Then and Now: Stereophonics

Then: A Thousand Trees

This is going back a bit…. August 1997, in fact. I remember hearing this tune on the legendary John Peel’s radio show as he was championing up -and-coming bands. Next chance I got I was in Richard’s Records – now long long gone – picking up the CD single in the days when they came with another 3 tunes on them and were worth collecting in their own right (but that’s another blog, surely).

For those unfamiliar with the Sterophonics, Jim, then they were three young Welsh lads, freshly signed to Richard Branson’s new V2 label, pushing out short, urgent songs with lyrics detailing gritty small-town life. Take this, their third single, which “was about rumours spreading around a very small town and somebody’s reputation being basically burned to the ground. It was a football coach who did some very untowards stuff with younger kids. He had his name celebrated in wrought iron outside the football pitch.”

While “it was basically about rumours in a very small environment crushing someone’s reputation” this, like most songs off their debut Word Gets Around were rooted in something real and were a little vital as a result.

Second album Performance and Cocktails contained more than a little of the same spark that infused their debut but started to slow things down too and signs of the ‘meat and potatoes’ rock were already sneaking in (‘Just Looking’). I caught them at Wembley Stadium in ’99 when they were one of the acts opening for Aerosmith and can confirm that then, at least, they could cut it live too.

Then I guess they got caught up in it all… the songs lost their focus, started to move toward acoustic, a cover of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ took off… they began churning out what I’ve already referred to as ‘meat and potatoes’ – uninspired but does the job, I guess – music. I seem to remember seeing pictures of singer Kelly Jones stumbling bleary eyed out of bars with Ron Wood.. taking the stage at Isle of Wight festival in a white suit with ironed-flat hair.. the three-piece’s numbers swelled to five and then they fired their Keith Moon-style drummer, Stuart Cable. In keeping with tragic tradition Cable would be found dead in 2010 having drunk himself into a stupor and choked on his own vomit*.

I tuned out after their third album as they no longer appealed to my tastes. Several albums of by-the-numbers later..

Now: Fly Like an Eagle

I read an interview with Keith Richards around the same time as I was discovering the Stereophonics. In reply to a critique of then-new album Bridges to Babylon he pointed out that “the Stones aren’t here to break new ground, we’re here to be the Rolling  Stones.”

There’s something to be said for that, of course.

Some twenty plus years after their debut, the Stereophonics are still going. I wouldn’t say strong but they are still going. Hearing this on the radio last night, the DJ pointed out that the band is still working, still writing and are “still the Stereophonics” in that they haven’t stopped doing as they’ve always done, have never said “we’re going for  a disco sound on this one” or tried a concept album… They’re enjoying something of a renaissance as a result of the fact that a) they’ve been around so long and b) guitar-music is picking up place on the radio again.

But then, to keep doing something mediocre too… the reason nobody needs the Rolling Stones to break new ground is because they built a back catalogue of fucking belters. You can’t apply the same logic to all.

Every other year there’s a new Stereophonics album and every other year there’s the same ‘amazing new single’ and attempt at a little punch from them then everything sounds the same. There’s no real sentiment to it. I mean: “Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be alright, Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be just fine.” Ta, Kelly, I’d not caught up on my horoscope today.

If you like that, I guess, there’s nothing wrong with it but I find ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ symptomatic of all they’ve been doing lately – solid enough but uninspired and too often meandering instead of getting in and out.

I’m not going to be spending any time looking back at what I’ve missed on the strength of this one. Word Gets Around, however is always worth a listen.

*which you can’t dust for.

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Albums of my Years – 1982

I actually have a memory from 1982 – and it can really only be 1982 or 83 -but it’s not music related. I can’t claim that I was sitting under a piano and singing Beatles songs in my second year on this planet.

So I have no memory of either hearing music or music news from 1982 such as that about the bloke from Birmingham , who’d already bitten the head off a dove in ’81, doing the same to a bat in January 1982. Of course he claimed he thought it was rubber but you’ve got to be fairly off your tits not to be able to tell the difference between a squeaky toy and a live mammal. 1982 wasn’t his year as he’d be arrested a couple of weeks later for taking a leak on something called The Alamo…

At the same BB King decided he didn’t need his record collection and donated the lot – some 7000 rare blues records. I suppose it saved money on IKEA Kallax units.

In March, Billy Joel came off his motorcycle and dinged himself up pretty good – he’d spend more than a month in hospital undergoing physio on his hand which must’ve gone well judging by the quality of The Nylon Curtain…

I don’t really care for Black Sabbath or Ozzy but he seems to have been dominated music headlines in ’82. His guitarist Randy Rhodes was killed when the plane he was in crashed after buzzing Osbourne’s tour bus. A few months later Ozzy would get married and, presumably, start bellowing “Sharon!”

Pink Floyd released the movie version of Waters’ diatribe The Wall which mixed the egos of Waters and director Alan Parker to mixed results.

My favourite bit of music trivia from 1982 though is the point at which, fearing poor ticket sales for a tour in support of Combat Rock, Joe Strummer was convinced to “disappear” – his manager suggested Strummer ‘vanish’ and stay in Texas for a couple of weeks. Instead, Strummer genuinely disappeared for a couple of months – choosing  to run the Paris marathon (he claimed his training consisted of drinking 10 pints of beer the night before) and “dick around” in France. The Clash were falling apart with tension – Topper Headon would be fired in ’82 thanks to his cocaine addiction – and Strummer would later say he regretted his vanishing act. Though he would later run the London marathon without any training too.

In 1982 it was goodnight from ABBA, Bad Company, The Blues Brothers (this was the year John Belushi died), The Jam and Blondie (until 1997 that is). Meanwhile American Music Club, A-Ha, James, Public Enemy, The Smiths, Swans and They Might Be Giants all formed in 1982.

So what dropped album wise in ’82? I’ve already mentioned a couple – The Clash dropped their best-selling album Combat Rock in July – it features their biggest singles too in ‘Rock the Casbah’ and the Stranger Things favourite ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and the formidable ‘Know Your Rights’:

There were quite a few albums from artists that feature within this blog’s orbit in 1982 including the first Sonic Youth album and the debut EPs from both R.E.M and the Replacements – though neither could really, honestly, be called the band’s best work. Split Enz dropped Time and Tide in  April of ’82 and The Cure released Pornography shortly after. George Thorogood & The Destroyers released their fifth album, Bad to the Bone which continues to thrill me a considerable amount more than Thriller (also released in ’82) ever did. B-b-b-b-b-b-b-bad:

The year also saw the previously mentioned Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel which features one of my favourite tunes by the piano chap, ‘Goodnight Saigon’.

Kate Bush dropped her least commercial album, The Dreaming, which was full of highlights and served as the perfect bridge to The Hounds of Love… Prince released the extremely commercial and massive-selling 1999 while Neil Young pushed out Trans which was so noncommercial in its orientation that it was one of the albums used by his label Geffen in their lawsuit against him for producing wilfully unrepresentative and noncommercial material. Oh, and Aerosmith released the appropriately named Rock In A Hard Place. Well, I say ‘Aerosmith’… even Joey Kramer doesn’t consider it a proper entry in the band’s catalogue – “it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player.” It’s not entirely without merit – ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ has a real groove to get stuck on and both ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Lighting Strikes’ are decent tunes (the latter featuring Brad Whitford on guitar, presumably recording his rhythm parts on his walk to the door) but were I to tackle Aerosmith on a Least to Most… this would be the least.

Now in terms of albums that do feature high on my personal favourites list… Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Long After Dark which features ‘Straight into Darkness’, ‘ A Change of Heart’ and ‘You Got Lucky’.

And then there’s Nebraska. Once of Springsteen’s finest albums, his first ‘solo’ album and his most stark in terms of subject and sound…. it really, really should be the featured album on this list…. but I’ve written about it exhaustively as part of the Springsteen Least to Most series and rules are rules. So… it looks like a second entry on the list for one band:

Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

It’s fitting really. For a while I questioned whether this should be the choice for this year but there’s a number of factors that mean Knopfler and co’s fourth album sits here for ’82; It’s an album I heard a huge amount of in my youth and growing up thanks to my Dad’s penchant for the band. So much so that down to the fact that his record had a skip on the “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames and I don’t wanna see it again” in ‘Telegraph Road’* that I got so used to that I still expect the skip when listening on CD or online.

As part of my debating whether to go with this album for 1982 I listened to it in full, again, and realised that I didn’t need to be questioning it – it’s not only a bloody strong album but it’s one that resonates with me on so many levels and is part of what formed my tastes moving forward. ‘Private Investigations’ was one of the first things I set about learning on guitar and will still go to from time to time – especially if I pick up the old ‘classical’ guitar out of the garage. Combined with ‘Telegraph Road’ it makes for a faultless Side A:

Love Over Gold is, to me, the final ‘classsic’ Dire Straits album. There’s still a very quintessentially English element about it and it’s sound and writing are less direct and radio-ready than the Brothers In Arms era that would follow. It’s the final of those early albums before ‘Money for Nothing’ threw them into bigger venues and TV sets around the world and the scale that would lead to Knopfler walking away began to build.

The music and sound benefits from the addition of Alan Clarke on keyboards – wider and more intricate sounds that mark a natural and real development on that of Making Movies – just listen to the interplay between the two on ‘Love Over Gold’:

The sheer power and length of the two songs that make up Side A do mean that trio on Side B are often overlooked, much as the album itself – sitting between Making Movies and Brothers In Arms – can be. But the title track,  ‘Industrial Disease’ and ‘It Never Rains’ are far from filler.

As much as I understand Knoplfer’s reasons for not attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and his disinterest in reforming – I do wish that this era of the band (before it became about headbands and filling the largest venues) could get the revisit and attention it deserves.

*Side note/ pub quiz / music trivia point: Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, is also a Dire Straits fan – he was working at his cousin’s record studio (The Power Plant) when Making Movies – and has admitted to ripping off ‘Telegraph Road’ with ‘Dry County‘.