Where do you start with an album that asks you to listen without prejudice? Well I’ll tell you where I started; a place of distrust and suspicion; what is Mr Michael trying to hide?
George Michael released ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ 3 September 1990 following the massive success of 1987’s “Faith’. The album was 1 of 2 parts and was seemingly meant to offer credibility to George’s accolades. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The album turned out to be a flop (if you can consider selling 8 million copies worldwide a flop) and George was never given a chance to record the second half, one of life’s great tragedies, right?
For me this album deserved the negative press; with the exception of a couple of mercies this album was a hard slog to get through. In what world does the mediocrity of ‘Freedom! 90’ deserve a whole 6 minutes of my life? I am not an inpatient man but this album certainly tested me. Glimmers of light came from ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’ and ‘Mother’s Pride’ but other than that it was a struggle not to press skip on everything else.
George Michael was a product of 80’s ‘style over substance’ attitude and somehow thought he could move seamlessly through to the world of art without paying his dues. There is no doubt as to the talent of his voice, but his songwriting acumen leaves little to be desired. I went into this album with distrust and suspicion and this time, I was right on the mark; what’s inside the tin certainly does not match the packaging. For me this album is just about listenable and certainly wouldn’t be on my 1001 list so for that I give it a..
A commonality between (almost) any ‘great’ work of art, is that they all have an essential reason for being. Ask: why was this made, what does it express, and would the world be different if it didn’t exist? If the answer to these questions are not clear, then it is likely the work will not leave a lasting impression in our minds or our culture. There are of course exceptions; however it is a principle that applies in most cases.
Bob Marley & The Wailers 1974 ‘Natty Dread’ is driven by the deep sense of societal injustice. The core of the work emerges from Marley’s experiences of life in a society that is suffused with oppression, greed and injustice; conflicting with his deeply held belief in the unity of all people, expressed through the concept of “I and I”: the idea that God (Jah) is within and unites all people. Each song explores an aspect of this conflict; building on the idea that the oppressed people of Jamaica (and indeed the world) should unite, celebrate what is great, and ultimately empower themselves, through whatever means necessary.
“In this bright future you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears I say”
The first three tracks identify a primary motivation: the desire to live free and protect you loved ones. The album opens with ‘Lively Up Yourself’, which is a celebration of life through music and love. ‘No Woman, No Cry’, is a nostalgic remembrance of an impoverished life, but also describes the pain endured by the singer’s partner due to poverty. Finally ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ calls out the injustice – that there is plenty to go around, but wealth and resources are unequally distributed.
“So Jah seh, not one of my seeds, shall sit in the sidewalk, and beg bread”
The second section of the album deals with Marley’s experiences as they apply to him. ‘Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)’ details police harassment and oppression relating to a police road stop and search. ‘So Jah Seh’ explores the “I and I” concept that all men are one and ‘Natty Dread’ then brings this identity to bear on a divided Kingston as Marley explores the town and sees his community through this lens.
‘Talkin’ Blues’ is the turning point of the album, where Marley moves from describing experiences of injustice, and the frustration with the oppressors boils over into call for direct opposition to the status quo.
“Because I feel like bombing a church, now that you know that the preacher is lying”
Marley was no stranger to violence; famously he threatened a local radio DJs with violence to force them to play give his track ‘’Small Axe’ radio play. He understands the consequences of this statement but feels it is now time for action.
“So who’s going to stay at home, when the freedom fighters are fighting”
The apex of the album comes at the Penultimate track were Marley identifies the inevitable conclusion to the continuing oppression of his people. After enduring the oppression and injustice described throughout the previous tracks, the only solution left to him is to call for action.
“It takes a revolution to make a solution; Too much confusion, so much frustration, eh!”
The importance of unity in the community is upheld, with Marley leading the call for change using the metaphor of freeing a bird. He wants justice restored to his people, not for profit or to gain power over others, but to liberate.
“So, my friend, I wish that you could see, Like a bird in the tree, the prisoners must be free.”
This is paired with a chorus that picks up the potential alluded to in ‘Them Belly Full’. A mass of people can overcome a ruling minority using their strength of numbers, fed by the motivation that takes root and grows strong under the provender of oppression.
“We got lightning, thunder, brimstone, and fire – fire (fire, fire)”
Natty Dread has an other-worldly feel to it. This is music written half a century ago, half way around the world from England, by a man with entirely different cultural traditions and living in an environment where, to some, he was considered half a man. This album uses the gentle, stripped back musical efficiency of reggae to paint a picture of an unjust society and show pain growing to a potentially explosive anger.
My experience of music has always leant towards the heavier/faster punk or metal, and so my initial feelings on this album were that the pacing did not match the content. It has continued to grow on me, and the emotion displayed here has struck a chord, however it ultimately is not to my personal taste musically. I grew up listening to Zack de la Rocha, and so I guess that level of passion is something I need to hear in an album dealing with similar themes. A great work, undoubtably, and deserving of a place on the list.
In 1978, a former playboy model and 5 ‘hopelessly horrible’ musicians from the New York underground went into a recording studio and laid down a soundtrack which tied together the most musically diverse decade.
Combining punk, glam, disco, pop, new wave, rock n roll and 50s doo-wop, Blondie were to create a stellar mix of laser-guided guitar riffs, crystalline-bursting pop sounds and disco beats that could be played in any club in New York with a disco ball or a safety pin punctured body part.
Up until this point, Blondie had been a hotchpotch of musicians who had come and gone, searching for a sound that would support Debby Harry’s ‘bombshell zombie voice’. With a 5-musician set-up, the grounding was there to create a sound seated in the influences of electronic synth, punk rock guitar and the hipster-arrogance of any proper New York band.
But ‘Hopelessly horrible’…? The words of producer Mike Chapman, who upon hearing them in rehearsal was amazed at the poor standard of Blondie’s musicianship. Recording sessions were anarchic with band members being stoned, throwing guitars across the room getting frustrated with Chapman’s drive for perfection. Debby Harry’s emotional state often saw her disappear for hours in the toilet, then returning to the room and penning the lyrics as she was picking up the microphone.
Incredibly, Chrysalis records initially turned down the recording, only eventually being persuaded by Chapman to release it on the strength of the singles. Smart move.
It is difficult to think of a genre which isn’t on this album. Standout tracks include a belter of an opener with ‘Hanging on the telephone’ with expert guitar riffing from Frank Infante. It keeps to the punk rule of a 2-minute wonder with no fat on it whatsoever. The riffs keep coming with a phased sounding ‘One way or another’ – Showing the versatility of a Gibson Les Paul. Punk was often derided for its musicianship with 3 chord wonders, but in ‘Parallel Lines’ the game is raised with a full set of aces and the tightest-knit rhythm and lead anywhere.
‘Fade away and radiate’ ventures towards the psychedelic with Robert Fripp guesting with an inter-dimensional sound before going full Gary Numan in ‘I know but I don’t know’. Every track on this album is so individual, it appears to have an entirely different band playing – How has the same band played breakneck pop punk and ‘Sunday Girl’? Tying the album together is the indomitable Debby Harry – Glossy, silky and brilliant vocals delivered somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Boudicca.
The album went onto great commercial success, appears on every acclaimed all-time album chart and is the album that was believed to send punk into the US mainstream.
Considered the greatest break-up album of all time…and indeed the first concept album of all time.
So, it’s good to know the album as an entity started off on a positive note!
By this point in his career, Frank Sinatra was on the wane, his fans were moving towards that new fangled rock n roll, his TV show had been cancelled after one episode, he had been dropped from Columbia Records, he’d been through a divorce with Nancy and his relationship with Ava Gardner had broken down.
Then bang! Suddenly he gets a 7 year deal at Capitol and he gets the chance and fight to produce ‘In the Wee Small hours’ – A record of sincere, mature, beautiful swooning jazz standards and ballads with exquisite string sections and the delivery of emotional tenderness from Ol’ Blue Eyes. Masterful. The recordings and artwork reflect the nocturnal recordings, Frank’s pain and loss of his relationships and experienced many emotional breakdowns in the studio following a take.
This is one of those records which is incredibly hard to judge with modern ears – It was written and recorded largely before the ‘teenager’ had been invented and the blues root had not really hit the mainstream. It would be 10 years before the British invasion and America was still in the bizarre state of country cowboy music acts on the TV, church gospel and hymns for most wholesome church-goers…and some new guy called Elvis, not sure what happened to him; he’ll never catch on.
It seems quite twee and like a soundtrack from the glory days of 1950s Hollywood, but make no mistake, this is a beautiful and masterful vocal performance, but the album as an idea is yet to hit its stride.
Episode 1 – Sinatra! Bob Marley! That guy now not in Wham! Quizzes!
Have you ever wondered what people listened to before Rock n Roll? Keen on Fedora hats? Ah! You like a geological feature and 80s pop star-based quiz! Well, you are in for a treat…! Listen on, get excited, wet the bed and then blame it on your podcast!
In this episode, we discuss…
Frank Sinatra ‘In the wee small hours’ (1955) (Time break: 6:02)
George Michael’s ‘Listen without prejudice Vol.1’ (1990) 21:00