Book Reviews

The On Track series: Book Review

We review three more books as the On Track authors plot the ‘every album, every song’ paths of Renaissance, Dire Straits and Kate Bush

Regular On Track author, Andrew Wild follows up his work on the huge catalogues of Crosby Stills & Nash and his Beatles/solo Beatles efforts with something seemingly more straightforward.

A ‘mere’ six albums (and a couple of live ones) make up the Dire Straits catalogue. Of course, unlikely guitar hero Mark Knopfler went onto create a regular output in his solo career, but it was with the Straits he made his name. It concluded a natural evolution into becoming a solo artist as his increasing dominance of the Straits led to their final incarnation as simply a duo in partnership with John Ilsley.

Andrew Wild’s analysis is built on the usual track-by-track observations within the On Track format and word count. It’s filled with a lot of quotes about the ras, the albums and the songs, many taken from interviews with many of the main figures. John Ilsey providing the “I still think our original demo of Sultans is the best one” as an example of the gems that crop up.

A decent (usually not within the On Track scope) preamble/potted bio that tells of the evolution of the band up to the landmark debut album. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read any Dire Straits bios, then it’s a handy introduction and again, includes plenty of comments from those who were there. It also reinforces Knopfler’s grounding in all manner of styles that would influence his own work from school folk clubs to Chet Atkins and Ry Cooder.

That first album and the lesser (by comparison) Communique set the tone with that instantly recognisable guitar twang and the debut album is one of those that ranks well amongst the ‘classic debut album’ chart. Check Wild’s description in which he reels off all the influences and inspirations.

My personal favourite Making Movies gets a healthy portion. The ambition taking root from the general guitar band air and the term ‘Springsteen-esque’ being justified across the twenty pages dedicated to this album. Together with the serious business, there’s the nod to a bit of tongue-in-cheekiness on Les Boys that would later appear on Industrial Disease and Twisting By The Pool. It’s the start of the evolution into a ‘big’ band, a wider sound pallet and more complex and widescreen arrangements – the Love Over Gold period was when the soundtrack offers kicked in

Ocf course, Dire traits are synonymous with the start of the CD age, best known for their CD-friendly Brothers In Arms, which will stand as their signature work. Even most hard-hearted would have to concede that there are a couple of standout tracks. Our guide shows us that by the time of On Every Street – “focused and beautifully produced, but diverse in styles” – you sense from the text that the feeling is that Knopfler was looking beyond Dire Straits. That the band had run its course and how the overrehearsed final tour fell flat. The band manager and even the author recognise the fact. Wild saw them on the eight of 229 gigs and admits they were going through the motions.

There’s a final plea/call for some of the early period live recordings as a reminder of how tight they were. Now, how welcome would that be?

Bill Thomas then looks at the fascinating musical journey of Kate Bush. “A musician of great longevity and artistic credibility.

Out on the wily, windy moors…” Who else can’t hear that without thinking of…, not Kate Bush…but Alan Partridge? Crooning the first verse in the lobby of the Linton Travel Tavern before receptionist Susan joins in with the “Bad dreams in the night” and is halted abruptly by Alan who declares that she sounds like a trapped boy. When your groundbreaking first single is immortalised in a similarly legendary sit-com, then you know you’ve made it.

A musician who was one of the few who started off at the top. Hard to believe that it was forty-three years ago (giving Kate the honour of working across five decades) when Kate Bush had us all transfixed on Top Of The Pops. And with Dave Gilmour as a mentor – the story is told here – ….enough said.

Bill Thomas guides us from The Kick Inside to Before The Dawn; the latter the record of the triumphant live return in 2014, and it’s done with an educated fan’s perspective, although to be fair, he makes a honest critical stab at a musician of whom he’s a fully paid-up fan.

So yes, Kate Bush seemed to arrive fully formed and in total defiance to the musical climate where punk was raging, tramping on the disco explosion and leaving the bloated rockers in their wake. Two albums in 1978 saw her fire out from the blocks in a burst of creativity and acclaim that couldn’t be matched as her work rate (or at least her output) went more glacial and increasingly under her own control. Fair do’s. She’d earned the right – 1985’s Hounds Of Love is cited as a key moment/album – to do things on her own terms.

Kate’s career could be easily likened to that of Peter Gabriel – an inspiration, a collaborator and partner in crime. The association best known for Don’t Give Up and also Kate’s own TV special from 1979 when they delivered a breathtaking version of Roy Harper’s Another Day. However, consider the flurry of solo albums and then ever-increasing periods of inactivity.

Thomas also plays Devil’s advocate suggesting that returning to the Director’s Cut album / re-evaluating some of her older work / going over old ground, was “an interesting way of using precious time” while conceding that the result was worth the effort.

Fans or even casual readers might feel frustrated that Aerial is listed several times as a 1995 (rather than 2005) release; fans might have appreciated the 12-year gap since 1993’s The Red Shoes reduced by a decade… Release date confusion aside, Aerial is possibly the challenger to Hounds Of Love with its 2CD songs/long-form combo being a perfect example of what

From the young girl in the leotard years to a mature and fiercely independent woman (‘matronly’ is mentioned so try not to think of Hattie Jacques), any casual fans from the early days when you couldn’t avoid Kate Bush (‘guiltily holds a hand up‘) who might have suddenly come back for a try with Fifty Words For Snow might wonder what the hell is happening.

Her “marginally less dramatic than Lazarus doing that get out of bed trick” (brilliant!) return to the stage and recorded for (audio) posterity on Before The Dawn, might have been the final swansong. Whether we’ll hear any new music again is debatable. Another Gabriel analogy really. She possibly feels no real obligation. A genuinely progressive artist she’s earned the right to occupy a place alongside the Gabriels and Radioheads. And at a time when celebrity is shared by the minute every minute, credit to Kate Bush for retaining that element of mystery and mystique. Kate Bush On Track is a due testament to her legacy.

To draw an analogy with Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, surely we all know Northern Lights. The Renaissance ‘hit’. The rest of the story may be either hazy or possibly non-existent, so David Delmer manages to set us straight.

And, proving that while we, like the On Track authors, may know some of the subjects inside out, there are many for whom On Track is educational.

For example, the origins of Renaissance as a Yardbirds offshoot and then transforming with a 100% lineup change into how most people view the band might come as a shock to anyone who’s a fan of their progressive/folk/classical rock pedigree. One they earned with a slew of grand seventies albums, the best selling A Song For All Seasons from 1978 that hit the giddy heights of #35in the UK chart) buoyed by that high-profile single. The five-album period is described as “extraordinary” and “for listeners who have a special taste for their style, very few (tracks) that are weak or mediocre.”

Think of Keith Relf and you think of The Yardbirds, not what happened next which was the evolution into an outfit with a very different musical template from what his fans had been used to.

As usual, a complex round of moves led to the ‘new’ Renaissance fronted by Annie Haslam (a local – to us here ATB – lady from Bolton), a key, if not an essential part of the new beginnings and the band’s future.

But it’s that mid-seventies period that Mr Detmar rightly points at as standing out, not only at the time, but in hindsight, their legacy. An in depth examination of the songs shows them falling within a niche that brought the best of everyone. A combination of melody, composition and extended pieces that challenged and inspired. The decision to chase musical trends rather than sticking to what they did best saw them stary from what worked and led to dissatisfaction, disillusionment and ultimately music that simply didn’t work. 1983’s Time-Line the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The pros and cons of such a move discussed in a short section in the preamble to the 1981 Camera, Camera album. What he says isn’t rocket science but particularly within the context of the Renaissance story, does bring home how a hit single can be a blessing and a curse. The considerations as to what comes next and striking the right balance. Needless to say he explores how the balance became heavily weighted in a commercially and artistically tepid direction.

Perhaps having had the fingers badly burnt, there have been just a couple of albums since 1983 although the band has continued to still be a strong concert draw and a steady feed of live material, both contemporary and from the archive (and of course, all covered here), have kept the kettle boiling. There’s even a fiftieth-anniversary live anthology set due in April from Esoteric named Ashes Are Burning.  Perhaps not a bad starting point.

And to save you seeking it out…

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Buy On Track books from Burning Shed

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