Tuesday, August 28, 2018

America Invades an Ally

Associates. Aztec Camera. The Bluebells. The Cure. The (English) Beat. Erasure. Everything But the Girl. Fad Gadget. The Farm. James. Madness. Modern English. My Bloody Valentine. The Rezillos. Ride. Pet Shop Boys. Primal Scream. The Soup Dragons. The Undertones. The Wild Swans. Yaz. These are just a few of the UK bands Seymour Stein's Sire Records brought to America. An impressive list, but of all Steins's UK imports, the ones he most seems proud of, based on space given in his memoir, are Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, the Smiths and, especially, Echo & the Bunnymen. It has been a while since we have had Soft Cell on these pages. Let's listen to the duo today.

In his book 'Siren Song: My Life in Music,' Stein's description of the Soft Cell frontman in 1981 is unforgettable, if not apt. "Marc Almond was absolutely the gayest Englishman I'd ever seen, which is saying something. It didn't make a difference if he was on- or offstage, he minced about in leather costumes, wearing this dirty grin like he'd just stepped out of the toilet of an S&M bar. I loved him. He was one of those 'I yam what I yam' characters but with a unique voice that made everything he sang his own." Stein called 'Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret' "brilliantly filthy party music but with really romping, singable tunes."

Stein thought "Tainted Love" could be a hit in America, but he didn't quite expect this "dirty English joke" and "ass-spanking piece of vinyl" to be bought "by Yanks in places like Colorado and Texas. There really is no business like show business." Stein's favorite from the boys, however, was "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," and he did everything he could to make it a hit over here. When it didn't happen, a few years later, he even tried to get hot new band A-ha to cover it. Hmm. Stein has a hell of an ear, but I'm not sure about that one. Stein describes the song as "a slow burner," but "its stunning chorus sent shivers down my spine." Now there we are in complete agreement.

Say Hello Wave Goodbye

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Two Stars Resurrected on Sire

Sometimes we forget, but two of Seymour Stein's greatest reclamation projects came in the late '80s with the signatures of Lou Reed and Brian Wilson. In his book 'Siren Song: My Life in Music,' Stein describes Wilson's 1988 self-titled solo album as a "million-dollar folly, by far the most expensive production on Sire's books, but nobody in Burbank [home to parent Warner at this time] seemed to mind. In California, helping Brian Wilson was considered a noble deed of community service. As everyone could see, Brian's only chance of a second life was to earn back his shattered self-confidence through work." Stein realizes the album disappointed some of Wilson's fans, but "never mind. It did succeed in helping Brian Wilson seize back some of his old self."

I, for one, was not disappointed. Even with the dark cloud of Dr. Eugene Landy hanging over it, the entire endeavor was a miracle to these ears. My only criticism has always been the use of early '80s instrumentation and production techniques, all of which must have intrigued Wilson since he didn't get a chance to use all of that technical wizardry earlier in the decade when he was sick. Anyone who has seen Wilson perform in the last 20 years knows these songs stand up well when stripped of the '80s slickness.

Melt Away

Stein had not chased Wilson or Reed. That's about all you need to know to show how far Sire had come. Stein says, "As a rule, I never signed established stars, but Lou Reed was the one guy you'd make an exception for, especially considering he was the one asking." This was Reed at an absolute low point artistically. After, 'Mistrial' and other '80s duds, Reed didn't want to work with RCA any longer, and the feeling was mutual. The change clearly served him well as the heralded 'New York' followed, arguably his best solo work since 'Transformer,' and maybe ever. I have taken the liberty of assuming you have the '89 album 'New York'. So, here is a live take of "Dirty Blvd." taken from another Sire release, disc two of the 2004 album 'Animal Serenade.'

Stein sums up Reed's early years on Sire: "I never expected Lou Reed to make another "Perfect Day." I knew that, like myself, he had serious mileage on the clock and was writing about old men's concerns, but he kept his promise to pull off something worthwhile. His most loyal fans appear to agree this New York trilogy [including 'Songs for Drella' and 'Magic and Loss'] was the highlight of his later work."

Dirty Blvd.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sounds of Sire Circa 1990

Having recently finished Seymour Stein's book 'Siren Song: My Life in Music,' my only real disappointment was particular bands on Sire's roster receiving nary a mention. In his defense, Stein went into great detail on the ones you would expect him to write about, and I realize there is no way he could have written about them all. As you no doubt realize, however, I have a particular interest in many of the so-called minor leaguers from the label's stable of stars. For example, on Feb. 3, 1990, at Cabaret Metro in Chicago, I took in Sire's triple-headed monster of John Wesley Harding, the Ocean Blue and the Mighty Lemon Drops, otherwise known as the Laughtour. Although these bands didn't make Stein's book, I look back on this show as one of the best I have ever seen.

One of Stein's greatest strengths was his ability to mine the UK for bands about to break. Many of them were already signed to domestic deals, but they didn't have a label in America. We'll dig a little deeper on that point in a future post, but the Mighty Lemon Drops were one of those bands. By 1990, their popularity had waned at home, but thanks to MTV's '120 Minutes,' the lads were finally making a name for themselves over here. The Drops were the headliners, but I was really there to see new band the Ocean Blue. Even though the band was from Hershey, Pa., their debut album sounded like every UK indie-pop band I ever loved. These youngsters had been on this first tour for about two weeks, and there was a certain level of naiveté I found enduring. The Ocean Blue were just so happy to be there. Their smiles were infectious. Having said that, the Mighty Lemon Drops absolutely blew them off the stage. This was a band who had been around the block and knew how to rile up a club that was filled to the rafters. As for Harding, well, to be honest, I have no recollection of even seeing him. I didn't have his new album, 'Here Comes The Groom,' but I would get it later on the basis of two-thirds of the Attractions being part of his backing band.

In celebration of all things Sire on these pages right now, I have pulled out my vinyl copy of 'Laughtour EP,' an eight-song promo only release of unreleased tracks to highlight the bands' 70-city trek through the U.S.A. For me, the highlights are the energetic live version of "Like an Angel" from the salad days of the Mighty Lemon Drops, but all four songs on side one are sounding pretty good to me tonight. As for the two from the Ocean Blue, "Renaissance Man" is a cover from the 77s, a band that had a moment on college radio in the early '80s. "The Circus Animals" appeared on the debut album, but this is a different version that brings the bass up front and has a few other little changes. The two songs from Harding are solo live takes. "The Devil in Me" was a single in 1990, and "July 13th 1985" is a goofy tale about how he spent the day during Live Aid. All in all, a fairly rare record that about two of you out there will find interesting. More from the Sire files next time.

The Laughtour EP

Side One
The Mighty Lemon Drops - Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White
The Mighty Lemon Drops - Forever Home At Heart
The Mighty Lemon Drops - Like An Angel (Live Club Version)
The Mighty Lemon Drops - At Midnight (Live Club Version)

Side Two
The Ocean Blue - Renaissance Man
The Ocean Blue - The Circus Animals (P.A. Mix)
John Wesley Harding - The Devil In Me (Acoustic Version)
John Wesley Harding - July 13th 1985

Friday, August 17, 2018

Monkeein' Around

I have been waiting all day to get home to listen to these covers. This one is inspired by today's post on the Monkees by the Blogfather, as well as the accompanying comments from JTFL and others.

First up is Japanese band Plastics with their weird and wonderful take on "Last Train to Clarksville" from their 1980 debut album 'Welcome Plastics'. I picked this one up on a small rack of CDs a few feet from washing machines and fridges at a home store while living in Japan 25 years ago. You can't make this stuff up.

"She" is my favorite song from the Monkees, and I think Terry Hall and the gang of the Colourfield made it all their own in 1987... tympani and all. JTFL reminded us back in '92 the Wedding Present released a limited-edition single every month, and each B-side was an inspired cover. "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and the other songs on those singles were then collected on the comps 'Hit Parade 1' and 'Hit Parade 2'.

On to another Japanese release, but I paid a small fortune for 'Wonderful World of Wondermints' as an import in '96 while living in Washington, D.C. "Porpoise Song", penned by the legendary Goffin-King team and recorded by the Monkees for the trippy 'Head' soundtrack, is the kind of beautiful production we have come to expect from Brian Wilson's backing band.

Plastics - Last Train to Clarksville
The Colourfield - She
The Wedding Present - Pleasant Valley Sunday
Wondermints - Porpoise Song

Finally, I direct your attention to British Invasion minor leaguers Liverpool Five. I have been looking for this 7" for many years, but it continues to elude me.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lady Soul

I'm not at home right now to pull anything off the shelf, but I want to thank KEXP for filling my head with hour after hour of music from the Queen of Soul. If you're feeling low after the news of Aretha's death, tune in. It soothes the ache. As I said on these pages not too long ago, to my ears, Ms. Franklin's 1967-1968 four-album output of 'I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You', 'Aretha Arrives', 'Lady Soul' and 'Aretha Now' for Atlantic is without peer. I will spin that lot tonight. In the meantime, here are five of my favorites from her distinguished career. Rest easy, Aretha.

You Can Dance... at 60!

Perfect timing. Madonna has just entered the picture in my reading of Seymour Stein's memoir 'Siren Song: My Life in Music', and today is a landmark birthday for the biggest catch the legendary label head ever nabbed for Sire Records. Stein signed Madonna from a hospital bed while awaiting open-heart surgery. While laid out, he listened to a demo of "Everybody" on his Sony Walkman. Madonna, being somewhat forward, came to his bedside with her producer/boyfriend Mark Kamins. After a rather ballsy conversation where Madonna wanted money right there and then, all parties agreed on an advance of $15,000 per single for three singles, with an option for an album. There was also a publishing deal where she would get a $2,500 advance for every song she wrote. Mo Ostin, head of the parent company at Warner, refused to give Stein the $15,000, and he had to get the money through a backdoor channel. Yep, you're reading that right.

Madonna has gone on to sell more than 300 million records worldwide for Warner and today is recognized as the best-selling female recording artist of all time.

The 12" of "Borderline" will always be my favorite from those early years, but this is the first song I ever heard by her. A pleasant memory from my days bring glued to MTV day and night. Happy 60th, Madonna! Yep, you're reading that right too.

Burning Up (12")

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Trip to There and Back Again Lane

Our Nottingham correspondent, MisterPrime, makes a triumphant return to tell us about a very special show he attended. Keep this up, MisterPrime, and I will have to consider bumping you up to senior correspondent. This seems like as good a time as any to pass on that many Sarah releases have just been added on Bandcamp too. Take it away, MisterPrime...

A Sarah Punk Social:

Even As We Speak, Boyracer, Secret Shine and Action Painting! At the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 21st July 2018

Obviously there was much excitement in the Prime household when I first heard the news (via that font of knowledge for all things indie, the esteemed Linear Tracking Lives blog, of course) that Stew and Jen at Emotional Response Records were reissuing a batch of old Sarah material earlier in the year. Better yet, the plan was to raise funds to bring the recently reformed Even As We Speak to the UK for dates to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their seminal 'Feral Pop Frenzy' LP, culminating in an appearance at Indietracks 2018. Even better, all three of the other bands involved in the reissues -- Action Painting!, Secret Shine and Stew's own band, the mighty Boyracer -- were acting as support. Admittedly all of the excitement was mine -- and the nearest gig (barring Indietracks itself) was up in sunny Yorkshire (apparently the organisers of the Festival were afraid of flooding the indie-gig-market in the Midlands otherwise) -- but my better half did then make the mistake of suggesting I get a ticket for the Brudenell Social Club gig there-and-then and sort out the details later. I would have put it off otherwise and ended up not bothering but, as it was, I now had no choice but to sort out trains, a Leeds6 B&B (apparently I'm "too old" to just kip on the station these days) and whatever else was required for this weird little middle-aged indie-away day.

I used to live in the neighbourhood as a student and it's largely unchanged, the typical northern back-to-backs occasionally giving way to a pub, chippy or off-licence. The cavernous student pub, the Royal Park, is still operating next door to the venue though it looks as if the interior might be a little more salubrious these days than I recall. The Brudenell Social Club has certainly had a makeover since I was last here -- in my student days it was still a Working Men's Club but I've been back in the interim to see Jonathan Richman play here in 2012 -- with more than a lick of paint and the addition of a whole new Community Room extension -- the scene for this evening's festivities -- just last year. I was surprised that tonight's gig was not in the Main Room, but I think I was maybe once again guilty of thinking it obvious that here was an event momentous enough to have sold-out months in advance and not to be attracting curious bypassers to pay on the door. Oh well, as it was the turnout was decent, the atmosphere was excellent and the room was more than passable. Perhaps I just have a newfound respect for bands and promoters who are still making the effort to get this stuff out there for the faithful. At least the merch stand seemed to be buzzing....

The opening three bands were apparently rotating the order of their appearances, but I must say it was fitting that Action Painting! were up first tonight. They are really just a footnote in the Sarah story, and it sounds like they've not even bothered to rehearse since 1992. In fact, they were terrible. But good terrible. Even better terrible than I would have anticipated. And they still have bags of attitude, singer Andrew Hitchcock taking the stage in in leopard skin fur coat and shades, bemoaning that "they promised us fucking dry ice!" The guitar lead coming out in the middle of "Mustard Gas" ("The Hit!") and being deftly caught and reinserted mid-solo actually improved the performance. A fun 20 minutes.

Which only served to make Secret Shine seem all the more considered and professional. They were the only one of tonight's bands that I'd actually seen before -- at a short-lived Nottingham venue somewhat improbably named the Imperial, back in 1991 (I think), supporting the Sweetest Ache -- and I recall being underwhelmed on that occasion. That said, here is a band that have not rested on their laurels and have honed their chops since they reformed a few years ago prior to releasing career-best material on last year's 'There Is Only Now' album. They always had the pop tunes to back up their deft take on that swooning shoegaze dynamic -- as well as a melancholic undertow that made them suitably Sarah -- but right now live, though they might still have a slightly polite look about them, the music does manage to soar in all the right places. Given a newfound fondness for all things shoegaze, one can only hope it's onwards and upwards for Secret Shine in the next few years.

I'd better be upfront about this and just make it clear right now that I bloody love Boyracer. Whilst they may indeed be "too twee for the punks and too punk for the twees", there are some of us out here for whom that particular niche is just about a perfect fit. Tonight Stew and the gang pulled off several joyous shards of hardcore indie punk, including pretty incendiary takes on "I've Got It And It's Not Worth Having", the classic "He Gets Me So Hard" and their take on the Clean's Dunedin-tastic "Tally Ho!" "I didn't used to be so prissy in the old days," says Stew, tuning up between songs before introducing a guest appearance from old member Simon Guild (I believe 1990-94, apparently) and a giving a shout-out to his mum. Let's just say there was that perfect fusion of strained emotion and uplifting punk thrash and there was me standing at the front with a big boyfuckingracer grin on my face.

And so to the headliners. Even As We Speak we were always a curious amalgamation of a band -- Australians schooled in the homegrown D.I.Y. ethic of the 80's Antipodean scene but curiously popular in England and taken to the hearts of Peel-listening and Sarah Records buying indie-kids despite their gloriously free and easy approach to incorporating all kinds of pop influences. Fittingly, even 25 years on they make up a suitably motley crew on the stage: Julian, smiling and bookish, switching between guitar, keyboard and laptop; Mary out front, looking glamorous in a bright red dress; Anita, workmanlike behind the kit; Rob, affable and bear-like, doing a strange little circular dance, stepping forward at one or two key points to interject a growled vocal or (only once, it must be said) pour beer over his head; and Matt, taciturn under a trucker's cap but able, when necessary, to deliver a properly heartrending vocal on "Nothing Ever Happens" or unleash a bit of Duane Eddy twang. All in all, a properly heartwarming, happy and human noise -- no more than you'd expect, I guess, from the world's foremost psychedelic indie pop/rock party band.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Summer Reading Program Continues

Next book up came yesterday, and I couldn't be more excited to get to the hammock to read about someone I have always wanted to talk to over a pint or two. Legendary A&R man and label cofounder Seymour Stein has finally penned his memoir, 'Siren Song: My Life in Music', and I'm hoping he has much to say about meeting and signing many of my favorite bands from the late 1970s and 1980s. I feel a little guilty about buying this book through a certain online giant instead of my local mom-and-pop shop, but I have to tell you I clicked the button in the morning and had it on my front porch just a few hours later... and I didn't pay a cent for shipping. That's pretty tough to beat. I'm hooked.

As expected, my dive into the music of Stein's Sire Records has already begun. That's where I'll probably stay on these pages for the next few posts. Let's start with a few from the excellent 'Just Say Yes' sampler series made famous in the late '80s. The first volume is at least partially responsible for me getting my first CD player. Sire's established acts were often represented by a remix, live performance or some other rarity not found on their latest album. For up-and-comers that may only have this one chance to get your attention, the label would usually give the listener one of their best. There will be plenty of time for the legends of Sire later in the week, but let's start with this lot of not quites. Each received a coveted slot on a Sire sampler (two in the case of Figures on a Beach) but still didn't quite become household names. Hey, they can't all be Ramones.

Figures on a Beach - No Stars (from 'Just Say Yes...' 1987)
A House - Call Me Blue (from 'Just Say Yo', 1988)
Royal Crescent Mob - Nanana (from 'Just Say Mao', 1989)
Bradford - Gang of One (from 'Just Say Da', 1990)