Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One Side vs. the Other: Slade: "Look Wot You Dun"

There are certain times when the transatlantic chasm, so to speak, makes itself known; the other night I was listening to a UK chart countdown show that culminated with Slade, and was looking online at the equivalent American chart – where the top spot was held by Al Green.  That chasm – which I have mentioned already in previous posts – could not be more glaringly clear, though just how to explain it isn’t as easy.  Current events and sociological trends can only take us so far.  There is something of a fundamental difference here, one of aesthetics, not to mention who is buying singles in the first place.  What Al Green was doing was understandable to the US public, admired, and needed.  The warmth and laid-backness and quietly astonishing aura suit a time when so many young people (read:  baby boomers) were falling in love, wanting to stay in love, and so on.  They heard Green and knew instantly that he knew what he was talking about. 

Slade, though, in the US?  Apart from fans like Lester Bangs, they remained a cult band at best, the kind I imagine a young Joan Jett heard hanging out in L.A., the kind other young kids would have heard while waiting for, say, Aerosmith to hit the stage.  Singles were released, but didn’t really get anywhere, and in part that is because the raucous, recorded-in-a-meat-locker last-day-of-school scene (cornered by Alice Cooper anyway) was hobbled by Noddy Holder’s holler of a voice.  Never mind the spelling – what is he singing?  Why does he have to be so loud, why do the band have to be so stompy and strange at the same time?  What’s the big deal here?   

Slade were thus politely ignored in the US, a nation that needed a cuddle far more than a rebellious howl.  That they were the voice of the working class in the UK, from the Midlands, and deliberately spelt words incorrectly to upset those who thought rock ‘n’ roll was about looking up words in dictionaries (as if) didn’t matter much.  If you can’t understand the singer, even in a basic way, the song isn’t going to get very far.  (I have heard more than one Slade album and confess that there are a lot of lyrics I don’t understand, and even when I do understand them, I don’t always get them.)  This song  (an NME #2) is putatively a love song, but notice how menacing it is; how the guitar snarls, the piano pounds, the ooof-ooof borrowed from Mungo Jerry turns from a happy-go-lucky exhale into something a bit darker and complicated.  This is positively intimidating and disturbing to an American ear, and even though the song’s lyrics are decipherable, in this case, the rough chips ‘n’ malt vinegar tone to Holder’s voice sounds (again, to an American ear) unromantic, his gruff amiability and the band’s glam silliness are lost in the mix. Slade were a band best understood live, but who would go see them based on this in the US, when Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night were the party bands of choice? 
Fans like Bangs would have appreciated their no-nonsense qualities and essential rocking-out vibes, but for the most part Slade were home country heroes, on every teenager’s imaginary rebellious jukebox, representing so many things which were against the Establishment, from their clothes onwards.  This was the sheer stomp and attitude that didn’t have to have vulnerability or finesse, because none were needed nor expected.  Rock ‘n’ roll was most definitely alive in the UK, still loud and threatening, still able to represent those who don’t fit in and don’t really need to, let alone want to.  This is like opening a door to a whole world that is the opposite of Green’s; a world where noise rules, where having fun is #1.  It’s far from the peaceable groove that Americans wanted, but in the UK, where things were tough, it was the new thing – Glam.  (And yes, glitter. For those of you wondering if I’m going to; the answer is yes.) And where Slade charmingly intimidate, others will follow*.  Yes, British rock lives, and sticks out its tongue at The Man.  But elsewhere...

Next up:  the long time that isn’t actually all that long ago, if it ever was at all.
*Slade were originally called Ambrose Slade and made music that was a bit less scary than this; in some way this scariness/silliness is intrinsically British, unlike, oh, say, KISS (who clearly heard them and other glam bands of the time) were never truly scary the way Slade were, despite all their stagecraft.  Ridiculous and lovable for it in some way, sure; scary, no.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Homely Boy: Neil Reid: "Mother of Mine"

Just as there is a gulf between nostalgias between the US and UK, so there are gulfs between the general levels of what could best be called, borrowing from the gardening world, hardy perennials.  These are types of musicians or performers that will always do well, in part because they make the audience feel ‘at home’ and somehow reassured that things may be a bit crazy outside, but here, here is proof that life goes on as it should.  In the US this can be everything from gospel to country to Christian music – the sort of solid and reliable stuff that made (and makes) the nation what it is, the sort of music that little kids are taught to sing at school.  (When I was about eight I learned to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” up in Canada, a song that could qualify as all three of the above.)  In the UK this area seems to be represented by choirs and in particular by choirboys, or rather the type of young man who could be accurately summed up by the phrase “aw wee choirboy” – one that has no American equivalent, unless you count the young Michael Jackson doing songs like “Ben.”* He is “aw” because he is cute, “wee” because he is young, and the last word is self-descriptive.

I am not sure why this perennial is one, but it is borne out time and again on music-based reality shows; a young man, cute, sweet, the sort a granny in oh say Arbroath would vote for, wins.  Whether he succeeds after his crowning is another matter (does anyone remember Leon Jackson?), as the “aw wee choirboy” type is not exactly cut out for making club bangers or making landfill indie or pursuing a career in electronica.  He is too pure and exalted in a way to do much else but sing whatever his producers have in mind, depending on how amenable he is.  Songs that uplift and inspire are his, love songs and (going back to the roots of the thing) songs of worship suit him best. 

Neil Reid was the original “aw wee choirboy” of modern times, who came to fame on – you can see him here – tv, and this was his big hit.  Looking uncannily like a young Gordon Brown – with a bit, I can’t help it, of Danny Bonaduce from the Partridge Family as well – he sings in his own accent (Motherwellian, if I can put it that way; so many “aw wee choirboys are from Scotland or the north of England) and wears his little suit (complete with a tie!) and in his smiling little man way grabbed a hold of many hearts.  The appeal of the song is absolute and just the sort of thing you’d expect; a song of thankfulness and a raining of blessings.  I can well imagine that this is a song that would make grown men weep, and I know that it must be played at funeral services to this day, but – you guessed it – as far as radio is concerned now, Neil Reid is for chart shows and nothing else.  Perhaps that’s not because he’s so young (twelve at the time) but that the song (like Connie Francis’ “Mama” which I wrote about here) expresses something that is universal and yet private, really beyond words almost, the bond between generations that even when sung about (as Reid sings) is too powerful and immediate for a song.  So many songs are about loves that could be or once were, but the mother-child bond is one that just is, and it is a mark of the time that such a song could do so well.  He not only had a hit single, but a number one album, a remarkable one, and still the only one so far achieved by someone yet to reach their teens.  I cannot ignore the fact that the man who produced this song and his later album was one Ivor Raymonde, father of Simon, who led the Cocteau Twins and was no doubt aware of the odd purity of Reid's voice, that piercing sharpness and beauty and (am I imagining this?  I know I get a bit farfetched at times) found in Elizabeth Fraser that same kind of voice, more or less...
The perennial figure of the choirboy is also - inevitably in this case - one that can only last for so long.  Reid did what he could until his voice broke; Joe McElderry, the latest choirboy, was lucky enough to be almost out of his teens when he won the X Factor two years ago (and he was also lucky to win yet another tv show musical competition, this time for classical singing).  I doubt if someone Reid's age would even make it to the finals of any show now; he would be deemed too young, and I can well imagine the producers wanting someone who could have a career in music and not finance (as Reid has)**.
This song takes this blog back to the beginnings of pop; it is practically Victorian in a time when things all around it are starting to look anything but.  He made people feel cozy and comforted, and he won the talent show at the time - Opportunity Knocks - easily. This song is a pause, a prayer, before 1972 really gets going - a look backward, to better appreciate the battle that is yet to come.
Next up:  correct spelling not required.
*Except it's hard to imagine a choirboy singing a song of love and acceptance to a rat.
**All things considered, Reid did very well; Leon Jackson is still out there making music, but has yet to make a comeback, as such.       

Cheer From The Past: Middle of the Road: "Soley Soley"

I have spent the time away from you, dear readers, pondering the differences between the US and UK with special attention given to musical nostalgia; specifically the cd compilations easily available at supermarkets and why they exist and who those who put them together think (or perhaps hope) might buy them.  Such compilations don't, so far as I know, exist to such an extent in the US or Canada; there the music of the past is left to those who remember it firsthand.  Here, the past - and that's any decade before the 90s at present* - has its time being hashed and rehashed, in ever-more baffling compilations that pick carefully through the past for what I guess they want as the "Oh! I remember that song" effect.  This isn't to say that those in North America don't hanker for the past; but the view is that the music of now is what is vital. (I am more than aware that in the 70s there was a full-on craze for the 50s, but thankfully it didn't last all that long.)   

In the case of "Soley Soley" - a song I've never heard before, until now - it appears on a recent compilation of bubblegum-era pop called Honey Honey, and I am trying and failing to think of an equivalent compilation in US terms.  Nostalgia for the early 70s is, shall we say, not that common.  A nation still at war, a nation just about to hear about this place called the Watergate hotel, is not going to want to look back, having effectively gone through a lot of soul-searching and further crises in the meantime.  I can't say the UK was in such a great state either, as anyone who remembers it knows very well.  Maybe these compilations exist to prove that the past wasn't so bad, but I still think there is something a bit weird about them, even though they do serve a function, and that is to be unofficial bits of history for those who don't remember, or who do but don't have the time to track down the music.  In juxtaposition to the new releases, they seem to say to the browser that you can have the past or present, and isn't the past a more cozy place, even if you didn't enjoy the time itself very much?  That is a dangerous place to be, and it no doubt has some people pacing, Number Six-like, back and forth wondering how they can escape the music.**

But back to Middle of the Road - this was their last big hit, written by Fernando Arbex and lead singer Sally Carr, Arbex being a Spanish songwriter (thus, if it sounds Spanish, that's why); produced by Italian Giacomo Tosti, like their other hits, it got to #2 in the NME and it is as warm and Abbaesque as anyone could wish, the sort of Eurohit that sounds good whether you can understand the lyrics or not; a cup of good cheer that is of its time but deserves better than to be in the Void, remembered only by a compilation.  Middle of the Road didn't like to think of themselves as bubblegum - they were reluctant to record "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep"***- but their Mediterranean via Scotland vibe was bubblegum-ready anyway.  Bubblegum as a force was ebbing away slowly at this time, with the warring families - Partridges vs. Osmonds - about to take over what was left of the territory, while a whole new beast, heralded by T.Rex and Slade, is putting on its makeup and costumes.  The good cheer of "Soley Soley" is about to be amplified and speeded up and blasted, ironically, into the future.  That is for later this year; now it is January, and this brings some warmth to what is going to be a frazzling and fractious year, a year when rock fights nostalgia.

Next up:  the original Aw Wee Choirboy.    

* My guess is that the 90s won't become part of this whole cycle until the 20s, at least.

**Number Six eventually puts the speaker in the fridge, an option not open to most people. 

***They apparently were a little tipsy when they recorded it, which is indeed why it sounds like that.  The band continued to be popular in Europe but had no more big hits, as their label apparently took against them being produced outside of the UK; and so while they appeared on Top of the Pops after this, their real business was elsewhere, from Europe to Brazil and beyond.