John Watts - Fischer-Z
The last time I saw him live he had a new band with him, comprising young talented musicians who probably weren't even born when Fischer-Z first split up. It is therefore ironic to some degree that the first album John Watts releases with this band is a retrospective look at some of the songs from his earliest days with Fischer-Z. Of the fourteen tracks on this album, all but one are drawn from Fischer-Z's first three albums, the classic albums: Word Salad, Going Deaf for a Living and Red Skies over Paradise.
Re-recording well-loved songs in this way, years after their initial release, is always going to be a risky business. Some artists (John Martyn) have done it, and seemed to butcher their back catalogue. After all, these are songs I have known and loved for years. I know them by heart. I know every word of the lyrics, every change in cadence of John Watts' voice and, even without hearing them, I can recall each one inside my head with perfect clarity. Tampering with a person's idealised remembrance of these songs presents serious risks - what if they don't match up to the same standard? What if they are too similar to the original? What if they are too different from the original? Comparisons are going to be made and if these songs are going to be recorded again then the revised versions had better be good!!! In the sleeve notes, John Watts says that he has recorded them in the spirit in which they were originally recorded.
Coming to the songs, which are arranged in chronological order on the album, the first four are from Word Salad. The first thing you notice is that Watts' voice is lower than on the originals - well he is older. The second thing is that the production is much fuller. Third, all the songs are longer. The result is that the songs are sufficiently different to avoid a direct comparison and yet not so different as to detract from memory of the originals. Of the four, "Lies" is perhaps the least successful but even so, it is still on a par with the original.
The next four tracks are drawn from Going Deaf for a Living - "Room Service", "So Long", "Crazy Girl" and "The Crank". On first impressions, the songs seem little different from the originals, though "So Long" lacks the crashing guitar chords at the end and the increasingly frantic tone of Watts' voice which marked out the original as special. In truth these four seem to suffer from the lack of characterisation in the story they each tell. The re-recordings are good enough, but don't seem to carry the conviction of the originals.
That leads to five tracks from Red Skies over Paradise. Now at this point, I confess to some serious trepidation. That album remains my favourite album of all time, and the originals of each of the songs replicated on this album would easily make my top 500 all time tracks. If I was going to feel disappointment keenest, it was going to be with these tracks for, if asked beforehand, I could not venture to suggest any manner in which the originals could be improved upon. And yet, the re-recordings are true to the originals without being blind copies. Maybe not as passionate and maybe a bit slower, but their sound is fuller. No disappointment here.
The one song which is not from that era is an unreleased Fischer-Z track from 1985. "Dark Crowds of Englishmen" was struck from release because its theme, support for workers, specifically miners, against the regime of Margaret Thatcher, was deemed too sensitive at the time. A premonition of things to come.
Despite any misgivings I may have about John Watts' tackling of this project, there is one thing upon which I would always commend him, particularly on this album. During the late seventies and early eighties, when all these Fischer-Z songs were first released, music was a different beast to what it is today. Back then, music not only defined but probably led youth culture. People like myself saw in bands of that era the expression of our feelings about the society in which we lived encapsulated in the music of the time. That relevance to myself, who I was and the times in which I lived is perhaps the closest I could ever come to explaining why Red Skies over Paradise has such a hold on me after all this time.
But the relentless power of the establishment has, over the past thirty years, taken its toll on music. Despite the plethora of ways in which to enjoy music these days, if anything the radio stations are playing more of the same shit over and over again. Artists are manufactured for commercial success quite openly in TV shows and whereas in the 80's turning on the radio at work was normal, now you have to have a license for it. Think about it - radio stations play singles to induce listeners to buy them. Record companies go to any lengths, not excluding out-and-out bribery, I am sure, to get their single on the radio knowing that, once achieved, the financial; rewards will be great. In effect - advertising. And I resent having to pay for the privilege of being advertised at!
Small wonder that the music of today not only fails to lead youth culture, but subordinates youth culture to the images of profit which are the driving forces behind the music industry. The idea of a protest song, a song with a political comment to make, coming out in the second decade of this millennium by a new artist is virtually impossible to conceive. Today's youth are bombarded with pictures of success (as "success" is defined by the establishment). The pressure to succeed at school, college and university is immense. No longer are these places of learning, where a young person can be moulded into a complete human being with independent thoughts capable of coming to his or her own conclusions. These educational institutions today are little more than factories for turning out wage slaves to the capitalist elite. And the capitalist elite doesn't want independent thinkers who might think about challenging the way things are. Who are the role models, the icon's for today's youth? In my youth it was Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac or Mick Jagger, perhaps. Today - Nelson Mandela? J.K. Rowling? No. Kim Bloody Kardashian and Paris Fucking Hilton!!! FFS.
But in releasing this album, John Watts reminds us all that music once had relevance to youth. These songs speak of issues and battles in the past, but the message is the same. Even as an older man, my passions are still stirred by the stories these songs tell. I recall at one John Watts concert a few years ago, most of the people there were pretty much my age, people who had come of age in terms of awareness with Fischer-Z. Yet there were a small group who stood out. Teenagers. Not wearing suits (not having come straight from work like most of us) they wore T-shirts and jeans. And they were having as much fun as us oldies. How come, I asked one, you enjoy this music so much? Simple, he replied, I grew up with these songs. My mum plays them all the time and I have come to like them as much as she does. And for the same reasons, he added. The details may have changed but the issues are the same and I can relate to them as much as Mum did back then.
For one brief moment I almost thought there was hope for the future.
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