ROUGH TRADE SHOPS
IN THE STUDIO
(EMI/ 2 Tone)
SEX. DRUGS. Alcohol. Once these ranked as the only iron-clad, nickel plated, copper-bottomed, steel-jacketed and tin-hatted recession-proof industries. To that unholy trinity, we may now add nostalgia. The cultural necrophilia business is ten years into a boom which shows no sign of slackening off (although the quality's not what it was in 1992, of course.) When you pander to desire and addiction, it's always a seller's market. The same, evidently, can be said of comfort.
Accordingly, this week's column is one hundred percent pure hindsight, beginning with those made-to-order Sixties scamps, The Monkees. Any fewer Monkees, and they'd be touring simply as The Monkee. Mike Nesmith spent the Seventies as a little acknowledged alt.country pioneer, then got his own back by inventing MTV, so he's too busy for these latest comeback gigs. Likewise Peter Tork. If Peter Tork has better things to do, you'd think that would send a message. But not to showbiz troupers Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz. They might conceivably have recruited Peter York, style guru of the Thatcher years, in the hope that nobody would notice. But rather than bamboozle their public, they elected to take the high road. And here they are in Scotland, by the bonny, bonny banks of amplifiers in Glasgow's Clyde Auditorium.
The pair have brought with them an eight-piece band - with full horn section - whose combined age probably equals their own. Not a bad band, at that. It turned out to be notable advantage for The Monkees not to have played on their own hits. Any capable sessioneers can produce an effective facsimile of Last Train From Clarksville and a terrific, tubthumping Randy Scouse Git.
Dolenz and Jones spend as much time on hammy stage business as they do on music. Dolenz is a genuinely funny man, and the duo put one in mind of the vaudeville comics who used to beat each other over the head with rolled-up newspapers.
The big numbers - I'm A Believer, Stepping Stone, that charming and immaculate no-brainer Daydream Believer - are always sweet on the lugholes. But the real joy is in hearing the psychedelia-lite The Monkees excelled at during their glorious, self-willed commercial nosedive: Listen To The Band; Nesmith's doolally country stomper, Circle Sky; the blissed out Porpoise Song.
A dreadful run of indulgent cabaret longeurs induces a few walkouts. That aside, this show
may be corny, but it's been packaged with care and with esteem for its audience, something which was true of The Monkees from the get-go. Bear in mind they were the Hear'say, the Pop Idols, of their day. Try to picture, 35 years from now, that assembly of grinning, no-mark halfwits rehearsing to an eager crowd the feeble dogwater contemptuously foisted by its handlers upon today's market. Maybe there's something to this nostalgia caper after all.
Also thinned out in ranks but soldiering on regardless, would you credit it: Seventies AOR plodders Supertramp. Once they had two whining hippie solipsists, now they make do with just the one. The hairy man with the high voice and guitar is gone, the hairy man with the high voice and electric piano remains. If Slow Motion is anything to go by, hairy guitar man took all the tunes with him. No doubt fans of hairy piano man will be incensed to read this. But honestly, chaps (and they will all be chaps), this entire record sounds like The Logical Song without any catchy bits. Which you must concede is pointless even by Supertramp's standards. Now, Breakfast In America, there was an album the milkman could whistle from end to end. It might even have sounded better that way.
Anyone out there looking for a comprehensive primer of avant garde electronica and its precursors? Hello? Form an orderly queue for your copy of Rough Trade Shops Electronic 01. Bleep. Ambient. Mutant disco. Krautrock. Post-rock. Stuff that sounds like the spin cycle on a Bosch washer-dryer. The Smiths as performed by your toaster. A certain amount of unlistenable twaddle. It's all here. Alongside a busload of latter day Teutonic types with computer code for names, there are gems and rarities from Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, New Order, Can, Faust, Depeche Mode and the great Joe Meek. Plus the theme from Dr Who. If you like that, you might like a whole lot else here. Or you might spend the full two hours' worth crouched behind the sofa, in fear of marauding cardboard monsters. I wouldn't presume to guess.
Panhandling the streams of back catalogue, we finish up with some bona fide nuggets from The Specials. Specials, their 1979 debut, suffers from the very occasional wheeze and creak, but the bulk of it sounds every bit as original and invigorated as it ever did. It's the definitive melding of punk and ska, far greater than the sum of its parts. The follow-up, More Specials has been the object of less reverence over the years, but is an even more thrilling record. Today it stands up as a masterpiece, rich and spooky, its numerous and bold ambitions almost completely realised. It's a pity, and a baffling oversight to boot, that the superb singles Gangsters and Ghost Town have been included only as CD rom tracks which won't play on your stereo. We're entitled to expect a bit of added value on reissues. And considering the well-publicised travails of the record business in general and EMI in particular, they ought to jump at the chance to make their output more alluring.
The Specials' third and final LP, In The Studio is another undervalued piece of work, although its overt politicking and wholemeal ingredients fix it more firmly in its time. Odd, though, the way those first albums echo so potently down two decades, representative as they are of an uncertain era gripped by anxiety, distrust and alienation; an era of class conflict and racial enmity, when it seemed that public services and social contracts were crumbling from within and nothing and nobody worked properly. How far we've come.
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