On the subject of space rock…

Space rock is one of my most favouritest musical genres. I fuckin’ loves it, even though it’s primarily designed for people that take a lot of psychedelic drugs, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time (like nearly 25 years! Eek!). It seemed like the logical thing to move on to, after I cut my musical teeth on Heavy Metal. The band that made the transition for me was Hawkwind.

I’m a huge Hawkwind fan. Fucking massive. Among the many items I carted halfway round the world when I emigrated to NZ was a crate of vinyl, which contains about 50 Hawkwind LPs. I just couldn’t bear to part with them, even though I could have made a fair bit of wonga as many of them are original 70s releases complete with booklets etc etc. They took their fair share of hippy-bashing when punk burst on the scene, and have remained pretty much universally un-cool for the last 30 years, but now I think the music writers that once pilloried them realise that in their own small way they influenced a hell of a lot. I’ve even heard them described as proto-punk, for fuck sake. I grew up with them basically, since I first heard the legendary Tommy Vance play Rocky Paths (the Live Chronicles version) on the legendary Friday Rock Show, and I haven’t stopped listening to them in almost 30 years. As far as I’m concerned though, they haven’t really made a decent record since the 80s (Xenon Codex being the last studio album I will listen to) and their golden period, for me, is the Robert Calvert era ’76-’79. Live At Brixton from 91 is a corker, but I’m possibly biased because I was there.

Anyway I’m rambling, but what I’m getting at, in a rather roundabout way, is that I’ve just discovered the best thing to happen to space rock since Hawkwind (well, since the Ozric Tentacles anyway). Allow me to introduce you to The Hawklords. Not THE Hawklords, well not really, but sort of a bit similar, like. While Hawkwind have been steadily declining and going through the motions a bit, what apparently started out as little more than a Hawkwind covers band is putting out space rock more Hawkwind-like than anything the actual Hawkwind have done in three decades. The Hawklords lineup nowadays consists of Harvey Bainbridge (an original Hawklord), Ron Tree (a former Hawkwind vocalist) and a guitarist Jerry Richards who I have a vague feeling did a stint in Hawkwind too, and some other names not familiar to me. Adrian Shaw, Nik Turner, Steve Swindells and Alan Davey have all featured in the past apparently, so credentials-wise this band is at least as Hawkwindy as Dave Brock’s lot.

I don’t even remember how I stumbled across them (it would have been Spotify, obvs, but not sure if it was served up to me as a recommendation or I just got a bit lost or what). I’m listening to R:Evolution (2015) as I write this, and to be honest, it could easily pass as the logical next album after 25 Years On. They have taken the best bits of Calvert era Hawkwind and melded it with the rocky, more polished sound from the 80s, with production values that Dave Brock could only dream of. Ron Tree is an excellent Calvert impersonator, indistinguishable from the real thing really. Pretty sure I’ve seen him with Hawkwind a couple of times and come away underwhelmed but here he is majestic. Jerry Richards is an extremely capable string-twanger. Not too much guitar hero, just enough to excite the palate. Way better than (my hero) Dave Brock, better even than the late great Huw Lloyd-Langton. Harvey Bainbridge is just doing what he always used to do, brilliantly – his keyboard sounds are just legendary.

hawklords20r-evolution20R:Evolution is mostly reminiscent of PXR5 and Quark… but there is a nod to much earlier stuff too (One Day is basically Hurry On Sundown rebooted). Evolver has been lifted from Doremi or …Mountain Grill and there isn’t anything on here at all that sounds ‘original’, whatever the fuck that means anyway. I expect Dave Brock went fucking apeshit when he heard these for the first time, they’re that heavily influenced by his stuff. Pretty much every riff, every bassline, every melody can be traced to an earlier album somewhere but who cares? This isn’t self-indulgent and jammy like its forebears though, the songs are all very well crafted and well, songy, with choruses and bridges and all that shit you don’t often get in space rock. It’s all very psychedelic indeed though, crammed with lots of samples and trippy weird shit and permeated throughout by HB’s lush floaty breathy synth chords.

Censored (2014) was pretty much the same vein but the first two albums (2012’s We Are One and 2013’s Dream) are a little more basic, as you would expect. They still have the same influences, mostly the punky side of the Calvert era but with definite nods to the early 70s. I saw a post (Facebook? Twitter?) announcing the next album for later this year, featuring guest vocals from Kim McAuliffe (Girlschool), so I’m definitely looking forward to that.

In summary then, Hawklords is now basically a Hawkwind for the 21st Century, polished and produced properly. It’s like someone discovered 4 lost albums from the late 1970s. What a fantastic discovery. Thanks Spotify!

** Straw poll of other people in the room (namely, Mrs ByTor) – “Is this Hawkwind? I Didn’t know you still listened to them. It’s not actually that bad.” As positive a review as she’s ever likely to give of a space rock band, I might even be able to get away with playing it again some time.


Black Sabbath + Rival Sons – Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin – 30/04/16

So I’m finally going to the Forsyth Barr stadium to see a concert. The giant fucking rugby stadium that we didn’t need. The white elephant that Dunedin ratepayers didn’t even want. I whinged and moaned about it at the start, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that it’s here to stay, so I might as well use the fucking thing.

I’ve been there half a dozen times before (Rugby World Cup, Football World Cup qualifying tournaments, Wellington Phoenix, Beer Festivals etc) and it’s all very nice and everything, but I’ve never been there for a gig. I’ve never been that tempted by the music on offer to stump up the $150+ necessary to see it. What have we had over the 4 years since it was opened? Elton John, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon & Tom Jones. Not my all time list of must-see artists (although I have actually seen all of them except Fleetwood Mac before, but that’s irrelevant). But I’ll go and see Sabbath. Even at $170 I’ll go and see Sabbath. Even though the sound at Forsyth Barr is legendarily poor (to the point where it’s been said that it sounds better from Logan Park than in the actual stadium). Even though I have gone on record as saying that these days I’m only going to fork out big bucks on bands I’ve never seen before. Even though this is going to be probably the most expensive gig I’ve ever seen. Yup, I’m going.

I bought the ticket 4 months ago. It’s been pinned up on my noticeboard, glaring at me and shouting “$170? You could have bought your kids a couple of pair of shoes each for that” or “$170? That’s 17 high-end craft beers from New World” or “$170? That’s four times as much as the total face value of tickets from all previous times you’ve seen Black Sabbath”. I think only Madonna in 2004 (£100 !?) was actually more expensive than this, but that was back in the days of being unshackled by mortgage and children.

So, money concerns aside, the day is finally here, and tonight I’M GOING TO SEE BLACK SABBATH!! The greatest metal band of all time, if the ads for the concert are to be believed. They’ve certainly been a fairly big part of my life since 1987 or so. Legends, in fact. It’s just Ozzy, Geezer and Tony these days, but to be honest I think the position of drummer  (and no disrespect to Bill Ward here) is the easiest to swap out for some random session dude. It’s not like replacing Neil Peart in Rush, for instance. It’s going to be good, for sure.

The atmosphere in and around Forsyth Barr is electric. Hordes of black clad fans of all ages are milling around, and the crowd is not nearly as male dominated as you would expect of a metal gig. Like at the Buzzcocks a few weeks ago, there are a lot of strange hairy characters here that you just don’t see round and about town normally. Where do they hide? Quite an encouraging number of younger people too. I mean, Sabbath’s best records were made before I was born. Slightly disappointed by the turnout though – only half the stadium is being used – there is temporary seating on the halfway line and quite a lot of space at the back of the pitch but most of the seats look occupied. At a rough guess maybe 8-10 thousand? C’mon Dunedin, you should do better than this

rivalsonsRival Sons is the support act, not someone I’d ever heard of, but a prior bit of research on Spotify revealed them to be a pretty decent blues rock outfit from Long Beach, with only a couple of albums under their belts. They are very good in person, sort of dirty Black Crowes end of the blues rock spectrum, with more than a passing resemblance to Zeppelin. The most striking thing about them (and unfortunately my Nokia Lumia’s camera can’t do justice to this) is the beard on the tambourine/keyboard/pedal steel player. It’s a chinmuff of ZZ Top proportions, this guy could easily pass off as an Amish. I even recognise two of their songs from my brief Spotify session earlier in the day. Or maybe I recognise them from Houses Of The Holy. Difficult to tell…

sabAnd so to business. After a quick trip to the bar it’s time for the main course. Lights down, volume up and here we go. The crowd noise is fantastic as the video screen shows some flashy animation of dragons and fire and other metal clichés. The (almost) septuagenarian metal gods wander out of the shadows to the sound of a lone church bell, and this means only one thing. Black Sabbath. They’re opening with their eponymous signature tune, the heaviest, most evil, sinister riff ever written. It’s so simple, just three notes, not even chords, and it’s basically the riff that gave birth to heavy metal, nearly half a century ago. It’s probably my favourite Sabbath tune and they smash it out of the park. My fears of poor acoustics are entirely unfounded, and I don’t even need my ear plugs – it’s just about as good a sound as you could wish for in a stadium. A procession of the greatest of greatest hits then streams forth – Snowblind, After Forever, Faeries Wear Boots, Behind The Wall Of Sleep, War Pigs, Children of the Grave, Iron Man etc etc. I’m sure they’re very proud of their latest album but they don’t go anywhere near it. In fact, I don’t think they venture much later than about 1972, which is fine by me. More than fine. I know every note of every song they play and it is all FUCKING BRILLIANT. All of it. Even Tommy Clufeto’s monster drum solo (he’s way way more of a showman than Bill Ward). I’m not normally one for big solos but I am exhausted just watching this guy, the sheer effort he is putting into hitting ALL of his drums as LOUD and as FAST as he can deserves applause, which it duly gets, and lots.ozzy

And then the highpoint of the evening, as Ozzy yells at us ‘WE LOVE YOU AUCKLAND!’ If it were anyone else, I think I’d be more than a little offended, but as it’s Ozzy, and it’s such a, well, Ozzy thing to do, we’ll let it pass with a wry smile. What the fuck must he have been like at the height of his excesses though?

Then it’s good night Dunedin, you’ve been amazing, see you later. And off they trudge so we can play the encore game. You know you’re coming back on. We know you’re coming back on. You know we know you’re coming back on. And they come back on and surprise surprise, it’s for a single encore, Paranoid. It’s a great song, and a great way to round off an all too short night.

theendI wonder if it really is the end? It’s certainly not their first farewell tour, and if the bank balances run dry again, I wouldn’t bet against seeing them coming out of retirement. Sad to see them go, but it’s probably for the best. Either way, they have done immense things in music. They almost single handedly invented an entire genre of music for fuck’s sake, you can’t get more immense than that.




Buzzcocks – Otago University – 17/03/16

When I found out the Buzzcocks were coming to play in Dunedin, at ReFuel no less, I quite rightly did a double take. OK so they’re not the biggest band in the world, they’re not my favourite punk band either, but they’re still worth a look. And they have chosen Dunedin as one of just four NZ dates on their 40th Anniversary tour. Epic!

I last saw them at Reading Festival in 1990. That’s over a quarter of a century ago. I remember thinking back then that they were pretty old, sandwiched between the young indie bands of the time. What are they going to be like now? I know nothing whatsoever of their post-1980 output, save for one track ‘Reconcilliation’ from about 10 years ago which appeared on one of the JMFH compilations that were responsible for introducing me to so much good new indie stuff. But, as this is a 40th Anniversary Tour, we’re all guessing that they’re going to be playing the hits, the whole hits and nothing but the hits.

I did a little bit of revision beforehand, exploring 2006’s Flat Pack Philosophy and 2014’s The Way. Not too bad, as it happens. Typical Buzzcocks formula, but the added bonus of decent production values, way better than the thin sound of the ‘classic’ era recordings. Anyway, I doubt they’re going to do much of it anyway. We turn up a little late, thanks to couple of pubs along the way, and the queue to get into ReFuel is ALL students, all dressed in dayglo green (St Patrick’s Day, innit). I have a moment of minor panic then I see the real queue – to the Students Union building next door. Phew, it consists almost entirely of what I would term ‘appropriately’ dressed and ‘sympathetically’ aged people. I am not going to be old enough to be all their dads, thank fuck. There are a lot of black leather jackets, a lot of tattoos, a few mohicans even – and barely a soul under the age of 30. I’ve never been inside this building, but it’s quite a bit larger than ReFuel – I’m guessing they outsold that and the Uni took the decision to move it upstairs. Apparently we’re only in the foyer of the building, the actual hall is much bigger but I estimate there are 300 or 400 people in there, enough to create a good atmosphere and make it look respectable while allowing enough room to get near the stage and (more importantly) the bar.

There was a support act, some local lads by all accounts, but they’re long gone by the time we get in, and the main act’s roadies are just putting the last few bits in place. Just have time to grab a few drinks and head to the back of the sound desk (best sound in the house, obv). At about 10pm two old blokes and two slightly younger blokes wander on stage and we’re all systems go. I haven’t seen recent pictures of the band but bloody hell, Pete Shelley has gotten old! He’s sporting a bushy grey beard now, and a considerable gut and looks a lot older than his (reported) 60 years. Steve Diggle has fared a little better, mainly because he’s not overhanging his waistband by so much. I have no idea who the bassist and drummer are. Still, when I look at these guys next to say, Iron Maiden, who are all older and look much younger, it makes me wonder which category I’ll fall into when I’m in my 7th decade…

Orgasm Addicts
Shelley, Diggle & Co

I needn’t have worried about ‘new’ material. I don’t think they played anything off the two recentish albums – it was more or less a greatest hits tour. They know what people want. Their Wikipedia entry talks about their last few tours in the UK being support act to bands I’ve not heard of, so clearly their stock at home isn’t what it was. I’ve omitted to bring my earplugs so I’m listening to rock music as God intended it for the first time in several years – it’s an excellent sound, not as muddy or earsplittingly loud mix as is usual for the Uni. Shelley and Diggle have been doing this a long time, and although I wouldn’t call it ‘tight’, it’s absolutely perfect. Two buzzsaw guitars and Shelley’s voice and Diggle’s backing vocals (which really consist of nothing more than ‘oh-oooh-oh’) and nothing longer than 3 and a half minutes and this is punk. Forget all the ‘punk’ around now, this is real punk. Green Day, Blink 182, Offspring et al can undoubtedly play their guitars much faster and louder, and could probably beat the Buzzcocks in a drinking competition or arm wrestle, but they’ll never be more than revivalists. Talking of being able to play the guitar, Shelley’s solos are still er, basic, to put it in the kindest terms possible. That’s not the point though, is it? If he were able to trip up and down the fretboard like Yngwie Malmsteen it wouldn’t be punk any more, it’s as though being ham-fisted is a requirement for this particular brand of music. For this particular brand of music as practised by them that started it off, at least.

Buzzcocks Dunedin
Orgasm Addicts

They rattle through Fast Cars, Autonomy, I Don’t Mind, Get On Our Own, Love You More, Nothing Left, Harmony In My Head amongst many others, in a frantic 60 minute set. Not a lot of bants with the crowd, save for a ‘hello Dunedin’ and a ‘thank you very much, good night’ but no down time either. It’s relentless, straight from one song to the next and all over far too quickly.

The encore was solid gold – What Do I Get? Orgasm Addict and Ever Fallen In Love and to be honest I would have happily paid $65 just to see that 10 minute set. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. Black Sabbath next month are going to have to go some to beat this, especially given that the ticket was nearly 3x as expensive…

Buzzcocks Dunedin Ticket



Phoenix Foundation + Males + Anthonie Tonnon – Sammy’s, Dunedin – 25/09/15

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s 6 months since my last blog entry. That means 6 months since I last saw a band. That’s too goddam long in anyone’s book, whether they live in the arse end of nowhere or not.

So, Phoenix Foundation were pretty good last time out (at Chicks Hotel) and Sammy’s is much more convenient (like walking distance kind of convenient) and cheap so I thought why the heck not? I like Sammy’s. It looks like dodgy club from the outside, all matt black and rain soaked promo posters, but inside it’s quite beautiful – a tidy little Victorian theatre that is in remarkably good condition, considering its age. Presumably it once had a fancy frontage to go with the fancy insides, but that’s long since replaced by plain concrete.

There are a few dozen mostly uninterested souls watching the first act, Anthonie Tonnon. He’s a rum fellow, and no mistake. One guy, sharply dressed in a suit, behind a small bank of synths and samplers and a backing tape. The main emphasis of his act would appear to be singing, at which he’s quite good, but almost all of the rest of the sound is backing tape. He twiddles a few knobs every now and again (why?), but really it’s little more than a glorified karaoke act – sort of reminds me of a less upbeat Hurts or Sparks with a bit of Edge style guitar thrown in for good measure. He has an unnerving habit of leaving the safety of his synths and throwing a few shapes out on the empty stage, which is a bit odd, it has to be said. Not an unpleasant sound by any means, but I struggle to see past the fact that it’s a bloke and a tape.

Males@ Sammys
Some blurry Males

Males has to be the shittest name for a band. I mean if it was the name of the house band in a gay club it would still be a shit name, but for a serious indie band it’s got to be a hinderance, surely? Anyway , there are three males on the stage, and it doesn’t take long for me to get sucked in completely. They are brilliant. I mean, seriously brilliant. Frantic jangly indie/post-punk guitar – think The Fall, The Rakes, The Rifles, even early Nada Surf. Really energetic and fast and bouncy and thrangy (?!) and above all fucking tight, tight as a gnat’s chuff. They look like they’re just out of school, in fact the singer/guitarist is a dead ringer for Will out of Inbetweeners. It’s not just frantic 3 chord guitar pop though, these are expertly crafted songs with really quite intricate chord progressions, in and out of minor keys and complex rhythms, all delivered with a killer precision that belies a) their age and b) the fact that they are from Dunedin. The vocals are quite high, almost reminiscent of The Everly Brothers and if I have one minor criticism it’s that they waver up into the falsetto range a bit too often. Also, they’re too damn short! (We’re talking track length not musician height)  Not many make it past the three minute mark and they’re so complex and interesting they could easily be pushing 4 or 5 without becoming boring or repetitive. The Phoenix Foundation are going to have to go some to beat these guys.

I gave Give Up Your Dreams a couple of listens over the previous days and I have to say it was the classic Curate’s Egg. The Phoenix Foundation have never put out an album that I liked all the way through – I tend towards the faster, more energetic end of their spectrum and this latest work is a bit more subdued than usual, with the exception of the title track and the excellent Bob Lennon John Dylan. The wafty tracks are really, well, wafty, almost loungy. It doesn’t translate nearly so well to the stage either – firstly, the mix isn’t great tonight, and they really don’t sound as tight as I remember them from before but my overall impression is that they’ve ‘lightened’ everything up a bit. It’s not nearly as danceable as it used to be, even some of the older, proven tracks are weaker than normal. Black Mould has always been one of my favourites, but tonight it’s a shadow of its former self, lacklustre and empty. Too many of the songs descend into self-indulgent prog-like ramblings, it’s like they’ve recently discovered Yes and decided they don’t want people to dance at their gigs any more. And don’t get me started on ‘Trans Fatty Acids’ – apparently this was deemed to bizarre to go on GUYD but I think it is also a bit too bizarre to be played live either. Bright Grey is the only one that they really nail tonight, I’m afraid, and even that is not as good as I remember it being. The encore includes a sub-par Buffalo, which was probably the only other decent effort. And where the fuck was Dalston Junction? It’s probably been deemed too ‘Blur’ to fit with their new bland direction so I don’t know why I was expecting to hear it to be honest.Phoenix Foundation @ Sammys

I was not impressed with Phoenix Foundation tonight, to the point where I would probably not bother seeing them next time unless they put out a much better record. Unless of course they have Males playing with them! Males really saved the evening, definitely worth further investigation. They can’t really be from Dunedin can they? I must have misheard that.

J Mascis – Chicks Hotel, Dunedin – 01/03/15

Before we start, I have to raise my hand and admit that I am not a great fan of Dinosaur Jr or J Mascis. That’s not to say I don’t like them, I merely am not a particular fan. I like the sound, but I don’t know very much of the material. If I lived in London I probably wouldn’t be going to this gig. Hell, if I lived in Wellington I probably wouldn’t be going to this gig, but I’m starved of halfway-decent live music just lately so I’m willing to take a punt out of sheer desperation…

Chicks is fast becoming the indie/alternative venue of choice for the South Island. I’m guessing Mascis is playing here because Lou Barlow told him good things after his visit last year. He would presumably have said something like “Hey J there’s this really small pub out in the boondocks which has no stage and no backstage and hardly anyone can see the band but the people there are really cool and appreciative! Play there!”. Hence, it was a sell out several weeks before the show. Chicks is only a couple of hundred capacity at most, but ‘Sold out’ is an unfamiliar concept in Dunedin so it’s nice to see someone ring the ‘full house’ bell once in a while.

The support act that was playing as I wandered in was a unaccompanied guitarist, presumably a local fellow. I have no idea what he was called, as there was no indication whatsoever on any website or poster and he had the self-deprecating cheek to leave the stage at the end of his set without saying who he was. COME ON dude, it’s Marketing 1.01, tell the people your fucking name! He was pretty good though, bashing out a Spacemen 3 type wall of fuzz, awash with every effect available. Occasionally he would throw in some angst-ridden wailing but it was essentially just guitar. I would investigate further if I knew who the fuck he was…

By the time the white haired, bearded Uncle-Jesse-from-Dukes-of-Hazzard lookalike J Mascis takes the stage, as expected Chicks is rammed to the gunwales. To start with the only place I can find to stand is in the back room – much as I love it, Chicks Hotel is totally unsuitable for bands who are vaguely popular. I mean completely fucking useless. At least half the capacity is not actually in the same room as the stage, which is mental. For an act that performs his entire set SITTING DOWN, the number of people who can actually see the guy drops to about 10% of the paying customers. My height of 6’3” normally affords me a good view from anywhere in a venue but tonight I couldn’t see more than the top of J Mascis’s baseball cap, even stood on tip toes. Now I know what it’s like for short people (like my wife) at gigs. The photo below was taken with my arms aloft, I couldn’t see anywhere near as much with my own eyes. The reception is raucous, and Mascis launches straight into something of his recent solo effort Tied To A Star. I have only ever listened to it in parts, in shuffle mode on Spotify, so I’m not going to know the names of anything. He’s not particularly into speaking or engaging with the crowd, barely uttering more than a ‘thanks’ every couple of tunes.

The most prominent thing I notice about Mascis, is what a fucking incredible guitarist he is. The acoustic parts are so intricate, and cleanly picked, he is wasted on the indie/alt scene – it’s a pleasure to hear such an exponent of the acoustic guitar. The electric folky sound is reminiscent of Roy Harper / Jimmy Page but played harder and with more angst.

Uncle Jesse Duke / J Mascis
J Mascis / Uncle Jesse Duke

It’s a steel string, so there is scope to introduce plenty of effects. Like ALL of the effects. He drifts from solo acoustic to heavier, more overdriven stuff and finally announces ‘here’s something from the 1990s’ to a rapturous crowd. I’m presuming it’s a Dinosaur Jr song, don’t ask me which one though. Some are louder/heavier and greeted with bigger cheers and more singing along, I surmise that these are the Dinosaur hits. So full and rich is he able to make the sound, at first I thought there was someone else on stage providing rhythm while he rips into the solos, which are quite fiddly, but I can’t see anyone (I can barely see Mascis though, remember). Then I go through a brief period of thinking he’s got 4 hands, but I soon come to the conclusion that he’s using a loop pedal to sample a couple of bars of chords, then shredding over the top of that. All very expertly done – had me fooled. I’m floored by the ‘metal’ nature of his soloing, it’s most rare to see an indie/alt guitarist doing all that stuff. He is easily the best guitarist I have seen in Dunedin 😉

After little more than an hour though, it’s all over, he thanks us for coming, and gets up from his stool as if to make for the dressing room. Seeing the solid wall of people between him and ‘backstage’ he concedes that as there’s nowhere to go, he “may as well do the encore right now”. Cue more cheers, obviously. And what an encore. Took me a while to identify it, but it was a tortured grungey fuzzy cover of Just Like Heaven by The Cure. Brilliant, best tune of the night (although that’s possibly because it was once of the few that weren’t entirely new to me). And then he really does leave, mumbling thanks as he leaves. I don’t think he’s in the slightest bit ungracious, just very self conscious. None of the endless self-congratulatory bullshit you get between songs like with most artists, he doesn’t pull ‘solo’ faces or strike ‘solo’ poses, he just quietly and humbly goes about his craft.

It was great to have such a seminal figure in alternative rock play for us in a pub in a small settlement outside of Dunedin, it really was. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t see fuck all. Thanks J for coming to play for us 🙂

War Of The Worlds – The New Generation

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is a classic of our time. Nobody knows this album better than I. In fact, not many know this story better than I – I’ve read it dozens of times and I consider it to be one of my three or four favourite ever novels. I have been listening to the album regularly since 1978 when it was first released, and I know it inside out, upside down, back to front, note for note. As a child I would sit for hours poring over the accompanying booklet (in glorious LP size), singing along while totally engrossed in the story. The art direction for this album was just perfect and for me (and I’m sure many others) there can be no better representation of a Tripod than those devised by John Pasche, who incidentally designed the Rolling Stones’ ‘lips’ logo. All other Tripods, before and since, are vastly inferior. Growing up in and around Woking (where the Martians first land), even the locations have special meaning to me. In short, War of the Worlds is a significant part of my life and is sacred to me.

Naturally, when I discovered (on Spotify, where else?) that Jeff Wayne had done a ‘new’ version of this epic, with different performers, I was a little alarmed. Sceptical. Horrified, even. I know there have been dancey remixes of a lot of the tracks over the years, they never really bothered me because they were really just dance tracks with samples from the album thrown in. This however, stood a very good chance of being an excruciating car crash of a project. You can’t remake something like this. You don’t need to remake it. There was no way I was going to like it, that’s for sure, especially when I saw the list of performers. Gary Barlow for fuck sake? Joss Stone? And then after a bit of Googling I discovered that there was a stage show, no less, featuring Marti Pellow and Jason Donovan. Sacrilege doesn’t even begin to describe it. Definitely awful and worth avoiding like the plague.War of the Worlds TNG

Or is it? Like rubber-necking at the scene of a car crash, or sniffing your own farts, there is something that draws you inexorably towards it when you know you shouldn’t, when you know that it will only end in tears. So cautiously, I gave it a go.

And how glad I am that I did, because it is brilliant. Abso-fucking-lutely brilliant.

The new cast were clearly given copies of the original version and told to learn it off by heart. The rhythm, the cadence, every nuance in timing of the singing is faithfully reproduced. The music (more on this later) is mostly the same, albeit with some updated sounds. Hence, it’s like they’ve just ‘modernised’ it with the minimum of changes, and retained (almost) all of the original charm.

Obviously, having listened to Richard Burton, David Essex, Phil Lynott et al play the parts for the last 30+ years, those voices ARE War of the Worlds. Even though David Essex wasn’t even that good, he is the artilleryman, the only one I know. The casting for the ‘New Generation’ (hereafter known as TNG) is spot on though, pretty much perfect.

There aren’t any voices around these days that can compete with the rich, milky smoothness of Burton’s narration, but casting Liam Neeson as the journalist was a good call. He possesses the gravitas necessary to convey the doom and terror convincingly, without overacting, and his faint Irish brogue neatly fits the hole vacated by Burton’s South Wales tint.

Gary Barlow as the ‘sung thoughts of the journalist’ is a masterstroke by Wayne. His voice is absolutely perfect for The Eve Of War (‘…the chances of anything coming from Mars’) and Forever Autumn. He has exactly the same sort of singing voice as Justin Hayward, the same range, tone, timbre and everything, and it is such a faithful rendition it’s almost like ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Justin Hayward in War Of The Worlds’. I take back everything I said about the lardy boy band goon. Gracious, n’est-ce pas?

Ricky Wilson is also brilliant – again, Mr Wayne has cast a voice that is very similar to the original, albeit slightly less hammy. Wilson’s spoken dialogue is markedly better than David Essex’s, and the singing is very, very close. I’m a long time fan of the Kaiser Chiefs, but I would never have guessed that his voice would fit so well in this environment. Neither would I have guessed that someone so ‘yoof’ as the singer of one of the biggest indie bands around would deign to appear on something so uncool as a ‘rock opera’.

Perhaps the most surprising is Parson Nathaniel, played by some bloke called Maverick Sabre. Wikipedia tells me he is some class of a rapper so obviously I’ve never heard of the fellow. This bloke is really good though and he conveys ‘tortured’ and ‘slightly kooky’ exceptionally well. I’m not sure either he or Phil Lynott particularly spring to mind when you read the novel though.

The weak point for me is Joss Stone’s Beth. Her spoken dialogue is fine, although she sounds a little young for the role compared to Julie Convington, but it’s her singing that grates – it’s just a little too soul-like for my tastes. A bit on the warbly side, if you will. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good as the others.

Musically, Jeff Wayne has kept the changes to a minimum. The most noticeable is that the synthesizer sounds have been updated. I would love to have seen the setup they used in 1978, I imagine an entire studio full of Moogs, Synclaviers and giant hand built synthesizers. This was even before the days of the Fairlight, so any sampling would have been by tape loop. However, the synth parts and all the sampling and effects on TNG have probably been created entirely on a laptop. I’m slightly dis-chuffed that he has allowed dubstep rhythm to encroach upon some of the synth parts in The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine, but it’s used reasonably sparingly. I now realize where the inspiration for this probably came from – it made me do something of a double take last year when I discovered it. Thankfully, the luscious string sections that sweep throughout the entire work have been preserved – I’m no orchestral expert but they still sound ‘real’ rather than ‘synthesized’. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they are the original string tracks remastered. The guitar parts sound fresher, perhaps it’s just the 1978 tracks with some more modern effects plastered on them, perhaps they’ve been replayed note-for-note faithful to the original.

I have listened to TNG a good half dozen times since I discovered it, and although I’m sure it will never take the place of the original version, it’s still definitely worth having, and I’m really quite glad it was made. What Jeff Wayne needs to do now though, is collaborate with someone like HR Geiger or Tim Burton on a movie version of the musical version of the book version. Set in the Victorian era. Set in Woking. Not starring Tom Fucking Cruise. And it would have to be using John Pasche’s design for the tripods, or there’s no deal. That would be a movie to see.

Spotify. What the fuck?

All your musics are belong to us

I just discovered Spotify. Like literally a couple of weeks ago. I’ve known about it for a few years, thanks to people in the UK, but it’s not been available to us Kiwis for long, so I’ve taken the plunge and downloaded it. It’s fucking incredible isn’t it? HOW do they do that? I mean, I don’t get it, how does the minimal amount of advertising generate enough revenue to pay the rights? There’s no irritating screen ads, and the sound ads are just for Spotify Premium. Presumably this could not work as a business model if nobody bought the premium version, but how the hell did they get the rights holders to agree in the first place?

This very possibly signifies a tidal change in my music habits. I’ve amassed a healthy collection of (almost exclusively) pirated mp3’s over the 15 years since I first fired up Napster, Gnutella, followed by Kazaa, then Limewire, eDonkey and finally bitTorrent. I even remember the first song I downloaded (Sing Our Own Song, by UB40). I’m quite proud of my 20,000 song library, I mean, it’s a veritable work of art and I’ve put thousands of man hours into it, searching, researching, WAITING, re-tagging etc, not to mention the Terabytes of data allowance that it’s cost. I’ve got several copies of it – backed up to 3 or 4 places because it’s incredibly valuable to me. Or at least it was.

The day I discovered what was available on Spotify, my 1TB of choons became largely redundant. I say largely because there is a lot of ‘specialist’ or shall we say ‘minority interest’ music on my hard drives that will probably never see the light of day on a commercial service but the majority is there for my streaming pleasure. And it’s there with fucking little bells on – pretty much every album is the deluxe remastered edition with additional live tracks and shit. There are a few notable exceptions (why is there no Cardiacs ??!?) but it’s more than a fair trade-off for the bazillions of weird and wonderful new artists to whom I now have access. It’s like searching through box upon box of old LPs at a charity shop. A good deal of it is cockwash, with horrific cover photos and terrible puns for titles but the breadth of choice utterly mindblowing. Over 20 million to choose from, I read somewhere. And they’re just there, ready to be streamed at a moment’s notice. From a purely techie nerdy perspective, I’d love to see what they have under the bonnet, there must be some serious database kit propping all this up.

I find myself using Spotify mostly when sat at a desktop, either via speakers or ‘phones (at work) – even streaming just the basic version which I guess must be at least160k, the sound quality is quite acceptable via laptop / home entertainment system. I don’t even need to do the 320k version, certainly not enough to justify the $12 a month (on its own not bank-breaking territory, but I’ve taken a stand against signing up for monthly subscriptions on t’Internet. Viz, The Onion, The Daily Mash, all my fave reads are now behind paywalls, it soon adds up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to format all my hard drives and get rid of my mp3 collection, that way madness surely lies. My parents did a similar thing in the 1970s. Gave a bunch of Beatles LPs to the jumble sale because the arrival of cassettes and home taping meant that there was no need to keep the cumbersome vinyl eyesores any longer. I nearly cried when I found out what I could have inherited. Obviously, the whole Spotify / Grooveshark / Last.fm streamed music thing could all go tits up very easily, if Herr Ulrich, Dr Dre et al get shitty like they did over Napster. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use it to expand my musical horizons (who the fuck has ever heard of Captain Twang And His Rhythm Cat?), fill in a few notable gaps (there were 3 New Model Army live albums I didn’t know about!) and generally make hay while the sun shines.