Book Reviews

The On Track series: Book Review

Three new releases in the On Track ‘every album, every song’ series of books. Prog, pop and rock go under the microscope at Sonicbond Publishing. Three bands who continue to garner twenty-first century acclaim although their successes are very much rooted in the Seventies. Three authors get on their soapboxes about the good, the bad and the ugly of their favourite bands.

on track gentle giant

ON TRACK: Gentle Giant by Gary Stead

New Zealand based journalist Gary Steel clearly holds a soft spot and flies the flag for Gentle Giant, a band whose first album appeared fifty years ago and who ceased to be a working outfit in 1980. Incredible to think how they’ve had a resurgence of sorts in recent times as younger prog rock fans delve into the back story of the genre. And also to have just read the social media headline that GG have just announced the release of their first official T shirt… Probably also helped by Steven Wilson whose remix work on some of their earlier music has literally allowed us to hear the music in a new light.

He’s written an unusually lengthy introduction to set the scene for a band who had more than their fair share of idiosyncrasies. In twelve pages he sets out the case for Gentle Giant and how they differed from their progressive rock contemporaries. Find out about their medieval and renaissance influences, counterpoint and hocketing as the GG guys resolutely refuse to play ball. In fact the goal to “expand the frontiers of contemporary music at the risk of being very unpopular.” A bloody-mindedness that’s admirable if not a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

In terms of their output, one can smile at the amusing Shulman, Shulman, Shluman and Minnear songwriting combo (which later lost a Shulman as Phil opted out in 1973). The high points of the 1972-1975 period, Octopus (with its Roger Dean cover adding to the effect) is the one where the curious should look to add some GG musical knowledge to their canon. Surprisingly made up of shorter songs that you wouldn’t associate with the genre, it remains the pinnacle of a band serving the song.

In A Glass House and The Power And The Glory are rightfully acknowledged as making up a holy trinity for GG fans and to be fair, after such artistic successes, the only way is down. Not always helped by the frosty relationships with the music press and the records shops.

Stead admits early on that “five hairy, sweaty men on stage going for it” can’t be captured in the studio. Like many bands, the studio work was just the basis for where to go on stage.

Live records by the score are addressed many semi-official and of dubious quality, yet you can tell when someone loves their band when they suggest Playing The Fool is the best live album ever – “not a moment of flab.” Granted he’s not the only advocate, yet it’s a shame that the record may have dipped under the radar of most rock fans. And as to how it would compare with Live At Leeds, Made In Japan, Live & Dangerous et al, well, we could all argue the case for our own faves.

As usual, a spirited tome that will have those in deep flexing their muscles to argue their own cases and those of us less familiar, heading off to investigate further.

ON TRACK: 10cc and Godley & Creme by Peter Kearns

A second New Zealand author gets behind the Manchester outfit’s career that took them from songwriting giants status before the split into two branches and areas where artistic gains proved more fulfilling.

10cc were one of those bands like Squeeze who had the knack of writing clever pop songs. The original quartet were a potent force with Graham Gouldman joining Hotlegs trio Eric Stewart (who’d served time with The Mindbenders and would be a McCartney collaborator) Kevin Godley and Lol Creme.

Across four increasingly developing albums, it’s interesting how, despite the perceived factions (Godley/Creme, Stewart/Gouldman), the four songwriters worked in different combinations. The ‘classic’ line up’s peak on How Dare You saw them ending phase 1 on a high and even though they were best known for the singles and appearances on the nations TV sets on Top Of The Pops nights, the author’s exploration of the deeper cuts enhances the reputation.

Their prog influenced tracks are just example. A personal favourite Feel The Benefit must be amongst their top songs, as well as cleverly drawing on influences from multiple genres and mixed occasionally with the slightly bizarre.

Phase 2 saw Godley & Creme making the break for the sake of artistic freedom and their music without the relative comfort of the safety net that 10cc offered. The single-mindedness resulted in the huge Consequences. – strangely missing from the contens page, it’s there, don’t panic. An album probably worth a book on its own and a favourite of Steven Wilson (not in the book…) it proved an undertaking that led them to go back to ‘re-learning’ their songwriting craft on L.

With arguably their best days behind them, On Track fills some gaps with a chance to catch up on the story after 1980. Form might be temporary but class is always there as we find occasional glimpses of what 10cc could still do. Kearns cites We’ve Heard It All Before from Ten Out Of Ten named as one, but 10cc seemed to become more of an occasional dalliance rather than the day job.

10CC continuing to exist as a recording entity into the Nineties and it’s all here in words although the musical muscle memory may need exercising, maybe hearing some of their later work for the first time. For once skip past I’m Not In Love and Dreadlock Holiday and hone in on what’s below the surface.

on track the who

ON TRACK: The Who by Geoffrey Feakes

Perhaps a little like 10cc, The Who could fit the bill of being a great singles band whose albums didn’t always back up the 7″ successes. There is no doubt however that Pete Townshend was/is one of the great English songwriters al la Ray Davies and Richard Thompson.

The ‘rock operas’ might be their crowning glory, confirmed by their resurgence over the last few years, although Who’s Next is widely acknowledged as their album peak. However, from nowhere, the two unexpected later works, Endless Wire and Who, have their moments in the sun when you might have thought The Who/Townshend were no longer functioning as a songwriting and recording band.

As with the other two bands in the current Sonicbond releases, the Seventies was their best period. Some of their explosive power was still evident in parts of 1978’s Who Are You, Keith Moon’s last stand, although again, it was the single that made the headlines and their two Eighties albums best represented by You Better You Bet – another single. Some have argued that Townshend kept his best work for his solo albums (that might have been a nice analysis) and although John Entwistle added his own songs to the catalogue, more often than not they were in the workmanlike and heavier bracket. However, Feakes does credit him with the authorship of one of the contenders for The Who’s most underrated songs…

Live albums that range from the explosive Live At Leeds to the damp squib of Who’s Last get a listing and there’s some indication of where the worthwhile ones lie amongst the plethora of DVD/CD sets which vary little and focus on the songs you’d expect (plus Tommy and/or Quadrophenia). A personal fave is the Join Together set from the end of the Eighties where The Who big band do a decent job with Tommy and assorted guests including fabulous cameos from Steve Winwood, Patti LaBelle and a brilliant Uncle Ernie courtesy of the uncannily leering Phil Collins.

What’s a minor quibble is that none of the three books contain any of those little epilogue teasers and titbits to chew over, so no author’s opinions on deep cuts or controversial attempts to rank their subject’s work in some way.

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