Madonna – The First Album 31st Anniversary

It’s a big anniversary today for Madonna fans – today marks the 31st anniversary of The First Album. I just love this album, one of the finest debut albums ever by a pop/electronic artist. All of the songs on the album do sound very similar and it’s Madonna’s least varied album, but there’s something irresistible about those scrappy and raw synths. And it’s got bucket-loads of charm and energy to boot. I far prefer it to Like A Virgin (my least favorite Madonna album). ‘Holiday’ and ‘Borderline’ still stand up as two of the definitive classics of the 80s and two of Madonna’s best singles. However, my favorite track on The First Album is ‘Physical Attraction’. It’s the first underrated Madonna gem and the best album track from her first three albums. It would have done brilliantly as a single I think. Whilst it seems to be a pretty popular song with fans, it’s never featured on any of her tours. On Youtube there’s just a few early performances in clubs recorded in 1983. I would love to see more of The First Album performed on tour actually – Holiday has featured heavily on her set-lists over the years but I think it’s time to hear something like ‘Everybody’ again or the aforementioned ‘Physical Attraction’. Honestly – I don’t think that will happen, which is a shame because The First Album still stands up really well after all these years.

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Rediscovering Roxy Music

Every so often I get days were I just spent the entire time exploring music I haven’t heard before. Today is definitely one of these days, and it’s paying off dividends. I decided to listen to More Than This: The Best Of Bryan Ferry + Roxy Music and I am so surprised how much I’ve enjoyed it! I had tried to get into Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry a few months ago (after  loving a few of their singles) by trying out Avalon. I found it forgettable and at that pointed decided they were not for me. I think I may have given up on them too quickly – More Than This has really impressed me. I’ll definitely be going back to listen to those Roxy Music albums now (and probably some early Ferry solo material).

It’s even made me discover a song I’ve loved for a year or so without knowing who it was. ‘Let’s Stick Together’ was featured on a TV advert here and yet even with that unmistakable voice I never realized it was by Bryan Ferry. It sounded more like a 60s song to me, so I assumed it was from that period. Well, I wasn’t too far off the mark there to be fair as it does date from 1962 in its original version. Wilbert Harrison recorded it originally, whilst Bryan Ferry recorded his version for his 1976 third solo album, also called Let’s Stick Together. Bryan Ferry’s version proved very successful, reaching #4 in the UK Chart. It’s a song that’s just impossible to dislike really, it’s just got this irresistible pound to it. A great cover version that still stands up today!

Pet Shop Boys at BBC Proms 2014

Hello – apologies for being quiet these past few days but the heat here in Belfast is absolutely sweltering. It is, quite simply, piping hot.Too hot to really do anything constructive even.

Anyway, last night was arguably the most important date of 2014 for Pet Shop Boys fans as they performed at the BBC Proms last night (in London’s Royal Albert Hall). It was broadcast live on radio as well. I’ve just finished listening to the full show (which runs about ninety minutes I think) via BBC iPlayer and this is what I made of it:

The show opens with ‘Overture to Performance’ – a melody of no fewer than nine classic Pet Shop Boys hits which opened the start of every show on their Performance tour of 1991. They just used a recording of the piece to open the shows though. It’s never actually been performed live until last night. It made for a very fitting opening and I really liked how they opened with a relatively obscure piece. After all, it’s never been used at all after the Performance tour and it’s only available on certain versions of the ‘DJ Culture’ and ‘Was It Worth It’ singles.

At the conclusion of the overture (and following a brief introduction by Neil), Chrissy Hynde of Pretenders fame entered the stage to perform four Pet Shop Boys songs… with a twist. The four songs were rearranged for orchestral performances, all in the key of A minor. Chrissy was in fine voice and performed ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’, ‘Later Tonight’, ‘Vocal’ before singing with Neil on ‘Rent’. All four songs sounded marvelous – especially ‘Vocal’. It just shows the true versatility of Pet Shop Boys as composers as their songs can be readily interpreted in so many different ways. Special mention must go to Neil also, his vocals in ‘Rent’ were brilliant. His voice just gets better with age.

After this, attention turned to the main part of the evening. Receiving its full world premiere last night was ‘A Man From The Future’ – a song suite chronicling the life and tragic death of Alan Turing. Turing was a true pioneer whose findings paved the way for computer science, and thus technology as we know it today. Without his work computing wouldn’t exist (an unthinkable concept really). Not only that but in World War II he cracked various Germany military codes – including the Enigma code which was believed to be impossible to crack. His contributions to the Allied Victory cannot be disputed nor ignored. However, Turing was also gay and in 1952 he was arrested for homosexual activity. He was found guilty and received “treatment”, something which proved so detrimental to him on every level that he committed suicide in 1954. It truly was a despicable way to treat a unique and gifted genius.

As you could imagine, ‘A Man From The Future’ is a moving and experimental piece. Turing’s life story is narrated by Juliet Stevenson against an elaborate backdrop of music which can be divided into eight portions. The BBC Singers (and Neil) add their vocals from time to time into the mix as well. The music seamlessly blends more avant-garde orchestral work with more familiar classic sounding Pet Shop Boys electronics. Even without the narration and knowing the rough gist of Turing’s story, I still found it very moving to listen to. The music is very powerful by itself. The overall feeling of celebration though permeates throughout. All of the eight sections are beautiful, though it’ll take another few listens before I fully become familiar with the piece.

You can listen to the full show on BBC iPlayer. I strongly recommend you do so – it’s a fabulous piece of music that provides another gem in the Tennant/Lowe catalog. It further cements Pet Shop Boys’ status as gifted musicians who continuously put out rewarding music, even after thirty-three years in the business. Just superb.

Madonna – ‘X-Static Process’

A very underrated song from an underrated album. When ‘American Life’ received a critical panning it automatically turned many away from the album, despite it being one of the album’s weakest tracks. American Life is definitely an album that needs repeated listening. The album has songs – like ‘X-Static Process – which really should garner more attention. ‘X-Static Process’ is the purest folk song on the album with no electronic elements whatsoever. That’s ironic in itself given that Stuart Price co-wrote the song. He’d produce and co-write the follow-up album Confessions On A Dancefloor which couldn’t be more electronic if it tried. It’s the lyrics though that make ‘X-Static Process’ special. The verses deal directly with feelings of confusion and uncertainty which are two of the main themes on the album. So far, it’s quite a bleak song. Then there’s a powerful and affirming chorus which reminds us that amidst the confusion we face we must remember that we’re just as special as the people we love and idolize. And that we should never try and emulate someone else because to do that is to loose what makes us so special and unique. It’s a sentiment often repeated but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Such a beautiful song and lyrically far superior to the vast majorities of Hard Candy and MDNA.

Morrissey – Staircase At The University

Undoubtedly, the biggest music release of this week is the return of the ever-enigmatic Morrissey, with the release of his 10th studio album World Peace Is None Of Your Business. It’s a good album even though I probably will always prefer The Smiths to Morrissey solo (blame Johnny Marr). I don’t mean that as a criticism of his solo material though. Staircase At The University’ is a little gem and so far is my favorite from the new album.  It has a very upbeat arrangement with little trumpet flourishes but the lyrics are much sadder. The lyrics are actually something I can empathize a lot with at my current age. ‘Staircase At The University’ is about a girl who ends up so downtrodden with the pressures of having to succeed academically that she ends up committing suicide. Bleak stuff, but it’s a very relevant topic. I talk at length about how there’s too much pressure put on young people to go to university (I won’t). I’m 20 and when I was at school the expectation to go to university was rampant. It became frightening. It’s an individual choice to go and I commend Morrissey for making a stand in my generation’s favor. I disagree with a lot of his opinions, but I’m definitely with Morrissey on this one. Excellent stuff.

Tommy Ramone dies aged 62

Today has seen the very sad announcement that Tommy Ramone has died, aged 62. He was the original drummer for The Ramones, playing on their first three studio albums. His passing now means that all of the original members of The Ramones have now left us. It’s truly a sad day for not just punk music but the music industry at large. Those first three albums are stone-cold classics, containing more classic songs in three records that most other bands create in an entire career. Added to this he wrote ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and the majority of one of punk’s most enduring singles: ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. I was actually listening to Hey! Ho! Lets Go: The Anthology just before I heard he had passed. It never ceases to amaze me just how fresh and vital their material still sounds, and that anthology truly ranks as one of the greatest compilations albums ever made. Tommy had been suffering from bile duct cancer prior to his death. It’s a sad sad day – let’s just hope there’s one hell of a reunion gig going on somewhere beyond right now. RIP Tommy.

Suicide – ‘Frankie Teardrop’

A song so disturbing that listening to it surely verges on masochism. It’s the centerpiece of Suicide (one of the finest debut albums ever made). The main reason ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is so chilling is the subject matter. Frankie works in a mundane factory job and has a wife and child and they live in deep poverty. These difficult circumstances makes Frankie become insane, until he eventually murders his wife and child and then commits suicide and winds up in Hell. It sounds like it doesn’t get any more harrowing but yet it does. It’s a deeply claustrophobic track with only a recurring, basic keyboard motif, a drum machine, and Alan Vega’s vocals. The keyboard plays the same brief melody for ten minutes – it feels like it symbolizes the repetitive nature of Frankie’s job. That’s not even the creepiest thing about the arrangement either. It’s Alan Vega’s vocals that really leave a lasting impression. The song is laden with his screams that really just cut right through you. They’re so primal that even without the sparse arrangement and chilling subject matter they’d still sound harrowing. Add all these various components together though and you’ve got one of the most gut-wrenching pieces of music you’ll ever hear. And without sounding like a masochist, I think it’s a brilliant song. There’s a definite political subtext to it. It manages to be more evocative and effective than many more overtly political songs really. Essentially, the song is criticizing dead-end, low paid jobs. It uses an extreme tale to illustrate the point for sure, but the core message is the same. It may be something you’d only want to hear once in your life, but one things for sure: it’s an unforgettable piece of music.

Good News, Bad News etc

Afternoon everyone from grey and gloomy Belfast. It was my intention to have posted on the blog before today, but getting a Wii U this week ensured that definitely didn’t happen. In all honesty I am a bit of a Nintendo devotee. I do get every Nintendo console that’s released but I never quite end up getting all the games for said console that I would like. Blame fereverent record buying for that. I do wish my two main hobbies weren’t so damn costly.

Anyway, I’ve got two bits of news to discuss with you today and sadly, the first one isn’t very good. Yesterday, Joy Division fans across the globe were left shocked to hear that Annik Honoré has died aged 56. Annik was known for her close relationship with Joy Division’s front-man Ian Curtis (whilst he was married). She actually was the inspiration for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. I’m not here to judge Ian’s love life issues as they’re none of my business. Having said that I do actually have a lot of respect for Annik – she always maintained a dignified silence and very much shied away from the media following Ian’s suicide. She made a rare appearance in Grant Gee’s Joy Division documentary which is an essential music documentary I’d recommend anyone to watch. In it, she came across as someone who clearly cared and loved Ian a great deal. I actually was left with the impression that she understood him more than anybody else. She played a key role in this story and her death is really quite a shock. A serious illness was the cause of death, and given how private she was I can’t see any further details being given really. Very sad indeed.

I never like ending posts on a downbeat note and thankfully my other piece of news is much more positive. Last Monday, I had written that Kasabian had just announced dates for a Uk/Ireland arena tour – one of the dates being in Belfast. Tickets went on sale today and thankfully I managed to get one. The gig takes place on Tuesday, December 9th. It’ll actually be technically the second time I’ve seen them. I saw them supporting The Killers in 2007 as part of the Tennents Vital festival for that year but I wasn’t a fan then. It wasn’t until West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum in 2009 that they won me over. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to see them live so I can properly appreciate them second time around. Their Glastonbury Festival performance last Sunday made me even more eager for them to announce some dates. I wasn’t expecting them to announce the dates less than twenty-four hours later but hey, I can’t complain!

That’s all I’ve really got to talk about for the moment – I’ll be still working on some various bits and pieces I want to discuss on the blog so stay tuned and I’ll see you soon!