you follow that? If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you demur from the expected. Exhausted and, according to many a report, changed by the success of USA (how you could you not be?), Springsteen took something of a break by his standards and focused on his personal life. At the peak of Boss Mania, Bruce met and married actress Julianne Phillips and sought the settled down personal life that had thus far eluded him. He kept a low profile living on the west coast for a year then, in 1986, logged a series of solo sessions in his home studio, Thrill Hill West. But, with a market and fan base hungry for new product, those sessions were abandoned and focus shifted to preparing his first live album. Live 1975-1985 was released against advance orders of 1.5 million.

As 1987 got under way Bruce headed back to New Jersey and began work on his next studio album, cutting three songs in one day. This time round, though, the writing took a different direction and most of the recordings were completed alone and with little involvement from the E Street Band*. Springsteen made a conscious decision to step back from the bombast.

“I really enjoyed the success of Born in the U.S.A., but by the end of that whole thing, I just kind of felt “Bruced” out. I was like “Whoa, enough of that.” You end up creating this sort of icon, and eventually it oppresses you….So when I wrote Tunnel of Love, I thought I had to reintroduce myself as a songwriter, in a very noniconic role. And it was a relief.”

Tunnel of Love is often referred to as the point at which Bruce began writing about men and women in relationships. That’s certainly not true – he’d been doing so for most of his career – only those relationships were more ‘fairytale’ (bleak or joyous) and told from the somewhat distant standpoint of the loner image Springsteen’s previous lack of commitment in the arena had afforded him. No; Tunnel of Love is Springsteen’s first set of truly nuanced, intricate, intimate and mature relationship songs that handle adult relationships and, yes, chiefly, marriage.

In focusing on his own relationship and putting those thoughts to song, Bruce created his most personal album to that point. It was clear that for the most part, these songs – besieged by inner demons – were based on personal experience. Of course, this inward focus didn’t please all. When he played the opener (the sparse ‘Ain’t Got You’) to Steven Van Zandt, it led to one of the biggest fights the pair had had- “I’m, like, ‘What the fuck is this?'” recalls Van Zandt. “And he’s, like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m like, ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives. Thats your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world – that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.'”

For an album opener, Ain’t Got You, is an odd one. I imagine it was sequenced in that way to give as clear an indication as possible that this isn’t Born in the USA 2. But it’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest‘ that sets the tone for the album – layered, synthesiser-heavy sound with a bit of menace and shot through with personal lyrics.  For my money (and my blog), that personal insight adds a truth and grit to these songs that had erstwhile been absent from Springsteen’s relationship songs and look for a larger goal. No longer do Bruce’s characters jump in a car and go looking for a promised land, Tunnel of Love (as with Nebraska) finds them dealing with the fact that the answers to their troubles lie with themselves. In ‘Cautious Man’ Bill Horton even heads down to the highway but “when he got there he didn’t find nothing but road”.

The album isn’t entirely without the sheen and polish that would lure radio, though and Springsteen threads his quieter, more subdued and introspective songs around a roster of FM-friendly tunes. The album’s centre piece ‘Brilliant Disguise‘ (which Springsteen has referred to as containing the real crux of the album in its lyrics) was a Top Five hit and a further four of its songs were released as singles** including the album’s sole out-and-out rock tune ‘Spare Parts. Personally, my favourite of those is ‘One Step Up’ – that simple but effective melody that ticks away throughout just clicks perfectly for me.

Given the events that followed its release, Tunnel of Love is mostly viewed as Springsteen’s ‘divorce album’ – he’d soon part ways with both his wife and the E Street Band – and so it tends to be signposts for this that are looked for in the lyrics. Certainly ‘One Step Up’ with “we’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
but we ain’t learnin” fits that mould but to single-track the album in such a way would be way off as it’s much more of a multi-dimensional album than that. Songs like ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’ are those of a man still looking for the salvation of love (“They say he travels fastest who travels alone, but tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home”).

Still, with the hindsight of history, the gruff “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes, it’s going to be hard for Tunnel of Love to be seen as anything other than an insight into the state of the Springsteen’s marriage. Slipping into the jet stream from Boss Mania meant that Tunnel of Love did well upon release though Springtseen’s own attempts to pare down the hysteria, the hushed atmospherics of the album and the retreat from the limelight that followed has meant that this has become one of his most over-looked albums and one barely touched upon live any more. Perhaps that’s down to it’s meaning for Springsteen himself – as Bob Dylan said of his own similarly-themed album Blood On The Tracks: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album, it’s hard for me to relate to that. You know, people enjoying that type of pain.”

For me Tunnel of Love is one of Springsteen’s very best – that’s why it’s up here in the list as it’s listened to so very often. Lyrically I don’t believe he’s ever been so sharp and insightful. Yes, the production is a little 80’s but it’s nowhere near as over punched as USA – hell, at times the vocals are clearly cut in a small room – and there’s so much more to this album than often considered and more revealed with each listen and the passing of time and experience. One summary I found while putting this together gets it right on the nail so I’ll finish with that and urge all to give this gem a fresh spin: “The songs are about men and women who flirt, have sex, fall in love, get married, get bored, have sex with other people, and wind up stuck in the middle of that dark night from the second disc of The River.”

*While Tunnel of Love was the first real studio album to name the band, the E Street barely feature – Clarence Clemons’ sax is missing completely and his only credit is for backing vocals on ‘When You’re Alone‘ (I guess he’s somewhere in the mix). It marked as big a change to his established sound as Nebraska did and was part of Springsteen’s belief that he’d achieved all he could with the E Street Band’s sound – even on the following tour he swapped positions around to try and mix things up.

**Though not all were released in every territory, Springsteen perhaps wary of over exposure following USA.