Tuesday, 18 March 2014
The March 2014 blogs feature a look at Madonna on LP from the first half of the nineties, and part 3 of my 'novel within a website', "How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting". To look at any of these blogs, click the relevant link to your right.
"Something's coming over"
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
With the 12” now established as the cousin to the 7” single, the Eighties saw the rise of the Cassette and the invention of the Compact Disc. Not only did these formats give the vinyl LP a run for their money, but the single had also started to appear on these formats. By the end of the 80s, it had become commonplace for any album, or any “45”, to have appeared on these three ‘standard’ formats.
Although the Cassette had existed in the 60s and 70s, it had always seemed to be like the ugly duckling when compared to the swan like qualities of the vinyl album. The packaging was too small to allow for any sort of fancy inlay designs, you were lucky to get any lyrics printed inside, and tapes were prone to hissing. But when Sony’s Walkman allowed people to listen to music on the move, Cassettes seemed to get a second lease of life. Instead of buying something on album, then copying it onto a blank C90, a lot of people simply cut out the middle man and bought the latest album by their favourite artist on tape.
The Compact Disc was designed more as a high tech format - yes, the standard CD had a running time approaching 75 minutes in length, longer than the general LP, but the main selling point about the format was that it was - supposedly - indestructible, it did not “hiss” like a tape, nor were there any pops or scratches as you might find on vinyl. For the most part, CD’s did or did not play, and when they did, the sound quality was perfect. Yes, in later years, people started moaning about “compression” and “the loudness war” but, be honest, most CD’s you listen to on a stereo system do actually sound quite good.
In terms of using these new formats within the world of the single, well, it was a strange one. Whilst a 7” single simply played for less time than a 12” because of it’s size, Cassette Singles or CD Singles could be as long or as short as you wanted them to be. To be honest, not many appeared in the UK during most of the 1980s, and when they did, different approaches seemed to be taken for each release, possibly because nobody knew what the standard approach should be. When Frankie issued “Warriors Of The Wasteland” as a CD Single in 1986, it was issued as a bizarre one track 24 minute long mega mix consisting of other remixes of the song. Bowie’s 1981 single “Scary Monsters” appeared on Cassette, mirroring the 2 track 7” that was far more commonly available, but he then spent most of the rest of the decade not issuing anything on the format at all.
But over in the world of the album, these two formats were starting to knock the popularity of the vinyl record about a bit. Vinyl albums, generally, were restricted - on single disc releases - to a running time between 40-60 minutes, but you could usually get twice this amount on a cassette. A number of acts began to use the format to shoehorn on “bonus tracks”, such as the bonus dub mixes on Madonna’s “You Can Dance” in 1987, or the entire second half of exclusive live tracks that surfaced on The Cure’s 1984 “Concert” release, a trick they repeated on two other albums in the same decade.
Another 1980s style piece of quirkyness was to use the extra playing time offered by the MC or CD to feature longer versions of the tracks on the format, when compared to the vinyl pressing. Examples of this included Bowie’s much maligned 1987 effort “Never Let Me Down”, where the agony of the LP version was prolonged even further thanks to the inclusion of “extended” mixes of several songs.
Whilst the use of “longer” mixes on non vinyl copies of albums was, in the main, actually usually quite rare, it became increasingly common, especially into the early part of the 90s, to add bonus tracks to the CD editions, this making the other formats somewhat defunct. Whilst the bonus dub mixes on the cassette edition of “You Can Dance” differed in part to those on the CD edition, suggesting it was all done so as to be pitched at the collectors market, the idea of sticking on extra “non vinyl” tracks became more and more regular on CD, to the point that it almost made the consumer feel as though they were being cheated out of buying records on LP and Cassette, as the likes of Bowie’s “Black Tie White Noise” and The Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge” both offered expanded track listings on the CD pressings. One argument was that, because they cost more to buy, CD purchasers should thus be rewarded with something extra, but the more cynical might argue it was a record company ruse to try and kill of the LP and the Cassette, and thus “force” the public to buy the higher priced CD releases.
It was a slightly different story where the single was concerned though, as the Cassette and CD found themselves starting to occupy a specific space within the world of the 45 fanatic. Both formats really started to be pressed on a more regular basis towards the end of the 80s, and by the early part of the following decade, it was nigh on impossible to find a major release that was NOT being issued on both formats - along with the vinyl releases. Cassettes continued to have something of an identity crisis, as nobody knew how short or long they should be. In the US, a lot of releases appeared as both standard 2 track singles, mirroring the accompanying 7” release (and seemed to be more popular), but also as EP style “maxi singles”, priced more expensively, naturally. But in the UK, it was usually one or the other. Although some releases as late as 1995 were turning up as 4 track Cassingles (see Sheryl Crow’s “Can’t Cry Anymore”), the industry standard was for the Cassette to replicate the 7” releases, and were thus usually quite cheap. One theory was that the floating voter was moving away from vinyl, and most stereos had a tape deck as standard, so people began to gravitate towards the format as vinyl started to get marginalised within the industry. By the early noughties, the Cassette had something of a second lease of life, as pop acts like Atomic Kitten used the format to include exclusive mixes as B-sides (thus giving something “unique” to fans who couldn’t afford CD’s, whilst also meaning the completists had to shell out for an extra format, thus increasing revenue and a potentially better chart placing), and even the odd indie band dipped their toe in the water, with The Divine Comedy issuing “The Certainty Of Chance” on the format with the unavailable-anywhere-else “Maryland Electric Rainstorm” as the extra track on the tape format.
At first, nobody quite knew how to market the CD Single either. How could you make something capable of lasting 75 minutes short enough to be considered a single? One option was to make it smaller, and thus the 3” CD was born. Hugely popular in Japan, where they were issued in awkward-to-store “snap-packs”, 3 inches wide, but some 7 inches in length, doing this automatically restricted the playing time down to something approaching 20 minutes. But logistically, the 3” wasn’t a great format. Many stereo systems had front loading CD decks, which simply couldn’t play them, so you needed an adapter to fit around the disc to make it 5 inches in diameter. Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” appeared as a 3”, but with a free adapter inside and was thus housed in a standard sized CD case, so that more or less defeated the object. The first three singles from Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” album all appeared as 3” CD Singles, in 3” square sleeves - which were then housed inside a plastic 5” square carrying case, thus defeating the object yet again. By 1990, the 5” format was adopted as a UK industry standard, although some late 90s releases by REM and Catatonia were done as 3” releases in snap-packs purely for “collectible” purposes.
In order to try and identify, from a visual aspect, a CD Album from a CD Single, the singles usually came in thinner jewel cases, with thus slightly “simpler” packaging, or in simple card sleeves. The idea being, therefore, that the “width” of the spine would tell you if it was an album or a single. Of course, plenty of people then issued singles in thick jewel cases, which consistently confused charity shops, who insisted on marking up old Stereolab CD Singles at £3 a pop, more than what they had cost when first released!
And so, to clarify, where did this put the industry as the nineties hovered into view? Well, albums were being issued on LP, Cassette and CD, sometimes with identical track listings on each, sometimes not. Even as late as 1995, some reissue campaigns in the UK were being carried out on both CD and Cassette (the Abcko reissues of the old Stones albums), whilst other reissue campaigns became CD only (the UK reissues of the later RCA Bowie LP’s). The single was invariably being issued on 7”, 12”, Cassette and CD, with vinyl pressings often being done as limited editions in fold out sleeves, or with free posters, pressed on coloured vinyl or as picture discs. It was not unknown for some acts to see their latest 45 issued on some seven or eight formats (Madonna’s “Vogue” or The Stones’ “Rock And A Hard Place”), where black vinyl pressings doubled up with “collectible” versions but in many instances, the actual TRACKLISTING was mirrored from one format to another. Fancied getting the Inspiral Carpets single “Two Worlds Collide” with all the new material on when it surfaced in 1992? Well both the 12” or the CD would do the job, nothing more, nothing less. Just because a single was due to come out on six different editions, it didn’t mean you were being EXPECTED to buy all six. You paid your money, and took your choice. In truth, some labels indulged in this madness, and others didn’t. Frankie were still trying all sorts of tricks even as they breathed their last breath.
So what could potentially have been a record collecting minefield, was not quite as bad as you might have imagined. In some respects, the problems really started when the chart regulators began to think that allowing too many formats had the aura of potential “chart rigging” to it, and they began to hit the Frankie’s of this world by beginning a restriction on the number of formats allowed per single. But strangely, this seemed to cause more problems than it was supposed to solve. Tune in next month where we shall look at the greatest industry fiddle in the UK that was ever seen.
Saturday, 1 March 2014
In one of my earlier blogs, I think I referred to the “American Life” period of Madonna’s career as the ‘wilderness years’, the awkward time frame inbetween the bouncy pop of the “Music” album, and the hi-energy disco romp of “Confessions On A Dancefloor”. This was not the first time Madonna had seemed to fall off the pop perch though. In the first half of the 1990s, Madonna’s career went through it’s most controversial time so far, as the multi media onslaught of the “Sex” book, the “Body Of Evidence” movie and 1992’s musical outing “Erotica” were seen by the moral majority as some form of nymphomaniac style attack on the mainstream. Madonna was viewed as damaged goods, somebody who had gone too far and whose shock tactics seemed one tabloid baiting gimmick too much.
The albums that followed seemed to be some sort of attempt to get her career back on track, even if Madonna hadn’t quite gone that far off the rails - albums continued to hit the top 10, singles carried on denting the charts, and the 1993 “Girlie Show” tour saw Ms Ciccone still playing in front of huge stadium crowds. But the fluffy R&B of 1994’s “Bedtime Stories” and 1995’s ballads collection “Something To Remember” seemed like an indirect form of apology. Then came “Evita”, then came “Ray Of Light”, and Madonna returned to - that was if she had ever really left - the top of the pop tree.
This is part five of my ongoing look at Madonna’s albums, and covers those “troubled” years that followed the chart busting dominance of 1990’s “Immaculate Collection”. As ever, we shall look at each LP in turn, and then look at the UK pressings (and re-pressings) of each long player. “Ray Of Light” and friends should appear later this year.
To be fair, we had been here before - “Vogue” and “Rescue Me” were earlier examples of Madonna’s new “hip hop” direction, this was just the first time the sound had been applied over a full length album. At times, the relatively simple approach can seem to give the record a slightly underwhelming, almost empty, echoey, sound - the likes of “Fever” and “Bye Bye Baby” sound musically simplistic, vocally sad, and lyrically angry, rather than being upbeat, happy and joyous. But elsewhere, the move into a more dance oriented sound works well - the shuffling rhythms of “Thief Of Hearts”, the Transglobal Underground-isms of “Words”, or the astonishing jazzy rumble of “Secret Garden”. But death and misery ultimately do loom large over this record - “Bad Girl” is sung in a key which makes Madonna sound like she is about to break down into floods of tears at any second, while the doom-laden trudge of “In This Life” is really quite remarkable, it sounds like Black Sabbath covering Christina Aguilera.
As the title suggests, sex is never too far away though. The female anatomy is the subject of both “Secret Garden” and “Where Life Begins”, whilst I have always assumed the final line in “Waiting” must have been some sort of double entendre (“you know how to whistle baby, just put your lips together and blow”) - or maybe it’s just me. But despite the vampy S&M raunch of the title track and that infamous toe-sucking rear cover, it is worth pointing out that the album only got itself a “parental guidance” sticker thanks to the awful “Did You Do It” - a remix of “Waiting” with a couple of guest rappers spouting five minutes of nonsense over the top whilst Madonna is reduced to doing nothing apart from singing the backing vocals in the chorus. So it’s not even a proper Madonna song. And that means it leaves you with a so-called sex addict’s new album, consisting of 13 tracks which between them, do not actually manage to get themselves an X-rated sticker on their own. Maybe the critics misjudged this album all those years ago.
It’s not perfect - the front cover is a bit “abstract”, and at times, the attempts made to stretch it out to double LP length means the quality dips at times - the reggae/dub so-so trundle of “Why’s It So Hard” is the weakest link here, despite being shoe horned into the live shows that followed at the expense of superior material - but when it does show it’s poppier interior, the results are often wonderful, with the vibrant “Deeper And Deeper” a quick throwback to Madonna’s past (complete with a lyrical steal from “Vogue”).
There was some talk, apparently, of issuing the “Erotica” album inside the “Sex” book, as a deluxe boxset release. Madonna had recently formed the “multimedia” company Maverick, but the plan was ditched when it was figured anybody under the age of 18 would thus be prevented from hearing any of her new songs, and a compromise of sorts was reached when a 1-track CD single featuring an alternate mix of lead 45 “Erotica” was included inside the book instead. But with outtakes from the photoshoots for the book featuring in the artwork, and with the video for “Erotica” including video footage from the very same shoots, it became difficult to separate the two projects. They were released within two days of each other in the UK, and on consecutive days in the States. Madonna defended the book as right wing campaigners lined up to ask for her head on a plate, and “Erotica” suffered as a result. It probably is, at a push, Madonna’s weakest effort, but it’s not quite the disaster everybody thinks it is, and does actually include some of Madonna’s strongest material in parts. But by promoting the two together as one, anybody who disapproved of “Sex” was thus always going to struggle to accept “Erotica”.
“Erotica” was issued in the UK on October 19th 1992, initially on three formats (although a rarely discussed DCC format also surfaced at some point). As per previous Madonna albums, the vinyl and cassette editions came with their own unique-to-the-UK catalogue numbers, whilst the CD followed the trend of featuring a numeric catalogue number that failed to differentiate between a German pressing for the German market, and a German pressing for the UK market. The Cassette edition omitted “Did You Do It”.
In an attempt to allow vinyl and CD fans to enjoy a filth-free version of the record, the 13 track version of the record was also issued in the UK on those formats. However, the vinyl pressing of this variant came with a wholly numeric catalogue number - in essence it was a German pressing simply exported to the UK, and became the first Madonna album to be released in the UK since 1984 to appear on LP without the “WX” style catalogue number. This, however, would become the trend for all future Madonna long players in the UK.
In 2012, as part of the Warners “cash in” campaign to try and deflect sales away from “MDNA”, “Erotica” was the fifth and final LP to be reissued on vinyl. It appeared, just like the original, in a gatefold sleeve as a double, with the original inners still intact, but with the usual tell tale signs of it being a reissue, with minor alterations on the labels and on the rear sleeve and spine. As per the other reissues, the original album artwork was photographed (not reprinted) for the reissue, meaning there was a lack of sharpness when viewing the album at close quarters. It was also included in the career spanning “Complete Studio Albums” multi-CD set issued at the same time, housed in a very simple card sleeve, that made no attempt to replicate the original pressing. Both these reissues used the 14 track version of the record.
Erotica (2xLP, 14 track edition, Maverick WX 491, includes “offensive language“ sticker)
Erotica (Cassette, 13 track edition, Maverick WX 491 C)
Erotica (CD, 14 track edition, Maverick 9362-45031-2)
Erotica (2xLP, 13 track edition, Maverick 9362-45154-1)
Erotica (CD, 13 track edition, Maverick 9362-45154-2, includes “does not include “Did You Do It”” sticker)
Erotica (Digital Compact Cassette, 14 track edition, Maverick 9362-45031-5)
Erotica (2xLP, 2012 reissue of 14 track edition, Rhino 8122-79735-6)
It was still hard to shake off her past. In early 1994, there was the now infamous David Letterman interview where Madonna left her host flummoxed, as she reduced the humour to below toilet-level. It was made all the more confusing because the interview seemed to air at the same time that the new “pop” Madonna reappeared on the singles charts.
“I’ll Remember” was a world away from “Erotica”, the teutonic crunch of that album replaced by a more organic, bouncy, pop sound, and a song that had a romantic lilt to it. It had been written for a movie, which might have suggested it was being recorded ’to order’ but by the end of the year, Madonna had released a new album that went even further back into the world of sweet and sugary bouncy pop that some might have thought she had left behind.
“Bedtime Stories” seemed like a deliberate effort to eradicate the black cloud that “Erotica” had cast over Madonna’s career. It was Madonna’s own stab at nineties R&B, recorded with a multitude of producers and the closest Madonna had ever come to making a soul record. It took Madonna back towards the world of mainstream pop radio, the vocals often bright and breezy, and the polar opposite of the sometimes glum and tearful air of despondency that “Erotica” conjured up. Twenty years on, some of it can sound a bit dated - the ’New Jack Swing’ production technique sounds a bit thin and tinny, something like the quite charming “Don’t Stop” does admittedly sound more like the pop acts who followed in Madonna’s wake, like the Spice Girls or Atomic Kitten, rather than the actual woman who invented these acts in the first place.
There are some moments of genius - the opening “Survival”, in one fell swoop, kills the doom and gloom of the preceding album, even though the lyrics directly reference those “troublesome” years, whilst the funky strut of lead single “Secret” effectively overshadows every act that had influenced Madonna on this record, grooving as it does with a vibrant aura that puts the like of En Vogue in the shade. The amount of reverb on “Inside Of Me” sounds like it’s been produced by The Flaming Lips and Jeff Lynne at the same time, whilst the Bjork written “Bedtime Story” is as weird, awkward and angular as you’d think a Bjork written Madonna song would sound like, all bubbling keyboard rumbles and echoey vocal affects.
Again, it’s an LP that has it’s faults. I have never cared a great deal for the “will this do?” R&B sludge of “Human Nature”, written as an attack on Madonna’s critics after the “Sex” debacle, and thus held up by her hardcore fan base as “her song about defeating the haters”. But it simply ain't “Borderline” though, and that I am afraid, is a fact - I don’t care what the song is about, it sounds worryingly like R Kelly. Strangely, for an album designed to slay the ghost of “Erotica”, the expletives on this song meant this was the first time Madonna had ever sworn on one of her studio efforts - and this is supposed to be her lovey dovey romance album! Still, she returns to slushy genius as side 2 progresses, and the album climaxes with the faultless “Take A Bow”, a beautiful, lighters in the air piece of majestic baroque pop, which although a flop in the UK singles chart - but a mega hit in the US - remains a stunning finale to the album, a genuinely gorgeous listen, and a sign that Madonna was not prepared to give up her crown just yet. It is, simply, a work of utter pop perfection, capable of melting the hardest of hearts, five minutes of flawless heart-tugging beauty.
Critics were divided. Some claimed it was an astonishing return to form, others thought that by making an R&B record, Madonna ended up selling herself short. But I guess it’s her own “Young Americans” - she never made another album like it, and didn’t need to - in the space of just 50 minutes, she had outshone much of the new wave of R&B singers, the likes of Jodeci just weren’t capable of music this good. In, out, job done.
The cover art chaos of “Bedtime Stories” has gone down in legend. The artwork consisted of photographs taken by fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, and the back cover photo was of Madonna lying on a bed, as the camera sort of “loomed down” on her from behind. For the front cover, a similar - but heavily zoomed in - image was to be used. Because Madonna was looking over her shoulder at the camera, she was thus upside down. When this image was submitted, it was assumed it was the wrong way round, and initial copies of the album saw the photo spun through 180 degrees - so that Madonna was looking at the camera “properly”. That was until somebody told the powers that be that the photo, of course, was SUPPOSED to look like it was upside down, and selected repressings later used the correct “wrong way round” image.
The CD edition was the first Madonna album to be housed in a non-standard coloured CD tray - the bog standard black casing was replaced by one which was sky blue in colour, which helped to make the record “look” soft and warm, to match the cuddly sounds contained within. It was issued in the UK on CD, Tape and LP, all using the now “Europe-wide” generic numeric cataloguing system. As such, there are no “genuine” UK pressings, whilst the vinyl edition seemingly came and went whilst no-one was looking, and copies now sell for inflated prices.
There was a plan for a 2012 vinyl reissue, and some websites even listed the alleged new catalogue number that was allocated to it, but the release never went ahead. As I type this, I am unaware of even anything like a test pressing surfacing, much to the chagrin of those who wanted it on vinyl because of the rarity of the 1994 original. The “Complete” CD boxset includes the record, where it appears in it’s “correctly printed upside down” cover photo.
Bedtime Stories (LP, Maverick 9362-45767-1)
Bedtime Stories (Cassette, Maverick 9362-45767-4)
Bedtime Stories (CD, Maverick 9362-45767-2)
Something To Remember
Designed to sit along “Bedtime Stories” as another reminder of Madonna’s more romantic side, this collection of ballads was mostly a set of oldies, with a couple of new songs tagged on. But some of the older songs were mini-rarities in themselves, and as such, “Something To Remember” is quite an interesting mopping up exercise, even if it’s relentlessly sluggish pace shows that Madonna was probably better at making upbeat music overall - by the time it hits the one hour mark, you may find yourself just wanting a quick “Into The Groove” to liven things up a bit.
14 tunes made the set. Although four of these were billed as being brand new, this wasn’t quite true - the opening and closing numbers were different versions of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”, which Madonna had recorded with miserable sounding Bristol trip-hoppers Massive Attack for a Marvin tribute album issued a few weeks previous called “Inner City Blues”. The only two genuinely new songs were “You’ll See”, a quite pleasant but slightly bombastic pop track which veers worryingly close to Celine Dion territory, and “One More Chance”, a fairly OK acoustic strum, which would have made a great B-side, but was actually later issued as a single in the UK, making it one of Madonna’s more underwhelming 45’s.
“I Want You” was originally going to be the album’s first single - a video was filmed - before legal wrangling got in the way. This is a shame, because it’s an astonishing piece of work, starting off as a minimalist, eerie, and quiet little number, before slowly and slowly building into something approaching absolutely epic status. You just need to hear it, I really can’t describe it well enough to fully do it justice. It really is quite astounding. But after Motown put obstacles in the way thus preventing it‘s release on 45, it was “You’ll See” that turned up as the first single from the record, complete with a “follow up” video to “Take A Bow”.
A lot of the album consisted of material that had never actually made it onto a Madonna studio album before - recent 45’s “This Used To Be My Playground” and “I’ll Remember”, early period ones like “Crazy For You”, whilst 1984’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” appeared in remixed form. The version of “Oh Father” was the US Video mix, the opening nano-seconds differing from the original album mix found on “Like A Prayer”, but in all honesty, barely noticeable. It has to be said, despite being a ballad overload album, that some genuine classics did make the set, with “Oh Father” also being joined by 1986’s game-changing “Live To Tell”.
In total, the amount of “album mixes of album tracks” came to no more than about twenty five minutes worth of material, meaning that this album does actually offer quite a bit of VFM, as the overall running time just tipped over the 71-minute mark. Incredibly, the vinyl edition of the record was pressed on just a single slab of vinyl - surely the lengthiest LP ever to be shoehorned onto just two sides of an album? As per “Bedtime Stories”, the (relatively few) copies sold in the UK were technically German imports, and it was the Cassette and CD editions that were more commonly found.
The album came with some brief sleevenotes from M herself, explaining the thought process behind the record. Furthermore, it’s release seemed to coincide with Madonna turning her attention back towards music in a far greater manner than ever before - having seemed distant and unobtainable during the previous decade, she turned up on “Top Of The Pops” to plug “You’ll See”, and the whole project did seem to refocus attention on Madonna the singer, rather than Madonna the kinky dominatrix.
I am not really sure why 2013 saw a vinyl repressing of this album - had “Bedtime Stories” got it’s planned reissue, then it would simply have been Rhino doing the next in line - but for whatever reason, it exists. It has been pressed on 180g vinyl, but the album is still a single LP, meaning that whatever improvement in sound quality you might have got from a heavier slab of vinyl, is thus negated by the extreme groove cramming this record consists of. It’s quite a nice thing to look at though, even if it does seem utterly pointless. My copy is still sealed up.
Something To Remember (LP, Maverick 9362-46100-1)
Something To Remember (Cassette, Maverick 9362-46100-4)
Something To Remember (CD, Maverick 9362-46100-2)
Something To Remember (LP, 2013 reissue in stickered p/s, Rhino 8122-79639-6)