Thursday, 19 December 2013

Soft Rock Follies... a love of the laid back and righteous

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 By this stage former frontman Tom Johnston had been replaced by Michael Macdonald (with his idiosyncratic vocals) and it shows in the more romantic songwriting and the slicker production.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.’ 

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

Taipan II - Freefall

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…

I woke up on the morning of 10th November, definitely a few beans short of a full tin. The night before had been heavy, memories of power ballads and crap American beer swirled around my mind. It seemed as if this city was one giant party without much respite. My host was also feeling slightly the worst for wares but we had a very de rigeur brunch planned to which we needed to get to and it would not wait. So, donning a very stylish pink and white striped shirt and some well appointed navy blue cords it was up and at ‘em. 

Zuma is slap bang in the Central district and, as I was assured, was THE place to be seen on a Sunday – especially at ‘Brunchtime’. Some of my more ‘trendy’ readers will have heard of the London outlet of this ultra-modern purveyor of Japanese cuisine already so will be well aware of the offerings available. For those not familiar, here was the form. 

For roughly £50 - £60 per person, you were treated to a two-hour feast of sushi and Champagne, something you would never see at the London branch! After being ushered to our table and having had our first (of many) Bellinis (Champagne and peach juice) poured for us, we were directed to a gargantuan smorgasbord of sushi and other delicacies from the sea including oysters on the half shell, bone-fresh salmon and tuna sashimi, delicate raw prawn nigiri and of course their famed fried soft shell crab nori rolls, just to name a few of the unbeatable eatables that we stuffed our faces with. Of course the Bellinis were continuously refilled by a clock-watching waiter who wanted to make sure that we didn’t outstay the two-hour limit on our table. 

As it was my birthday and I was feeling in somewhat of a ‘devil may care’ mood I decided that I would indulge in a flask of chilled sake. It slipped down easily, far too easily, but I was yet to feel the wine’s effects. 

Brunch marched on and we were hassled by the waiter when they saw we had ½ hour before our table needed to be turned around and yet more ravenous guests took our place. After a quick order we were given some delicious plates of sirloin steak and seared salmon, so fresh, so delicious, over in but a moment… soon the tetchy waiter returned and following a quick pudding of fruit and ice cream (gimmicky, served on ice blocks) we decided that we had finally come to the end of our welcome at this establishment. 

Next it was time to realise one of the few ambitions that I had for my trip, ‘The Captain’s Bar’ at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the place for poseurs like me to be seen ordering cocktails and exuding a general air of pomposity. 

If you’ve not been into the ‘Captain’s Bar’ then I would certainly urge you to earmark it if you ever happen to find yourself in Hong Kong. Yes, you could take the view that, once you have seen one luxurious hotel bar you’ve seen them all, but there is a fantastic, rarefied atmosphere punctuated by chesterfield sofas and a bizarre smattering of brass and frosted glass with chess board motif. Although they nostalgically serve beer in metal tankards (not a drinking medium of which I am overly fond) I was here for their expertly made cocktails. Still, I was quite happy and foolish to base this cocktail madness on a solid grounding of Canadian Club on crushed ice, after which followed an onslaught of two potent, expertly-made Negronis (a heady mix of gin, Campari and red vermouth over ice with a twist of orange peel) of which my drinking companions (there were three of us in total) were happy to join in on followed by a punchy and quite challenging Bullshot (A healthy measure of vodka on ice, topped up with beef bouillon and seasoned much in the same way as a Bloody Mary). The conversation was fast, expert and erudite… at least that’s what I thought by the fourth drink – sushi, although being delicious, provides a terrible basis for hard drinking! 

The night, like the one previously then spiralled into a mixture of bars, outlandish claims, resolutions that would never happen, tumbling off bar stools and generally causing mayhem as only a pint-sized, drunken tourist knows how. But what a birthday... and one to which I am entirely indebted to Q--- for both his generosity and hospitality (quite possibly the best yet… but don’t tell him that!). Let’s just say that the evening turned into a hazy blur as my metabolism attempted to deal with the various wines, whiskies and spirits which sloshed around my system. 


This cycle couldn’t continue though, after all, I was no longer a fresher. Both Q--- and I could stand it no longer and, deciding that I was much in need of some exercise and a glimpse of HK beyond the bounds of the central district, my host decided that we should go on a hike to clear the system of all the ‘free radicals’ that we had subjected ourselves to over the course of the weekend. After all, I was 26 now and as such I should really start behaving as such holiday or no holiday! 

One of my only gripes was the route that we took, a route which, on most days would have encompassed something that I would have been gagging to do. The wet market is quite a site, if you’ve not seen one before it is an assault on the olfactory senses and certainly not something for the faint hearted. 

The pungent whiff of dried fish maws, buckets full of entrails, half formed chickens eggs and fermented cabbage combine to make a veritably vile combination of sensory displeasure that feels five times worse when combined with the mother-of-all hangovers. We made a beeline through alleyway after alleyway of these exotic and highly unpleasant sights an smells as locals haggled with chattering butchers, gleefully lopping of the heads of live chickens or slicing delicately through a still gasping fish. Certainly not a place for any Greenpeace activist to find kindred spirits. Traders were pushing carts at breakneck speed down the crowded, sloping streets, declaiming jokes and witty anecdotes loudly for all and sundry to register and laugh loudly at… although, not speaking the language, it was somewhat lost on me! 

Next came the tram, an overhang of times gone past but a popular one, we were packed in like sardines and I came over rather grumpy as this relic of a bygone age shunted along through the congested highroads of Hong Kong at a snails pace. Yet it gave us a chance to take in the city in all its majesty, full of the hustle and bustle of daily life drinking in the eccentric, eclectic range of shops selling everything from furniture to prawn Foo Yong. 

This gentle ride was soon at an end and we found ourselves in a rather more uninspiring district – the name of which escapes me now – full of high rise tower blocks and drab colours, the gateway to our walk. As we walked the route became more and more industrial and the grey skies above loomed more ominously. Soon we were at a forbidding concrete monolith, the city graveyard, it was like something out of a fantasy, a rising wall of tombs stretching out in terraces most of the way up the mountain. With the strong wind and the close clouds it was a gloomy, quiet place intermittently punctuated by the sound of intense building work and the lonely caw of carrion birds. 

Step followed step, followed step followed step as we made our ascent of this still graveyard up the slope, reaching heavenwards with eerie, concrete-laden grandeur – a real juxtaposition from the hustle and bustle of Soho and Central. We were hungover and the stillness was somewhat oppressive, the start of this walk seemed nowhere to be found, each stairway taken, each meander of the road followed seemed to yield more concrete terraces and more elaborate graves. The smell of incense wafted lightly in the breeze, burning away in a spooky, brutalist mausoleum when we realised we had been bearing in quite the wrong direction. 

After a short series of swear words, a little deft backtracking and negotiating our way around a cement mixer we finally found the track on which I was informed by Q--- that I shouldn’t be afraid of the numerous large spiders and snakes that ‘could’ be encounter en route.  ‘Gulp’ I thought to myself as I braced myself for the steep climb on what was promised to be a short walk. The beads of sweat started to drip down my face in the humidity of the jungle line as I realised how unfit that I was, it was clear that I needed some exercise of the limbs as opposed to the internal organs by the time I got home!

It was a relatively gentle walk and by goodness was it breathtaking! After breaking through the jungle canopy we were walking above the tree-line on the ridge of the most marvellous mountains, The Dragon’s Back a dramatic ridge overlooking the Eastern edge of Hong Kong Island, out across to sea. It was extremely windy up there and we were occasionally afeard that we would be blown by a sudden gust over the cliff and out to sea, trim and slight fellows as we were. It was all very striking but after 2 hours of this combined with my shit, hungover banter we reached the end of the trek and caught a bus back into town to grab a bite to eat and see if we could just about manage a very tentative beer

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…