BBC

REVIEW: Queen – On Air (6 CD box set)

QUEEN – On Air – The Radio Collection (2016 BBC 6 CD box set)

Go big or go home.  Why buy the 2 CD version of Queen On Air when you can go for the 6 CD smorgasbord?  If you love Queen, it is the only way to do it.  Having said that, if you only “like” Queen and wouldn’t give your own blood to buy a box set, then the simple 2 disc standard edition will probably suffice.  The first two discs in this set are the same as the standard edition.  Everything else is a bonus.

The contents of the first two discs are The Complete BBC Sessions, 24 songs in total plus some disc jockey chit chat.  Because these tracks come from multiple BBC appearances, some songs are played more than once, such as “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the epic “Liar”.  Most of the recordings are from the very early 70s — 1973 and 1974.  Queen were a rough and ready beast back then, but these versions are really not too far off from the original album tracks.  Because it’s the BBC, the recordings and fidelity are excellent.  This is a treasure trove of early Queen, all the best tracks, captured perfectly.  Any fan of the first three Queen albums will be more than satisfied with these discs.  Then, there’s a gap.  After the Sheer Heart Attack (1974) era, there is nothing until 1977’s News of the World.  That album is represented by four of the best tracks:  the fast and guitar-heavy version of “We Will Rock You”, plus “It’s Late”, “My Melancholy Blues”, and “Spread Your Wings”.

According to the liner notes, even though they were a new band, Queen were afforded unusual leeway at the BBC.  Everyone knew they were talented and capable, and so when Freddie Mercury demanded very high standards and everything just so, he was accommodated.  The pay off is that these recordings are stunningly good, and rival the official album versions for quality.  Apparently the BBC sessions were heavily bootlegged, and you will understand why.

Disc 3 contains portions of three concerts.  Shame it’s not the full shows.  I’m sure those will come one day.  In the meantime, enjoy this CD.  You will hear highlights from concerts in 1973, 1981 and 1986, again recorded by the BBC.  This makes for a diverse listen, including guitar solos and covers.  The 1981 recording from Sao Paulo, Brazil is the weakest in terms of sound, but still perfectly listenable.  The 1986 material from Germany is fabulous.  Freddie dropped an “F” bomb in “Under Pressure” as he was being recorded for radio!

This might be where most listeners have to check out.  The final three CDs are interviews with all four members of Queen — 210 minutes of interviews.  Did you know Freddie Mercury could speak Japanese?  Full concerts would be better than interviews, but here they are.  Also among the interviews is a chat with producer Roy Thomas Baker.  The interviews range from 1976 to 1992 and the tribute concert.  Queen never reveal too much, but the timeline of interviews provides a lot of detail surrounding Queen’s most celebrated albums.

The problem with the interviews isn’t so much the quality, but a matter of “when am I going to listen to all this” and “how often”.  The music is the meat of it.  This box set can be found affordably, so be aware of what’s inside and don’t pay too much.

3.5/5 stars

 

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TV REVIEW: Top Gear – Bolivia Special (2009)

“Sticking to the code of the Top Gear brotherhood, I left James and Richard behind.” — Jeremy Clarkson

TOP GEAR – Bolivia Special (2009 BBC, 76 minutes)

I wanted to review an episode of Top Gear that had something to do with music, which isn’t hard since so many rock and pop stars from Ronnie Wood to Ed Sheeran have been on the show.  My favourite recurring Top Gear gag involved tormenting Richard Hammond with Genesis music, whom he despises.  Specially, the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” from Selling England by the Pound is frequently played as torture. I chose the Top Gear Bolivia special to review as it is especially funny, breathtaking and interesting through its entire length. I realized though, that the Genesis gag was not used in this special, thus negating any real music connection in this review (aside from James May’s nickname “Ted Nugent”).  So, here is the Genesis track, and I’ll review the episode anyway!

Skip to about 1:30 to hear Hammond’s “favourite” part

The challenge: Each man must purchase a car for less than £3,500, sight unseen, from a local Bolivian website.  They are advised to buy four-wheel-drive vehicles, to take them from a river in the middle of the Amazon, to Chile and the Pacific coast. It is a 1000 mile journey through jungle, desert, and bad roads.  The most dangerous road in the world, in fact — the infamous Death Road.

Jeremy Clarkson chose a Range Rover classic, Richard Hammond a Toyota Land Cruiser, and James May a Suzuki.  They are sent to the start point of the journey by boat, but the cars have not yet arrived.  The three are like fish completely out of water.  James May is not an outdoorsman, Hammond is afraid of insects, and Jeremy is allergic to hard labour.  They are, according to Clarkson, “the three worst explorers in history”, and they have been dumped on a riverbank in the middle of nowhere.

May:  “Since we didn’t know what to do, we sat down, and did nothing.”

The cars are sent to them by barge, with no apparent way to offload them to land.  Immediately it’s obvious that the guys may have bought lemons.  May’s car isn’t in the advertised colour, but worse, has no air in the tires.  Clarkson’s doesn’t have the engine it was advertised to have, leaving him with a less powerful 3.5L.  Hammond’s Toyota has been customized by hand into a convertible!

The Range Rover scores an early victory, when they use it to pull Jeremy out of the mud that he was standing (and sinking) in.  Much to everyone’s delight, the car actually started!  It is the Toyota that fails to start, an embarrassing beginning for the diminutive Hammond.  The following day, they figure out how to get the vehicles off the barge, on the ground, and running more or less properly, but it’s good fun watching them learn by trial and error!  It takes three days of hacking and slashing with machetes through the jungle, just to get to a road.  Clarkson is pleased to have bought “the only 1980’s Range Rover in the world, that works.”  Though he can’t say the same for any of his gauges.

Hammond on the other hand says that he has “bought the only malfunctioning Land Cruiser in the world.”  He has no brakes, and no gauges.  May’s Suzuki is small but sturdy.  Through it all, the three are always entertaining, picking on one another and always looking for an advantage.  They are quick to mock the Range Rover when it is first to break down (a piece of bamboo through the fan, destroying it).  Clarkson will have none of criticism, calling the Range Rover “the hero of the day”, and rightly pointing out that it was the Rover that got the other two off the barge.

Clarkson: “We passed the time by bickering, until the engine cooled down.”

Breaking down, getting stuck, it’s all in a day’s pay for the Top Gear three.  Through it the audience at home gets to see the innards of the Amazon in sparkling hi-def.  The jungle is beautiful, vibrant, and dangerous.  Roads come to sudden ends, rivers appear in the middle of nowhere, and the insects are always biting.  Mishaps are constant.  Clarkson accidentally sets fire to Hammond’s soft top while cutting vents in his own hood to keep his engine cool.

The biggest visual spectacle is the infamous Death Road, on the way to La Paz.  This road, which claims hundreds of lives every year, is best described as a little notch carved into the side of a cliff face.  And it’s the only highway between the Amazon and the major hub of La Paz, which means sometimes cars have to pass each other on this one-lane strip of dirt.  Breathtaking, terrifying…and James May is deathly afraid of heights.

As per usual, the men customize their vehicles, when they finally hit La Paz intact.  They must prepare for a desert journey through one of the driest places on earth — where it has never rained, and nothing can survive.  (“Richard Hammond was the smallest living organism for miles.” — Clarkson.) For desert traction, Clarkson and Hammond raise their vehicles and install larger tires, but this does not turn out to be the advantage they hoped for.  May, meanwhile just repaired his car (a faulty alternator) rather than change it.  But they can’t handle the lack of oxygen at 16,000 feet above sea level and are forced to turn back, and take a longer route to the Pan-America highway.  The Toyota suffers numerous breakdowns, while the Range Rover, “the world’s most unreliable car,” is the most reliable.  As for the challenge, it remains gripping right to the end.  It could have been anyone’s race.

In the end, I think Jeremy Clarkson said it best:

“It is incredible to think that these cheap cars, bought unseen on the internet, had crossed the Amazon rainforest. They’d scaled the most dangerous road in the world, and they’d still been working when their drivers had broken down in the Andes.”

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – The Official Bootleg Box Set Vol 2 (2010)

Part 2 of a 2 part series!  Missed Part 1?  Click here for Early Stages: the Official Bootleg Box Set from the Fish era.

MARILLION – The Official Bootleg Box Set Vol 2 (2010 EMI)

Spanning Seasons End through to Brave, Vol 2 of the Official Bootleg Box (Vol 1 is of course the Fish years) effectively captures what some believe to be the best years of Steve Hogarth’s tenure. You will, naturally, get some repeat within the 8 discs inside. You’ll hear “Easter” more than once. You’ll hear “Uninvited Guest” more than once. It is what it is.

Here’s a breakdown of the contents herein:

  • Discs 1 & 2:  Leicester, April 24 1990
  • Disc 3:  BBC Friday Rock Show, Workington, July 13 1991
  • Discs 4 & 5:  Wembley, London, September 5 1992
  • Discs 6 & 7:  Warsaw, June 15 1994
  • Disc 8:  BBC Sessions EP, 1992-1994

Obviously the BBC stuff has a higher fidelity than the other stuff. It’s called a bootleg box set for a reason! But the other discs still sound acceptably good. They are soundboard recordings, not audience recordings. Hogarth’s voice is a bit hoarse in Warsaw 1994, but that’s the reality of a live concert setting.  A reality that I love and embrace.

BOOT BOX 2_0003The highlights are many. “Sugar Mice” is always great, regardless of who sings it. It was also nice hearing “I Will Walk On Water” and “Sympathy” during the Wembley 1992 show; both are from the then-recent Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other compilation album. Attentive listeners will even hear Marillion strumming away on an embrionic version of “Made Again”, a full two years before it was released! You will get to hear all of Brave performed live in 1994. I liked the moment in the Warsaw show when Hogarth asks security to go easy on the fans, “they are not animals”.

Some people bitched that it’s not a full length CD, but I dug the BBC Sessions EP.  It’s just a four song acoustic EP, but it sounds amazing. Today, Marillion have a ton of acoustic work (Less = More, Unplugged at the Walls, Los Trios Marillios to name some of many), but this is the earliest acoustic set that I think I’ve heard. The only problem is, it’s mastered way louder than the other 7 discs. Kind of jarring when you have them on continuous play and you have to jump for the volume knob!

The box set includes each CD in its own fully illustrated cardboard sleeve, as well as a booklet. The box itself is slim but sturdy.

If you’re a Marillion diehard, you will obviously want to somehow save enough pennies to add this to your collection. Even though I have already somewhere in the neighborhood of…God, I don’t know? Over 50 live albums from the Hogarth years alone? Many of them 2 and 3 disc sets? I’ve lost track of how many I have, and that doesn’t include their download-only instant live albums! But this is still a great package to own, especially because the older live Hogarth albums are getting harder to find. (Don’t know how you’d get a copy of Front Row Club #1 at this point, for example.)

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Dio – At Donington UK: Live 1983 & 1987

DIO – At Donington UK: Live 1983 & 1987  (2010)

Ronnie James Dio’s death was an incredibly sad day in rock.  For our little corner of the rock world, that genre known as Heavy Metal, it was an absolute tragedy. Very rarely have ever lost someone with so much talent, and so much history.  I mean, we lost Randy Rhoads, but he never got a chance to grow and spread his wings.  Dio did.  Unfortunately Dio’s long and powerful career has not been well documented in live album format.  There are gaping holes in his live catalogue, with very little (just B-sides) being available with Vivian Campbell on guitar.

Finally some of that history has seen the light. Doninngton UK collects two concerts. From 1983, we get a show with Vivian Campbell. From 1987, a show with his replacement Craig Goldy from the very underrated Dream Evil tour. Both shows are excellent, with nary a complaint between the two of them. Both shows contain ample Dio tunes with a smattering or Rainbow and Sabbath.

For me, my personal highlights were not any specific song, but more the tireless performances by Ronnie James Dio. If any man ever made it all sound easy, it was Dio. Plenty of power to spare, Ronnie James is the ringleader and he never faulters. He’s perfect. A second highlight for me was the guitar work of Campbell and Goldy.  It was great to finally hear the first two Dio dudes rip and shred live.

You get “Holy Diver”, “Heaven and Hell”, “Stargazer”, “The Last In Line”, “Rock and Roll Children”, and pretty much any favourite Dio song you’ve ever had from that era.  Yes, you’re going to hear several songs twice.  “Children of the Sea” (a Sabbath classic), “Rainbow in the Dark”, “Holy Diver”, “Heaven and Hell” (another mighty Sab classic), and “Silver Mountain” all appear on both discs.  When you think about it though, that’s a lot less overlap than you’d expect.

The recording and mix are good enough (by the BBC), and the packaging is very nice as expected.  I love the cover.

5/5 stars. As if there was any doubt.

ADDED BONUS: Two plastic backstage pass replicas included!