Thursday, 19 December 2013
There was a brilliant series published on YouTube a few years ago called Yacht Rock. This dramatic saga parodied the heady days of the late 70s and the early 80s when an oft forgotten genre call Soft Rock ruled the airwaves. Emanating from the sounds of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs this genre was firmly planted in West Coast America where bearded stoners in Hawaiian shirts and stone wash jeans made great pop-rock tunes with a large emphasis on clean production and quality of music (over quality of lyrics).
Many of the main players of the genre had already established a career as prolific session musicians, looking for some limelight of their own, others were young upstarts keen to make a name for themselves in the hotbed of the LA music scene laced with alcohol, drugs and casual sex. One would think that such an environment would produce the aggressive music of The Doors or perhaps the biting insistency of Motley Crue yet it was the mellow vein that seemed to captivate artists between 1976 - 1981 and to my mind, so much the better.
As I have reiterated in many a previous post, my friends are often sick to death of some of the music I insist on playing them, so insipid do they find it! Yet I still love it, for me it is timeless, enjoying it so much as to repeat play it on my stereo system as on stations like Magic and Smooth! Here is my pick of my top five albums from the genre (in no particular order):
Minute by Minute (1978) - Doobie Brothers: Probably the quintessential album of ‘Soft Rock’ released in the wake of the genre’s zenith, it is rightly regarded as a classic and one of the strongest outings in the band’s catalogue. By this stage former frontman Tom Johnston had been replaced by Michael Macdonald (with his idiosyncratic vocals) and it shows in the more romantic songwriting and the slicker production. Coming to the Doobie Brothers from the Steely Dan session stable a few before, Macdonald really stamps his mark on the group with instant classics such as the insistent ‘What Fools Believe’ (a Grammy winning track, co-written with Kenny Loggins) and the lilting Minute by Minute’. The album cover featuring the whole band in ‘LA’ mode is another classic with a number of the group living up to their suggestive name.
Red Cab To Manhattan (1980) - Stephen Bishop: Most people will never heard of Stephen Bishop but I can guarantee that they will, at some stage, have seen him. He has a very prominent cameo as a folk singer in ‘Animal House’ whose guitar is smashed to pieces by John Belushi’s ‘Bluto’, a gig he secure from being the then boyfriend of Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’). Although laced with soft rock sensibilities this bittersweet record was made during their break-up and many of the songs focus on classic soft rock material such as: longing, reflection and romance with a good dose of cynicism thrown in. Bishop was and is a sporadic artist and his music is always of interesting bursting out at different tangents every so often. It makes for a slightly inconsistent listen but when he hits, he hits hard. Tracks like ‘Send a little love my way’, ‘Story of a boy in love’ and the title track are top-notch.
Christopher Cross (1979) - Christopher Cross: I have already written about Christopher Cross in another post so I will make do with an extract from that brilliant analysis of his Grammy award winning record: ‘I know I must sound incredibly gushing about this album but it really is one that, for me at least, has not one dud cut on it - very rare for a soft rock album. It also has one of the most impressive groups of musicians who Cross called upon to help create it: Don Henley, Jay Graydon, J D Souther, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Nicolette Larson and the aforementioned Michael McDonald. But let us not forget Cross, who has a unique and very engaging vocal talent as well and an incredibly good hand when it came to writing pop music and gauging the popular mood at the turn of the 1970s. If I am right this was one of the last albums to be released in 1979 and serves as an exceptional and truly awesome end to the decade.’
For the full review: http://howtobeabloodygoodchap.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/ride-like-wind-christopher-cross.html
Rumours (1977) - Fleetwood Mac - What more can one add about this heroin-drench, smash hit album? Probably the greatest soft rock triumph of all time, with people wearing out record-after-record from its release in 1977 to present day this is the stuff of legends right from the initially fraught recording sessions, the grueling touring through to the behind the scenes hedonism which saw some of the greatest excesses in music history come to the fore...(breath)... this is such a treat for the first time listener from the opening chords of Second Hand News to the sombre Daddy. Then there are the hits, now classics of contemporary music: Don’t Stop, Go Your Own Way, You Make Lovin’ Fun and The Chain. The whole album works, each track is worth a listen and just goes to shows the irony of a band who in reality were on the very edge but were one of the musically cohesive acts of their time. If you buy one album from this list then make it this one!
Cat in the Hat (1980) - Bobby Caldwell - What would one of these reviews be without a mention of one of my favourite albums, the one that I bore you all to death with! Again, like Cross I have already waxed lyrical so I will direct you to an extract and a shamelessly place link: ‘Each track is a meticulously played, meticulously produced and has real passion. Funky and soulful, Caldwell had already dazzled with his debut album and the smash (and oft sampled) 'What you won't do for love'. This album was different, very slick and soulful lacking the harder edge and resonating chords of Cat in the Hat. Nowhere on the record is this more apparent than on the most famous and sampled track 'Open your Eyes' an oft overlooked 80s pop classic with echoed vocals and rollocking piano chords descending into a dirty guitar riff which will imprint itself on your mind for hours after listening to it.’
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
I apologise for the delay in submitting this, the next part of my trip to Honkers, I know that some of you, dear readers, were positively champing at the bit to find out what had happened to me after I left you on that cliffhanger, the eve of my 26th birthday. Well here goes…
The evening passed with quiet reflection of the weekend’s excesses over a very tasty Thai meal and some chilled Singha beers followed by and early night to prime ourselves for the second half of this hedonistic trip, more of which will be revealed in part III…
Saturday, 23 November 2013
A trip to Hong Kong was on the cards, much for the fact that a friend of mine lived there, as much for the fact that I had never visited. An adventure was in mind and an adventure I was to have!
I peeled my face off the bed and looked at my watch 15:30!!?!??! I had slept through the entire morning and most of the afternoon on literally my first day in Honkers. What a shocker! As I got to my feet a huge rush went to my head and I suddenly felt quite weary, I realised that I wasn’t quite as young as I used to be. Donning a very swish pink linen jacket and a fake pair of Wayfarer I made for the door and out into the humid Hong Kong evening.
Saturday, 26 October 2013
Ahhh... the good old Chicken Kiev, that parcel of processed chicken hiding a pocket full of sickly butter rich in stale herbs and raw garlic all wrapped in an ersatz-orange crumb (which would look more comfortable on a fish finger)... I am sure that many of us remember it with some fondness, in the same way that some people call M&S Food ‘St. Michaels’ as it was once known. How we marvelled when children at how, when the Kiev was cut, the buttery filling spilled over the plate tainting everything it touched! Those were the days...
4 large chicken breasts
250ml Groundnut oil
large handful of finely chopped parsley, tarragon, thyme and chives
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 eggs beaten
500g dried breadcrumbs
- Prepare the filling by thoroughly mixing the butter, herbs, mustard, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Form into a loaf shape and leave to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Prepare the chicken by removing the mini-fillet on the underside of the breast then, using a sharp knife, carefully create a horizontal pocket in the side, making sure not to pierce through the flesh.
- remove the butter from the fridge and slice into four portions which must then be stuffed into each cavity, pursing down the pocket entrance and using some of the egg for the coating to seal the gap.
- dredge the chicken in flour, dip in the egg and roll thoroughly in the bread crumbs until thoroughly coated.
- Place on a tray and put into the freezer for 15 minutes, then repeat step 4 once more.
- cover the Kievs with a tea towel and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until ready to use.
- pre-heat the oven to 220°C.
- Heat the groundnut oil in a heavy based sauté pan until hot enough to shallow fry.
- Using two forks, carefully brown each Kiev in turn until the sides turn golden.
- Place each kiev on an oiled baking tray and cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
- Serve straight from oven with rice and a crisp green salad.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
The second part of a moody collection of sketches, written after the style of my favourite writer and hero Ivan Turgenev...
The muddy river and steel grey sky provided an ominous setting for a smoke on the banks of the Thames. On this occasion I had nothing to write home about, half a tin of Cafe Creme Blues to amuse myself with as I ambled aimlessly along the South Bank.
It was a proper Autumn day and the cold, damp air whipped wearily, scattering a few dead leaves hither and thither, creating ripples on the surface a river which had once seen great fleets pour down its estuary to fight wars in Northern Europe, set up trading posts in far flung reaches or discover new lands. If the depths could talk I'm sure they would throw up more than just a few lampreys and a couple of Salmon.
Leaning over the strudy railings of the embankment, under the imposing gaze of the Hungerford Footbridge, I listended to the industrial sounds of trains shunting in and out of Charing Cross and became somewhat pensive...
Had it really only been a week or there about? A week of what? one might ask... of good news and bad, that you can be sure of, but not things to be shared in the gentle text of this sketch.
I turned my back to the clammy breeze and cracked open the tin of these all too familiar cigarillos, deftly shaking one out, placing it between cold, dry lips and lighting up.
A billow of cheap smoke went heavenwards but nobody seemed much to notice, so busy were they continuing on with their lives, wrapped up in moments which I was not supposed to share. As I puffed away, pigeons scrambled for scraps of food, young miscreants risked life and limb in an urban skatepark and chain restaurants were doing a roaring trade. But even with all this hubbub happening around me it seemed that I was in perfect isolation, alone in the crowd. Autumn has that effect, a transitional limbo between summer and winter where life seems to place itself into perspective and long put-off decisions have to be made.
I chuckled to myself as I lit another cheap cigar. I was meant to be meeting some people a little later on but there's a time for socialising, drinking and gambling and then there's a time for the simplicity of smoking, introspection and quiet pondering. It was in this mode that I could be found, blue tweed jacket against a slate backdrop in which the light was fast-fading and the buzz/hum of sodium lights was starting to kick in.
It was on days like this that you just couldn't beat London, with its indomitable spirit, splendid reserve and its multitude of places to quietly reflect in the day's gloaming...
Sunday, 20 October 2013
Rushmere is an iconic feature of the borough of SW19, a pond occupying some of the open space of on the South West end of the Common, adjacent to Wimbledon Village. Originally dug out in in medieval times (according to the Wimbledon Common website) it is a most ancient of ponds, there are certainly records dating back to the Tudors. Even in times of severe droughts it has not been known to dry out, providing one of the few constants in this ever changing patch of South London. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter it sits placidly as a home for all sorts of migrating birds and a rugged feature of the landscape for locals and visitors to enjoy in turn.
Gone are those heady days of the Empire when Victorian/Edwardian pleasure seekers would dip their toes in these waters on a rare day of blazing sunshine. In turn, the council’s stringent health and safety policy has now meant that it is no longer possible to ice skate on this body when has frozen over, as I was sometimes wont to do as a child. Now it is the reserve of Golden Retrievers and Weimaraners, those once great hunting dogs, now reduced to the angry shouts of their owners as they naughtily frolic in the bracing waters.
I write this as I sit looking over this majestic mainstay of my hometown, an old friend who has offered a welcome place to reflect when deep thought was needed. My cup of strong black coffee steamed away under the watchful eye of the mild, October sun as I took a bench facing away from the encroaching presence of period houses and out the the wooded slopes which stretch down as far as the Vale of Putney. One can picture the youthful Henry VIII chasing a hart across this expanse with his barons and a pack of loyal talbots on a grand hunt, the likes of which we will never see again.
Those woods... I like to imagine a mysterious, and once wild area, the reserve of mushroom pickers, poachers, robbers and bandits. A place pock-marked with dank taverns and mysterious old caves housing zealots and hermits; dark, quiet spaces full of the smell of horse chestnuts and rotting leaves... I probably romanticise, but that is the effect that a gentle pondering by Rushmere with a mellow Jose L.Piedra Nacionale has.
Purchased from a newsagent with a well placed humidor (something that all vendors should well consider purchasing to encourage my custom), Piedra are not in the top flight of the great cigar producing houses, but they provide a very pleasant and protracted smoke. Not too heavy and not too light, like Baby Bear’s porridge, it was just right. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee it is also admirably matched with spirits such as blended whisky, eau de vie and chilled vodka.
I smoked away, ever drawing looks from disapproving parents who weren’t content that I was smoking in one of the most open spaces in London well out of the way of sensitive nostrils. But no matter, I became lost in my thoughts as the smoke pleasingly curled up and dissipated into the wider atmosphere.
Like one of my heroes, the novelist Turgenev, I pondered a myriad of problems both social and personal: heartache, longing, work, the socio-political situation of the United Kingdom... in my mind it was all very profound, yet I am sure that others would find fault with my contemplation. Like ‘The Wanderer’ in Caspar David Friedrich’s seminal painting of the early 19th Century (another favourite of mine) I surveyed an area of land integral to my development and one which had changed little in the last 26 years.The clink of scaffolding rang out in the distance as the autumn fun fair was being set up, conjuring in the mind a mythical tradition of an annual gathering on the common akin to something out of a Thomas Hardy novel... complete conjecture but a pleasant idea all the same.
As the cigar burned down further, releasing some richer, wood-like notes and my coffee was on it’s last dregs, I sighed at how fleeting everything was as a lone House Martin swooped over Rushmere’s stillness, supposedly to grab an insect from the spindly rushes that line the banks. Would Rushmere be around in 100 years? I hope so, and I hope that there will also be someone else sitting by its banks, cigar in hand, trying in their own way to set their world to rights in a paradoxical world of love, loss, success and above all hope. We all need our places to hideaway and enjoy our own company (even, ironically, in wide open spaces) and I do hope that everyone has a Rushmere of their own.
Friday, 11 October 2013
Occasionally there comes an album that breaks all the rules. One which is marketed by the cocksure impresario who put it together as the panacea to the doldrums of modern music. This is Duck Rock... an unimpressive sounding album I’ll grant you, but one that has afforded a massive amount of listening pleasure throughout the years. A true aural experience in every sense of the word, it combines some of the great electronic, hip hop and world musicians of a generation to create a collage of the music that was emerging in the early 80’s.
First, let’s establish the late Malcolm McLaren, a man known mainly for his involvement with ‘alternative music’ and the punk scene, notably through his association with The Sex Pistols and his former girlfriend, fashion legend Vivienne Westwood. A highly creative ‘fellow’, following the collapse of the fad-ish punk and the emergence of new cultural streams like new wave, electronic, hip hop and dance this ginger-headed genius decided to put his thinking cap on and come up with something that would really capture the imaginations of a generations, a project that would be as ambitious as it was (it turned out) prolific.
The blueprints of the recording are shrouded in a sense of legend, mystery and a whole bunch of bullshit but one thing is certain, McLaren was able to put an album together, and with some of the best names in the business. Step in the dynamite combination of crack producer Trevor Horn (ABC, Yes, Grace Jones, Seal) and a two top-flight engineers: Anne Dudley and J J Jeznalick (Art of Noise) without whom this album would not have come together. For anyone interested in music production and studio work, this album is a must because it is so complex, textured and layered; choc full of samples it is an odyssey through the power of a good ear and a good mixing desk.
In addition, the masterful production is supported by both the Soweto Zulu Choir, a South African group who give a harmonious and bravura performance on so many of the tracks. This is in direct opposition to The World Famous Supreme Team (WFST), a radio based rap troupe who MC the whole album, provide the continuity and occasionally rap where appropriate to McLaren. When all is said and done, this is definitely an album of the 80s but punctuated by the beat of tribal drums and African guitars, and it is at this juncture that I think we should take a closer look at the album:
Oblata: One of my least favourite tracks on the album, this is an odd mix of Zulu drum beats and ambient music which might appeal to some. Certainly at the time it was probably quite revolutionary as I am sure that no one had ever heard an opening like it but... it’s not for me.
Buffalo Gals: Everyone who has ever listened to Eminem with have heard his homage to this song on his smash his ‘Without Me’, but this is the original, a pioneering track that apparently helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream. Drenched in drum machines and samples it is a great song with Malcolm McLaren stamping his mark with the signature refrain as well as a short but sweet rap by the WFST.
Double Dutch: There are few songs that could be based on a skipping craze but this one is. Preceded with some recordings from the WFST’s radio show it descends into a gospel infused dance track incorporating a healthy amount of South African sounds to create a hugely uplifting and thoroughly groovy track to get down low to... all I’ll say is Skip they do's the double dutch, that's them dancing.
El San Juanera: This is an intermission of sorts, a short skit from the WFST on the back of their cult radio show. Not much to say about this but a nice cultural snippet.
Merengue: Definitely a homage to latin music, with McLaren adopting a camp tone and singing in Spanish to the intense beat of South American drums and aggresive backing vocals. It rises to something of a climax and, production-wise, has Trevor Horn’s stamp all over it. Not my favourite.
Punk it Up: One of the flagship tunes on the album and a tribute to the people that McLaren met in Soweto as well as his association with The Sex Pistols this could not be further from the awfulness of the aforementioned band in its glorious, uplifting spirit. A joyful but ‘anarchic’ track!
Legba: Another weird ambient interlude, punctuated by percussion, it is in these moments that you see the birth of another band which would rise from the ashes of this project: ‘The Art of Noise’. This has the bands blueprints written all over it.
Jive My Baby: If I every had a daughter this is the track I can imagine dancing embarrassingly to at her wedding (if this was on the DJ’s playlist)! It is one of my favourite tracks on the album and one which brings a smile to the face through its sheer exuberance, all I can say is ‘Set alight the lights, jive my baby!!’.
Song for Chango: An intense track of pure tribal music from South Africa, this seems to break up the continuity of the album until it slips into a bizarre soundscape of keyboards and synthesizers and then reverts to the original... just bizarre, but strangely pleasing.
Living on the Road to Soweto: A protest song of sorts, giving at one moment the bleak picture of the fraught township at the centre of South African politics in the 1980s and also a song of hope and joy celebrating the culture, dance and music of the country.
World’s Famous: My favourite track on the album comes as a highly incongruous and woefully short piece which pits the legendary Anne Dudley and the WFST in an incredible meeting of minds (which should have been an album in itself). This is Art of Noise meets rap, a funky, electronic exercise that suits many a late night drinking session for it’s wonderful signing of quality... it should have closed the album.
Duck For the Oyster: Just shit... a terrible end to a fantastic, innovative album!
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
We all have our own, specific guilty pleasures in life. Mine include a large mug of Nescafe Gold Blend and such horrors from the vault as the collected works of Hale & Pace, ‘Invisible Touch’ by Genesis, Ed McBain cop thrillers and the 1989 film Tango and Cash; but is in the realm of food that it seems the worst and scurrilous culprits lie.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
Having once been to the Liberal Democrat party conference - in the capacity of an events organiser for a political magazine - I can attest to its eccentricities. The beards, the white socks and sandals, ill-fitting worsted jackets, severe fringes and coke-bottle glasses are all there in some shape or form. I was manning a stand on the exhibition floor so I got to see it all, as well as a refreshing level of activism not seen at either of the other two parties. Here it seemed that visitors were genuinely interested in debating policy and would even engage a two-bit salesman like me in political discussion given half the chance. It was an interesting and quite enjoyable experience, not quite dominated by unions (Labour) and public affairs officers (Conservatives).
That was only two years ago, but I have been careful to follow all the party conferences on the gogglebox and monitor the development of the respective parties in a turbulent time. As king makers the liberal democrats find themselves, mid-term in a very difficult position with two options: to sink into obscurity (the polls predict they will loose at least half their seats) or enter into another coalition government (another hung parliament looks increasingly likely).