Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s By Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence

25 03 2017

OK, lets start with a confession. The 70s is my favourite decade. Its a decade that I lived through as a young ‘un (I was 10 in 1970) and saw me through to my first years as a young adult. It was the decade that provided some of the music that has seeped into my very soul, especially the mid 70s classic rock and the punk / post punk music from 77-79 that shook the establishment. So Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s was always going to scream out READ ME, READ ME NOW. Oh and prepare to open your wallet – as you will probably find yourselves heading over to Amazon to buy lots of the DVDs and blurays of programmes you loved when you were young, or to eBay to pick up comics (old copies of Look-in) or other 70s memorabilia.

Scarred for Life Volume one: The 1970s

Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s is a printed publication (740 black and white pages printed, with a free colour eBook version) that covers the decades weird and wonderful television (including favourites of mine such as The Tomorrow People, Sky, Survivors and A Ghost Story For Christmas), as well as a look at the changing face of UK TV culture. And that’s not all – the publication looks at board games – such as Top Trumps and Escape From Colditz, plus films and comics (including the mighty Action from 1976) as well as 70s fads and food (I had forgotten all about Horror Bags Fangs Crisps!). Oh and the array of 70s ice-lollies – no wonder I’ve spent so much money at the dentists over the years.

Scarred For Life volume one: The 1970s opens with an excellent scene-setting introduction by horror writer / historian Johnny Mains. Scarred by Television is the books first section. If you lived through the 70s, the memories are instantly sparked by the description of TV in that decade – no remote controls, tiny screens and few channels, compared to todays HD and hundreds of channels beamed into our homes through satellite / cable and on demand net based programming. On demand was not an option in the 1970s – in fact recording of programmes to watch later didn’t feature in most households until the 1980s. So TV watching was a much more communal event – everyone watched the programmes at the same time and discussed last nights viewing at school or work the next day. And if you missed the programme, or if it clashed with something else your family was watching on the homes ONE TV, that was it – no pausing, rewinding or catch-up TV. You simply missed it.

Programmes discussed in depth in the first few chapters include The Owl ServiceThe Ghosts of Motley Hall and one of my favourites, The Tomorrow People (which has a Bowie reference, fact fiends). Name that tune! The Blue And The Green Tomorrow People story has stuck with me all these years.

SkyOne of the most enjoyable parts of Scarred for Life is the coverage of the HTV series Sky. I remember watching and enjoying early episodes of this programme, but for some long forgotten reason, I never got to watch the whole of the seven part series. But I never forgot those terrifying black eyes…..

There is also a lengthy and informative section on Play For Today – including the haunting Blue Remembered Hills, which can be found on the Essential Dennis Potter boxset.

The sci-fi section of Scarred for Life includes the BBC post-plague drama Survivors. Much grittier than the (sadly cut-short after two series) more recent version starring Max Beesley, the original series lasted three seasons and went straight into my Amazon basket after reading about it in this book.

My favourite TV related section of Scarred for Life is the Gothic TV section – especially  the section on A Ghost Story For Christmas. I occasionally saw episodes during the 70s but bought the BFI DVD collection a couple of years ago due to the 2010 remake of the M. R. James story Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and dipping into this collection has become a Christmas tradition. The Scarred for Life piece goes into great detail, even mentioning the 1860s M. R. James origin of the Christmas Ghost stories that led to this wonderful BBC festive regular. I know its not Christmas as I write this review, but I think I’ll dip into the collection again this weekend. Charles Dickens is not just for Christmas, after all.

The How we used to live section discusses the way that some mainstream 70s TV dealt with race (the impact of ‘light entertainment’ shows such as The Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour) and particularly the awful, lazy stereotyping in Mind Your Language. The section also discusses the “something for the Dads” casual sexism that was prevalent in Seaside Special / Top of the Pops and various sitcoms such as Doctor In The House and On The Buses. To their credit, the Scarred for Life writers don’t choose the easy “weren’t the 70s wacky” route in their discussions about these issues.

Scarred for Life takes an interesting approach to its lengthy Doctor Who section. Instead of focusing on the show and the stories, they take a fresh approach discussing what it was like being a fan of the show – writing about the Doctor Who Exhibitions and the eras Doctor Who annuals and magazines.

If, like me, you are of a certain age – the phrase “clunk click every trip” will mean you watched the multitude of public information films that ran through the decade, and they are discussed in loving detail in Scarred for Life. To this day, I’m still petrified of dumped fridges and ponds.

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The section covers with Charley Says, The Green Cross Code and the downright terrifying Joe & Petunia (the coastguard animation still haunts me). Coo-ee!

I spent many happy hours playing Escape From Colditz as a kid in the early 70s. The board game was inspired by the popular TV series, starring Robert Wagner and David McCallum, that ran for two series between 1972 and 1974. It made a change from the endless magic sets and compendium of games that I received each Christmas. So I really enjoyed the children’s games section in this publication, that also covers Top Trumps, a card based game (I recall having lots of military and vehicle based sets – mainly tanks, jets and motorbikes).

The savage cinema section is well researched. Covering films such as Soldier Blue, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry and the Death Wish series, the writers put these films in the context of the post-Vietnam, permissive society fighting Mary Whitehouse era. Classic films such as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Deliverance are also covered.

The writers also delve briefly into the “When Animals Attack” late 70s film genre, mentioning Grizzly, but sadly no mention of one of my  (corny) favourites from the era – Day of the Animals. I saw Day of the Animals as a double-bill (what a great concept, bring it back!) at the cinema in 1977 with a great film called The Car, with James Brolin being pursued through the desert by a seemingly driverless Lincoln Continental (The Car is mentioned further on in Scarred for Life).

Another well-written section of the book are chapters given over to covering some of the satanic / possession films of the 70s. Covering less obvious choices, such as Dennis Potters Brimstone and Treacle (not to be confused with the later film version starring Sting) as well as the sort of films you would expect, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist, the writing is often focused on the public’s perception of the films rather than plot synopses, which is a fresh take on these much-discussed classic horror films.

I also found the folk-horror section interesting – as its a sub-genre I know little about, so feel inclined to explore further.

The Pop Movie Turns Dark covers the trio of pop films That’ll Be The Day, Stardust and Slade in Flame. I’ve never seen the Slade film but love the two David Essex films. I didn’t realise that That’ll Be The Day is based on Harry Nilsson’s song 1941, so thanks for that pop-quiz nugget, Scarred for Life.

thatll-be-the-day

The sections on 70s books and comics is the section I was looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint. I bought several pre-ban issues of Action – I wish I’d kept them, as it was a ground-breaking comic that is covered in depth in this publication. And I had forgotten all about the Pan Book of Horror Stories – that turned me onto the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker among others. I was also a big fan of the early James Herbert books – The Rats is discussed in Scarred for Life, but my favourite was The Fog. I’ve still got my original copy and it still scares me to death. Its a shame there is not more coverage of James Herbert – he may not be regarded as being a writer in the same class as Stephen King in horror writing circles, but his books were extremely popular in the 70s and 80s for the very good reason that they were terrifying.

Scarred by… food. Horror themed ice-lollies (Lyons Maid Red Devils & Haunted House), Smiths Horror Bags crisps (I can taste them now!) and Golden Wonder Kung Fueys (bacon and mushroom corn balls mnnnn) are all on the menu in Scarred for Life. Oh how I miss the 70s.

There is an interesting chapter on UFO imagery used in 70s music, including Boston, ELO, The Stranglers and a fair bit about David Bowie‘s apparent fascination with aliens. The sections ends with the top 10 UFO songs of the 70s. I won’t give it away – buy Scarred for Life and see for yourself.

Scarred for Life is a great read for anyone who lived through the decade, or for anyone in love with the music, TV and films that poured out of this amazing period. The TV series Life on Mars gave a great flavour of the 70s, so if you loved that show, Scarred for Life will paint an even fuller picture of the decade. I am really looking forward to the next volume, that will cover the 80s. I can’t wait to read about the nuclear paranoia of that decade, especially the mighty Threads.

You can buy Scarred for Life Volume one – the 70s now as a 740 page perfect-bound paperback (the printed version comes with details of how to obtain the colour e-book version as part of your purchase).





David Bowie – Blackstar

8 01 2016

blackstarNew Bowie albums have always been a big deal and a major event for me. And it’s even more so now, as each release arrives I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the last Bowie studio album. The live shows look like they are over, and the time will come when the studio albums stop too, so excuse me for savouring each release.

Anyway, sorry about that – enough of the morbid thoughts. Don’t worry – I’m not going to start off by saying that its the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters, as this is only day one of my listening to the full album (courtesy of the new way of hearing albums on release date – the post midnight Apple Music stream until my CD arrives in the post). It’s a brave new world.

The album opens with the seconds short of 10 minutes title track. Driven by Bjork-like percussion and jittery synths and saxes, contrary to early rumours and the Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) single, this ain’t no jazz album. It’s a virtually rock free zone – the guitars are mostly heavily processed and the music is very electronic and playfully experimental.

I love the middle section of the track Blackstar – its pure old-school Bowie tied in with intriguing lyrics.

“You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)”

Tis a Pity She Was a Whore has developed from the 2014 digital release (which had the feel of a demo if I’m honest). There is a real consistency in the sound of Blackstar, which continues with Tis a Pity…, a song littered with frantic sax (as is most of the album) and reminding me a little of Jump They Say.

Lazarus, oh my sweet Lazarus. I was excited about this album when I heard the evolving strangeness of the title track, but Lazarus took it all up a notch and is by far my favourite track on the album. I’ve played this song so many times since it was released digitally in late 2015.

The guitars on this track are just stunning, and I think Lazarus is shaping up to be one of my favourite Bowie songs since the late 70s. I love the arrangement especially the build up to the songs climax, as the guitars and drums reach their crescendo and then it quickly slips back to the nagging pace of the beginning, whilst adding some great bass and guitar interplay. Lazarus also sees Bowie delivering one of his sassiest vocals in many a year.

Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) appears on Blackstar shorn of it’s jazz trappings and in much shorter, but markedly heavier form. There is a feel of the Outside album at times, especially on this track.

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Girl Loves Me is a weird little number. With vocal tics and incomprehensible lyrics, Girl Loves Me is Bowie at his most off-kilter, and sets up the final tracks, two songs that also happen to be the most accessible songs on the album.

Dollar Days is a great Bowie ballad. At times on The Next Day, some of the nods to the past felt a little like pastiche at times, but Dollar Days does not feel forced, even though it feeds on nostalgia.

Blackstar really feels like an album recorded with a band playing off a well oiled-ensembles strengths and Bowie seems to react to this (listen to the enthused yelps on Tis a Pity She Was a Whore).

I Can’t Give Everything Away opens with a musical nod to Low‘s A New Career In A New Town, and contains the return of the heart-wrenching Bowie vibrato in the chorus.

A simple, understated track that rises and drops, ending with some Fripp like guitar buried in the mix towards the end of a song that seems to be telling his audience to back-off a little – whilst asking for some personal privacy.

“Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent”

The album has much more consistency than The Next Day. On the first full play of Blackstar, I came to the end and realised I had been waiting to hear the inevitable album filler, but there wasn’t one. Bowie and his musicians do not waste a single note and no track overstays its welcome.

For an artist with such an influential catalogue of songs and albums behind him, to be releasing music this satisfying so far down the line is remarkable.

blackstar
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Suzanne Vega – Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

3 02 2014

Suzanne Vega - Tales from the Realm of the Queen of PentaclesTales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is the first album of new material from Suzanne Vega since 2007’s Beauty & Crime. Following on from Suzanne’s reclaiming of her back-catalogue, with the Close Up series, this is the longest gap between new albums.

The album was produced by long-time David Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who looms large on the album, adding most of the albums electric guitar and more than a hint of the alt-rock experimentation of Bowie’s excellent The Next Day from last year.

King Crimson/ Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin is joined by recent Bowie band-members Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to underpin a lot of the songs on Tales from the Realm…

Album opener Crack in the Wall is not a hybrid of two key tracks from Suzanne’s debut album but a delightful new track, with mandolin underpinned acoustic guitars, and a real live feel. It’s almost a statement opener – this is the sort of sound you would expect from a Suzanne Vega record in 2014. The surprises slowly start to seep through on the album’s second song, Fool’s Complaint, with a very early 70s sound (the backing vocals remind me of Transformer era Lou Reed).

Then along comes I Never Wear White – and this is the point where the album really shifts to new sonic territory. Built on a Stonesey riff, and a very in your face rock sound – just raw guitar, bass (from Levin) and drums (guitar/bass/drums – the killer formula). This is unlike anything else in the Vega back catalogue. Not a keyboard or acoustic guitar in earshot on this track.

“My colour is black, black, black…”

Portrait of the Knight of Wands is my favourite song on the album. Delicate layered guitar and discordant keyboards provide the palette for this moving tale. A subtle reverb on the lead vocal and a wide mix give this song space to breathe.

“His mission, the transmission of technology”

Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain features a 50 Cent sample, the sampled becoming the sampler! A shifting arrangement throws in some Zeppelinesque, arabic-sounding string parts, and a very unique vocal phrasing. This track cries out to be a single.

Jacob and the Angel really benefits from the Gerry Leonard production, with a guitar riff bubbling under the song that Mr Bowie would be proud of. Hand-claps provide the nagging beat, as the song slowly builds as it progresses.

The musically nostalgic Silver Bridge (which reminds me a little of the late 70s new wave of The Cars mixed with Springsteen’s sublime I’m on Fire) is another standout track that reveals hidden textures on repeated listening.

Song of the Stoic is a powerhouse of a song, and for me, the album’s centrepiece. Referencing the production experimentation of 99.9F° (my favourite Suzanne Vega album), the early instrumentation sounds like 19th Century, Deadwood era America, with rustic guitar and percussion that evokes the clanking of early industrial machinery. An intensely moving vocal line and cinematic arrangement make this one of the best songs Suzanne has ever recorded. I’m never going to grow tired of listening to this track.

Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2 has a wonderful dirty Velvet Underground sounding guitar line, and a very percussive backbeat. The album finishes with the optimistic Horizon (There Is a Road), offsetting the darkness of some of the albums preceding tracks.

Releasing a folk sounding record would have been a safe and unimaginative option but thankfully, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a million miles away from being safe, and should prove to be a career highlight for Suzanne Vega fans.

Visit the Suzanne Vega website

Buy Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on Amazon UK

Buy Tried & True: The Best Of Suzanne Vega on Amazon UK

Buy 99.9 F° on Amazon UK





Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

30 08 2013

Opener The Eater of Dreams is a slow building, electronic heart beat monitor intro to the most electronic album in NIN’s eight album discography.

“I am just an echo, of an echo, of an echo…”

Nine Inch Nails "Hesitation Marks"

Copy of A gives a good taste of what lies in store – it’s an incessantly catchy track, with nagging, buzzing synths laid over a tightly tuned Blue Monday’esque drum machine.

Came Back Haunted features dark synth-lines, and a great classic NIN guitar riff halfway through the song. But you already know this, as the song has been available for over a month now.

The presence of Alan Moulder on the production side is telling with the sound of this album. Moulder  worked with Curve in the 90s, and there are some hints of the way Curve used dark electronics cut with brutal guitars on Hesitation Marks.

“Everywhere now reminding me… I am not who I used to be”

Whilst Hesitation Marks musically is a very different beast to the Nine Inch Nails of The Downward Spiral or The Fragile, lyrically its still visceral and although there are more synths than guitars, the music is still hard-hitting and atmospheric. The delivery may have changed, but there is no dumbing down or compromise on display here.

Find My Way is an early album favourite, with simple piano lines, Twin Peak’s guitar and a great Reznor vocal. Sometime’s less is more, and Find My Way is a very powerful song, different to anything I have heard from NIN before.

“Ghost’s of who we used to be. I can feel them come for me.”

All Time Low is driven by a very Talking Head’s like riff. I wonder if this is one of the tracks featuring Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham? I won’t know till I receive the cd on release day (this review is from the NIN website stream, so no album credits are available yet). A fairytale like synth motif bubbles away in the background as Reznor sings “We’re never gonna die, how did we get so high?”. A clever touch.

Disappointed will not leave you feeling so. Some lovely, subtle guitar playing in the background of the verses. One of the strengths of Hesitation Marks that is immediately apparent is that the tracks have layers that reveal themselves on repeated listening sessions. The last couple of minutes of Disappointed are a case in point – soaring guitars and keyboards, underpinned by nagging sequencers, drop quickly to reveal the lightly percussive melody and crisp drums. It’s like getting halfway through a really enjoyable meal and then bang, a new flavour hits your palate. And I do like a good meal!

Everything is almost NIN goes late 70s powerpop – NIN do The Knack! The heaviest and most uptempo track on the album, it’s short, sharp and to the point. It’s also the perfect length for a classic single, at 3.19.

Copyright Nine Inch Nails

Satellite and Various Methods of Escape have a mid-80s Peter Gabriel feel to the music (yes, I really did just write that), with the latter track having a very strong, addictive chorus that counteracts the world weary lyrics.

Another reference to the 1980s is the appearance of bassist Pino Palladino on the album. I can’t hear any Wherever I lay My Hat type basslines here, but his touring with The Who (or his Tears For Fears work) was probably more of a reference point for his inclusion by Reznor.

The outro to Running, if included on a previous NIN album, would be awash with heavy wall-of-sound guitars, whereas the 2013 Reznor has a singular guitar line, backed by scraping keys and insistent beats.

The scent of Bowie can also be found on Hesitation Marks. I Would for You would not have sounded out of place on Bowie’s Earthling (and we know Reznor loves I’m Afraid of Americans from that album).

In Two is another album highlight – with shades of the breakdown in March of the Pigs, though the rest of the song bears no resemblance to The Downward Spiral track. I think In Two may contain one of the Lindsey Buckingham appearances, it certainly sounds like his playing in the background as the song builds to it’s (very) abrupt climax.

While I’m Still Here brings the album full circle, back to the electronica of the opening salvo, although at a slower pace. I love the keyboard work in this track, and the sax riff at the end. Sax on a NIN album? Heresy. It seems as if the experience of the soundtrack work with Atticus Ross is being utilised to give the band more colours to choose from, which can only be a positive thing.

“Yesterday I found out the world was ending.”

Album closer Black Noise is an instrumental continuation of the previous track, and presumably is a play-on-words on white noise, with the album ending in an explosion of sound.

Hesitation Marks has the potential to become my favourite NIN album. It lacks the rage of early albums, but what is the point of repeating what’s gone before? There is so much depth revealed on repeated listening, and I think over time this will surpass Year Zero for me. One of the best releases of 2013, I certainly think so.

Order Hesitation Marks (Deluxe Edition) from Amazon UK





David Bowie – The Next Day

1 03 2013

Here are my initial thoughts on the forthcoming David Bowie album, The Next Day. I should preface by saying that I’ve not got the CD yet, the review is from listening to the iTunes pre-release stream, so I won’t comment too much on the production, as the stream seems quite low quality and compressed. But it’s enough to give an initial impression (kind of like listening to an album on low bitrate FM radio back in the distant past).

The Next Day is a strong opening track, with clipped-guitars that are reminiscent of the Lodger era, and lyrically a real call to arms. The opening track is the first of several tracks on this album where Bowie rolls back the years and lets his vocals roar like they used to in the late 70’s.

Dirty Boys heralds the return of the sax! A real oddity, and all the better for it to my ears. He even manages to sneak in a guitar riff reminiscent of China Girl at one point towards the end of the chorus.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is quite simply a great Bowie single – driven by a powerful, driving bass-line, and topped off with 70s handclaps aplenty. Sounding like the bastard child of Absolute Beginners (who has shagged Time Will Crawl senseless). What a pretty baby. One of the songs on the album that gets better the more you play it. So go on, play it again.

Love is Lost is one of the more minimal tracks on The Next Day. Sparse drums and cheap sounding synths throb in a track that almost has a demo feel to it. Imagine the empty spaces of Sign O The Times by Prince for an idea of how this song sounds. I love the way that the guitars are often dirty and twisted on the album, and this track is no exception. The backing vocals are also classic Bowie.

“Oh what have you done?”

Where Are We Now? is the track that announced the return of DB. The (previously) most unBowie-like looking back and nostalgia of Where Are We Now? fits really well in the context of this album, which often references Bowie’s musical past . Which is not a criticism by the way, they are his tools, why shouldn’t he use them?

The end of the song is one of the most powerful moments in Bowie’s vast catalogue, and it’s reassuring to hear our rock stars growing old, some gracefully, some disgracefully. Just like us.

“As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you”

Valentines Day is the one track that I was slightly disappointed with on these first, early plays. Musically it harks back just a little too much and is close to becoming a Bowie parody at times, with it’s “sha la la’s”. The excellent lead guitar work towards the end and it’s subject matter (a high school shooting) does give it a bit more weight on repeated plays, and it’s starting to grow on me.

I’d Rather Be High also suffers from being slightly too retro – sounding like a mash-up of The Beatles and The Stone Roses at times. But in context, two potential disappointments out of 14 songs is not bad going.

Boss of Me has a strong chorus and more Bowie sax. If You Can See Me is gloriously chaotic, with an odd time signature, frantic drums and sped up backing vocals.

Every Bowie album has to have a space song, right? And normally they are one of the album’s highlights, so why spoil a perfectly good tradition. Dancing out in Space is the space song from The Next Day, and this clever pop song is driven by a Lust for Life type rhyhmn section, bubbling synths and a nostalgic Bowie backing vocal. This song would make a good third single from the album.

How Does the Grass Grow? is one of my early album favourites. It’s a kitchen sink of a song, with some West Side Story doo-wap thrown in, and sounding like it would easily fit into a remake of Lodger (one of my favourite Bowie albums). Tony Visconti is surely Bowie’s greatest producer – the drums and guitar mix are perfect on this track. The return of Earl Slick and the addition of David Torn on guitar are inspired moves too. Slick provides the link to Bowie’s past and Torn adds the spacey soundscapes.

Starting off with an almost heavy metal riff, (You Will) Set the World on Fire has a chorus that stays with you long after the song has ended. The most straight-forward rocker on the album, it makes a change from the songs either side of it, and is another possible contender for third single.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is the album’s second big-ballad. A welcome return of acoustic guitar high in the mix, the drums (especially in the song’s outro) are very Five Years. The mid-70’s Young American referencing arrangement works well on this song and Bowie gets the nostalgia quotient just right here.

If Bowie ever tours, you just know he would segue this with the aforementioned Ziggy Stardust classic. It’s written in the stars.

The Next Day ends on the album’s third big ballad. Mr Bowie, you are spoiling us. Heat has a hint of the Outside album running throughout, and also boasts the albums finest vocal performance.

Loosely strummed acoustic guitars build in intensity alongside a very synthetic, sci-fi backing.

“And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am”

It’s a great album closer.

I’m sure in this X-Factor era of pop music, when quality in the mainstream is often hard to seek out, the press will be all over this album, rating it as a glorious comeback.

To me, it is a very good comeback. But is it one of Bowies greatest albums? No, but I do think it’s the best Bowie album since Outside, and contains at least four songs (The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Where Are We Now?, How Does the Grass Grow? and Heat) that would not sound out of place on a Best of Bowie compilation.

And I’m happy with that. Welcome back David Bowie.

The Next Day – Amazon UK








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