Mike Oldfield as good as Can shock

In defence of Mike Oldfield.

Mike OldfieldIn a parallel universe, back in 1977 Mike Oldfield topped himself midway through the recording of his fourth album Incantations. Chronically depressed, painfully shy, he couldn’t take the adulation and the attention that his three hit albums had brought him. He’d hidden away in remote cottages, shut himself in studios and generally kept the world at bay for nearly five years. Now he was under some pressure from his label Virgin to take his music on the road. It was therapy or suicide and Mike chose to lock himself in the garage, turned on the engine and inhale that sweet sweet carbon monoxide.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just went Syd Barrett/Roky Erickson mental.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just disappeared and was never heard from again.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just suddenly quit music altogether and opened a chip shop.

Whatever happened, today all you pissy little hipsters with your bumfluff beards and skinny jeans and Morrissey haircuts and chunky specs just love him. The original vinyl copies of Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge that you paid way too much for nestle in your collection next to your original Jamaican copy of Big Youth’s Screaming Target and the Harmonia bootlegs and some unreleased Wooden Shjips 12 inches that you wank off over on a regular basis. The original Roger Dean Virgin label gives it a warmer sound, doesn’t it?

And you, bald over 40s bloke, would alternate the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures t shirt with a Tubular Bells one to show that you were still down with the avant garde kids.

And fucking Mojo would have Oldfield gazing soulfully from every fourth cover and the smug bastard Guardian would constantly run these 50 great lost album features about the greatest albums that were never made where Incantations would regularly pip Smile to the number one slot.

But when Schrödinger opened the box, the cat was still alive…

In the real world, Mike signed up with Exegesis, a rather nasty cult therapy group that cured its acolytes by physically and psychologically abusing them relentlessly, destroying them and building them up again, much as the Chinese commies did to all those Iowa farm boys back in the Korean war. Whatever they did, in Mike’s case, it worked. He was transformed from a shy retirer into a hyper-extrovert – some have said ‘overbearing cunt’ – obsessed by extreme sports, fast cars and powerful motorcycles. The Bill Oddy-like diminutive hippy was replaced by a confident clean cut chap in a hip white suit.

The music changed too, though in subtle ways. After 1978’s epic double Incantations, Mike abandoned the uncompromising album-length suites for a while. He toured. He had hit singles. He reworked the theme from Blue Peter. In some ways, in the 1980s he shadowed the trajectories of contemporaries like Yes and Genesis, moving from ‘head’ music to the heart of the mainstream.

In the post-punk musical marketplace, Mike was far from fashionable. He sold millions of records, certainly, but this was despite Virgin records rather than because of them. Can a man be more cursed than having his music filed under ‘new age’?

And while Yes and Genesis have been ‘rehabilitated’ – surely you’re prepared to admit that The Yes Album and Nursery Crymes have their merits? – Mike Oldfield is loved by no-one except his millions of fans. As one hater told me: there’s always a nagging suspicion that Tubular Bells is something that Jeremy Clarkson would like. You’d certainly prefer Dennis Nielsen as a fan. Which, of course, he was.

For me, the first four albums are staggering pieces of music, works that nearly 40 years on, I can still hear in new ways, still find new things in. I wore the grooves out on my first copy of Tubular Bells. I played it almost every night in 1973, power cuts permitting, and later used to ‘trip’ to it on Saturday afternoons. There are light and dark passages in Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn are both bleak and sad, a message from a man who was slowly going mad. The disturbing multiple overdubbed guitars on Hergest Ridge – like 10,000,000 bees swarming in a cathedral – and the maddening ever building crescendo on Ommadawn are still as potent now.

Oldfield’s music has more in common with Can, Faust and Guru Guru than with the homeopathic tinklings you hear in crystals’n’candles shoppes.

It’s not minimalist music, though it was a jumping-off point for me to discover Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Tubular Bells also pointed me in the direction of Soft Machine and the wilder edge of krautrock. It got me used to long-form pieces, ultimately softening me up for everything from John Coltrane to the Western classical canon.

More importantly, it whetted my appetite for music the like of which I had never heard before. Everything else that I was into at that time – Bowie, Roxy, Sabbath – all had some anchoring in the familiar. Oldfield’s music for good or ill encouraged me to seek out the shock of the new.

After Incantations I lost interest, though recently I’ve rediscovered just how good that album was. His best music in the 80s was filmic – his score for Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields is particularly good – though again, fine as some of it was, the best was at the start.

Perhaps it’s unfair to prefer the works of suffering artists. Would Van Gough be a painter of minor interest had fluoxetine been prescribed? Would Dostoyevsky’s novels be somehow shallower and less interesting if he’d undergone Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

It’s the gift of the artist to transform pain and suffering into something of worth and beauty.

Mike Oldfield created worlds and to enter them is to visit a landscape that’s as dreadful and unsettling as it is placid and pastoral. You feel the panic as well as – occasionally – the peace.


Queens Of The Stone Age – Rated R [Deluxe Edition]

This is a review of the anniversary deluxe edition, written for Classic Rock.

Rolling Stone’s 82nd best album of the decade. Tits.

There’s a case for saying that we’ve just been through yet another of rock’s golden ages.
The years between – roughly – 1999 and 2008 (please, ‘the noughties’ makes us puke) saw
Jeremiads about the death of guitars once again fail to come to pass. Great years for the
underground but they were also good times for very mainstream bands too, bands you saw on telly that your uncool mates might have heard of too. We got career-best albums from Machine Head, The Foo Fighters, Slipknot, Green Day, Judas Priest and Tool. We had awesome newcomers like Opeth, Mastodon, Coheed & Cambria, My Chemical Romance and The Mars Volta. And even Metallica eventually made a record that wasn’t totally shit.

The first great rock’n’roll release of the new decade/century/millennium was the second
album by Queens Of The Stone Age. Josh Homme never set out to be a trailblazer for
proper rock music, but things just kind of worked out that way. After years when the charts
were dominated by hip hop, pop and R&B, when ‘rock’ was a sickly category, either retro
fallout from grunge or Britpop or heritage acts stumbling onstage to die, here was an album
that sounded the way that a 21st century rock band should. Queens were robust and tough
and vibrant. They were eclectic. Queens had metal, punk rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock,
krautrock, glam rock – every damn variant of cool rock you can think of – wired into their

The opening lines of Feelgood Hit Of The Summer “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol” serve notice that this is no album by a bunch of businessmen with guitars. It ain’t U2. They were not here to service a demographic or to provide content between the ads on modern rock radio. Yes, oh my goodness, that’s drugs they’re singing about, mum. Cover your ears.

The self titled first QOTSA album was still really a Kyuss album. It was the last ‘stoner rock’ album that Josh Homme made. Rated R was something else again. Produced by Josh and Chris Goss, a long time friend and mentor of Homme’s, it made enough compromises to get the band on MTV without selling the essential soul of the band. It was made with a loose line-up of madmen and geniuses, a gentleman’s club of cool that included Rob Halford, Pete Stahl, Mark Lanegan, Barrett Martin and of course Nick Oliveri.

Even a decade on, the album well played and imprinted on the consciousness, you hear new stuff all the time. Like the robotic beats and repetitive riff on In The Fade, which call to mind both Neu! And The Groundhogs, sounds slippery and different every time you listen to it. Or the mellower low key psychedelia of Auto Pilot, which sounds strangely contemporary, suggesting a direction not taken that other bands could build an entire career around. And at first BetterLiving Through Chemistry sounded like a failed trip hop experiment; now it sounds futuristic and oddball again. Monsters in the Parasol is almost Doors-like, a dark surreal ode to dropping acid in the desert. Rated R progresses from the singles Feelgood Hit of the Summer and The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret through to the discordant brass annoyance at the end of I Think I Lost My Headache. It’s showing off. Homme wants us to know that this is a band that can do anything. You want MTV friendly fodder? He will just fuck you raw with MTV friendly fodder. You ask when Kyuss will reform? They’re still here, at the guts of QOTSA.

Songs For The Deaf, the third album, is arguably the better. But Rated R is still a magnificent work, seeming much bigger and broader than 11 songs over a mere 42 minutes.

To celebrate a decade since its release and generally reactivate interest in this album – it certainly doesn’t need remastering or anything – there’s a bonus disc of live material, most notably the Reading Festival show, as well as  -sides and oddities. Like all such discs, it adds precisely fuck all to your enjoyment of or knowledge of this album. It does remind you that the QOTSA live experience is not something to be missed. It pads the box nicely, too.

Whether the new golden age of rock’n’roll is already over is a moot point. Too much tongue in cheek retro, too many bands retreating back to the underground: mainstream rock might be in recession again. Josh Homme has been arseing around with joke bands and ironic supergroups for too long now. Hearing this ought to be the wake up call that demands he get back to his proper work. The next golden age is nothing without him.

Peter Hammill London Cadogan Hall

Live review for Classic Rock presents…Prog. I’ve been a fan of Hammill since I was about 14; I had a really ancient scratched copy of The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, swapped – as I recall – for a copy of Funky Junction Pay Tribute To Deep Purple and The Eternal Fire Of Jimi Hendrix. Well worth it.

You could hear a pin drop but nobody had the poor manners to actually drop any. Peter Hammill was paused to strike the piano and maybe sing some more. But in the few nano seconds after the reverberation of the last note faded, and the next begun, it was like being in the eye of a storm. Tense rather than calm.
The Mercy is the best song from his most recent solo album Thin Air and indeed one of his best songs ever: in many ways it is almost a typical Peter Hammill song. A beautiful, rippling melody, a complex structure that eschews the standard verse/chorus pattern and words shot through with anguish, loss, his voice always calm but on the edge of rage or a roar of pure pain.
It’s one of the night’s memorable moments. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff.
Hammill’s solo career has always run in parallel to his work with Van Der Graaf Generator, allowing him a more confessional and – sometimes – quieter platform for his writing. Tonight is proof that along with a rare coterie of songwriters – Neil Young, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are the only others that really spring to mind – his work in middle age is every bit as vital and engrossing as his work in youth. Arguable, more so.
In fact songs like (On Tuesday She Used To Do) Yoga, originally written and recorded in 1975 on the harrowing diary of the death of a relationship Over, take on an added edge of bitterness and wry self-deprecating humour coming from a bloke in his 60s.
Hammill is not some dysfunctional genius, some pained too-sensitive-for-the-world middle aged adolescent. Offstage, he’s probably as capable of banal moments in front of the telly as any of us. But over the past 40 years, as an artist, he has mined his own failings and shortcomings without quarter, exposing something raw and even embarrassing, something truly honest.
Sometimes in the course of this long and troubled performance, you actually wince at what he reveals. It’s like watching somebody confess at a show trial. Dressed all in white, alone onstage, he looks vulnerable.
Sometimes, though, it’s just a concert. You need a few of Hammill’s brilliant ‘greatest hits’ like Shingle from Nadir’s Big Chance – truly one of the great classic albums of the 70s that nobody knows about – and Habit Of The Broken Heart from Van Der Graaf’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome to balance out more recent material. But it’s songs like Friday Afternoon from 2006’s Singularity and Undone from Thin Air that actually prove the most intense and emotional points in the show.
Finishing with A Better Time from 1996’s excellent career high point album X My Heart, we leave feeling emotionally wrung out but in no doubt that we have been witness to one of the great English singer songwriters of the age with no signs that time has wearied him.

Buyer’s Guide to Jazz Rock

This is a piece written for Classic Rock in 2008. Normally I hate reading and writing stuff like this. Lists. Consumer guides. But I’m a whore. I did it for the money. I had a bit of ‘guidance’ with the list, so I probably wouldn’t have included Colosseum and would have put something by Soft Machine in its place. And whither George Duke, Spirit, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, Seventh Wave, Alan Holdsworth and newcomers Diagonal? I know, I know…

Miles DavisLet’s begin with a warning: jazz rock can be terrifying and it isn’t for everyone. But you can take comfort from the fact that it alienates and angers as many ‘proper’ jazz ‘buffs’ as it does rock fans. If you think Dylan going electric was a big deal, you should have heard the hissy fits from the hep cats when Miles Davis went on stage in the mid-60s and started playing along with a bunch of crazy muthas with Afros who fed their instruments through wah-wah pedals.

Jazz rock, or fusion, was the last gasp of jazz, the final surge of energy and creative power before lapsing into the hideous heritage industry that it has become today. Jazz rock is pretty hard to define. For bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra it involved hard rock structures but with complex, improvisational elements.

Rock and jazz have a few ancestors in common – the blues, even ragtime – but it wasn’t until the mid-60s that the two converged in what came to be known as jazz rock/fusion. Bands like The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and The Doors cited jazzers such as John Coltrane as major influences (listen to The Doors’ Light My Fire back to back with Coltrane’s Ole), although jazz fans and musicians tended to regard most rock as inferior.

By 1967, rock had become more creative, and for the first time jazz artists began to take influences from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, The Beatles and Sly & The Family Stone. There were also commercial considerations: jazz had waned as the dominant form of popular music.

It was a two-way street: rock artists like Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker and the late, great Tommy Bolin wanted to stretch themselves as musicians, and acceptance by the jazz fraternity was like passing the cycling proficiency test. Had he lived, there’s little doubt that Hendrix would have followed the logical course set by his Band Of Gypsies and become a jazz-rock star.

From roughly 1967 until the mid-80s, the intermarriage of jazz and rock produced some of the most stunning, original and mesmerising music of the 20th century (to be fair, it also produced more than its fair share of unlistenable toss.) Much of what we know as progressive rock – Yes, ELP, post-Red King Crimson – was essentially jazz rock lite. Today we can still hear the influence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis in bands as diverse as Tool, Mastodon and The Mars Volta.

Essential – The Classics

Birds Of Fire

CBS, 1972
“A person would be a moron not to appreciate [John] McLaughlin’s technique,” Frank Zappa once said. “The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as
if it were a machine-gun.”
Birds Of Fire was the Mahavishnu Orchestra at their absolute best, a multi-ingredient fusion – jazz, rock, blues, Celtic folk, Indian classical – churned out at an amazing breakneck speed.
John McLaughlin’s guitar work was staggering, and keyboard player Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman were also virtuosos. The seemingly telepathic interplay and improvisation is a joy to hear.


CBS, 1976
Beck was one of the few rockers to make the transition to jazz. His 1976 masterpiece Wired – particularly his cover of Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – is one of the few albums you could describe as jaw-dropping and mean it.
Entirely instrumental, and at just under 35 minutes comparatively short, Wired is an album that passes in a blur of high-speed funk, ultra-heavy technoflash guitar solos and thrilling power chords. Yes, it’s Beck shamelessly showing off, but it’s hardly self-indulgent.
It’s like a shopping list of musical ideas and directions, each of which could have spawned an entire album in its own right. Marvellous.

Superior – The Albums That Helped Build the Genre


Atlantic, 1973
As the drummer with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham was one of the foremost musos of his generation. Spectrum, though, is more than a bunch of difficult drum solos.
Opening with the truly amazing Quadrant 4 – which highlights the high-speed roller-coaster guitar of the young Tommy BolinSpectrum is all about the interplay between great musicians, crossing every boundary from hard rock to the soulful heavy funk of Red Barron. The drumming, as you’d expect, is from the realm of the angels – listen particularly to Stratus, where Cobham proves the superiority of the human over the drum machine.

Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy

Verve, 1973
There’s some debate among aficionados as to whether this or its follow up, Romantic Warrior, is the superior RTF album. …Galaxy is a less polished album, leaner and meaner, full of high-jazz musicianship and a low-down hard-rock attitude. The inventiveness on the title track, and keyboard player and leader Chick Corea’s reworking of his own Latin-flavoured Captain Senor Mouse, are definite highlights, as is After The Cosmic Rain which showcases bass player Stanley Clarke’s propulsive style. RTF is kind of the next stage left after Yes’s Close To The Edge.

A Tribute To Jack Johnson

CBS, 1971
Miles Davis always bragged that he could put together the best rock band ever and blow everyone away. With this album, a soundtrack for a movie about boxing champ Johnson, recorded with John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, Miles lived up to that boast.
Two extended jams, kicking in with Right Off, McLaughlin playing heavy blues rock guitar, breaking down into moody psychedelia, James Brown-like funk and going back to bar-room rock, this is probably a clue as to how the mooted Hendrix/Miles collaboration might have sounded. A good jumping off point for Miles’s electric work.

Heavy Weather

CBS, 1977
Easily the most accessible jazz rock release here and the most commercially successful, Heavy Weather actually spawned the hit single (albeit a minor hit) Birdland. However, it was possibly that success that closed the book on fusion’s more creative years and gave birth to the ghastly easy-listening mutation that was jazz funk.
Regardless, this album still sounds as fresh today as it did at the time. Weather Report went straight for the jugular, delivering marvellous tunes, keeping the instrumental flash in the background, and made an album that was less jazz rock and almost jazz pop.

Good – Worth Exploring

Hot Rats
Reprise, 1969
After he disbanded the Mothers Of Invention in 1969, Zappa surrounded himself with some little-known but extraordinary musicians to record what became his breakthrough album, praised or damned as the Zappa record that people who don’t like Zappa like.
From the instrumental opener Peaches En Regalia, through the scatological blues of Willy The Pimp, this album album heralded Zappa’s foray into jazz rock. While Mahavishnu and even Miles had a sort of spirituality, Zappa remained cynical, deflating the undeniable brilliance of the arrangement, writing and performance with the usual lame dirty jokes. A brilliant album nevertheless.

Valentyne Suite

Vertigo, 1969
Colosseum’s second album finds them reaching beyond their limitations as, essentially, a Cream-influenced blues rock band and groping to create something revolutionary. The extended jazz rock jams and particularly the 15-minute title track are reminiscent of what US bands like Blood, Sweat And Tears, Chicago Transit Authority and Chase were also doing at the same time. Essentially these were the handful of bands from rock backgrounds who were able to make a convincing transition to jazz. Along with King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, Valentyne Suite is one of the early milestones where prog rock and jazz rock met.


Polydor, 1969
There’s no argument that this album is seriously flawed: Williams can’t sing for toffee, and the production is truly awful. That said, the music made by then-prodigy drummer Williams and his band is pure electric hellfire. To the staid jazz establishment of the time, it must have been as shocking as Anarchy In The UK.
Emergency emphasises the rock in jazz rock, John McLaughlin’s guitar almost anticipates classic heavy metal, while Williams’s drumming veers from hostile to ecstatic joy in the space of a few beats. Years ahead of its time, this album is a slightly ragged and tattered masterpiece.

Also Try

Although the best jazz rock was released between 1967 and ’77, there are a lot of paths and tangents for the explorer to follow. Jazz rock in Britain is best represented by Soft Machine’s Third (’70), with more profoundly avant-garde noises following from the likes of Henry Cow’s Unrest (’74) and cult classics like Centipede’s Septober Energy (’71). The early works of Blood, Sweat And Tears, such as Child Is Father To The Man (’68), the Buddy Miles Expressway – most notably Expressway To Your Skull (’70) – and Chicago Transit Authority’s self-titled 1969 debut represent strand of US jazz rock which came from rock bands rather than from jazzers ‘slumming’ it.
European jazz rock is where things got really weird and wonderful: Wagnerian French band Magma released several sci-fi concept albums, most notably ’73’s Mekanik Destruktiw Komandoh (which reimagined John Coltrane fronting an orchestra from Saturn), while the altogether gentler Gong fused jazz rock with late-period psychedelia on their excellent ’73 album Angel’s Egg.


Kenny G represents the dire depths to which fusion eventually sank. Flushed with and egged on by the commercial success of Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, a few jazz-rockers decided to chuck out all that scary, innovative stuff and just play some peaceful elevator music to soothe the folks after a hard day being yuppies.

Cathedral The Guessing Game

Review of their most recent album from Classic Rock.

Clocking in at a statuesque 85 minutes, this double disc set from UK doom vetrans not only marks a renaissance, but may well be their finest album ever. From the outset, though, it’s obviously a massive break from the doom laden past, piling in with sitars, mellotrons, synths and glockenspiels, creating something that at times sounds like a phenomenal lost British prog album from 1971 (on Vertigo, obviously). Not that it’s in any way an exercise in nostalgia or pastiche: the doom roots are still there throughout and for all that it creates an impression of afghan coats and incense, it’s an albumn that could only really be made in 2010. Songs like Death Of An Anarchist and Funeral Of Dreams (featuring singer Alison O`Donnell of 70s Irish folk rock band Mellow Candle) are classic Cathedral, but with a little bit of a psychedelic twist. The Running Man, a nod to King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, and the pulverising doom of Requiem For The Voiceless (a protest song about factory farming) are the two strongest tracks and the two poles of The Guessing Game. The double disc format allows Cathedral’s imagination to be unbounded. It’s an exciting reboot for a veteran band.
Tommy Udo

ROBERT CALVERT Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (Atomhenge/Esoteric)

Captain Lockheed

The great Calvert

Although often described as “overlooked” or “neglected”, Hawkwind’s sometime frontman Bob Calvert’s first solo album  actually scraped the album charts and was – along with an afghan coat, a quid deal of red leb and a Mayflower paperback edition of one of Michael Moorcock’s Elric books – an essential possession for the mid 70s adolescent Brit stoner, filed there alongside Warrior On The Edge Of Time, Fish Rising and something pre-Virgin by Tangerine Dream.

It’s a Hawkwind album in all but name, the line-up augmented by various Pink Fairies, Viv Stanshall, Jim Capaldi, Arthur Brown and (uncredited) Brian Eno. It’s popularity with the ‘heads’ can be put down to the Pythonesque sketches that link the songs – surreal skits about Luftwaffe pilots wearing make-up and dodgy Yank jet salesmen that are even funnier when herbally enhanced – but also to four absolute killer space metal songs The Aerospaceage Inferno, The Widowmaker, The Right Stuff and Ejection. It was everything that Hawkwind promised on Silver Machine and Urban Guerilla.

It’s more straight ahead punk rock before there was punk rock metal, alluding to other Calvert songs and stories, moving “sideways through time”, that sort of thing. Calvert, as a boy wanted to be a fighter pilot but a perforated eardrum put paid to that dream. With Hawkwind he lived out his fantasies – a few years later he appeared onstage dressed as some glam rock combination of Biggles and Lawrence Of Arabia. And in these songs he seems to be flying with an afterburner.

The concept is about the Lockheed Starfighter, sold to the revitalised West German Luftwaffe in the 50s to help build the Federal Republic as a bulwark against the commies at the height of the cold war. The crashed and burned in alarming numbers as poorly trained pilots and ground crews earned them the nickname Flying Coffins and The Widowmaker.

Calvert’s songs have an almost JG Ballard-like fascination with the crashing aircraft, eliciting an almost sexual thrill from the disaster. You sense that he didn’t so much want to fly a starfighter as crash it into the ground.

Of all the songs on the album, the greatest is the masterful Ejection, probably the best song ever written about bailing out of a fighter plane. Legendary rock hack Nick Kent, a longtime champion of Calvert and Hawkwind, described Ejection as having the best riff since (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and although he was no stranger to hyperbole, in this case he was bang on.

The remastering on this edition gives the sound a much needed punch. The only disappointment is the additional tracks: a more complete collection might have included The Widow’s Song, planned for inclusion with Nico on vocals, though eventually recorded by Calvert and his girlfriend just before his untimely death.

That’s a petty quibble though: a brilliant monument to the great psychedelic warrior poet of the English underground.

Tommy Udo