I’ve just started reading Alex Ross’ Listen To This (2010), a collection of essays on music both popular and classical, that follows his widely-read The Rest Is Noise which was a survey of C20th art music. The Rest Is Noise is a good general survey which should make more people curious about a lot of terrific music. The essays in the second book wander very widely indeed, with chapters on Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and John Cage rubbing shoulders with chapters on Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain, along with general essays on topics such as ‘How Recordings Changed Music’ . I particularly recommend the opening one, ‘Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop’.
Almost by accident I’ve found myself unexpectedly enjoying a trio of ‘late period’ albums which I’ve just got on CD having once owned as vinyl (I gave up on vinyl some time ago for want of space for a decent turntable, but not out of any dislike of the sound, and I still have a few vinyl albums).
The Jam’s Sound Affects (late 1980) was their 5th studio album (there was one more to come) and shows the trio trying to broaden their guitar-based power-pop with changes to production and arrangement with mixed results. The most well-known tracks on it are ‘That’s Entertainment’ and ‘Start!’ (sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes ‘Taxman’) but my favourite is ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ with its lyric of urban mundane life and political idealism, and poignant swings between the keys of D major and B major.
The second of the trio is The Who’s last studio album with drummer Keith Moon, Who Are You (Aug 1978) which saw the band struggling to find a way to develop their post-Quadrophenia music further. If you can banish from your mind the archetypal power-chording, windmilling, stage-pounding, drum-thrashing, microphone-swinging Who, Who Are You is more engaging than I remember, with some effectively quirky arrangements that make good use of synths. The title track is the most famous song on it, memorable for the change from the bludgeoning main riff into the gently oscillating middle section with a piano octave melody over the top. I have a soft spot for ‘Love Comes Down’, an expressive ballad built on an Ebmaj7-F change and some other unusual key / chord changes, in which Roger Daltrey delivers a vocal which is more sung and doesn’t rely on his usual bark. In retrospect it is full of sunset colours, bringing the Who’s career to a kind of ending. Keith Moon died only a few weeks later.
Which brings me to Peepshow by Siouxsie and the Banshees from 1988, the 9th of the 11 studio albums they would make. The first three Banshees punk albums never registered for me. I climbed aboard the good ship Banshee in 1981 when Ju-Ju was released. Here was supernatural gothic rock with John McGeoch’s splintered guitar riffs inhabiting some distant guitar galaxy where pentatonic blues-rock never ventured, and Sioux’s wailing vocals sounding like the offspring of Grace Slick and H.P.Lovecraft. Live the songs were even stronger. With the next album A Kiss In The Dreamhouse the band swathed themselves in the sensuous eroticism of Klimt’s 3-D gold. Around this time critic Paul Morley was hailing the live version of ‘Nightshift’ as the closest you could get to the stomping epic of Led Zep’s ‘Kashmir’. Hyena was a slight dip in the magic, but they were back with a vengeance for Tinderbox mostly thanks to the brilliant guitar-work of John Valentine-Carruthers. And then came Peepshow …
Peepshow saw a change of personnel and a very considerable change in arrangements. Valentine-Carruthers left and the guitar played a smaller role. In came dance rhythms, keyboards, synths, accordions and studio trickery. At the time I thought it was okay and I went to see them at the Royal Albert Hall but it felt like the end of an era. Listening to the album now it seems to me full of delights, with very inventive presentations, and in ‘Rapture’ a song where certain aspects of the Banshees tendency to dwell on the darker side of things actually meets a subject that merits it – namely oppression in the U.S.S.R. (I vaguely recall reading somewhere that this song was inspired by elements of the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich). Where before they could seem morbid, obsessive, cruel, or merely theatrical, in this song there rises a sense of grandeur and righteous indignation.
But before you explore these late period albums try these recommendations: All Mod Cons (The Jam), Who’s Next, Quadrophenia (The Who), Ju-Ju, Tinderbox (Siouxsie and the Banshees).
Chord for guitarists: 3×0202 which is Gmaj9. Try moving it up to the 8th fret.
In Richie Unterberger’s book Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia there is a terrible story relating to the loss of the original multi-track tapes of some of The Who’s finest music. For many decades there seems to have been an assumption in the recording industry that once a band had mixed an album from the 8-,12-,16, or 24-track to the stereo mix from which master pressings would be made there was no need to keep the multi-track. These seems to often have been left at the recording studios. With the passing of years those studios closed or were sold on and often entire tape libraries were simply chucked into a skip. This appears to have happened at Olympic in London in the early 1980s. According to Unterberger some of the multi-tracks for Who’s Next were lost in this way. As a consequence, Who’s Next cannot be released in hi-definition formats such as DVD-audio or SACD 5.1 because the source material is incomplete. What a tragedy.
A related story I stumbled across concerns tape restoration. If stored in humid conditions tape can deteriorate and go mouldy. This apparently happened to a tranche of Bob Marley recordings. You can read the horror story at fxgroup.net/tape+baking. The tapes were only 25 years old. They could only save 12 out of 27. If this happens with such a famous (and therefore money-generating) artist such as Bob Marley, what hope for the smaller groups and the one-hit wonders, etc?