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    • Pyromania - Def Leppard / Music Album / 4 Readings / 4 Ratings
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      12.01.2011 15:33
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      Changed heavy rock in the 1980s

      This landmark 1983 album - the third long player from Sheffield's Def Leppard - conquered the United States and redefined rock music. It didn't have to be about riffs and screaming about the devil. It could also be about melody and pop sensibility.

      It arrived in the stores in January of that year following a 1 year gap between albums. Iron Maiden had pushed ahead even further in 1982 with their 'Number of the Beast' album. Def Leppard looked down and out; rejected in the UK by the leading music papers and openly accused of having sold out to the States with songs like 'Hello America'. But as singer Joe Elliot had pointed out, songs like that had all been written and rehearsed by a teenage Def Leppard in an old spoon factory in Yorkshire.

      'Pyromania' was as much a British album as any Duran Duran album was, by being slick and heavily textured. It was a sound which subsequently came to be identified as American, but it was all pioneered in the UK. New guitarist Phil Collen had joined the band after the recording for this album had begun; founder member Pete Willis being pushed out, although Pete's guitar work was still on the final release.

      Track 1 is 'Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)' - a particular favourite with Japanese fans at the time. The introduction is brooding and intense and could so easily be by any UK pop band of the era. This gives way to a steady guitar, before a kick-ass 'axe' is unleashed and Elliot starts singing / screaming. Just when it sounded like a Spandau Ballet album, the band tell us exactly what they are all about. They are committed to rock, to the death (or till they vomit at the very least). The guitar solo is short and punchy, followed by a nice chord change, with Elliot singing: 'Rock! Rock! Give it to me'. An excellent start to a rock album. Track 2 follows close behind - a completely different pace altogether. 'Photograph' is the big 'love' song, but it's no ballad. A picture of a model has been seen in a magazine and the fantasy begins. Producer Mutt Lange has added some synth strings to the blend and all of a sudden it's a radio friendly belter and a top 40 smash in the States. So many bands could do a great cover version of this.

      Although the next track 'Stagefright' is weaker, it's still a great rock song. Some dubbed crowd chants give way to Elliot screaming 'I said welcome to my show!' A pounding Judas Priest style guitar lets rip. It's all very simplistic, but effective none the less, with a top drawer chorus and frantic guitar solo. Elliot's voice does get lost in the mix at times though. Track 4 - 'Too Late For Love' is another excellent love song. It begins with some 'Blade Runner' bleeps from Mutt Lange and then the band join Elliot for a muted rendition of what will turn out to be the chorus. The chorus at the beginning? A great move, left of centre and unexpected. Someone like Ellie Goulding could strip this track back and do a stark cover version.

      Track 5 is 'Die Hard The Hunter' - the introduction combines helicopter rotors with futuristic bleeps and swooshes combined with explosions, like the apocalyptic scenes from the original 'The Terminator' movie. But this introduction predates that film. Then follows a strange, atmospheric chanting of the word 'shotgun'. We are then asked to welcome home the soldier boy from far away. The lyrics leave us in no doubt this lad is mentally damaged by a war. It's Rambo. It is more than that though, when you consider the amount of gun maniacs who went on rampages in the 1980s. The song certainly doesn't glorify the now traditional 'lone nut' with a loaded gun. The lyrics call on him to put the gun down. Great guitar solo on this one too.


      Track 6 is 'Foolin' - another US hit single. For the first time in the album we hear acoustic guitars and a gentle voice from Elliot. The song then builds in pace and before you know it we are at a superb pop chorus, with the band singing, 'f-f-f-foolin' in a track Duran Duran would have been delighted to have recorded. The definitive track is next, 'Rock of Ages' - a hymn to rock. 'I got something to say, it's better to burn out than fade away!' is the Neil Young introduction, before a very 1980s guitar / synth riff. There is tremendous vocal and guitar interplay and a premier league chorus. It is anthemic stuff.

      Track 8 'Comin' Under Fire' is somewhat downbeat, but enveloped by a strong chorus. The bass and drums are the main instruments on this one. The chorus is like all the others on 'Pyromania' in that it is a group affair. Lots of voices joined together, provided width to the songs. Track 9 'Action! Not Words' starts with a throwaway Keith Richards riff and had the potential to be a weak link in the album. Lyrically it seems to be about making a porno film, but the track is saved by another tremendous chorus.

      The final track has similar sentiments to 'Die Hard The Hunter'. When 'Billy's Got A Gun' begins it is slow, very slow. We are transported to a scenes of an angry young man, brooding with a gun. He hates the world around him. This is Colombine 20 years before it happened. Def Leppard have never been about social issues but on 'Pyromania' they seem to have stumbled across one. The lyrics end ominously. A sound like thunder has rung out (a gun). There is blood on the ground and a crowd gathers, 'But Billy Couldn't Wait'. What Billy couldn't wait for is the enigma. Did he shoot himself or has he launched into a mad rampage? The track ends unusually, following a 'Bang! Bang!' lyric a strange dislocated sound like a backwards drum loop open up. This lasts for an entire minute. Possibly it was added due to audio tape length considerations.

      And there we gave it. The album sold 7 million copies (mostly in America) within a short space of time. The band didn't get rich, with most of the money going to the UK Government, resulting in the band becoming tax exiles. Along with the follow-up album, it is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. That is a different story altogether. By the end of Leppard's glorious year of 1983, drummer Rick Allen was involved in a car crash and lost his arm as a result. Without 'Pyromania' 1980s rock would have sounded very different. It is not the perfect album - the production is a bit muddy at times and Elliot's voice gets lost in the mix. Howerver the idea of melody and pop with heavy metal had now been considered and proved to work and American bands benefited.

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    • More +
      12.01.2011 12:29
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      A well rounded album

      1988 was an exciting year for an Iron Maiden fan, as was practically ever year of that decade. But '88 was especially exciting because the previous year had been the band's first barren year in terms of records. From 1980 until 1986 the band had unveiled a fresh release annually. There was an immense sense of expectation in the run-up to the 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son' album. 1988 was also going to be the year the band played the Castle Donnington 'Monsters of Rock' festival for the first time. In theory, it had been decided in advance that 1988 was going to be Maiden's Great Year. The only thing which could destroy this belief would have been a poor quality record. And it HAD to hit the charts in a very high position, because by '88 Heavy Metal was partly about being despised, especially in the UK. Mike Myers has commented on the NAHME (North American Heavy Metal Experience) in the United States in Canada, where everyone had at least one Maiden album or t-shirt. Things were very different in the UK. At times, the metal fan felt despised and dejected and was occasionally beaten for his / her choice of music. New Order fans were safe. Curiosity Killed the Cat fans were having a right old time. Depeche Mode and INXS fans could proudly wear their t-shirts on the main street. British and Irish metal fans needed 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son' to be exceptional. And then it happened; Maiden announced it was to be a 'concept' album.

      The first thing the younger metal fans did was try and work out what a concept album meant. The words 'Rick Wakeman' and 'Tales From Topographic Oceans' swam through the mind. The 'Topographic' album by Yes had been intended as the crowning glory of concept albums and had ended-up destroying this entire musical deviation / sub-culture. A concept album tells a story; all songs being linked. The previous album from 1986 had all featured songs about the nature of time, but had never been called a concept album.

      When 'Seventh Son' was released my memory is of it reaching number 2 in the album charts, held off the top by Erasure. I appear to be mistaken as every source I have consulted states the album was indeed a number 1, the first since 1982s 'The Number of the Beast'. I must have had a bigger heavy metal persecution complex than I realised. The album I held in my hands off course featured the bands mascot 'Eddie' on the sleeve. The illustration by Derek Riggs was superb; with vocalist Dickinson subsequently stating he believed it was inspired by Dante. The full wrap-round sleeve has the reconstituted remains of 'Eddie' hovering above a wasteland of ice. Above him in a surreal twist are light bulbs floating in the sky. His cranium is exposed, revealing a flame. His heart is replaced by an apple (presumably rotten) and in his hand he holds a child within a womb, apparently plucked from his own innards. In the background, persons are trapped within the ice; seemingly still alive. If Dickinson is correct, Derek Riggs has placed 'Eddie' within Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell, with 'Eddie' presiding in the centre. Dante reserves this circle of Hell for traitors, with Satan in the middle as the ultimate traitor (against God). I saw a UK television programme at the time, with Dickinson holding up an illustration of Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell in order to explain his point. Could you imagine Jon Bon Jovi in a similar scenario?

      The album begins with a gentle acoustic piece; Dickinson backed by 1 guitar. He takes the role of minstrel; half entertaining and half threatening. He dwells on the number 7 - the deadly sins, etc. He tells us there are '7 Holy Paths to Hell' before our trip begins. This is almost the Siege Perilous of the Holy Grail. We are being dared to listen to the story. We are being dared to sit on the deadly chair. As Dickinson stops, a keyboard riff suddenly opens up; heavy synth bass. This doesn't sound like Maiden, but I like it. It is menacing. Then drums and guitar arrive together, like a massive bell being sounded. It is an astounding introduction which build up to become the metal equivalent of Richard Wagner. The first verse of 'Moonchild' is full of mystical lyrics. This mysticism was also prevalent within the inner sleeve, with each lyric partnered by an occult / esoteric symbol. Dickinson's voice is rich and clear as he sings 'Lucifer's My Name!' The title evokes Crowley and the Golden Dawn. A child has been conceived within magickal circumstances and the powers of good and evil must now battle for his soul. He is literally the seventh son of a seventh son. According to legend, such people are blessed / cursed with occult powers. This is a deliberately dark song. The band has invoked King Herod as we listen to lyrics of death and slaughter.

      The pace of track 2 is the complete opposite. 'Infinite Dreams' is one of Maiden's slowest songs, their equivalent of a ballad. Again Dickinson is crisp and clear. The musicianship is both dynamic and bold, with fluid production from Martin Birch. Our hero / villain is coming to terms with his insights and powers. Like Nostradamus and Russell Grant, he is having visions. The bass / percussion interaction is actually very laid back for a Maiden track. I would love to hear the original tapes, just to listen to McBrain and Harris. The song undergoes a successful chord change and the pace builds and then takes on another chord change, taking us to familiar Maiden galloping bass territory. A swashbuckler of a guitar solo leads onto a twin lead guitar melody from Smith and Murray. A second solo is added towards the end, before the twin guitar melody is re-harnessed. A live version of the track - from Castle Donnington - reached number 6 in the UK charts.

      The third track is the big one in terms of singles. 'Can I Play With Madness' was released as a single prior to the album's release and shocked the UK record buying public when it went straight in at number 3. Very few bands had achieved this in the 1980s, with Duran Duran being the finest exponent of the high chart entry. With such a catchy song and high chart debut, some decent radio airplay would have been expected. BBC Radio 1 were not playing along however; their anti-rock policy helping ensure the song never made reached the top of the chart. This song reflects the teenage angst of our seventh son; arguably an occult precursor to 'Smell Like Teen Spirit'. The song is pacey with a forthright chorus and a slick, short guitar solo which always reminds me of the country Japan for reasons I have never been able to fathom.

      Track 4 is 'The Evil That Men Do' - another top ten hit in the UK (number 5). The mystical lyrics caused indignation when printed by Smash Hits magazine, prompting jeering letters from Bros and Brother Beyond fans. The track starts mid tempo before launching into Maiden's trademarked 'galloping' Black Beauty bass / percussion. Dickinson starts low and then goes through a whole range of vocal styles. Any Bruce detractors really should listen to this one. Vocally, he does it all here. Side two of the album starts with the title track. At just under 10 minutes long, this is the epic piece. An Iron Maiden album always has an epic track; some great, some not so great. This one is superb. The song is backed by a choir (possibly keyboard generated). Dickinson sings his heart out, with lengthy vocal operatic pieces at the end of each verse. The chorus is basic, but what it lacks in imagination it make up for in verve. Then Dickinson is off again, all operatic and Wagnerian. The guitar is solid, going from traditional rock to searing laser melody. Bruce then gives it some welly, with an extended operatic chant, before the volume drops considerably. There are strange noises reminiscent of the theme from a US slasher movie; all very unsettling. The choir builds and the guitars are like lightning strikes. Nico McBrain's drums build in volume and pace, before the band crashes in metal harmony into a climax. Suddenly a tremendous double layered guitar solo arrives, as Murray and Smith battle it out.

      The next track 'The Prophecy' sees our seventh son battle with his gift / curse. He has had a vision of a disaster to befall his village, but no one is listening. He is trying to follow the path of good but no one cares. In the background, Lucifer waits and smiles. It is all very Star Wars. Will the lad choose the dark side? The outro to this track is beautiful. The song fades into an acoustic piece, two guitars in harmony, sounding like something from a Royal Court in the middle ages. The next track 'The Clairvoyant' then kicks in with a sensational bass introduction. It's hard and vibrant and so utterly Steve Harris. He has a way of slapping those strings which make it sound like he is playing two instruments. Then the guitar joins in with a glorious and uplifting melody, before the drums crash in furious perfection. The seventh son is worried. He doesn't know if he can control his powers. Another top ten smash in the UK charts; a phenomenal hit single achievement, far exceeding any of their previous triumphs.

      The final track is 'Only The Good Die Young' where we are informed the 'evil seem to live forever' - the album ends with a very similar piece to that which introduced the work. Presumably our hero has popped his clogs. Or has he? Maybe he has chosen the dark side after all. When you think about it, this album is Harry Potter as much as it is Star Wars.

      This album was vastly superior to the previous Maiden album and for me is their last classic release. It represents their high water mark and should be regarded as a cornerstone of heavy metal. The music establishment at the BBC didn't appreciate how many millions this band made for the record industry or had to hand over in income tax, etc. The like of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard were propping up the UK economy at one point.

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      • Marillion in general / Archive Music / 2 Readings / 2 Ratings
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        08.01.2011 23:22
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        Band survive ridicule of Jonathan Ross, Simon Mayo, et al

        Seemingly at odds with life in general, if you believe any of the rare comments made about this band. Well here's a novel proposition: perhaps far from being out of touch with the world around them, Marillion are a crucial reflection of our confusing times. I am listening to a live version of the track 'Neverland' just now; snow falling in the park outside. Out there, people are being murdered. People are getting sacked and divorced. But in here, in my mind, with this song; I am safe.

        I first heard the band when 'Kayleigh' and 'Lavender' were big UK hits. I remember reading a review of their appearance at the Donnington Monsters of Rock festival, and those hits received a fair few boos. People felt Marillion were their own private property, such was the following the band had. The first album I bought was 'Clutching at Straws'. It was dark and deliberate. None of the tracks pandered to the charts. There were even references to Scottish social issues, as Fish skilfully compared the barbed wire of Flanders to the barbed wire at Bilston Glen, in 'Slainte Mhah'. At school we had been asked to bring in tapes of a pop song with an issue, so I took my Marillion album to play the anti Nazi track, 'White Russian'. The tape wouldn't play. I was mortified.

        The first 3 Marillion albums were subsequently bought, each offering a new layer of delights, like a ridiculous trifle. They were all relatively dark , with the exception of the 'Misplaced Childhood' album. An early favourite song was 'Fugazi' - the lyric demanding to know where the poets and prophets were, struck a chord with me. The unreturned love of 'Script for a Jester's Tear' prepared me for heartaches to come. I was the fool; I was the jester. I regarded 'Misplaced Childhood' as a piece of genius. Being released relatively quickly after the first two albums, it was essentially a large musical suite, held together to form one massive piece. It flew against other musical trends and was reminiscent in that respect of Yes albums from the early 1970s. There were recurrent themes and imagery; enforced by each no release, both by the song sand the artwork by Mark Wilkinson - the rainbow, the magpie, the jester.

        On the 'Clutching at Straws; album the jester was more ambiguous in the artwork. His hat was stuffed into the pocket of one of the bar patrons - a character named Torch. Was Torch the jester or had he knifed the jester and stole his hat? This album was about the desperation of grabbing hold of something untrustworthy when sinking. The last straw was also the short straw and a device for snorting the 'star spangled clouds of cocaine on the mirror'. The mirror was also important. Fish sings about buying a drink for his companion in the mirror, a man with silvery hair. Is he seeing himself in the future or even a ghost of an ancestor?

        The new Marillion with Steve Hogarth didn't inspire me to begin with, neither did it disappoint me. I liked the songs on the 'Season's End' album, although felt they had written a list of issues on a piece of paper and tried to write about them; climate change, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the prison system, the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. The music was stronger than the lyrics - it was an album of atmosphere as opposed to poetry.

        The first great moment for the second Marillion was 'Brave' - which asked us to listen to it loud with the lights out. And I did so one lonely Hogmanay and was glad I did. The next album, 'Afraid of Sunlight' was every bit as good. Chart-wise, the band were gone. Any mention of them in the mainstream media was derogatory now. 'This Strange Engine' was the album which threw me and ultimately made a fool of me. I loved the first track so much that I never went beyond it. I didn't think anything else on the album could match it. I then heard the band were wanting money from fans to help pay for the next album. I got into Atari Teenage Riot at that point.

        I didn't hear of them again until 'Anoraknophoboia' and noted they had a new, relaxed sense of humour. There were a couple of fine moments on the album, especially 'When I Meet God'. This band were changing again but I didn't realise. I officially bailed out at that moment, the only passenger to escape from the burning Concorde. I did not think I would meet Marillion again. How was I to know the very next album was going to be one of their finest.

        Years passed and a rock mag gave away a free CD, including a track by Marillion from the 'Happiness is the Road' album - and I was shocked by how good it was. It was like Pink Floyd, minus the cynicism of Roger Waters. I went out and bought the 3 albums I had missed (or rather I got them from their innovative web site). I loved the 'Marbles' and 'Happiness...' albums especially, although 'Somewhere Else' didn't do much for me. The track 'Neverland' was enthralling, as was 'The Invisible Man'. I went over my old albums and finally listened to 'This Strange Engine'. The title track at the end of the album was one of the very best Marillion songs ever written. An absolute epic. The music they make now is very visual. It opens up inner landscapes. The lyrics are both dream like and provocative. You could say Marillion are making some very progressive music.

        So there you go, that's me a Marillion saddo for the second time in my life. I couldn't be more pleased.

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      • More +
        08.01.2011 21:22
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        An overlooked Marillion album

        'Holidays in Eden' from 1991 represented Marillion's continued attempts to understand life without their original vocalist, Fish. The new vocalist Steve Hogarth was still battling to win over the original fans of the band, who were now considering the relevance of the outfit. The subsequent two albums (Brave and Afraid of Sunlight) would see the band re-establish themselves as a creative force. Therefore 'Holidays in Eden' can be viewed as an important, although often overlooked, series of steps on the road to Marillion version 2.0

        I was first struck and initially disappointed by the album's cover, because it was the first Marillion album not to feature their distinctive band logo. This was the right thing for the band to do, but many fans saw it as a betrayal at the time. Original album illustrator Mark Wilkinson had followed Fish on his solo career, so the band decided the time was now right for a clean break from the past. Musically, this album has very little in common with Fish-era Marillion. The band - many years later - stated they regretted retaining the name Marillion and 'Holidays in Eden' certainly sounds like a completely different group to the one who gave us big hits like 'Lavender' and 'Kayleigh'.

        The albums opens with a keyboard theme, building into 'Splintering Heart'. The opening lyrics are all very well; however the style of lyric is very different to those of Mr Derek William Dick (Fish). As the song builds there is a sound like a door slamming. It sounds like mid 80s UK pop / rock at this stage, not unlike Go West. Suddenly Steve Rothery's soaring electric guitar and Mark Kelly's piano take us back to familiar Marillion territory. The song is not a memorable one; a bad choice to start this important album with. The old fans were still needing to be convinced and this track doesn't do it. Track 2, 'Cover My Eyes' begins with classic Marillion bass from Pete Trewavas. It's fast and rolls along nicely. Suddenly, the chorus is here and it's a belter. This one has got Top of the Pops written all over it. The number 33 chart position was partly due to the likes of Radio 1 ignoring this band.

        For track 3, 'The Party', the tempo is way down; stripped bare piano and a heart felt introduction from Hogarth sets the scene well. A young girl is on her way to her first party. She's got the cider from the corner shop and is on the bus. She sees people from school but has never seen them act like this before. The song builds. The girl is in a back room full of weird aromas (drugs, etc). She is spotted by a man and innocence is lost. From the lyric, it is clear the man at the party has either persuaded her to take a drug or has spiked her with the likes of LSD. The song swirls along with the girl's head as she experiences an Alice in Wonderland moment. Then there is the comedown. The song slows. A new day has dawned and girl opens her eyes. The man is there: 'Oh by the way, welcome to your first party'. In the hands of others, this could have been clumsily done, but the quaintness of the lyric with its references to cider and corner shops, keep the song valid.

        Then comes 'No One Can' - another candidate for the hit parade. A mid tempo love song; bold and assured. Before love, days were boring and meaningless: 'A Greyness I used to call Freedom'. The chorus helped get this one to number 33, but it deserved so much more. All manner of people could cover this song, from Annie Lennox to Take That and it would sound great. The title track comes next, introduced by the sounds of birds as if in a forest and for a moment we are back in an earlier Marillion song, 'Garden Party'. Just then a plane is heard and we are in a song about going on holiday. But this is no package affair; it sounds more like a song about gap years and backpacking. The track is fast and rammed with energy. The character in the song feels no guilt; no one back home can see them now. But eventually the money is gone and they head back. Neighbours and friends now look suspiciously at them, as if they have changed. And maybe they have. I have never been to Goa or Ibiza, so I couldn't really confirm this. Things drop in pace for 'Dry Land' - yet another UK hit single, but number 34 was a travesty. It is a mid-tempo song which Duran Duran could have released. Track 7 is 'Waiting to Happen'. It is delicate and acoustic. Just Hogarth backed by a guitar. He is awake and listening to a loved one sleep. He spent his days in a 'spiritual third world' and is trying to move away from 'the famine of our days'. Now the rain is here and he feels rejuvenated and anything is now possible. Musically, I felt it never lived up to expectations, falling short of grandness.

        Track 8 is also somewhat below par, being the poorest track on the album. 'This Town' is a speedy rocker, with Motley Crue bass and a standard rock riff. Lyrically things are better. The city is getting Hogarth down. It has turned him into something he doesn't like. The track is important lyrically because it sets up the final 2 tracks, being connected to them, as if part of a three track suite, just like the Marillion of old. 'This Town' suddenly turns into 'The Rake's Progress' - a nod and a wink to 2 Hogarths, one an artist and the other a singer. We are challenged to imagine the original illustration. We see London, the city, and the rake within it. This song then blends into part 3 of the suite, '100 Nights'. Steve Hogarth is the rake. He recounts 100 nights of parties. The bourgeois have invited him to their parties in their fine homes. They regarded him as a bit of a 'turn' - but when he looks up at the mirrors, he can no longer see himself.

        The songs is slow for the most part, with a steady Rothery theme on the guitar, before Ian Mosley's drums explode and Rothery soars. The lyrics focus on a second character; another man, the husband of one of the high society women at the parties. I can pictiure Hogarth going down the stairs, perhaps in a plush members club or casino. He passes a powerful man, surrounded by his yes men, perhaps an industrialist or a banker, politician or oligarch; a duke or viscount. He doesn't notice Hogarth or his kind, but Hogarth is having the last laugh: "She spends your money on me!" He has rifled the rich man's clothes and put on his aftershave when he is out leading the rat race. I can picture the central character of the song wearing a tie belonging to our powerful villain. As our rake leaves the building, I can see the villain suddenly stopping in his tracks; as if to say. 'don't I have a tie like that?' For me, the last 2 songs really make this album.

        The rest of this release are bonus 'add-ons' - including another Marillion hit, a cover version of 'Sympathy' - reaching a surprising number 17 in 1992. On the back of that, 'No One Can' was re-released and made it to number 26. I don't see the point of the rest of the album (the bonus material of re-mixes and the like). I want to here the album, not the cast offs. Let's get back to one disc releases.

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      • More +
        06.01.2011 14:52
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        Most anticipated album in recent times

        A strange noise pours out of a dark room in the heart of a Malibu mansion, heavy like fog, smelling of the very depths of the Pacific Ocean. A 40 year old man with long red hair leans back on his chair and stairs into the blackness of the recording studio walls, searching for answers; for wisdom. The approaching forest fire does not concern him. He couldn't care less if everything around him burned. The American troops heading to Afghanistan do not concern him; he couldn't care less if they burned. He has more important matters on his mind.

        The release of the album 'The Chinese Democracy' in November 2008 was the culmination of years of work by vocalist / writer W. Axl Rose. The previous studio album of original work had been released in 1991, when Guns n' Roses were the biggest rock band in the world. Following a psychological coup of the band by Axl during the subsequent tour, all the other original members of the band left in frustration and disgust. Axl and band mate Izzy Stradlin had both written tracks named '14 Years' - a seemingly prophetic title when we consider how long Axl spent working on Guns n' Roses follow-up album. By 2001, people were scratching their heads at the vastness of it all; how long does it take to make an album? The album is nearly finished and will be released this year, became an annual claim. Due to the hype and terminal 5 baggage which haunted this album, it can be difficult to review 'The Chinese Democracy' as a music record, in the same way the Koran cannot be reviewed merely in terms of it being a book. 'The Chinese Democracy' represents an idea.

        The title track opens the record, a swirl of faint aquatic noises is overtaken by conversational Chinese voices, which give way to a noise similar to early Marillion guitar ('Fugazi' 1984) before a metallic crush destroys it, sounding like an industrial printing press. Axl tells us 'It don't really matter' as if the last 17 years didn't mean anything. It's a modern, industrial rocker - there is nothing revolutionary about the track, but a decent track none the less. Track number 2 'Shackler's Revenge' starts with another industrial scream, like a laser burning into metal. Again this is more Nine Inch Nails than Guns n' Roses. As a song it is fine, but you can understand why Guns n' Roses fans often deride this album; they don't like it by track two. The guitar work is superb and convoluted. Track number 3 is called 'Better' and begins with some laid-back electronic drum loops. I can almost picture Guns n' Roses fans ripping the disc from the CD player. If Dido did a cover version of this, it would probably be a hit.

        'Street of Dreams' comes next - the first sublime track of the album. A piano introduction gives way to a tender vocal. Love has been lost and Axl has got 'the blues' - all is not wonderful on this road he is on. He keeps seeing a face of a loved one. He once thought they were beautiful inside but now realises he was wrong. The next track 'If the World' commences with an Arabian acoustic guitar before melting into a laid-back James Bond theme. The drums are all jazz. I can almost see Daniel Craig walking away as the 007 titles appear at the end of the film. Track 6, 'There Was A Time' is another cracker. A beautiful choral introduction floats into a strong lyric, backed with strings. Axl doesn't sound bitter as he recalls a failed relationship; it was simply the wrong time for them. The song builds with some great guitar and sing-a-long refrain. The guitar is the best on the album so far. At the Rock n Rio comeback gig a voice in the crowd screamed "Where's Slash?" - when you hear the guitar at the end of this song, you don't care where he is.

        Any song named 'Catcher in the Rye' is putting a load on its own shoulders, but Axl carries the weight. It's a gentle song, although at one point Axl says he wishes he had a gun. There is a clever reference to the novel's title late on with "How a body took the body" evoking Robert Burns original misinterpreted song. This song may be more Mark Chapman than JD Salinger however. There are lots of references to a gun. I was not enamoured by the next track, 'Scraped' - another industrial assault. I kept expecting a big chord change late on, which never came. The next track 'Riad n' the Bedouins' begins with strange noises, like something from a modern Japanese horror movie, before a speedy guitar riff and vocal kick-in. 'I aint crazy' shouts Axl before letting out a mad scream. This portion of the album is the weakest point in terms of song writing, but the lyric is very interesting. This song may actually be about Axl's post September 11th feelings. Axl tells is he will not bend his will to nomads or barbarians. Lyrically this track sails worryingly close to 'One in a Million' - Axl's controversial lyric from 1988 which has caused him so much criticism.

        All of a sudden track 10 drops the pace considerably. 'Sorry' starts as a relaxed country ballad and pretty much stays that way. Axl is speaking to someone who has committed a perceived wrong against him. That narrows it down to 1 million people, from Vince Neil to Slash, to every music journalist in the world. The next track 'I.R.S.' starts very quietly again, with slow electronic beats, overlaid by some unobtrusive guitar. Again, someone has dared upset Axl and he is going to get the FBI and the President to sort them out, before admitting he's 'carried on like a broken record for so long'. The song then ends with a Black Sabbath 'Iron Man' style riff stuck in the mix.

        'Madagascar' starts with a sublime brass section, but can the rest of the track live up to such an introduction? Axl's voice is pained. There are slow dance beats in the background. Axl is strung out and coming down. He can't find his way back. Lyrically enigmatic, this song gives way in the middle section to a series of quotes, primarily by Martin Luther King. Apparently there is some 'Braveheart' in there. Surprisingly there is a quote from 'Cool Hand Luke' - the same piece used at the very beginning of the Guns n' Roses 'Use Your Illusion II' album. The 'failure to communicate' line was very prophetic, when you consider Axl's communication issues. with so many people he has known. Violence can be the last desperate attempt by a person to communicate. Axl is not quite there yet; he is still attempting to communicate through his music.

        'This I Love' is the penultimate track - another interesting introduction sharply turns into a gentle piano ballad. Its strength is its initial simplicity. No complications, just a sweet, heart felt tune, underpinned by the best vocal on the album. A guitar then begins to sing on its own before being cloaked by the track. There are what sound like flutes in the background. The outro is delicate and poised. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would have been proud to have written this fine song. The final song is 'Prostitute'. There are more sluggish dance beats and a sweet vocal from Axl, as he talks about the love of another being 'fed by perversion and pain'. He talks about prostituting himself for 'fortune and shame'. The end of the song is dramatic. The beats fade out, but a slow piano remains with strings. And we are back in that bunker in Malibu. You can almost the Pacific waves.

        No album is ever going to live up to a 17 year wait, especially in this age of blandness. The truth is, Axl the perfectionist spent far too long embedded in this war for democracy. He had no exit strategy. In the end it was publish and be damned. The album is hard to appreciate at first listen. It took me 2 years to understand it. It is musically complex and multi-layered. Despite all those dance beats, it is the truth of the guitar playing which rings out true. This is still a rock album. The lyrics are enigmatic and pained, but with a sense of hope for the future.

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        • More +
          04.01.2011 17:14
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          The best rock biography ever.

          I always thought Motley Crue were cartoon characters but this biography completely changed my perception of them. I now believe they are scum. I don't mean that in a bad way; to be scum in the heavy metal world is an accolade. Before this book, the popular music autobiography was the home of safe, smug performers explaining how they owe it all to God and a good manager. Following the publication of this book, the musical autobiography is a place of sleaze, cocaine and filth. But try as they might, they cannot knock 'The Dirt' from its throne in the underworld.

          We have Nikki Sixx (not his real name) on bass. A child of glam rock on the hunt for drugs, sex and fame in early 1980s Los Angeles. Then there is Tommy Lee on drums, apparently stupid like most rock drummers. Mick Mars is on guitar - older and with experience in the music world, a dwarf-like enigma to his band mates. Finally, there is Vince Neil - straight outa Compton - all blonde hair, like a surfer who has ram raided an Anne Summers shop window. That these 4 wastes of space could make any decent music was always going to be doubtful, but they achieved that and much more.

          'The Dirt' shocked me for its brutality - an admission of near rape on a young rock chick in a closet was sickening and honest. When The Crue were trying to make it they lived in a sleazoid apartment / open sewer which had an immense reputation for hard partying. The book details much of the madness which took place there. Credit to the management and publicity people behind the band, they did a good job in the 1980s of playing down the bands antics. I now realise Nikki's weird lyrics are autobiographical. When he writes about getting thrown in the trash in London, he is actually recalling a real event. He got wasted, he got battered.

          Whether as a deliberate ploy or as a coincidence, the reader begins to feel sorry for each of the band members as they relate a tragic event in their lives. With Nikki Sixx, it's his too late discovery of a secret big sister who was institutionalised. He makes plans to visit her, only to discover she has just passed away. Then there is the death of Vince's daughter. His description of her tumour is painful to read. For Tommy it is being sent to prison (a proper hard prison) and the brutality and dehumanisation he underwent.

          I always liked Motley Crue's music but regarded them as runner's up when Guns n' Roses broke through. Guns n' Roses seemed so demented and real and Motley Crue looked like bizarre cartoon figures and as a result it was difficult to take them seriously. But while Guns n' Roses were busy making faces for the cameras of the music press, Crue were literally dying (and being revived) from smack overdoses. It turns out they lived it like they sung it.

          The most frustrating part in the book was when the band and Vince parted company after their biggest album - Dr Feelgood in 1989 - you just wanted to bang their heads together. I think anyone who reads this book will have a new respect for the band. I have read so many rock books, but the honesty of this one sets it apart. I rate it as the best rock biography ever. Don't get me wrong, they are still a bunch of scum who would thieve the sugar from a cup of tea, but you can't help loving them. In an age of X Factor and engineered celebrity, we need Motley Crue.

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        • Pump - Aerosmith / Music Album / 7 Readings / 7 Ratings
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          04.01.2011 14:00
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          A sexy album

          This is the greatest album Aerosmith released. It contains the best collection of songs, their greatest period of musicianship and the best production on any of their albums. If you then add the best album cover they ever produced, it makes it a perfect release. People do say the first thing a junkie becomes aware of after they have finished coming off the drug, is the re-establishment of their sex drive. 'Pump' is a very sexy album, made by a bunch of no-good former smack heads who found themselves scratching the walls, using the music as a means of unloading their masculine frustrations. The prior album from 1987 was also drug free, but 'Pump' is where the band rediscover their mojo.

          The opening percussion and riff of opening track 'Young Lust' is a statement of intent. Your daughters are not safe - we are horny and have come for you all. Singer Steve Tyler screams 'sometimes you got to scratch that itch' and the track thunders along before only just managing to avoid a premature musical ejaculation, being cut off by a pounding drum barrage from Kramer, before slotting into the second track, 'F.I.N.E' without the batting of an eye. This track is slightly slower but still trots along at an assured pace. Tyler is 'whooping' in the background, dreaming of French kisses and bemoaning a lack of 'rubbers'. Midway through the track there is a dramatic, yet accomplished change of pace, before Tyler sings 'let's put our clothes back on, by the way what's your name again?' The rest of the band then get a well deserved name check. 'I haven't made love now for 28 weeks' says Tyler, before the songs ends. Another connection technique is used to link to the next track, a lyric from the 1987 'Permanent Vacation' album is recited in the background and is then over-dubbed by a spoken word introduction to track 3, 'Love in an Elevator'. We are in said elevator (and that's an elevator, not a lift) in an old department store. A female elevator attendant announces the floor to the passengers. We are on the second floor (ladies lingerie). Steve Tyler gets in and the sexy attendant says: "Oh, good morning Mr. Tyler, going down?" Tyler gives a suggestive laugh. He is indeed going down and is taking us all with him.

          The riff to 'Love in an Elevator' was one of the very best of the 1980s. Every instrument and Tyler himself appear to be playing it. There is plenty of anthemic 'whoa-yeah' in the background and an astounding guitar solo from Joe Perry. This was the lead single from the album and reached number 13 on the UK singles chart. After hearing these 3 opening tracks I was of the opinion I owned a very special album. It is one of the best openings to any hard rock album. I was doubtful if they could keep it up for the rest of 'Pump' but these dudes had staying power. 'Monkey on My Back' is an ode to the junkie days, but it's not an apologetic or down key song. It has a tremendous infectious riff and passionate playing throughout. Hamilton's bass is both determined and sleazy. There is some cracking fast slide guitar.

          'Janie's Got A Gun' is preceded by a short them named 'Water Song' - which sounds like something from a US slasher film. 'Janie's Got A Gun' is slow and atmospheric and piano based, the first time on the album where the pace has slowed. It tells the story of a girl who shoots her abusive father. It sounds depressing but is in fact a great song and we are all rooting for Janie. Aerosmith practically re-invent the hard rock ballad with this song. The guitar solo is again masterful.

          This album was released in 1989 when vinyl and audio tapes were popular and the traditional side 2 of the 'Pump' is introduced by a short instrumental theme, very roots Americana. It helps set this album apart. 'The Other Side' opens up immediately and has another strong guitar / vocal riff as an introduction. Backing vocals seem to include Tyler himself and it sounds like there is some punchy brass on the track. The brass works because there is something old fashioned about the album. All the mention of elevators and the cover with the suggestive picture of the 1940s trucks place this album in a strange time and place. The production is so unlike most 1980s production. It is as if Bruce Fairbairn took the master tapes back to 1972 in order to complete them.

          'My Girl' is another ode to the joys of womanhood - Tyler tells us his girl is a 'bareback rider' and he is slipping in and out of love. There is no need for clever innuendo on this album. It is utterly bare faced. 'Don't Get Mad Get Even' starts with what sounds like a didgeridoo before melting into an old blues riff with a harmonica. The drum stomps and the guitars from Whitford and Perry are very 'Exile on Main Street'. the song ends with a vocal outro slightly reminiscent of the vibe from Sgt Pepper. Tyler groans as if marooned on a magic carpet. The song swirls and then fades out.

          The penultimate track is 'Voodoo Medicine Man' - a strange and atmospheric introduction called 'Hoodoo' precedes it, which sounds like a native American ceremony is taking place. Tyler states in a quiet spoken vocal he was dragged from the cradle and reared in the wild by wolves. As the hoodoo is placed, the main track commences. It is mid tempo with strange noises in the background. There are lots of weird noises on this album, helping to create a magical atmosphere. The song is like a ceremony intended to lift a perceived curse.

          The final track is 'What it Takes' - a weepy piano based rock ballad set aside from other ballads because it sounds almost deliberately off key. Tyler mourns a broken relationship. He lost out, probably during a heroin haze. He's back on his feet now but can't let go of a lost love. The pain is back. I think I can hear an accordion in there somewhere. The album ends with an outro - a sister track to the piece which started side 2. There is harmonica and what sound like a couple of spoons. It's all very Alabama 1865. Love it.

          When I bought the album upon its release I was initially unhappy with it. The lead track was 3 songs in and I was always fast forwarding the tape to get there. As a result I initially overlooked the rest of the album. Then I heard the band live on radio, second top on the bill at Castle Donnington in 1990. They came on and fired through the first 2 tracks from 'Pump' and within 1 minute I knew they were on top form. They played an incredible set, Jimmy Page joined them and when they walked off Concorde flew over. The gods of rock were with them.

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        • Cult - The Cult / Music Album / 8 Readings / 8 Ratings
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          04.01.2011 12:55
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          Cult abandon stadium rock in favour of grunge

          Immediately prior to the release of this album, the Cult had released a compilation of their hits named 'Pure Cult' which was supplemented by a track named 'The Witch'. The aforementioned track was a faux-trendy taste of the strange fruits to come, because 1994's 'The Cult' saw the band attempt to reinvent themselves as grunge-friendly intellectuals. Gone was the stadium rock of the 'Sonic Temple' and 'Ceremony' albums from 1989 and 1991, replaced by songs which name-checked Nirvana's recently shotgun blasted Kurt Cobain. At the time it seemed like an absolute desperate sell-out and failed to find a following amongst grunge fans anyway. Stadium rock bands such as Iron Maiden and AC/DC weathered the grunge storm and survived; while the Cult entered relative musical obscurity following the release of this album.

          When I first heard it I was initially annoyed by the change of direction. The uplifting anthems, riffs and melodies were gone, replaced by an almost avant-garde down tempo opening track named 'Gone' - a strange off-key piano giving way to a depressing lyric full of angry expletives. The drums and percussion had lost all width and were now tight and constricted and very 'indie' - almost a deliberate attempt to dilute musicality in favour of a punk ethos. The only thing more ridiculous would have been if Bon Jovi had released a cover version of 'Anarchy in the UK'.

          The second track (and lead single) was 'Coming Down' - all about drugs and hedonism, as if the band were trying to get away from the 'Just Say No' of the 1980s, towards a cool, immaculately stoned stance. The verses were depressing although the chorus was uplifting, like the Cult of old. 'Real Grrrl' sounded like an attempt to bond with the 'Riot Girl' phenomenon. Snake skin rockers Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy were what the riot girls were trying to break away from. Although to look at them in 1994, with there short hair and nightclub clobber, it looked like the Cult had undergone a visual makeover too. The long hair, cowboy hats and leather trousers were all gone. The album cover was weird and mysterious and very art-school.

          'Black Sun' starts with a lyric standing up for a 'defenceless child' who has been beaten. Suddenly the Cult were about social issues. Songs about models and fire women had been discarded. The song itself was another downbeat track. It sounded like the Cult were trying to put us all on a downer. 'Naturally High' barely deserves a mention - it utilises some Beatles 'Tomorrow Never Knows' effects, name checks Jack Kerouac and tells us about 'friends who died very young'. For a young man into rock this was all very depressing. I was not high after listening to this track. 'Joy' actually has a guitar riff and also some nice Doors organ too. Lyrically it's all very self centred, about 'altering my state of mind' and at one point Astbury murmurs 'Viva la Revolution' in an accent. He then mentions a 'crazy hippy girl' for the second time on this album. He wants to be at Glastonbury now and not at Castle Donnington. Hippies and ravers are what he is after, rock is out, rock is no longer cool. The Cult are quite shamelessly abandoning a sinking ship.

          The next track is 'Star' - a definite weak link in the album, with electronic bleeps and deliberately slapdash drumming. It is basically a Jesus Jones B Side. Then we come to the first great track of the album, despite what could have been the most cringing lyrics of 2004: 'River Phoenix was so young, don't you know your prince is gone'. The thing is I think the Cult were being serious and the lyric becomes touching. Sixties icon Abbie Hoffman gets a mention as does Kurt Cobain: 'Sad to see this poet's gone' sings Astbury, and gets away with it. Astbury asks us 'What is Holy in your life?' I wonder what is Holy in Astbury's life, such as the fans from 1987 or 1989. The lyric fades and all that remains is a piano refrain. It's a beautiful song.

          'Be Free' immediately ruins it all - a naff riff and Red Hot Chilli Peppers funk. Then we have 'Universal You' - the introduction sounds like the introduction to 'Lithium' by Nirvana, only slower and far heavier. Astbury then states 'All God's children, they got heart, they got swagger, they got truth' and announces he has a 'pagan heart'. It's as if he is shouting out to the new generation. He realises he climbed on the wrong boat in the 1980s. However the old Astbury betrays himself with 'All God's daughters, they got ass, they got class'. Normal service is resumed! Perhaps Billy Duffy wrote that line.

          'Emperor's New Horse' is nothing - a poised introduction descending into a virtual jam. We end with 'Saints are Down' - and what an ending. With 'Sacred Life' it represents a high point in the album. The introduction is slow and quiet, stripped down drum beat and acoustic guitar. Astbury is reflective as he repeats the 'Saints are Down' refrain. He begins to get uptight and seems concerned. These 'Saints' are gone and not coming back. They are in the ground and buried upside down. These 'Saints' sound like Astbury's martyrs - his beloved Kerouac and Hoffman, Phoenix and Cobain. A woman's voice is then heard, singing in the background, but her hymn cannot be deciphered.

          This song and 'Sacred Life' are the saving graces of this album. I forgave the Cult for cutting off their hair and throwing out the leather jeans. But did they ever forgive themselves? Grunge was on its last legs and in some respects this album was the nail in the coffin.

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          • Sony Ericsson C902 / Mobile Phone / 5 Readings / 4 Ratings
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            31.12.2010 19:15
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            Attractive phone with possible software issues

            When I walked into the O2 store in order to upgrade my old phone, I was dazed by the whiteness of it all. I showed 'Ryan' my old phone and he quickly called over a fellow worker - they were shocked I still had such a phone (and the original box) and before I understood what was happening to me, a Sony Ericsson C902 'cybershot' had been handed to me by 'Ryan' and it was now my phone.

            The sleekness of the device, the mystical blackness of the thing, drew me closer. It seemed too thin for a start and I questioned whether or not a working mobile phone could operate within such a small housing. I was assured by 'Ryan' that this C902 was the phone for me as I had mentioned to him I enjoyed taking photographs. Like a magicians wand being extended, the phone was suddenly slide across and became longer. This simple motion had activated a camera / film mode. The large display allowed me to see what I was filming. At the top and bottom were beautiful blue lights, which allowed features to be accessed. A quick touch on one blue icon switched the phone to video mode, another icon activated the camera flash. It all looked good, but could it take a decent photo?

            Back home, I was following Ryan's instructions and was getting it all charged-up. Once ready, I snapped away with the 5 mega pixel camera. I had no intention of making this phone my primary camera, so wasn't disappointed with the 5 mega pixels. For me, this was a massive leap anyway, having previously owned a mobile phone invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

            I noticed quite a lot of dust build up in the area which slides open when the camera is activated and I am always having to wipe it down. Despite having it for a year the scratches on the phone are minimal. It seems relatively sturdy. The charger slots in easily and has never let me down. It seems to go a long time without needing a charge.

            I have never come close to filling the phone memory and an additional option would be to buy a memory card if required. Transferring material to and from the phone to a computer is easy, thanks to a separate wire which comes with it.

            The phone display can be customised with a variety of themes - there aren't too many to choose from. It came defaulted to a James Bond theme which I swiftly deleted. Ryan had tried to tell me he was giving me James Bond's phone. I had smiled and nodded and considered Ryan had been drinking too much dry Martini.

            Now we come to my gripes. When the phone is not locked, it is too easy for the internet button to be pressed. Before you know it you've been surfing the web for 2 hours. I'm not John Paul Getty - that sort of thing could bankrupt me. As for the internet option, browsing is as slow as a week in the jail. It's very Acorn Electron when trying to badmouth people on Facebook or outbid someone for a Westlife calendar on E-bay.

            Also, 2 months after I received this phone, it began to act up and stopped switching on. It had to be sent away to the manufacturer and staff at the store claimed it was a software fault. When I got the phone back it worked for about 6 months and the same thing happened. My faith in this phone was gone. Staff at the store explained on this occasion it was not a software fault, rather the software was ready to be upgraded. They helpfully explained this can be done via the Sony website. I followed the instructions and was able to download software into the phone by plugging it into my laptop and it worked straight away. I believe 'upgraded' is salesman speak for 'error'. If it happens again, this phone is history. Numbers lost twice, messages evaporated. A mobile phone needs to be reliable. So much for it being the phone James Bond uses. The defence of the realm thrown into jeopardy due to a 'software error'.

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            • More +
              31.12.2010 18:32
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              Old favourite is now riding on the back of its reputation

              I had heard quite a lot about the Drover's Inn, which is situated just a short drive beyond the northern tip of Loch Lomond. We had informed the venue of our specific time of arrival well in advance and at the stated time myself and my partner entered within and made our way to the reception desk. My immediate impression was they had gone over the top with their Halloween decorations - fake webs and plastic spiders adorned the walls - someone had obviously been shopping at Poundland. As if that wasn't bad enough, the general clutter of the reception area was overpowering. There was a stuffed bear and lots of other stuffed critters. The room was very dark so I couldn't get a good look at the display. I did see one interesting item - an old Scots military jacket of an unusual type - which should be in a museum.

              When the receptionist attended she did not look pleased to see us. We explained we were here to check-in and the look on her face coupled with her reply and the way she said it, was translated by myself as "Are You Serious!" She evidently felt we were too early, although we had explained we would be arriving at this time (12 noon).

              Once ensconced in our room, we had a good laugh at the décor and had a cup of tea and a biscuit. An original painting of a highland coo was on the wall and the bed was a sturdy four poster. The heating worked as did all the lights, kettle etc. There were clean towels and there was toilet roll etc. It was basic and boring. There was nothing wrong with it. Because it was off season we were in the main building with a view of the main road. Across the road are a series of lodges, which looked fairly modern. I was delighted to be in the old, allegedly haunted part of the Drover's Inn.

              Our bar meal in the evening was fine - you order at the bar and they bring it to you table. It was a cosy room with a few alcoves to snuggle up within. There were accents from all over the world. I didn't come across any regulars in the bar on that night. But if I lived nearby I would love it as my local pub. The rain was falling and the wind was howling, but I felt nice and snug within.

              Back in my room at night, I stayed awake in order to meet the ghosts, but none appeared. I heard a group of people leave the bar and head to a car. I ran to the window and stuck my head between the curtain. As the room was directly above the main signage, my seemingly floating face was illuminated by a strange glow. As the car drove past, an occupant in the rear passenger seat got quite a shock. I went back to bed and went to sleep, but was awoken at around 4 am by a maniac in a car, doing about 100 mph. I had to get up for the loo and couldn't get back to sleep. Thanks, mate.

              The breakfast room was dark and the breakfast was average. I had a full English, but Morrison's supermarket does a better one. The guests at the next table stated how rude it had been for someone in the room next to theirs to flush the toilet at around 4 am. If I had known the flush fascists were in town, I wouldn't have bothered.

              So that was the Drover's Inn. I have stayed in worse places. In summing up, the bar was cosy with good food. The rooms were plain. The breakfast was average. The first appearance ruined by the indignation from the receptionist. Probably won't go back.

              In order to do anything locally you must be prepared to walk or have access to a car. This is after all the countryside. There is a train station nearby ay Ardlui, allowing access to Glasgow city centre.

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              31.12.2010 17:49
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              Vast and peaceful - one of the few relaxing places in Paris

              I trudged on foot to Pere Lachaise cemetery, from the direction of the Place de la Republique, first negotiating a street protest and then what seemed like 8.2 million cars and scooters. Eventually I made it across to the Avenue de la Republique and got into an assured stride. It was an early autumn morning and the boulevard was reasonably quiet. I had read somewhere (probably in a Jim Morrison biography) that the cemetery was huge and I became worried I would be gasping for tea later in the day, so I nipped into a lovely patisserie close to my destination. I'm convinced it was the same place I later saw in a film named 'Paris' starring Juliette Binoche. The main character in the film has an apartment overlooking the cemetery, so maybe I am right.

              I knew I had reached Pere Lachaise because I saw two drunk tramps hanging about near a portaloo. Beyond them stood the grey walls of this mournful citadel. I entered through what I took to be the main gate on Boulevard Menilmontant. Turns out I could have got the Metro, but I was new in town and wanted to psyche myself up before heading below. It was free to enter - only the graveyards and parks are free in Paris. Everywhere else is rip-off city.

              Once within, appreciating the scale of the necropolis, I decided to attempt to view it in sections, starting on my immediate left hand side. The first thing which threw me were the statues and busts which adorned the graves or were in fact the graves themselves. I saw an emerald green statue an old chap waving a sword (the blade was gone) and was taken by the look on his face and so began a long day of amazement followed by photographs.

              Many of the graves were in fact small crypts dedicated to entire families. Each had a door and in many cases a window. Some appeared to have been long since forgotten and I considered the grave of my grandfather and how small and grubby that was. I got right in amongst the graves and crypts. I was ashamed at first, but it was very quiet and some of the most interesting busts and statues were hidden away off the main Avenues of death.

              I noted many crypts had no doors to front them and I stepped inside them. Some had empty beer bottles within, but on the whole the cemetery was relatively free from garbage when you consider the scale of it. Just then, a young man in black asked me if I spoke French. I replied 'non' and he rattled through the same question in a variety of languages. Exhausted by my non compliance, he smiled, shook his head and disappeared into the maze of concrete. He may have been a junkie or a George Michael fan, or he may even have been trying to give me the secret of existence - I will never now.

              I saw the memorial to those killed resisting the NAZI regime and noted a familiar name on the plaque. I realised the street I was living on had been re-named after one of the fallen. I stared at the wall were the last of the Commune were thrown against and shot. I heard the noise of children playing in a nearby school yard and the sun threw light onto the wall. It was lunch time already - time stands still in Pere Lachaise. I was gasping for some tea, but had to make do with some bottled water.

              Despite the cemetery being quiet and there not being too many tourists on the day I went, I noted a man placing flowers on a grave. I looked closely without causing annoyance; it was the chap who owned the café I had dined in the previous night. I acknowledged the coincidence and it made the day more magical for me. About 50 metres along from the grave of Oscar Wilde, but no so close as to be obvious, a man proposed marriage. Just then, another man (and I stress it was not me) lept out from behind a grave and began to wipe something from his shoe in a most vigourous manner, as if his life depended upon it. He stood directly in front of the couple for about one whole minute.

              I stopped to admire the crypt of the Famile Montgomery. From Scandinavia to Normandy, to England and finally to Scotland and Ulster - before a scion returned to France to both glory and infamy. I pondered my own ancestors and my insignificant place in Paris, let alone in the world. Would I have a grave when I died? Would anyone bring flowers to it and clean it?

              I was stopped in my tracks by a pyramid shaped crypt - certainly the oldest of that style in the cemetery - dating to the Napoleonic days, when the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the Battle of the Pyramids invented modern Egyptology. I was somewhat taken by surprise when I read the inscription and found the crypt held the remains of a man from the same part of the world as me. Quentin Crawford from Kilwinning. Subsequent research showed he was a friend of the Empress Josephine and had owned the Elysee Palace. His life, his existence, started a chain of events which led to the Elysee becoming the official residence of French premiers.

              Grave number 666 houses Kellerman - one of Napoleon's generals - though I admit I wasn't sure if it was Kellerman the Younger or his father. Marshal Ney was there also, in a wee corner where a lot of Napoleon's generals have been laid. The bullet riddled body of Marshal Murat - King of Naples - was in a tomb very close by, along with his wife Caroline, a sister of Napoleon. Marshal Davout is here also. Enthusiasts of the Napoleonic Wars would love Pere Lachaise. Alexander Walewski is there, the first son of Napoleon. David, who painted Napoleon, lies here. It's not all about Maria Callas and Balzac. When the tourists gather in numbers they head for those tombs, take a photo and scuttle back onto the coach.

              There is one tourist trap within Pere Lachaise which did interest me. Jim Morrison - singer with US group the Doors - has lain here in an embarrassment of a grave since 1971. Over the years his grave had served the function of ashtray and urinal - a meeting place for posers and faux anarchist intellectuals. I am a big fan, so I had to go. I knew I was close because someone had kindly written instructions and travel directions on other tombs. I was disappointed - what else could I have been. The grave was fenced in behind a crowd control barrier and was guarded by a cemetery attendant, just in case the 5 or 6 genteel persons gazing upon it, should suddenly attempt to overthrow the government. We made a sorry sight, leaning forward in a desperate bid to get a photo without the metal barricade spoiling the shot.

              I left them behind and exited through a smaller gate which led back onto the same street I had originally entered on. Those two tramps were gone and it felt safe to use the portaloo.

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              31.12.2010 16:40
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              Paco saves his career with surprisingly sane fragrance

              My initial attraction to this product was based on a belief that Paco Rabanne is mad and despised within fashion; therefore he is acceptable to me. I knew he had published a strange conspiracy theory book about the Anti-Christ living in London and his claim a Russian space station was about to crash into Paris. The man is a maverick and so is his fragrance 1 Million. When I first gazed upon it within the airport in Paris, I was drawn towards it. The shape and colour was beautiful and obscene. The gold brick was an affront to the poor of the world; to the suffering around us. I knew immediately I had to own this.

              When my suitcase was being checked by the security guard as I prepared to board the plane, he gazed upon the gold box. He knew although I was about to be squeezed into an Easyjet flight to Glasgow, I was now part of an elite, proud to own the fragrance of a mad man. I certainly smelled different. Despite the vulgarity of the product, the aroma was surprisingly subtle and not overly obtrusive. It was distinctive, but on the right side of gaudy. It is a smell women admire for its masculine flair, which evokes - for me - the coinage profile of Augustus or Hadrian. A Roman patrician would have loved this aroma. Cesare Borgia would have worn it. It is more Italian than Franco-Spanish. Having said that, it is more Venetian than Florentine Republic and more Papal States than Naples. It is regal and flamboyant, not anarchic, despite Paco's reputation which lies more or less in tatters following his strange 'cosmic' period. He was the laughing stock of Paris, but 1 Million is his saving grace.

              In terms of price, 30 pounds sterling for 50ml is about the going rate - a fair price for decadence. It is available in all manner of stores and malls. This off course means mingling with the hoi polloi, but a dose of this fragrance will soon take the smell away.

              Ideally an artist or poet, or even a gangster or a young man on the make with a sharp tie, would suit this. Bank managers and social workers probably less so. Also footballers from the lower leagues may wish to give it a go.

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                28.12.2010 17:49
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                Over the top resting place for an over the top man

                I can almost hear Napoleon howling with laughter in his tomb in the old Invalides hospital. He got exactly what he wanted with this. As he dictated his own history on St Helena, he was eyeing such a prize as this embarrassing shrine. Don't get me wrong, I love it - Napoleon was a great man; an administrator, a general, a writer, a self publicist and ultimately a great actor. This over the top monstrosity below a golden dome is testimony to his abilities as a fable maker. For you see, Napoleon was just a man - an interesting one - but a mere man none the less. To look at his tomb and the homo-erotic friezes which surround it, you could be forgiven for thinking some kind of messiah was within that curious block of weirdness. The man isn't even buried - he is literally inside a big cupboard on a plinth. The first thing which struck me about the tomb was in order to view it, you first have to approach a large circular platform and look down, as if staring into a pit. He has been positioned in a literal underworld. It is possible to go down to a level below and see the tomb from a lower angle. From there the bizarre friezes can be seen close-up. These show a muscled and topless Napoleon with a crown upon his head, looking like a prototype for the Village People. As much as I admire Napoleon, I was utterly disgusted with this image of the man with his arms outstretched like a messiah.

                There are some original artefacts on display including the man's old hat and grey greatcoat. There are also some other tombs of people not worth a mention (two of Napoleon's useless and perennially ungrateful brothers - one of whom - Jerome - is only fit to be buried in a pauper's grave). Hidden away behind a display is the tomb of Turenne. Napoleon would be outraged Turenne has been obscured in this manner. Napoleon's pal Duroc is hidden away in the vaults, as is Bertrand who went to St Helena with his master. A bad taste is left in the mouth when you consider Napoleon's heir (his third son Napoleon II - the first 2 being out with marriage) was interned within the Invalides by Adolf Hitler. Is it any wonder ill informed people like to draw comparisons between Bonaparte and Hitler. Still, Napoleon dearly loved that boy and it was touching to think they had been re-united in some capacity.

                Within the complex is the Army Museum which has an interesting World War II collection and an impressive selection of suits of armour. There is a also a museum dedicated to military models, which was reinvigorated by the first Emperor during his reign. I appreciate architecture and found this additional display very interesting - and it wasn't as busy as the other nooks and crannies. The souvenir shop is a class above the tat you normally see, but off course caters primarily to French speakers in terms of the books. At the front of the building there are some big cannon, which always good for a photo opportunity. They seem to point at the citizens of Paris, as if in anticipation of a riot or another revolution. I enjoyed staring menacingly at the tourist buses whilst having one hand on a cannon. Metro access is convenient and there are several nice cafes close by also.

                As a final note, the joke is actually on Napoleon because he may have got the tomb in the end (as opposed to the unmarked grave in the South Atlantic) but he hated the people - yet they scour about pointing and pontificating. Anyone can gawk and Napoleon can do nothing about it.

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                  23.12.2010 13:50
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                  A novel about hallucinogenic drugs and paranoia

                  This book about drug abuse through mind altering narcotics was enough to have me scratching at my skin in search for aphids and other hallucinatory insects. The book is consistently despondent whilst we follow in the filth ridden shoes of an undercover police officer, assigned to uncover the dealers of Substance D, the deadliest drug known. I felt sympathy for Bob Arctor, being forced to spend his life with idiots and psychotics such as Barris. Arctor has become as paranoid as the people he is spying on, due to his own decision to take Substance D. I normally dislike books set in the future, but this one was of a future which we appear to be heading towards ourselves. As a result I was able to empathise with the environment and setting. The web of surveillance cameras in the novel foreshadow the world of today and PKD at times is worthy of prophet status. In the end I wasn't sure whose side I was on - Arctor the cop or Arctor the tripped-out loser, abandoned by his superiors. PKD ends the novel by paying tribute to all those he knew whose lives were destroyed by drugs. A note on the subsequent film - as good as the book despite its poor showing in the cinema.

                  The novel is utterly negative and depressing. By the time you reach the end you feel like you are on Substance D yourself. It left me feeling hollow and morbid, which I believe, is what Philip K Dick would have wanted.

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                    23.12.2010 11:11
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                    Ballard the man. Understand the complexity behind his novels.

                    Essentially a biographical follow-up to 'Empire of the Sun' - this work follows JG Ballard as he makes his way in the world, from University to his period in the Royal Air Force during his National Service, to his eventual long sought sexual liaison with a female friend. Ballard follows Peggy to Cambridge in an attempt to become a doctor. For Ballard, the ancient edifice leaves him cold, describing it as a "fake gothic pageant with a cast of a thousand bicycles". Peggy worries about Jim and his decision to dissect a female cadaver at the medical school. She believes he has not changed since their time together as children in an internment camp during World War II. With his love rejected, Jim strikes out in the world and meets Miriam - thereafter becoming a volunteer in LSD sessions and developing his now infamous exhibition of crashed motor vehicles. Along the way we take in the BBC, CND and the JFK assassination, as Ballard strives for sense in an increasingly maddening world.

                    When Ballard hits middle age, he becomes pretty much a liability. The drug tests and the controversial 'Attrocity Exhibition' seem quite childish. It's as if he never grew up. Although a follow-up to 'Empire of the Sun' this work is far less popular. Shame really, because it is a better read. There is something rather amusing about watching a man (other than yourself) make such a mess of his personal life. Ballard probably felt he was living a controversial middle age and feels the need to let us know too. He throws in a few references to an SS training film, half expecting us to gasp; not realising we are on his side as readers. Ballard's audience is not that easy to shock. This is no criticism of the work - I didn't read it in order to be shocked. I read and enjoyed it because it gives a firm base to the characters in his fiction; the psychotic male doctor, the easily led writer, the dismissive female scientist. All these people existed in Ballard's life and he was apparently obsessed with them all, judging by the amount of times they keep popping-up in his novels.

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