Live – November 2013

Five highlights coming up in the next month or two…

Ultravox

Remember them? Off of the 1980s? They don’t do synths and all that any more, which probably means they’re not as good as they used to be. With limited dates coming up in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, and London.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Jon Hopkins

Having supported Pet Shop Boys on some of their recent dates, the ambient / chill-out master is back on the road supporting Clark across the USA and Canada this month, followed by some odd dates in Australia and the UK in subsequent months.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Vitalic

The crazy French dance troupe are currently mid-tour, hitting up Switzerland and France in coming weeks.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Sigur Rós

Fresh out of the cold north and touring over the next few weeks in Ireland and the UK, followed by Luxembourg, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Happy Mondays

Nearly  a quarter of a century on, Happy Mondays are back with a mini-tour of the UK going on.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Various Artists – Electrospective

The basic way this blog works is that when I’m reviewing an album, I listen to it in full, and while doing so write what I feel about what I’m hearing. How, then, do I tackle a two-and-a-half hour long compilation? I feel the skip button may be seeing some usage on this occasion.

Electrospective is the centrepiece of a recent record company campaign to get us buying mid-price synth-based albums of which I heartily approve. The compilation is a fascinating and wonderful journey, encompassing maybe ten tracks from each of the primary decades of electronic music. But its omissions are also fascinating. Perversely, almost, it contains none of the pioneering sound of Jean Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk. The early 1980s focus rightly on OMD and The Human League, but there’s no sign of Soft Cell or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The late 1980s largely forego the “indie dance” and trip hop movements in favour of pop and soul. But then, if you were faced with the task of compiling a forty-track journey through the history of electronic music, how would you tackle it?

Electrospective opens, as all definitive electronic compilations should, with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 version of Ron Grainer‘s essential Doctor Who theme. Fifty years on, in an age where literally anybody can make music with their portable telecommunications devices, it’s difficult to picture the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop slaving away generating tape samples and cutting them into exactly the right length to sync and make quite astonishing music. In a sense it’s unsurprising that they didn’t really succeed with the syncing (Derbyshire also revisited the theme in 1967 to create a rather more orderly but definitely less charming version).

Some of the other early tracks are a little odder. Roxy Music‘s Virginia Plain is, I can only assume, here to show some of the early electronic experimentation in which popular acts of the early 1970s were indulging, and it has a few nice Moog sounds in it, but frankly it’s largely tolerable at best. Even Brian Eno, introducing this album to its first taste of ambience, fails to impress particularly with Here Come the Warm Jets (1974).

The 1970s start to look a lot stronger after this, with Tangerine Dream‘s Rubycon and Can‘s brilliant I Want More before launching into another unmissable moment with The Normal‘s Warm Leatherette. The final trio of Cabaret VoltaireTelex and Simple Minds round of 1979 in less compelling fashion, and you should be clear by now that electronics is firmly planted in the world of music.

We then enter the 1980s in typically variable fashion. OMD‘s excellent Messages carries into Ultravox‘s more questionable SleepwalkThe Human League‘s astonishing The Things That Dreams are Made Of is followed by rather more questionable choices from Duran Duran and Heaven 17, and then a distinctly dodgy choice of remix for Yazoo‘s Don’t Go.

The mid-1980s are, as you might expect, rather stronger. Together in Electric Dreams is perhaps a little unnecessary, coming as it does only five tracks after the previous Human League moment, but then West End Girls mixes into Who Needs Live (Like That), and you’re definitely reminded that the eighties weren’t nearly as bad as everyone seems to suggest.

All this is not to say that this album is without its surprises. Nitzer Ebb‘s Control I’m Here is an unexpected pleasure, as is Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life (However Do You Want Me), which ends the 1980s a couple of tracks into the second disc.

The 1990s are, of course, where electronic music comes of age. A whole slew of enormous, exceptional, and very well chosen hits follow from Depeche ModeMobyThe Future Sound of LondonDaft Punk and Adam FMassive Attack turn up, as indeed they should, but here they are represented by the slightly disappointing choice of Inertia Creeps, by no means bad, but a track which surely belongs in the middle of Mezzanine rather than here?

Air‘s wonderful Kelly Watch the Stars and St. Germain‘s Rose Rouge are here to represent the rest of the late 90s French invasion, which is inevitably followed by the experimental indie of Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers.

Finally, our potted history of electronic music has brought us into the 2000s, by which time “electronic” had definitely ceased to be a label for weird experimental noises or extravagant expressionism. It had, in every imaginable way, gone mainstream. In a good way.

Goldfrapp hammer this home beautifully with the essential Strict Machine, and then Dare by Gorillaz leads us through to a string of 21st century floor fillers. Eric Prydz‘s probably Bo Selecta-inspired Proper Education with its Pink Floyd elements leads us into some less interesting tracks from David GuettaDeadmau5, and finally a total abomination by Swedish House Mafia. Not a great ending, admittedly, but a fair assessment of the journey of electronic music over the past half century.

Make no mistake – in terms of meeting its remit of compiling a handful of tracks from every decade of electronic music, this is a great release. But it’s difficult to ignore the many omissions – you can’t help but feel that perhaps a themed or era-specific compilation might tick the boxes a lot more convincingly. In the end, all you get is fleeting glimpses of particular acts and eras. All told though, for all its failings it’s a great listen, and I can’t help but recommend it.

There’s also a companion remix album, which we’ll touch on in a future week. If you’re in the US you can find Electrospective here; if you’re in the UK try here; and if you’re anywhere else then you’ll have to fend for yourself.

John Peel’s Record Collection

Browsing through someone else’s record collection is always very rewarding. You learn so much about the owner!

Although I’m sure none of us really needed to learn much about John Peel‘s beautifully eclectic tastes. If there’s anyone who didn’t worship him as a living God when he was around, then I’d be fascinated to know why. And if there’s a music fan out there who doesn’t know where they were then they found out he’d sadly died, then I’d be very surprised.

If you are the one person on the planet who wasn’t aware, then he was probably the finest DJ in British radio history. After some time in the world of piracy in the mid 1960s, he joined fledgeling BBC pop station Radio 1 when it started in 1967 and stayed there right up until his death in 2004. He was responsible for starting the careers of so many big name bands that it’s not even worth considering listing them, and his Peel Sessions remain a household name worldwide.

And this year, 45 years after he joined Radio 1, his estate have been working on a wonderful project to digitise his record collection, and they finally reach the end of the alphabet this week. Starting initially with the first hundred records from each letter, the archive of a few thousand records is quite compelling. Check it out here.

I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, but here are a few of the things which have caught my eye in his collection on my quick browse. Obviously I’m a lot less open minded than he is, but then neither was I going to list all 2,600 entries here! I’ve copied their links where appropriate, but I’d strongly recommend that you go and browse them for yourself!

In particular, the brilliantly bizarre industrial Slovenes Laibach get a full interview in the L is for Laibach feature here, which is well worth watching.

Visage – Visage

Let me start with a confession. I don’t know much about Visage. I don’t even like them that much. But I do own a copy of their debut album Visage, and as an interesting challenge I thought I might listen to it, and try to write a review based on what I heard.

So a very long time ago, before I’d even got into short trousers, Midge Ure out of Ultravox and Steve Strange worked together with some other people on the album I’m holding in my hands. It’s a great package – the artwork is absolutely beautiful, and it yielded three massive hit singles, including Mind of a Toy, oh and another song called Fade to Grey.

The album Visage by Visage opens with a track called Visage, which it seems was the third single. It’s nothing special, although I can hear traces of Gary Numan in it. It mixes into the bloody awful second track Blocks on Blocks. The third track The Dancer is similarly charm-free, an uninteresting instrumental, and this is followed by their original debut single Tar, which wasn’t a hit, probably because it’s dreadful.

At the end of side one, though, you might be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a different album, as Fade to Grey finally arrives. Even from its opening chords you can tell it’s going to be amazing. The synth bass line comes in, and shivers are already running up and down your spine. “Devenir gris,” says the probably very lovely French lady. A forlorn and hopeless vocal breaks in and drives the whole song forward. Seriously, leaving subjectivity aside for a moment, Fade to Grey is clearly one of the best songs ever written.

Why couldn’t the rest of Visage have been like this? All the dross and filler could have been kept for the next release. They could easily have filled up the entire album with ten different versions of this one track – it would have been considerably better and nobody would have complained.

Side two begins with another attempt to channel Gary Numan with Malpaso Man. I’d been assuming that Numan must have been pretty popular at this stage and this whole project was conceived as an attempt to borrow from that popularity, but from a quick bit of research it looks as though half of his band turned up to work on this album, which might explain a lot.

After the sea of dross that constituted the first half of this album, it’s therefore a bit of a surprise when their second hit Mind of a Toy turns up, and also turns out to be pretty good. You can see why the album sold so well. LP buyers of the early eighties must have heard the amazing single followed by the pretty good single, and must have been totally hoodwinked into buying the full album. How disappointed they must have been.

Later tracks are uninspired – Moon Over Moscow is a pleasant enough instrumental, although admittedly it does feel as though it’s trying (and entirely failing) to channel some kind of Russian or Cossack inspired melody. Visa-age is only slightly less dreadful and pointless than its title might suggest. Finally, Fade to Grey‘s b-side The Steps is a pleasant enough closing to the marginally better second half of the album.

On balance, then, let’s never mention this album again. Let’s each go and buy ten Fade to Grey and call that an album instead. It will be much, much better.

Let’s do it! Click here, and here, then here, and after that here and here, and that’s side one done. Then for side two, click here, here, here, here, and finally here. You’ll find it’s pretty good.