I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums six to ten.
“A Walk Across The Rooftops” – The Blue Nile
It’s hard to write about a record like “A walk across the rooftops” without sounding like an idiot. But that’s not really stopped me before. I’ve written about “Isn’t anything”, after all….
I first heard “Tinseltown in the rain” in the spring of ’84, it was a regular part of Annie Nightingale’s playlist. I didn’t see any reviews of the single or album but the name kept popping up – Andy McCluskey of OMD mentioned the Blue Nile in interviews, and if it was good enough for him then it was good enough for me to invest in a copy. Admittedly it took me a while – I ended up with a second hand copy towards the end of 1985. To which the obvious response is “Someone sold their copy? FOOLS!”. This album was a real word-of-mouth record when that actually meant word of mouth. But it was a record that you got to know, that rewarded repeated listens, that won you over so much that you felt you had to pass the secret knowledge on to somebody else.
“A walk across the rooftops” is a magical record. Not a note is out of place, there’s sparse electronics, occasional orchestral surges, piano ballads, pop songs… It feels like a tour of Glasgow, the home town of the three members of the band. I’ll admit it now I’ve never been there but listening to this LP I can imagine it – the fountains and cathedral bells. it’s a record full of love – for people, for each other and for their home town. In a way it’s a thirty seven minute love letter to Glasgow. “Tinseltown in the rain” is a night in a cheap disco, finding love in a hopeless place, the guitar and string arrangement aping Chic but creating something special of their own. “From rags to riches” could be the story of the city struggling to regenerate itself (compare with Simple Minds’ “Waterfront”). “Easter parade” is heart-stopping. “Heatwave” is airless and sticky. “Automobile noise” is one of my favourite album closers of all time, sounding like it was recorded in an underground car park – hot and humid, metallic clangs in the distance, but motionless and cool too.
And I’ve not even mentioned Paul Buchanan’s voice. What control, what passion. Not in a typical soul singer way but his own unique way. His “Do I love you? (Pause) YES I love you!” during the middle of “Tinseltown…” makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The album is full of vocal moments like that, “Easter parade” for a start…
The BBC would like you to think the world revolves around Glasgow at the moment with the Commonwealth Games. I’d love to see the Blue Nile play “Tinseltown in the rain” at the closing ceremony, it would be absolutely perfect.
“Colourbox” – Colourbox
“Play some more of that – that Colourbox stuff…”
An American voice drawls the line, as a distorted guitar reels off a crazy phrase, cut off by drum machines and sequencers chattering at a high Beats Per Minute, this is manic, this is “Manic II”, this is getting ahead of myself….
The first Colourbox I heard was Peel playing “Fast Dump”, the b side of their “Say You” single, during the summer of ’84. It sounded like the other electro tracks he was playing (cuts from the Streetsounds “UK Electro” LP by Foreveraction, who turned out to be Dj Greg Wilson, Andy Connell from A Certain Ratio and Martin Jackson from Magazine, heading towards Swing Out Sister). But I noticed it enough to write it in my diary to one to remember. During the summer of ’85 Colourbox appeared on the cover of Melody Maker to promote their debut album, issued in July that year. I bought it while on holiday in Yorkshire on the day it was issued – HMV Leeds actually – and I wanted an early copy as it came with a free album, which would turn out to be essential.
The main LP itself is terrific. After a genteel piano instrumental to lead off, it cuts to the thrilling rock / dance collage of “Just give ’em whiskey”, drum machines pounding, guitars rocking out, and a multitude of speech samples from “Westworld”, “The prisoner”, “2001” and a peculiar interview with Joan Collins (“Sex makes your skin glow and your eyes sparkle”!) Then cut to the lilting reggae sway of “Say You”, then powerful pop ballad “The moon is blue”, then soulful pop of “Inside informer” all highlighting the vocals of Lorita Graham. Side two is just as eclectic, frantic former single “Punch”, sophisticated pop of “Suspicion”, a great medley of “Manic” and “You keep me hanging on” (a year before Kim Wilde’s near identical hit version) closing with the moody ballad “Arena”. It’s a quick trawl through pop styles in the mid 80s and a great listen. Note that the crazed guitar solos on “Manic” are played by William Orbit.
Then there’s disc two. “Edit the dragon” is another rock dance collage, fast cuts to match the sound of martial arts samples, “Hipnition” has a cool swing while “We walk around the streets” is Hale and Pace. Yes indeed. Quickly cutting to a remix of “Arena” which is almost as good as the first version. Side two of this disc (side 4 according to the inner sleeve) works as a side long suite, kicking off with “Manic II”, a remix of “Manic” which stretches the song to over six minutes, including some lovely passages of just pure sequencer showing how the song is built up, then into “Fast dump”, covered in samples and noise (including the sound of a ZX Spectrum program taoe being loaded) and finally “Sex gun” where the backing track of “Just give ’em whiskey” gets a new vocal from Graham. It’s a great side of music, and only available on the first 10,000 copies of the LP and the cassette tape – the CD edition missed it entirely even though there was room for it. (Thankfully it was restored to its rightful place on the comprehensive Colourbox box set that was issued a few years ago)
So Colourbox’s debut is a great sign of the times electro pop soul sampledelic album. It points the way to a hip hop future – and Colourbox had a part in that future through their involvement in “Pump up the volume” by MARRS. But the most remarkable point about the Colourbox LP is that it was issued on 4AD records, home to ethereal gothic types like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Dif Juz and X Mal Deutschland. Not your typical 4AD record then, but still very fine.
“Kontiki” – Cotton Mather
It was “My before and after” which did it. It was on one of those numerous free CDs that came with Uncut every month, usually they go straight to the back of the cupboard after one listen (certainly the amount of them that turn up at the charity shop indicates I’m not the only one who does this). But that song was different, and the accompanying five star review in the magazine meant I was soon hurrying upstairs to Paul K’s office (we were both in the Stats Office, y’know – me down in Forms Production and him in IDBR maintenance) telling him “Listen to this! Read this! ORDER THIS ALBUM!”. He agreed and from there “Kontiki” became the soundtrack of summer 1998.
It was the real fag end of Britpop, The Verve were the biggest band in the country having sold out all their psychedelic grooviness to become Richard Ashcroft’s backing band (and yes I could write about.”A storm in heaven” but it’s not on my final list), Oasis were still huge with their wall of noise Beatles pastiches, and indie guitar music was in another doldrums. “Kontiki” was a breath of fresh air.
OK so leader Robert Harrison has a Lennon-esque twang to his voice and there are hints of “Revolver” in the crunchy guitar tones but it’s not obviously derivative. It’s just prime power pop almost all the way with light psychedelic touches here and there. It sounded home made in the nicest sense – songs have little extra bits appended on the end, as if they’d be recorded over some old songs of theirs. There’s conventional pop songs like “Password”, “She’s only cool” and the aforementioned “My before and after”, jammed with melody and interesting turns of phrase. There’s a few woozy turns like “Private Ruth” and the slowly speeding “Aurora Bori Alice”, showing a psychedelic edge. Then there’s the huge blast of guitars and drums on “Church of Wilson” – “I’m an acolyte of the mighty Church of Wilson” – presumably Brian not Harold. “Vegetable Row” is the kind of song that should soundtrack a hundred Hollywood teen summer smashes. Best of all are the slower moments. “Spin my wheels” is a lovely song built on acoustic guitars and a bed of harmonies, while “Lily dreams on” is a gorgeous romantic drift of a song. The whole album packs about fifteen songs into forty minutes, which is the antithesis of the “fill all eighty minutes” ethos of the time. Over fifteen years on, this album still sounds great – not retro, just fresh. Worth a listen. I’d hope.
“Lo and behold” – Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint
The great thing about having a book full of record reviews – such as Robert Christgau’s “Rock Albums Of The 70s” – is that you can flick through and find a review of an album you’ve never heard and make a mental note of it, then months or years later find the album in a bargain bin and it turns out to be a bit of a classic. This is the case with “Lo and behold”. Only it took about twenty or more years for me to find the album, and it was well worth it.
I’m slightly cheating by calling “Lo and behold” a debut album. It’s certainly the debut album by the conglomerate of performers listed, but Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint had been together in Manfred Mann back in the sixties and had a few hits on their own (with the help of Gallagher and Lyle) in the early 70s) while Dennis Coulson and Dixie Dean had also been on the music scene for years. After Gallagher and Lyle had departed from McGuinness Flint after their second album flopped, the newly christened foursome headed into a studio in London in early 72 with Manfred Mann (“The world’s most sensible Dylan nut” according to Xgau’s LP review here) as producer. The final magic ingredient in “Lo and behold” is Bob Dylan.
For this album is a collection of cover versions of his songs, and not just the usual classic songs which get covered regularly. These were songs which had been copyrighted between 1963 and 1971 but not officially issued by Dylan himself. So there’s early protest songs mixed in with songs from “The Basement Tapes” (which were still three years away from official release by this point). Even now trying to locate the Dylan versions of these songs on Spotify there’s gaps – “Sign on the cross” and “Rocks off” are still not released by Dylan, other songs are found on “The Witmark Demos” or an unreleased live LP from 63 or a collection of recordings for “Broadside” magazine. I shall point out here that Clinton Heylin’s book “Revolution in the air” which details every Dylan song (released and otherwise) up to ’73 helped me understand this album a lot better.
So that’s the background. What’s the album actually like? Absolutely wonderful. “Eternal circle” is a good start, sounding like a Byrds out-take, while “Lo and behold” is a travelogue in the jaunty style of the Band – an acceptable comparison point and they add more melody than the Basement Tapes version. “Let me die in my footsteps” is defiant in word and music – building from droning guitar and tablas into something more folky. “Open the door Homer” is a personal favourite, playful and freeflowing, with a great coda. “Lay down your weary tune” starts all choral before building up in layers of melody and sound. God, what lyrics! A song about the power of music. Still astounds me now, and obviously the source of “Strength of strings” (after all, the Byrds did record it themselves). “Don’t you tell Henry” is a laugh, jug band music, are they taking the piss out of Mungo Jerry? And that “Hot love” lift at the end? Love it. “Rocks off” is a slow bluesy crawl, “The death of Emmett Till” is a heartbreaking lyric, and one must wonder how this can happen.. “This song is just a reminder…”. “Odds and ends” rocks and rolls with humour – nice lift from “Dizzy miss Lizzy” – while closer “Sign on the cross” is heartfelt gospel with a wild rav e up at the end and again one wonders why the song has never been officially released – maybe it’s actually too honest and close to the bone. A great album, and I’m told by my brother that when he saw the Manfreds live recently (an amalgamation of various ex-members of Manfred Mann) they played some numbers from the album. A great and little known album.
(Note to people saying “Tiny Montgomery”? “I wanna be your lover”? Those were b-sides added to the CD reissues, and both fine songs indeed, especially the latter which again apes T.Rex)
“If I could only remember my name” – David Crosby
Put aside any preconceptions of David Crosby you may have – the cliche of a freak flag flying hippy, the freebasing drug addled car crashing crazy, the ecological warrior – and there’s still the music. It turns out he was right about a lot of things anyway, but ain’t hindsight great? But the music…. His songs with the Byrds were always the most questing, adventurous and questioning – “What’s happening?!?!”, “Draft morning”, “Lady friend”, “Triad”, “Everybody’s been burned”… Come on folks, he deserves a free pass just for that one song. Then in Crosby Stills and Nash (and Young) there was the righteous paranoia of “Almost cut my hair”, the past lives of “Deja Vu”, the glorious atonal drift on “Guinevere”… If Crosby had maintained that standard of music throughout the seventies he’d be even more of a legend than he already is.
“If I could only remember my name” was his debut solo album released in 1971 and featuring a cast of just about anyone famous in California in that time. There’s numerous members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana on the songs, alongside Joni Mitchell and both Graham Nash and Neil Young – Stephen Stills only turns up as a character in one of the songs. It could have been a dreary album of interminable jamming, but it’s is far from that. Yes the songs do go on a bit, but there’s always direction and purpose and reason.
“Music is love” – a rare Crosby / Nash / Young collaboration – is a gentle opener, the three men harmonising well over multiple twelve string guitars repeating the title’s mantra, then around 2:30 Young adds some spooked vibraphone (compare with “I believe in you”) and the words change – “Everyone’s saying that music’s for fun”. But this isn’t born out by what comes along. “Cowboy movie” is mainly the Grateful Dead backing Croz while he explains about the bizarre love triangle within Crosby Stills Nash and Young which would lead to their falling out. It grooves nicely. “Tamalpais high (at about 3)” is a gentle breeze of a song, massed Croz harmonies over a jazzy backing. “Laughing” is a total classic, acoustic guitars bright as the sun, Croz searching for something, anything, comfort, getting it wrong, only finding it in a child’s laughter – it’s an allegory for the Maharishi apparently. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel at the end is divine. “What are their names?” begins like a casual jam – Garcia and Young trading guitar licks as the rest of the band rev up, before a choir of Croz’s friends sing about the men who run the countries. Still relevant today. “Traction in the rain” glistens with autoharp and guitars and Croz at his dreamiest and most thoughtful. “Song with no words” is more luscious ba-ba-ba music and ended up on many of my mixtapes. “Orleans” is spooky, multitracked Crosbys singing a traditional song with only a guitar accompaniment. Finally the album gets totally spooked, “I swear there was somebody there” is incredibly eerie, barely eighty seconds of Crosby’s most anguished vocal tones echoing into the distance.
Some people didn’t get the album at the time – again Christgau was particularly scathing – but this is an album that has grown in stature as the years have gone by, time has been kinder to this than a lot of early 70s music. What initially sounds indulgent becomes hypnotic over repeated listenings. This album’s a grower – definitely not an instant classic, but give it time to seep in and it will alternately charm and spook you.
Next time – another five albums. It might be a while as I’m going on holiday but I’ll see what I can do…