Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dawn Of The Metal Gods - Al Atkins & Neil Daniels
Iron Pages

Following on from the Anvil film comes this further tale of a nice guy who apparently did no, or relatively little, more than the initial burst of activity that saw him enter the footnotes of stage history. Atkins was not just the original singer but founder member of metal titans Judas Priest and the man who gave them their name (literally as it happened, for he never registered it). Though he never recorded with them (bar an early demo) he also had a hand in a slew of songs on their first two albums and has continued into his fifth decade in music. And so why the fuck shouldn't he earn a pint or two, he'd been grafting at getting bands going for a few years before he started JP in 1969. Aside from Priest's excommunication of past members, this type of book is far better than the usual few years rehearsing and getting a recording deal, followed by tour itineraries and yawnsome arsing about with a few old magazine snippets thrown in. After all these are the boats known to most of us and admirably Atkins is one you can salute for continuing rockin', not merely being about to, without actually hearing his music. Never does he come across as self-serving or self-obsessed, vainly attesting to his own unrecognised talents and sulking about his lack of success. With hardly a trace of bitterness, though there is the odd hint of tongues being held - Iron Pages perhaps not wishing to bear the brunt of the Priest's legal wraiths - Atkins relates his story from 50's Birmingham through to the present day with his current bunch of hard rock stalwarts The Holy Rage. Along the way he tells in engaging though rambling style (though that with a mention of the many typos would be a tad hypocritical methinks coming from this old teapot. One of us however has the excuse of a German translation!) the troubles and travels of trying to twist that steel hand of fate with a multitude of bands. Perpetually on the edge of that old cusp, with so many cases of wrong timing, slightly missed boats and the wrong hair let alone trousers for what the prevailing wind liked to be passed onto, you'd think he would have changed career and started bottling optimism or written self-help guides, especially after seeing many contemporaries such as The Move, Sabbath, Zeppelin and Budgie pass him on their way outta West Brom to wealth and LA. Even with his solo albums he's had to endure some treacherously atrocious album cover-work which should make any supposed artist or designer question their talents, or at worse make Atkins wonder if he's being conspired against. Though he comes across as an endearing and utterly likeable bloke some of his outbursts show either age or ignorance or just the plain ideological differences between what came after the metal / hard rock era, like his somewhat simplistic dismissal of punk for instance being all skinheads and spitting. With recent releases meeting increasingly favourable responses and acclaim from Scandinavia and Japan the years of striving and inactivity end on a suitably high note and demonstrate obstinacy and passion can't be beaten if the talent and tenacity are there. As a business guide it's slight but moreso slightly indispensable and you come out gunning for the underdog through his humility and self-effacing naturalness.
Stu Gibson
Will Hodgkinson - The Ballad Of Britain

Following on from his two previous travel annals in search of some sort of songwriterly wisdom (namely Guitar Man and Song Man) here the author sets off on a quest across the UK to assess what, if there is such a thing, constitutes the folk music of Britain today. This in itself follows Victorian composer Cecil Sharp’s decade-long endeavour to document the folk song of turn of the century Britain before it went the way of the horse and cart. Using the term folk as ‘people’ not the music form applied to it, he covers a lot of ground in his short six month stint to see whether folk song exists in it’s traditional manner in our modern age - narratives of universal themes passed down and along through families and across regions - or lost in a blitzkrieg of consumerism. With a Zoom recording device in tow the author journeys through the big city blues of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and London and the purveyors of popular song commonly associated with them, to the outer edges, visiting Cornwall, Fife, Cardiff and Robin Hood’s Bay and many places inbetween, collecting field recordings in the manner of the Lomax’s with the folk blues of the jazz and depression era rural America. So from the morris dancers of olde Britain to the Brit school, gypsies to the grime scene on London’s streets, itinerant troubadours and inner city buskers to leftfield experimental labels and dance collectives, he encounters a cast of characters including The Watersons, Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer, Pete Townshend, Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and Jarvis Cocker, along the way alighting on enlightening glimpses of modern life, illuminated, appropriately it seems, more by the supposedly lesser lights when juxtaposed with the society they exist alongside.
Those out of the public eye like buskers Tim and Lewis in London, Glaswegian duo Directing Hands’ evolution of ballads into discordant dirges becoming the derelict environs they now found themselves in compared to The English Ayre’s evocation of medieval courtly tunes and Stephanie Hladowski in Bradford seem to be more plugged into any ancient ways, above and beyond existing in relative obscurity. Woven through all these threads are historical and sociological snippets alongside the author’s own ruminations, insights and asides that show him to be once more an entertaining guide who’s clearly a fan beloved of anecdotal tales and beholden to discovering what makes these people tick and admirer of the results.
As anyone with an ear anywhere near the ground should be aware, he unearths much of hope in the people who write and perform music purely because they want or have to, not out of careerist opportunism. While not something to take for granted, his trips from the contentedly localised to those with ever so slightly more commercial designs like Fife’s Fence Collective and the Green Man festival in Wales show that the impulse to sing or create music for its own, or the immediate community’s, sake is inside many, if not each of us. Though the days when families had a piano in the front room and a Sunday sing-song are generally long gone, away from the onslaught of mass media, false celebrity and fame for ‘noffink’ culture, there will always be individuals with a desire for a return to ‘simpler’, ‘less fast-paced’ times, and not just in a weekend-at-Glastonbury commercialised way, or people simply playing music for their own means without any conscious decision to be engaging in any form of folk music. Idealistic it may be but this book demonstrates this culture is slowly occurring and has been for some time below the surface and will no doubt continue to do so under its own steam. Whether songs by the likes of The Kinks or The Stones nevermind James Yorkston or (God forbid) Rihanna will become folk songs as in songs of the people that have evolved and being disassociated from their origins is for another century’s musical ethnology to try and ascertain.
Thankfully by no means a stuffily academic tome of musicology, as a snapshot this thought-provoking book will have bypassed many inclusions (nothing about the midlands continually being a bedspring of heavy metal), based as it is subjectively, using people known to the author and his own references as a starting point, but it is an affecting and vibrant portrait of not just the songs that roam around it but the island of Britain’s spirit itself. Full of wit, wonder, loneliness and tinges of sadness aswell as communal spirit and kinship it’s almost a song in itself.
Stu Gibson
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