Age Against the Machine - Jim Keays (Purple Haze) & No But It’s True - Hugo Race (Rough Velvet Records)
Heads up: Get your wallet out. Both of ‘em belong in your collection and should be playing on your battered lil machine right now. I’m going to give both FIVE BOTTLES, and that means…the review is irrelevant.
But you want your entertainment anyway, don’t you? The Voice and The X-Factor can only “discover” what fits a format. And that format is, for the most part, bereft of meaning. The jokey aspect of Eurovision Song doo-dah means that brilliance can sneak in, because the format is to “make a splash” as well as fit the format. Keays and Race load their music with meaning, relevance and immediacy.
Alright, confession time: I’ve gone for years dismissing, shall we say, “certain bands” because I’d heard about two songs at a time when some things sounded more exciting than others. It’s only now I’ve been able to hear some of those “certain bands” from a less prejudicial perspective. No names, folks, I’m terribly shy.
Why do I emphasise this? Because I’ve been interchanging these two rather damn fine CDs in the car as I drive around at night. Both albums are of other people’s songs. Each has an approach and feel that is completely different, both are veterans of the stage, both appreciated by different audiences. Yet both are exciting and thrilling to listen to. You don’t need to listen to a mixtape of “the best” from these two CDs - just thump them on and go where they take you.
Keay’s “Age Against the Machine” leaps on you with a freshness and youthful immediacy which is irresistible (in places it’s positively priapic, in others you’re wiping aside a tear). Race’s “No But It’s True” simmers and mauls you with a powerful excitement.
While a cover version or so is an excellent way for a band to show their chops and influences - and some bands who played live sets mostly comprised of covers went on to much greater things (like the Flamin’ Groovies and the Exploding White Mice) - rank-and-file cover versions fill out the sets of indifferent bands of assorted turds. They grunt out bad (or worse) note-faithful mimicry while the masses squeal like pigs in a porno.
There’s the famous story of Barnesy (I hope it’s made-up) playing to a not-very-full toilet in a large country town and later going past a huge beer barn packed to the rafters with melonheads and pissmelbas out to see … an old Chisel cover band. Radio Birdman included a hefty swag of damn good covers back in the day, educating and spreading their vibe; The Cramps and The Birthday Party’s covers similarly educated the ignorant (and yes, I’m including myself - I’d never heard “Catman” before the BP, for example).
But cover versions are usually not the rule. The point about being in a band is to make your own songs, create it yourself. But, when an artist has already written a rack of songs of their own over many years which are considered classics and, for reasons best known to themselves, get all homesick or something, and go and record songs which have made them come alive all those years ago. You can tell the artist loves these songs so much they’ve made it into a part of them. It’s a hell of a thing to witness, and we don’t see it often.
For years, one of the most famous was Nick Cave’s third LP, “Kicking Against the Pricks” (1986), whose interpretations of other people’s songs made people sit up and take notice; Siouxsie and the Banshees achieved a similar thing the next year with “Through the Looking Glass”. Both are still available, and in extended editions. In Detroit, The Dirt Bombs’ ‘Party Store’ is still superb stuff. More recently, Spencer Jones and Kim Salmon’s ‘Runaways’ is a big, spacy, sharp and psycho beast.
I am told that Jim Keays' last LP (and companion to this), “Dirty, Dirty”, was also a set of covers, the more gritty end of r’n’r, and of course he was in a band that you already know about. Keays’ liner notes say his idea was to “record obscure, lost, overlooked and forgotten songs from around the mid to late ‘60s s period, and give them a new life”. That was “Dirty, Dirty”, which I’ve not heard and is now on my wish list. So let’s take a listen to the wonderfully named “Age Against the Machine” which includes songs from a slightly later period and produced them in a more modern setting.
It’s as if The Master’s Apprentices kinda grew up, then went back to what they loved as they grew up, bringing these old songs up to date. From the very start of the Flamin’ Groovies’ familiar, pretty little beauty, “Shake Some Action”, Keay’s band displays muscle, sinew and posh-rough sex.
Keays’ is the lead vocalist, then there’s Davey Lane on guitars and vox, Brett Wolfenden on drums and vox. Lane was in You Am I and, with Wolfenden, played in The Pictures. Producer Ted Lethborg is on bass. Keays’ voice is in fine, brash form - and quite frankly I wondered why we have heard so little of him on radio until I remembered that radio has mostly been a sort of mumbling series of adverts for the last 45 years to keep plumbers, brickies and single parents company. Anyway, Keays brings a gorgeous ‘60s pop vocal to a perfectly balanced version of a song which is rather tricky to get right. Its changes of pace in particular require dexterity and confidence, which the band have in spades. Lane’s lead break is especially tasty.
From the first moments of “I Got A Line On You” we’re in familiar powerful rock territory, dancing like an old man in a living-room with the family at the shops. Spirit is a band I have been totally ignorant of, but apparently Jimmy Page pinched the intro of “Stairway…” from Randy California (I kid you not, that’s the man’s name), who also wrote “I Got A Line On You”. This here’s another heavy hitter, and that’s a fact.
The Atlantics’ were, according to a bio, “the first Australian rock band to write their own hits”. “Come On” was one of them. Keays’ vocal on this is spectacular and will land you in a wonderful space between classic ‘60s pop and a rougher, more modern world. This is an extraordinary distillation and interpretation. Again, Lane’s guitar is inspired and clever; the man’s damned good, setting up ramps and baffles for Keays to move around; I’m sure his ending can’t be something The Atlantics would have recorded…
The Hans Staymer Band (yes, yes, I know – who?) were a Canadian band from the early ‘70s and “Dig A Hole” is again, their most successful, criminally forgotten, song. While it may be Keays’ startling, huge voice which we’ve come to hear wrap itself about a smart lyric, what we’re really here for, it dawns on me, is the most enjoyable education. For a host of crusty old gimps, “Age Against the Machine” will remind them of all these bands in their collections, but for a cluster of younger crusty old gimps (like me) it introduces me to music I’m entirely ignorant of. No mean feat.
I particularly like the Australianised Americana crossed with early ‘60s Britpop innocence aspect to “Age”, which fits perfectly. For those musicians performing here in the ‘60s, America was everything new and modern and fabulous, the home of blues and Elvis and surf bands; while England was the mother country, producing a huge wave of music (in reaction to the US music) which provoked a massive undercurrent and essentially made the rest of the world react in turn - and the tides shoved back and forth.
“Hot Smoke and Sassafras” was a top 20 hit for - wait for it - Bubble Puppy who, of course, were a psychedelic band from Texas, back in the days when LSD was legal (no, I’m sure they didn’t. No.) Apparently producer Ted Lethborg was holding his just-purchased copy in his hand when Keays rang to ask him if he’d be interested in producing his music, name-checking Bubble Puppy’s hit. One of those impossible, meant-to-be moments that make you believe in a God. So I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.
Chris Andrews has the song credit for “It’s Alright”; he wrote for many performers including Adam Faith and the Roulettes, so I’ve no idea which version Keays is nodding to, tho I suspect its’ Faith, another unjustly forgotten artist. Again, Keays’ voice carries the song, and Lane’s playing is something special, perfectly timed and handsomely endowed. Lethborg is clever and has us imagining we’re in a little club watching a band do their best to upstage the Rolling Stones in 1962, and his ending is perfect…
If there’s a mystery about the UK’s Wreckless Eric, it’s why the hell he vanished so quickly. “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” was his biggest hit, but he wrote a lot of damn fine songs (and his tour of Australia was a gleefully drunken thing splashing around the coast). You’ll probably remember this one if you’re around my age, so all I’ll say is that Keays’ version is mighty fine indeed. I’m going to be cheeky and point out that the man himself is still around so go here: http://wrecklesseric.com/?page_id=753 and yes, he knows it’s not a flash site but you can still get his more recent cds so what more incentive do you need?
A crunching, crushing version of Bo Diddley’s “Cadillac” (1960, folks) reminds us of a number of things; not least that Diddley’s importance and reach has been often forgotten; the second is that the ability of Keays’ band to bring a scratchy old record into the modern world is nothing short of stunning.
From 1961 or so, “If You Got To Make A Fool of Somebody” is by James Ray - you might know the Huey Lewis version better. Now here’s another confession. This style of song I have encountered frequently - and I simply cannot stand it. In fact, I find it horrible. However, since Keays’ band are in excellent, roundhouse-punching form (particularly in context) this version is more than bearable - I thoroughly enjoy it. I suspect I’d enjoy the original (but as for ol’ Huey Lewis…) This is pretty damn good.
To close the album, Keays has chosen one of Cheap Trick’s wonderful songs (they’re a hugely under-rated band, Cheap Trick), and Keays’ interpretation is moving and gutsy; “Heaven Tonight” is a message to us to enjoy what we can while we can…and of course, Keays knew his death may be imminent as he recorded these songs. can’t escape the feeling that Keays was addressing his family and friends with this cd, it’s got everything, it seems, which defined him - from boisterous to considerate and tender, “Age Against the Machine” is as essential a purchase as it gets; looks like I have to get “Dirty, Dirty” as well.
Ted Lethborg’s up-there-in-your-ear approach pays off handsomely, and Keays’ down-to-earth approach means Keays effectively owns these songs just as much as most of the makers (although I haven’t heard all the originals).
As does Race’s “No But It’s True”, an equally essential purchase, if for different reasons. First, we suspect, as we are intended to, that Race is using the shield of other people’s songs to address his own love-life. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, as the power of “No But It’s True” is its stripped-down, immediately intimate nature, intertwined with the strong sense of familiarity which these songs evoke. As with Keays, some songs here you won’t recognise (I had to look a few up).
From the moment Race’s distinctive guitar and hot wet rag of a voice first wraps itself around you in “No Regrets”, you’ve already surrendered. Tom Rush wrote and released this one, which was also a hit for The Walker Brothers … Race doesn’t have Scott Walker’s voice, so that allows him to wring great emotion and power from lyrics which clearly trigger things in him. Race himself is something of an enigma, yet it’s clear from his CDs he’s more or less as normal as the rest of us (even if he is a musician - musicians all of ‘em - are peculiar by definition) with the same doubts, fears, loves and hates we all have.
Having seen Race play, I will also add that his style is quite unique, like, say, Kim Salmon, he likes to use all aspects of the guitar, resisting the obvious and striving to develop. “No Regrets” tells us that the split-up is final, and we wouldn’t get together again because “we’d only cry”…
I haven’t listened to my Romeo Void records in a while (says the crusty old scrote); Race’s “Never Say Never” captures that lusty, urgent intensity and the logical outrage at puritan hypocrisy…”some say girls must be discreet”… Debora Lyall’s lyric still seethes, and in Race’s hands it positively scorches.
“Cry Me A River” was first successful in 1955 by Julie London, and has a been staple for decades. It’s a muted, savage song; hell, even Justin Timberlake’s covered it. Do it wrong and it’s just a song. Do it right and you’re wiping away a tear or two, remembering stuff from your own life.
“I’m On Fire” seems to be one of Bruce Springsteen’s more forgotten hits, but after you’ve heard this you’ll wonder why Bruce hasn’t taken up Race and dragged him along on tour as the opening act. (ED: Probably because he’d blow the headliner off stage.)
Little Walter’s “Temperature” is not something we’d expect from Hugo Race, so it’s not really a surprise to find it here. Little Walter was a harmonica genius remembered mostly for his music in the ‘50s and early ‘60s … Race has got to the heart of the lyric, teased the song into a new shape, and you’re still completely enveloped. See if you can get Little Walter’s box set; Walter didn’t record albums, he was a singles man. This is the more upbeat half of the album.
Alright, here’s something you don’t know. I love Barry White, so it’s a joy to hear Race squeeze “Never Ever Gonna Give You Up” one more time. White doesn’t seem to get many folk covering his songs, partly I suspect because of his distinctive voice. Race ignores White’s huge bass and heads again for the guts and strength of the lyric; once more we find ourselves in another world. While Side Two is definitely the quieter side, the intensity and sheer smoulder makes this the more intense side. Curiously, if you’re not paying a great deal of attention, “No But It’s True” is perfect for a Sunday arvo in front of the fire with a single malt or four.
Lee Hazelwood has long been a favourite songwriter among songwriters. “Wait and See” is, I think, from 1968’s “Love and Other Crimes”. A heartfelt apology to a lover, Race’s simple arrangement is profoundly moving; Hazelwood’s regret and promise “It’s gonna be alright/wait and see” has surely never been so moving - actually, I can’t think of too many Hazelwood songs - originals and covers - which actually do move you so much. Race has discovered a gem.
“She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)” was - as I’m sure you know - from the 13th Floor Elevators second LP “Easter Everywhere”; needless to say, if you didn’t know it was one of Roky's, you’d have to be told, possibly you’d need to be convinced that it wasn’t an old Byrds song. Yeah, it’s really that good. The harmonies here are somewhat glorious, and the clicks and claps are the perfect accompaniment. I’ll quickly add that there’s precious little drumming on this disc, the guitar seems to fill all that space, somehow; the percussion - on all of four tracks - is unobtrusive and precise, and is by Massimo Ferratto.
“Song for You” is by Leon Russell. “I know your image of me is what you hoped I’d be”… well, that’s insight, if you like. One of the most intimate songs here, we’re right up close and personal with Hugo talking, singing…“I love you in a place where there is no place or time.” I don’t know who Leon Russell was singing about, but I hope she knew what she was losing. The song comes, apparently, from his “Homewood Sessions” LP - originally broadcast in LA as an hour-long TV special in 1970. Russell seems to be something of a troubadour, similar in some regards to Race himself; looks like I gotta educate myself some.
Leonard Cohen’s reach on modern music is one of the great elephants in the room. This version of “1000 Kisses Deep” (from 2001’s ”Ten New Songs”) simply reminds me of Hugo’s own work, both, I suddenly realise, cut astonishingly clearly into relationships, and see how a relationship with a partner can mirror our own outlook on life, reordering our priorities, reflect our position in a wider world.
“No But It’s True” ends with a poignant, from-the-soul rendition of ‘Silent Night’, a song of worship and love in itself; Race has chosen these songs well, and in this context they seem to tell a tale of a relationship breaking up, the quick rebound and contemplation, the bitter regrets and then, of a love found and faith in love renewed.
Neither LP is better than the other. Both are bloody excellent. “No But It’s True” and “Age Against the Machine” both belong in your collection, perhaps for different reasons, but nonetheless … they belong to you.
Play ‘em at your children, get them scampering to find who made the originals, and marvel at these two brilliant, perceptive Australians.