Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Everybody's on Top Of The Pops!

January 08 saw the death of someone who was probably more influential than anyone in setting me off on the road of a lifetime of obsessive record collecting. It wasn't a singer, musician or producer, nor was it a friend who showed me the path on how to keep yourself permanently broke. Nope, it was Cy Leslie, who founded Pickwick Records in 1950.

As a small child I don't think I really came into contact with 'new' records much. Sure my parents had quite a few, but they had all been bought when they were younger, and they didn't really add to their collection much when I came along. You can't fail to come into contact with CDs these days, a visit to a petrol station, supermarket, card shop, newsagent or post office are all likely to bring you in contact with em. But in the early 70's 'proper' records were predominantly for 'proper' record shops, and my parents didn't go in them. Pretty much the only exception to that rule was the spinning rack of Pickwick records.

I'm not sure how old I was when I first became aware of the Pickwick 'spinner', but I could only have been 4 or 5. The first one I remember was in the local supermarket (The Home and Colonial). It contained a selection of low budget LPs (which I wasn't really interested in at the time), and some brightly coloured 4 track 7" singles for kids - which I was very interested in! (these had their own 'Mr Pickwick' branding, complete with a friendly cartoon of the famous Dickens character). The kiddie singles were even cynically placed in the bottom row of the spinner, to ensure all the toddlers spotted them! I didn't get one on every visit to the supermarket, but I didn't do bad!

For me, Pickwick were the saintly equivalent of a dealer who stands outside a school - and both must have had a similar mantra... Get 'em early with a few cheap purchases, then once they are hooked, they'll be paying top dollar for the hard stuff! So 2 or 3 years later, when the interest in the kiddie singles was waning, I moved into phase two of the Pickwick range, the Top of the Pops 'sound-a-like' albums. An obligatory item for every charity shop and boot sale these days, but the number still floating around shows just how popular these albums once were. Between 1968 and 1979, Pickwick released a TOTPs albums every six weeks (91 volumes in total), each containing 12 'sound-a-like' versions of the very latest chart hits. Astonishingly, each album was recorded in less than 4 days, and it is common knowledge that a number of future stars appeared on them (Elton John, Rod Stewart etc).

It's weird to believe now, but in the early 70's there was no such thing as the chart 'compilation album'. It was buy the 7" singles or nothing. My pocket money didn't stretch to many 7" singles, so 12 hits on an album for less than a quid was a 'must have' bargain! The fact it wasn't the original artist didn't seem to matter much then (we were simple folk in simple times!). And what a great leveller they were too - they were the i-Pod shuffle of the 70's, where the (fake) Sex Pistols were followed by the Bee Gees, The Goodies, Clive Dunn, Blondie and Demis Roussos! With almost certainly the same musicians appearing on each track!

There is some real muse-o snobbery around these albums - no doubt from people who slam them as inferior, then happily attend a 'tribute act' concert, or sit down to enjoy Stars in Their Eyes on the box! They are seen as absolute tat these days, yet they once sold by the shedload (300,000 a piece at their peak) - in fact in the early years, the album charts used to be full of these LPs, until the 'proper' record companies complained, and had the chart rules changed, so the TOTP albums could no longer qualify. The legit labels weren’t the only ones to have their nose put out of joint by these albums, the BBC were miffed at the use of the title 'Top of the Pops' - however this was completely their own fault, as the Beeb had neglected to register the name. Sharp work by the Pickwick legal department! The Beeb were no doubt less than pleased with the design of the covers too, as each contained a model who looked like she'd just stepped out of Pans People. Sales started to dwindle in the late 70's (mainly due to companies like K-Tel and Ronco starting to release compilations featuring the real artists) and in 1979 they stopped making them. They did try to revive the idea in the mid 80's, but unsurprisingly, they didn't sell.
By about the age of 10 or 11, I had moved into the final phase of the Pickwick scene - the budget 'original artist' album. Slowly but surely, Pickwick had started to bolster this section of the label - picking up defunct albums from the back-catalogues of the major labels. It was around this time that I got completely obsessed with Elvis, but even then an LP was pretty expensive, and I struggled to buy much of his RCA material. Pickwicks re-issuing of Presley albums (often under their Hallmark label) was perfectly timed to meet my insatiable demand for 'the king', and I regularly trundled off to Woolworths with a pound note to purchase another addition.
Like a kindly old gent who nurtures sick animals and releases them back to the wild, Mr Pickwick finally set me free into the big world of record collecting around 1980, by which time I had been well and truly bitten by the bug. My Vinyl must have been 80% Pickwick and Hallmark at that point (and I still have them all today!), but I'd already decided that record collecting was the greatest hobby in the world (I still do!).


Monday, 21 January 2008

No More Heroes?

I mentioned in an earlier post about my obsession with real-life superheroes… and when we're going to get one!! (you can read the full article here).

So whilst idly flicking through the Sky box over Christmas, you'll perhaps understand why a show titled 'Who Wants To Be A Superhero' caught my eye! It transpired that the Sci-Fi Channel were doing a marathon run of this US reality TV show, screening all 8 episodes over a couple of days. At 1st glance it looked like the very cheesiest of the cheesy, but it was hosted by one of my all time heroes, Stan Lee (creator of the X-Men, Spiderman, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and more), so I thought I'd give it 5 minutes… 3 hours later I kinda realised I liked it!!

The programme started off much like a lycra-clad X-Factor. An arena full of hopefuls in home-made costumes, all vying for a place in the finals. The rules were simple, contestants needed a name for their superhero, a costume and the 'origins' of the character. And what a prize on offer for the lucky winner… a brand new comic title would be released, staring our very latest hero (and written by Stan himself), and a special Sci-Fi Channel movie would be made featuring the character (played of course by the winning contestant).

Pretty soon we were down to the final 12, ready to enter 'the lair' (a cross between the Big Brother house and the Batcave!). Once encaserated, Stan started to set our heroic ones daily task, to help him whittle down the numbers. The tasks were the real genius of the show, and almost always had an alteria motive…. One in particular saw the remaining contestants (about 9 or 10 by this point) in what looked like a theme park. It's common knowledge that nobody ever sees Peter Parker or Clark Kent transform into their alter-ego. Therefore the task was for them to change from their civi's into their superhero costume (by this time, Stan had replaced all the homemade costumes with professional, film quality ones) without being seen, then belt it to the finish line as quickly as possible. A test of cunning, agility and speed (or so it seemed). One by one, each contestant was dropped into the park and the stopwatch began. Some very inventive 'changes' took place, followed by some pretty nifty speed. However, what most of them failed to see was the small distressed child, conveniently placed on the route of their 'home sprint'. Only 2 heroes spotted the child, forfeiting their race against the clock to safely escort her to security. Of course, it transpired that it was only the two who stopped who 'won' the task - as Stan pointed out to the team afterwards, real superheroes always put others before themselves, no matter what the consequences.

And in some shape or form, all the tasks were geared like that, and it soon became apparent that the essence of this programme wasn't really about finding the next Spiderman at all, it was actually about finding what used to be called in England an all round 'bloody good egg'! Not so much super-human abilities, more inner qualities. Maybe I was still immersed in the Christmas spirit, but it was this celebration of old fashion values that really made the programme (and SOME of the contestants) so endearing. We are so used to reality TV shows that bring the worst out in people, with their staple diet of back-stabbing, bitching and appalling behaviour in a effort to screw the other contestants and grab the prize. Wonderful role-models for our young indeed.

By the time the show had got down to the last 4, I'd have been happy for any of them to win it, but in the end, I think the best man really did win. Matthew Atherton (with his alter-ego Feedback) conducted himself impeccably throughout, and was genuinely a fan of comic book superheroes. In fact it transpired that tragically he had lost his father when he was a child, and in his absence, adopted Peter Parker (Spiderman) as a role model and father figure in his early years. A throwaway line from Stan in one episode, where he said something like "nice work son", reduced Matthew to genuine tears, as he pointed out to Mr Lee that nobody had called him that in a very long time.

Fast forward to a week or two ago, and I'm messing about on MySpace and genuinely stumble on Matthew's page. I drop him a quick line, not really expecting to hear anything back, but receive a wonderfully warm reply. It seems Stan really did pick the right guy, as Matthew excitedly told me of everything he'd been up to since winning the show. He pointed me to his website, and in particular his merchandise page, and requested that if I was thinking about buying the comic, would I consider buying it from him. The reason? Matthew is donating profits from all his merchandise to the 'Make A Wish' charity, and told me that from sales so far he'd "raised enough money to grant two entire wishes for kids who might not be with us much longer". Matthew has been keeping pretty busy since winning the show... In between numerous personal appearances, he's appeared in a Sci-Fi Channel movie (part of his prize) and been working with the audio drama company BrokenSea, producing free podcasts of the continuing adventures of his character. Shocker Toys are currently producing a Feedback action figure, due out any time now!

In answer to the question I posed back in September 2007, "when will we ever have a real-life superhero?" I think I've found him, his name is Matthew Atherton.


Vist the official Feedback website here

Visit Matthews MySpace page here

Download free Feedback audio adventures here


Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Best of 2007 (Part 2)

The second part of my favourite CDs from 2007.

Mark Ronson - Version (released April 2007)

Possibly a surprise inclusion for some of those who know me. The complete flipside of an album such as The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Damon Albarn's release really made you work for the rewards, but this album was an instant payout.

Despite my dislike for lazy, insipid covers (and with millions of songs to chose from, how come these reality TV show winners always release CDs with the same tracks on??!!), I'm a big fan of the cover version. My criteria for a good one is simple (yet rarely carried out!!):

- It shouldn't be an exact copy of the original. If it is, why bother covering it??

- It shouldn't be SO different, that you don't recognise the song any more

- The artist should (if they are of the right quality) be able to stamp their authority on it, and without changing it completely, make it sound like their own song.

As predominantly a covers album, this CD has a couple of interesting, quirky slants - the main one being that a few of the covers are sung by the original artists! Not every track is a winner, but the good far outweigh the bad.

The album kicks off with an instrumental version of Coldplays 'God Put a Smile Upon Your Face' - which despite being instantly recognisable, you'd swear came directly from one of those funky Studio 2 recordings from the 60's and 70's. The biggest surprise proved to me that 2 wrongs can indeed make a right, as an artist I'm not keen on sings a song I don't like to produce an absolute stormer! Yup, Mark's collaboration with Amy Winehouse convinced me that the Zutons' Valerie should have been a Motown hit of the 60's! Lilly Allen is also on hand to help cover The Kaiser Chiefs Oh My God, which she does in her tried and tested 'chav serving you in McDonalds' voice ("it dow matta ta me-eee"). Its not a bad cover by any means, but it's a shame it wasn't the far superier version Mark performed on The Jonathan Ross Show over Christmas, where Chief, erm, Kaiser Chief and Candie Payne shared the vocals. Maximo Park and Kasabian both contribute new vocals to Ronson re-workings of their own tracks. Worst track by far is Robbie Williams attempting to do The Charlatans, The Only One I Know. His voice isn't up to it and he just comes across like a Tim Burgess sound-a-likey on Stars in their Eyes.

It’s a real mish-mash of an album, with something for pretty much everyone included… everyone that is except possibly Morrissey fans! I love the fact that he dared to cover The Smiths on it (an odd mix of The Smiths' Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before and The Supremes' You Just Keep Me Hanging On with vocals by Daniel Merriweather), which prompted some upset die-hard Smiths fans to actually send him death threats (one particularly jovial fan told him 'I want to stab you in the eye.'… nice!). Of course by being so ridiculous, this minority of idiotic fans are simply helping to confirming that stereotypical image that all Smiths fan have had to suffer with for years. Anyway, I know of at least one Morrissey fan who thought the cover was fab! (she is currently in hiding alongside Osama Bin-Laden!!).

If you missed the performance on Jonathan Ross, you can check it out right here!

The Wolfmen - 5 Track Promo\Sampler
Although not strictly an official release from 2007, this 5 track sampler gave me a lot of pleasure at the back end of last year. See my review of the CD here for full details.

Marc Almond - Stardom Road (released June 2007)
What can I say about Marc Almond? He's been at the very centre of my love of music for over 25 years, and still he keeps coming up with the goods. Marc has always been a prolific writer, but a near-fatal motorbike accident in 2004 left him with brain injuries that rendered him unable to compose (something I'm pleased to say is now starting to ease).

So, after dozens of operations and 3 years of intensive rehabilitation (and with the 'imposed' writers block in mind), 2007 seemed the ideal time for him to release an album of cover versions. I must admit that I was a little concerned when this project was first announced - recent lazy, lacklustre cover albums from the likes of Rod Steward, Michael Bolton, Russell Watson, X-Factor contestants etc have left a nasty taste in the mouth. But I needn't have worried, Marc is much more than cheap rip-offs of over used tracks. What we actually got were personal, re-interpretations of mostly little known classics that have influenced Marc over the last 50 years (in fact, the majority of the songs included are so obscure that the casual listener would be forgiven for assuming it was mostly new self-penned material).

From a 'twin peaks-esque' Dream Lover to a simply beautiful version of Third World War's Stardom Road, Marc takes these songs and makes them his own. Although a 50 piece orchestra was used for the album, the production is beautifully understated, creating the perfect atmopshere for Marcs 'off-centre' take on these songs. Marc has made a career out of 'doom and gloom' songs where every silver lining has a cloud, but this album is truly uplifting and inspiring (it's amazing what nearly dying can do to you!). There is not a bad track on here, but the stand out one for me (and probably my favourite song from the whole of 2007) was his version of Charles Aznavour's I Have Lived. Oddly, I actually have the original of this song in my vinyl collection, but it had never struck a chord with me before (although I doubt the lyrics would have hit me so much back in my 20's as they do now in my 40's!). Hats off to Mr Az, these lyrics are so touching and thought provoking - In fact I now know this is the song I want played at my funeral! I was like a teenager with this record, playing it over and over continually, and have still yet to tire of it.

2007 also marked the 1st live shows for Marc since the accident, and this album formed the centrepiece of these dazzling concerts.

So that's my top 6 Cds that were released in 2007. However the vast majority of CDs I purchased last year were 'back catalogue', and I don't think I can finish without mentioning at least a couple that really hit the spot.

2007 was officially the year of the Marc's (Almond and Bolan), and there was a big 'Bolan buzz' at Piley Towers throughout much of the year. Most of my Bolan collection has always been on Vinyl, but thanks mostly to Amazon 'new and used', I've now finally rectified that! I love almost all of Marc's albums, but the recent Edsel re-releases of the later albums, with a full extra cd of alternative takes and rarities was just too tempting. However it was Slider that I really fell in love with all over again, and it became the soundtrack to my summer. It's definitely Bolan's best work, and one of the greatest pop\rock album ever. Every track is so darn perfect, and it can happily be left on 'repeat' for days without annoying you!

I'd always liked what I'd heard of Barry Ryan (Eloise is the obvious track), but had never really investigated his work seriously. In 2007 I spotted that his 1st 2 albums (Barry Ryan Singing The Songs Of Paul Ryan - 1968 and Barry Ryan - 1969) had been re-issued on one disc so thought I'd give it a go - to be honest I expected to give it a couple of plays, be a bit non-plussed and then file it (never to be played again!). But what I got was quite simply a revelation! Ryan has gotten a raw deal over the years.. Whilst similar acts such as Scott Walker have been elevated to legendary status (and rightly so), Barry has remained languishing in the 'cheesey 60's pop' category (possibly due to his earlier 'pop' career as a duo with his brother Paul). But some of the material included on these two albums is right up there with the best of those 60's torch singers. I couldn't believe the quality of this disc, it's all very orchestrated, and OTT, but no more so that Scott Walker.

It's a long CD (24 tracks), but as soon as it finished I had to keep re-playing it, and if I went out I took it with me to play in the car. I think it kept me going for the best part of a month! One of the best ten pounds I've ever spent! This album lead to a spending frenzy, as I picked up a number of other Ryan CDs - alas, everything else available are just various compilations, and his other 'proper' albums all remain unreleased on CD.

Here is Barry Ryan with the wonderfully OTT Kitch


Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Best of 2007 (Part 1)

Well, Unbelievably, yet another year has gone by. In these depressing times of real music being nudged out of the CD racks by reality TV show winners (AND losers!), it's heartening to know that good music is still out there… even if you do have to dig a bit deeper and search a bit harder to find it at times. This was going to be my Top 5 CDs of 2007, but I've had to bend the rules slightly, as I just couldn't quite narrow it down to 5! So it's gonna have to be my favourite 6 from last year.

Ash – Twilight of the Innocents (Released July 2007)
Ash are one of those band who, despite owning all of their albums, I always seem to forget how good they are - yet to date I have never been disappointed with any of their output (far from it). Last years release was the first since the departure of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley (after a 9 year stint), and Ash are once again back to the original trio that formed 16 years ago (YES, SIXTEEN!!!). They have an uncanny knack of producing sublime, beautiful and noisy tunes that are instantly memorable. In later years, sparing use of strings have been weaved into their distinctive sound to create their very own brand of anthems. This Cd shows the band are in top form at the moment, and contains some exceptional tunes, in particular Polaris and Twilight of the Innocents. Rave reviews all round, and many have said this is their best album since their debut, 1977. Probably the best thing about this album, was it re-igniting my passion for the band in general, and it instigated a spell of several weeks where I reacquainted myself with their earlier work, and in particular Meltdown, which for me is their finest (and nosiest!) album.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Baby 81 (Released April 2007)
When these guys hit the scene back in the late 90's, they completely blew me away. I saw them live quite a bit at the time, and each time was mesmerised by the intensity of their sound. Two fantastic albums were released (B.R.M.C and Take Them On, On Your Own) but then it all went wrong with the 3rd one, Howl - and odd folky\country kinda thing that was truly awful! I've continued to play those 1st 2 albums throughout, but to be honest, did not expect to be adding to them. Alarm bells were ringing the moment I learnt of the release of this album - but I'm delighted to report the boys are back on top, ear-splitting form. Howl was a blip, and the BRMC 'wall of noise' is back with a vengeance. A Strong album throughout, but if you really push me, best tracks might be Weapon of Choice and Not What You Wanted.

The Good, The Bad and The Queen - The Good, The Bad and The Queen (Released January 2007).

Damon Albarn has been treading the fine line between self indulgence and genuine genius for some time now, but I'm a firm believer that he has remained in the latter category throughout. You can't argue that he hasn't been involved in some pretty diverse project in recent years, and this album continued that trend. Billed (not by him) as a supergroup (as well as Albarn, the band includes Paul Simonon - The Clash, Tony Allen - Africa 70/Fela Kuti and Simon Tong - The Verve), expectations were high for this release. After an initial listen I was unconvinced, and started to think maybe he'd finally tipped the scales into self indulgence, but after a few more plays, it was one of the best things I'd heard from Damon in many a year. An eerie atmosphere is present throughout this album, and it does not make for 'easy' listening…. It is however, essential listening (in the Piley household at least!). As his 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was a statement on Britain in 1993, so The Good, The Bad and The Queen is Damon's lecture about the London of now. It's a sobering album, and needs a little patience to get the best out of it, but it is well worth the time invested in it. Standout tracks? Hmm, again no fillers here, but you've got to go a long way to beat Kingdom of Doom or Herculean.

I'll post the final three in a few days time - in the meantime, let me know your musical highlights of 2007.


Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Shameless Self Promotion!

Well it's the 1st day of a brand new year, and the very first e-mail I received in 2008 was from the comedy website chortle, telling me they had just published the article I submitted to them. If you fancy a look, you can view it here.

If you're quick, there is currently a link to it on the front page (click here), although you do have to scroll right to the bottom to see it (under the 'correspondents' section). The piece is titled 'Chuck Out The Chintz'.

Regular readers may find the article somewhat familiar, as it is a bastardised version of my Ross Noble review from October - but there was £75 on offer, and I'm not proud!! I cut it about to make it a little more generic, but it WAS readable. Unfortunately the Chortle boys (&\or girls) have given it a further pruning, and in the process have fucked it up little, but hey-ho!