musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Rock Corner’

Stiff Records

Stiff Records billed itself as “the world’s most flexible record label” and during their glory years from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s they released dozens of excellent and influential singles and albums. Artists such as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Devo, The Damned, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and Madness were among the most famous, but digger deeper into the Stiff archives and you’ll be rewarded with even more amazing music from The Members, Wreckless Eric, Tracey Ullman, Any Trouble, and many others. Call it punk, new wave, indie, alternative rock, or just plain pop, but the recordings on Stiff were mostly very good and definitely very influential.

 

In addition to the music, Stiff was notable for their bold, and sometimes bawdy, advertising slogans. In print, and especially on those omnipresent buttons and badges, it was hard to ignore jewels such as:

“If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck”

“Stiff’ll Fix It”

“If they’re dead, we’ll sign ‘em!”

Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!”

“Money Talks, People Mumble”

“We Lead Where Others Follow but Can’t Keep Up”

 

Yeah, there was no other record label quite like Stiff!

 

When I was in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I was delighted to find a two-disc set called Born Stiff: The Stiff Records Collection at one of the Rock Corner shops. This CD has the usual Stiff suspects plus obscure tracks from the likes of Pink Fairies, The Tyla Gang, Larry Wallis, Billy Bremner, The Yachts, and The Sports. Some of my very favorite songs of that era are included: the rollicking “Swords of a Thousand Men” by Tenpole Tudor; Kirsty MacColl’s brilliant version of Billy Bragg’s “A New England”; Jona Lewie’s nifty “You’ll Always Find me in the Kitchen at Parties” (a good tune, and one of the best song titles ever!); Lene Lovich’s faithful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now”; The Belle Stars Motown-like nugget “Sign of the Times”; and Graham Parker & The Rumour’s bitterly brilliant “Mercury Poisoning.” Stiff Records pretty much came to a grinding halt in 1986, but was resurrected two decades later, and this collection contains three tracks from 2008, including a wonderful song from Chris Difford of Squeeze and a nice new tune from Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby. She was so good that he married her!

 

About the only knock I can make about this collection is the absence of two very good artists: Ian Gomm (who had a big hit with “Hold On” and wrote some songs with Nick Lowe too) and the underrated/overlooked New York band Dirty Looks. Instead, we are offered a Motorhead track that seems woefully out of place, along with the puzzling “England’s Glory” by Max Wall. There are also a few tracks on this collection that sound dated or just plain dull; I never was a fan of Yello’s novelty-like tune “I Love You,” and while I like Devo very much, the version of “Jock Homo” on here sounds like it was recorded in a well. For the most part, however, Born Stiff is a great listening experience: fascinating collaborations, singular brilliance, and myriad moments of musical magic.

 

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Kool and the Gang’s Funky Stuff

“Can’t Get Enough … of that Funky Stuff,” sang Kool & the Gang in one of their hits from the early 1970s. During that marvelous era, Kool and the Gang was one of the finest purveyors of funky soul music in the business, and their fans could NOT get enough of their lively, addictive tunes. In addition to “Funky Stuff,” the band also scored big hits in 1973 with “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging”. The songs on early albums like Wild and Peaceful and Spirit of the Boogie were indeed quite funky, but were also infused with lots of delicious instrumental jazz grooves, a product of the band’s 60s jazz roots. After their sizzling stretch of hits in the early to mid 70s, Kool & the Gang cooled off considerably in the following years and were at a musical crossroads by the end of the decade.

 

In 1979 the band added a new singer, James “J.T.” Taylor (the extra initials added no doubt so there was no confusion with the singer of “Fire and Rain” fame), picked Emuir Deodato to produce their next two albums, and revived their career with the monster hits “Celebration” and “Ladies Night.” But that was only the start of another long chart run for Kool & the Gang. Throughout most of the 80s their hit streak continued with songs like “Take my Heart,” “Joanna,” “Misled,” “Cherish,” and “Fresh.” Unfortunately, those 80s hits lacked the old funky magic and free-form spirit of the group’s early material and left many longtime fans disappointed with the new direction.

 

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month I found a copy of Kool & the Gang’s Light of Worlds at the Rock Corner branch in the Mid Valley Megamall. This was a studio album the band released in 1974. It didn’t yield any huge Top Forty hits at the time, but was nonetheless an excellent collection of songs, perhaps the band’s finest overall album. The instrumental “Summer Madness” was one of those evocative pieces that still can conjure up all sorts of magical memories. Another tune, “Fruit Man,” brings a smile to my face every time I hear it, reminding me of those friendly fruit vendors that ply the streets of Bangkok. I don’t know how I missed out on this album the first time around, but I’m extremely pleased to have finally discovered it, albeit a few decades late.

 

There are many Kool & the Gang compilations still in print, but the downside to the comprehensive packages is the fact that they usually include both the early and later period tunes, spread out over one or two discs. My favorite collection is The Best Of Kool and the Gang: 1969-1976. As the title indicates, this is the pre-JT period when the band was at their funky best. Indispensible funky stuff.

Malaysia Shopping Spree

I’m back in Kuala Lumpur this week; just a 4-day trip to do some book buying for my shop (and, I admit, a few things for myself too), some CD hunting, and lots of eating. I always enjoy the trips here, and this time I’ve had some very interesting conversations with a variety of friendly people; hotel employees, taxi drivers, clerks at CD shops, and waiters in restaurants. I used to think this town wasn’t very friendly, but I’ve changed that opinion.

My flight from Bangkok was over an hour late in departing, solely the fault of some bimbo who left one of her bags in the terminal (it probably contained something of life-alerting significance; most likely her iPhone) and was allowed, along with 4 of her companions, to exit the plane and go look for it. After almost 90 minutes of waiting the plane finally took off without her or her posse. Urrggh!!! Actually, as annoying as that was, I didn’t let it upset me. And the rest of the passengers were also surprisingly calm during the long wait. It’s an Asian thing, don’t you know. Why worry! At least we arrived in one piece. The only person to vocally express her displeasure was a young woman who had a connection to make in KL. I hope she made it, along with her luggage.

After running around to book sales yesterday (one of which turned out to be non-existent), and stopping by the Rock Corner branch in KLCC, I had a late dinner at the always amazing Coliseum Grill. Afterward, I hoofed it back to my hotel and used the computer to check news and e-mail, and to re-charge my MP3 player. Of course the big news online was the untimely passing of singer Whitney Houston. Honestly, I was never a big fan of her singing style. Sure, she had a great voice and could belt out a song with impressive intensity, but I find such vocal gymnastics more than a bit boring after a short period of time. I don’t think she deserves to be put in the same league as truly great female singers and song stylists such as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, or even a lesser-known wonder such as Candi Staton (more about her in a future post; her Fame label recordings are a MUST hear!). Those artists all recorded numerous songs and albums of very high quality. The doomed Whitney may have racked up a bunch of hits during her career, but I don’t think the quality of her recorded output was nearly as high as it could have been.

But Whitney’s death brought back memories of when I first heard her: on the album One Down by Material in 1982. By my calculations, that would have made her only 19 years old at the time. Material was the brainchild of musician Bill Laswell. They made several good albums during their career, Seven Souls being an absolute classic, but One Down was the funkiest and most groove-alicious thing they ever recorded. In addition to Whitney’s handling of vocals on a song called “Memories,” Nona Hendryx (formerly of LaBelle) turned up, adding propulsive fuel to tracks such as “Take a Chance” and “Bustin’ Out.” One Down is another one of those albums that should have been much better known, and praised. Look for it!


Retail Brethren

I’m apparently one of the dying breed of people who still enjoy shopping for real CDs in real shops, as opposed to those folks who buy pirated copies on the street or download stuff for free on the Internet. Shopping malls, at least here in Thailand, are as popular as ever, but shops that sell music CDs are sadly becoming hard if not impossible to find. And of course we know the reason for this: many people are downloading music for free on file sharing websites nowadays. Can I call these people thieves? I think that’s accurate. If the music “file” is something that is not commercially available, or offered with the blessing of the artist, that’s one thing, but downloading copyright-protected recordings for free, whether it’s music or movies, is nothing but thievery.

 

Illegal downloading is one issue, but the increasing shift to online shopping by so many music fans puzzles me even more. Sure, I understand the convenience and “better selection” of online shopping, but I don’t understand why so many consumers have seemingly abandoned “brick & mortar” shops altogether. For me, browsing for music — or books — in a proper shop remains one of life’s great pleasures. Perusing the aisles and the tactile act of picking up the “product” and examining it; the colorful merchandising and displays; the unique smells; actually talking with clerks and getting personal recommendations; nothing about online shopping can duplicate these experiences.

Luckily there are still many shops in Kuala Lumpur that still sell real music CDs, and not the knockoff stuff. In Kuala Lumpur I shopped at Tower Records (yep, they still have a single store here, although I doubt it’s any longer affiliated with the bankrupt US chain) in the Lot 10 Shopping Center, Victoria Music in the Amcorp Mall, and several branches of Rock Corner. Almost every branch of Rock Corner that I visited yielded multiple musical jewels that I’ve never found in Bangkok, or ones that would be more expensive if I had purchased them online (factoring in shipping charges, not to mention those nasty customs and import taxes that the post office sometimes surprises me with). The best stocked branches of Rock Corner that I discovered (and I still haven’t visited them all) are at KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and Bangsar Village.

 

There is definite bond that is shared by people that work in any type of retail establishment, especially ones that sell music. Call it a brotherhood — or sisterhood, in some cases — of tunes, but a mutual feeling of camaraderie definitely exists. You’re not going to command a high salary working retail, so you have to love the product you’re selling, and also to be able to share your enthusiasm with like-minded customers. And retail music junkies are able to do just that, and do it gladly. Just ask the guy behind the counter, the one wearing a Ramones t-shirt, what he’s been listening to lately and get ready to be overwhelmed.

I’m not a chatty kind of guy; I don’t automatically walk into a shop and strike up a conversation, nor do I need to pester the staff for recommendations on what to buy. But when I’m browsing the bins in a CD shop I inevitably end up talking to one of the employees working there. I always have interesting conversations with the guy that manages the Mid-Valley Megamall branch (one of these days I’ll remember his name!). Like me, he’s an incorrigible music junky and happy to talk about what he’s been listening to or has on order. This guy’s tastes lean more towards hard rock and blues, but we still found common guitar ground to talk about, in this case Thin Lizzy and UFO. I know baffled him with some of the CDs I bought at his shop. Seeing the titles I had picked (Green on Red, Clive Gregson, Tony Joe White, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Collins, Gene Ammons, Jackie Leven, the Bongos, Ian Matthews, Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson), he shook his head and said, “I think you must know a lot about music. The things you buy are …” he seemed to be searching for the right words, “… very different.” Well, I’ll take that as high praise!

 

At Tower in KL a young man named Billy was very helpful. Aside from talking about music and our retail roots (I mentioned that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok), I asked one day him how long it would take to walk to KLCC, and which route would be best. He not only gave me directions, but to make sure I didn’t get lost, he walked me out of the shopping center, across the street and through another shopping center, and up another street until he was able to point out KLCC (and the distinctive Petronas Towers that mark the spot) a few blocks ahead. That was service above and beyond the call of duty! The young woman who manages the Rock Corner branch in Bangsar Plaza was also very friendly, played very good music in-store (and played it at a normal volume: Billy at Tower is one of those dudes who likes things loud and louder) and even offered me a discount when she noticed that I was going to pay cash for a dozen CDs. But even narrowing my pile down to twelve was difficult in this case; the selection at her branch was so good that I passed on a few things I now kick myself for not getting, the latest Joan Armatrading album being one example. Oh well, there’s always next trip!

And amongst the retail brethren, I can’t forget bookshop employees, or booksellers, as they are often called. In KL I stopped by my favorite bookshops and purchased more than a handful of titles. Book Xcess, located in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, stocks an impressive selection of remainder books in a variety of categories. On my previous trip, I signed up for one of their membership cards, and when I returned this time, my discount card was ready for to use. In that same mall, on the floor below Book Xcess, there is a small shop selling secondhand books. Basically, it’s a disorderly mess, but if you patiently browse the shelves (and piles on the floor) you may find something of interest. Back in town, over on Jalan H.S. Lee, the Junk Bookshop, despite its name, has an impressive stock of titles. But once again, things are peculiarly organized and you have to look in every nook and cranny — and negotiate the scary upstairs “shifting floor” — to see what they have. Besides the haphazard way of organizing their books, the prices are a bit steep for secondhand titles, but usually if you buy more than a couple of books the owner will offer you a discount. I also did a sweep through the book offerings at the Red Crescent Society’s RC Shop. Slim pickings this time around, but I found a few goodies. While visiting the Rock Corner branch at the Ampang Point Shopping Center (the only branch where I wasn’t even tempted to make a purchase; their stock was a bit too generic), I was pleasantly surprised to find a special book sale taking place at the exhibit area on the ground floor. They had some interesting titles in both paperback and hardcover, and of course I had to buy a half-dozen of each. Too much is never enough!

 

 

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