Issue 2021-049: Books Special
Kevan Furbank — On Track ... Gong - Every Album, Every Song
The tag 'cult band' is one that is applied freely and often inappropriately. Not so in the case of Gong; quite possibly the ultimate cult band. Since their formation in 1969, none of Gong's albums (and there have been plenty of them) have charted in any region but they have acquired a devoted fan-base. One such fan is author and journalist Kevan Furbank who has written one of the most enjoyable books in Sonicbond's ever-expanding On Track series.
With 190 pages, plus a 16-page colour section, this is the longest book thus far in the series, although it is marginally more expensive than the others. Although the albums released under the name 'Gong' are the main focus of attention, with each individual song discussed, the book also includes the various offshoots, such as Mother Gong and Pierre Moerlen's Gong plus various side projects. Throughout the book, Furbank demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Gong universe, although I must confess, such is the attention to detail, I did begin to lose the plot a little in the latter pages.
Although I can't pretend to share Furbank's passion for the band, he makes a compelling case for the music of Gong, including their myriad of incarnations. His writing is knowledge and methodical with constant references to chords, keys and time signatures for the musos out there to pick over. His writing is also laced with humour which is apt given that the band (despite their progressive rock credentials) have never taken themselves too seriously, especially original frontman Daevid Allen.
Allen's almost eccentric brand of humour is apparent in their best work, especially the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy of the early 1970s. One can easily imagine that he spent as much time dreaming up the silly nicknames for each band member, as he did writing the lyrics for the songs. Although Furbank makes no secret that his favourite albums come from this period, he is mostly positive about everything Gong has recorded, documenting their transition from psychedelic space rock, to jazz fusion, to post-Allen experimentalism.
Although they have endured numerous line-up changes, the spirit of Gong lives on and they remain active to this day. For all those fans out there with a penchant for glissando guitar, space whisper and Pot Head Pixies, this book is indispensable.
Richard James — On Track ... UFO - Every Album, Every Song
Any regular reader of the DPRP reviews will be very much aware of Sonicbond Publishing's rapidly growing library of the On Track series of books. It basically takes the recorded history of a band or artist, and analyses each track from every album, hence the sub title, 'every album, every song'. The latest volume focuses on British veterans UFO.
Having had the fortune to read a number of volumes in the series, what has become apparent, is that each writer has their own individual style, and this gives each book a unique perspective. Some writers are obviously musicians, and their analysis on the songs can be very technical, which can alienate a reader who does not understand musical theory. Others are obviously new to a band, and their views can frustrate a long-time fan of of the artist being reviewed.
Of the volumes I have read, the author of this particular tomb, Richard James, strikes just the right style. Richard writes in a way which displays that he has a liking for the band, but he is not clouded by the UFO legend. He is critical, and his criticism is well founded, in acknowledging when the musical output did not live up to the legend of the band. But, he is not overly critical, and can pick out the tracks from the latter albums which deserve merit, while not wasting too much time with the poorer tracks.
Anyone who grew up with rock music during the 70s and 80s could not have avoided UFO. I personally remember buying Lights Out in 7-inch red vinyl and being amazed when the single broke into the UK charts. I imagine that most will have a copy of Strangers In The Night somewhere. At the time this was hailed as one of the best live albums ever released, and it still ranks highly in recent polls.
For anyone who has a soft spot for this album, this book debunks what we were actually listening too. Most of the live recordings were considered not good enough by producer Ron Nevison, and he therefore got the band together in the studio to re-record a number of tracks. This includes my favourite track off the album, Mother Mary, which was actually never played during the tour from which the live versions were recorded. Nevison's interference with the production of the album lead to Michael Schenker leaving the band for the first time. For myself it was the end of any real interest in the band.
Credit to Richard James that his writing kept me engaged enough to continue reading about the changing fortunes of the band. His analysis also keeps the band's output relevant to the particular era in which an album was released. This is displayed in 1985's Misdemeanor album which was written to appeal to the American market, adding multiple layers of keyboards in an attempt to break the US market, even using the American spelling of the album's title.
For anyone with a passing interest in UFO, this is a great read, which is very honest in it perspective, and is very welcome for the casual reader. This, for me, is by far the best and most interesting of the On Track books that I have read so far. I do not have a particular passion for the subject band, but I enjoy reading well written books on music, and this ticks all the correct boxes.
Andrew Wild — On Track ... Dire Straits - Every Album, Every Song
For me, the second half of the 70s was quite horrific. Puberty struck hard, I wasn't sure what direction to take in my study and then two consecutive viruses struck me, forcing me to stay home for months in a row. That would have been bearable, if it wasn't for the horror of punk and disco that totally dominated the music scene then, fiercely forcing rock (and especially prog rock) to be left alone for nerds, weirdos and technical geniuses!
And then, out of the blue, came the clear, bluesy guitar intro to Sultans Of Swing by new kids on the block Dire Straits, a song that would become one of the ultimate anthems of rock music. For some reason, millions of people started to like that uplifting song with that recognisable guitar melody, the murmuring, almost talkative vocals and the fine tempo. It was contrary to what was believed to be modern. Dire Straits proved to be the complete opposite of what punk and disco wanted to be, yet took the world by surprise and became one of the biggest bands ever.
Did I remember this myself or was it something that this new and fine volume in the steadily-growing On Track book series aroused? The honest answer is that I vividly remember that song being played on the radio and the good mood it immediately brought to me.
That feeling deepened in the following years, with their majestic albums Making Movies and, especially, Love Over Gold, only to vanish completely when watching their last gig in The Netherlands in the huge Feyenoord stadium and being constantly soaked by beer spilled by the lads sitting above us. That was extremely annoying and to make things even worse that gig wasn't half as good as the gig I witnessed earlier in the Groenoordhallen in my then home-town Leiden on their Making Movies tour. Everyone owning the Alchemy live album knows how good those concerts were.
This thought and many others were evoked by this very fine volume written by experienced writer and music collector Andrew Wild. This is his fourth volume in this series after those on Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Beatles, and Queen.
Dire Straits may not be considered by many to be a prog band as such, some of their songs were very proggy in the sense that they were lengthy, varied, melodious and often featured unworldly guitar solos. Of course they were the band of the musical genius Mark Knopfler, who used to work as a teacher until he started to realise that he had a huge talent as a guitarist, albeit with the strangest guitar playing style one can imagine.
The book tells their story from how they started as a confident blues-orientated band playing the local pubs in their home town Deptworth until their demise after the last and gruelling global sold-out tour. Wild knows how to tell a perky story, undoubtedly being very motivated to write the book because he has been a real fan since 1981. But with a discography of only six studio albums and three live albums, as well as a couple of compilation albums it was a challenge to fill the 144 pages. His solution is both very clever and very readable. He uses a lot of published interviews to spice up his story.
Partly he was forced to do so because Mark Knopfler didn't want to be interviewed for the book, which I think is a bloody shame (the man wished Wild good luck with the writing, though). His former band mates were more cooperative and therefore get a lot of attention in the story, both through new original quotes, plus older published material. The book certainly profits from that, as it isn't just Knopfler's story now but a real band story.
Wild succeeds in keeping the story flowing well. Another asset of this volume is the thorough knowledge of the author of all the B-sides, single releases and obscure live tracks. That he is a musician himself, is demonstrated by short descriptions of chord sequences and changes that do not disturb the overall story at all. Furthermore he is very open in his valuation of songs, albums and even live gigs, which means that not all was good.
As with all other volumes, the chronological content of the book is very straight-forward. Yet this time, Wild takes almost 20 pages to set the scene before the band started to record their famous debut album. That is a really good read, presenting a lot of details of how they formed, what their first experiences as a band were and what radical decisions had to be made during a time of massive economic problems (Thatcherism) and a rather hostile music press.
The musical quality of their debut, with that majestic anthem, proved to be so good and perfectly fitting in the yearning for new, real music that it placed an enormous pressure on the band. The departure of original band member David Knopfler after the difficult second album Communique, that didn't fully fulfil the extremely high expectations, the subsequent intensive tour and the very necessary time-off to get to grips with all the things that had happened, were a direct consequence of that pressure. Wild doesn't say it bluntly but the relationship between the Knopfler brothers seems to have suffered from this event ever since.
The global success of the third album Making Movies, the one with that unbelievably-awkward album cover, pushed the band firmly into the premier league of rock bands. Songs like Tunnel Of Love, Romeo And Juliet and Expresso Love brought them high chart entries all over the world, and led to an even bigger tour. Wild adds in this chapter some fine details about the inspiration for the lyrics of the songs that began to have a deeper meaning, illustrating the maturity the band had developed.
The lyrical quality improved further on the follow-up albums Love Over Gold and Brothers In Arms, making the title song of the latter truly legendary. That album also set quite a few other records, such as being one of the best-selling albums on CD ever, but also proved to be the beginning of the end.
Wild illustrates vividly the strange situation the band, who were effectively a duo by then with Knopfler and original bass player John Illsley forming the core. On the one side there was this world-wide success and the admiration, earnings and high demands that went with it, on the other hand this success proved impossible to equal, let alone surpass. And that was exactly what happened for their last studio album, On Every Street that has never been able to stand outside the shadows of its predecessors. With the author, I didn't like it at the release, except for the formidable title song, and never have since. It was the definite end of this band, just 15 years after its origin.
The book describes the two official live albums, the fantastic Alchemy double album and the disappointing On The Night. Wild doesn't even try to hide his dislike of the latter, which lacks almost everything that made Alchemy so good: instead sounding lacklustre and non-focused. Thinking back to that disappointing Rotterdam gig of the same tour, it can only be regarded as an honest rendition of what that tour had on offer.
The description of all original albums is supplemented with short descriptions of singles, b-sides and non-album tracks and where to find them. I've looked them up, was thrilled to find them so easily but was less than impressed with the quality of most of them. I think good decisions have been made not to release these songs officially. The different compilation albums are also dealt with briefly.
The last section deals with what happened with Knopfler, Illsley and their year-long live band mates after they definitely disbanded in 1991. I really liked that Wild has taken the effort to put this information together, making this a story with a really true and satisfying end.
With many nice and often surprising details, his good writing skills, the numerous illustrative quotations and his honest criticism towards parts of their output, this is a very nice read about a band that so many people loved but that now seems to have become completely forgotten. Extended epics such as Telegraph Road, Love Over Gold, Brother In Arms, Tunnel Of Love, On Every Street and of course, Private Investigations deserve a thorough listen to by any prog-lover, while most of their other songs are more than worthwhile to listen to as well.
This nice book took me back to the band's discography again and it was a very pleasant rediscovery. Or to put it as stated on the back cover: “The band made a huge amount of good music; it's time it was reappraised”. That's exactly what this book has done for me and hopefully also with you.