Velvet Underground & Nico: First Album, 6CD reissue (UMC/Polydor)
Nico: The End, 2 CD reissue (UMC/Island)
The Jam: The Gift, Deluxe 4 CD + DVD reissue (UMC)
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: Global A Go-Go/- Streetcore (Hellcat Records)
The Jetsonics: The Chelsea Drugstore EP (Volume Control) - Second Extended Player
I hope we’re all agreed that the first Velvet Underground album – with the banana cover – is one of the most important and influential albums of the last forty years. Listening to it again now, it’s simultaneously a perfect time capsule of cutting-edge NYC cool 1966 style, and a blueprint for so much music that’s followed in its wake. I’ll assume that most people reading this are familiar with that album – if not, buy it now! – available here in newly remastered stereo and mono mixes on the first two discs, so the main interest here is in the extra material. Apart from the original album, there are the Scepter Studios Sessions and a rehearsal set recorded at the Factory, along with various singles and other odds and ends. The April ‘66 Scepter versions sound fairly close to the final versions, but the Factory set, recorded in January, shows how the songs evolved and changed (such as “Crackin’ Up/ Venus in Furs”), and includes non-album tracks like “Miss Joanie Lee” and “Walk Alone”.
The live album, recorded in a rare excursion from New York at the Valleydale ballroom, Columbus, Ohio on Nov 4th’66. The recording quality isn’t great by sanitised, polished modern standards but it’s certainly better, say, than the Quine Tapes set from a few years back. The main point of interest are two seriously long tracks – “Melody Laughter” and “The Nothing Song”, both around 28 minutes. It’s always been a bit of a cliché that the East Coast Velvet Underground were the direct opposite to the hippy trippy psychedelic West Coast groups like the Airplane and the Dead (maybe true in terms of chosen relaxants and stimulants), the sound really isn’t too different from what you’d have heard many a time in the small hours at the Fillmore or the Roundhouse. The music develops through slow trancey repetition, far removed from blues or rock’n’roll, guitar interweaving with Cale’s strings, and casually anticipates post-rock by decades.
In addition there’s Nico’s “Chelsea Girls” solo album, recorded around the same time and released six months later. Maybe its inclusion here is a little tenuous, but it’s still a very good album in its own right. Half the ten tracks have a Velvet Underground composition connection, and the overall sound oozes John Cale’s precise but languid string arrangements. Meanwhile Nico demonstrates the fashion/music/avant-garde crossover of the time in a display of icily cool singing (and definitive opiate chiselled cheek-bones on the cover). Which leads us nicely to another Nico reissue, separate from the “Banana” album. “The End” came out in 1974, by which time she had developed her own sound further, moving away from the more stylised, baroque feel of “Chelsea Girls”, with a trademark blend of a stark voice, generally deeper and sterner than in the group, and droning harmonium blended with Cale’s strings again, aided by Eno and Phil Manzanera among others. It’s an interesting companion to the Cale, Eno,Kevin Ayers, Nico live album that came out around the same time. Given her past involvement with Jim Morrison, it’s no surprise to hear her doing a suitably glacial version of “The End”
Again, though, the main interest is in the extra material (there’s actually more of it than the original album!) – especially five John Peel session tracks (including another version of “The End” – we also get the Rainbow ’74 version), along with a couple of Whistle Test tracks.
Moving on – it all looked very different a few years on after the eruption of punk. The Jam rode the wave for a while, but Paul Weller soon found himself trapped by the same dilemma as Jimi Hendrix a decade earlier – playing to a fanatically loyal but increasingly conservative audience who just wanted to hear all the old stuff again and again, and only wanted to hear new material that sounded like the old stuff. Although there’d be more Jam releases after “The Gift”, this album and some of the extra material offer quite a few clues as to what was round the corner with the Style Council. Just as Tamla Motown and US R&B were crucial elements in the sound of Mod heroes like the Who and the Small Faces, so Weller wanted to incorporate the musical feel and style of artists like Curtis Mayfield in particular, and to develop a more laid-back but expressive style of singing, soulful even.
There’s a generous helping of demos and other extras – too many to go into fully here. Some of them aren’t too different to the finished versions, there are some quickly dashed-off acoustic sketches, like “Billy”, and some oddities like a cut of “Bitterest Pill” smothered in cheesy strings, or a rather cool instrumental track of “Only Started”. Other tracks show the changes going in Weller’s musical world, especially the soul covers like “Move On Up”, “War”, and “Stoned Out Of My Mind” – at times they’re so close to the originals that you might as well go the extra yards and listen to some real Curtis Mayfield or Edwin Starr. They’re saved by being motivated by love of the music, and although at times the arrangements get over-cluttered with horns and backing vocals – Paul Weller clearly desperate to get away from the power trio straitjacket – they generally manage to avoid the Spandau Ballet funk-lite dead-end of the time. A year or two later the influences were assimilated rather than copied, and a new direction was gaining momentum.
On the bonus live disc of one of the Jam’s Wembley farewell shows two things stand out – the astonishing quality of the twenty-odd tracks here, most of them chart hits, but also that the young Paul Weller’s voice live was no thing of beauty, being reduced to a rough bark after the first few songs, as he tried to compete in vain with a sing-along audience. It was great watching BBC4’s Weller night last week, and hearing just how his voice has developed over the years. There’s also a DVD of videos and live action – unfortunately lost in the pc meltdown.
Joe Strummer was another writer/musician who was always totally his own man. There’s going to be a series of reissues of Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros material to tie in with the tenth anniversary of his death (or what would have been his 60th birthday), starting with “Global A Go-Go” and “Streetcore”. Both albums are remastered – “Global a Go Go” has a bonus live cut of “Bhindi Bhajee”, while “Streetcore” has an extra half-hour made up of more live action. That album was a work in progress at the time of Strummer’s death, so there’s always the question of how close this is to what he’d have done himself. A couple of tracks were allegedly demos for Johnny Cash, but nothing should detract from a strong album which demonstrates how strong and versatile a singer he was on tracks as different as “Coma Girl”, “Arms Aloft” and a moving cover of Marley’s “Redemption Song”.
I know I’m not alone in thinking “Global” was his best work outside the Clash by quite a distance. In some ways it’s not dissimilar to the process Paul Weller went through in the evolution from Jam to solo artist, via the Style Council, and shows how he’d absorbed the kind of diverse influences and styles tried out by the Clash on albums like “Sandinista” and “London Calling”. On this album there’s a powerful mix of styles, which starts with a militant “Johnny Appleseed” and culminates in a really powerful climax of “Mondo Bongo”, “Bummed Out City”, “At the Border, Guy”, before fading out beautifully with the long, wistful “Minstrel Boy”. But really this is one of those rare albums that doesn’t have a duff track on it. Joe Strummer sounds relaxed and purposeful singing, the lyrics have moved on from the frantic Clash slogan style, and he’d assembled a versatile and simpatico bunch of musicians to bring it all together. I really can’t recommend this enough!
And finally – although the Jetsonics are very much alive, active and of the moment, they’ve come up with two EP’s which sound just like some long-lost gems from the Chiswick or Beggars Banquet labels c1979. I’ve had an ear out for the group since their “Extended Player Number One” release and some impressive live action. The sound is a potent mix of Jam, Clash and Members-style riffs, all delivered super-tight by guitarist/singer Sam Day and bassman Adam Donovan and kicked along by Dave Lombardi’s fierce drumming, while Clash-like soaring backing vox and compressed mini-solos adorn the background. The clue’s in the titles – “Chelsea Drugstore”, “Debbie Harry”, “Never Meet Your Heroes” and “1977 Again”. Check www.thejetsonics.com if you want to know more.
I guess we’ve come full circle now, from new editions of old music to new music informed and inspired by what’s gone before, but with a feel and attitude very much its own. The music never stops…