Like any genre, Punk was never about just one ‘thing’ – it was a movement made up of many moving parts. Behind the torn jeans, mohawks, leather jackets and missing teeth (thanks, mosh pits), Punk was first and foremost about the music. Initially, a reaction against the overblown pomp of Progressive Rock and Disco (and any other musical movement that the Punk kids deemed pretentious and worthy of a kick in the gonads), Punk became the most influential movement in Rock history since Elvis had his crown stolen by The Beatles in 1964. In 1976, Punk Rock scared people. However, it wasn’t meant to destroy and move on – Punk was about taking Rock back to ground zero and rebuilding it from the ground up. Punk stole the blueprint from Chuck Berry’s safe and brought Rock ‘n’ Roll back to its basic foundation. Sex Pistols was the first band to gain international notoriety, but the whole of England was soon swarming with equally important bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Jam, The Damned, et al. It was a beautiful thing. These bands knew how to write a cracking tune and that is why they are still remembered 40 years after Punk broke wide open.
There’s a hidden treasure in Haydenville, Massachusetts… and his name is Ray Mason. He’s been an active musician on the scene for more years than many of us have been alive, releasing solo albums as well as serving time as one-half of Americana duo Lonesome Brothers. Ray plays no-nonsense Rock ‘n’ Roll the way it should be played: fresh, exciting and littered with musical references from practically every genre you can think of. When throwing on a Ray Mason album for the first time, don’t be surprised if you hear a sad and sorrowful Country crier followed by a prickly rocker with a Punk edge to it. His music references everyone from Robert Johnson to The Beatles. His early influences can be found on records released by labels like Motown and Stax but don’t be surprised to find some inspiration from the Stiff and Chiswick archives as well. The best way to describe Ray’s sound is this: imagine Neil Young colliding with Nick Lowe while fronting NRBQ and performing songs telepathically channeled from David Lindley’s sideburns. If you are thoroughly confused, have no fear. Describing Ray’s charm is difficult. However, enjoying this unpretentious, humble and extremely talented man’s music is a much easier.
With over 20 albums to his name (including eight or so with Lonesome Brothers), digging into Ray’s back catalog is hugely satisfying. Normally recording with a few longtime friends as the Ray Mason Band, Ray does occasionally record albums with just his trusty Silvertone guitar. His latest plate-spinner, THE SHY REQUESTER, is one of those albums. Imagine walking into a bar, grabbing a beer, and then relaxing as you enjoy the night’s entertainment: a down-to-earth singer/songwriter plying his trade with songs that seem to reflect how you – a normal person – relate to this world. THAT is what listening to THE SHY REQUESTER is like. It is funny, sad and completely from the heart. It is also raw and loose, as you’d probably expect from an album with just voice and a Silvertone electric guitar with varying degrees of reverb. It may not shimmer and sparkle like what you hear on Top 40 radio, but Ray’s music has much more depth and honesty – even when he strips it down to its core.
And now, I’d like to introduce you to Ray… in his own words!
CAN’T TOUCH US NOW
We all grow up. Some of us try to live in the past while others are happier living in the here-and-now. Our favorite artists have it far more difficult, though. They grow older and move forward, maturing like the rest of us, yet they have fans that prefer them to stay exactly the same as they were when they first started having hits. British sextet Madness has certainly had their fair share of dealings with these types of expectations from their audience. The young adults that recorded their first two albums in ’79 and ’80 – ONE STEP BEYOND and ABSOLUTELY – began to mature by the mid-‘80s and as soon as that happened, the band’s sound evolved. Their 7 and RISE AND FALL albums signaled their new-found confidence and each of them contained some big hits (most notably, “Our House”), but their audience wanted the band to remain the Ska-influenced nutty boys of old while the band just wanted to experiment and expand upon their sound. They were still selling a lot of records six years into their career but nobody seemed to really accept that the band that recorded “Yesterday’s Men” (a fab single in 1985) was the same gang that gave them “House Of Fun,” “Baggy Trousers,” and “One Step Beyond” just a handful of years before. By 1986, Madness called it quits. Each member had personally outgrown the ‘image’ that people had of the band and they needed to shake those shackles before people could take them seriously… Thankfully, they reunited for live shows in the early ‘90s and have remained together ever since (although there have been solo and side projects released since they’ve been back). Not as prolific as they once were, a studio album from Madness is definitely cause for celebration.
Incredibly, the same six man line-up that recorded ONE STEP BEYOND in 1979 is the same line-up on their latest album, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW. That, in itself, is pretty damn impressive. This is only their fourth all-original album since WONDERFUL – their first studio ‘reunion’ album in 1999 – and their second since the critically acclaimed THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE (2009). Like RISE & FALL and NORTON FOLGATE, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW finds the band taking off their rose-colored glasses and revealing the shady underbelly of London (and British life in general). From religion and politics to lost souls in turmoil, CTUN is a trip through the darker side of jaunty. This is a raw look at the real world by middle aged men who still know how to easily craft Pop gems that ‘feel’ like classic Madness songs but reveal different layers with each listen. Lee “El Thommo” Thompson’s sax still blurts and swings; Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman’s guitar still twangs and stings; Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson’s keyboard work is so highly under-rated; Daniel “Woody” Woodgate and Mark “Bedders” Bedford are still one of the most creative rhythm sections in Pop/Rock; and Graham “Suggs” McPherson remains the ultimate front-man – you’ll always get an equal mix of tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve.
“Mr. Apples” is a worthy first single but the real meat in CTUN reveals itself over repeated spins. “Good Times,” “(Don’t Let Them) Catch You Crying,” “You Are My Everything,” and the title track are the ones that hit you first, slowly giving way to a host of other gems like “Pam The Hawk,” “Blackbird,” and “Soul Denying”. While a slow-burning album may not be welcome in a digital-on-demand world where everyone feels like they are entitled to their instant gratification right now, CTUN ultimately pays off big time for Madness fans and those who love thoughtful, well-crafted albums. If you’re looking for “Our House,” “It Must Be Love,” etc., go buy the old albums. This is an album created by six guys who gratefully acknowledge their past but prefer to move forward. For the record, I kept getting a feeling that this might be the band’s studio swan song… but I hope not!
NOTE: While I haven’t mentioned it above, I did want to address one issue: Although not an “official” member of Madness on their debut album, Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth became an integral piece of the Madness puzzle from 1980 onwards. Sadly, he has chosen to take a break from Madness and his presence is most certainly missed on this album – much like when bassist Bedford and guitarist Foreman took separate brief sabbaticals from the band in the past.
Also, read Part One of my MADNESS overview, which takes a look at a very British band from an American teenager’s point of view. You can find it HERE!
I interviewed Neil Finn a few years back and told him – off the record – that he and his brother Tim were ‘ordinary men with extraordinary talents.’ He replied with a chuckle, “I’ll take that!” While listening to the Deluxe 2CD Editions of all seven of Crowded House’s studio albums, I’m reminded about just how accurate my description of the Finns was… and is. While Tim and Neil are both exceptional at making music, their paths as artists have pulled them in slightly different directions. Tim has remained the more serious of the two while Neil still retains a playful energy that has been apparent since his days with Split Enz. Tim has always been the one ‘in charge’ (i.e. the big brother) while Neil has played the role of the more sensitive and unpredictable little brother. In a sense, he always seemed to be in awe of his older brother but not fully aware that he is every bit his equal. Regardless of commercial success, the Finn Brothers remain enormously talented and inspiring artists. However, I’ll focus on Neil’s Crowded House output for now (which includes a few significant appearances from Tim)…
So…. what do we have here?
A brand-skankin’-new album from The Beat? No, not Paul Collins and Co. – they are officially known as Paul Collins’ Beat. And no, not Dave Wakeling and Co. – we call them The English Beat over here. This album is actually by Wakeling’s former partner in crime Ranking Roger and his UK-based version of The Beat/English Beat. If you want to get technical about it, this album is by The Beat featuring Ranking Roger.
Are you thoroughly confused already? Sorry ‘bout that…
I honestly have no idea why Mental As Anything – the Australian Rock quintet – are not superstars. And if not superstars, they should at least be a huge cult band beloved by music fans around the world. Or, at the very least, adored by fans of classic Pop acts like Nick Lowe, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, etc. Now that the Mentals are just about to celebrate their 40th Anniversary in 2017, it’s about time that the world started paying a lot more attention to them. They are truly one of the finest bands to emerge from Down Under in the last… err… 40+ years! Their blend of rootsy Rock and melodic Pop places them firmly between Nick Lowe’s side of Rockpile and Squeeze circa ’79 to ’81. The Mentals’ quirky sense of humor also fits that same comparison. However, the band were/are their own ‘thing’ and comparing them to other artists is ultimately unfair. While their music is filled with liberal nods to Rock ‘n’ Roll’s past, they don’t sound like any other band, past or present. Sure, you can hear their influences but it is hard to pinpoint any particular artist that may have inspired them along the way. Mental As Anything are true originals. They evolved over the years, adding more elements into their sound but they have never deviated too far from the sound that put them on the Oz map.
Peggy Lee had been a successful jazz vocalist for 33 years before she went into the studio to cut LET’S LOVE for Atlantic Records in 1974. With a career dating back to 1941, Peggy was still a respected jazz vocalist even though her albums weren’t selling as well as they once had. When Capitol Records dropped her in 1972 after 15 years of continuous service (2-3 albums per year), some may have thought that Lee would have spent the rest of her career playing nightclubs and appearing on Jerry Lewis telethons, but luck was always on Peggy’s side. And this time, her lucky charm was the cute Beatle, Paul McCartney, who penned and produced the album’s title track. By this time, Peggy was in her mid-50s and her vocal performances were far more subdued and intimate, which lent themselves perfectly to this lovely, lilting melody. Sounding like something penned for the McCARTNEY or RAM album, the song is a haunting gem and definitely worth the price of the album alone. Thankfully, there are plenty of other great tracks to enjoy on LET’S LOVE. Melissa Manchester’s “He Is The One,” the Stylistics’ classic “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (penned by Thom Bell and Linda Creed), Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the Dave Grusin/Peggy Lee co-write “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” are other highlights. While the album might be classified as Jazz, there are definitely elements of Soul, Funk and Pop spread evenly over the tracks. Unlike many modern Jazz artists, Lee was open to taking chances and working outside the box during her career. In fact, her next album would consist of Leiber and Stoller covers! With musical assistance from Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Harvey Mason, Chuck Rainey and others, LET’S LOVE is a fine addition to Lee’s vast catalog and certainly of interest to McCartney/Beatles collectors!
NOTE: This Wounded Bird reissue reproduces the Rhino Handmade edition and includes four bonus tracks from the same sessions including an alternate version of the title track.
Peace, love and pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Milwaukee’s Plasticland – founded by Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic (who has since left the band) – have remained unjustly overlooked for years… yet they have also been absolutely adored by critics off and on since they first formed some 36 years ago. The band has managed to stay on the fringe of the Alternative Rock scene but have never been fully treated like the Psych-Rock/Garage icons that they are. And I’m sure this review isn’t going to inspire a mass pilgrimage to the record store but if it piques the interest of a few of you, then we’re getting somewhere! Even though they signed to the esteemed Enigma Records in 1984, Plasticland couldn’t be bothered to cater to the mainstream. Their blend of Acid, Garage and Psych Rock wasn’t merely a tribute to the sounds that they loved – it was obvious that this music was part of their DNA. The band was capable of writing catchy songs with a built-in atmosphere that sounded both retro and modern at the same time. Perhaps that is why their recordings remain timeless today. Plasticland are to Psyche what The Fleshtones are to Frat/Garage Rock and The Cramps are to sweaty, swampy, primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll. They could have sold out in their early days and become ‘the new R.E.M.’ like a host of their contemporaries. Thankfully, they chose to stick to their guns and remain Plasticland.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST(WORLD):
As the leader of British outfit The Pack, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kirk Brandon’s unique musical vision was far too adventurous to be constrained by the limits of Punk Rock so he folded that band and moved forward with new ideas. By 1980, he had formed Theatre Of Hate, which included bassist Stan Stammers, saxophonist John Lennard, guitarist Steve Guthrie and drummer Luke Rendle. During their first two years of existence, the band released a few studio singles as well as a live album, HE WHO DARES WINS. By the time the band entered the studio to work on their debut full length, Guthrie had departed and Brandon took over all guitar duties. With The Clash’s Mick Jones in the producer’s chair, TOH began work on what would become a milestone in Post Punk history – WESTWORLD! With a mix of tribal rhythms, Spaghetti Western riffs, Post Punk guitar slashing and Brandon’s passionate wailing, Theatre Of Hate was a band unlike any other. While the band was known for their live performances, they took on a different form in the studio. Pre-dating his Big Audio Dynamite recordings, Mick Jones brought a lot of his experimental ideas to the sessions, which worked extremely well with Brandon’s vision. The end result is still being talked about today…
While TOH folded in 1983 – making way for Kirk’s next project, Spear Of Destiny – their musical legacy lives on. The band has reformed with various line-ups over the years and are now making waves again with both a new album (KINSHI) and a deluxe three CD edition of WESTWORLD. This excellent reissue on Cherry Red includes a remastered version of the album alongside non-album singles, Peel Sessions, alternate mixes and a live concert taped during the WESTWORLD tour. Still sounding fresh and invigorating, this expanded edition is the definitive version of an album that helped pioneer Post Punk in the UK.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee sent off a few questions to Kirk Brandon, who was gracious enough to take the time to respond…
Back in the ‘glory days’ of Rock music – the ‘60s through the ‘80s – listeners were assaulted on Top 40 radio by ‘protest’ and ‘political’ music wrapped up in a good melody. From Bob Dylan to The Clash – just to name two of many – artists were inserting thought-provoking messages into those catchy tunes that you hummed throughout the day. Politics has weaved its way into lyrics for decades but when those artists became mainstream, their messages were embraced and understood by some while others remained blissfully unaware. And while politics has remained a hot topic in music ever since, there is very little that makes it into the Top 40 these days. But do people listen to radio anymore? Think about it – radio, the greatest platform for messages from the heart, has become a desolate desert of manufactured, mindless nonsense. Then again, people do like to feel safe and comfortable, so you can’t fault them for that…