Monday, 30 May 2011

Billy Franks

One of the wonders of the Internet is being able to track down artists from a previous era, get in touch with fellow fans and reignite old musical passions. I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of all three of these when it comes to Billy Franks. I was a fan of his band The Faith Brothers from the 1980s. I heard pretty much nothing of Billy for 15 years or so and couldn't even find any old Faith Brothers music either. Then a friend of mine who I know through The Alarm told me about Billy Franks and his solo career. I went down to see Billy and his band play outside Guildford at some sports club and I have never looked back.

Obviously I was completely in awe of seeing him playing some old Faith Brothers songs after so many years, but I was immediately completely hooked by his solo songwriting skills and how these songs were presented. Not only on that night did Billy play this bizarre venue, but a coach load of his ever faithful fans came down as well from London.

I got myself acquainted with his solo albums all of which are beautiful in their own right featuring some wonderful songs. The first solo album "Mass" has the wonderful "Beautiful Heresy", "The Boy Who Was Afraid Nothing" and the simply wonderful title track "Mass". The 2nd album "Genius & Grace" was an album full of gorgeous songs including "Sleep A Little Easy When It Rains" and "Angel At Your Elbow". By the time the 3rd album "Sex Laughter & Meditation" came out I was seeing Billy play live in London on a regular basis. This 3rd album really is a brilliantly crafted album featuring classic songs such as "Girl Of Your Dreams" and "One Summer In New York". There was a long wait for the 4th and most recent album "The Turtledove Boutique", but it was well worth the wait and features a beautiful and haunting song called "50/50 America".

And as wonderful as the studio recordings are for me, Billy comes into his own when he is live on stage. The songs are taken to a completely different level. Billy's passion for music comes across and he gives absolutely everything to every song he performs. I defy anyone to go to one of his gigs and not come away having had a brilliant evening. What I like about him is also the way he is a humble and warm spirited man who has a great affinity with all his fans. He will always greet everyone at his gigs by their first name, give them a hug and take the time to have a chat. Many of these fans have followed Billy since The Faith Brothers days are friends first with Billy before being fans. His stories of his former years are funny, touching and hopefully coming out in a book soon. He also made a film "Tribute This" which documented the story of Billy and his three American friends trying to get famous artists to cover his own songs making a tribute album of said material. It is a wonderful film both touching and funny. Ultimately not one artist said yes and the real stars of the film were the normal people who played their parts in trying to help Billy and his friends along the way. Billy is just a normal guy bringing some wonderful music into this world that brightens up my life for sure. And I suppose for me that is what makes Billy Franks the man I think he is.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Alarm

The Alarm is my favourite band of all time. A band I have followed since early 1983 to the present day and the music is just everything I like music to be. Back in 1983 I was 16 years old and was recovering from quite a serious kidney illness, and musically I was searching for a band to replace The Jam who had just split up. I would have my little radio in my bedroom and I was listening to John Peel when I heard this wonderfully powerful acoustic stomping tune. It was "The Stand" which was the 3rd single by The Alarm.

I ordered the 7" and 12" singles from my local record shop in Maidenhead and for the only time in my life did I take records into school to play to my friends once they arrived. On the basis of that 4 of us went up to see The Alarm play at The Marquee in London in May 1983. I was blown away by these weird looking band members with spiky hair banging out tunes on acoustic guitars with such power and energy the like of which I had never seen before. Over the following months I saw the band in London at every opportunity and saw just the most amazing shows by these 4 guys. We missed last trains home, got stuck in car parks and went to venues I never knew existed. The old ballroom venues in London were simply magical.

The band for me were at their best playing live and studio recordings sometimes never quite captured the essence of those live gigs. The commercial success in the UK came with the singles "68 Guns", "Where Were You Hiding When The Storm Broke", "Spirit of 76" and "Rain In The Summertime" with the 1st album and my favourite "Declaration" going straight into the UK Top 10 albums on its first week of release.

For me the golden years of 1983-84 saw the band at their finest. I suppose the day Dave Sharp started playing with a white strat rather than the acoustic changed the sound of the band and for me some of the magic was lost. I remember the Christmas show at the Hammersmith Palais in 1984 when I think the band played just about played every song they knew how to play that night and it was one of the truly great nights. It was the year of Band Aid and when the song was played before the band came on stage the place was just a mass of bouncing people. I remember going to see the band play at Heaven in London and apart from it being my first experience of a gay venue I remember seeing the most blistering version of "One Step Closer To Home" I have ever seen. I think the band stopped during the intro and re-started the song as they wanted to really crank it up!

The 2nd album "Strength" saw the band being able to fill out the Hammersmith Odeon and I remember in May 1985 going to see the band play there direct from watching Arsenal play away at West Brom, and then outside the gig afterwards I saw my hero Charlie Nicholas leave so I chased him down the road to sign my football programme from that day. "Strength" was an album that always left me a little disappointed as it just seemed so so different from "Declaration". In fact it was only in more recent times when put out "Alternative Strength" which included demos showing how the album progressed did I finally understand and appreciate the songs more fully.

During this period I saw The Alarm support Queen at Wembley in 1986 and U2 at the Cardiff Arms Park in 1987 I think! I remember the Wembley show mainly as shortly before The Alarm came on stage we made our way down to front having to step over loads of picnics that the Queen fans had laid out for the day. The set was magnificent and "68 Guns" went down a storm as it was the one Alarm song that most of the crowd knew. Cardiff was very eventful. We got the train down to Cardiff and had a good liquid lunch in the bars around the stadium. On entering the stadium to my horror they were not selling booze and the only drink on sale was Panda Pops! I was tempted to leave and get a train home. Fortunately both The Alarm and U2 were amazing and it was a wonderful day. Having said this I am always happiest going to Alarm gigs in their own right.

I enjoyed the 3rd album "Eye Of The Hurricane" as it kind of moved the band back towards the acoustic rock sound I enjoy. I remember Gary Davies from Radio 1 really getting behind the "Rain In The Summertime" single at the time. The 4th album "Change" was another hard album for me to really love as its more blues influences I found hard to really enjoy. The single "Sold Me Down The River" remains a great song but I wonder as I did from time to time with Alarm single releases whether it was the best choice of single at the time. I do remember the "Change" tour coming to Reading so it was nice seeing the band locally as well as in London. The final album from the original line up was "Raw" and I have to concede having seen the UK tour gig at Brixton we decided not to go to the extra show back at Brixton at the end of the European tour as something had gone from the live performance at that stage. As it turned out that last show in 1991 was the moment Mike Peters left the band so I actually missed the dramatic event. But even during such a dark hour there was a moment of light relief. At a fan club convention in Leicester shortly after Mike Peters left the band they were doing a quiz on stage when a poor girl's chair leg slipped in a gap on the stage causing her to fall over backwards. We have never laughed so long and cried such tears over any event before or since. I have now been contacted by the unfortunate victim after all these years, and I am glad to report that Pauline Redman is alive and well.

I think its no coincidence that I spent the next 10 years "retired" in the main from going to London gigs and just tended to buy CDs rather than going to gigs generally. And when Mike Peters put a new line up together and started playing as The Alarm again I suddenly started going back to see live music again. The release of the complete back catalogue as a CD box set was a fantastic release for a mad fan like myself. The modern line of The Alarm have released some amazing albums... "In The Poppy Fields", "Under Attack", "Guerrilla Tactics" and "Direct Action" with numerous box sets complementing these releases. Singles taken from these albums include "45 RPM" and "Superchannel". I make the annual pilgrimage to The Gathering in North Wales where a whole weekend of live music and much more is put on for the faithful fans. The "In The Poppy Fields" album for me announced that as well as continuing to honour the songs of The Alarm past, that this band had plenty to say here and now and that the music could stand up in its own right along side those songs of years gone by.

What I like about the new line up is the freshness of the music, the amazing live shows and an ability to capture the live essence of the live songs in the studio recordings. If anything the songs now are faster and angrier than ever and as a song writer Mike Peters has come of age over the years. I think the music of the modern Alarm era shows that there is plenty of life left in The Alarm yet, and who knows what chapters could be added to the story of The Alarm in the years ahead.

Bring the story up to date I recently saw the band on the 30th anniversary Sound And The Fury tour which sees the band band playing all the classic tracks from the last 30 years and the live sound is amazing. An album was released in June 2011 of the same title featuring reworkings of Alarm / Mike Peters songs from over the years including a single of "Unbreak The Promise". The album stayed clear of the more well known recordings which was a brave and interesting idea. To finally get a studio recording of "For Freedom" after decades was brilliant.

The Alarm will always play a huge part in my musical life and I hope there remain many more chapters in the story. Could I name my favourite Alarm song? "Majority" always has been a huge favourite. The electric version of "One Step Closer To Home" and going back to the beginning I loved "For Freedom" and am so happy it is finally getting a studio recording release on the forthcoming album.

The solo work of Mike Peters and Dave Sharp will follow in other blogs as the solo work kept a connection going with The Alarm during the 1990s.

p.s. I am also the proud supplier of The Alarm printed carrier bags you get all your merchandise in :o)