Thursday, 30 January 2020

Budgie - Not Your Ordinary Inflight Entertainment

By Mikey G

Even as a kid I loved power trios. Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Cream, Grand Funk and The Robin Trower Band, to name a few, are all great outfits. I’ve tried to work out what it is that makes them appeal to my ears more than other band configurations, and I think it just boils down to the fact that for obvious reasons, the rhythm section and particularly the bass player, has to work that little bit harder to keep the songs driving along during the solos and when any progressive changes are explored.
However, above all those I’ve credited here, there is one, for me at any rate, who took it to a very different level indeed. This was Budgie, a three piece from the southern valleys of Wales. They formed in 1967, not as many would imagine as a result of having witnessed Hendrix or Cream, but as the band's vocalist, bassist and frontman Burke Shelley explained, it was a result of seeing another local Welsh trio Love Sculpture, featuring legendary guitarist Dave Edmunds. Love Sculpture played in and around the Cardiff area, doling out heavy treatments to blues standards as was often the case as some bands tried to break out of the strict 12-Bar blues form, so popular at the time. “They were the best band you have ever seen in your life and they were only a three- piece” Burke told a biographer writing about the many rock acts who had worked in the now legendary Rockfield studios, where Budgie ended up recording a lot of their best work.

Their self-titled first album, released in 1971 and produced by Rodger Bain, who also produced the earliest albums by Black Sabbath & Judas Priest, is not as dynamic as say Led Zeppelin's debut or as dark as Black Sabbath's first offering but it definitely has its very own heaviness going on. A Rodger Bain interview on the sleeve notes to a vinyl best of Budgie compilation Suicidal Homicidal back in 1985, best describes the scene.  “I first saw Budgie when Kingsley Ward, the mastermind behind Rockfield Studios, arranged for Burke and the lads to audition in his studio. I had just completed some heavy recording sessions with 'The Earth Blues Band' who were later to change their name to Black Sabbath, and Kingsley thought I would be interested in hearing the Welsh answer to 'The Birmingham Bashers'. Kingsley was quite right, I was. Apparently, the band had never met a "Record Producer" before, and expected me to arrive in a white Rolls Royce, smoking a foot long cigar and wearing a nine carat gold knuckle duster! When they were told that their roadies had to meet me off the train at Gloucester station, they were quite relieved. I knew straight away I wanted to work with this band, and we agreed there and then to record the first album, despite the fact that it was now the middle of winter and the snow lay two feet deep around the Welsh studio. Every playback was preceded by a fight for the best place in front of the parrafin stove, in fact Burke wore woolen gloves for most of the takes (so that is the secret of his heavy bass sound!)”

*Rodger Bain - minus Rolls Royce
The album itself kicks off with the very chunky riffed “Guts”. In fact those left wanting more after Black Sabbath, would have been blown away by this tune, it almost feels like a precursor to the Sabs' almighty “Sweet Leaf”. I have to add at this point, the album as a whole is nothing like anything by Sabbath. There’s much more bass and guitar interplay, which gives some songs a progressive feel and there’s a humorous element throughout, that comes to the fore in the amazingly entitled “Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman” , check out the manic guitar and vocal harmonies in there. Then there’s the brutal “Homicidal Suicidal”, picked up 30 years later by Soundgarden. It’s almost like a prototype grunge tune. Who would’ve known? The projected influences all over this album are hard to deny. The use of a couple of lighter acoustic numbers between the bigger power tracks is used to this day by the mainstream metal acts. In America the original LP also featured another song meekly titled “Crash Course In Brain Surgery”, it was a single in the UK but disappeared without trace until a few years later when it turned up on the bands 4th album In For The Kill.  For a long time Lars Ulrich, drummer for America's biggest metal band, Metallica, had enthused about the virtues of Budgie, which resulted with the song eventually ending up on the bands highly regarded and collectable $5.98 Garage Days Revisited vinyl EP in 1987. Which was upgraded 11 years later to a full length album where they also covered the Budgie classic “Breadfan” from Never Turn Your Back On A Friend.

It’s probably fair to say that this spirited opening didn’t set the charts alight but by all accounts it sold steadily, and through intensive gigging with the likes of Mott The Hoople, Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple offshoot Warhorse, they started to pick up a loyal following. With their second album Squawk, released in 1972, they consolidated the approach of mixing lightweight melodies in amongst some blistering riff work by wonder guitarist Tony Bourge. The stand out being the aptly titled “Hot As A Dockers Armpit”. Wrapped, almost amusingly, in a Roger Dean cover, depicting a skeletal bird of prey morphed into a jet fighter, Squawk certainly looked like the band were going places. Each track showed an enriched approach to song structure and studio technique but the overall sound of the album was dragged down by a very thin sound mix, particularly the drumming. Drummer Ray Phillips always bemoaned the fact that even after a quick remix of the album, where a slight improvement was made, time and money factors pushed them back out onto the road. It may have hindered some of their sales momentum but it was certified Gold for over half a million copies sold in the US alone the following year.
*The Original Line Up - Ray, Tony & Burke
After more work out on the road across Europe, often doubling up with the similarly hard working Judas Priest, Budgie hatched their third album in June 1973 Never Turn Your Back On A Friend, which contained probably their finest and best known barnstormer “Breadfan”. Self produced, the album showed a real maturity, both in sound and song craft, switching from solid grooved riffs to driving acoustic sections, and even dabbling with a dramatic ballad of sorts on the atmospheric “Parents”. It also has its fair share of zany titles "You're the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk” and the often amusingly recounted by devotees and press alike, "In the Grip of a Tyrefitter's Hand". Both of these tracks, and the aforementioned “Breadfan”, became fan favourites and were included in live setlists throughout the band's 40 year career.

* Never Turn Your Back On A Friend - the lavish Rodger Dean cover.

I have spent many an earnest hour or two with friends and fans debating why Budgie never really hit the commercial heights of their contemporaries Sabbath and Priest. I even asked Burke Shelley after a very sweaty set played in a tiny bar in Milton Keynes, back in May 2002. His answer was simply that MCA, their record label at a critical time in their development, never really knew how to take the band to the next level. A couple of ads in the music press per album, doesn’t make for a glittering launch to any album, not even in the early seventies. I personally feel that the band name didn’t help, it belittled the content of some of the heaviest albums ever made and wasn’t cool enough for the hipsters to carry around school, as we were apt to do in those days. I made many judgements and friends based on the record sleeves I could see around the playground. There were even a few folks who pegged them as a "Welsh Rush" when those Canucks came to prominence in the mid seventies. I couldn't really get the similarity myself but there's no denying Burke Shelley and Geddy Lee play great bass and both sing in the upper ranges of metal's vocal spectrum.

*Budgie 1974 - Burke & Tony with long serving drummer Steve Williams
Budgie carried on producing some great albums throughout the seventies and eighties, In For The Kill  in 1974 and the excellent Bandolier in 1975 followed, with powerful and original tunes all over them. They even had a really good crack at America while touring behind 1978’s slick Impeckable offering, having augmented their sound to two guitarists for the previous album, the patchy but innovative If I Were Brittania I'd Waive the Rules. Both albums were released on their new label, A&M records. The lack of funds and support proved too much for guitarist and founder Tony Bourge, who called it a day at that point. Burke Shelley pushed on undeterred, going through some commendable guitarists before the band finally found solid writing and riff work from “Big” John Thomas who’d previously plied his trade with the George Hatcher Band. They made a stunning album in 1980, Power Supply, its timely arrival saw them in the mix, unbelievably, to benefit from the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” movement, a complete career resurgence complemented with, as the metal press called it at the time, "heroes’ return" performances at the 1980 and 1982 Reading Rock Festival, where they also played tracks from 1981’s popular Nightflight album. The live broadcasts recorded at these shows were played on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show and finally highlights of both shows found their way onto a licensed live double CD package called We Came, We Saw.. released in 1998.
The early 80s activity even saw the band guest on Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard of Ozz tour. 
One more major label release on RCA in 1982, Deliver Us From Evil even featured a keyboard player but its attempted step on to the more commercial radio friendly rock platform, popular at the time, was not a fan favourite, although it kept the band gigging and even finding themselves with a huge following in Eastern Europe. They gigged fairly solidly right up to 1988 with the same line-up, before a 12 year hiatus and an eventual reunion in the 2000’s using a variety of guitarists. I caught them many times and was never less than inspired by the band. Burke was always full on, ensuring everything was as tight as it could be.

From 2004 until the end of the decade most of the albums I mention here underwent a thorough and valid CD reissue programme. With all tracks remastered and overseen by band members, who also contributed new sleeve notes etc. If you like early Sabbath or Priest but never really explored the Budgie albums of the time, I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

*That long lost 7" single


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Paul McCartney: The Biography by Philip Norman - Book Review

reviewed by Stuart Penney

Soufflé-speak.  I don’t know if Philip Norman coined that expression himself, but it crops up countless times in his latest book.  It refers to Paul McCartney’s ability to charm his way through an interview with seemingly frank and friendly answers, while remaining unfailingly diplomatic and giving away very little of value.  Thankfully, Norman digs much deeper than Paul’s soufflé-speak to come up with one of the most searching and readable McCartney biographies in a long time.  
Philip Norman has been here before of course, authoring acclaimed books about the Beatles, Stones, Jagger, Lennon and others.  But it was his most famous work, the 1981 million-seller Shout which very nearly scuppered this entire project.  Written during the nostalgic tsunami following the death of John Lennon, it painted an overgenerous view of the man who, Norman claimed, represented “three quarters of The Beatles”.  Shout presented a clichéd picture of John the acerbic rocker vs Paul the ballad-writing family man.  Some snarky “granny music” quotes from Yoko didn’t help matters, either.  Understandably, this didn’t go down at all well at McCartney HQ. It took some doing, but Norman eventually received tacit approval to write this book, (“tacit” meaning that he received assistance with sources and information, but there was no direct involvement).  
I don’t know about you, but I never get tired of re-visiting what is, to scholars of popular culture, at least, the Greatest Story Ever Told.  Since 1963 it seems like I’ve read a thousand books about the Beatles, but, like all the best addictions there will always be an excuse for just one more.  Skilfully written and highly readable, the story treads familiar ground until the 1970 break-up, when it shifts up a gear as we enter the solo years and Norman no longer must juggle four equally weighty life stories.  
The immediate post-split legal shenanigans were comprehensively detailed in Peter Doggett’s excellent book You Never Give Me Your Money, but Norman’s lighter touch is more entertaining and the narrative builds nicely as each new character enters the picture, culminating with the arrival of manager Allen Klein as the archetype pantomime villain.  
This story is so familiar, we can predict almost every word of what’s coming next, so it’s refreshing when Norman presents new information, as he does from time to time.  We learn that Paul no longer owns his famous Scottish farms on the Mull of Kintyre, for example. The inspiration for so many McCartney songs over the years, the properties were recently sold and the two farm managers with 55 years’ service between them were dismissed, with one caretaker given just three months’ notice to vacate his grace and favour house.
Paul’s first wife Linda is portrayed as a saintly figure throughout and the couple clearly had a strong, loving relationship.  When she is offered a ghost-written book deal of her own, however, Macca, we are told, nixes it, snapping, “There's only one fucking star in this family.”  Likewise, the news that, in 2006, Paul’s brother Mike was charged with (and subsequently acquitted of) sexual assault provides an interesting diversion, as does the coverage of Paul’s recent heart scare and subsequent hospital treatment. 
It’s not all plain sailing, however.  Paul’s 1984 movie disaster Give My Regards To Broad Street receives full, no holds-barred coverage, as does the 9 days he spent in a Tokyo jail cell on a drug smuggling charge.  But it’s the Heather Mills chapters we’ve been waiting for and Norman doesn’t hold back. “Salacious” doesn’t begin to cover it as we are given an 80 page blow-by-blow account of the doomed marriage and subsequent £20 million divorce settlement, described by one lawyer as “legal Armageddon”.  It’s unseemly, often embarrassing and casts a dark cloud over much that has gone before.  Yet, like a car crash, we simply can’t look away. Not for the first time, the question arises: “what on earth was Paul thinking?”.  In a Q magazine interview not long after the annulment McCartney was asked if the marriage to Heather was the biggest mistake of his life.  With the soufflé-speak dialled up to eleven he replied “It would have to be up there”.  
It’s worth noting that I experienced this biography on two platforms.  After reading the physical hardback book, I went back to the beginning and listened to the 30-hour audiobook version during my daily commute.  Narrator Jonathan Keeble brings the audiobook to life with a range of accents, including all four Beatles, Linda, Yoko and even a delightfully cartoon-like Heather Mills, complete with her trademark Geordie glottal stop.
I’m a stickler for mistakes in rock biographies and while this one is generally well researched, the pedants among us will bristle at a few of the more contentious claims.  Wings were certainly not a glam rock band, as Norman declares; the Sex Pistols single “God Save the Queen” can hardly be described as “a shrieking parody of the (British) national anthem” and Kate Bush’s vocal on “Wuthering Heights” mercifully bears little similarity to Yoko’s infamous wailing, as the book states.  But otherwise I’m pleased to say I found only a solitary factual error throughout the entire book. Denny Laine’s post-Moody Blues/pre-Wings outfit the Electric String Band is referred to, unforgivably, as the Incredible String Band, the Scottish acid folk outfit.  This howler is found in the audiobook version only, however, and not in the physical book. 
(published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2016)

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Zappa Gear: Book Review

The Unique Guitars, Amplifiers, Effects Units, Keyboards and Studio Equipment of Frank Zappa by Mick Ekers Published by Backbeat Books 2019 Hardcover, 233 pages

reviewed by Stuart Penney

First there was Beatles Gear, followed by Rolling Stones Gear and The Black Strat, the story of David Gilmour’s famous Fender. Now we have Zappa Gear. Do we see a trend developing here? In truth the market has been crying out for books of this nature and it’s good to see it finally developing into a legitimate genre. Although unconnected, all these titles share a common theme. Packed with insane amounts of forensic detail, they are a gearhead’s wet dream, yet should also appeal to fans of a less technical inclination who just like to look at beautiful pictures of famous and instantly recognisable guitars.

Zappa Gear (the lack of a possessive apostrophe “s” is deliberate, a last-minute suggestion by Ahmet Zappa) has endured a long and, at times, painful gestation. The foreward by Dweezil Zappa is dated July 2013 and the idea was first conceived way back in 2010. Ekers met with many delays and obstacles along the way, not least finding himself in the middle of a family feud when matriarch Gail Zappa and son Dweezil had a major falling-out, resulting in the family being split down the middle for some years. Both sides became firmly entrenched and the book, although almost finished, was put on hold after Gail became ill and sadly died in 2015. Finally, the siblings sorted out their differences to some degree and Mick emerged triumphant as the book finally appeared at the end of 2019.

Ekers’ trump card was gaining access to the equipment and instruments themselves. He was twice invited to the Zappa house in the Hollywood Hills (since sold to Lady Gaga) and allowed to ask questions, take notes, handle and photograph the precious items contained within Frank’s studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK). Importantly, the project was also given the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT) seal of approval by Gail herself. 

The main appeal of this book is, of course, Frank’s guitars, but that only takes up 80 of the 230+ pages. Also covered in precise and painstaking detail are the various amplifiers, effects, keyboards and drums Zappa used to make his music. Where possible Ekers has included a footnote detailing which album or song each instrument or piece of equipment was used on. A nice touch and a very useful addition to the text.

Pride of place on the cover goes to two of Frank’s most famous guitars: The Baby Snakes Gibson SG and cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul. Both instruments have a fascinating backstory, especially the highly modified SG which was built/restored by a fan and sold to Frank at a concert in Phoenix, Arizona. The Les Paul is instantly recognisable from the Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar box set and it was FZ's main guitar in the early 80s. Unlike the bespoke SG it was bought new, off the shelf from a Los Angeles guitar chain store, but like so many of Frank’s instruments it underwent serious modification.

When it came to his guitars, Zappa cared little for originality or collectability. Despite numerous pick-up changes and electronic modifications the Les Paul survived relatively unscathed cosmetically. But earlier, more valuable, instruments were hacked, carved, routed and mutilated to give FZ the sounds he was looking for. I’m thinking specifically here of Frank’s 1960 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, an extremely rare and valuable instrument which was used on Freak Out and the other early Mothers’ Verve albums. But you’ll have to read the book to find out what fate befell that particular guitar.

The guitar chapters will undoubtedly be the most eagerly read part of the book, but I enjoyed it all. From Frank’s impressive collection of vintage Marshall amplifiers, to his infamous and (at the time) controversial Synclavier, via a Hammond B3, Moogs, Minimoogs, Fender Rhodes electric piano and even a kazoo(!) (the latter was heard on The Lost Episodes album, in case you were wondering), it’s all grist to the Zappa mill. Mick Ekers has done a sterling job pulling all this information together and the presentation is excellent throughout, featuring over 180 unique photographs taken by the author at the UMRK. Also included are interviews and quotes from pivotal Zappa band musicians such as Arthur Barrow, Tommy Mars and Ruth Underwood.

Unsurprisingly, Zappa Gear won’t sell nearly as many copies as Beatles Gear or Rolling Stones Gear, (pretty much like Frank’s records, in fact) but it is essential reading for even the most casual Zappa aficionado and deserves a place on every rock fan’s bookshelf.

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