The Pursuit Of Making Your Favourite Music Sound Better

So I recently bought a SACD player.

A what?

A Super Audio CD player.


Good Question. There are a few albums that I like so much, I would really, really like to listen to them as close to the original as possible. While I do have my trusty turntable, some albums are just not available (or very expensive) on vinyl. There are also some albums that were recorded so perfectly, that a crap transfer to CD with loads of compression on the way can just ruin your listening experience. That’s where the SACD player comes in. The main difference between your normal CD and the SACD format is bandwidth: A CD packs ca 400MB of digitized music, while a SACD contains 3.7 GB. There is also a difference in encoding (PCM vs SDS) but that would be too technical. Anyway, the ultimate selling point is that the listening experience is much closer to the original recording (especially for old material that was recorded analogue) as the format is almost lossless. So yesterday my poor postman brought another package to chez fordie, containing this:


It looks very nice on the mantlepiece, next to the royal family  next to the other gear and so far was has been given the nod by the best girlfriend ever. The first SACD I bought was of course my all time favourite, the original Bossa Nova album by Getz/Gilberto. The experience is indeed impressive, with Astrud and Stan even more present in the room and now I am on the hunt to find my top ten albums ever on this format. My current charts on Last.FM suggest that I am going to struggle to find the majority of the albums I have listened to most over the last 5 years, as the chart looks like this (and yes, I know, my taste in music is atrocious):

  1. Matt Bianco
  2. Incognito
  3. ABC
  4. Steely Dan
  5. Pet Shop Boys
  6. Crowded House
  7. Mezzoforte
  8. The Style Council
  9. Was (Not Was)
  10. Level 42

There doesn’t seem to be any SACD releases out there by ABC, Incognito, Pet Shop Boys, Was (not Was) and Level 42, but there are plenty of great jazz and classic recordings out there, and as the Steely Dan records are really the most important (as most meticulously produced) I am sure I’ll be able to gather a nice little collection. There is quite an active community around SACDs and I’m sure that I will be able to source everything I need to be an even happier listener.

Now all I have to do is find the 40 quid for the Japanese SACD of Aja.

The Lexicon of Sparkly Pop.

Last night I was sitting in the Royal Albert Hall, surrounded by the bald, the middle aged and the surprisingly badly dressed to listen (again) to Martin Fry and his merry posse of hired musicians. Tonight was nevertheless special, as this motley crew of musical mercenaries played some ABC songs with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Well, not really ‘some songs’. Last night’s big promise was that these two groups of musicians would attempt to play each and every song of the best album of the eighties, the remarkable ‘Lexicon of Love’. This legendary mixture of northern funk, luscious string arrangements and Fry’s remarkable lyrics has always been a hidden gem in the history of the barren eighties and – being the ABC fan that I am – I obviously had to go.

By the time I arrived at the Royal Albert Hall (unfortunately 15 minutes late) ABC was already into the first half of their gig, a collection of their best loved singles outside Lexicon of Love. Interestingly enough, the ones that worked the best with the enormous orchestra behind the band were the slow traks from the ‘How to be a Zillionaire’ album, ‘Be near me’ and ‘Ocean Blue’. When you have three classic percussionists and a ‘contemporary’ percussionist, you can make a hell of funny noises and pretty much play your tracks picture perfect. The orchestra was led by (oscarwinning) Anne Dudley, who arranged the strings for the album all those years back.

The second set started with a bit of a let down: Trevor Horn might be a brillant producer, but his nervous and rambling introduction, read from a chaotic looking stack of papers was a bit embarassing. He was miles away from his convincing and calm self at his 25 year concert at Wembley. But then, finally, the main event. The orchestral introduction to ‘Show Me’ sounds 2008 just as good as 25 years and still manages to send shivers down my spine.  Steven Palmer, the drummer on The Lexicon of Love, was in top form. With a battery of midi pads and a ‘proper’ drum set, he was able to recreate all thoughs wonderful percussive sounds that made the album so special and groovy. From then on it was a bit like doing Karaoke with 4000 other singers (not that I do Karaoke, but that’s what it felt like). The whole arena obviously new every word to every song and a bizarre singalong developed that obviously culminated in a rousing rendition of ‘The Look of Love’ (played twice. The encore with Gold Lame Suit).

It cost my 75 bloody pounds, but it was the most enjoyable evening of Karaoke I’ve ever had.

The Steel City Tour at the Hammersmith Apollo

Last night the best girlfriend and I went to see ABC, Heaven 17 and The Human League for their inaugural Steel City Tour at the Hammersmith Apollo, that lovely hall next to a motorway in London’s sunny West. I din’t expect the place to be packed, but it certainly was: 5000 happy middle aged punters in a more or less exciteable state made the shabby old place vibrate with joy.

The gig started with ‘Heaven 17’:  the kernel of the British Electric Foundation were in good spirit with Glenn Gregory in fine vocal form and Martyn Ware happily plonking away at the keyboards. They were accompanied by a teenager behind a toy drum kit (well, one of those electronic drum pad thingies), an incredibly bored guitarist with two Macbooks  and two female background singers who could probably be their daughters.Let me go, Come live with me, crushed by the wheels of industry where all delivered in fine form, but unfortunately both ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ and ‘Temptation’ suffered from early nineties dancefloor treatment, making the original songs not quite unrecognisable but barely palatable. Unfortunately the mix was disastrous, with Ware’s keyboard chords completely vanishing behind the (admittedly excellent) vocal performances. So far so good.

ABC (or Martin Fry with a bunch of session musicians, to be exact) was in usual fine form: it seem that the bloke playing lead guitar for him and the percussionist/female lead vocalist have now been the same for the last 3 gigs I have seen them, so at least he doesn’t always have to get to get used to new twentysomethings in his band. As usual he had to get 3 tracks of his new album ‘Traffic in, but apart from that, it was the usual assortment of splendid hits from ‘Lexicon of Love’ and  Alphabet City
. Well deserved applause, even though there was no Gold Lame Suit in site.

After a brief reorganising of stages the headliners of the evening: The Human League in it’s third decade presents itself quite chipper, with a stage right out of a Kraftwerk gig, although what the weird little man in the pirate costume and the guitar was doing on stage I will never find out, but he certainly ruined the carefully crafted picture of understated elegance. There was plenty of things to shout about: the sound, the beautiful white instruments, the costumes and Phil Oakeys voice were all top notch. A good mix between crowd pleasures (Mirror Man, Electric Dreams, Don’t you want me, Being boiled) and some obscure fare delighted everybody. The only person not having any fun was poor Joanne Catherall, who obviously had a bad night: she looked unhappy in her corner of the stage, and I could have sworn she wasn’t well.

So, a bunch of middle aged people were entertained by a bunch of middleaged people on a stage. 3 hours of fun and sing a long. What else could you want?

The Steel City Tour 2008

I have just acquired two tickets for one of the most exciting events this year (if you’re over forty): three of my perennial favourites of electronic music are doing a short tour of the UK, celebrating not only their timeless music, but also their hometown, Sheffield. ABC, Heaven 17 and the Human League are certainly not the purveryors of groundbreaking electronica that they once used to be (although THL has had more successful comebacks than you can shake a stick at and ABC just released a new album -“Traffic” – which isn’t half bad), but for me these three still have enormous pulling power.

Penthouse and Pavement was the first song that confronted me with the concept of Electrofunk, and I was fascinated. Just as danceable as the embarassing disco that was around at that time but with much better lyrics (and the coolest album cover ever, mocking the new neo-capitalist thatcherite city drones populating London at that time. Nothing has changed much. These days they’re just getting more drunk) and with a political statement, Heaven 17 was the ultracool dancefloor choice for every discerning DJ, and I played it incessantly on my first Sony Walkman (borrowed from a close associate, as I couldn’t afford one for myself).

My love for ABC has been thoroughly documented over the years. No other album has ever fascinated me as much as The Lexicon of Love, and no other album has been played that ofen on the various incarnations of music players I owned. Trevor Horns production (using his revolutionary fairlight sampler) Anne Dudley’s strings, Fry’s lyrics and the excellent music were such a revelation that for some time I toyed with the idea to buy a gold lamee suit. Having seen them numerous times live (in varying outfits) Martin Fry continues to be an excellent show man, and the strength of the songs hasn’t diminished over the decades (26 years. bloody hell).

Last, but not least another chameleon of electronic music. Just like ABC, the Human League have reinvented their sound again and again. From sparse electronica to stadium rock (with ‘The Lebanon’ on Hysteria), Minneapolis soul  to house they probably ahad the longest and most successful run of those three sheffieldian bands. I still have an impressive collection of THL 12″ vinyl lying around, with the latest probably being ‘Heart like a wheel’. I always heard they were rubbish live (mainly due to the fact that none of the vocalists can hold a tune), but when I saw them in Glasgow some years ago, they were absolutely riveting.

So, the big unknown will be Heaven 17. Will Glen Gregory and his mates be able to live up to the same standards as the other Sheffieldians?

Actually, I don’t care. They could play the singles of these acts back to back on abig ghettoblaster and  I’d be jumping up and own the isles.

It’s going to be a good night.

The Best Contemporary Concert DVD?

Today the mail lady brought a much anticipated DVD: A Japanese release of The Prince’s Trust ‘Produced by Trevor Horn‘ showcases the work of my all time favourite producer (hey, I spent my teenage years in the eighties. What do you expect from me? Jack White?). Anyway, in 2004, to celebrate 25 years of his bombast pop, he hosted the annual Prince’s Trust Wembley gig, showcasing some of the artists he worked with. And what a lineup that is:

  • Boggles
  • ABC
  • Grace Jones
  • Art of Noise
  • Yes
  • Propaganda
  • Pet Shop Boys
  • Belle and Sebastian
  • Seal
  • Liza Stansfield
  • Frankie goes to Hollywood

Now I have seen quite a bit of ABC, Frankie, The PetShop Boys and Propaganda live over the last two decades, but I honestly say neither of them ever sounded so perfect. This is a gig of massive proprotions to make Trevor Horn’s rich, orchestral sound possible: I am sure that it I still haven’t got them all, but I counted 8 brass/woodwinds, 8 strings, 8 backup vocalists (some people call that a ‘choir’), 2 drummers, Anne Dudley (the Oscar winning Anne Dudley, who also arranged ABC’s strings on the ‘Lexicon of Love’), numerous other keyboarders and 4 percussionists (including the brillant Louis Jardim), Steve Howe and probably half a dozen musicians I forgot.

This is truly a wall of music. I have seen ABC in various incarnations over the last 20 years, but I can not remember ‘Poisoned Arrow’ and ‘The Look of Love’ ever sounding so luscious on the stage.

Frankie (even in the absence of Holly Johnson) sound glorious, Propaganda, Yes and Seal are magnificent and Seal probably gives the best twenty minutes of his life. Grace Jones is amazingly pitch perfect but outrageous as ever. As a bass player myself it’s fascinating to see FGTH’s bassist to punch himself through ‘Two Tribes”s superfast plectrum based lines. That looks ike amazingly hard work.

All of the musicians look like they’re having an enormous blast. Just look at the face of the drummers. They’re so immersed and enjoying themselves, it’s infecting. I’ve caught myself jumping around the living room with my Macbook in my hands, headphones on head.

This means I have now have two favourite saturday morning DVD’s: Jamiroquai’s ‘LIve in Verona‘ and this. And it looks like there’s a UK release in the pipeline as well.

Get it. It’s worth it.

P.S. And to have a little bit more fun: here’s the world’s grumpiest prog rock band.