Monday, 22 June 2009

Now That's What I Call A Compilation

This Father's Day I asked for nothing more than to be left alone. I just wanted to sit in the sun with a cup of tea and read one of the books from the teetering pile next to the bed. Anyone who has children will understand the excitement I felt at this prospect. Far from making me the most boring man in the world - although perhaps it does qualify me for the heats - this is surely what most dads want on their day. Certainly not a shaving mug, a 'novelty' card or God forbid, a CD compilation with the word Dad in the title.

If there is a God, I thank him or her that I wasn't the recipient of a Dad compilation on Sunday. Did you notice any of these pernicious things? I meant there's nothing necessarily wrong with We Will Rock You, Addicted To Love or Sweet Home Alabama but if anything proves Bill Drummond's notion of all recorded music having run its course, these compilations do. There is just nothing left of these tracks is there? Maybe for kids who've never heard them but surely not for the dads who were bludgeoned with them for 20 years by Simon Bates and now are insulted by them via the Tannoys of every chainstore and hold music of every helpdesk.

I speak specifically of EMI's 3 CD set Dad Rocks! and Universal's Dad's Jukebox - with tracklistings so predictable that it's almost as if a computer put them together. So who compiles these things? I'd suggest that in both cases it's a question of using what you have on the shelf (hence EMI including Coldplay's Clocks) but also it looks like these brands have been going for years and are subscribing to the Ain't Broke philosophy - rather like the annual appearance of the Best Xmas Album Ever and why you no longer find Jona Lewie in the kitchen at Christmas parties but gleefully rubbing his hands together at the bank. Perhaps you'll always find him in the kitchen at Barclays. On Father's Day you don't get Stop The Cavalry but you do invariably get Alright Now.

Every year these brands get rolled out and back in 2006 - Sony had a go with World's Best Dad - opening track? Van Halen's Jump - but relax, later on you do get a dose of Alright Now. There will be a few changes to the brand to keep the thing up to date, for example on this year's Dad Rocks! Pink Floyd's Money has been replaced by Razorlight's America - surely giving father a kick in the bollocks would have been cheaper? But do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Despite the fact that I think I make a pretty mean compilation - or mixtape, as the kids now call burned CDs - I've never really been in the compilation game professionally. The closest I came was when the Head of Marketing at RCA asked me to put together a tracklist for a compilation of Irish and Scottish pop he wanted to do - you know the sort of thing - Van Morrison, The Proclaimers, The Saw Doctors, Clannad, etc. I leaped into action and immediately produced what I thought would be a good tracklisting. Then the research came back on what the title was going to be - Celtic Heart. My own heart sank. It's a title that reeks of marketing meeting, focus group and flip chart. But, it must be said, it would appear that this title has stood the test of time as it still appears to be available on Amazon and has at least two imitators which have stolen its title.

It might of course be my cunning and timeless tracklisting which has resulted in the continued availability of Celtic Heart- I mean, who can argue with the genius of kicking it off with Deacon Blue? Christ, what was I thinking? Still, at least I sneaked in Brian Kennedy who at that point had been dropped by the very label I was working for. Turned out that the exec who was masterminding Celtic Heart was unaware of Kennedy and liked the track so much he ended up resigning him to the label. Kennedy still didn't end up selling many records but he was a worthwhile artist who was given a deserved break. Those of you who've been paying attention will remember that the exact same thing happened to a band I signed, Club St Louis who got dropped by Warners label East West (a label they re-christened Least Best) and then re-signed as Honky to the Warners label over the road WEA.

But I'm digressing from compilations. I really don't mean to be down on them. Some of the best records are the ones that mash together a load of stuff you wouldn't think of putting together yourself. There are two reasons why compilation can work, one is where in amongst a quagmire of unlistenable bollocks you find a gem you've never heard of which immediately rises to the top of all your playlists. Examples of this for me are hearing Quincy Jones' sexed up version of Loving Spoonful's Summer In the City on the first of the three quite superb Blaxploitation CDs that BMG put out in the 90s, Stan Getz's bonkers I'm Late, I'm Late on frequently hard-to-like The Verve Album and Roger Eno outdoing his brother with Winter Music on an All Saints Records compilation I bought at SXSW. More recently, I was reviewing a compilation for Word Magazine called Destroy That Boy - More Girls With Guitars and in amongst the enjoyable if predictable collection of 60s girl bands was a track called Hold On by Sharon Tandy, which makes Janis Joplin sound like Sandi Thom and is a guaranteed air-punching winner. You never know where

The other, perhaps more valid, reason for compilations is when they work as bona fide albums; where the tracklisting works in a way that artist albums are supposed to. I'm not going to list my favourites because they are probably the same as yours but I'd argue that by far and away the compilations that work best are reggae and ska ones.

Reasons for this are twofold, firstly, many of the artists contained on these compilations were singles artists who made one or two definitive tracks which are great and secondly reggae and ska are so stripped down and muscular that disparate artists can sit alongside one another without jarring. Oh, and of course, the quality level is invariably high. I've lost count of the number of great reggae, ska and dub compilations I own or my good friend and reggae 7" collector Russell has bootlegged me, but it's certainly more than any other genre. Sometimes I yearn for more artist-based ska and reggae albums but then you have to remember than a lot of the time it's the same band I'm listening to - the Skatalites, the Soul Brothers, the Soul Vendors - they're playing on most of the great ska records of the 60s, either under their own name(s) or backing everyone from the Wailers to Desmond Dekker as well as ending up being manipulated by Lee Perry et al later in the 70s when dub came in. Those guys, Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Lloyd Brevett on bass, Lloyd Knibbs on drums, Jackie Mittoo on piano, Jerry Hines on guitar and John 'Dizzy' Moore on trumpet, deserve the same respect afforded to the usual Mojo and Uncut suspects. Indeed, if anyone is looking for a good story like Nick Moran has just produced about Joe Meek, they need look no further than Don Drummond, the trombonist who was the creative force behind many of the Skatalites tunes, a schizophrenic who was locked up for murder and was then found dead in his cell amidst rumours of gangland revenge.

I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know already but if for some reason you aren't a huge fan of this sort of music or you haven't got to it yet then I have two compilation tips for you. Firstly Jazz in Jamaica, a compilation of great good time ska instrumentals including Roland Alphonso's mind blowingly wonderful Yard Broom. For some reason it seems to be deleted but you can still get it secondhand - or from me if you ask nicely. And secondly Studio One's Dub Specialist which is packed with lots of the same ska recordings but put through the dub blender and rendered otherworldly yet still warm and melodic. Again it's deleted - clearly Celtic Heart fans aren't particularly moved by it.

Judging from this week's compilation charts, it would appear that Celtic Heart fans have been persuaded to get into ska but only on the terms laid down in 1980 by Jerry Dammers. Ska Mania is currently at number 3 in the charts, sandwiched between Dad Rocks and Dad's Jukebox - it's not a bad compilation, a nice mixture of Two Tone and original Trojan artists, and it's a much better paternal experience than anything with the D word in its title.

I was going to leave it there for this week but I want to leave you with one final piece of compilation advice - if you are tempted to buy Common People - The Brit Pop Story, make sure you go in with a firmly held remote control - or rip the tracks you want - because I can only assume that whoever compiled it was deaf. Or mad. A three CD set that starts with the criminally overrated Auteurs then, after the brief respite of Elastica, sucker punches you with Gene. Relax, it gets worse. CD1 particularly is insane - Dubstar are are loggerheads with Black Grape who precede Stephen Duffy - you couldn't make it up. By CD2 you are lulled into a false sense of security by Pulp's title track (but relegated to volume 2?), Supergrass' Alright and Sleeper's Inbetweener then before can say Parklife, you're hit with Echobelly, Northern Uproar and Powder. There is of course good stuff here and you know that the Britpop years in my opinion were healthy for British music but this compilation seems to have been put together with the meticulous hatred of a serial killer - someone who wants to bury the genre for good. Come out and show yourself, whoever you are!

6 comments:

  1. Was "Common People..." not compiled by Bob Stanley, or did he just write the sleeve notes?

    I've not bought it because I realised I have the vast majority of the stuff on it from the time...though a lot of it is on cassette singles. Pretty sure I've still got my tape of Duffy's "Sugar High" somewhere... ;)

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  2. There are those, and I am one, that feel that it is the death of the fine art of sequencing an album that is at least partly responsible for the death of the music industry...

    ...well, that and flogging acts that only actually have 3 good songs

    and Thatcher, obviously

    The whole "putting the 3 singles first" on the CD and then, well, "not really caring at all" what happens (or what order it happens in) after that point is responsible for so many pointless albums.

    You put the single first on a single. That is a smart move. I am not against that. It is that way so you can shag it, guerilla stylee, whenever you want. Instant gratitude. Er, wham bam thank you ma'am.

    But isn't an album a special friend for life?
    One with secrets to reveal and depths to explore, that will draw you in and show you things you haven't seen before.
    If you are buying an album to hear the single, then I suggest you don't. Buy the single instead. It's cheaper.

    The album (or the mixtape) should be a trip, that takes you to different wonderful places along the way or takes you somewhere you are familiar with but via a new route with a nice arc or possibly a dual arc, reflecting that whole side 2 track 1 plot twist.

    Alas it is rare. Labels are scared that folks will have a problem if the HIT is "hidden" at Track 8.
    So the fast tunes go a the front, and then the slower ones, and then the sparser or weirder ones that no-one knew what to do with. And modern albums are a great fat slippery slope of increasing dullness that actually actively make the listeners brain slow down and switch off.

    Not clever.

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  3. That Sharon Tandy track RIPS!!!! (although it is really a Les Fleurs De Lys song). I also recommend "Daughter Of The Sun" by them.

    Her little solo Ardent session is well worth finding, tucked onto her best of.

    I really enjoy your writing, thanks!! :-)

    D

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  4. Charles Carmichael23 June 2009 at 23:08

    Well, this Fathers Day I was greeted with one of the dodgy comps you wrote so eloquently about - not the 3rd year of EMI's Dad Rocks, nor the 2nd year of Universals Dads Jukebox (you thought this was bad, try googling their Christmas Jukebox from last year). I had the pleasure of Sony's Match of the Day. No sooner had I ripped off the wrapping paper before I was being dragged downstairs by my 7yr old son to watch the 100 greatest goals bonus DVD.........

    Oh! And what came first? Your Celtic Heart or Pride from the old BMG Commercial Division. Made In Scotland, sadly not from Irn Bru.

    Chuck

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