Tangerine Dream – better without the synths

It may seem like I’m missing the point of the band, but as someone who feels “ambient music” – for all Eno’s good intentions – became a near-universally-acceptable alibi for sheer creative laziness and/or dim-wittedness, I shall maintain….

Tangerine Dream only made one truly great record: ELECTRONIC MEDITATION, their debut.

In which, despite the name, the primitive synths barely figure – even the mellotrons etc play a subsidiary role as the music is dominated by Edgar Froese’s guitarwork and Conrad Schnitzler’s cellos (Klaus Schulze confines himself to percussion – heavy percussion!).

This music is anything but ambient – it’s assaultive.  Think of Pink Floyd in their “Interstellar Overdrive”/”Saucerful of Secrets”/”Sisyphus” mode, and imagine adding classical musicians to the mix, and you’re getting the idea – plenty of dissonance, plenty of seemingly random sonic events, plenty of guitarwork that’s somewhere in between Barrett, Fred Frith and Rainer Bauer, best appreciated on the two epics “Cold Smoke” and “Journey Through A Burning Brain”.

They’d never sound this heavy again.  ALPHA CENTAURI is still pretty trippy in its atmosphere but the rock energy was dissipating – “Fly and Collison…” and the very Floyd-ian bonus single “Ultima Thule 1” are as near as it gets to reconjuring the E.M magic.  Next came the plunge into empty minimalism with ZEIT (one of the worst wastes of time, money and electricity I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience) – and while they’d arguably never make another record as bad as that, they pretty much ceased to matter as progressive musicians at that point.

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Frank Zappa: Hamburg May 6 1988

Not available in the shops, but possibly available from you-know-what.  This is one of the best-sounding recordings of the 1988 tour, with the horn section and tuned percussion beautifully caught, and the keyboards not too high in the mix.

It begins with Frank receiving a surprising array of “love offerings” from his devoted fans – and fending off a request for “Titties and Beer” – before the familiar “new age arrangement” of “The Black Page” launches us into a program consisting entirely of pre-1980s material.

Highlights: a “Black Napkins” in which, after the usual sweet opening solo from Walt Fowler, Kurt McGettrick gets a rare opportunity to solo – and the result is relatively brief but it still blows the roof off the CCH Halle.  This man did for the baritone sax what Dolphy did for the bass clarinet.  (Or finished what John Surman started – however you prefer it).  A “Big Swifty” in which solos from Bruce, Ed, Mike (on keyboards. sounding very Tommy Mars-like) and Frank are separated by multiple breakdowns, featuring more of those pre-programmed bits of Synclavier music that are glimpsed in “When Yuppies Go To Hell” and the Barcelona broadcast.  And the best “Let’s Move to Cleveland” I’ve heard from this tour – Frank’s solo is long, investigative and yet tasteful – he uses his neo-acoustic tone.  And this version has a proper ending, unlike the officially released ’88 take.

The Zombies: most overrated band of the ’60s?

There seem to be no selective career-spanning best-ofs on the market, so the kind of listener who studies bands a little bit before investing in their product has no choice but to splash out £20-£40 on ZOMBIE HEAVEN, the four CD boxed set containing their complete works.  Most of which is not psychedelic/baroque-pop, but rather typical early ’60s “beat-group”-style pop music.

Let’s just be clear on this: early ’60s “beat-group” pop music is not foreign territory to me.  It’s not the alienating soundtrack to an unimaginably remote period of history – I like it (cue for a song, Mr Marsden?). Not just your usual towering figures – Beatles, Kinks, Who and all your other “bands who would transcend the form, surviving and prospering into the psychedelic era”, but also those who struggled a bit in the pre-psychedelic ’60s, and weren’t universally respected after they found their niche (like the Moody Blues and the Bee Gees), not to mention the Searchers, the Hollies and other second-division early ’60s bands (quite a few hidden treasures in both those categories).  Once in a great while I’ll even feel the desire to immerse myself in some really kitschy music early ’60s music (like Gerry and the Pacemakers).

So why am I feeling so let down by Argent, Blunstone, White and co?

I guess it’s ’cause they’ve been so over-hyped during the last two decades – on the basis of one short (30 minutes and change) album.

Odessey and Oracle is beautiful, magnificent, everything they say about it is true.  The trouble is, the music they made before – and after! – that is mostly…rather ordinary “beat group”-style pop music.

Where’s the harmonic and melodic uniqueness we’ve been promised by so many latterday reviewers?  We glimpse it, in one song (that one song).  After that, between 1964 and 1967, you needn’t bother trying to find it – it’s not there!

Instead we have:

(i)  about two vinyl LPs’ worth of early Beatles pastiches that are OK…but only OK.  (Even the ZOMBIE HEAVEN sleevenote writer admits, in his subtle way, that they didn’t have the knack as lyricists.  He misses out the fact that they sometimes couldn’t clearly enunciate the lyrics they had written, having set the tempo too fast.  And the vocal harmonies are a bit off-key in places too – someone (Chris?) could never remember how much upper register he actually had

and

(ii) about three LPs’ worth of R&B/soul covers that are way too white-and-polite: closer to Manfred Mann than the Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.

Having diligently listened to all four discs in the space of a week, I’m left feeling like I was tricked into wasting my money.  For most people, Odessey and Oracle is all you need.  Only a few songs are worth saving from the rest.  Use your download facility.  And if anyone tries to tell you it’s worth spending £40 or even £20 on ZOMBIE HEAVEN, tell them no, no, no…

What am I doing here?

I used to post music reviews often at Amazon.com.  However they are now committing the cardinal sin of coercing people into using their real names at all times – and I’m sure you don’t need an explanation of why that is just plain evil.  So I’ve transferred my cranky opinions, bizarre ramblings etc to the blog medium, and I would urge others to do the same.