Category Archives: Rock, Punk, Alternative, Garage

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady – Classic Music Review

I am a committed, happy socialist whose career has primarily involved business marketing strategy and analytics.

Newsflash: Modern economies are not set up to cater to an individual’s talents or interests.

For those of you unfamiliar with the field, “a marketing strategy refers to a business’ overall game plan for reaching prospective consumers and turning them into customers of the products or services the business provides,” while “marketing analytics is the practice of measuring, managing and analyzing marketing performance to maximize its effectiveness and optimize return on investment (ROI).”

Those are the standard definitions, but I have my own. Marketing strategy is the overall game plan for how best to capitalize on human greed, egotism, fear and stupidity. Marketing analytics is designed to measure how many of the suckers born every minute you can transform into addicts for your particular product or service.

It’s an interesting if somewhat distorted lens through which to view life, but I do believe knowing a little bit about marketing can help every average Joe and Jane understand how they allow themselves to be manipulated into believing they need something that they rarely need or even want. Whether it’s a big company or a political party or a nonprofit agency helping the homeless, their messages are all marketing messages designed to get you to buy, vote for or donate. Marketers are particularly interested in enhancing your self-image because we are all the heroes of our own stories and we like to feel like we’re winners or at least on the winning team. Your ego is your most vulnerable appendage, and all good marketing strategy targets that weak spot.

Yes, I’m getting to Buzzcocks. Keep your pants on.

The first step in marketing whatever shit you’re trying to peddle to the public is to determine the current state of the market. This is a crucial step: in marketing, timing is everything. The Beatles provide a good example of that fundamental truth. Six months prior to their arrival in America, there was no way in hell a band of Brits could have conquered America because Americans were happy living on the New Frontier and didn’t need what they had to offer. JFK’s assassination changed everything by making everyone (except right-wing racist nuts) very, very sad. After two months of mourning, all those teenage Baby Boomers grew deathly tired of sad and wanted to have some fun—particularly all those pre-pill horny teenage girls who needed something to substitute for the sex they craved . . . something that wouldn’t get them knocked up and disgraced. With an uncanny sense of timing, Brian Epstein and Ed Sullivan provided the goods that met the new need: a product guaranteed to provide the safe and wholesome release of pent-up hormonal energy by allowing girls to scream at the top of their lungs in the secure confines of auditoriums and stadiums. Epstein was brilliant at the art of the marketing rollout, selling Sullivan on three back-to-back performances and urging Capitol Records to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at just the right moment to amp up the buzz. The Beatles did the rest by seducing the press and the listening public with their Liverpudlian wit, good cheer, catchy music and cute haircuts.

This was such a perfect marketing launch that I have to wonder if . . . wait a minute . . . let me check the historical record . . . Wow! Epstein met alone with Sullivan to cut the deal at the Delmonico Hotel on Monday, November 11—just eleven days before the tragedy in Dallas. And then Brian Epstein died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later . . . Wow! Ed Sullivan was CIA! Then Brian Epstein must have been MI6! I get it now! The CIA wanted to get rid of Kennedy for blowing the Bay of Pigs thing and the British were desperate to boost their economy through the only products they had to offer—James Bond and rock ‘n’ roll! When Epstein became too unstable a few years later, the CIA offed him! Why haven’t the major conspiracy theorists followed up on this incredibly promising angle regarding the crime of the century?

Stop whining. I’ll get to the goddamned Buzzcocks when I’m good and ready. Sheesh! You’re an impatient lot! Alright already!

After achieving UK chart success with some great singles, EP’s and a couple of albums, management decided it was time to launch Buzzcocks in the American market. Management felt that rather than releasing either of their first two studio albums, it would arrange eight of the singles in a neat little package of sixteen songs with the A-sides on side one and the B-sides on side two. It gave the album the clever retro title Singles Going Steady. A US tour was arranged to coincide with the release of the album. Management poured itself a brandy, lit its cigars and patted itself on the back for developing what was clearly a can’t-miss marketing strategy.

Oops. It missed. It missed big time. Singles Going Steady failed to chart.

It failed to chart because the fucking idiot who came up with the marketing strategy failed to determine the current state of the U.S. market. The yanks had already decided that they had little interest in this punk rock thing. The Ramones never charted higher than #66 on Billboard and Never Mind the Bollocks peaked at #106. CBS refused to release the first Clash album because it was too rough for sensitive disco-ized American ears; when they released Give ‘Em Enough Rope, it “peaked” at #128. The Clash broke through a few months after Singles Going Steady, but London Calling is hardly a punk album. Did anyone on that crack management team even bother to look at the Billboard charts? Guess not. Here’s the list of top 10 singles the week Singles Going Steady was released to no fanfare at all:

1. MY SHARONA –•– The Knack (Capitol)-15 (6 weeks at #1) (1)
2. SAD EYES –•– Robert John (EMI-America)-20 (2)
3. RISE –•– Herb Alpert (A&M)-10 (3)
4. DON’T STOP ‘TIL YOU GET ENOUGH –•– Michael Jackson (Epic)-10 (4)
5. AFTER THE LOVE HAS GONE –•– Earth, Wind and Fire (ARC)-13 (2)
6. LONESOME LOSER –•– Little River Band (Capitol)-11 (6)
7. I’LL NEVER LOVE THIS WAY AGAIN –•– Dionne Warwick (Arista)-15 (7)
8. SAIL ON –•– The Commodores (Motown)-8 (8)
9. THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA –•– The Charlie Daniels Band (Epic)-15 (3)
10. DON’T BRING ME DOWN –•– Electric Light Orchestra (Jet)-9 (4)

The greatest one-hit wonder of them all, a white guy singing faux soul with his balls in a vise, lots of funk and late-era Motown, downhome country rock and ELO in their Commercial Crap phase. Lesson #1: Never launch a punk album when Herb Alpert is in the top ten.

The story highlights another marketing truth: the best product doesn’t always win. Back in the early days of personal computing, everyone who was anyone agreed that the Macintosh operating system was more elegant and user-friendly than the clunky, ugly, bug-prone MS-DOS offspring called Windows, but Bill Gates wound up with 95% of the market anyway. There is no question in my mind when I listen to Singles Going Steady that Buzzcocks had a superior product—the problem was the market had gone in a completely different direction, away from blistering rock to smooth and mellow.

The tale does have a happy ending: Singles Going Steady eventually earned consideration from critics and fans alike as one of the greatest punk albums ever released. The music is surprisingly melodic and quite catchy without crossing the line into insipid commercialization. The lyrics are well thought-out and deeper than they may appear in the first go-round. What knocks me out about Buzzcocks music is that it is immediately obvious that these guys worked their asses off to get it right: the tightness of the band as they work at supersonic speed is breathtaking. The quality of collaboration between the members of the classic line up of Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey and John Maher comes through loud and clear. There’s a brightness in their sound that is somewhat unusual for punk (in part due to their melodic bent), but they still manage to kick rock ‘n’ roll ass. Singles Going Steady deserved a much better fate than the one generated by cold, cruel marketing illogic.

And now, without wasting another second of your precious time, here’s my blow-by-blow account of Singles Going Steady:

“Orgasm Addict”: Their maiden single clearly differentiated Buzzcocks from the archetypal punk band by daring to deal explicitly with the taboo topic of sex. Although I’ve always found punk to be intensely sexual music, the vast majority of British punk bands avoided the subject entirely, focusing on social injustice and the existential ennui inherent in modern society. “Orgasm Addict” might lead you to believe that the band had more in common with the Stooges (particularly “Loose”) than the Sex Pistols, but Pete Shelley also wrote about relationships and the complications inherent in budding love, a topic more common in pop than punk.

The “hero” of our story is a guy who gets himself off any way he can (“Sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/Now your mother wants to know ’bout all those stains on your jeans”) and is not particularly discerning when it comes to choosing a partner (“You’re makin’ out with school kids/Winos and heads of state”). Add religious cult members and butcher’s assistants and you get a clear picture of a guy whose protruding member is completely out of control. Personally, I’m proud to be an orgasm addict, and find masturbation a valuable technique for releasing tension instead of letting it fester and get ugly—but I’m certainly not out to fuck anyone with a pulse and I always fuck with discipline and intent. This meat-beater is totally focused on his own pleasure (“It’s a labor of love fucking yourself to death”) which certifies him as an A-1 loser when it comes to sex.

Needless to say, the song was banned by the BBC. Goddamn I wish people would grow the fuck up and talk honestly and openly about fucking.

Although the band isn’t quite as tight as they would become in their prime (at this stage they’re still missing one important piece to the puzzle), they rock hard to the stutter-step beat and demonstrate their ability to drive it home, particularly during the passage when Pete Shelley successfully reproduces the vocalizations common to orgasm. Shelley’s voice is quite unusual for a punk band, a higher-pitched voice with greater melodic capability. What gives him punk cred is the slight sneer you hear in his voice when he encounters absurd situations and people who seriously need a wake-up call.

“What Do I Get”: Although the sounds are punk, the feel here is more girl group—The Shirelles on steroids. The song is essentially an ode to the sleepless nights one experiences when there is no one else occupying your bed, and what raises the song above the level of your typical I’m-so-lonely pop song is Shelley’s vocal, sung in the slightly plaintive tone of the innocent facing a cruel injustice . . . a teeny bit on the campy side, but it works. This is the song where you really begin to notice John Maher’s drumming—the man is all over the kit and doesn’t miss a beat or a crash. “What Do I Get” also marked the first appearance of Steve Garvey on bass, a major upgrade that will reap dividends in short order.

“I Don’t Mind”: Maher opens the piece with a four-second high-to-low intro before the band kicks in, every member in perfect sync. Steve Garvey sticks closely to the base rhythm, forming a seamless relationship with Maher that marks the trademark tightness that would carry the band going forward. There are few things in life that thrill me as much as a tight band ripping it at breakneck speed, and “I Don’t Mind” has that . . . and more! Pete Shelley delivers the vocal in an almost apologetic, sorry-to-bother-you tone with a few splashes of latent anger, reflecting the passive-aggressive self-deprecation of the lead character. This is a man with little confidence in himself but certainly enough to believe he deserves better treatment from his intended, who is sort of an updated version of Cathy from the Everlies’ classic “Cathy’s Clown.” The melodic movement is subtle, almost off-hand in nature—pleasing little bursts of notes riding the driving drone underneath. The band departs from the pattern at the end, adding a second bridge with a slightly different melodic line accompanied by near-dissonant slicing guitar from Steve Diggle. The arrangement builds steadily towards a crescendo that is deeply satisfying, leaving the listener absolutely delighted that a band could pack so much variation into two minutes and nineteen seconds and nail every change, beat and cue. “I Don’t Mind” merges beautifully merges pop and punk sensibilities, giving truth to the lie that the early punks kept it simple because they couldn’t handle the complex.

“Love You More”: Pete Shelley spends all but the last split-second of the song trying to convince himself that he’s found true love, this time fo’ sho’, despite a lengthy record of consistent relationship failure. Though the song sounds breezy and happy, there are several hints in the lyrics that Pete has a heart problem—not a blockage or a weakened aorta—but with his emotional centering. “It’s my heart again/That drives me so wild,” he croons, later adding “With every heartbeat I want you madly/It’s in my blood to always love you more.” The song ends with Pete in full manic depression marked by either suicidal ideation or murderous intent:

And it means more to me than life can offer
And if this isn’t true love then I am sure
That after this love there’ll be no other
Until the razor cuts

And then dead fucking silence. We don’t know if he offed himself or his intended; we don’t even know if there was any foul play at all. Baby, I love ambivalence.

“Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)“: This one has an interesting and unexpected origin . . . it was inspired by a musical, of all things:

The song dates back to November 1977. We were on a roll. It was only six months since we’d finished the first album. Up in Manchester this was what we used to dream of… a whirlwind of tours, interviews, TV. We were living the life. One night in Edinburgh we were in a guest house TV lounge watching the musical Guys and Dolls. This line leaped out – ‘Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?’ The next day the van stopped outside a post office and I wrote the lyrics there.–Pete Shelley, interview with The Guardian, February 24, 2006

I recently shared my loathing of musicals with one of my readers, but inspiration does tend to come from some pretty odd places, so I’ll give Pete kudos here for taking a line from such a ridiculous art form and turning it into a great piece of melodic punk. Leading a song with a minor chord always catches the ear, adding a touch of erotic mystery in the context of rock. John Maher is really on fire here, bashing the drums with a sense of unbridled urgency that contrasts beautifully with Pete’s offhand delivery of the melodic line.

Because I suffer from violent allergic reactions to musicals, I’d never seen Guys and Dolls, but me being me, I had to research it . . . and are you kidding me? Marlon Brando was in a fucking musical? I can take him has a rapist who used butter as an anal sex lubricant, but Marlon Brando in a musical? That’s obscene.

“Promises”: This zippy little number is in perfect sync with one of my core life principles because it succinctly summarizes why I never intend to get married. I don’t know how anyone can honestly commit to staying in a relationship forever. People change. Shit happens. Getting stuck in a relationship because of a promise you made when you were either overdosing with emotion, drunk, feeling tired of being alone, or because you were getting too old to be single is as dumb as dumb gets. Shelley accurately captures the inevitable result when one half of the relationship breaks the promise: the injured party screams “YOU PROMISED” and then goes into the you-never-loved-me bullshit driven by misplaced feelings of betrayal. No problem with the music here—strong melodic movement over a solid rhythm section banging away at autobahn speeds is always a winner in my book. I just wish the closing line would have been, “Look, we’re both being stupid about this. It’s been great—take care—see ya!”

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”: Borrowing a phrase from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the single represented a slight departure from the classic punk formula but not as big a departure as the punk purists would have you believe. The Buzzcocks gradually expanded their sonic reach, but more in the form of slight variants from punk norms rather than giant leaps into the unknown. I can’t imagine a more perfect soundtrack to accompany life in the World State—there’s a pleasant numbing effect from the music that is eerily cheerful. The slicing downward movement of the primary guitar riff stands in opposition to the bustling distortion of rhythm guitar to form a troubling, dystopian soundtrack. Pete’s tone is one of shoulder-shrugging fake complacency, a tone he indirectly explained in an interview with Sounds:

I’ve come to the idea that nothing exists. There is no world. Or it doesn’t really matter if there is. The way I’m affected by things is the way by which I want them to affect me.

I have a hard time getting my little blonde head around such deep thinking, but I will give Pete credit for crafting a song with a mood that so completely complements non-existence.

“Harmony in My Head”: Steve Diggle takes over the vocal chores for one of his own compositions. The timbre of Diggle’s voice is certainly more along the lines of what we expect from British punk—gruff, raspy and with no attempt to disguise the patois. Diggle’s delivery lacks the clear articulation prominent in Shelley’s vocals, and given the American aversion to British accents that fail to qualify as “posh” (a topic covered in my review of Blur’s Parklife), the song certainly wouldn’t have helped the band in its futile attempt to gain American market acceptance. As befits a song written by a lead guitarist, the guitar dominates the arrangement, integrating siren sounds with classic punk roughness over the relentless drive supplied by Garvey and Maher. The casting of the song in a minor key adds to the feeling of a dystopian soundscape, which may seem like an inappropriate background for a stroll down high street during shopping hours, but I think Diggle’s message is that our obsession with money and material goods has already taken us far down the road to dystopia.

We now flip the disc for the B-sides . . . and in the interests of full disclosure, I like the B-sides a bit better because they demonstrate the potential the band pissed away when they decided to part ways after A Different Kind of Tension.

“Whatever Happened To. . . ?”: Having listened to seven tracks featuring Steve Garvey on bass, it’s a genuine disappointment to listen to the second pre-Garvey number. Garth Smith simply couldn’t keep up, and man, is it ever noticeable. Diggle and Maher wind up driving the rhythm while the bass sort of muddles along in another plane of existence. Too bad, because this is a fun song, a tongue-in-cheek look at old reliable standbys (hi-fi’s, the yellow pages, train sets, Chairman Mao (?)), comparing their durable dependability with commercially-driven mating:

Your passion is a product of highlight and detail
That come-hither look, bonus offer retail . .  .

Your emotions are cheap, cut-price cash-and-carry
You wear your heart on your sleeve for any Tom, Dick or Harry
Your love is a cashed-in cheque
Oh, oh, that’s the way of all flesh

All you have to do is hang around the clubs in Vegas today and you’ll see plenty of balloon-sized lips and silicon tits that confirm Shelley’s worst fears.

“Oh Shit”: I find it amazing that this was the first song titled with a phrase that every human being on the planet has used at one time or another. The Pharcyde (cute) did a hip-hop song with the same name but punk has much more oh shit in its veins than hip-hop. It’s one minute and thirty-seconds of the release of pent up early British punk frustration. Enjoy the refreshing honesty of the vernacular, wipe the sweat off your brow and thrill to the burgeoning bruises from the mosh pit. Fucking delightful.

“Autonomy”: Steve Diggle was a pretty conservative guitarist in general, a long way from the virtuoso types like Satriani and Malmsteen. But goddamn that man knew how to get the most out of a few chords and simple riffs, and in a piece with very sparse lyrics like “Autonomy” he gets a chance to take center stage. The high-speed strum on quickly descending chords certainly draws your attention, but I find myself entranced by the power and confidence he displays in the delivery of the dominant riff. His distortion tone is dampened just a teeny bit, resulting in a cleaner tone that isn’t too clean, allowing for that grinding, rough sound to still thrill you right down to your clit.

Well, at least my clit.

“Noise Annoys”: The Buzzcocks could get the most of a song, even when there isn’t much there there. The lyrics consist of extremely modest variations of the line “Pretty girls, pretty boys, have you ever heard your mommy say noise annoys.” The dead stops after “noise annoys” are a positively brilliant validation of female power. Diggle dominates once again with striking riffs, and Maher gets a helluva workout on the kit. A bit manic, but still a gas.

“Just Lust”: Another attack on superficial sex a la “Orgasm Addict,” this piece feels a bit darker due to the dissonance of the guitar in the bridge and Shelley’s choice to sing in a key at the lower in the range. The lyrics clearly communicate his disgust with sexual mores that emphasize physical performance and stylistic garnish, but even Shelley has to admit that “she looks like the real thing/tastes like the real thing” (with a nod to Thom Yorke and the advertisers at Coca-Cola):

I was slow to catch on
And that just makes it worse
If passion is a fashion
Then emotion is a curse

I’ll say one more thing about Maher, though: if he fucks like he drums, I want him.

“Lipstick”: The boys shake things up a bit, flipping the typical order followed by many a rock songwriter when a minor key is involved. Here the verses are in a major key while the chorus downshifts to the minor. As Shelley decided to use the exact same lines for both verse and chorus, the effect is darkening, as if someone slipped a shade over the music. I’ve rarely heard a rock song amplify the different moods of major and minor so strongly. Adding to the strength of the piece are the seamless transitions in both key and rhythm, moving from major to minor while shifting from bouncy to overdrive. Damn, this was one helluva band!

“Why Can’t I Touch It?”: I love it when albums end well, largely because it’s so damned rare. The last two songs are my two absolute favorite Buzzock numbers, in part because they break one of the fundamental tenets of punk: keep it short. “Why Can’t I Touch It?” is the greater offender, clocking in at over six-and-a-half minutes. While I think the band could have taken more risks given the infinite possibilities for jamming presented by the baseline rhythm, the stereo call-and-response of the guitars works well and actually intensify the listener’s awareness of the rhythmic efforts of Maher and Garvey. The result is a hip-swaying, thigh-grinding experience that gives dancers plenty of room to improvise. The only break in the rhythm comes in the chorus, where the band lowers the volume, drops the pattern and builds to a terribly exciting crescendo featuring Pete Shelley soaring on the line, “So why-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay can’t I touch it.” Shelley’s upper-register, passion-filled vocal is so engaging that the listener feels his frustration at coming so close to grasping whatever “it’ is. Being the tactile type, I always have to touch things to confirm their reality, but I can also see the line applying to the astronauts who flew to the moon and just orbited the fucking place. Close enough just ain’t good enough.

“Something’s Gone Wrong Again”: Let’s face it: modern life is a fucking hassle full of tedious, irritating micro-annoyances that can throw you off and ruin your whole fucking day. When you look back on your reaction to these tiny shitstorms, you wonder, “Why did I have to make such a big deal out of little nothings?” “Because of the accumulation of stress particles,” I scream, adding, “Someone should write a song about this.”

Well, Pete Shelley already wrote that song, and it’s an absolute gas that gives you two possible ways of dealing with these existential mini-crises. First, the next time someone tells you “It’s the little things in life that make it all worthwhile,” you are within your rights to kick that person’s ass. Second: you may be the cause of your own frustration, so look in the mirror for answers.

Oh, this poor bastard . . .

Tried to find my sock
No good, it’s lost
Something’s gone wrong again
Need a shave
Cut myself, need a new blade
Something’s gone wrong again
And again
And again, and again, again and something’s gone wrong again
Something’s gone wrong again

He tries to fry an egg and breaks the yoke, checks his watch to find the hands are broken . . . it’s one thing after another, his blood pressure reading looking like one of those cartoon thermometers that explode over the hapless toon. In a nice little twist, Shelley posits that these things might be going wrong because we expect things to go wrong . . . these pinpricks are a manifestation of our frustration in not having the means to avoid the draining drudgery of daily life:

Nothing ever happens to people like us
‘Cept we miss the bus, something goes wrong again
Need a smoke, use my last fifty P.
But the machine is broke, something’s gone wrong again

I guess the updated PC version of the song will feature the inability to find one’s yoga mat. Afterthought: pulling out a yoga mat instead of lighting a cigarette would have ruined film noir.

The music is intense, featuring thumping bass, strong drums and a combination of distorted and flanged guitar. Diggle’s solo is his best on the album, a ripping, dissonant tour de force, an audio depiction of frustration. Pete Shelley gradually becomes more and more manic as the song proceeds, and by the end it sounds like he’s ready to jump out of his skin . . . and I think, “Is that how I sound WHEN I’VE FUCKING HAD IT WITH THIS STUPID SHIT?” I sure as fuck hope so.

There are times when writing reviews are painful and other times when they feel more like a chore than a choice. Neither of those apply to Singles Going Steady: I had a great time! The music is endlessly engaging, the band is totally committed to everything they’re laying down and the album works on multiple levels: emotional, intellectual (here she goes again), sexual. I wish they hadn’t quit the business when they did and I really wish they’d had better marketing advice to facilitate that American breakthrough—that might have given them the validation any artist needs to move forward.

Hmm. They should have gone guerilla. Oh, you haven’t heard of guerilla marketing? Well, it’s . . . oh, fuck the shop talk.

Jethro Tull – Stormwatch – Classic Music Review

My parents, who saw all the shows in Tull’s heyday, claim that the Stormwatch concert was one of their favorites, ranking it third on the list, right after the Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. 

I have to admit that I responded to that claim with more than a little skepticism, and may have included an “oh, for fuck’s sake” in my response. I had no doubt that Tull put on a great show—by all accounts, they were an excellent live band. I just had a hard time believing that a concert filled with comparatively weak material could have been a more satisfying experience than one where the pre-encore setlist was filled with great songs (like Aqualung or Songs from the Wood). While the album has its moments—some great moments—I don’t think Stormwatch is one of Tull’s best works.

The news that a 40th Anniversary Edition of Stormwatch (The Force 10 Deluxe Edition, no less) is on its way reminded me that I hadn’t done a Tull album in quite a while and still had plenty of holes to fill in the Tull narrative. Since I prefer to review original presentations, I decided to get off my beautiful ass and get on with it before the (hopefully) “new and improved” version hits the shelves.

The critical response to Stormwatch at the time of its release was both unfavorable and unfair. What was unfair was that nearly every review I read lumped Stormwatch into Tull’s “folk period” along with Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses, a view still prevalent to this day. This massive display of groupthink begs the question, “Did any of those critics actually listen to the fucking record?” I count one folk song on the entire album, with two others somewhere in the ballpark. You could make a much better case placing Stormwatch in the genre of progressive rock, but really, the music is all over the map. I would define Stormwatch as a transitional album between the folk-rock lean that preceded it and the more electronic sound that followed it. The evidence supporting the transitional label is strengthed by the many changes in the band lineup after its release—mainstays John Evan and Barriemore Barlow decided to split, and sadly, bassist John Glascock died of heart problems during the tour. Combine all those personnel changes with the irrepressible restlessness of Ian Anderson and it’s hard to see how Stormwatch could have been anything but a transitional album.

I’ve always felt that the variability in the quality of Tull albums was driven more by the quality of Ian Anderson’s songwriting than style, instrumentation or vibes in the studio. What weakens Stormwatch more than any other factor is the lack of clear thematic intent. He had a strong metaphor to work with; there were plenty of signs in the ’70s that potentially destructive “storms” were gathering on the horizon and exerting a destabilizing effect on societies across the globe. Unfortunately, through a combination of incredibly poor track placement and the tendency of the creative mind to chase butterflies, he allowed the theme to dissipate almost to the point of irrelevance. While the new edition may clean up the inconsistent quality of the production, some of the songs are simply unsalvageable because they weren’t very good songs in the first place and don’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album.

Stormwatch is also the album where Ian Anderson began dabbling in current events, with seriously mixed results. “North Sea Oil” is one of the weaklings in the litter, and its placement in the pole position immediately lowers listener anticipation. The problem isn’t with the musicians—Ian’s flute fills are spot-on and Martin Barre gets in a few good licks—the problem is with the blah lyrics, very awkward melody and curious chord progression. The odd shifts in tempo add nothing to the piece and the spoken word passage interferes with a relatively high-quality Anderson-Barre duet. And what’s that “Before we all are nuclear—the better way!” crap all about? Rule #142: Never open an album with a song that sounds like the third page of the Business section.

I rather like “Orion,” especially once Ian stops channeling Milton (“Let’s sip the heavens’ heady wine” is particularly annoying) and plants his feet on terra firma:

And young girls shiver as they wait by lonely bus-stops
After sad parties: no-one to take them home
To greasy bed-sitters and make a late-night play
For lost virginity a thousand miles away.

The melody in the verses flows very nicely, and the mix of acoustic guitar, strings and piano blends exceptionally well. I would have preferred more clarity on Martin Barre’s rough guitar in the choruses, but that loss is offset by the excellence of Barriemore Barlow’s responsive drum patterns. This is one song that could benefit from remastering, and I hope the deluxe version cleans up the mix.

“Home” is a relatively pedestrian love song where Ian expresses garden-variety rock star guilt about leaving the main squeeze behind while he traverses the planet on a jumbo jet. This time David Palmer overdoes it on the strings, and Martin’s electric guitar fills feel quite out of place with the tender mood expressed in the lyrics. The slight lift in energy from “Orion” vanishes pretty quickly, a phenomenon that usually points to a problem with track placement, but trying to resolve that issue uncovers another problem. “Home” is one of those wistful, reflective songs that belongs near or at the end of an album, but unfortunately, there’s already a wistful, reflective number in the closing spot, the uninspired instrumental “Elegy.” The problem isn’t track placement but a shortage of sufficiently diverse, quality material.

“Dark Ages” can be dispensed with in short order: nine minutes and fourteen seconds of poorly-arranged, generally uninspiring music supporting a set of thoroughly incomprehensible lyrics. There’s a brief moment two-and-a-half minutes in where Martin Barre launches a machine-gun attack from the fretboard and Barriemore Barlow sounds like he’s getting ready to let it rip, but the anticipation dies a horrible death when Ian cuts off the power to give us another dull verse.

Side one wraps up with the sprightly instrumental “Warm Sporran,” where Ian shines on both flute and bass (filling in for the ailing Glascock). This is one of the tightest band performances on the album, with Evan displaying superb touch and Barlow masterfully handling the diverse drumming demands. It’s also one of the best-engineered tracks on the album, so I hope the remastering doesn’t mess with it too much.

If you’re hoping that side two is any better, guess what? It is! I’ll never understand why an album titled Stormwatch didn’t open with a song charting the path of a fierce storm gathering in the near-distance. . . especially WHEN ONE OF THE SONGS ON THE ALBUM DOES EXACTLY THAT. “Something on the Move” would have made a far more compelling opener with its ripping guitar, energetic flute and . . . it resonates with the title of the fucking album! And goddamn if Ian didn’t nail the poetic imagery:

She wore a black tiara
Rare gems upon her fingers
And she came from distant waters
Where northern lights explode
To celebrate the dawning
Of the new wastes of winter
Gathering royal momentum
On the icy road
With chill mists swirling
Like petticoats in motion
Sighted on horizons
For ten thousand years
The lady of the ice sounds
A deathly distant rumble
To Titanic-breaking children lost
In melting crystal tears.

Let me just say that I deeply resent the decision to shift to gender-neutral names for hurricanes and tropical storms. Only a woman could make such a dramatic, dominating and icily mesmerizing entrance, paralyzing men in their tracks as they struggle to understand how they could possibly sport an erection in a sub-zero environment. Because cold bitches are hot, dummies! I love the rhythmic differences between verses and chorus, the former marked by almost funk-like syncopation and the latter more kick-ass rock. I’m almost always happy when Martin Barre is prominent on a Tull song, as he seems to feed off the energy of the others while returning the energy in full.

As for the follow-up, “Old Ghosts” is a nothingburger of a track, a reminder that even excellent musicianship can’t save a song if the song fucking sucks. Cut it out entirely and you wind up with “Dun Ringill” next in line, the perfect complement to “Something on the Move,” a song that presents a different form of intensity while strengthening the storm metaphor. Dun Ringill is the site of an Iron Age fort on the Isle of Skye, a place within walking distance of Ian Anderson’s digs at the time of the recording. The soundscape is hauntingly beautiful, integrating the sounds of storm and sea with precisely strummed and arpeggiated acoustic guitar. The windswept nature of this ancient place on a far northern isle is captured in the brief bursts of vocal echoes, like human sounds carried on the wind bouncing between the rockfaces. It’s a song that evokes images of shadowy pagans gathered amidst a stone circle (a la Stonehenge), united in ritual as they contemplate the destructive power of nature:

We’ll wait in stone circles
‘Till the force comes through
Lines joint in faint discord
And the storm watch brews
A concert of kings
As the white sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer

Ian’s voice is particularly fine on this track, his tone alternating between matter-of-fact acceptance of fate and soaring when offering his companion a stroll to this magical, darkly romantic place. It will forever befuddle me (no blonde jokes, please) that Stormwatch did not open with the pairing of “Something on the Move” and “Dun Ringill,” as those two songs back-to-back make for an intensely compelling introduction while clearly establishing a strong central theme.

At this point, the dual irritations of incomplete ideas and jumbled track order are really starting to annoy me, but Ian Anderson manages to save the day with what I think is one of his greatest and most impactful compositions, “Flying Dutchman.” Written during the period when the exodus of the “boat people” escaping Vietnam was at its peak, the song is unfortunately a timeless reminder of human resistance to providing haven for people fleeing violence and repression in search of a new life—resistance that is often tightly linked to racism and xenophobia. The symbol of the ghost ship of legend doomed to sail the seas for all eternity serves as a metaphor for the fear of outsiders. As the story morphed over time, the phantom ship came to be seen as a portent of impending doom, making the threat of the horrible consequences of allowing “foreigners” into one’s country a sick form of common wisdom. In truth, the Flying Dutchman is a creation of our own fears, a projection of our shadows.

The first verse describes an old woman standing at a harbor, sending warm wishes to the children who have set sail for distant shores. Their journey is doomed before it begins, as barriers to entry have sprung up in a multitude of countries, ensuring they will “come empty home again.” The music supporting the verse alternates between quiet moments and sudden thrusts, oscillating between quietly expressed hope and the natural fear that would accompany any journey into the unknown. The contrast between the gentle piano-flute duet and Martin Barre’s distorted, trebly guitar is quite dramatic, expressing in music the gap between innocence and hard experience. John Evan gives us a marvelous farewell performance in this piece, forming a compassionate counterpoint to Ian’s gentle, sadness-tinged vocal. As the verse ends, we hear Barriemore Barlow in the distance, executing a snare roll with military precision that cues a shift in style and tone for the chorus. Evan now switches to rhythmic support by adopting a style close to barrel roll, allowing Ian to deliver his first message to the first-worlders in the audience:

So come all you lovers of the good life
On your supermarket run
Set a sail of your own devising
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

The second verse describes some of the horrors faced by the boat people during their perilous journey in search of a home:

Wee girl in a straw hat: from far east warring
Sad cargo of an old ship: young bodies whoring
Slow ocean hobo ports closed to her crew
No hope of immigration, keep on passing through.

Ian’s second message is directed at parents with children, asking them to make the empathic leap: there but for fortune, those could be your kids:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Your children playing in the sun
Set a sympathetic flag a-flying
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

You may have heard of the boat disasters occurring in my neck of the woods: stories of thousands of immigrants crammed into barely seaworthy vessels drowning in the Mediterranean with appalling regularity. The horrors of such a death were also familiar to the boat people:

Death grinning like a scarecrow Flying Dutchman
Seagull pilots flown from nowhere try and touch one
As she slips in on the full tide
And the harbour-master yells
All hands vanished with the captain
No one left, the tale to tell.

Ian’s final message to the smug and comfortable attempts to remind them that the same fate awaits them unless they open minds and hearts to the fundamental truth that we are all human and our survival is dependent on mutual assistance:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Look around you, can you see?
Staring ghostly in the mirror
It’s the Dutchman you will be
Floating slowly out to sea
In a misty misery.

All it would take to put first-worlders in the same boat is one crazy bastard doing something to ignite a war, and given the recent ascendance of several crazy authoritarian bastards who are fully committed to fostering hatred between human beings, any of us could find ourselves taking a sail on the Dutchman in pretty short order. Ian Anderson has rarely written a song of such power and undeniable truth, and I hope with every fiber of my being that we learn to embrace that truth before it’s too late.

Mentioned previously, “Elegy” isn’t worth another word. I will now move on to the denouement.

Though I think it’s somewhat of a mess as an album, I definitely intend to purchase the deluxe edition when it comes out. All the Tull deluxe editions released so far have been of the highest quality, and I’ve always learned something new from the listening experience. In this case, I’m hoping that some of the excluded songs, demos or outtakes will provide substitute material for some of the weaker tracks so I can imagine a more perfect version of Stormwatch.

No, it’s not their best, but those few keepers make Stormwatch worth an edited spin.

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