Book Reviews

The On Track series – Book Review

A couple of new appearances on the On Track bookshelf from Sonicbond. Mike Oldfield has been around a while and is still working while Thin Lizzy might have had their best days in the late Seventies. Both get thoroughly discussed.

Ryan Yard takes a look at the work of Mike Oldfield from a more technical perspective.

Technical to the extent that we get a musical glossary at the end and even a little musical notation at the start of each album picking out a key phrase. Nice touch but a bit meaningless to musical numpties like me.

This is one from the On Track series where the ‘read as you listen’ mantra is almost a given. Play the record as you read the commentary – a bit like the audio commentary on a film with the actor(s) providing interesting anecdotes while you watch the film. It works quite well actually. I know, I gave it a go.

Ryan also picks out key moments to listen out for in each album. Each album gets a highlight. He’s spot on with the final part of the live Tubular Bells Part One from the Exposed album for example. It’s a section I’ve played, not quite on loop, but getting up every ten minutes to drop the needle about halfway back on the record (that’s what you young guys now call ‘vinyl’).

Oldfield’s is an interesting catalogue and viewing it as a whole provides an unusual perspective. From the early days of his trademark extended pieces across two (or four in the case of Incantations) LP sides to experimenting with shorter forms and styles. New age, classical and electronic, and then toying with albums where he achieves a subtle balance between longer instrumentals and songs.

The trials and tribulations, the peaks and troughs as we head from attempts to play to evolving musical trends to the heights of Amarok to doing his own singing and calling himself Michael. Despite any attempts at reinvention, the ‘if it ain’t broken why fix it?’ return to what he does best, even controversially redoing/’fixing’ Tubular Bells, always results in a more satisfying experience.

For a rock superstar, a big enough name to warrant a place on the bill at the 2012 Olympics, Oldfield has been surprisingly productive. You’re never too far from an Oldfield album. The six-year gap between 2008’s classical venture Music Of The Spheres to 2014’s Man On The Rocks being the longest barren period.

The idea of having the Tubular Bells (and of late, Ommadawn) sequels might be cashing in on a name, reviving a flagging career but the links between the original and the excellent II are made clear. All about inversions and inversions within inversions. And of course, the inevitable comparisons lead to Return To Ommadawn suffering at the hands of the tremendous original Ommadawn where a different name might have earned more plaudits for the most recent Oldfield album.

An interesting study with the chance to look beyond ‘the hits’ be they Tubular Bells, Moonlight Shadow or even Blue Peter.

Thin Lizzy comes under Graeme Stroud’s microscope as they stumble their way to a seventies peak under the leadership of the iconic Phil Lynott.

If there were ever a band who deserved the accolade of being classed as “a live band” then Thin Lizzy would be odds on contenders. Yes they had their fair share of line up changes, their fair share of dramas and ultimately ended up with their main players dissolving in a haze of substance abuse. However, with Live & Dangerous they left one undeniably golden nugget.

Talking of golden. nuggets, the impact of Whisky In The Jar all the way to the mid-seventies had them labelled not so much as one-hit wonders but more like the sort of novelty records that hit that occasionally had a huge impact on the charts.

Guest musicians, melodic, heavy, soulful; they tried every which way to get the breakthrough. It seems the only thing they didn’t do was become a novelty act and start working up the traditional material a la Whisky. What’s striking about those early years is the number of songs written by Lynott before he started to collaborate with the other musicians who were passing through. He’s often referred to as a poet.

However, then came 1976. Jailbreak. “A masterpiece.” Heavy power rock and aching ballads. The Boys Are Back In Town and not to forget Emerald (“awesome!“). They were about to enter the period where they would burn very brightly. Productive too with a run of of three album in 18 months as tours were cancelled due to ‘circumstances’ and time went into recording.

The book lays to rest the misconception that Lizzy was seen as a metal band although John Sykes did his utmost to rock/metal them up on Thunder And Lightning. It was always – always – a case of being able to find a pretty fair variety of songs on a Lizzy album. Look at Black Rose, a personal favourite, where the immense title track contrasts with the inanely sloppy (my words not Strouds) Sarah.

The author is also a big fan of Brian Downey and points out comments from Downey himself about the underrated Snowy White’s brief tenure on twin guitars with Gorham. He also fetches up an anecdote I’d forgotten about the band doing a Jim’ll Fix It and having an ‘old dear’ May Booker play keys with the band.

Along with an album cover analysis for each album – Lizzy wasn’t quite in the same league as say Iron Maiden when it came to classic covers, identities and brands, there’s a brief post-Lizzy update of what Phil did next and what he rest did next. Hmm, unless I missed it, there’s no mention of Vivian Campbell on the 2011 return when he seemed to be active in rounding up a band (including Gorham and Downey) to play the Lizzy music. If it’s not inappropriate to mention the typo, there’s only one ‘l’ in Savile.

However, what’s made clear is the legacy of a band who’ve proved inspirational and influential on many who followed. Not least of which was in the emergence of Black Star Riders with the exceptional Ricky Warwick (a frontman who could sound more like Phil than Phil) at the fore, carried on the musical legacy under their own banner.

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