Felt: The Pictorial Jackson Review (2018 version)

Another round of reissues, another round of problems…

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This year’s ‘A Decade in Music’ retrospective of Felt, that most wonderful of indie bands, continues with Cherry Red’s recent reissuing of the latter half of Lawrence and Co.’s ten albums – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1986), Poem of the River (1987), The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988), Train Above the City (1988) and Me and a Monkey on the Moon (1989) – in long-awaited vinyl re-pressings and deluxe CD sets complete with odds and sods (badges, posters, etc) as a contemporaneous 7″ single. Felt were one of those bands who, back in the day, gave fans value for money, rarely releasing tracks from albums as singles, instead preferring to do it the old fashioned away and give us exclusive, non-LP A and B sides. This current reissue programme however has been a bit a funny one – compiling the 7″s with the CD version instead of the LP edition, for example, and ignoring the far superior 12″ releases which featured even more exclusive tracks. To be honest though, that’s not been the only problem with this programme.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not bought any of these new editions – I’m more than happy with the LPs and 12″s that I already have, not to mention the 2003 CD reissues (although there was an early screw-up regarding The Pictorial Jackson Review that switched its first eight songs with the entirety of Train Above the City, a problem since rectified with the second, more commonly available Cherry Red CD pressing) and I’m really not fussed about things like posters and badges, so I limited my exposure to this year’s Felt reissues via streaming platforms. That’s how I heard the surprise ‘de-mix’ of Ignite the Seven Cannons, the band’s fourth album that had long been criticised for its reverb-heavy Robin Guthrie production. The new mix had done something like what Paul McCartney did with his Let it Be…Naked project, which was to strip the album of its excesses.

Unfortunately in Felt’s case, the new Ignite (or at least the tracks that had been restored – weirdly, half of it was still left alone) sounded like a bunch of demos, and as someone who loved the original production, despite or maybe even because of it’s over-richness, I was left pretty underwhelmed. What made this exercise worse was that, in terms of physical presence, this restored mix was to be the only version made available to buy over the counter, with Lawrence getting all George Lucas on our arses and insisting that these new versions were the only ones he wanted physically available. Hey look, I love Lawrence, I think he’s a genius, but I have found this preservation of his legacy (and it’s not just his, let’s remember – Felt were a band) pretty perplexing. Today if you want to hear the original Ignite the Seven Cannons, it’s streaming/download options only.

There was also some tinkering on third album The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories (the instrumental ‘Crucifix Heaven’, rudely deleted from the 2003 edition but reinstated here but in edited form) and the hilariously mad title of fifth album Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was replaced with the more palatable The Seventeenth Century, but they were relatively small changes compared to the sonic overhaul of Ignite and now, with this new round of reissues, the structural overhaul of The Pictorial Jackson Review, a change which is so ruthless it’s almost funny.

To refresh your fuzzy Felt memories, The Pictorial Jackson Review was the eighth album by the band, a curious LP of two halves which boasted short, snappy, delightful and relatively lo-fi pop songs on one side and spooky, jazzy instrumentals (composed by organist Martin Duffy) on the other. The two sides didn’t resemble each other in the slightest, and the second half probably alienated more than a few fans, but this kind of perverse manoeuvre was classic Felt, and it was also a helpful warning sign for the all-out cocktail-bar jazz of Train Above the City later that year. Although the band’s exposure was nowhere near on the level of David Bowie, Felt’s ‘pop on one side/ambient on the other’ risk on Pictorial was very reminiscent of what had been done eleven years earlier on Low – and arguably even more uncompromising, if ultimately not as risky in regards to public acceptance. The twelve-minute length of ‘Sending Lady Load’ may try many listeners’ patience (I prefer the shorter, creepier ‘The Darkest Ending’) but the sheer audacity of combining these disparate sides definitely made it a Felt album worth admiring. However, what Lawrence has done with Pictorial ’18 is to completely remove the two Duffy tracks and add a couple of songs closer in approach to the original first side. That still makes ten tracks, but the new LP has split them up evenly so we now get five per side and with some of the original first side songs moved to the second. This makes the album slighter in more ways than one. I mean, it’s literally a shorter album, but instead of an eight-song side punch of vinyl, with pop gem after pop gem, all the way from ‘Apple Boutique’ to ‘Don’t Die on My Doorstep’, we get an unnecessary split down the middle.

So yeah, let’s not mince words – the concept of the original album has been completely obliterated. Now what we have is a straight-up pop album that despite featuring splendid vocals and lyrics, amounts to a work as small as Felt’s two all-instrumental LPs. It’s a terrific set of songs in its own right, of course. The original pop side of Pictorial was a great run of songs, a kind of 80’s Basement Tapes for Lawrence, with warm, friendly Hammond organ from Duffy, a strident and lively rhythm section (courtesy of Felt mainstay Gary Ainge on drums and the late Mick Bund on bass) and melodic, supremely catchy guitars from Marco Thomas and Lawrence himself, who also indulges in his most overt Lou Reed/Bob Dylan vocal homages here. Compared to the epic Maurice Deebank years, or even the grand likes of Forever Breathes the Lonely Word and Poem of the River, the first side of Pictorial kept things small and cosy, yet also lively, raw and garage-like at times. It’s quite an unusual approach for a band already eight years into its existence. At times it sounds like debut. A bloody great debut, but still a debut. That is, until you flip the record over and you get those Duffy instrumentals, which sound absolutely nothing like what we just heard. On vinyl the difference is more pronounced and arguably more effective. On CD it’s a bit too much like someone switched the radio station when your back was turned. It’s almost too brutal a swerve. Still, it’s preferable to what we now have here. I’m sorry, I respect an artist’s decision to do what he or she or they want to do with their work, but I do think this album has been neutered somewhat.

If the album had always been released this way, then I’d have nothing to criticise, except maybe that I’d have liked it to have been a bit longer? But, just like with Ignite, Lawrence has changed something established and denied listeners a chance to hear it as it was originally heard. Re-writing history, essentially. The new additions, an embryonic version of Denim song ‘Ape Hangers’ (here named ‘Jewels are Set in Crowns’) and an alternate take of later ‘Space Blues’ B-side ‘Tuesday’s Secret’ (with a production closer in line with Pictorial rather than the brighter, cleaner sound of the single) are absolutely fine and help to bulk up the remaining tracklist well enough. Like I say, the new Pictorial Jackson Review of 2018 is excellent, a great bundle of songs that’ll always bring a smile to my face. But I know all too well about what the album used to be. And to change the essence of the original album, to change what made it so unique and most fascinating just seems irritatingly cavalier. Then there’s the baffling decision to move ‘Bitter End’ to a slightly later spot on the album. Instead of following ‘Until the Fools Get Wise’, now it comes after ‘How Spook Got Her Man’. Why? Who knows?

Oh well, that’s Felt for you. Like New Order, the handling of their back catalogue can be described as wayward (hey, that rhymes with ‘Hayward’, Lawrence’s supposed surname) and bound to frustrate. Still, for the most part, it’s amazing that most of the band’s music has been made physically available once more. And there’s always Lawrence’s present incarnation as Go-Kart Mozart to savour, with the new Mozart’s Mini-Mart album having turned out to be one of the most delightful releases of 2018.

PS: Poem of the River, the album that preceded The Pictorial Jackson Review, has also been subjected to changes, though nowhere on the same level as what I’ve just described. ‘She Lives By the Castle’ appears here in a slightly different version – the guitars are noticeably unfamiliar to what I’m used to. It’s a fine alternate version, no better or worse than the original. I can live with it! The album also seems to be mastered a little louder than before, at least from the sounds of opening song ‘Declaration’, which used to begin so quiet that Lawrence’s hushed vocal sounded like a little mouse. Now he sounds like a bigger mouse. Good for him!

PSS: Here is my earlier look at the de-mixed Ignite the Seven Cannons.

PSSS: Here is my even earlier look at the whole of Felt’s output.

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Yes: Relayer (1974)

 One prog-rock album to rule them all…
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When I was growing up, prog-rock was seen as a bit of an embarrassment. You know what I’m talking about, all those mammoth bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, and so on – a lot of overblown, noodly, high-concept, fanciful nonsense that started off with good intentions but soon got way, way out of hand and there was all those blokes playing organ solos in capes and wasn’t one of them performed on ice and wasn’t it great when punk destroyed it and all that?Prog-rock did commit more than a few sins – it’s not sexy, for one thing. Just you try fucking to ‘Wot Gorilla?’. Impossible. You can’t dance to prog either. It’s rarely intentionally funny. It didn’t inspire many decent fashion movements. True, at its best it took the limits of the rock song to its logical limit, encompassing a huge scale of ambition, imagination and spectacle. Yet at its worst it was a whirlpool of interminable solos, pomposity and embarrassing lack of self-awareness. To give yourself over to prog is risk ridicule.

The thing is, who gives a shit about what other people think of your musical tastes? I first heard Yes in my twenties, when my uncle played me side one of The Yes Album (that was a very smart move on his part, for that LP is about an effective an introduction to the band as possible) and the sheer scale, giddy enthusiasm and restless changing of musical scenery caught my attention immensely. From then on, I explored Yes’ other works, fully aware of their ‘uncool’ status, fully aware that this was music of a certain time, and also fully willing to dive in head first.

Yes, for me, are the all-round best of the prog-rockers. Their sound, like many of the genre, became anathema to many after their early to mid-seventies peak in popularity – a common but amusing rejoinder to any positive talk about Yes is a succinct ‘NO’ –  but they were indeed massive back in the seventies. Their albums sold, and for a long time they were critically beloved too: they even managed to wring out some charting singles out of those monster compositions of theirs. Their most beloved songs are rich, complex (but rarely muso) and epic creations that made other genres seem so hopelessly small and closed-in. Songs like ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘The Revealing Science of God’ can be awe-inspiringly cinematic, truly enormous, adrenaline-surging and spectacular. In particular, ‘The Gates of Delirium’, which I will be raving on about in this piece, is a song that, unlike some songs that you feel would work perfectly in a film, essentially IS a film in music-form. Adding visuals would be unnecessary. I’m not blind to Yes’ faults – they were often over-the-top, sometimes indulgent and pretentious, but that’s sometimes what happens when you dare to go so close to the edge.

They started off with a couple of impressive, if relatively modest albums that had more than their fair share of spectacular moments, but for many, their imperial phase is usually regarded as when classical guitar virtuoso Steve Howe joined the band for The Yes Album. This is also when they started stretching out their songs to epic length, delivering dazzlingly melodic, rhythmic and yet very accessible rock songs like ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’. Each member of the band was a major talent – alongside Howe’s remarkable dexterity and tuneful ear, we had the chunky, addictive bass of Chris Squire, the kinetic and thrilling drums of Bill Bruford and the panoramic keyboards of Tony Kaye, not to mention the inimitable, ethereal vocals of Jon Anderson…

God, I sound like Homer Simpson rattling off the respective virtues of Grand Funk Railroad.

Seriously though, Yes were a band of superb individual parts that, when put together, created magic. Kaye was out the door by the time of follow-up album Fragile, which heralded the introduction of Rick Wakeman on the keys, whose baroque, classically influenced approach was, for many fans, the final piece of Classic Yes. Fragile took the epic achievements of the previous album and ran with them. Songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ were mammoth works, nicely balanced by the neat inclusion of little solo pieces by each member of the band. Don’t worry, the drummer’s contribution only lasted thirty seconds, and yet even that was great! Such little touches were gone however by the time of Close to the Edge, which for many remains THE prog-rock album. For the first time, Yes delivered a side-long opus – the eighteen minute long title track – and they’d achieved the impossible and managed to create even bigger, more sumptuous soundscapes than ever before to get lost in and be blown away by. Other songs like the awesome (and I mean that literally) ‘And You and I’ and the super-charged rock-funk of ‘Siberian Khatru’ tapped in to a world of astonishing musical possibilities. Close to the Edge isn’t my favourite Yes album, but it is the one that sees them teetering on that musical precipice, where the band pushed themselves to the limits of their own exploratory voyage without going overboard. Critics loved it, it sold a load and everything was Good. Okay, the album was apparently a nightmare to make (Bruford would quit, to be replaced by Yes mainstay Alan White), but everything seemed to point to further greatness.

Of course, blow a balloon up too much and it’ll burst, and Tales from Topographic Oceans represent the POP! Only four songs, you might note, but each one took up a whole side of vinyl: add that to Jon Anderson pushing Yes-naysayers’ already shaky tolerance of his lyrical flights of fancy past the point of no return, not to mention that yes, it was too big, too much and too bloody long, and Yes had finally lost their footing. It’s still a bloody spectacular album though: ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a classic opus that goes for the (big) one and succeeds, and ‘The Remembering’, while clearly guilty of padding, is still lovely and pastoral. Even the third and fourth sides, whilst guilty of losing focus, had loads of wonderful stretches. True, it was overblown, but I’d rather go for an album that aims high and occasionally gets lost along the way than anything more modest and workaday. Saying that, prog-rock isn’t recommended listening any time or all the time – sometimes I want something else, but something else isn’t what we’re talking about.

Relayer, the album that followed Tales, is the apotheosis of progressive rock – it learns from the excesses of its predecessor and yet still manages to take the genre as far as it can, albeit in a different, more focused direction. It’s half as long as Tales yet achieves twice as much. After this, even Yes had nowhere else to go back down to Earth, and only after a three year break too. Prog-rock gets bashed for its pomp, but the best of it represents a truly exploratory, exciting idea of just how vast and spectacular pop/rock music could go. Much of my love for Relayer stems from the extraordinary achievement of its first side. To be honest, anything else that followed a first side that amazing could be dismissed as mere bonus material, so it’s wonderful that the second side is actually a superb thing in itself.  It was the last of Yes’ truly fearless prog-rock albums, the last one where they lived entirely in their own universe, a world where musical possibilities seemed infinite, ambition was colossal and musical chemistry was near-supernatural in its skilfulness and magic. After this, there was the break (solo careers, etc), punk came along and there was more a sense of the band second-guessing themselves, of trying to change with the times.

If you consider Tales the all-encompassing (for better or worse) centre, then Close to the Edge and Relayer are satellites on either side – the former, when Yes were only getting bigger and better and, even five albums into their career, still full of possibilities, promise, beauty, splendour and colour, and the latter, created after the band delivered their first (in the eyes of critics and some fans) their first blunder, an album that ranks as their darkest, greyest (that’s a very apt Roger Dean-designed cover they decided to go with) and most violent.

At first, the album may sounds like too much – unstructured, cluttered, incoherent. Of its three songs, only the closer, the resigned and beautiful ‘To be Over’, sounds anything like a normal song, albeit one that’s nearly ten minutes long. The first song  in particular is so overwhelmingly massive that one listen won’t be enough to take it all in. The second is an immense racket that doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. Relayer has been often noted as the Yes album with the most obvious influence of jazz or jazz-fusion. I’m not a fan of jazz, and don’t have the patience for it (to the point where I don’t even think there would be something worth hearing after repeated listens – sue me), but I often notice how often I love songs or albums that betray a jazz influence. It’s like these bands are taking this form of musical expression that I don’t have the time for, twisting it to their own means and making it palatable for listeners like me. There are moments on Relayer‘s first two songs that are quite ‘jazzy’, but this isn’t a bad thing for me. In fact, I find something like ‘Sound Chaser’ one of the most exciting things ever recorded by anyone, ever. I didn’t think that at first, mind. Anyway, back to the first song…

‘The Gates of Delirium’ may very well be the most accomplished achievement of Yes’ entire musical legacy. It was the last song of theirs to encompass an entire side of vinyl (although ‘Awaken’ on the next album is still epic at fifteen or so minutes), and unlike some of the band’s mammoth efforts, there are absolutely no spare minutes, nothing that can be taken away from it. Only ‘The Revealing Science of God’ from Tales does as much with so much time. Hey, what about ‘Close to the Edge’, I hear you ask? Well, it is a classic, but I feel it peaks at the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section around two-thirds in and then ebbs away after that. ‘Delirium’ is a full-blown conceptual masterpiece, an attempt to encapsulate Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty-two minutes, beginning with preparation, heading into and then immersing itself in battle, followed by victory/defeat and then reflection. Personally, I think it is the high-water mark of progressive rock – a veritable Bayeux Tapestry set to music.

Praising such things as musicianship risks coming off as sounding drearily muso – technique is always something to be admired, but can it be loved? Yes were consummate players – each one a undeniable expert in their field. Steve Howe is an amazing guitarist. Chris Squire is an incredible bassist, and so on. We can all sit back, stroke our chins and pay head-nodding respect to these guys. They know their chops. And yet all of that would be mere academic achievement if it were not the fact that these guys played off each other amazingly well. At their best, the sound of Yes is the sound of absolute musical chemistry at its most astonishing. You can admire this music, but fuck that, you need to FEEL this music.

The opening section is an instrumental notable for the introduction to the group of Swiss keyboard dynamo Patrick Moraz, following the departure of Rick Wakeman. You see, Wakeman had had enough of Yes, was bored of the his bandmates’ indulgences, so much that he was likely to pass the time eating a curry on stage whilst Alan White delivered one of his drum solos. He’s been on record to say that he’s glad that he didn’t like Relayer when it came out, as it was too free-form for his tastes, therefore validating his earlier decision to leave the group. Then again, he did come back for the next record. Yes land is a mixed-up land. Moraz’s playing is less classically inclined than Wakeman, more complementary, though when he does get the chance to take centre stage, the results are pretty spectacular and totally his own. This makes Relayer a sometimes unique entry in the Yes catalogue, though to be honest, this is a band that has thrived on change, especially on the personnel front. Let me put this way – Wakeman is not missed, bless him.

The first eight or so minutes is magnificently exciting and foreboding – you really get the sense of warriors preparing to battle. Scared souls, brave souls, full of bloodthirsty determination and/or terrifying self-belief. It is indeed a war song, but through the lens of Yes it becomes something like a futuristic fantasy that non prog-rock fans might dismiss as Dungeons and Dragons-style make-believe, but if you’re willing to surrender to its cinematic scope, becomes intensely powerful. It all begins with an extended instrumental opening as Moraz sprinkles keyboard dust over Howe’s metallic, bone-scraping guitar – the latter’s playing had rarely been this harsh. There’s no prettiness here. When Anderson arrives a few minutes in, his lyrics turn out to be darker and meaner than they’ve ever been before, or ever would be. Talk of killing, warning that ‘peaceful lives will not deliver freedom’ and the memorable clincher, ‘slay them/burn their children’s laughter/on to Hell’. His voice, hitting a new kind of desperate harshness which is at times hysterical, is a far cry from the angelic tones of yore, though later on we’ll get that good old-fashioned choirboy vocal of his, albeit a far sadder version than what we’ve been used to. Alan White, who had only just joined the band an LP earlier, feels truly integrated into the band. His playing on Relayer is tremendous, full of oomph, variety and power.Squire’s trademark full-fat bass provides a constant ominous hum during this opening act and melodic counterpoint to Howe’s guitar- they’re such a vital, inimitable double-act and an essential element of Yes that one without the other just ain’t Yes. Even when Jon Anderson left the band, 1980’s Drama still felt quintessentially Yes because Howe and Squire were still there delivering the goods. Honestly, Drama is one of the very few albums where a lead singer has temporarily left the band and yet it still feels like a legitimate album, whereas the massive but Howe-less follow-up 90125 (the one with ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on it) felt less like a Yes album even though Jon was back behind the mic!

Back to Howe though, and there’s little of the fleet-of-foot, rural loveliness or even electric heroism that was a key element of his work to date. Taking the spikier sound of his work on Tales‘ ‘The Ancient’ to the next level, Howe is reborn here as a much more intense six-string proposition. Of course, we’re still talking Yes here – this ain’t punk music, but ‘Delirium’ definitely sees him and the rest of the band freak out, thrash out and let loose in a way that’s quite thrilling. You could almost call it careless abandon (especially during the battle section), but I get the sense Yes knew what they were doing from start to finish. This ain’t an aimless jamming session. It might take a while to successfully put all of these pieces together, but once you have, you might question why anyone would call this music ‘incoherent’ or ‘lacking in structure’, as some reviews did at the time and still do now. There are many spectacular hooks, refrains and melodies in this first act of ‘Delirium’, admittedly nothing long enough for Yes to pull off one of their unlikely single edits (more on that sort of thing later) but the progression, escalation and sense of trepidation is hypnotic. Of course, it all leads to….

…the battle sequence, which lasts for around six minutes and will very likely at first sound like an unholy, godawful mess. It sounds utterly mad. When I first heard it, I was like ‘aww shit, and it was all going so well!’ and I was relieved when something approaching a hook re-appeared later on. The thing is, the more you listen to the whole song, the more this bit becomes focused, makes sense and turns out not to be a load of random jamming, crashing and explosions, but something closer to a truly spectacular, thrilling depiction of battle that remains unparalleled in rock music. It’s scary, confusing, strangely exciting and totally immersive. It resembles jazz in that each player gets their own chance to shine – there’s a super clunky-funky bass riff here, a shrill keyboard attack there, a vicious guitar onslaught there, and there’s also loads of sound effects, some of it literally crashing scenery, that just adds to the madness. It builds and builds to a psychotic crescendo, as keyboards and drums reach the peak…. and then…

…the sequence after all this chaos is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music. I like to call this the victory section, as it does sound like the winning side is riding majestically over the battlefield, the vanquished fleeing in terror. Moraz kicks it off with a triumphant, yet almost foreboding keyboard melody that sounds truly monstrous. It stands tall, surveying the shattered wastelands. You think that might be valediction enough, but then Howe takes over the same melody with his guitar and lets rip with an absolutely enormous solo (air guitar on standby) that threatens to tear the skies in two,and fuck me if it doesn’t sound like the other side has been well and truly BATTERED. War is over. I must add that the rhythm section on this bit is stellar. Squire and White giving it everything. Then the sound dies down, the mist clears and what follows is a deeply eerie, quiet section of proto-ambient that Eno might have been going nuts over if he hadn’t already been praising the birth of ambient with Miles Davis’ ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from the same year. Both examples are ultimately ambient, although Davis went the whole hog and went on for thirty minutes, whereas this bit only lasts sixty or so seconds.

The ‘Soon’ section follows, as mournful, beautiful and elegiac as any piece of music found on an album. Interestingly, it was this section that was selected as a single for the album – indeed, it is the most straightforward part of the song, but blimey, despite its ultimate optimism and hope for a better future, it has to be one of the most mournful singles ever released. If guitars could gently weep, Howe’s playing would cry an ocean. Anderson’s voice has rarely been so lovely. The melody flows and falls, building to an astonishing finale that, while hopeful in terms of lyrics and vocals, musically loses itself in pure, heartbreaking sadness. Howe has never, ever been more powerful. Chord changes stab at the heart and there’s one lurching, staggering shift in key near the end that is almost too much to bear, and it’s here that you know the song’s finally going to end, and it does so with an utterly haunting, spectral and uncertain ebb and flow that sounds like it is literally dying before your very ears. Listen to it in the dark and it gets scary. Twenty-two minutes long, and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’ve just been through the wars. Hey, I love a three minute pop classic as much as anyone, but sometimes I want this. You got to play it loud, mind.

After this remarkable achievement, where the hell do Yes go from here? I mean, we’ve just been put through the wringer, came out the other side emotionally drained, and we could have been given more of the same, which frankly would have been too much. No, they do the only sensible thing and go NUTS. MAD. INSANE. ‘Sound Chaser’ is easily the most experimental, wild and exhilarating thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s absolutely fucking mental. Rick Wakeman didn’t like this album? His loss! This song is bound to make no sense at first. You feel like it would only makes sense to five people, and they’re all in the band Yes. At least ‘Delirium”s mad section was cushioned by relatively accessible material. This is just a ten-minute space trip. And yet like that ‘Delirium’s battle section, the more you listen to ‘Sound Chaser’, the clearer its vision becomes. Hey, I can understand if you don’t want to give it time. If I genuinely didn’t see anything worth investigating in these songs to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered. But right from the start ‘Sound Chaser’ has lots of moments that make you go, ‘wow!’ – yes, they’re all disparate and all over the place, but it was enough to make me return to it, again and again. And now it makes perfect sense to me, and yet it’s still such an amorphous, seemingly undisciplined thing that I still encounter lots of little surprises me every time I listen to it.

As soon as it starts we’re on edge – nothing stands still for a second. Moraz slinks in, then White charges through, Squire hippity-hops – no guitars yet. Not yet. I don’t know how Yes do it, but they’re even making drum soloing sound great on this track, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then Howe bursts in on the scene unleashing ridiculously complex (but still thrilling, never forget that) guitar lines and then it all makes way for Anderson barking lyrics like he’s been on the uppers and the non-stop sermons for two days straight, and it’s all got something to do with the ‘LOOK IN YOUR EYES!’ – this bit in particular, and the skyrocketing keyboards straight after, is sheer bliss! There are times during ‘Sound Chaser’ where you almost have to laugh, so addictively mad it is. It slows down here and there, even though no one told Howe about the change in tempo (he’s still on nitrous oxide). Soon even he gets the message and everything crawls to a shimmering oasis of eerie trepidation, only occasionally broken up by White giving it the full sturm-und-drang on his drums. Anderson has calmed down a bit, but deep down we know he’s just getting his breath back so that the band can go happy-go-madly once more. In the only predictable bit of the song, they do. Vapour trails of music stream on, and it’s here I start to think, ‘it’s around now that Jon’s going to do his bonkers ‘CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit. When he does you can either throw your hands up and give up praying for Yes, or you can surrender to the sound and start praying to Yes.

Oh, as for that ”CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit, well I bloody love it. It’s absolutely mad. I’ve heard that some people really hate this bit, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense. I also love the ‘huhhhmmm!!’ backing grunts during this bit too. Yes were seriously possessed around this time. They were gods. Moraz then has his moment in the sunshine with a hilarious keyboard wig-out, the guitars start to skyrocket and there’s a huge build-up and then it’s all ‘CHA-CHA-CHA!’ again, a quick, final freak-out then it’s all over. This song may leave you breathless. We need to come down.

‘To Be Over’ is the calm after the storm. God knows, we need it. Actually, all that stuff I said earlier about Relayer being the darkest and most violent Yes album of them all is contradicted slightly by the sheer loveliness of this song. It has nothing to do with the themes of ‘Gates’ but flows perfectly from the ground zero of ‘Sound Chaser’. The first few minutes are actually serene. The song even fades up at the start! It’s really very calming indeed. Still, when you think about it, there is after all literally only a single letters difference between ‘Relayer’ and ‘Relaxer’. This is pastoral, very pretty music – sitting by the lake, taking in the early morning mist, such calm, such peace. And hey, there’s a sitar too! Nice to hear from you. Jon’s lyrics only add to the sense of bucolic charm further: ‘We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly/By the breeze’ – sorted. However, the song’s not content to drift along calmly down the same river for too long, and it opens up spectacularly, as Howe’s guitar switches from gentle acoustic to chiming, glittering and eventually properly chunky electric, before opening up to take in the widescreen view: in fact this section, almost foreshadows the more lighter-waving end of 80’s stadium rock in its big, anthemic sing-a-long mid-section. Also, this section recalls the finale to Tales‘ most blissful song, ‘The Remembering’. All valediction, extended triumph and swaying happiness. Moraz gets a cute, cuddly and perky solo near the end too. That would be it for him and Yes, sadly. Hey, I’m not going to complain about Rick Wakeman – his contributions to Going for the One are fantastic, but Moraz’s all too short tenure with the band nonetheless feels brutally curt. Oh well, at least the one Yes album he did play on was…you know, the best one they ever did.

Still, that three year gap between the albums…. Relayer feels like the end of an era. Punk came along and changed a lot – right from the opening guitars of the title track, Going for the One feels like a deliberate effort to get scale it back to relative basics (well, as much as is possible for Yes), to modernise their look (as evidenced by replacing Roger Dean with Hipgnosis for the sleeve art), and they even delivered a song that didn’t even need to be edited to make for a successful single (the lovely ‘Wonderous Stories’). The sound on that album was also their sleekest, cleanest and streamlined – the songs themselves were still in thrall to their prog-rock peak, but even ‘Awaken’ sounds far more refined. elegant and comfortable than the infinite possibilities of their earlier epic tracks. It’s a great album, though. After that there was the fun but messy and badly-produced Tormato, the surprisingly thrilling Yes + Buggles = Yeggles supergroup shenanigans of Drama, and after that a second wind of 1980’s MTV-aided superstardom. But Relayer was the last time this band truly achieved astonishing transcendence. Don’t be embarrassed for loving this. Yours is no disgrace.

PS: Come to think of it, what’s a relayer?

Felt: A Decade in Music – Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985, 2018 remix)

The fourth Felt album gets a surprise de-mix – does it work?

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It’s funny, of all the albums in the world to undergo a revisionist remake/remodel, I never thought Felt’s fourth album Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun would be one of them. I just didn’t think there was enough of a market for it. I mean, even William Shatner couldn’t get the money to give us an improved version of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, so what chance did Lawrence have? For those who don’t know, Ignite the Seven Cannons (as it became more commonly known down the line) was a radical sonic departure from Felt’s previous albums thanks to the presence of Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie in the producer’s chair, who wreathed the songs in that reverberated Cocteau shroud that we all know and love. Except many Felt fans didn’t love it. Felt were Felt! Not the Fucking Cocteau Felty Twins! The approach was more noticeable on the tracks with vocals than those without, but essentially everything had that Guthrie feel (think Treasure in particular) and for some it was too much. Personally, I thought the album sounded great – cluttered, crazy, overripe, yes, and sometimes a mess, but more often that not, exhilarating. Nevertheless, I was always curious to hear what the songs sounded like before Guthrie got his hands on them.

Well, now we can. All of those Guthrie production tricks are to be removed, thanks to Lawrence and Felt collaborator John A. Rivers.

The new ‘A Decade in Music’ reissue campaign of Felt’s ten albums has been a long time coming, and it wasn’t until recently that it was announced that Ignite would be undergoing a major sonic overhaul. Rewriting Felt’s past is not a new concern of Lawrence. Some of these changes have been relatively minor. The first LP, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, had its front cover cropped for later editions. Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death has been re-released with differently cropped versions of the original full band cover photo over the last few decades. Also, this year’s reissue of Snakes has changed that hilariously verbose title to the more palatable The Seventeenth CenturyThe Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, somewhat inelegantly, had one of its tracks (‘Crucifix Heaven’) omitted from nearly every eventual CD release, while the album’s cover was drastically altered from its mysterious, arcane original to a plain red design on its 2003 release. Thankfully, ‘Crucifix Heaven’ has been re-instated on this year’s reissue, but it’s been heavily edited (grrr). On Ignite the Seven Cannons, the instrumental ‘Elegance of an Only Dream’ had its title changed to ‘Elegance’ back in 2003. On the compilation front, Gold Mine Trash had its glitzy cover changed to something much more minimal later on, while Bubblegum Perfume had a few tracks removed and replaced with rarer non-album songs, which is no bad thing at all, personally speaking. Relatively minor changes admittedly, (‘Crucifix’ and Bubblegum Perfume excepted), but evidence that Lawrence was not averse to toying with his legacy. 

This new version of Ignite however, marks the most drastic change of Felt’s work. The announcement of this remix, or should I say de-mix was met with excitement, but also frustration, as it appeared that this new version was to be the only one to made available, with the 1985 release being consigned to obscurity. This is annoying. I don’t like that the original that we’ve all lived with has been suddenly denied to us. Okay, we can all keep our existing versions, but for new fans to miss out on the original mix is a disservice. Stuff like this rewrites a band’s history and legacy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the treatment of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner remains the best example of tampering with an original and yet still respecting its place in history. Blade Runner has been messed around with so many times, and yet every incarnation is still available for us to compare and contrast. Weirdly, Blade Runner is the only example of a cultural artefact that genuinely gets better the more it’s been played around with, but I love that the flawed, compromised theatrical cut is still out there for us to enjoy. Compare that to say, George Lucas, whose treatment of the original Star Wars trilogy showcases little concern for the fans, with the original theatrical versions still yet to be released in anything approaching HD.

Albums get fucked around with a lot too. A new CD reissue is almost always ‘remastered’, and sometimes even ‘remixed’. Whether it’s little tweaks (The Who), removed songs/heavily rearranged tracklistings (Morrissey) or artwork alterations (although it’s funny how films get away with this all the time, as there’s rarely a single established ‘cover’ to a film, with alternative posters for different territories available right from the off). What’s annoying about most of these changes are that they aren’t presented as alternatives – they are usually given to us as the new standard. Oh yeah, that version you’ve always loved? That’s not legitimate anymore. 

What interests me are examples where the changes that are made are in the interest of the band’s ‘original vision’. Killing Joke’s underrated Brighter Than a Thousand Suns was given a last-minute remix before its release back in 1986 and for a long time that was the only version we had. Then the album was re-released in 2007 with the original mixes replacing the released ones, and all of a sudden, the version of the album that fans had lived with all those years was obsolete and unavailable. The same goes for Kiss’ much-mocked 1980 folly Music from ‘The Elder’, which is currently only available in the version that was originally proposed before it was re-jigged for its actual release. Yes, that release was not the one the band wanted, but hey, it’s the one that we the people got, and a lot (well, not a lot – it’s not a favourite with Kiss fans) of people took that version to their hearts. Now you can only get it on an old CD that’s out of print.

Sometimes we must be careful for what we wish for. Last year’s Tony Visconti-helmed/David Bowie-permitted remix of Lodger was highly anticipated by those who considered the 1979 release to have suffered from an overtly muddy mix. I must admit, even as someone who came to adore the album warts and all, that a version that somehow cleaned it up a bit and gave it more punch sounded exciting. However, despite garnering much acclaim, I found the remix often gimmicky and often clumsy. It sounded too much like a modernised version rather than something that could have genuinely come out at the time. It must be noted that this was not a genuine 1979 mix that had been rejected. It was an approximation of what Lodger could have sounded like if it had been ‘mixed properly’. The new mix of Ignite the Seven Cannons appears to be a different story – here we seem to have an album that has been simply stripped back to its original elements, a bit like The Beatles’ Let it Be…Naked from years back, when that album was unshackled from its Phil Spector overdubs. However, Ignite the Seven Cannons…Naked would not have worked as a title, as I believe that igniting anything in the nude is a dangerous, reckless pursuit.  

Oh well, at least the 2017 Lodger did not ultimately replace the original – it’s strictly part of the A New Career in a New Town retrospective box set, and the regular Lodger is still widely available. I think that this new take on Cannons should have complemented the original version, not replaced it. Like it or not, that original version released all those years ago is an essential part of Felt’s story, and the medium is just as important as the message. And now it’s been swept away like it was something embarrassing. What we have in its place is an awkward revisionist replacement that, for all its virtues (and there are many) doesn’t feel right. This should have been a 2017 post-script, not a retrospective shoe-horn into the fabric of 1985. Yet that’s what we’re stuck with. If you want the original Ignite, you’ll have to fork out a fuck-load for the original vinyl, or try and get your mitts on a second-hand CD (and they don’t come cheap either).

Anyway, let’s forget about availability, how do these restored mixes actually sound?

Pretty damn good! The original performances were always great, so if you liked them before, you’ll still like them now. At times it’s amazing to think that they’re literally the same takes, such a difference the Guthrie approach made to them. It’s like being without glasses for years and finally getting a pair, and all is crisp and clear to see. Everything is clean, totally free of reverb or embellishment. You hear little touches that may never have picked up on before. For example, there’s an guitar flourish in the chorus of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ that I never even noticed in the original, but when I went back to the Guthrie version, it is indeed there among the fog! ‘Scarlet Servants’ seems to have been affected the least – there’s actually not much difference between the two versions, but the other de-mixed tracks are noticeably altered. For anyone who hates overproduction, eighties excess and whatnot, these mixes will be a massive relief. But personally, do I think they’re better than the Guthrie mixes?

For the most part, no. Absolutely not. 

I must repeat that for all their occasional imperfections, the Guthrie elements really made something spectacular out of these songs back in ’85. The inviting warmth of ‘My Darkest Light Will Shine’, the ecstatic downpour of ‘The Day the Rain Came Down’, the nautical rush of ‘Black Ship of the Harbour’ the thrilling buzz of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’…. it was an embarrassment of magnificently overcooked riches. Okay, you couldn’t make out all the details amongst the blur, but that made for an intoxicated, mad pleasure ride nonetheless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because the de-mixed replacements have more clarity, doesn’t automatically make them superior. The feel of these songs now approximate closer to demos, albeit very well performed ones. They sound two steps shy of actually sounding finished. To compare, the songs on The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories were free of any overtly gimmicky production touches like those on Ignite and were delivered pretty much straight, but they nevertheless sounded complete, vivid and flawless. These new Ignite mixes sound like dry-runs, rough drafts, in need of that final, definitive touch. I mean, fair play that Rivers hasn’t added anything that wasn’t originally there, but for these to be now considered the definitive versions is preposterous. They sound like Peel Sessions in an alternate universe where John Peel actually liked the band.

What’s weirder is that Rivers has only applied the de-mixing trick to only six of the tracks, which means that half or so of it sounds really pared down and half of it still has the original ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach. Say what you like about the Guthrie-mixed album, but at least it sounded consistent and had a definitive character. Here, the flow becomes messy. Saying that, for most of the first side you don’t notice because all of the first four tracks have been altered, but then along comes ‘Primitive Painters’ in all its Guthrie-enriched glory and it throws you off balance completely. ‘Painters’ is the only track with vocals that hasn’t been messed with – why? Anyone who had issues with the ‘problems’ of the other songs would surely find them here too. Maybe it’s because ‘Painters’ is Felt’s most famous song, the one that came closest to transcending the band’s obscurity, and to mess with it would probably piss off a lot of people. The problem with leaving the song untouched is that it disrupts the atmosphere of the album entirely. It makes the preceding four tracks sound hopelessly small in comparison. 

Well, that’s the first side done with – as for the second side, well it was always a bit of a let down after the perfect run of the first five songs. Of the six tracks, four were instrumentals, and while they were all pleasing and often dazzling, we were hardly talking Bowie’s Low. There were two tracks with vocals – the resplendent ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ came close to matching the first side, while ‘Caspian See’ did not, a slight throwaway on a side of vinyl that really couldn’t afford to have any. While mostly an accomplished run of tracks on its own terms, side 2 desperately needed another ‘Primitive Painters’ to give it some more weight. As for the instrumentals, none of them have been subject to de-mixing, but side 2 of Ignite nevertheless has been drastically altered in regards to structure. 

In an attempt to make the flipside “focused, edited and made symmetrical”, one of the four instrumentals has been removed (the lush, pretty ‘Serpent Shade’) and another (‘Elegance of an Only Dream’, now re-titled for the second time – it’s now ‘Elegance in D’) has been arbitrarily edited down from over five minutes to just under four. This does result in an even number of tracks per side (Lawrence has often made a point of preferring this), but if we’re going to get picky, the second side is now literally shorter than the first, and given that its original content had always felt less substantial than its flip, now it feels even less so. Honestly, the excellence of the first side’s structure is that it started off leading you in with a guiding hand, and then it took you on a journey to an epic crescendo. The second side just felt less well thought out, and honestly, I don’t think this new structural meddling has improved the album at all. It’s weird. If Lawrence and Rivers had really wanted to make the album more symmetrical, maybe they should have gone the whole hog and spread the instrumentals all over the album and put some of the heavyweight songs on the second side. Who knows, maybe it would have been a fucking disaster, but at least it would have had more ambition than this effort.  As for the two de-mixed songs on side 2, ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ brings the album back down to a demo-level small-scale after the untouched ‘Painters’ and ‘Textile Ranch’, and I must say that it’s this track that suffers the most from De-Guthrieisation. The way the original kicked in with that wave of sound was genuinely spine-tingling. Here it has a fraction of the impact. Then again, ‘Caspian See’, the weakest track on the original album has been improved a little. It was a bit of a sloppy song, and this de-mix sounds alright, a bit sharper. It’s still the album’s weak link though. 

So to conclude, this album has not been improved. In trying to rectify perceived errors, the album has cut its nose to spite its face. Yeah, you could say the 1985 album was flawed, but so is this; far more so, I’d say. Less an album than a something resembling a compilation of odds and sods, the new Ignite the Seven Cannons fails to spark. Look, I know it sounds like I’m being overtly harsh, but I can’t deny my disappointment at the handling of the band’s past. Nevertheless, it is so wonderful that their music (well, most of it) is being made available again: I was in Rough Trade East near Brick Lane the other day and the sight of a display stand loaded with nothing else but Felt was an utter joy to witness!

For an in-depth look at Felt’s albums and singles, click here.

PS: I’ve since discovered that the original mix of Ignite is still available as a digital purchase from many of the major outlets, which is great – let’s hope it remains available!

Rose Elinor Dougall: Stellular review (2017)

Bigger, better, more beautiful – it’s the perfect second album, and well worth the wait.

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Rose Elinor Dougall’s new, appropriately titled album Stellular is spectacularly great. Honestly, it’s the best extended pop rush I have heard in absolutely ages. You know when you’re worried that you might actually be playing a particular album (or song) too much and end up not liking it (it’s happened before, I just don’t know when to quit!), so you actually consider refraining from putting it on? Right now that’s how I feel about this album. I’m not going to stop listening to it though – I’ve had the bloomin’ thing on rotation these last few weeks and I bloody love it! Frankly, Stellular is an embarrassment of riches – there are so many joyous, sad, exciting and dazzling moments, with far too many to list here, but I’ll do my best.

Ever since departing The Pipettes around a decade ago, Dougall has slowly but steadily been delivering all kinds of musical and vocal treasures, such as on her debut Without Why (I mean, ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’ and ‘Fallen Over’? Wow!!) and the dazzling Future Vanishes EP, but this is a whole new level of special. The seaside town melancholia and melodic loveliness from before is still here, but there’s an even greater vivacity and confidence that is knock-you-off-your-feet stunning. I was partly reminded of David Holmes’ sorely underrated, oceanic pearl The Holy Pictures from 2008, as well as some early Felt (the Maurice Deebank years), a bit of motorik, but most importantly, this 1980’s essence that I can’t quite pin down. I’m not talking 80’s in the obvious sense, but something more spectral, difficult to grasp.

‘Colour of Water’ is a great primer for what’s to follow – dreamy vocals (Dougall’s thoroughly engaging and expressive voice is better than ever), sharp, hypnotic guitar hooks, gorgeous electronics, captivating lyrics and intoxicating production from Oli Bayston (aka Boxed In, who also duets with Dougall on ‘Dive’) that aims for the senses and gets ‘em tingling. First single ‘Stellular’ is magnificent – a delectable riff, icy/warm synths and an insistent groove all make for a serious adrenaline rush. ‘Constellations burn brighter’ indeed. ‘Closer’ is a sultry, tightly-coiled slice of pop that blends quotidian references to ‘shady pool halls’ with otherworldly, atmospheric musical touches. The album’s first out-and-out heartbreaker arrives in the form of the beautiful ‘Take Yourself With You’ (first released via Soundcloud back in late 2014 – how time has flown!), an impossibly moving and almost unbearably pretty lullaby of a tune, arguably Dougall’s sweetest confection to date. There are melodic changes in this song that are so stupidly wonderful that I’m likely to end up spluttering nonsense trying to put in words my precise admiration for it, so I’ll shut up.

So, we’re at that stage where the album’s going for a perfect run. Will it succeed?

Spoiler alertyes it will.

The dance-infused, instant satisfaction surprise of ‘All at Once’ is quite a swerve, delivering a stomping, funky treat with a seductive chorus, whip-crack beats and monster bassline (there’s some really fine bass on this record) – there’s a great extended remix of this on the Rough Trade exclusive bonus CD that plays out like a wonderful 80’s-era twelve-inch. Seek it out if you can. ‘Answer Me’ is an aching, towering ballad that swirls its way towards a truly ghostly, shivering conclusion. Some glorious piano and a terrific chorus on this one too. ‘Dive’ picks up the pace – serene but with a beat, it brilliantly conveys that feeling of being bowled over by a sheer panoramic scale of emotions.

What’s possibly the best song follows. Well, it’s my fave song at the moment. There’s a few others on this LP that are closing in. For the mo though, my #1 is the jolting ‘Hell and Back’ – it’s truly wrenching and intensely melancholic, yet head-dizzying and cathartic. The glorious ascension that is ‘Space to Be’ is tremulous but never overwrought, ascending melodic heights in its chorus and especially during its guitar-fuelled finale. The concluding ‘Wanderer’ is an exquisite love-letter that sees the album out in a lovely glimmer, and almost unfairly, the album’s over – gone in a moment, a deliriously fleeting, motion-blur experience, nicely encapsulated by the album’s artwork, a portrait of Dougall that catches her image twice.

Stellular hits the heart, pulse and feet in the way the best albums that first overwhelmed you as a teenager do. You may wonder where Dougall will go after this but don’t think about any of that at the mo. Right now, this is all you need. It’s a promise fulfilled and it’s right here, right now.

David Bowie: The Gouster (1974)

Bowie’s ‘lost’ album – aka Young Americans: The First Attempt. It’s brilliant.

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The second in a series of box sets covering the career of David Bowie has just been released, and this time the focus is on ‘The American Years’ – that’s Diamond Dogs, David Live, Young Americans and Station to Station, a formidable selection of albums I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, maybe not David Live – appreciation for that album is mixed to say the least. We also get the Station-era Nassau ‘76 gig that was doing the bootleg rounds for years and which finally got an official release when Station was re-re-re-released in 2010. The 2005 remix and re-edit of David Live accompanies the original version, and there’s also a new fold-down of the 5.1 remix of Station by original producer Harry Maslin, which, on first listen, is not something I’m keen on at all (turn those drums down!)

The main selling point of the box set however, has been the inclusion of The Gouster, an embryonic version of Young Americans that was well on the way to being the follow-up to Diamond Dogs before Bowie scrapped it. One of the reasons for it being dropped was that it was ‘too personal’, but the arrival of John Lennon on the scene also sealed The Gouster’s fate when the immortal ‘Fame’ and not-so immortal (but still pretty damned good) cover of ‘Across the Universe’ (g)ousted the likes of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, as well as a radical re-working of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, off the playlist. In addition to some of the remaining tracks being jiggled around and re-recorded/remixed, we got the mighty likes of ‘Win’ and ‘Fascination’, and the result was Young Americans.

A long time ago, I was somewhat ambivalent towards Young Americans – along with Lodger, I severely underrated these two albums. No more. It’s a beautiful, funky, dazzling work, and a seriously exciting one when you consider the kind of musical swerve Bowie was making at the time- true, there were hints of the soul and funk direction to come on Diamond Dogs songs like ‘Rock and Roll with Me’ and ‘1984’, as well as the covers of ‘Knock on Wood’ and ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ on David Live, but this is as far from glam and Ziggy as imaginable. It’s also one of the most amazing Bowie albums in regards to vocals – his singing here is outstanding, and difficult to try and resist belting along with.

So what of The Gouster? Well, when its release was announced, and was somewhat misleadingly reported as a ‘lost’ album, it wasn’t long before fans made the quite understandable point that none of The Gouster was unheard as such – ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ had already been released as bonus tracks on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD edition of Young Americans, while ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ had been available since 1979. It was noted that you could quite easily compile your own Gouster if you already had the extra songs, which were still available digitally as part of the 2007 edition of Young Americans. However, it soon became apparent that said suggested compilations wouldn’t be quite the same as the version of The Gouster that was due to come out. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ would be the version without added strings, only available on the long-deleted Ryko CD. ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, ‘Right’ and ‘Can You Hear Me’ would be earlier versions, previously only available in sub-par quality bootleg form. Therefore it was too soon to start banging on about how this so-called lost album wasn’t really that elusive after all. In fact, the only identical link between The Gouster and the original Young Americans was the title song itself.

Still with me? Oh yes, let’s not forget the complaints from fans that not everything recorded around that time was going to be included, such as ‘After Today’ (which was released on 1990’s Sound and Vision box set) ‘Shilling the Rubes’, ‘I am a Lazer’ (which would be recycled for ‘Scream Like a Baby’ on Scary Monsters) and ‘The Gouster’ itself. It’s possible these songs were never seriously considered for inclusion on The Gouster (title tracks don’t necessarily ensure a place on an album, as Led Zeppelin fans will know). The previous Bowie box set, Five Years, had made a point of only including stuff officially released at the time, which meant no stuff like ‘Bombers’ or ‘Sweet Head’, so we all expected the absence of ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’, ‘The Gouster’ and the like on Box Set #2 too. Therefore it came as a surprise that The Gouster was going to be included, considering it was never released at the time.

Yet here it is, and although lots of us over the last few months could already imagine how The Gouster would sound like because we knew the tracks in some form or another, it was with excitement that I sat down to listen to it properly. How would it compare to the LP that replaced it, how would it flow, and what would it feel like hearing ‘Young Americans’ right near the end of the album instead of at the beginning?

Well, kicking off with the disco-funk re-recording of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ couldn’t be a more obvious heralding of a new direction – admittedly the idea of taking an older hit single and re-doing it to fit in with the new sounds of the time could seem a bit desperate, a bit lacking in ideas, maybe? Remember when The Beach Boys took a great little bit of R&B from their Wild Honey album called ‘Here Comes the Night’ and turned it into a ten-minute disco monster ten years later? No? Remember when Neil Young turned ‘Mr. Soul’ into a gloopy synth remake? Or what about when you get a greatest hits album and there’s the artist’s biggest hit has been given a new remix or -shudder- a re-recording? Kate Bush’s The Whole Story would have been a lot better if she’d just stuck with the original ‘Wuthering Heights’. Same goes for The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86’ from their Every Breath You Take compilation. What were they thinking?

However, as a reworking and an opening statement of intent, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) is mightily impressive– Bowie has well and truly become someone new, everything is in its right place, it all clicks and struts and funks immaculately. It’s not just a straight-up funk cover though – aside from the chorus, the words are all new, and the it’s about three times as long as the original. It’s not as good as either of the original ‘Johns’ though, but what can you do? It totally succeeds as an example of the Gouster sound. Bowie is saying, that was then, this is now. Hearing it in the context of an album also does it many favours – before I’d just regarded it as a bit of a throwaway, something Bowie himself wasn’t bothered about, given that it wasn’t officially released until 1979, by which time he had well and truly moved on musically. Here it sounds far more substantial.

The epic ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ follows, and this is what I had always hoped it sound like ever since I’d heard The Gouster would feature a different version – I’d heard this take as a bootleg, and it is so, so, so much better than the already excellent Young Americans version. Why? It’s that guitar. That gorgeous, simple, languid and smoky guitar hook that you could almost make out underneath the layer of electronic keyboards on the album mix is now upfront and it’s a thing to savour. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ is gorgeous, one of Bowie’s loveliest ballads, wonderfully sung – it’s quite an intimate experience and one of the most naked, least adorned songs from this era. The version with the strings as a bonus track on the 2007 edition of Young Americans is more epic and sweeping (and is in more in keeping with the more embellished, commercial feel of the released LP), but this earlier mix remains one of Bowie’s most convincing and heartfelt soul songs. There’s a bit near the end where the music pares down and it’s just Bowie’s voice, and it’s one of the most heart-stopping, beautiful moments in any song of his, ever.

The glorious ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, which gave the new box set its name, is a stirring, powerful ballad – that a song this good was held back beggars belief. The chorus in particular is brilliant – real goosebumps stuff. I can only imagine how delirious with happiness Bowie fans were when this and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ were first made available in 1991. Like ‘Sweet Head’ on the Ziggy reissue of that time, the realisation that these brilliant songs had been MIA for so long was revelatory. A different take of ‘Can You Hear Me’ follows next, less bombastic. Is it better than the YA version? I can’t decide. I like the gentler, more intimate delivery of this version, but it’s difficult not to surrender to the oomph of the more familiar take, especially when it kicks in the way it does at the start, and I’ve always loved the a cappella ending, which isn’t present on The Gouster. The always-welcome ‘Young Americans’, a remarkable, powerhouse song full of pleasures, treasures and killer hooks, is the same version as the one we all know and love, although there have been reports of different track lengths between the Gouster and YA versions on the new box set. From the streamed version I heard online, I can’t tell any difference between this and the one I’ve been listening to for years. What I do know for sure is that’s it’s strange to hear it this late into the album – to be fair, it would have made a better closer but I suppose we needed a bit of oomph to pick the LP up after a run of ballads. I do think though that the alternate ‘Right’, which closes this album, would have been a better penultimate track. The song, which fitted perfectly at the end of YA’s side one, feels ever-so slightly anti-climactic as The Gouster’s finale, and it doesn’t help that this version isn’t as quite good as the Young Americans take – it just isn’t as refined or tight, and the whole thing sounds a bit muddier (especially when it comes to Bowie’s vocals), but it’s a fine alternative. The ‘wishing’ vocal breakdown a third of the way in doesn’t have as cool a guitar accompaniment, and overall it feels more obviously demo-ish than the other two early versions featured here, but it’s still a delectable performance, and I love it.

Is The Gouster better than Young Americans? No. Is it worse? No. These are equal works- sibling albums, recognisably related, both excellent, though I think Bowie made the right choice in released the album we did end up with. It feels more substantial. Okay, having the fine but inferior ‘Across the Universe’ at the expense of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ remains a baffling error of judgement, and adding those keyboards to ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ was a mistake, but we did end up with the utterly spine-tingling ‘Win’, the super-funky ‘Fascination’ and the immortal ‘Fame’, which are full-on Bowie classics all the way. I also think that Young Americans is a better structured album than The Gouster, but the latter is nevertheless a pleasure all the way, and I’ve been listening the hell out of it this weekend. It’s a very welcome addition to the Bowie canon. Additionally, not including ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’ and the like doesn’t bother me in this specific case as this The Gouster represents the tracklisting of an actual proposed album and is not a compilation of odds and ends from the era. True, it would be nice if these Bowie box sets had a disc of unreleased tracks to gather up all the lost stuff, but that’s another argument…

Of course, you could compile the ultimate combination mixtape from the two albums, a Young Gouster from America album if you so wished…