Category Archives: Sound + Vision

Bowie Falls To Earth On “Nite Flights”

Whenever I talk about David Bowie, the observation that Bowie is “a god among men” usually follows within the first two sentences.  But a couple of things in the past few weeks have forced me to re-examine this nugget conventional pop-culture-meets-counter-culture wisdom.  The first instance came when I re-watched Labyrinth with my son two weeks ago.   I loved it when it came out, but unlike the Bowie himself, the film has not aged well.  At all.

The second instance came while I was perusing the youtubes for any Walker Brothers footage circa their 1978 album, Nite Flights.  I found none, but I did find the above video for David Bowie’s cover version of the title track.  It’s no secret that Bowie has long admired– some may say imitated– Scott Walker’s vocal style.  But he somehow manages to drain all the life out of the song.  It’s so bad he nearly falls asleep at the keyboard.  Let’s not even talk about the people moving the lights around for super special shadow effects.  It’s just bad, bad, bad.

Here is the original for comparison:

Nite Flights is not the best Walker Brothers album, but it’s certainly the weirdest.  The band had split up in 1968 only to reform in 1975. In the intervening years, Scott Walker recorded several solo albums, including his masterpiece,  Scott 3.  If you stop to think about just how drastically pop music changed between 1968 and 1978, it’s easy to see why Nite Flights is so different from the early Walker Brothers albums.  It’s even very different from their other two post-reunion records.  But if you listen to Nite Flights in the context of what was popular in 1978, it sounds remarkably ahead of its time.

The Walker Brothers and some dude in a psychedelic tangerine jumpsuit circa 1967.

While the Walker Brothers were crafting their hit-and-miss  album, David Bowie was a year into his staggeringly awesome Berlin Trilogy.

Few things will affirm that Bowie is indeed a god among men like listening to LowLodger, or “Heroes”.  But let’s jump forward another decade to the aforementioned Labyrinth and accompanying Never Let Me Down LP.  I bought it went it came out and count myself fortunate to have seen the Glass Spider Tour, but I never fell in love with the album.  Bowie himself was displeased with the effort, even though it was his best-selling record up to that time.  In fact, it was this album and tour that drove him insane enough to start the ill-fated Tin Machine.  I saw Tin Machine on tour and remember thinking that this was a band nobody would buy tickets to see if it wasn’t for the fact the singer was a god among men.

Now, fast forward a decade on from Nite Flights and what do we have?  Scott Walker’s output has slowed to the agonizing crawl that would come to define his work in the last 30 years.  Since 1984, Walker has released one album every 11 years.  And with each album, he goes further and further out, pushing boundaries and making what can only be called art.  In the same span of time, Bowie has recorded 10 albums (including the two Tin Machine LPs) none of which are worthy of even lesser deity status.

To put a point on it, in the last 10 years, David Bowie has done this:

While Scott Walker has done this:

I know which one I’d rather listen to now and it will probably be as interesting and challenging in another 10 years.  The other will not.  If you haven’t seen the documentary about Scott Walker, 30 Century Man, do so.  It is streaming on Netflix.  In the meantime, this BBC interview from a few years back will catch you up with what he’s all about.

If past is precedent, the Next Scott Walker album will be out sometime in 2017.

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Van Der Graaf Generator Live In 1972

Van Der Graaf Generator were a band apart.  Even in the embryonic days of European progressive rock, they had little in common with their contemporaries like Genesis, Yes, The Moody Blues, or Gentle Giant.  The Generator did find a kindred spirit in King Crimson, with Robert Fripp lending his noodling to a few early tracks.  But that’s about it.  They lacked the polish of most other proggers and seemed to revel in their obtuse aggressiveness.

They also reveled in science.  While most prog rock bands of the era wandered into dippy fantasy world territory with their elven lyrics and Roger Dean sleeve art, Van Der Graaf Generator preferred to don lyrical lab coats and sing about physics.  The title of their third album– from which the song in the above video is taken– addresses the hard-rocking topic of fusing hydrogen nuclei to form a helium nuclei.

Like Yes, VDGG were also into science fiction, but is was less the enchanted sort that Jon Anderson went all wispy-wistful over.  H To He Who Am The Only One is definitely more interested in the dark side of the moon.  “Pioneers Over C” delves into the minds of first men to travel faster than the speed of light.  The song’s lost protagonists are definitely not as at peace with their fate as Major Tom was.  And then there is the opening track, “Killer,” about some mysterious, terrible, lonely creature who lives at the bottom of the sea.  I love the song and its majestic power, even if it is somewhat diminished by the time capsule lyric, “You can’t have two killers living in the same pad.”

I was particularly interested to see David Jackson playing to saxes simultaneously and then running his horns through some effects.  Peter Hammill is wonderfully over the top, ready to slaughter any lamb that would dare lie down on Broadway.  Good stuff, this.  Proggin’ in the name of science!

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Matching Mole On French Television

I’ve been on a Robert Wyatt kick lately and was delighted by this clip of him engaging in a bit of whimsicle fuckery with his post-Soft Machine band, Matching Mole.  Taken from Rockenstock, the same French TV show that brought you the magical Gong clip I posted a few months back.

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My Friend Of Steel Has A Heart Of Gold

Teach In were an education-minded band from Holland and they were way ahead of their time.  As the above song illustrates, they were advocates for engineering degrees who used the power of disco to encourage the youth of the day to get into the growing field of robotics.  Unfortunately, their message was overshadowed by their sparkly disco pants and synchronized dance moves.

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Battles + Gary Numan + Malevolent Escalator = Awesome

New York future-rockers Battles collaborated with retro-future rocker Gary Numan in this PSA to remind you to stay away from the malls.

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The Concept Album That Didn’t Suck

I, Robot – Gary Numan appears more human than human on the cover of The Tubeway Army’s 1979 album, Replicas.

Replicas by The Tubeway Army should be a terrible record.  On paper, it’s got everything going against it: First, it’s a concept album.  The diabolical coupling of those two words brings about nauseadelic visions of Rick Wakeman’s King Aurther On Ice.  Not only is Replicas a concept album, it’s a sci-fi concept album.  As an avowed sci-fi fan, the very notion makes my forehead tingle as if I had just smelled sour milk. But wait, there’s more.  Suppose you find out, sound unheard, that the record in question was made by a 21-year-old obsessed with the then-new technology of portable synthesizers.  Any sensible person would go running back to the cold comfort of Tarkus.  Any wise man would bet against it and have a nap while waiting for the returns to roll in.  But in the world of concept albums, all bets are off.  Just ask Garth Brooks.

Released in 1979, The Tubeway Army’s second record did quite well in the U.K., with the single “Are Friends Electric” going all the way to number one.  By this time, Gary Numan had become the focal point of the band.  Subsequent reissues of the album were even relabeled as Gary Numan + Tubeway Army.  It was his bleak vision of a future world that combined elements of Phillip K. Dick and George Orwell that provided the framework for Replicas’ concept and it was Numan’s fascination with new synthesizers like the Mini Moog that shaped the eerie soundworld which suited the storyline.

Down on the stage with a friend called Mic.

Set in a Blade Runner-like future where where humans and technology have merged in uncomfortable ways, Replicas is is populated by “friends,” Machmen, Grey Men, and the occasional hapless human.  The “friends” seem to be the pleasure models, designed for human companionship.  The Machmen are some sort of cyborg police force.  The whole thing is watched over by the shadowy Grey Men, sinister figures who administer tests to see which humans are worthy of being kept alive.  Those deemed superfluous become fodder for the Machmen and rape machines to do with as they please.  Though the album is as dark and broody as a grounded teenager and the theme is one of helplessness in a situation of our own making– or perhaps our own negligence– there is no denying that this record rocks like a motherfucker.

Follow the jump for a track-by-track dissection of Replicas, including videos of several classic live performances.

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What is up with Noises? (The Science and Mathematics of Sound, Frequency, and Pitch)

I like this person’s youtube posts quite a bit. She explains very complex mathematics and physics in a way that can hold the attention of even a thirteen year old… And that’s difficult to do.

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