ON TRACK: Toto, Hawkwind, Fairport Convention
Hold the line! Jacob Holm-Lupo (whose work on Blue Oyster Cult has already been devoured) looks through the work of American meg rockers Toto. As well as the leading light in melodic A/MOR, we also check out the On Tracks for the leading lights in space rock and folk rock: Hawkwind and Fairport Convention.
Now with Toto, there’s a certain claim about ubiquity – household names – would you put Toto up there with Michael Jackson and The Beatles? Perhaps it’s more a sign of the esteem in which Jacob Holm-Lupo holds the American AOR maestros. It shows the sort of passion for a band that you get when you’re so into someone and anything else pales by comparison.
Whether or not you’d uphold the claim that Toto belongs in the same bracket, in terms of sales and in terms of having a song or two that everyone knows you have to concede some ground. Surely we all know Hold The Line and Rosanna and SURELY Africa is familiar to 99% of the Western world, and then this is why On Track is such a handy series. If you know the hits, you can backfill, or if you’re a dedicated fan, you can pick holes in the hapless author’s opinion and have a dig at this/her comments.
However, not being steeped in Toto and their brand of American A/MOR, I can bow down to Jacob’s enthusiasm and have my Africa-limited knowledge enhanced by his enthusiasm although I did get a copy of their most recent album – “magnificent” he calls it – buoyed by the return of Steve Porcaro. And in Chinatown they have a “late career moment of absolute perfection.”
Each album gets the usual intro that sets the scene and context and track by track analysis and Holm also offers a conclusion to each album. Kind of sums things up nicely. It follows the highs and some lows (missteps and triumphs) in a forty-year career through changing times and line ups. Also, a band whose highly acclaimed debut was always going to be a challenge to follow. As Holm points out, it seems to be a formula that works and they struggle when they try to do something different or refresh the format. A classic case of ‘if it ain’t broken why fix it?’ Works for AC/DC. They’re a band that’s buoyed by a new wave of popularity, an ongoing appreciation from a partisan fanbase, a hefty bout of touring and a more lenient and understanding media. Indian Summers and all that.
Duncan Harris’ Hawkwind study begins with the assumption that most people associate the band with ‘whoosh’ noises, Silver Machine, Lemmy and Space Rock. In the latter six words, it does pretty much sum up the band whose longevity is a testament to many things, including some less salubrious ones.
The point is made early doors that Hawkwind were probably the original punks, the band who can’t really play. The new wave direction of some of their late Seventies works a minor concession to the times. Think the new wave jive of Quark, Strangeness And Charm, not to mention it’s later reworking (and definitely not to mention the 2018 Mariachi take). They remain as they always have as the band who didn’t belong, not that they ever wanted to.
They are a band, probably more a collective, whose number of releases expand way beyond the standard discography and shoot off into compilations, live albums and all manner of semiofficial releases. Harris focuses on the essentials including the key live albums where the mighty Space Ritual stands towering head and shoulders above the catalogue. One that when it comes to classic double live records, unfairly misses the cut. One where they played “like Mo Farah on steroids” – the mind boggles.
Things are brought right up to date with the most recent All Aboard The Skylark receiving due praise for the connection with what we’d consider archetypal Hawkwind. And to be fair, like most bands including Toto and Fairport covered here, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs and again like both seem to be enjoying an Indian Summer. Space Rock for the 21st Century seems quite apt.
The artwork of Barney Bubbles, the poetic leanings of Robert Calvert, the association with Michael Moorcock and the obsession with all things space are all highlighted as part and parcel of the story.
Organising the albums into chronological sections – ‘Charisma and quarks’ and ‘Measles and heavy metal’ just two of the periods – thirty-two albums are analysed although strangely there’s no space for Road To Utopia, their 2018 orchestral liaison with Mike Batt, which to be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed. There are references to some of the 2018 versions as the songs appear and although the tour was great as well, that’s another story.
To be fair, the soap opera saga of the comings and goings of various members is often as enthralling as the some of the music that peaked in the seventies, took a nosedive and lacked direction for some time during the eighties (bar the Ginger Baker driven Levitation) but which picked up with a vengeance over the last decade. The return to a more traditional Hawkwind sound is hinted at proving once again that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. The departure of Lemmy, the appearance of Tim Blake and the ins and outs of Nik Turner and Huw Lloyd Langton being a selection of significant moments that impacted the music.
Nice one Duncan on making a grand job of chipping away and enthusing about the tip of the Hawkwind iceberg. The current batch of On Tracks don’t have the usual appendices where you can find lists such as most underrated (band name) moments, but you can have fun spotting the undisguised selection of the “by almost universal common consent worst piece of so-called music ever released under the name Hawkwind.” I’ll leave that discovery to the reader although fans might like to take a guess.
Fairport Convention already has its place in the annals of music history via the Liege & Lief album. It might rankle fans who rate some of their other work equally if not better, but Kevan Furbank works his way through the catalogue with as subjective a line as you can get.
Like Hawkwind, it’s the tip of the iceberg with numerous compilations, live albums and box sets that proliferate the market and also like the Space Rockers, Fairport are still a healthy going concern. The story comes right up to date with 2020’s Shuffle And Go collection; one that proves the point that many make, about the value and impact of the arrival of Chris Leslie into the line-up. Without his musical skill and songwriting prowess, the longevity may have been cut short. Kevan does point out though that there are times when songs delivered in his more gentle tones might have suited Simon Nicol more.
And talking of which, the departure of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny following what would be a flurry of landmark albums from 1969 to 1971, is reported as the final nail in the coffin in the eyes of Dave Pegg. It set the seal and paved the way for another of the many incarnations of Fairport that would struggle to meet the highs of Liege & Lief, What We Did On Our Holidays and Full House.
Missing is an attempt which the On Track authors often offer as an afterthought (at their peril) of ranking the albums, but these three would surely be at the top.
Of course, things could never be quite the same; maybe the same but different as the turning point came when traditional material was shoehorned in at Ashley Hutching’s instigation. They’d done the covering of Dylan and moved from their West Coast sound as the epic A Sailor’s Life on Unhalfbricking opened the floodgates. Dave Swarbrick added a vital ingredient and the bus rolled on.
The usual trials and tribulations with relationships and record labels has dotted the Fairport path and made an impact on the music. Career highs are pointed out – the Maart Allcock years particularly noteworthy as his multi-instrumental skills gave the same sort of variety as Chris Leslie added later. In a similar way, the harder rock style gave way to more mainstream and accessible sounds (“sandpapering off the hard edges provided by Maart.”)
Bizarrely after being down to a trio on the uninspired Gottle O’ Geer, the most recent five-man line up of Nicol, Leslie, Conway, Pegg & Sanders line up has been endured for two decades and nine(?) albums. Kudos to the guys for still looking to do new music and although it can never reflect their glory days, Fairport aren’t conceding to becoming a heritage act.
And we all enjoy a bit of controversy and latch onto anything that gets a bit of a battering – loved the Glyn Johns refusal to do “airy-fairy folk bullshit” on Rising For The Moon – although as Kevan admits straight away, he’s a fan and wants everyone to share in his passion.
He’s right as once again, the On Track series has you (me…) dashing to the record collection (or Youtube) to check out some of these albums and songs. Me, I’ve just reached for Space Ritual and ordered Jewel In the Crown and settled down to match the words with the music.
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