I can remember that in January 1975, when I had no idea what job I wanted to do, the thought of another year’s study was appealing. I wasn’t the most confident public speaker but I thought I could do a better job than all those
teachers masters at Judd. Mr Boyce’s French lessons consisted of reading a French adventure book called “Hank Le Trappeur” around the class. Dull! Mr Whitehouse’s Geography lessons consisted of him talking non stop for 40 minutes while I stared at the clock above his head, estimating when the minute hand would move one notch closer to the end of the lesson. Dull! That wasn’t teaching. It certainly wasn’t learning.
Mr. Magness wasn’t all bad though. He was the music teacher. I say he wasn’t all bad but I can’t remember ever actually playing a musical instrument at school. I do remember in the Fifth Year that we were allowed to bring in our own records and play them to the class. I bet those lessons took a lot of preparation for Mr. Magness. I brought in “King Midas In Reverse” by The Hollies and it got a favourable reception from the class. Raymond Boutelle was someone that I knew a little bit and we did occasionally talk about music. He later brought all his druggy mates to my house to listen to “Shooting At The Moon” by Kevin Ayers And The Whole World. I remember that the record he chose to play to the middle class, rugby playing, 15 year old boys in the class was “Debora” by Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was a single which got to Number 34 in the U.K. Charts and was taken from their debut album “My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows”. Ah. I feel more blissed out just typing that album title. Anyway, as “Debora” was playing and as the boys listened to the warbling of Marc Bolan’s voice, everyone started laughing. Maybe the opening words weren’t immediately accessible: “Dug a re dug n dug a re dug re dug. Ah Debora, always look like a zebora . Your sunken face is like a galleon clawed with the mysteries of the Spanish Main”. Anyway, most of the boys laughed and Raymond Boutelle was quite upset. I think he thought that these were more enlightened times and we were at the vanguard of a more enlightened change of attitude. All we needed was love. I remember lying to him and saying that I liked the song. Little did we know that our classmates would, within 20 years, be ripping off the Third World or carpet bombing the Middle East. I digress.
Everyone in our class laughed at Tyrannosaurus Rex and I suspect that Marc Bolan felt the pain. After his band mate, Steve Peregrine Took showed more of an inclination towards the counter culture (performing two songs on “Think Pink” by Twink, Mick Farren’s pre-Pink Fairies project), Marc Bolan took an artistic step towards the mainstream. His producer, Tony Visconti, got fed up with writing out the full name of the band (I know how he feels) and shortened it to T. Rex. Ther sixth album, “Electric Warrior”, was one of the first glam-rock albums and reflected a marked departure from the whimsical spaced out folk of their earlier music. “Ride A White Swan”, “Hot Love” and Get It On” were a long way from “Debora”. Was this a conscious effort by Marc Bolan to become more popular or was he just constantly seeking to progress and explore new musical styles? There’s no doubt that T. Rex became enormously successful. One of the consequences of the success was that there were two types of Marc Bolan fan. A very small minority who knew all the early Tyrannosaurus Rex albums and loved their naïve love of the mysterious. There was also the vast majority who had never heard of Marc Bolan until “Ride A White Swan” and who may have listened briefly to some of the earlier music but quickly dismissed it. The early fans accused him of “selling out” and courting popularity at the expense of quality. The later fans couldn’t understand what the attraction of “One Inch Rock” or “Pewter Suitor”. As for me, I didn’t really like either incarnation.
That’s not true with The Steve Miller Band though. I had the first seven albums and enjoyed the sanitised blues-rock that he played. The first side of “Number Five” is especially sunny and “Recall The Beginning…A Journey From Eden” is excellent from start to finish. As soon as he became popular with “The Joker” and “Fly Like An Eagle”, I stopped listening, claiming that they had “sold out” or even, if I was feeling even more self righteous than usual, “sold out to the man”. It is a badge of honour for the lover of cult music to be able to say “ I only liked their early stuff”.
The War On Drugs have released four studio albums. “Wagonwheel Blues” (2008). “Slave Ambient” (2011). “Lost In The Dream” (2014). “A Deeper Understanding” (2017). They have also released a live album, “Live Drugs” (2020). I guess, looking at that mathematical sequence, the next album will be in 2023. The lead singer, guitarist and songwriter is Adam Granduciel who was born in Massachusetts but moved to Philadelphia (via California) in 2003, aged 23. He fitted well into the city’s music scene but for ten years he had a variety of different jobs including working in a coffee shop, selling musical instruments and following his father’s career by working in a Turkish rug warehouse. He met up with Kurt Vile and they formed The War On Drugs in 2005 although they split after “Wagonwheel Blues”. “Slave Ambient” was released to universal acclaim with reviews using phrases such as “affirming”, “memorable” and “euphoric”. Personally, I can’t find anything to like in it. I’m going to try harder and I’ve just bought a second hand copy from eBay. Some of the songs appear on “Live Drugs” and I like them but not on the original album. I’m a T. Rex type fan of The War On Drugs. I like their later stuff – the more commercial side – the albums that sold millions and caused them to sell out Alexandra Palace and The O2 where Roo and I were lucky enough to see them.
After touring the “Slave Ambient” album for two years, Adam Granduciel returned home to Philadelphia and, having split up with his girlfriend, found himself isolated and adrift in a city where he had previously loved. “I would see people but it would all just be fleeting hellos and weird drunken nights. I didn’t know what I’d become or what I wanted out myself. It started to spiral into emotional distress and physical manifestations of depression and paranoia”. In that state of mind, it’s remarkable that he made such a warm comforting album. It’s a work of genius insofar as it all sounds very straightforward as each track chunters along easily and prettily but repeated listening reveal the layers of sound that coalesce to produce an uplifting feeling of blissful harmony.
“Lost In The Dream” was a Top 20 album in both the U.K. and the U.S.A. It is described as “heartland rock” which is not a genre I had ever heard before. Wikipedia defines heartland rock as being of a straightforward roots musical style and lists Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Joe Ely as typical proponents. I like all of these, although none would be my favourite artist. It was named album of the year by UNCUT and I bought it, unheard, on the chance I would like it. After a few plays, I asked Roo if she would like to see them at The Brighton Dome and, surprisingly, she said ‘yes’. We both loved the gig and for the next year, this was the only CD we played in the car.
Adam Granduciel’s vocal style has been compared to Bob Dylan but the sonic environment is completely different. Whereas Bob Dylan’s music always harks back to folk blues, The War On Drugs sounds more like Bruce Springsteen playing “Autobahn”. Rolling Stone detected aspects of Roxy Music, Dire Straits and Tom Petty. In the end, every musician is a product of all the music they have listened to and Adam Granduciel has synthesised all these elements to produce his own unique sound.
“Under The Pressure” has a great instrumental passage in the middle which, live, has turned into an explosive show stopper featuring amazing drumming from Charlie Hall. This is a great video and it must have been shot from someone sitting next to us at the O2.
“An Ocean In Between The Waves” is genuinely exciting and I never tire of listening to it. Adam Granduciel clearly wanted to replace Neil Young as the lead guitarist in Crazy Horse and the solo here is brilliant. Throughout the album, he gives the occasional “wooh!” which sounds better than it reads. The song has one of those insistent unstoppable beats which only serves to build tension and excitement. NME called this track “a belting piece of turbocharged classic rock”.
The title track is gentler, starting with a strong vocal and chiming electric guitar. As the keyboards kick in, Adam Granduciel sings sadly about loss and desolation. “Love’s the key to the games that we play but we don’t mind losing”. The layers of instrumentation are equally effective and moving on a quieter song like this as they are on the more urgent songs like “Burning” which starts slowly but soon erupts into accessible hard rock.
Easy listening rock music sounds like an oxymoron but I think that is how I would describe this album. There are many influences and, certainly, The War On Drugs music “before they were famous” will have informed the sound on this album. “Their early stuff was rubbish. They’ve only made a couple of good albums”. “They sold out when they adopted a commercial sound”. Which side are you on?