Music

Arguably the greatest of the crusty, dog-on-a-string bands, New Model Army have been rocking their own strain of anarchic nihilism for over three decades now. Often imitated but never bettered.

By some strange quirk of fate, my first encounter with this exceptionally loud, talented and good-looking threesome was Reading Festival in 1989, the day before the Mission's epic and legendary performance.

NMA were riding high on the back of Thunder & Consolation, their best and most successful studio album when I rocked up a little late to the party. Standing there in that sweaty field, I was struck by the realisation that there were probably just as many people eager to hear New Model Army play as there were waiting for the Pogues to throw down, and the boys from Bradford could easily have headlined that year. No problem. They kicked arse.

New Model Army built a shelter for the refugees of generation punk, as well as their growing brood of hand knitted, skip-diving devotees long, long before grungy activism had atrophied into the squalid, bourgeois gap-year jollies we see today. Just like the Matrix's Neo, we could all sense there was something wrong with the world, and New Model Army managed to wrap all those ill-defined anxieties around themselves. I still think that Drag it Down and A Liberal Education are two of the finest political songs ever written.

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When viewed from the comfortable vantage point of middle age, I can now say with confidence that the past is indeed another country. Looking back, 1986 was a very different and many would say a better, more hopeful and freer world than the paranoid, obsessively introspective and neurotic landscape we tiptoe through today. There was no internet to spy on us, everyone's overcoats were way cooler and we were still allowed to smoke indoors. Those simple freedoms we took for granted are viewed with a kind of incredulous horror by the risk assessed youth of today, and I often reflect on just how lucky I was to have come of age before the end of live music's golden era. At that time there was still plenty big gig game to be hunted by a kid with a sense of adventure and a school leaver's salary.

I recall a stifling perfume of Spiritual Sky patchouli, poppers, cider fumes and dry ice filling the air when first I saw Wayne and the guys take to the stage at Friars*, Aylesbury. 1986 was probably the year of peak gothic rock in the UK, and I found myself right in the middle of it one dark November night. Wayne looked like an off-duty glam rock star kidnapped from some alternate universe where Marc Bolan had lived on as he stood to deliver The Mission's good word.

It was real, it was raw, it was most definitely live…and I was hooked. One of my most enduring memories of the night was of that trademark jingle jangle riding a thumping rock baseline with all the polished finesse of a professional surfer.

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If the late 1980s can be identified as a period of cultural and musical fracturing, then the early 1990s is surely defined by a marked and probably permanent acceleration of that divergence. With the mainstream on corporate life support and the homogenized march of nu metal through the alternative scene, the nineties are seldom remembered as a cultural or musical high point by anyone who wasn't actually young during that period.

Nonetheless, there were some glimmers of hope in the dark, and here are my favourite albums from the first half of that difficult decade.

1990 – Elizium by Fields of the Nephilim

At the risk of committing gothic rock heresy, I've often thought that Fields of the Nephilim were seriously overrated. However, they proved more than capable with this absolute beauty, and what I believe is by far their strongest release. For a start they seriously dialled back on Carl McCoy's voice effects, resulting in very pleasant surprise for many listeners. McCoy's much improved vocals are seamlessly blended with a much more creative use of guitar, bass and keyboards to produce a languid and often haunting audio experience.

Musically speaking, Elizium takes its time, perhaps reflecting a personal and musical maturity that was wanting in the promising but not-quite-there Nephilim album. Elizium is best played loud, especially during the slower, more sweeping sections of this often ignored and unjustly forgotten album.

1991 – Hey Stoopid by Alice Cooper

Confirmed alcoholic Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) finally stopped drinking in 1983, and that personal journey partly explains Cooper's creative rebirth and undoubtedly contributed to the two best written, arranged and engineered albums he's ever released. Once you've gotten past the admittedly questionable cover, Hey Stoopid is an unapologetic orgy of rock production gorgeousness. With a really, really big sound and plenty of Cooper's old theatrical flair, this album is like a connoisseur's wine cellar, where all the mediocre stuff has been served to guests and the quality stock is kept safely hidden away. Tracks like Might as well be on Mars and Love's a Loaded Gun remain true to the time honoured Cooperesque ethos, while dishing out newer and hitherto untasted dollops of bitter anger and lasting regret.

In the final analysis, Hey Stoopid just sounds so freakin' good that it can get away with just about anything.

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The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who'd finally broken into the City's sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today's paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.

1980 – Vienna by Ultravox

It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That's a rather short-sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album's title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.

1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox

That's right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn't give a damn whether the "inkies" deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener's consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band's creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there's a lesson for us all in this story.

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If the music scene of the mid to late eighties could be summed up in a single word it would be "fragmentation." With new genres and sub-cultures spurning mainstream success in search of something authentic, the stranglehold of the big labels began to loosen on parts of the public consciousness. As the charts stagnated into sugary electro mush, the musically minded struck out on their own in ever increasing numbers. What they found was some of the best and perhaps some of the most unjustly sidelined music ever produced. Here are my favourites from this period.

1985 – Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

Kate Bush's fifth studio album is arguably her most polished and accomplished offering, balancing a step change in production quality with retaining much of the innate quirkiness which has made her such a cult figure over the years.

She was 27 years old when this album was released and she's never sounded better, having lost a lot of the adolescent squeak which had been a detriment to some of her earlier work. Here she is at the peak of her vocal powers, which are at last unleashed upon a hitherto unsuspecting world through tracks like And Dream of Sheep, and the hugely underrated Hello Earth. Hounds of Love finally reveals the darkness hiding behind Bush's idiosyncratic exterior, and this oblique and melancholy style accounts in large part for Hounds of Love's enduring appeal.

Not exactly an album for family celebrations, this is an album that captures a timeless and out of focus longing that sleeps somewhere inside us all.

1986 – Medusa by Clan of Xymox

If this isn't the greatest gothic album ever released, it's surely got to be in the top three! A bona fide alternative classic, hailing from a bygone era before subculture identities were available off the peg. Like good alternative clothing stores of the time, the joy of going underground was the discovery of a forbidden world, effortlessly surpassing the mainstream in its cold, creative beauty.

Like any true alternative album, Medusa makes no compromises and does not seek peer approval. That creative integrity has been vindicated by the birth of an age-defying and beautifully balanced album. Indeed, classic tracks like Back Door and Louise can still sometimes be heard in the more discerning underground clubs as new generations continue to defy the spoon-feeding corporate music machine.

Pass me a Gauloises immediately!

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If the seventies are anything to go by, then the old adage of tough times producing great art certainly holds true. Like the social and political realm around it, the music world was in a state of decay and rebirth all at the same time during this period. The end result is some of the best and most imaginative work ever to grace a recording studio.
It was tough making the choices, but here are my five favourites from the latter half of that landmark musical decade.

1975 – Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

If I could only take one Pink Floyd album to my desert island it would be this one. The word "masterpiece" is bandied about far too often in the age of the internet, but it is surely the most succinct description of this seminal work by the grand masters of prog rock. Concept, musicianship and production all combine to produce a listening experience which is as fresh and relevant four decades on as it was on the day of release. Boasting the title track, Welcome to the Machine and Shine on you Crazy Diamond to name just three all-time greats, Wish You Were Here is almost too good to be true. The greatest album of all time? I'm not certain of that, but it's surely got to be in the running.If you don't yet own this dazzling offering from a musical golden age then you should renounce mp3, obtain a high quality copy and prepare for a horizon-widening audio experience.

1976 – Boston by Boston

The debut album from the ridiculously talented Tom Scholz and the guys from Massachusetts is a true masterclass in the art of music production. Seemingly resistant to the passage of time, More Than a Feeling still a firm radio favourite more than forty years after it first hit the airwaves. Never a band to just release music for the sake of it, Boston have earned their reputation as the supreme exponents of hard yet also melodic rock.Even though many of their tracks reflect the same problems that both the punks and suburbia were grappling with at the time, Boston always managed to shoehorn them into a remarkably upbeat rock parcel. With a unique blend of beautifully clipped guitar work and multi-channel vocal harmonies, it's always summer when Boston's in the background. Just immerse yourself in the first two tracks on this album and you'll soon realise you're in the presence of musical greatness.

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