Blog Tour – Long Hand by Andy Hamilton

From the PR: “Malcolm George Galbraith is a large, somewhat clumsy, Scotsman. He’s being forced to leave the woman he loves behind and needs to explain why.

So he leaves her a handwritten note on the kitchen table (well, more a 300-page letter than a note). In it, Malcolm decides to start from the beginning and tell the whole story of his long life, something he’s never dared do before.

Because Malcolm isn’t what he seems: he’s had other names and lived in other places. A lot of other places. As it gathers pace, Malcolm’s story combines tragedy, comedy, mystery, a touch of leprosy, several murders, a massacre, a ritual sacrifice, an insane tyrant, two great romances, a landslide, a fire, and a talking fish.”

Sometimes I’ll get an email about a book and I know straight off the bat I’m gonna enjoy it. This one was an immediate ‘yes’ for me just on the back of the author: Andy Hamilton has made me laugh on so many occasions over the years across TV and radio I knew this wouldn’t be an exception. A comedy writer, performer and director you may know him from his regular appearances on  the BBC TV panel shows Have I Got News for You and on Radio 4’s News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His television writing credits include Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Trevor’s World of Sport, Ballot Monkeys, Power Monkeys and many others. He also co-created the movie What We Did On Our Holiday. For twenty years he has played Satan in the Radio 4 comedy Old Harry’s Game, which he also writes.

So; who is Malcom? Well, as he puts it: “my name is Heracles and I think I may be immortal”. Yup, the Heracles – or Hercules as you may know him – sired by an hilariously bastard-like version of Zeus who discussed himself as Antiphon in order to have his way with Alcmene, Antiphon’s wife. The demi-god offspring manages to piss his ‘real Dad’ off no end by refusing to show Him the respect He feels is due . As a result, Heracles must spend his life – several hundred years and counting – never laying down roots because Zeus is bent on ensuring he’s never happy.

Having been settled for some twenty years with Bess in Scotland – though never ageing – Zeus has rocked up and, through a serious of stunning events laced in black humour, that it’s time to move on again, or else. Long Hand is written as Heracles’ explanation, confession and, at times, lament as he prepares once again to make a hasty exit.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading, Long Hand is just deliciously and uproariously funny. An hilarious novel written by a genuine great of comedy writing – that he’s written this novel as a 300 page letter which never once loses momentum or interest and wrap it around a plot that combines classical mythology with modern life and style is testament to just how great a comedic writer Andy Hamilton is.

But Long Hand is also balanced with a real heart and poignancy (after all, those Greek myths are steeped in tragedy). This is a letter from a man on the run seemingly all his life and written against the clock.

I wouldn’t say I tore through this book, more that I devoured it hungrily, savouring every page of it. An absolute giddy joy of a read that I only wish had gone on for longer. Though given that Andy Hamilton wrote the novel by hand – over two years and 43 italic pens – I’m not sure whether it could be longer.

I can’t recommend this one enough. My thanks to Unbound for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to read and take part in this blog tour.

Albums of my years – 1997

Well after five and a half months of not working I didn’t manage to make the dent in this project I’d hoped to. But here were are in 1997 with the lockdown having returned my hair to a length not unlike that of ’97 and with than two months until my self-imposed deadline I’d get a move on.

1997 is the year Billie Myers kissed the rain, the Backstreet Boys wanted to tell everybody they were back (alright!), R.Kelly emoted really heavily about Batman’s fictional home, Chumbawamba drank a whiskey drink, drank vodka drink, drank a lager drink, drank a cider drink and then sang the songs that remind them of the good times  which was fitting as Bran Van 3000 were also getting wankered over in LA all the while Celine Dion’s heart was going on and on.

Townes Van Zandt passed away on 1st January 1997 aged 52 after what could probably be described as a lifetime’s battle with alcoholism and heroin abuse. It was the year that Notorious B.I.G was shot dead with Puff Daddy (gotta wonder about someone who calls themselves that) and Faith Evans going on to seemingly be played on loop lamenting his loss over samples of The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.  In May, Jef Buckley went for a swim, fully clothed, in Wolf River Harbour. He was last seen, by his roadie who stayed on shore, walking into the water singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. After moving a radio and guitar away from the water, the roadie turned back to the water and realised Jeff had vanished. Search and rescue efforts that night were fruitless, Jeff Buckley’s body was discovered June 4th. He was 30 years old.

David Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday in January with a celebration at Madison Square Garden with guests including Frank Black, The Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Placebo, Billy Corgan and Robet Smith, as you do. I’m thinking of doing something similar for my 40th though not sure if it’ll be in New York. The Spice Girls managed to re-break Toni Braxton’s heart and secure the top spot on the US charts with ‘Wannabe’ in 1997, ensuring ‘Girl Power’ wasn’t restricted to this side of the Atlantic where they continued to dump the musical equivalent of human sewage coated in sugar into the airwaves with increasingly vomit-inducing videos from which escape was impossible thanks to their label boss’ fingers being in so many pies. Of course, if that wasn’t bad enough, 1997 was the year Hanson MMMBoped their way to number one in 27 different countries. FFS.

I’ve heard it said by one of the monstrously eyebrowed and overego’d Gallagher brothers that along with being so powerful in it, they also killed Britpop ‘the second Noel got off the helicopter’ in the ‘D’You Know What I Mean’ (the lead single from their self-indulgent album Be Here Now… but no: Britpop was already dying from the harpoon that Radiohead shot into it with the May release of ‘Paranoid Android’.

It ushered in a new era, thankfully, that led further from the turgidity that Britpop was falling into – even Blur had moved into a meatier terrain in ’97 with their self-titled album and singles like ‘Song 2’ and ‘Beetlebum’ sounding like the work of a different band to that which put out ‘Girls and Boys’. But with ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Lucky’ released as singles from 1997’s absurdly great OK Computer which became 1997’s biggest selling album in the UK (despite Capitol records having thought it would be ‘career suicide’)  and the band’s powerful headline performance at a notoriously muddy Glastonbury Festival that year felt like it rightfully belonged to Thom Yorke and co.

So, yeah – Blur released their album Blur in 1997 and Oasis released Be Here Now. Neither of which feature high, or at all,  in my own lists but I know plenty of people dig them both – oddly enough the park behind my house was home to a ‘social distancing’ festival this past weekend (concert goers sit in pods two metres apart from other pods and food etc is bought to them) made up of cover bands one of which was playing a combination of ‘Britpop classics’ and I managed to catch a brace of songs from both albums as we walked past.

Surging the wave of ‘TFI Friday’ (golden days, eh?) power, Reef’s Glow hit the top of the charts here in the UK and ‘Place Your Hands’ still enjoys a good play from time to time. Meanwhile the flow of strong non UK music continued with the likes of the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole,  the Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around and Texas enjoying a real-deserved change of fortune after years of diminishing returns following their first single ‘I Don’t Want A Lover’ with the chart-topping  White On Blonde which was packed full of the good stuff. Oh and The Prodigy erupted into massive sales on the back of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ as The Fat Of The Land also hit the top spot en route to shifting ten million globally. Smack my bitch up indeed.

1997 was also the year Richard Ashcroft shrugged and stropped his way through some East End streets in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and Urban Hymns also topping the charts and giving birth to big singles like oh-so-cheerful ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’. Unfortunately for The Verve, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ borrowed some strings from The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ and the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein decided he wanted all the royalties… and thus began a series of disputes over the song’s royalties that wouldn’t wind down until Jagger and Richards signed over their publishing for the song in 2019. I guess if you’re going to life some strings from another song make sure it’s not a Rolling Stones one. Try something by Lennon / McCartney, they’re probably not litigious.

Speaking of The Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith took a break from running their corner shop to put together a new album: Bridges To Babylon. The album wasn’t really one to stand alongside their greatest but they were – and still are – at that point that as long as they don’t turn in an absolute howler they’ll still shift enough to keep em on the road, the tour behind the album would gross over $274 million. Probably more than enough to restock the shelves a few times:

Silverchair’s second and heavier album Freak Show continued to borrow heavily from their influences but did show a lot more originality and is still a pretty good listen today. Frontman Daniel Johns’ future wife Natalie Imbruglia was on her way to shifting 7 million copies of her debut album Left Of the Middle after ‘Torn’ dominated radio and MTV all over the shop. Continuing on the antipodean path, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the amazing The Boatman’s Call in 1997 – a stately and poignant album dripping in gorgeous tunes.

It was a great year for post-rock; both Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai released their genre-benchmark debut albums, the faultless F♯A♯∞ and Young Team respectively. Mogwai also dropped Ten Rapid, a collection of earlier cuts that is often held up as one of their finest works even if it was never released as an album proper. All three get regular spins in my house – it’s rare if a week goes by without one of them being played. The same of which could be said for Elliott Smith’s fantastic Either / Or also released in 1997. Smith’s third solo album is another that’s often held up as his finest – it’s the one that got him a larger audience when three of its songs were featured in the ‘Good Will Hunting’ soundtrack and received universal critical acclaim, with due course: it was his finest collection of songs to date.

Also churning in one of his finest sets of songs for some time after getting pretty close to meeting Elvis, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was released to surprise and acclaim in 1997 and started something of a late-career revival in terms of both quality and interest. ‘Love Sick’, ‘Cold Iron Bounds’, ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’…. re-teaming with produce Daniel Lanois (behind the great Oh Mercy) did wonders for ol’ Bob.

Elsewhere Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On was just that; perfect. Recorded three times and a MASSIVE move forward into something more experimental and intricate, Perfect From Now On is one of the indie-rock genre’s benchmarks and another that I regularly grab from the rack as I’m heading to the car.

1997 was really a strong year for the whole indie-rock genre. Along with Elliott Smith and Built To Spill handing in career highlights, Pavement released the brilliant Brighten The Corners – and then followed it quickly with extra love in the form of the Shady Lane EP. I don’t think Pavement ever made a bad album and I’ve got a lot of time for Brighten The Corners especially ‘Date with IKEA’. Oh and Dinosaur Jr released what, to my mind, is the finest of their major label efforts and the one that pretty much sank without a trace. It took me ages to get a copy of this one when I was filling out my Dinosaur Jr collection some twelve years or more ago now. It didn’t shift anywhere near the numbers of Where You Been or Without A Sound – not that they’re exactly multi-million sellers either mind – but it’s still my favourite of the band from that era and last year’s expanded re-release was a wonderful thing. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Amen did the good stuff too with songs like ‘Brick’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ and ‘Song For The Dumped’ standing out for me and many others.

U2 dropped Pop like a half-baked turd and then hit the ‘MAX POWER’ button with the promotion and tour involving muscle-suits and a giant mirrorball lemon which made it clear they either hadn’t seen or grasped the point of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. Still, some two decades on and Pop, on reflection, isn’t all too bad – it could have done with a bit more gestation time and I’ve heard it said they were pushed to release before they were happy with it but songs like ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ and ‘Gone’ are still decent enough but ‘Discothèque’ remains a howler.

Faith No More wanted to get a head start on the accolades for their album and named it Album Of The Year – it’s their most straight-forward which helped it shift well and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a great tune. Ry Cooder and some of his mates from Cuba got together to form the Buena Vista Social Club in ’96 and in 1997 released the cracking Buena Vista Social Club album which sent critics and music writers into a bit of a state in their efforts to find accolades to heap on it. Less so for Aerosmith though as critics weren’t so kind to Nine Lives despite the fact that, in my book, it’s one of their finest late-career efforts. A good, gritty kick in the balls to the over-production of Get A Grip thanks to Kevin Shirley it’s home to some great tunes like ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Pink’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’…. I caught em on the tour for Nine Lives, albeit a few years later thanks to injures and delays that would become a staple for the group for the rest of their career, and I still reckon this is the last album to capture them at full flight.

Way out on a different side of the musical wave and even further geographically, Bjork released her brilliant Homogenic in 1997, ‘Jóga’ is one of my absolute favourite songs. Portishead released their second, self-titled, album which, though great as it remains, didn’t quite have the impact of Dummy, even if – to me – it’s a more rewarding listen. Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow arrived in 1997 as did Green Day’s Nimrod and ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’.

With the surprised – to him – success of his Foo Fighters’ first album behind him, Dave Grohl set about to make a ‘band’ album. However, the intense sessions – under producer Gil Norton – proved taxing on all members and Grohl’s redoing of drum tracks led to Will Goldsmith quitting the band. For his part, Grohl has since said “I wish that I would have handled things differently”. Goldsmith would be replaced by Taylor Hawkins who had said “yeah; me” when Grohl asked if he knew of any drummers who’d want the gig. The Colour and the Shape is probably their finest album and – depending on whether I’ve listened to Wasting Light that day – contains some of their best and most-loved songs. But… I’ve already written on this one pretty heavily and rules are rules.

So, not that there was much doubt what this could have been:

Radiohead – OK Computer

At some point in early 1997 I was sat in my room one evening watching TV – one of those big tube fuckers as this was pre-slimline LCD stuff – and as I’d have been upstairs on my own TV I’d have been stuck with the standard four channels so that means it must have been ‘Top of the Pops’ or similar I was watching rather than MTV2…. but I was watching but not watching, you know how, through what was the usual dross on these shows predominantly focused on the pop stuff and then they played the new singled from a band called Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’ and a bomb went off in my head.

OK Computer is an amazing album that’s been pretty much universally lauded since it was released in May 1997 – though, coincidentally, the Gallagher brothers were instant critics but then I’d take that as a compliment – and was a near-instant game changer. I didn’t pick the album up straight away – this was ’97 and at 16 years old I would’ve been spending what wages I had on other music or gobbling up the Aerosmith back catalogue as this was the year I got into them. No I do remember having the cash for a new CD at some point early in ’98 though as I remember going down to get hold of Pearl Jam’s Yield after reading positive reviews only when I took it to the counter they didn’t have it – so I picked up OK Computer instead and that bomb went off all over again.

I mean there’s been so much written about this album – when you consider the impact it had and how it exploded the band it would be impossible for there not to be. Plenty of pages have been dedicated to its origins (‘Lucky’ was recorded for The Help Album in 1995) and the recording processes (80% of it was recorded live according to Ed O’Brien) and that, after the introspective soul-searching focus of The Bends, Thom Yorke took a new tact with his lyric writing…. it would be fruitless to do so here and I wouldn’t be able to do so in a way that did the album justice.

For me this is one of those albums that had a massive impact on my musical tastes.. I know a lot of comparisons were made between this and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and I get that – there’s a sense of cohesion to it that works so beautifully as a whole, there’s almost a feel of concept about it in that way and there’s sense of intricacy almost akin to ‘prog’ but the prominence of guitars pushes it firmly into the more accessible and ‘this deserves to be played loud and live’ arena, just as DSTOM did – even though the band were very keen to shrug that off. But for me I stand it alongside Pink Floyd’s magnum opus in that it has had such an impact on a certain generation’s music taste and certainly on mine. It was that defining album and is held up in the same light as DSOTM was twenty years or so previous. Not to mention that just as there’s a “oh Meddle / Animals / Wish You Were Here is so much better” debate there’s a “but they really came into their own with Kid A / The Bends” argument too… but just as you can’t tell me ‘Time’ takes a back seat to ‘Fearless’, there’s no argument for ‘Treefingers is better than ‘Let Down’ (and I do really really dig Kid A).

It’s one of the few albums I own across multiple formats and I even had to replace that original CD as it ended up bouncing about in numerous cars over the years. It was like a reinvention of ‘guitar rock’ just as those genres that had defined the start of the decade were starting to wane. There was a creeping in of technological dread and wariness in there, a bite and snarl of sarcasm and angst, shimmering melodies, odd time signatures and a band tighter than a duck’s arse playing a fuckload of great songs that just get better and reveal more with repeated listening over the years.

There’s a reason OK Computer is so well regarded and it’s the same reason it’s featured here as my choice for 1997: it’s just perfect.

Blog Tour – The Bitch by Pilar Quintana

From the PR: “Colombia’s Pacific coast, where everyday life entails warding off the brutal forces of nature. In this constant struggle, nothing is taken for granted. Damaris lives with her fisherman husband in a shack on a bluff overlooking the sea. Childless and at that age “when women dry up,” as her uncle puts it, she is eager to adopt an orphaned puppy. But this act may bring more than just affection into her home.

The Bitch is written in a prose as terse as the villagers, with storms―both meteorological and emotional―lurking around each corner. Beauty and dread live side by side in this poignant exploration of the many meanings of motherhood and love.”

Sometimes you’ll pick up a book that’s so intensely written and moving that you’ll wonder how the author has managed to pack so much power into so little space. The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is just such a book. I have a few of these ‘bantamweight belters’ on my bookshelves: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and, more recent works such as Andrey Kurkov’s The Case of the General’s Thumb and Quintana’s novel sits right amongst those favourite titles which manage to deliver in just 150 pages a wealth of delight and literary brilliance.

In case it wasn’t clear – I bloody loved reading this book. The Bitch is an absolutely gripping and magnificent read that gets you right from the word go and takes you in deep. Its prose is simple and concise yet powerful and moving and conveys a world so vivid and detailed, in terms of characters and setting, with such precision and skill with the greatest economy of words it’s a genuine thrill and joy to read.

The bitch in question is the dog that Damaris takes in, it’s a blunt harsh title that’s in keeping with the prose and the life that the novel’s characters lead. The story goes beyond that of Damaris’ adoption of a dog – this is about Damaris’ life in a world where, as the PR suggests, life is a constant struggle. Having lost her mother at a young age to a stray bullet and forever haunted by the drowning of a childhood friend, not to mention the punishment received, The Bitch offers the story of Damaris’ life and her desperation for love in a hard world without lavish prose and manages to deliver all the more emotional impact as a result.

I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be reading The Bitch again, there’s simply so much to enjoy and admire in it that it I’ve already read it twice and discovered more upon the second reading that I hadn’t picked up first time around. It’s not a gentle read, it’s an on-the-nose book about a hard life in a tough environment but it is such a thoroughly well-written, powerful and rewarding read that I can’t recommend it enough. It more than deserves the accolades and prizes its already received (including the Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize and being chosen as one of the most valuable objects to preserve for future generations in a marble time capsule in Bogotá) and whileThe Bitch is the first of Pilar Quintana’s novels to be translated into English, I really hope that it’s not the last.

My thanks to World Editions for my copy of The Bitch and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

“Early one morning
With time to kill
I borrowed Jebb’s rifle
And sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider
Crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim”

The magnificent and multi-talented Jim of Music Enthusiast (if you don’t read it, you’re missing out) has kindly permitted me to half-inch his One Song / Three Versions format for a mo so I better make sure and do this as well as I can.

I Hung My Head was originally, and this surprised me greatly, a song by Mr Gordon Sumner – or Sting as he’s been called for more decades than not. It was featured on his fine 1996 album Mercury Falling and was written from both his fondness for Westerns and his interest in country music – which is also pretty notable on one of the album’s singles, ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’.

A somewhat dark tune in narrative, it’s the story of a young man who, having borrowed his brother’s rifle, shoots a stranger while practicing his aim. Whether the shot is fired by accident / on purpose isn’t really clear but it’s about facing the consequences – “I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife” – as much as anything else. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m gonna dig a song like that.

So, the original:

It’s a fine song in its writer’s hands but…. I don’t know. There’s something about the narrative vs Sting’s arrangement on record that clashes a little too much for me. The music is very much a… 90’s Hugh Padgham & Sting sound with too much bounce, synth and brass to work with the song as a western or story like this. It’s almost like Nick Cave doing a reggae version of Red Right Hand.

For a good western style song about murder and begging for God’s mercy there’s really only once voice that you think of… a voice that sounds like it was hewed from granite, gargled gravel for breakfast to wash away the pain of life itself and still carry a tune…. the Man in Black himself; Johnny Cash. American IV, the final album Johnny Cash released during his lifetime and features his own rendition of Sting’s song.

The production is minimal, the sound stripped to just an acoustic guitar, the odd sustained piano chord and Cash’s aged, world-weary voice taking the song into a different time signature and turning into a starker, more direct and hard-hitting tale.

There’s a change in lyrics here too as with some of Cash’s over readings – the rifle in Cash’s take is thrown “into the sheen” and the rider “kept on runnin’ into the south lands” rather than Sting’s “salt lands”. It so suits him that I thought this was a Cash original at first – his voice and approach means that it’s one of those rare times that a cover version feels to have more authenticity than the original. Here:

In a strange connect-the-dots way, American V, released after Cash’s death in 2003, featured his take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Further On Up The Road’. It wasn’t the first time he’d covered Bruce – notable takes on ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ were included on Cash’s 1983 album Johnny 99 and there’s a cracking version of ‘I’m On Fire’ on the Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album.

Springsteen and Sting are also pretty firm friends, with the two sharing a mic on many occasion and a drink on even more. So, in 2014 when Sting was made a Kennedy Center Honoree and the time came for the obligatory performance of one of his songs by another artist…. it was Bruce Springsteen that stepped up to provide a highlight and bring the house down  with ‘I Hung My Head’, a song he’d already been playing (Sting’s songs were also performed by Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars) with a song that seemed as perfectly suited to late-career Bruce as it did Johnny Cash.

Before I drop spill into Bruce’s version, here – for reference – is Sting’s reaction to hearing one of his songs played… perhaps not as favourably:

Thing is, I think it’s fair to say that when Bruce covers a song he kind of makes it his own and it’s certainly the case with ‘I Hung My Head’ – his reading is closer to Cash’s take and he seems to get caught up in the emotion of the narrative but then he also gives it the full band treatment and turns it into a Springsteen song much, it’s clear, to the delight of the song’s writer. Again, Bruce makes a few lyrical changes in his take – substituting “I beg their forgiveness” with “I ask no forgiveness” along with the ending “I pray for God’s mercy” giving way to “I ask for no mercy” because in Springsteen’s songs his characters own their crimes and face the consequences.

Personally I think Bruce – in his charged and committed performance – pretty much takes the prize. But that’s just my opinion…

Albums of my years – 1996

1996…. in a way it felt like we’d sneaked unknowingly past a turning point. The initial surge that had powered ‘grunge’ into the mainstream had slowed and, post-Nirvana, that scene’s leading bands were singing a darker, less commercially-sheened tune. The midway point in the decade had slipped past and the second half of the 90s would have a distinctly different flavour… MTV was moving more into programming vs music, big budget videos and gloss were becoming the norm as each pop tart tried to out do the next boyband in video stakes. It was the year that Mariah Carey told us she’d always be her baby, Deep Blue Something asked if we remembered ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys’ and we said, well that’s the one thing we’ve got. It was also the year that The Spice Girls arrived and promoted Girl Power(!) by pointing out that if we want to be their lover then, first, we had to get with their friends… I mean, I’m all for polygamy if that’s your thing, man, but that seemed a little ‘say what?’… The Prodigy were starting fires, No Doubt didn’t want us to speak while The Fugees killed us, softly, with their song, boy bands like N Sync and Backstreet Boys were dumping raw sewage in our ears at the same time as Liam Gallagher bleated about a ‘Champagne Supernover’ but we were all too busy doing the Macarena.

The start of the year saw the end of what seemed like such a perfect and completely natural marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Still, it was wedding bells for Meg White and John Anthony Gillis who were married in September – he’d take her last name and change his first name to Jack before the two formed The White Stripes a year later. Madonna got off to a bumpy start in ’96 – in the good news column for Madge her stalker was jailed on five charges of assault, stalking and threatening to kill her. However, she then received a lot of flack in Argentina including death threats after it was announced she was to play Eva Peron.

Bono had a weird shakeup too – the plane he was on (which belonged to Jimmy Buffet – who was, random aside, responsible for Harrison Ford deciding to go for an earring) was mistaken for a drug-dealers plane and the Jamaican authorities opened fire. Either that or they really really didn’t care for Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1.

In what feels like a very ‘1996 MTV’ story – a judge ruled against Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson who were trying to prevent someone publishing photos from a home movie that had been stolen from their home… I guess they must have been doing something embarrassing…. Speaking of MTV – MTV2 was launched in 1996. Now there’s a channel I watched a lot of. Launching with Becks’ ‘Where It’s At’, it was the network’s answer to critics that complained they didn’t show enough music videos anymore and, at least that I remember, showed videos of a more alternative bent.

Having released the first double rap album earlier in the year, Tupac Shakur was shot on the way home from the Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon fight at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Shakur died from his injuries six days later. He was just 25 years old. Sticking with guns… one of my most hated things… Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album angered Wal-Mart who announced they wouldn’t be selling it thanks to the ‘Love Is A Good Thing’ lyric “”Watch out, sister, watch out, brother/watch our children while they kill each other/with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart Discount Stores.”  Let’s face it if you’re getting shirty about people pointing out the dangers of the guns you stock and still insist on selling them… well, you can fuck yourself in my book.

1996 marked the end of a beautiful relationship as tensions between Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers reached their logical conclusion and created a real soap opera instead. Having recorded the song ‘Humans Being’ (great tune) for the ‘Twister’ (naff movie) soundtrack, Hagar left for home on Fathers Day. Eddie didn’t care for Hagar’s vocal and renamed the song and wrote the melody – which ticked off Hagar of course. The band were meant to record two songs for the soundtrack but Hagar was in Hawaii for the birth of his daughter so the Van Halen brothers recorded an instrumental instead. There were also disagreements over a planned ‘Best Of’ – Hagar wanted to work on a new album instead and suggested it should be a ‘Roth era’ only volume or that there should be separate volumes per singer (which, of course, would follow years later)… with more arguments and tensions boiling over and probably not helped with Eddie Van Halen calling David Lee Roth to work on two new songs for the upcoming comp. Hagar left.

Enter Roth and Roth’s gob. After recording two new songs – which were both released as singles – the band, with Roth, made their first appearance together in over 11 years on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards where they were presenting Beck with an award. Well, that was the plan but somewhere in Roth’s head it turned into a “HEY LOOK AT ME! I’M DAVID LEE ROTH!” Which pissed off EVH – along with some apparent spiteful comments from DLR about Ed’s upcoming surgery needs – and the band soon announced that Roth, too, was out. Again. And some guy called Gary Cherone from Extreme was in instead…. while Roth claimed he was an ‘unwitting pawn’ in Van Halen’s publicity stunt. Never a calm day in the Van Halen camp. Best Of – Volume 1 hit Number 1 in the US…

So it was goodnight from Van Hagar in ’96 and 4 Non Blondes, Belly, Crowded House, Extreme, Fleetwood Mac (briefly), Heatmiser, The Kinks, Jawbreaker and Ride. Meanwhile Calexico, Coldplay, Dropkick Murphys, Fly Pan Am, Linkin Park, Queens of the Stone Age, The Shipping News, The Shins and Wolf Eyes were among those bands formed in 1996.

So, who released what? Well…

Tori Amos released her third album Boys For Pele and was sued when some bloke crashed his car after being distracted by a billboard promoting the album. The picture was of Amos breastfeeding a piglet. As you do. It was third album time for Frank Black too who released his The Cult of Ray in 1996 and The Cranberries who released their third album To The Faithful Departed.

Tortoise released one of post-rock’s most revered albums Millions Living Will Never Die in January and Palace, or Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers or plain old Will Oldham – before he started trading under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy – released the equally well regarded Arise Therefore. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ninth album Murder Ballads was a great drop for ’96 – made up of new and traditional murder ballads with guests including P J Harvey and Kylie Minogue who duetted with Cave on the single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ which gave the group a hit and pushed the album into big numbers.

The Afghan Whigs released Black Love, The Cure released their tenth and mixed-bag album Wild Mood Swings and, following the demise of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album Golden Heart arrived in March. Dripping in Knopfler’s guitar, it was clear he was still trying to find his sound as a solo artist and there’s probably a bit too much filler on it, though the title track and ‘Darling Pretty’ are pretty good. Speaking of solo artists finding their sound, Paul Westerberg released his second solo album Eventually – three years after his first. Eventually gets a real bad rap that’s unfair – it’s got some great Westerberg songs on it like ‘Love Untold’, ‘Once Around The Weekend’, ‘Angels Walk’ and the tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson ‘Good Day’. That it’s an album of two producers – Brendan O’Brien and Lou Giordano  – it’s a really strong effort and there’s not a track on it I skip when I spin it.

Another bloody strong and oft-overlooked 1996 album came from Stone Temple Pilots with their third Tiny Music…. Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. By this point in the band’s career Scott Weiland was pretty well into his drug addiction and trouble was circling with cancelled tours and drug busts but this is a great album. After the explosion of their first album, Rage Against The Machine released their second: Evil Empire. I think of the group’s three studio efforts this one gets my vote – ‘Bulls on Parade’, ‘People of the Sun’… fucking ‘Vietnow’! Amazing album.

Modest Mouse released their debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and Dave Matthews Band Crash was their second and went bonkers in sales terms thanks to the presence of ‘Crash Into Me’ in seemingly every soppy bollox scene on TV while the power of being ‘Popular’ helped Nada Surf’s High / Low share many of the same shelves (though not as many). Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails (a cracking album) was released in 1996 too as was Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

If we wanna talk about albums that define the year then, at least this side of the Atlantic, this was the year of Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go. An absolute power house of an album it was the group’s first as a trio following the disappearance of Richie Edwards and was a massive success both commercially and critically. A determined approach and change in sound heralded a new era for the group and shifted in the millions. Songs like the title track, ‘Kevin Carter, ‘Australia’ and, of course, ‘A Design For Life’ were everywhere in 1996 and just hearing any of them send me straight back to ’96.

The same could also be said for Kula Shaker who – with major-label backing seeking to look for ‘the next Oasis’ phenomenon – released their psychedic-rock tinged album K in 1996 and radios here began blasting ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Tatva’ and ‘Govinda’ with enthusiasm. Not a bad summer to buzz between stations really.

Back Stateside and The Black Crowes, following the disappointing sales of Amorica decided to rehash the album minus the pubes on the cover and, sadly, minus the quality and tunes, Three Snakes and One Charm was their weakest to date even with ‘Good Friday’. Soundgarden prepared and released what would be their final studio album for sixteen years: Down On The Upside. Helmed by band and Adam Kasper, Down On The Upside is still a bloody fine album and one I’ll return to just as often as Superunkown.

One from 1996 I do play a lot more though is Screaming Trees’ Dust, the groups final and finest effort. Songs such as opener ‘Halo Of Ashes’ and the following ‘All I Know’ and ‘Look at You’ offer superb, textured sounds that still pack plenty of punch and anchored down by Lanegan’s distinctive vocals. ‘Dying Days,’  later offered up as a single, features some delicious blues guitar work courtesy of  Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready as Lanegan sings on the falling state of Seattle. Absolutely five star album and one of the most over-looked of the ‘scene’.

Often accused of ripping off the Seattle sound, Bush released their second album Razorblade Suitcase in ’96. This one had a fair few spins from me over the years but not as many as their debut, ‘Swallowed’ is a pretty decent tune. Weezer also released their second album Pinkerton in 1996. Pinkerton is one of those albums that’s become so beloved and heralded as a band’s highpoint it’d be hard to write anything about it that hasn’t already been – songs like ‘Tired of Sex’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Why Bother?’ are great but, at the time, it was a bit of a flop – it was more personal and harder in sound than the group’s first album and, after the tour to promote it and shell-shocked by the reaction, the group went on a five year hiatus. During that time, though, it began building a cult following and bands began citing it as an influence. Despite this, though, Rivers Cuomo wouldn’t embrace it again for years, seeing it and its following as an embarrassment until 2008 by which time retrospective reviews from the same publications that had panned it on release were awarding it 10/10. It’s a strange world.

Tom Petty And the Heartbreakers soundtrack to the pretty-cack-really movie She’s The One arrived in ’96 and features a stack of great tunes from Petty and co including ‘Walls’, ‘Angel Dream’, ‘California’, ‘Change The Locks’… it really should be considered as one of their best. It was the first Heartbreakers album to be produced by Rick Rubin who’s name also graced Johnny Cash’s Unchained this year – the second of JC’s ‘American’ albums it actually featured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers essentially serving as Cash’s backing band as he covered songs like Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, Geoff Mack’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ and Petty’s own ‘Southern Accents’ alongside a couple of originals across a stronger album than 94’s American Recordings.

TV sets were spewing ‘Baywatch’ in 1996 according to E – Eels Beautiful Freak was released this year and is still a regular play in my collection. Not my favourite of the group’s it’s still a fine album with ‘Novocaine for the Soul’, ‘Susans House’ and ‘My Beloved Monster’ (long before its application to a green ogre) doing the business on repeated listens.  Also doing well on repeated listens is Wilco’s Being There, the group’s second. Following the death of Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon’s remaining members put togehter Nico from unreleased songs and tracks started by Hoon and finished by the band with proceeds going into a college trust for Hoon’s daughter Nico. It’s actually the first Blind Melon album I got hold of – back in the days when Fopp were still a real thing rather than a HMV in different clothing – for a fiver and enjoyed immensely, still do. For a ‘rag bag’ album it works pretty damn well.

Is that it? Fuck no: 1996 gave us a lot more great albums. How about the second album from Counting Crows? Recovering The Satellites came three years after the band’s debut (better get used to that gap) and is a much stronger collection really though without the immediacy of August And Everything After so it didn’t go down quite as well in terms of sales. But check it out; ‘Angels of the Silences’, ‘Daylight Fading’, ‘Children In Bloom’, ‘A Long December’, ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’…. This is a great album. Hell, those first three Counting Crows albums are all really blood good but there’s something about this one, that stands out for me. Speaking of sounds that do it for me; Sheryl Crow released her second, self-titled album in 1996 and the sound – courtesy of Tchad Blake and Mitchel Foom – with a sort of off-balance production coupled with her strongest set of songs and some real genuine hits, made Sheryl Crow a deserved hit this year.

Are we there yet? Well it would be pretty remiss of me not to mention a couple more like Tool’s astounding Ænima. Dedicated to Bill Hicks and tacking a similar stance (goodbye you lizard scum) on the title track, Ænima is a stonking album of heavy, complex rock with unusual time signatures and dripping in aggression and cynicism that actually managed to reach number 2 on the charts. Oh and then Pearl Jam released their fourth album – the astonishingly great No Code. Recorded amidst tension and, as Stone Gossard later described it, ” just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!’” A further move away from the spotlight, another deliberate left turn from the glare of Ten etc, No Code is a massively rewarding listen and one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums.

But I’ve already highlighted No Code in detail before so it can’t be my pick for 1996, which can only leave:

REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi

“Look up and what do you see? All of you and all of me
Fluorescent and starry, some of them, they surprise.” Man I remember sitting in the back of a car somewhere in August of 1996, the radio on and hearing the ‘new REM single E-Bow The Letter’ and just ‘wow’ – something in my head going ‘click’. Those opening words… I had no idea what an E-Bow was then (and as many times as I keep thinking to get one I still haven’t) or what it was about but that sound, that song… that went in and made me sit up and pay attention to REM all over again. It’s also got to be one of the least likely lead single choices out there, dropping a song like that in the summer as your first single… especially given the attention the band had gotten after resigning with Warner Bros for what was rumoured to be the largest record deal made at that point and here, with the comparative ‘meh’ response to Monster behind them they drop a song like ‘E-Bow The Letter’ to radio.. fuckin-a.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi has it’s origins in watching Radiohead. Radiohead supported REM on tour in ’94/’95 and recorded the basic tracks for The Bends during soundchecks and while on the road. REM had been talking about making a ‘road album’ for a while and so borrowed their technique with most of the songs recorded either live or at soundchecks with four additional songs being recorded in the studio at the start of ’96. Those four additional songs were the opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow the Letter’ (to which Patti Smith added vocals), ‘Be Mine’, and ‘New Test Leper’. As the rest were recorded on the road they feature the band’s touring members and have a real sense of immediacy and looseness that I guess came from not being stuck in the studio for long periods of time. According to Mike Mills they wanted to catch the “spontaneity of a soundcheck, live show or dressing room.” I think they succeeded.

I think what I enjoy so much about New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it covers the full spectrum of the ‘REM sound’ – the country-rock / folkier vibes of Out of Time and Automatic.. with the harder edge they’d pushed for with Monster – across the album yet the consistency is so high. After this – with the exception of the immediate follow-up Up – I don’t think they’d be this varied in sound across one album until their last, Collapse Into Now, and neither of those have such a consistently high benchmark in terms of quality. It’s all so fucking good.

As it’s a ‘road album’ there’s a sense of movement to it and quite a few of the songs touch on this – the above, awesome ‘Departure’, ‘Leave’ (which also made it to the soundtrack of ‘A Life Less Ordinary), ‘Low Desert’ – and there’s a sort of in-transit vibe to the album overall that I really dig. It would be the band’s last with Bill Berry who would leave in 1997 and become a farmer (really) and captures the band at their peak – all glad to be healthy and alive after a shocker of a tour which, as touched on in the ’95 post, saw Berry suffer an aneurysm which required immediate surgery, Michael Stipe suffer a hiatal hernia and Mills needing an appendectomy, tight after touring for the first time in years and at the top of their game in songwriting.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi was my first REM and remains my favourite. I’m really hoping next year heralds a 25th Anniversary treatment that’s already been rolled out for their other albums. Oh, and you gotta love the album’s closing lines: “I’m not scared, I’m outta here.”

 

 

Blog Tour: The Twins of Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor

From the PR: “In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

THE NAZIS SPARED THEIR LIVES BECAUSE THEY WERE TWINS.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival, and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

Publishing for the first time in the UK in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.”

I’ve touched at various times on this blog on my interest in certain passages of history, specifically the Second World War. As part of this reading I’ve covered some pretty harrowing accounts of what those of Jewish faith endured both in the build up to and during the war – the increase in persecution, the stirring of hatred, the betrayal from friends and their treatment in concentration camps. Eva Mozes Kor’s account of this time is a vital read.

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1934-1945 gave a revealing insight into the persecution of Romanian Jews at home but Sebastian was an adult, an educated man and writer. What makes The Twins of Auschwitz so startling and vital is that Eva, as a child, was not aware of what was happening as the war and persecution of the Jews progressed and Transylvania was given back to Hungary and she found herself in a classroom presented with maths problems such as “if you have five Jews and you kill three of them how many do you have left?” The Twins of Auschwitz is written in a simple and direct narrative that’s perhaps as much due to Eva’s interrupted education and the fact that she details events as she experienced them at the time – as a child. It’s hugely affecting.

The increasing and constant terrors Eva and her family endured at home are one thing and certainly make for disturbing reading – it’s always shocked me just how easily people turned against their friends and neighbours with a little encouragement – however, the other element of this book is that their torture didn’t end their: like so many millions of over Jewish people in Europe, they were forced out of their homes, into cattle trucks and sent to a concentration camp. For the Mozes family that meant Auschwitz.

Saved by the fact that they were twins, at just ten years old (though Eva later references two year old twins also being in their barracks) Eva and her sister Miriam were taken from their family upon arrival. Their parents and two older sisters were sent to the gas chambers.

Again; I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with what awaited those that were imprisoned at a concentration camp. I’ve read some pretty horrific accounts and I know that given that reading about it can barely tap the surface. Eva and her sister had to endure this as ten year olds. As Eva states: “Being in Auschwitz was like being in a car accident every single day. Every song day something terrifying happened.”

The reason that Eva and Miriam were kept aside is simple: Dr Josef Mengele was a sick bastard. Mengele – or ‘the angel of death’ as he was later known – used prisoners for experimentation. With twins he carried out some truly shocking experiments including unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other, attempting to change twins genders by blood transfusion or genital removal…. he was a sick bastard let loose. At one point he personally killed 14 twins in one night with chloroform. If one twin died as a result of a disease he’d infected them with he’d immediately have the healthy twin killed to allow for post mortem comparison of the organs.

It was into this hell that Eva and Miriam were plunged as ten year olds. While Eva wasn’t aware of the full depth of Mengele’s experiments she was injected with a disease meant to kill her. It was only her determination not to give in and her efforts to reach water that kept her alive. In cheating her own death though, Mengele went to town on her sister, giving her a multitude of injection, one of which would stunt the growth of her kidneys, never letting them develop further.

The Twins of Auschwitz documents the twins’ time at Auschwitz and beyond – the realisation that their family was gone and their desperation to find home and simply be children with a simplicity and directness that is both profound and heartbreaking. Though I think it’s also a case that it’s written in such a manner so that we don’t simply get lost in emotion but that we learn, we remember and we ensure that it never happens again.

What makes this book all the more vital is the additional epilogue on Eva’s recovery and how she came to a point where she publicly forgave the Nazis. Not, as Eva and this book are keen to point out, on behalf of all who suffered, but for herself. Mengele was an unrepentant Nazi. When his son found him in later life in South America (that the bastard died of natural causes is confounding), Mengele refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and sure as hell would never ask for forgiveness. But what Eva Mozes Kor teaches is that in her forgiving him and the Nazis, she is both taking the power from them and that her letting go isn’t reliant on them: “it made me feel good to have any power over my life as a survivor”. By all accounts it changed her as a person, removed a weight and she became a happier and healthier person free from the bitterness she’d carried since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

The Twins of Aushwitz is an important and revelatory read. I ran the gamut of emotions across its two hundred or so pages, it’s one I know will stay with me for some time and one I won’t hesitate in recommending to anyone.

My thanks to Monoray / Octopus for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour.

Albums of my years – 1995

Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?

It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.

It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.

It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.

Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.

Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.

Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.

Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.

R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.

Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.

Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:

No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.

Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.

Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the  sheer consistency of it.

Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.

Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.

Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin…  The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.

Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.

How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…

Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…

There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.

Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…

Mad Season – Above

Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.

A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.

I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.

Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.

But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.

As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.

As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.

Blog Tour: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

From the PR: “It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened.

Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120.

Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.

Narrated by Evil itself, Hinton Hollow Death Trip recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.

Making them steal.

Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan.”

Right: Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’m sat here a good couple of weeks on from finishing Will Carver’s novel and it’s still painted vividly in my mind. This one will stay with you for a while much as Carver’s previous novels did too.

DS Pace is a man on the run from his past and the nightmares he’s picked up via Carver’s previous bloody brilliant books Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today. Both of those books left my mouth on the floor but Hinton Hollow Death Trip fucking floored me like a coup de grâce. Because what Pace is running from is waiting for him… Evil is in town by the time Pace arrives it’s already set in motion – via a series of little nudges and a few hard pushes on the right buttons in a few people – that will devastate both detective and town. Oh, and the reader.

See, Hinton Hollow Death Trip hits hard. Let’s be honest; a story told from the narrative point of view of Evil having a play session wasn’t going to be sunshine and kittens but what unfurls in these five days is brutal. And yet massively addictive, I mean I tore through these 400 or so pages like Dorothy Reilly with a family bucket of chicken.

Because Will Carver has populated Hinton Hollow with a great cast of characters, whether it’s the lesser ‘nudged’, the bystanders or those given a real push by Evil, that are so engrossing and make for a bloody compelling read, it’s impossible to put it down until everything has reached its head for better or worse.

Will Carver is a very talented author. Each of his books has a way of getting into your head and staying in there. He writes with a unique voice and his insights and comments on human nature are at times funny and disturbing. Oh and the final reveal and coming together of two plots was an absolute master stroke, didn’t see that coming at all.

There are a lot of great things going on in Hinton Hollow Death Trip: there’s a brilliantly crafted and multi faceted plot that would make this an essential read in itself but the way in which it is told, both in terms of the narrative view but Carver’s prose style – along with his in-character commentary – make it a serious contender for one of the year’s best reads. It’s a novel that challenges and rewards on multiple levels and stays with you long after.

Very much recommended and my thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

“During the war…” Ten ‘Essential’ WW2 Reads

These days I find myself questioning the teaching methods / teachers I had back in secondary school. I know I always liked to learn about history but back then it was a case of ‘the eight Henrys and two world wars’ and even then it was pretty dry stuff and mostly dates from what I recall.

Cut to a fair few years later and while my wife and I were dating we wanted a little getaway, drove up from Paris to Normandy to a little B&B we booked online only to discover that we were staying in Coleville-sur-Mer, just up the literal track from what had once been code-named Omaha Beach.

Coming face to face with the scene of the bloodiest of landings and standing where those German gun encampments once sat was a pretty strange sensation only matched by the cemetery up the road. It re-awakened my interest in that particularly tragic and yet inspiring periods of our history. Inspiring in terms of what ordinary people are capable of when placed into the most extraordinary of circumstance. It was this element that does and still interests me a lot more than sheer dates and stats ever could and there’s no interest from me in the “guys and glory” style or “we killed all those Jerry bastards from here to Berlin” approach – it’s the personal that counts.

As this part of history takes a good percentage of the non-fiction part of my library, second only to the ‘music’ section and already having done so for that section, I thought I’d list out (this one’s been in the making for a while) those 10 books I’ve found the most essential during my ‘re-education’. After all, if we ignore history and it’s lessons we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Max Hastings – All Hell Let Loose

Finding one book that manages to convey the vast depth and sweep of a global conflict in one volume is never easy but Max Hastings was always gonna be a safe bet and All Hell Let Loose does a great job of while still managing to focus on individual accounts and the impact of the war on the personal levels rather than simply get lost in stats and dates.

Alan Deere – Nine Lives

Alan Deere was a New Zealander who joined the RAF in 1938. He flew Spitfires in both the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and fought throughout the war – a fighter ace with 22 confirmed victories who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His account of his time, Nine Lives, is written with a real warmth and charm while not flinching from the reality that faced the men – some little more than boys only a year or two out of school – during those dark times.

See also: First Light by Jeff Wellum and Stormbird by Hermann Buchner for a take from the ‘other side’ as it were.

Andrew Williams – D-Day to Berlin

A smaller focus than Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose but nonetheless detailed and with more insight as a result of the tighter arena, Andrew William’s D-Day to Berlin looks, as the title suggests, at the Allied arrival on the beaches, the fight for Normandy, the breakout and fight on to Berlin. It was one of the first I books on the subject I picked up and it remains an oft-referred to one. There was a BBC documentary based around it, though buggered if I can find it all these years later, and it’s written with both an eye to the overall campaign as well as the personal accounts and it’s always those that make these books worth reading to me.

Herbert Werner – Iron Coffins

Without a doubt one of the finest WW2 diaries and a real eye-opener. There weren’t many U-Boat commanders that made it through the war, such were the odds against them in the final half of the war when the tables were turned and the wolf packs became hunted with greater accuracy and techniques. Werner’s account is written with insight and with the use of his own diaries and records for accuracy and is a real eye-opener: in the space of those years Werner went from officer candidate in 1939, to the early victories the U-Boats scored in the Atlantic to fighting for survival and barely escaping the same fate that sent so many other crews to the seabed. Beyond the facts and figures, what makes Iron Coffins such a favourite on my shelves is the personal insights – while Werner is fighting for survival below, the war is destroying his home in Germany and the increasing – its important to remember the German Navy were not all Nazis – frustration in their orders and their direction.

Stephen E Ambrose – Band of Brothers

An obvious choice really but it doesn’t make it any less a great read. Of course I saw the series before reading the book, it was one of the first things I did on my return from France that summer and it spurned me on to find more hence the inclusion of this book and the next couple too. There’s so much more in Ambroses’ book than could ever be captured by HBO’s series (it’s always the way, there’s nothing new here) – such as how, in Bastogne, sat staring at the same tree line day after day, Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, was convinced there was a tree – a mile away – that hadn’t been the day before. Turned out it hadn’t – it was camouflage that the Germans had put up for their anti-aircraft battery, which was promptly taken out. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is an essential read for all the obvious reasons – it’s the true story of those ordinary guys thrown into the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Major Dick Winters – Beyond Band of Brothers

Of course, reading or seeing Band of Brothers will leave you wanting more and appreciating what a damn fine leader of men Dick Winters was. His own Beyond of Brothers delivers more insights into both Winters as a man and leader as well as Easy Company’s campaign. A more personal account than Ambrose’s book and his guide to leadership is one I try to incorporate into my own life.

Robert Leckie – Helmet For My Pillow

Watching HBO’s The Pacific was a real eye-opener for me in much the same way as my recent watching of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was – and identified the next area of history to read up on. The operations in the Pacific theatre were pretty unknown to me but I soon realised that was home to some of the grizzliest and barbaric fighting and conditions. Robert Leckie’s account served as part of the series’ source material and makes for a harrowing but vital and very well-written and detailed read that gives a real look at the impact of some of the most inhumane conditions coupled with the horror of intense fighting has on people.

See also: With The Old Breed by E.B Sledge

Stuart Hills – By Tank Into Normandy

My paternal grandfather served in a tank regiment during the Second World War though spoke precious little about it to me. Aside from the closeness of Stuart Hills’ surname, the fact that he came from just down the road in Tonbridge and found himself in fierce tank combat in European fields that, while geographically close, must have felt like a million miles away from the security of Kent made this a real connection for me. These personal and individual accounts of the war that are printed by smaller publishing houses and take a little finding are all the more interesting to me and reveal so much more than statistics on the number of tanks that “brewed up” ever could and gave me a real eye-opening look at just what my grandfather may have faced when his tank rolled across those fields.

Matthew Cobb – The Resistance

You know these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that every French person has relatives that fought as part of the Resistance movement and were involved in either hiding and ferrying allied airmen to safety or blowing up German trains… the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population were involved in the French Resistance movement and of those even less in such movie-style acts of sabotage. Cobb’s book is not only a great account of the movement but also of life in occupied France which appealed both the historian and Francophile in me.

See also: Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.

Ben Macintyre – Operation Mincemeat

After success in North Africa the allies needed to open a new front in the European theatre and liberate Europe. But where would and could they land first? In April of 1943 a fisherman found a corpse floating in the sea – the body was identified as that of the Royal Marines’Major William Martin and his attached case revealed to the Germans the Allied invasion plans.

Except this was Operation Mincemeat. The body that of a tramp and the documents all perfect fakes with one aim in mind – fooling Hitler and making him believe the Allied landing would take place somewhere other than Sicily.

Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat reads like one of the greatest spy novels but it’s all true – the level of detail involved in planning and carrying out the campaign, the now-available insight into how the Germans swallowed it and how it was handled their side make for real jaw-droppers. There were so many things that needed to work and so many details that could cause it all to fail.

But it worked: Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs” and transferred panzer regiments, planes and troops to that affect so that when the allies landed on Sicily it was comparatively unopposed – even hours later Hitler remained convinced it was a rouse. So much so that similar deception methods would be employed to dupe the Führer into believing Calais to be the landing point for D-Day.

See also: Double Cross by Ben Macintyre.

 

Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.