Worst year in music

Published March 15, 2011

So, I was reading this blog post, which argues against that old, mouldy idea that the period between Elvis going into the army and The Beatles' arrival on the music scene was a lost era in popular music. In his blog post, journalist Gene Sculatti focuses on the year 1960 and argues convincingly that it in fact offered a bunch of great music. I'm sure this is true of every year, although perhaps some 12-month-periods are a little more magical than others. One of my favourite years, for instance, is 1966: The Beatles' Revolver album; The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; Motown at the peak of their powers; and so on.

I can tell you right away which period I personally consider the worst in 20th Century popular music: the mid-Eighties, circa 1983-1987. Certainly, there was a lot of good music made during that period as well (by The Smiths; Scritti Politti; Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, just to name a few off the top of my head). But in terms of mainstream music - that awful production aesthetic with all those fat sounds and biiiig drums and few if any nuances - it was the dark ages as far as I'm concerned.

I think no other song sums up this terrible era better for me than the 1984 single The Wild Boys by Duran Duran. A lot of shouting and overblown gestures, but nothing but a big, hollow emptiness inside. This song was a No 2 hit in both the UK and the US, ladies and gentlemen - it fair boggles the mind. Serves you right to be tied to a windmill and getting your hair wet repeatedly, Mr Le Bon!

Celebrity spotting

Published February 25, 2011

Last week I spent a couple of days in London. While walking down Dean Street in Soho I happened to see a face I recognised, namely that of Mike Read, the one-time BBC Radio One DJ. For those interested in pop music history, Mike Read is perhaps best known for his involvement in banning Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' from the British airwaves.

This encounter - which really was nothing more than me passing him on the street - made me think two things: 1) Isn't it somehow strange that a Swedish person should recognise a British media personality that, to the best of my knowledge, has had absolutely no impact in my home-country? And 2) The reason I know so much about him is that I've been reading British music magazines for more than 30 years. It's scary to imagine how much knowledge I've amassed about people and institutions that have never really played any part in my everyday life. I probably know more about Radio One DJs than is really healthy for me, including the the fact that, apparently, you're not supposed to like Dave Lee Travis. And it's a good chance I would recognise him as well, should I ever happen to pass him on the street.

Lock up your children - Christmas music ahead!

Published December 04, 2010

While looking for some Swedish Christmas music on iTunes, as one sometimes does at this time of year, I chanced upon this album of choral recordings of Yuletide songs. But they've all been marked as EXPLICIT! What do you think, dear reader, is it safe to download, or has Helsingborgs Kammarkör gone all gangsta on us?

 

The life of Harry Nilsson chronicled on new DVD

Published November 12, 2010

In July 2007 I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Two days after arriving I was browsing through a listings magazine when I chanced upon an item informing me that, if I had known about it, I could have attended a screening of a film entitled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? I stifled a scream of frustration. For this was a film I had known about for quite some time, and I had also read on the Internet that the producers had a hard time finding a DVD distribution deal for the film. Thus, living in Stockhom, chances were slim that I'd ever get to see this film.

I have been a Harry Nilsson fan for many years. To me, he had one of the best voices in rock and he wrote some of the most amazing songs I've ever heard. His early albums are jaw-droppingly awesome and up to the early Seventies he did little wrong.

His career was kind of strange. Although he was an excellent song writer, his biggest hits - Everybody's Talkin' and Without You - were written by other people, while other acts achieved hits with songs written by him (Three Dog Night's version of One, for instance). Just a few years into his recording career, he recorded an entire album of songs by Randy Newman - Nilsson Sings Newman, actually one of his best albums - and in 1973, a couple of years after achieving a US number one with Without You, he chose to record an album of standards, A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. After that it was a downhill slide into alcoholism and drug abuse, and his career never regained its momentum.

The documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? has now finally been released on DVD, and I spent the afternoon today watching it. With the help of family, friends and collaborators the film tells the full story of his life and career in a truly compelling way. It's an honest account of the good times as well as the bad, and clearly a labour of love on part of the film-makers.

I found it particularly interesting to see how the film acknowledged that what has sometimes been interpreted as self-deprecating humour was actually a matter of severe self-loathing. For me, the cracks were beginning to show as early as the 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson album (which featured the hits Without You and Coconut). Wonderful as it is, there is often something lazy and throwaway about it, so different from the meticulous care and energy that went into his earlier work. And on the following album, Son Of Schmilsson, it's quite clear that something's wrong: including a short reprise of the most beautiful song on the album, Remember (Christmas), and ending it with a loud burp, to me signals a serious lack of self-esteem rather than a sense of fun.

His best albums were made between 1967 and 1970: his voice was at its prime, he worked with a wonderful arranger - George Tipton - his vocal overdubs were inventive and adventurous, and most of the songs were outstanding. For the record, my favourite albums, as complete listening experiences are Harry (1969) and Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), but Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968) are also not to be missed. If you're a fan of melodic pop music, do yourself a favour and check out Harry Nilsson's recorded work. And if you're already a fan, make sure that you pick up a copy of the documentary - you won't regret it.

Click here to read a recent and very interesting interview with the film's writer-director, John Scheinfeld.

 

David Bowie's Station To Station

Published October 21, 2010

To the great delight of all David Bowie fans, EMI has a quite wonderful reissue program for his original studio albums. So far, they've reissued David Bowie (aka Space Oddity), Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and, most recently, my favourite Bowie album, Station To Station. It's been reissued in, I believe, a number of different formats. I opted for the package that includes three CDs: one of the original album and two of a previously unreleased live show from the era. The package also includes three colour pictures and a booklet featuring an essay as well as a detailed timeline.

The Station To Station album - recorded during Bowie's infamous period in Los Angeles when he was so strung out on drugs that he claims not to remember a single moment from the recording sessions - captures him between the "soul boy" era of 1974/75 and the Berlin period that saw him through the end of the Seventies. I think perhaps that's why I like it so much: apart from the fact that it has no weak tracks, it's got a bit of funk and soul about it, yet with the haunting title track it's looking forward to the experimentation that would follow with Brian Eno on the following three albums. And besides, did he ever look cooler than on this performance of the hit single 'Golden Years' on Soul Train (the dancing crowd is pretty damned cool too!)?