CD remasters: the good, the bad and the downright ridiculous. Part 2: Rattlesnakes – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

Previously on ‘CD remasters:  the good, the bad and the downright ridiculous’

“Irresistible aren’t they?  ‘Deluxe Editions’ of your favourite 80s albums……”

So Part 2, Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.  Deluxe Edition released 2004.

Rattlesnakes:  1984's Farrow and Ball catalogue

Rattlesnakes: 1984’s Farrow and Ball catalogue

I was never really part of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ target demographic, having emerged from Essex with a Depeche Mode electro habit.  But like many converts, I fell for this album in 1984 for the same reasons as everyone:

  • A Perfect Skin demo was on the Department of Enjoyment NME cassette, and was deemed ‘cool’ by the cognoscenti (represented by my friend Tim, later of Winterlight fame)  http://winterlightmusic.wordpress.com
  • Simply buying the album made you feel you were a deeply interesting French philosophy student, living in a tiny Parisian garret with an opium-addicted girlfriend, even if you were, say, studying Human Geography at Liverpool University
  • It had a picture of an ‘artfully distressed’ door on the cover

In fact, if I was really honest with myself, I didn’t like all of Rattlesnakes.  Sure I loved Perfect Skin, and Rattlesnakes and Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken, like everyone else.  But some of the other tracks sounded like Doors outtakes, like, say Speedboat.  And really all of side 2, until Heartbroken.

I was always suspicious of people who raved about this side – the ‘Side 2 people’ – and I still am.  As if to prove my point, Alain de Botton recently cited Four Flights Up as one of his all time favourite tracks, utterly missing the point that it is a sub-Bluebells jaunty little C&W number.  Julie Burchill famously reviewed Rattlesnakes thus:

“I have no need for a Country and Western Velvet Underground”

And yet, and yet, who can complain about any album that includes Forest Fire?  Despite the ‘heavily borrowed’ sound, and the embarrassing English Lit. A level perpetual references, Forest Fire lifts the band out of their rather parochial ‘try hard Scottish bands’ roots.  Just for a moment, they transcend their peer group, and they take the listener along.

Where are they now?  Well, let’s see.  Laurence Donegan, the bassist, is now the golf correspondent for the Guardian.  Blair Cowan, the keyboard player works for BT.  Lloyd, still tours and records rather mannered folk-rock, and plays off a 6 handicap.  It’s not exactly Sid Viscous and Nancy Spungen is it?   Lloyd Cole and the Commotions reformed for one short tour to promote this edition, in 2004, which covered parts of the country suspiciously close to good golf courses.

Mmm.  where did I leave that copy of 'L'etranger'?

Mmm. where did I leave that copy of ‘L’etranger’?

Rattlesnakes:  Deluxe Edition has a nicely remastered copy of the original album.  It has a second disc with a lot of live versions and demos.  It has extra tracks that either didn’t make the Rattlesnakes cut, or in one case, were cut from the next album, Easy Pieces, and caused Polydor to fire Hardiman as producer.

Lloyd says, in the sleeve notes, in a rather petulant way:

“We went into the studio again in 1985.  We cut four tracks, not good enough.  Paul Hardiman was axed and Langer and Winstanley were brought in to make our second record (Easy Pieces).  Not one track on that album has the vibe of this song..”

(Note – he’s quite wrong)

But whilst the additional tracks Jesus Said and Beautiful City have charm, it’s only Sweetness and You will  Never Be No Good (which has long been a CD extra track) that really should make the album cut.

And it’s about this point in the second CD that you get a sense of how being in this band could have been, to be honest, depressing.  Lloyd cannot have been an easy guy to live with.  In the very many interviews he has so carefully, actually tortuously, curated on his http://www.lloydcole.com/weblog/ website, he comes over as defensive, even chippy.

“Edwyn [Collins, Orange Juice]. Oh Edwyn. I believe he’s grown up now hasn’t he? The thing about Edwyn is that he couldn’t be nasty if he tried, he’s such a big wet rag.  The reason I get this from him is because he happens to have listened to the same records that I did as a boy.  That doesn’t make him very special. I think that for a while Edwyn thought he was the only person who knew about Al Green. I do like his new single though.”  Lloyd quoted in Sounds, 1987

After Mainstream in 1987, his sudden decision to break up the band and make solo albums in New York was, really, the accident waiting to happen.  Predestined by his professed delight at making the fey ‘These Days’ on his own, at the end of Mainstream,  those three, expensively produced post Commotions albums are utterly ‘out of time’.  It was suddenly embarrassing to be a Lloyd Cole fan.  And yet journalists asking him about Smiths, Ride, Happy Mondays found him:

coyly undistressed by the dread realisation that his particular style of songwriting is currently out of vogue”  NME 1991

What Cole forgot is what made The Commotions great.  He THOUGHT, that he was a voice-of-a-generation-singer-songwriter, making coy observational chamber pieces about girlfriends. But what we LOVED them (not just him) for, were grand anthemic retro indie-pop, (albeit pretentious indie pop).  The grandesse of Rich (from Cole’s ‘hated’ Easy Pieces), the wistfulness of Hey Rusty (from Mainstream), the sheer beauty of Are You Ready.  These songs are a DIRECT result of the whole Commotion sound.  Those extraordinary drum fills from Irvine, those layered almost Cocteaux-ish guitars from Clark, and the, actually, often charming, lyricism of Cole’s Rex Harrison impressions.

Good God!  Cole forgot that there is no I in team!  Bono didn’t, Jim Kerr didn’t, but Lloyd did.

So Lloyd, as you travel the world, economy class, with your guitars strapped to your back, saving for the kids’ college fund back in Mass., consoling yourself with the odd shot at par, just take this one piece of advice from me.  PUT THE DAMN BAND BACK TOGETHER MAN – we loved you ALL.

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CD remasters: the good, the bad and the downright ridiculous. Part 1: A Secret Wish – Propaganda

Irresistible aren’t they?  ‘Deluxe Editions’ of your favourite 80s albums.  All tied up in a bow with 24 bit remastering technology, extra tracks, and bulging CD booklets full of artist histories, technical jargon and other inconsequential, if comforting, chit chat.   If any product most effectively channels all the insecurities of the ageing music fan into one, indulgent piece of ‘shopping therapy’ it’s this one.

And then, a few months later….how do you feel?  Empty?  Used?  Yes, you have been.  Drawn in by enticing tales of ‘extra tracks’, ‘live versions’, and most addictive of all ‘PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED TRACKS’, we are like moths to the flame.  The simple truth is, these additional tracks often just shatter the fragile carapace which is my-perfect-memory-of-the original-album, and the past is then forever tarnished.  Pretty much in the same way that Scrappy Do ruined my memory of Scooby Do.

So, as a form of exorcism, I have burrowed into the gloomy recesses of the CD cupboard and picked three reissue/remasters which take great albums, and flush them down the toilet by adding hugely unnecessary, and often upsetting, additional material.  And I will finish with one rather perfect reissue/remaster, which doesn’t.

So, A Secret Wish.

A Secret Wish from 1985, when string vests were cool

A Secret Wish from 1985, when string vests were cool

I always had a soft spot for this album.  Very much the ‘also rans’ of ZTT, to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda had a ludicrously over-hyped beginning to life.  But they released this surprisingly mature and thoughtful album, a kind of electronic AOR, pioneered by the overwhelmingly conventional, and likeable Steven Lipson.  It also has the added bonus of a great cover of  Josef K’s Sorry for Laughing, and a really clever device for letting the listener off the hook for liking the sugary sweetness of ‘hit’ Duel, namely, the inclusion of its B side, the harder, rougher, techno version of the song entitled Jewel (see what they did there?)

So the Deluxe Version starts with a carefully remastered disc of the original album yes?  No.  It starts with the running order of the CD version, on which Steve, (excited by the additional running time offered by the new format), took it upon himself to stretch out some of the tracks, to their eternal detriment:

..when a CD edition was slated, Steve Lipson seized the opportunity to refine the album”  

Oh dear.  

“Dream within a Dream, Jewel, and Dr Mabuse were all completely reworked into cinemascope (sic) WITH THE LATTER TWO DOUBLING IN LENGTH” (my capitals)  Ian Peel, CD Booklet Notes.

As I write, I am listening to the ‘cinemascope’ version of Mabuse and I am finding it hard to breath, it is so ludicrous.  It is now ten minutes long.

The CD then goes on to at least include the shorter versions of those songs from the vinyl album, but then, inexplicably, it repeats some of the tracks that are all but identical on the original CD and vinyl album.  The liner notes justify this gamely, thus:

Duel and p:Machinery differed on the [vinyl] and [CD] editions too, but only for those with an eye for the finer detail…”

This is a sign you should be getting worried.

They’re not different versions, or recordings.  They’re the same length, but they’re different mixes”

O-o-o-k-a-y-y-y

On Duel, the differences are most noticeable on the stereo mix on the percussion, and the reverb on the vocals.  On p:Machinery you’ll hear a clap of thunder at around the 01:16 mark on the [CD] version.  But it’s not there on the [vinyl] version.”

Well, look, honestly Ian, I’m happy to take your word for it pal.  Just, err, given I’ve shelled out the best part of twenty quid for this, would you mind putting some ORIGINAL and INTERESTING content on here please, FFS?

Seriously, how about a two minute version of Mabuse guys

Seriously, how about a two minute version of Mabuse guys

So, bravely on to disc two …and we’re now topping out at five, yes five, versions of Propaganda’s third single the insipid p:Machinery.  p:Machinery reached no.86 in the UK charts. Despite its only redeeming feature, a synth line donated by David Sylvian, I promise you that by the time you get to the ‘Goodnight 32’ version you will, like me, have lost the will live.  And listening to the Paul Morley/Bob Kraushaar mix of Sorry for Laughing was really enough to give up (note to future avant-garde post punk pop labels – do not allow rock journalists anywhere near the mixing desks under any circumstance, not even if they are shagging the lead singer).

But who can leave behind Propaganda without mention of the enigmatic Susanne Freytag, or ‘The-Pretty-One-Who-Wasn’t-Allowed-To-Do-Anything’.  Susanne took Frankie Goes to Hollywood Paul Rutherford’s pioneering ‘non-involvement with the actual recordings’ to new heights (who can forget the description of Paul’s role on Welcome To The Pleasuredome as, simply, ‘The Dance’), by neither playing or singing a note on a Secret Wish.  Ian Peel negotiates this awkward issue with tact and respect commenting on the original demo tape sent to ZTT, with Freytag’s vocals:

Susanne, although an irreplaceable presence in the band, was not a singer

Thanks Ian.  And when you say ‘irreplaceable’ you probably mean ‘hot’ right?  Anyway, I for one would have loved to have heard Susanne on that demo, and would have happily given up one of the FIVE versions of p:-frikking-Machinery for the pleasure of so doing.

And as a little coda to the whole overblown adventure, I have undertaken some investigative research of my own (Google) and discovered that Susanne is now a happily married glamorous mum living in Hastings and working as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, with a bit of jewellery design for Bryan Adams, on the side.  Good on you Susanne, we salute you.  It seems you have grown up and moved on, whilst we, with our double disc 25 year anniversary deluxe editions, remain pathetic ghosts, wallowing in the past.  Also, for the avoidance of doubt. we would really love to hear you sing one day.  That’s our secret wish.

PS – much more balanced review here!

http://thequietus.com/articles/04759-propaganda-a-secret-wish-25th-anniversary

Nest week:  Part 2:  Rattlesnakes – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

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‘The Next Day’? – I preferred the day before…

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It’s a funny old thing being a Bowie fan ain’t it.  You spend the late 90s and early 00s defending Heathen, Reality and, umm, Black Tie White Noise to people who rolled their eyes at the mere mention of his name.  And then he releases a highly mediocre album after a ten year hiatus, and everyone thinks he’s a genius (again)!  Job done!   Seriously, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

“It is an enormous pleasure to report that the new David Bowie album is an absolute wonder: urgent, sharp-edged, bold, beautiful and baffling, an intellectually stimulating, emotionally charged…. electric bolt through his own mythos..”  Neil McCormick, Telegraph

“‘The Next Day’ is a loud, thrilling, steamrollingly confident rock and roll album full of noise, energy..”  Q Magazine

My question is:  where were these people when ‘Heathen’ came out and was largely panned? Did they all write 5 star reviews about ‘1. Outside’?  ‘Reality’?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  ‘The Next Day’ has its moments.  It’s got that garage-y Visconti lo-fi sound all over it, like ‘Reality’.  (Visconti is hailed as having restored Bowie’s form when he returned for Heathen).  It has the endless angry vocals shouting puzzling metaphors at you.  But ‘The Next Day’ is sloppy and, I’m sorry, just dull.  Seriously, listen to this lyric (delivered in a laughing gnome voice):

“Cutting through the water; Hands upon the ghost; To the city of solid iron; Through the kingdom of the ghost”  From ‘Dancing Out in Space’

See what he did there?  Rhymed ‘ghost’ with ‘ghost’.  Seriously David.

My real point:  it is a very poor relation to ‘Reality’.  And ‘Reality’ is a poor relation to ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’.  On the plus side, well, there is a bit at the end of ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ where the beat sounds a lot like ‘Five Years’, and I cheered up a bit.  And let’s face it:  there were clues.  The first single is awful.  ‘Where Are We Now’ sounds as dreary as anything Bowie’s written.  ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ is the best track on the album, but doesn’t have enough to sustain it (good video, mind).  But where’s the bravery and cheek of ‘New Killer Star’ and ‘Never Get Old’.  And the lo-fi menacing of ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’?  What did Tony Visconti say when he received that load of demos two years ago, after the silent years – “seriously David they sound great.  Did you, aah, write them in between children’s tea and bath time?”

So why the universal hagiographies?  Well, to be honest, I don’t know.  There’s a lot of ‘Ex Factor’ going on currently – reverential accounts of re-mastered CDs and reformed 80s bands.  But I’m really hoping Bowie still transcends the ‘reunion’ market.  I love Bowie, I really do, but I think people (i.e record reviewers) have overlooked the actual record here.  They’re not reviewing the album, they’re reviewing what Bowie means to them, which, perhaps, is everything.  Maybe they feel disconnected from the ultra urban, fragmented, chaotic, DIY music scene.  For them, Bowie is a port in a storm.  A universal symbol of understated cool, especially because he has been so quiet these last ten years.

But I love the chaos, variety and sheer lack of rules in the current music scene, and that is what this blog is about.  The madness of Bat For Lashes, the joy of Ulrich Schnauss, of Jon Hopkins, of Alt-J.  Yes, they all owe so much to David’s back catalogue.  But that doesn’t excuse him ‘The Next Day’.

My advice.  Want discordant, intelligent, power dance pop?  Go and listen to ‘Halfway Home’ on ‘Dear Science’ by TV On The Radio (Bowie would approve, he guested on their first album).  It will blow you, David, and Tony away.


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