Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wedding Present

There are people who think that the real meaning of Christmas has been lost...and that the real meaning of Christmas is Peel’s Festive 50 crammed with that year’s entire output by the Wedding Present and The Fall. I’m not quite that bad but I do have a soft spot for Wedding Present.

They were in many ways the archetypal Peel band. Where Peel listener becomes Peel performer and then inspires a whole new set of bands...and keeps fanzine writers busy.

David Gedge had been writing to Peel for years before, sending him tapes of new projects and fledgling bands and Peel had said that he liked the letters but not any of the music until 1985’s Wedding Present debut single Go Out And Get ‘Em Boy.

Their early trademark was the breakneck speed they played at, with a frantic clattery rhythm guitar that was more banjo than Bon Jovi. The lyrics were a catalogue of courting carnage. Heartbroken, love sick, dumper and dumpee and were often based on English sayings, or stock phrases.

Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, What Did Your Last Servant Die Of? Anyone Can Make A Mistake. Almost stereotypically northern. The Smiths were at the height of their powers and then here comes David Gedge. Just what was needed ...a less flouncy Morrissey who didn’t talk about celibacy but did sing about having a lot of Girl Trouble.

The single Once More and the double A side You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends/This Boy Can Wait was released in 1986 on the bands own Reception label. They kept to their formula. Fast, thrashy and heartbroken.

I first saw them at Manchester Boardwalk and remember Gedge was wearing a Frankie Goes To Hollywood Relax T shirt and they covered Gang Of Four’s I found That Essence Rare.

I also saw them at The Barrel Organ in Digbeth in early 87. My favourite song from that time was My Favourite Dress. For a start it was a touch slower but it had a powerful, grinding, churning rhythm that could mix concrete.

The bass was filthy, distorted, clicky and relentless. The guitars alternately piled layers on and then held back so you could hear the bass and drums in the really complemented Gedge's lyric “There’s always something left behind.”

In the Carry On tradition I always liked the title My Favourite Dress, and of course in the David Gedge tradition it was a song about jealousy betrayal, disappointment and..“A drunken kiss. A stranger's hand on my favourite dress”.

I liked the way that Gedge’s voice rose up through the verses and like so many of his songs there’s that great teenage feeling of “It’s not fair.” I also liked it for more obvious reasons though, namely it’s line “A long walk home, The pouring rain” .

I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about Pop and during the 80’s went to loads of gigs where I ended up walking home in the rain, without really minding too much. Sometimes a reason for liking a song can be alarmingly Great Uncle Bulgaria and Tobermory once told me whilst litter picking on Wimbledon Common. Can’t remember what their favourite song was though...

1987’s George Best lp is probably the best loved lp; it’s got the singles and the iconic photo of Best on the cover. After the recording they shed the drummer. The first in a long line of shuffling line up changes.

Reception Records released an odds, sods singles and Peel sessions compilation Tommy in 1988 while Bizzaro, the second studio album came out on RCA in 1989.

The songs were similar in sound and approach to the first, and they used producer Chris Allison again, who had produced George Best. Many songs featured lengthy endings where the vocals have got their coats and gone home but the music just wants to stay out and go to a club or at least the chippy.

Some of these songs really do go on and on. It’s got that “we don’t know how to stop this” feeling, like the Velvet Underground’s 3rd lp or the Stooges debut. And with the Weddos scrubby rhythm guitar you can definitely feel the musical link back to Lou Reed’s peerless rhythm playing. The single Kennedy was an indie floor filler for years. Literally I said, it did go on a bit.

I liked the band a lot but I was staggered by the huge leap they took with 1991’s Seamonsters. Steve Albini produced it, the banjo rhythm playing was binned, the tempo slowed down and the sound became huge in some areas but defiantly lo fi in others.

Biscuit tin drums would sit under soaring guitars that could have sounded U2 and epic, but were actually harsh and scraping. All the songs had one word titles, Dare, Dalliance, Suck, Rotterdam (Rotterdam scores extra points for not even having its title in the lyric)...and Gedge was still unlucky in love.

The sound was immensely powerful even in the quiet bits as you could feel the band holding back. You knew and they knew, that the next wave was coming and then you were going to get flattened. Blonde has Gedge howling an anguished “Yes I was that naive”...while the guitars sound even more traumatised. It’s bleak.

I saw them in Birmingham in ‘91 just before the album was released. I didn’t know any of the songs and my impression of the gig was that they’d played the album from start to finish. I’m not even sure they did any of the old songs and they certainly didn’t play an encore because they never do. Maybe not a crowd pleaser then, but I thought it was fantastic.

At the time the sound was new and breathtaking...but Nirvana were just about to erupt, Steve Albini would get to produce Nirvana and David Gedge would get slapped by Courtney Love backstage at the Reading Festival....and there'd be another line-up change.

They started January 1992 in the way they meant to carry on....a limited edition single a month for 12 months, with a new song on the a side backed with a cover version. Amongst the covers were the theme from Twin Peaks, UFO and songs by Altered Images, Neil Young....and for the December single’s b side, Gedge turned in a really effective but terse sounding version of Elton John's Step Into Christmas.

They used various different producers and overall the sound was warmer. I found it difficult not to warm to songs with titles like Queen Of Outer Space, Love Slave, Silver Shorts or Go Go Dancer.

Single sales generally were starting to dip and so the Wedding Present were able to break Elvis Presley’s record for the greatest number of top 40 singles in the UK chart in a year. The singles were compiled on Hit Parade Vol 1 and 2.

I’d promptly and smugly bagged 11 out of 12 of the originals, I liked them, and I played them. The band took some time off to regroup as the pressure of that year's release schedule had apparently taken it’s toll on Gedge as the band’s songwriter.

My interest ended pretty much there though...and I’m not sure why. I just didn’t get round to buying anything new or going to see them. There were more line up changes, the band issued an album Watusi on Island in 94 and a car themed album of love songs called Mini on Cooking Vinyl in 1995. The album Saturnalia came out in 96. They still cropped up in Peel’s festive 50 though.

David Gedge started recording as Cinerama with his girlfriend Sally Murrell. Now comes the bit where art becomes life. The standard line about Wedding Present lyrics is that David Gedge’s girlfriend left him and then he spent 20 years singing about it.

Indeed the beginnings of the Wedding Present were in the messy ending of his previous band The Lost Pandas where his drummer girlfriend ran off with the guitarist. In the Wedding Present he always played down the questions about whether the songs were autobiographical by saying he had a long term girlfriend and that he just had a bit of imagination, and some miserable friends.

In 2002 Sally Murrell and Gedge split up after 14 years and he moved from Leeds to Seattle. The songs he wrote from that period became the album Take Fountain and in 2004 the Wedding Present were relaunched. The new line up of the Wedding Present was the old line up of Cinerama. Behold...Marathon becomes Snickers.

Take Fountain came out in 2005. It’s a good album alternating between orchestrated sections (Cinerama) and more recognisable WP style songs. Obviously he’s still heartbroken but I’m glad he’s still around. If there’s anything to vote for in anyone’s end of year polls, then I’m sure some Wedding Present fans will be trying to get back to the True Meaning Of Christmas.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Singles of the Year

Amy Winehouse – Rehab

Broken Social Scene - 7/4 Shoreline

CSS - Lets Make Love…

Flaming Lips - The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song

Gnarls Barley – Crazy

I’m From Barcelona - We're From Barcelona

James Dean Bradfield - That's No Way To Tell A Lie

Kooks - She Moves In Her Own Way

Lord Large (feat Dean Parrish) – Left Right and Centre

Peter Bjorn And John - Young Folks

Raconteurs – Hands

Rumble Strips - Oh Creole

The Lemonheads - Become The Enemy

The Strokes - You Only Live Once

Young Knives - She's Attracted To..

Zutons – Valerie

My favourite singles from this year have mostly been really straightforward, obvious catchy great songs...almost the definition of single really. In most cases prompting me to think, “Hmm I really like that, I think I’ll buy the album.” It’s absolute marketing genius and could catch on. Music industry cash crisis averted by releasing great songs that encourage people to buy the album.

Amy Winehouse - Rehab. I’ve had a change of heart of heart here and am ready to admit to being wrong about her. With the first album I couldn’t get past the niggling unease about her singing style. It was like the young girl dressing up in her big sisters clothes...(pause for a quiet moment to consider Danni and Kylie Minogue.) Amy Winehouse was coming across as the jazz singing, big band swinger with attitude, all Ella Fitzgerald with swearing, an underage jazz diva outside the off licenser with fake id.... and this great big voice that didn’t seem right coming out of this small (and getting smaller body). I felt the same about Joss Stone’s take on Soul. Should a Devon teenager sound like forty year old Black American woman? Sometimes music demands an authenticity. Sometimes, deep down, you know you’re just buying into an idea of the authenticity and the artist is just supplying what they think you’re asking for. Eg Solomon Burke’s tendency to “Over soul” (in Jerry Wexler’s words) to Gangster Rap (Ice T’s putdown to Vanilla Ice. “What street are you from? Seasame Street?”)

With Rehab though Amy Winehouse doesn’t sound like she’s trying too hard to imitate. There’s a bit of an Esther Phillips nasal sound, but basically it’s a straightforward simple Soul/Pop song about not wanting to go to Rehab because she’d be better off listening Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles. The opening brass has got that Locomotion (Little Eva rather than Kylie) feel and the drums sound great as they roll round. And sometimes Pop sounds better when it’s Just Saying No, Kids. No considered opinion. Just bratty and teenage “No...Don’t want to....No…I don’t like it”. My lesson from 2006 is Amy Winehouse. I was wrong. And I would.

I knew within the opening few bars of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Rumble Strips Oh Creole and Peter Bjorn and Benny’s Young Folks that these were records I was going to like immensely. The intros are sparse, natural and clicky sounding. The 3 songs all go together well as a sequence and there are various combinations of whistling, brass and big hair. All good

I’m from Barcelona and The Kooks just sound bouncy and joyous. The James Dean Bradfield song starts really well with a guitar sound that manages to be simultaneously chopping and churning. I lose a bit of interest when the synths pile in though as I also do with the Killers who tread similar ground. I do like the beginning a lot though. The Lemonheads are doing what they do best; stoner mid tempo Byrds songs of regret and blame. It’s nothing new from Evan Dando but his old hat suits him well.

Hands by Raconteurs is Small Faces/Led Zep by indie supergroup featuring Jack White and Brendan Benson. The sound is really good and I like the way they are all holding back...they’re not rushing towards the next beat, but they sound so controlled but also unfeasibly loud.

Both CSS’s Lets Make Love And Listen To Death From Above and The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song by Flaming Lips sound bonkers. The Flaming lips sound like a Psychedelic Queen…. but obviously in good way. They also both have electronic splurges that came in massively louder than the rest of the song.

My favourite single this year has been Left Right And Centre by Lord Large (Featuring Dean Parrish), written by a 15 year old Paul Weller, but recorded this year by Northern Soul veteran Dean Parrish. It’s an absolutely authentic sounding northern soul record. The records a gem, but the story behind it's pretty good too. Weller had recorded it as demo with the Jam and had written it in the style of the Northern soul records he was listening to at the time. The long forgotten demo turns up on a bootleg unearthed by Weller and Steve Craddock in a New York record shop. Lord Large was the keyboard player in Electric Soft Parade, while Russ Winstanley is the Wigan Casino dj who persuaded Northern Soul Trooper Dean Parrish to sing a 30 year old song written by a 15 year old in Woking. The video is worth a look for the excellent clips of the Northern Soul dance moves. There are spins, kicks and some worrying trousers. Pass me the talcum Malcolm.

Monday, December 04, 2006

David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust vs Aladdin Sane

If it’s true that everybody’s got a book inside them, then I think there’s also room for a David Bowie album. Are you sitting comfortably?

Few artists have equalled the longevity and consistency of Bowie’s output between 1969’s Space Oddity and 1980’s Scary Monsters. That’s 13 albums. Musically, he didn’t really put a foot wrong during that period - although he did put his foot in something nasty for much of the following years. In his golden era, he created and aped styles from Space Oddity’s hippy folk, The Man Who Sold The World's sleeping pill US Rock to Glam Pop, Plastic Soul and the late 70’s Eno assisted electronica.

Each album was properly innovative but still notched up proper hits. So that’s settled then...David Bowie = pop genius between 1969 and 1980. Now you’ve got to choose the best album between The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.

Ziggy is yer basic run of the mill concept album where an alien in the guise of a rock musician comes to save the world but is destroyed by his own excesses and the love of his fans. Aladdin Sane released the following year is Ziggy goes to America. (Each song title has the city where it was written in brackets)

Both of them still sound fantastic, but quite different to each other. But as always context is everything. I got into the records aged 15 in 1979 but I think it would have been very different aged 15 in 1973 when you’ve got the national “I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman” conversations round the family telly. For me it was just great sounding music that clearly influenced the current music that I was listening to...6 years earlier and it would have been revolutionary.

Ziggy opens with 5 years about the imminent (well in 5 years time) end of the world, and the piano has got echoes of Lou Reed's Perfect day. Bowie had produced Reed’s Transformer album the same year. The final crescendo also has something of the feel of the end of the Beatles Day In The Life.

I think the thing about the whole lp is that it’s impact was greater than the some of it’s parts. I mean, basically we’ve got a bloke with sticky up hair and a dodgy eyeball, who may or may not be gay, wearing a quilted jumpsuit, singing half baked sci fi (and a rock opera to boot) with a guitarist in a silver suit who gurned mightily but didn’t have Lady Stardust’s “animal grace.”

Mick Ronson’s guitar playing is immense but the actual sound is really interesting, because of the way it floats on top of an unusually loud acoustic rhythm track. Soul Love is a great example of this. The slashing guitar that underpins the “Love is careless in it’s choosing” chorus has power but no extreme bass or treble, just a harsh powerful distortion...the warmth that you’d normally expect to hear in a gloriously wanged guitar sound actually comes from the acoustic.

Part of the Ziggy character is based on Vince Taylor (The Clash covered his Brand New Cadillac) and Ziggy as an album is totally in love with Rock ‘n’ Roll in a way that no one would be now. “Awl right... Out a sight...Hey Man... Come on...Let the children boogie...Wham bam Thank you mam.” Hang On to Yourself is a joyous lunging rock n roll celebration, “Laying On Electric Dreams” and it’s 3 chord descending guitar pattern became one of Punk’s musical building blocks. Sid Vicious taught himself to play bass by staying up one night with some speed, and a copy of Hang On To Yourself. It’s unconfirmed whether he actually had a bass with him that night.

Lady Stardust was originally demoed as “Song for Marc” (lady shoe wearing Marc Bolan, the Bopping Elf). With it’s descriptions of the singer who is both reviled and adored for “the make up on his face…His long black hair, his animal grace...I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey” It is the acoustic companion piece to the full on electric (but equally homo erotic) song Ziggy Stardust. ("Well hung and snow white tan”) Both songs are as gay as lederhosen and must have sounded astonishing to a mainstream audience in 1972.

The album ends with Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (back to that Rock n Roll as a verb, a noun.... and a lifestyle) with it’s huge climactic ending of scary troll backing vocals singing “You’re wonderful” over and over again.... and over a massive strings and guitar wave.

If Ziggy Stardust is an album that constantly name checks Rock ‘n’ Roll, then Aladdin Sane just gets on with the job of actually doing it.

Watch That Man is a Stonesy riff monster with the vocals deliberately mixed low to give it a more mystery. The title track of Aladdin Sane has a bonkers noodling piano section by Mike Garson. It’s as avant garde as you could get and considering this album was the follow up to the massively successful Ziggy Stardust it just shows Bowie’s confidence and fearlessness at the time.

The album also has 2 bone fide hits in Drive In Saturday and Jean Genie. Both songs actually sound like the 70’s...saxophones were fruitier in those days. The loud acoustic/floating electric sound of Ziggy is replaced with a straightforward crunching electric. It sounds brilliant; Mick Ronson was on top form. The opening riffs of Panic in Detroit and the writhing squealing Cracked Actor are rarely bettered.

There is a wooziness to the sound of the album though that stops it being traditional sounding. Aladdin Sane has got it, as has Lady Grinning Soul and the Brecht/Brel/Scott Walker sound of Time with it’s legendary line “Time flexes like a whore falls wanking to the floor” What can it all mean? The lines “In Quaaludes and red wine, demanding Billy dolls and other friends of mine” refers to New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia who had drowned in the bath the previous year.

The cover of Lets Spend The Night Together is an absolute romp in all senses of the word. When it breaks down in the middle Bowie murmurs “Our love comes from above...Do it…Lets make love!”

Meanwhile Ronson is making filthy and phallic guitar sliding noises. The band had done the avant garde bit on the title track, now they were getting back to some very base basics.

In terms of influence and context, Ziggy is the more important album but if I had to choose between the two albums I’d go for Aladdin Sane, just because I like it’s sound so much. And if ever an album cover came to define an artist then Aladdin Sane’s lightening flash make up and collarbone teardrop gave Bowie his most memorable image

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Scritti Politti Birmingham Academy 18th Nov

Green Gartside may be effectively Scritti Politti but he’s not exactly prolific (he’s only released 5 albums)…or a frequent live performer. The gig at Birmingham Academy last week was on (or so he had been told by a member of the audience) the 28th anniversary of their first gig. But as he also said “We haven’t really done a tour before ….our last one was with Joy Division, Gang of 4 and Echo and the Bunnymen.”

I’d been a big fan of their early squat rockin' reggae songs like Skank Bloc Bologna and Messthetics. The trio of Rough trade singles, The Sweetest Girl, Faithless and Asylums in Jerusalem, were clever, ambitious, beautifully sung and wrapped in covers that played with consumerism and design. Either that or they just ripped off the designs for Courvoisier brandy, Dunhill cigs and Eau Sauvage.

The lp Songs To Remember came out in 82, complete with alternative versions of the Rough Trade singles, their b-sides, and a handful of new songs. Getting, Havin’ and Holdin’ contains the lyrics that Wet Wet Wet took their name from. Less controversially it takes Percy Sledges opening lyric and adds a cynical twist, “When a man loves a woman he is happy…Maybe”. Green’s song Jacques Derrida, (yes there really aren’t enough songwriters working within the field of Philosophy, Marxism and girls) has a great line “I was like an industry, depressed and in decline”.

A classic Green dilemma was during the recording of She’s A Woman. It’s a plasticized, synth driven Beatles cover done by a girly voiced unreconstructed Welsh Marxist ex art student Deconstructionist Philosopher and the less than liberal Jamaican Dancehall star Shabba Ranks. Green had done his bit, Shabba was doing his…. but Green had to ponder and consider exactly what meaning Shabba brought to the song when he sang “Love up your woman now”

I didn’t like the sound of the songs after the first album, and still don’t like the production of the hits like Wood Beez (Pray like Aretha Franklin), Absolute and The Word Girl. I still liked the way that he thought about Pop music though, so I’d read the interviews rather than listen to the records. I missed the original band’s gorgeous Pop Soul. I think he still had the touch, the clever, original lyrics, and the understanding of the importance of Pop. But I couldn’t get past the sound. Sorry Green, it’s not you it’s me.

I do really like the new album White Bread, Black Beer though and was really excited about the prospect of seeing them. After all it had been a long wait. The audience at the Academy were definitely old enough to have been through all the incarnations of the band. Babysitting wasn’t an issue, as most of their kids would have grown up and left home.

They opened with Snow In Sun. They did play some older songs including The Sweetest Girl, Skank Bloc Bologna, The Word Girl and Wood Beez. The material was predominantly from the new album, which has a definite Pet Sounds/High Llamas orchestrated feel to it. It still sounds spontaneous as if it was written and recorded at home. Technology and the clever arrangements mean that he can play it live, whereas if he had toured 25 years ago, it wouldn’t have sounded this good, this professional (even when Brushed With Oil, Dusted with Powder collapsed) or this natural.

Green is now sporting a beard that seems to be more of a Black Hole and may in fact exert it’s own gravitational force. Apart from the necessary guitar, keyboards and drums (actually 2 kits, one drummer…he needed an electronic one for material like Wood Beez), the band line up included Dave (who played Keyboards, percussion and turned the pages for Green’s book of unlearned/forgotten lyrics) and Alyssa, henceforth fondly thought of as “Fox On Bass In Pet Sounds T Shirt.”

Robin Hood was introduced as a song about “The end of utopian socialism…. and girls. I think we’re all a bit ambivalent about the end of utopian socialism. I’m definitely less so about girls.” When a member of the audience pulled him up for referring to women as girls Green responded “Women… I Know...cut me some slack.”

In the early days he’d found playing live difficult and traumatic. The Gang of Four tour had ended after Green collapsed in the van with panic attacks in the days before the term “nervous exhaustion” became the publicly acceptable euphemism for “feeling a bit Pete Docherty.” Now he seemed genial and eager to talk after each song. So were the audience. When Green suggested we’d gone a bit quiet someone called out “It’s reverential awe.” I don’t think it’ll catch on as a terrace chant though.

Greens 1990’s were spent immersed in hip hop as shown by the 1999 album Anomie and Bonhomie. Like the Shabba Ranks “Love up your woman” moment the prospect of Green singing Jeru The Damaja and DJ Premiere’s Come Clean was tempting. “We’re really rockin’ some shit now”. He also did Hands Up which he’d recorded with Mad Skillz “Put your muthafuckin’ hands up”. The Philosophy years weren’t wasted after all. Another song segued into a snippet of LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells.

They finished with Petrococadollar. It’s a sparse, ghostly synth rumble of a song, reminiscent of Teardrop Explodes Tiny Children. After the polished pop and hip hop pop years it sounded great to hear him singing songs about love and self doubt using the language of economics (one of their early songs was called Opec Immac). No, there aren’t too many songwriters like Green Gartside

“You can bet your petrococadollar that I won’t remember
I’ve been in the market place since last July”

A brief encore and Green announced they really had to go, as “The Missus is sick.” I’ve heard better excuses but it didn’t matter, as I was still so pleased to have seen a gig that I’d been waiting 25 years for.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The random element that makes the song right

The great thing about music is that what makes it great isn't always the most obvious feature. In a particular song, the magic ingredient could be the vocal, the music, the words, the tune, the arrangement, the production, the sound, the video, the sleeve, the story that the listener brings to it or the story the singer brought to it.

Sometimes the story doesn’t even have to be true. And the magic ingredient is going to be different for each person…. And it is “the random element that makes the song right” that’s kept me going back to music through the years.

I’m roughly as good at darts and golf as I am at levitation and invisibility, but the thing that will drive you insane about those sports is that you can know all the variables. So if only your own performance were good enough you could get the same perfect result each time. Music doesn’t, thankfully, give you that tortuous, mocking promise…because it’s the random element that makes it wonderful. Music will save you, golf will kill you.

If, like golf and darts, you could control all the variables then, the most powerful form of expression should be words…you should be able to pin a feeling down and describe it so that feeling comes alive.

And if you’ve got the skill, then you should be able to distil it further and pare back the words to stripped down writing, trying to convey an intense feeling. That would make poetry the highest art form. Maybe it is, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’ve always ended up trying to find the meaning in the odd bits in songs, in the awkward little gaps, the elements of chance, happy accidents or just the result of the personalities involved in making the music. These random elements are like the divot on the green or an attack of “dartitis”. It’s how games are won and lost and why some songs win and others don't.

Remember these are the bits that make a great song better. You can over egg a pudding, you can gild the lily but you can’t polish a turd

Radiohead – Creep. That guitar “Thuchuqq”sound on an awkward, offbeat just before each chorus.

Clash – Complete Control. Is this the ultimate Clash single? The best moment for me is Joe Strummer’s yell of “You’re my guitar hero” as Mick Jones breaks the Punk Rock no solos rule. Also love it’s sleeve with it’s close up of the battered speaker cabinet. None more rock! Mick Jones’s backing vocals are worth a mention, as I like the way he’ll just pick out one word to harmonise with eg “At the HOTEL”

Betty Lavette – Easier To Say Than Do. Terrific song, great vocals and classic sixties southern soul arrangement but the thing that I most love about it is you can hear a guide vocal in the background, it sounds like its bleeding through the tape.

The different way that Otis Redding and Percy Sledge approached Try A Little Tenderness. Otis Redding sings an upfront, blustery “Gotta gotta gotta” as the song breaks down before the final fade out. It’s the ultimate Soul Man moment.

When Percy Sledge recorded his version, it sounds like when he came to that same section, he didn't know whether or not to try and out soul the Soul Man. So he ends up squeezing out a "Gotta, gotta "or two before giving up with such a heartfelt groan that it actually works better.

Johnny Cash – Hurt. An astonishing, heartbreaking performance. With it’s bald statement “What have I become.... I will let you down, I will make you hurt” it’s someone else’s addiction song (Cash probably had no idea who Trent Reznor was before it came up as a cover) but sung by a man who knew he was dying. It’s unbeatable, but now for me it’s inseparable from the video, with it’s shots of the ruined Johnny Cash museum and the final shot of the piano lid being closed

Velvet Underground – Here She Comes Now. It’s the muffled claustrophobic sound that defines this record. It’s the sound of thighs clamped round ears and druggy desperation.

Aretha Franklin – Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. There’s a one note organ at the start of the second verse. Now it’s not a better sound than Aretha’s voice, the lazy piano or the Memphis Horns, but that one note just beautifully demonstrates the restraint of the whole sublime arrangement.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – Take It All. Unloved and unremembered Leeds band. This is a single from 1982. At one point the swirling, flanged guitar chords collapse into a brief feedback squeal, leaving a big hole over the bass and drums...completely unintentional, but it is best bit of the record and makes the chorus that follows it sound more tense.

Scritti Politti – The “Sweetest Girl”. The best Pop song about Pop. Beautifully sung, odd, lilting reggae approach but sounding nothing like reggae...(I suspect Culture Club listened very hard to this for Do You Really Want To Hurt Me) the best bit is towards the end where Green sings a second speeded up vocal line against a slowed down vocal which is drenched in reverb for “And you know you never can be told” line.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners - Plan B. The single version has the World’s Best Ever Trombone Solo (That’ll get the message board hot), which is nearly equalled in breathless excitement and gruff guff by Kevin Rowland’s introductory shout. “Jimmy!”

Gram Parsons – $1000 dollar wedding. Terrific song, elevated to maudlin perfection by virtue of it being one of the Gram and Emmylou Harris duets. The best bit is the lyric “He took some friends out drinking and it’s lucky they survived.” Country and Western in 11 words.

Sly Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On. I’ll break the rules by including the whole lp. This is an example of where the story around the record not only increases my appreciation of the record but also explains how it sounds. When he recorded this in 1971 the feel good, positive sounding songs of a genuinely multi racial band had dried up and Sly Stone was holed up in his Bel Air mansion surrounded by guns, guard dogs, cocaine paranoia and Black Power politics. I love the sound because it’s murky, and hissy, you can pretty much hear the sound of the amps being switched on. It’s funky in musical style and funky in it’s original dirty meaning. One of the reasons for it’s sound is that Sly was constantly wiping the vocal tracks because he kept picking up women with the promise of singing on his album. Spaced Cowboy has got yodelling on it. Of course.

All the above are great songs by great artists...which leads me to…
Bryan Adams and Mel C – When You’re Gone. What raises this from a turkey twizzler to a sizzler is the bit where Mel C pleads “Don’t Go Bryan”. It makes me laugh so much that I almost forget everything that went before...apart from Everything I Do. Not forgotten, not forgiven

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Story Of The Undertones

The Story Of The Undertones is the film made by John Peel on his first visit to Derry in 2001 and (here’s the clever bit) tells the story of the Undertones through band interviews, shots of their old haunts and live clips. So far so Rockumentary. What makes this film more enjoyable than that general joyless genre though is the amiability and good humour of the band and their guest. They’re genuinely enjoying the whole thing, feel comfortable about their place in history and are enjoying the chance to play again after a 20 year lay off. The reformed band though has a new singer in Paul Mcloone rather than Feargal Sharkey. Sharkey does appear in the film in an interview filmed at Peel Acres.

The film is good at capturing the claustrophobic feel of mid 70’s Derry, with the pressures of The Troubles, unemployment and the hostility of the local community towards any one who “got above themselves.” Journalist Eamonn McCann appears in the film and describes Derry as “oppressed and oppressive” and makes the point that the natural sound for a group of Derry teenagers to have produced would be angry and hostile, and that it was actually braver for the band to make the “Sweet and beautiful” sound of "Teenage Kicks".

Even in their early days there were plenty of people who wanted a pre- emptive pop at the band, just in case they ever amounted to anything. The original sleeve of the record has a photo of the graffitied shed door with the legend “The Undertones are shite” and The Wall that features on the first album where the band sat with their legs hanging over (John Peel takes obvious pleasure in being able to recreate that photo with the band) was soon daubed with “Hang the Undertones.” After Sharkey left, one of the band gave the reason that Feargal was sick of people coming up to him and saying “Sharkey, You’re a bollux and your band are shite.” It beats musical differences.

It was only Feargal Sharkey who really wanted to get out of Derry though partly because he attracted more flak than the rest of the band. Their early parka and Docs anti fashion dress code was an attempt not to alienate their old friends, and there were frequent and expensive trips back to Derry during tours. They declined the chance to extend their first American tour with the Clash because half the band was home and girlfriend sick.

There’s a great moment where John O’Neil muses that he’d only ever had one girlfriend and wonders what his songs would have been like if he’d known more women. His wife then tells a story about one of his songs that was written about her…He’d gone to return some clothes to a shop for her but the youthful songwriter was a useless consumer, so his opening line to the shop keeper was “I know a girl.”

But that’s the thing about Derry, as the band and Peel look round from a hill, all the bands landmarks and reference points are easily visible and walkable. For a Birmingham band it would be like Moseley with murals.

After 2 albums of songs about chocolate and girls, the band were struggling with the dilemma that their hearts and experiences were still in Derry and they wanted to their songs to reflect the Political situation there. John O’Neil describes Crisis Of Mine from Positive Touch as a song about him trying to change his songwriting after meeting a recently released IRA prisoner. Damien O’Neil talks about It’s Going To Happen being about the IRA hunger strikers and wearing a black armband on Top Of The Pops the day Bobby Sands died.

There are some great music clips, including an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance where one of the band shouts “This is the last good song you’ll hear tonight” before launching into a dynamite version of True Confessions. Sharkey’s hands are in his Parka pocket, as it opens and closes like an enthusiastic and fearless flasher. What the audience should be afraid of though is John O’Neil’s guitar sound. The explosive, low flying opening chords of the song are rocket propelled. They could take a camera man’s head off.

After the Undertones split in 83 Mickey Bradley and Damien O’Neil were in a band called Eleven who were very poppy. I saw them play twice at the Marquee in 84 and the singer was like a black Annie Lennox in cycling tights. Although they did do a John Peel session (the band rather than the tights), nothing really happened and they split. (The tights already had).

The next effort was more successful as the O’Neil brothers formed That Petrol Emotion, where they were fused politics, Indie dance and Pere Ubu. I saw their first show at The Mean Fiddler when the band shared vocal duties between themselves in 1985 and a gig at Thames Poly (The Nightingales were also on the bill) which was the first show that American singer Steve Mack did. I never really took to him as a singer but I did go to lots of their gigs, which I enjoyed more than their records. They always played like demons. After That Petrol Emotion split John O’Neil dabbled with a dubby electronic project called Rare and Damien issued an album through Poptones

In the film The Undertones are quite open about what a bad idea it is for a band to reform twenty years after they split, without their original singer and especially when their singer was as distinctive as Feargal Sharkey. The new singer Paul Mcloone does have more than a hint of Feargal’s vocal style though and the band are obviously just really enjoying playing again, without the responsibility and as fun rather than a career. They’ve said they don’t want to haul themselves round the Punk nostalgia circuit and tarnish their good name.

I saw them at the Birmingham Academy in 2004 which was great fun and I posted a full review at

The album Get What You Need came out on Sanctuary in 2003 and it’s a lively Ramones pop punk blast and definitely a better listen than the original band's final album, 1983’s The Sin Of Pride.

The film brings out the fact that The Undertones were always split between Sharkey and the rest of the band and those differences go back right to the beginnings of the band where Sharkey was the last to join, the only one who worked, the only one who had a car and the only non songwriter. So from the remaining Undertones point of view they’ve now got the chance to play to an appreciative audience with a new mate and none of the previous tension.

In one of the extra scenes though there is a careful consideration given to replacing newbie Paul with Brittney Spears. Several of the band can barely speak at this point as they are giving it so much thought.

It’s a good-humoured uplifting piece of filmmaking. Bassist Mickey Bradley is currently recovering from treatment for bowel cancer. Obviously I wish him a speedy and full recovery and I’d love to see them play again. And I think you should too.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Nowhere To Run - Gerri Hirshey

The mark of a good music book is that it makes you want to listen to the music it’s about (obviously Motley Crue’s biog is the exception…embrace the book, avoid the music). Nowhere To Run is Gerri Hirshey’s account of the development of Soul up to the mid seventies.

It’s a terrific book that traces the story through interviews with most of the major players against a backdrop of racial politics and a changing music industry. It was first published in 1984 so she managed to get to artists like Michael Jackson and James Brown before they started to unravel.

This book (along with a steady stream of records and tips from passengers already aboard) was partly responsible for getting me aboard the soul train. As I was listening and learning about the music, this book gave me a peg to hang it on and brought the characters involved to life. The clattering, rolling writing style has a musical rhythm of it’s own and there are some fantastic quotes.

Wilson Pickett was a man who believed his own press, but I think this quote shows some of the truths and myths behind Soul music. “Me and a million other dudes said “later” to picking cotton. Moved north, learned to live in the city. Detroit, My Lord what a place…..Lean the lady up on one of them big Pontiacs – we in the 50’s now – be sweet and she slide right down the tailfin and into your arms. Lord bless and keep them automotive engineers. Give a country boy a reason to sing in that dirty old city,”

It was a business, (many of the artists and songwriters only want to talk about the hits in the interviews and Martha Reeves left Motown after asking awkward questions about her royalties) but it was also music built on a shared history of Black migration from the south to the industrial cities of the north, and then with labels like Stax, the music went South again.

Hirshey’s story moves between the City Soul sounds of Motown which was aspirational, sophisticated and shamelessly populist (black musicians selling to white teenagers) to the southern studios like Fame and Muscle Shoals where black and white musicians fused country and soul. Aretha Franklin was actually born in Memphis, moved to Detroit and then ironically, had to go back to Memphis to capture the sound that made her.

The time that the interviews took place meant that most of the artists had already had to adjust to harder times. Many had found themselves displaced by the Disco boom and the early 80’s didn’t look like it was going to be any easier.

The interviews with Martha Reeves and Isaac Hayes show bruised, reflective individuals just trying to get on with the business of getting by. Martha Reeves muses that she often found herself appearing on the bill with bands like The Cramps or Bad Brains. Now I think that sounds like a great show. As Clarence Carter prepares for a show on the nostalgia circuit he wonders aloud what songs to play, or whether just to laugh. The Clarence Carter trademark chuckle was a feature of many of his songs…ripe, fruity and lewd. It’s a laugh that may include scenes of a sexual nature.

The archetypal soul hustler though was Solomon Burke. His first session for Atlantic was recorded in the middle of a blizzard. Burke left early without hearing the results because, “I’ve got to go back to Philadelphia. I’m running a dump truck to pick up the snow. Pays 4 $ an hour.” When he played the Harlem Apollo he sold “Solomon Burke’s Magic Popcorn” in the aisles between his own shows. The owner was furious because there was already a popcorn concession. Burke decided that didn’t include Pork Chop Sandwiches, so he promptly set up a grill outside the venue and cooked and sold his own sandwiches between shows instead. The Bishop of Soul, cooking up fast food outside his own gig. The Solomon Burke chapter is fantastic. His quotes are as funny and outsized as the man himself. I’ve got a live album where he tells the audience “There’s 295 pounds of me…you can have any 5 pounds you like” and “All we need now is waterbed.” And he can sing.

The experience and effects of racism and segregation crop up frequently as many artists describe the tours of the south in the early 60’s. Solomon Burke tells a story of how Sam Cooke and himself were bundled out a restaurant by Police in Shreveport Louisiana and taken to the Fire Station, stripped, and forced at gunpoint to sing their hits, naked, to an audience of Police and Firemen.

To become fully soul qualified you also need to read Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music. It’s a fine book, which really gets under the skin of Southern Soul and ties it all in to American music, racial, social and political history. Hirshey’s book is less academic but really does bring the whole era alive. It’s obviously written by someone who loves the music and that joy just leaps off the page. It’s a celebration of Soul Music and it’s artists and her enthusiasm is infectious. Go on, read the book, buy some records.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dave Godins Deep Soul Treaures

It’s not often you get a consistently good album….and to have a series of 4 sounds just too good to be true, but Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures is the real thing - a quartet of albums lovingly compiled by the late Dave Godin and released on the wonderful Kent label between 1997 and 2004.

Godin wrote for Blues and Soul magazine through the 60’s and was enormously influential in the developing UK soul scene, both as a journalist but also as joint owner of the labels Deep Soul and Soul City. He coined the phrases Northern Soul and Deep Soul. His Blues and Soul column always closed with the words “Keep the faith”…Northern Soul summed up in 3 words.

The Deep Soul Treasures series contains 100 tracks mainly recorded between1967 and 73 and while many of the artists may be little known outside Soul circles, there are tracks by Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and Ben E King. There’s Irma Thomas’s "Time is on My Side" and Bessie Banks’s "Go Now" as covered by the Stones and Moody Blues respectively. Godin was looking mainly at the actual vocal performance and searching for an intensity. It may have been found in hit records, but more often than not it was to be found in the lesser known songs or artists.

In his sleeve notes he describes Deep Soul as “Music for grown ups…It puts into music, the deep and powerful emotional reservoirs that we are too bashful to voice in real life. We think along those lines but find it hard to speak along those lines. That’s what Deep Soul is for”

Godin was also important for trying to describe how these records could have a social context, like George Perkins civil rights anthem "Cryin’ In The Streets". It sounds like a New Orleans funeral march but is powerful and uplifting. As a white English writer in the 60’s he was also grappling with the fact that so many of these singers had come from church and Gospel backgrounds where they’d not only learnt to how to sing, but also learnt that sometimes you’ve got to put on a show, whether it’s for God or an audience.

The preaching, testifying Holy Roller style, where damnation or salvation were just an eyeball roll away, was a long way from 1960’s England and Sunday School religion. Everything in 1960’s UK was black, white and mono. Fact! And didn’t it just show in the lightweight music we produced?

It didn’t start to get interesting until British bands started to borrow, steal and cover Black American songs. Both The Beatles and Stones were frequent visitors to the Arthur Alexander and Smokey Robinson songbook. Then UK acts started to write their own songs, the boundaries became looser and English Pop music became as good as American.

Godin’s view is that Black American music (even when it’s Pop music aimed at teenagers...I think he means Motown, pre "What’s Going On") has always been grittier and had more adult themes. He argues that Deep Soul is less about sex but more about desire. It’s the desire that torments the singer (and of course for it to work , the audience has to believe that the singer is always singing about themselves…which goes back to the Gospel and acting argument.) and it’s that torment that comes out in the singers voice, that takes us out of ourselves. The Deep Soul moment that we can’t express for ourselves.

"Temptation’bout to Get Me" by The Knight Brothers from Volume 4 is a case in point. The singer has clear, high vocals, a bit like a rougher Smokey Robinson, and the backing is sparse and restrained. The man is in pain but it’s a beautiful sound

Because Godin’s series is based on a feeling, the actual Soul style, tempo and recording techniques used stretch from Rhythm and Blues to gospel, to country soul to lush 70’s productions. His focus on the performance means that great efforts were made to locate and include the original mono version of "Wish Somebody Would Care" by Irma Thomas rather than the re recorded stereo version. This actually matters. Fortunately the sound quality of Kent albums is always top notch, no matter where they get the original source material, unlike lots of other reissue labels that re-release recordings with the hi fi quality of a beer mat.

My favourite tracks are those that Swamp Dogg had a hand in such as Doris Allen’s "How Was I To Know You Cared" and "These Four Walls" by Irma Thomas. He was a really imaginative producer and songwriter whose lyrics often had a Country twist to them, which usually involved brackets.

They’re not on the Deep Soul series but I feel compelled to mention "Did I Come Back Too Soon (Or Did I Stay Away Too Long)" and "To The Other Woman (I’m The Other Woman)." They also involved great singers, really clever bass playing (Pops Popswell is a name to reckon with), funky Country Soul style guitar, sweeping strings and the kitchen sink.

If you’re only going to buy one of the series, I’d go for volume 3. You can buy the others next week.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sex Pistols/The Clash

So you’ve got to choose between debut albums by The Sex Pistols and The Clash. What’s it gonna be boy?

Sex Pistols gigs had been the early focus for Punk. Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley travelled to High Wycombe in 1976 to see an early gig, formed Buzzcocks, and then booked the Pistols for a gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall so they could support them as their first gig. Pretty much everyone in the audience would form a band that night…except for my friend Steve who became a building Surveyor.

Post primetime pottymouth Pistol swearing on the Bill Grundy show, the actions of venues, local councils and just general public hostility had made it impossible for the Sex Pistols to play in Britain. So they had become more of a media event with stunts like the Silver jubilee boat trip and the definitive Top Of The Pops appearance for Pretty Vacant in the summer of 77 where the band just looked brilliant, Rotten wearing a long sleeved Destroy shirt with ripped long sleeves, Steve Jones with a knotted handkerchief on his head.

The thing is you could actually see the Clash live, I never saw them in their prime but I would have loved to. The 3 figures of Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon ranged across the stage, were each absolutely identifiable, absolutely charismatic and for Pop History purposes, the only band that comes close in terms of their iconic appearance on stage is The Beatles mop tops and suits era footage. Strummer had become the ultimate frontman, his vocals were a righteous wind tunnel roar, he’d taken Elvis “shaky leg” twitch and turned it into a stage threatening stamp, all the while hammering a Telecaster that had obviously been very bad in a former life and was certainly going to get punished now. Wise choice. The Tele would be my top choice as a righteous instrument of rock, because it’s just stripped down to the barest necessities…it’s got the philosophy of the Dodge Charger, (American Muscle Car from the film Vanishing Point) which didn’t have hinges on the bonnet because they weren’t necessary and so were just added weight.

Glen Matlock had been involved in all the important Pistols songs. In fact the only ones written after he left were Bodies and Belsen Was A Gas. When Sid Vicious replaced Glen Matlock, both Clash and The Pistols had gone all Form over Function. Both struggled with the actual business of playing bass, but they both looked the part and wore their basses swinging low, on extra long straps, like The Ramones. Good move for non-musicians…put a bit of distance between yourself and the instrument. Henceforth known as Flashers Theory…if you can’t play it then wave it about.

Of course at the time, all the talk was about destroying rock n’ roll, (cue Clash 1977 and it’s “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones”.) The difference between Rotten and Strummer was that Strummer was a fuel injected Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones…he couldn’t have existed without what had gone before, he was just better. Rotten on the other hand really wasn’t like any other singer. He radiated a glowering malevolence, Peter Cook snideyness but also pantomime villainy. John Walters explanation for why the Pistols were never offered a Peel session was that he used to be a teacher and when he saw the look in Rotten’s eyes he recognised the look of a boy who he would not trust with a pair of scissors in the art class… and Walters wasn’t going to trust him in the BBC studios either.

In terms of the Punk timeline the Pistols had formed first, but the Clash’s album came out in April 1977, six months ahead of Never Mind The Bollocks. The Clash sounds buzzy and tinny whereas the Pistols album has thickly layered guitars. In fact Problems sounds like a song that AC/DC could have written (one of their good ones obviously). The thing is despite Malcolm McLarens protestations, The Sex Pistols really could play. Steve Jones rhythm playing is not just Man-sized, it’s Yorkie Bar chunky. No Feelings has one of my favourite intros ever, it’s just Steve Jones battering a 5-chord progression. Paul Cooks drumming was always underrated , but it’s powerful and I’ve seen him described as one of “The Great British Bashers”…witness the flailing false ending in Bodies.

One of my (admittedly untested) theories is that the mastering of the original vinyl copies of Bollocks made it the loudest record I’d heard…certainly at 13 and certainly against the weedier recorded sounds of the first Clash album. For a long (and misguided ) period I also thought that Bollocks would date quicker as “just a great big Rock record” whereas The Clash would fare better over time because the sound wasn’t as obvious.

Of course the whole thing about Punk was the changes it unleashed in it’s audience and in the industry as a whole. One of the challenges for Punk acts was what to sing about. TV Smith of the Adverts saw love songs and cover versions as selling out, but as the Clash and Pistols albums were the 2 biggest and most important albums of the time, then what do the lyrics mean now?

Matlock summed up Rotten as “No feelings, No Fun, No Future, No Lip.” All songs or phrases associated with The Pistols…and all just a slightly bit negative. The Clash is a more of a soundtrack about a time and a location. In some ways it’s like early Who…these are songs about work (Career Opportunities, Janie Jones….contrast with the Pistols character in 17 “I don’t work I just Speed”), the weekend (48 Hours, Protex Blue), cars (Janie Jones “He's’ got a Ford Cortina that just won’t run without fuel….fill her up Jacko”) and about themselves (Garageland).

Mick Jones loved Mott The Hoople and The Clash is a rock n roll album, without the love songs, made by a Punk Rock group. Police and Thieves was seen as ground breaking because it was a white Punk band playing reggae, but would any of it have worked without the incendiary live performances and the overall feeling (engineered by The Clash’s management and gratefully accepted by everyone else) that this band were changing everything? The thing is though now it doesn’t matter…The Clash did change plenty of people who saw those early performances. They were the great Punk band that you could see live and then they did become a brilliant Rock ‘n’ roll act. With the addition of the master class drummer Topper Headon, they were big enough and capable enough to do anything they wanted to musically. And that would be London Calling

The Pistols imploded in January ’78 and Rotten’s final words at the last gig were “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated.” Rotten of course doesn’t see himself as the whiney negative voice of the undeserving pissed off…. of course not. But he doesn’t give any answers either. He described Bodies as being neither pro nor anti abortion…he was just asking the audience to think about it. Hmm. (Quentin Tarantino quotes from it in Reservoir Dogs as Tim Roth is dying in the post heist bloodbath. “Look at him he’s screaming…it’s a bloody fucking mess”)

Of course I love both albums, but if I had to have one it would be The Sex Pistols, for it’s sound and for the fact that there had never been any one like Rotten…of course he didn’t have any answers, but then why should he? He started it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

John Peel

Some of this piece is taken from a posting from 2 years ago just after he died...but it still needs saying.

Most of the music that I like today can be traced back to teenage evenings spent listening to John Peel’s radio show and to the attitude that he brought to music. He didn’t over analyse it in musical terms, but looked for and played the music that interested and excited him and was preferably new…and preferably the B-side. And when there were records from his past or those that gave him an emotional response, then he’d tell the listener. Music is massively important and needs sharing, and people use it to reflect and make sense of their lives.

My musical education really started with his show. I was 13 in 1977 and I used to tape it on an old reel-to-reel tape, with a mic against the radio. I can remember hearing The Ramones Sheena is a Punk Rocker and the Clash Capitol Radio for the first time and also a Stranglers session that included Hanging Around. We’d talk about the records he’d played the night before on the bus going to school. My friends and I used to laugh when he played records at the wrong speed/wrong side or twice in a row. I stopped laughing eventually but he still did it.

When my rocking band, Onionhead, released Electric Ladland in 1990, I sent a copy to him with a chatty letter about the Gang of Four, Blue Orchids and The Fall. (In fact most of the letters I still write are about those 3 bands….much to the consternation of the BT and British Gas, who would rather I sent cash or cheques) Some time later I was summoned to the phone with the words “Sammy …it’s John Peel for you”. He’d phoned to say that he’d already got a copy of Ladland, didn’t think he liked it but he would listen to it again. Class. But the main reason for the call was to relay the information that the (superior) session versions of Fall songs that later turned up on Grotesque were not being released on Strange Fruit because Mark E Smith wasn’t happy with the recordings. Obviously it would have been better if Peel had said he loved our songs and wanted us to do a session, but I still thought the phone call was a measure of his all round greatness and proof that he was ultimately a music fan. He was a fan who knew some information that he thought another fan needed to know. It’s a beautiful thing played out on a daily basis in record shops, pubs, gigs and chatrooms.

A few days later he sent me a Peter Powell postcard (autographed by the Powellster) with the topical news that Sid James daughter had been one of the women on the cover of Hendrix’s original Electric Ladyland.

He also phoned my friend Nick before he was Onionhead manager, and was in fact a celeb-pestering schoolboy on a day trip to London. Nick and his mates found Peelie sheltering from the rain in Covent Garden and told him they were in a band and on the up. A year later Peel phoned Nick to check their progress. As there had been neither band nor progress they talked about football instead.

You had to love him for making the effort really. Apparently he kept all the numbers he was given. And he actually tried to listen to the tens of thousands of demos that he was sent, partly out of a sense of guilt, partly because this was what set him apart from other Radio 1 DJ’s (he particularly loathed Dave Lee Travis) but also in case he missed something.

There is a (no doubt apocryphal) story about him going to Dave Lee Travis’s house and after noting that there weren’t any records in the house DLT responded “But they attract dust”. Peel on the other hand had an extension built to for his records.

So many of the thing’s that he played ended up as being amongst my favourites, The Undertones, The Fall, and even though I thought I’d found Country Soul for myself, he played it too.

I liked his phrasing and descriptions too. “The John Peel Wing Ding” (not as rude as it sounds), “The Mighty Fall.” His love of Liverpool FC was so intense that he’d “Take in washing for the club.” He described taking Acid with Marc Bolan on a boat on the Serpentine as being something that he was glad he’d done but didn’t necessarily want to do again, “A bit like going to Stratford on Avon.” When Ride a White Swan reached number 1 Bolan phoned him to say “John…I’m Britain’s best selling poet”

Peel’s contribution had been to play awkward music and to challenge the listener. The Peel sessions especially in the years before cheap recording technology were often the only way many bands would get in the studio. Many of the session versions were actually better than the album versions as the limited studio time available meant that there was less time for indulgence. Sometimes it was just that the engineers knew the studios and equipment so well that they could get the basic sound right more quickly and then concentrate on getting the essence of the band. And then sometimes they just sounded better… like The Peel session versions of material that would later crop up on Siouxsie and The Banshees debut or The Smiths This Charming Man.

I grew up with his show and musically he shaped not only me, but 2 generations and he gave a natural home to music that was new, difficult, perverse and sometimes just excellent. For much of the time the BBC didn’t know what to do with him and although the 90’s saw some shuffling time slots, he was essentially left to get on with it. Thankfully.

The changing nature of the media, cheaper technology, the internet, more broadcasting time and more channels means that there is (on the face of it) more room for music and more room for unorthodox presenters. But it also means that there isn’t that central focus that The John Peel Show provided. A new band you saw could have had a string of Peel sessions but have had no records released. Yet you could still see them, read about them in the weekly music press and hear them on Peel. Music is now on the one hand more controlled and managed by the industry but also, outside of that world, it’s more fragmented. It’s simultaneously easier to get your stuff out….but harder to get enough people to hear it within a short time span. For music to capture the moment it needs that momentum.

We can all be bloggers and podcasters now. After all if you’ve got a PC, you can do it. It is the modern equivalent of the Punk commandment. “Here are 3 chords, now form a band.” Record your song, post it on the net. Like that one, well listen to this, like her My Space page well look at his. “Eeh, It used to be all Arctic Monkeys and Lilly Allen when I were a lad”

But even if the ways of getting to music are changing, there would still have been a place for Peel because he was proof that you could grow up and grow old with new music and still keep your own world view. We’ve all got our own personal Dave Lee Travis’s that we don’t want to turn into. Peel was one of the good guys and I miss the John Peel Show and I miss John Peel.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


It’s just a brilliant idea…and even better if it works. Take OK Computer, an album that’s consistently voted one of the best albums ever, much loved by Q readers and Radio 6 and then do a track by track reggae recreation of it….oh yes and call it…Radiodread. Absolute genius.

It’s the follow up to Dub Side Of The Moon where they gave the same treatment to Pink Floyd’s all conquering, impossibly grown up ground breaking, sound breaking (and I’m still never quite sure if I if I like it or not) album that defined the 70’s. It’s also quite fitting that they chose OK Computer because Radiohead are so often compared to Pink Floyd

Easy Star All Stars is an excellent name, and reminds me of the Ben Stiller film Dodgeball where the “sport’s” governing body was called the ADDA. American Dodgeball Association of America.

The big question is does it work? After all we’ve been here before with Dread Zeppelin (early 90’s American band who played reggae versions of Led Zep songs, fronted by bloaty 70’s Vegas era Elvis look-alike). Admit it, you wish you’d thought of that one, but how often do you play their records?

Radiodread does work really well though, they’ve used a range of guest vocalists including Horace Andy (who’s worked with Massive Attack) Frankie Paul and Toots and the Maytals. The original OK Computer is a dark, complex record with layers of guitar and swirling treated sounds. The lyrical themes are disconnection, bewilderment and aliens (obviously) so the immediate challenge is how to make that work, using a reggae template. Dub trickery can get the some of the elements of confusion and horns are used to replace guitar lines, but the band deliberately don’t over use the guitar and bass styles normally associated with 70’s reggae. There is less guitar chopping on the offbeat and the bass is often more of a rumble. This moves the sound closer to the creeping, crawling sound of Massive Attack.

The best track is Lucky. The vocals are by 80’s reggae legend Frankie Paul and the intro manages to capture both the sound of the original recording in full flight but also manages to sound like classic 70’s reggae. In some ways it reminds me of Dr Alimantado’s Born For A Purpose. Which is a good thing.

At the end of Lucky the bass goes into the flabby metallic sound that Scientist used on all those Greensleeves albums of the 70’s 80’s…Scientist meets the Space Invaders/Encounters Pac Man/Rids the world of the curse of the evil vampires/Wins the world cup…hmm I sense a theme here. Most of them sound the same. Fortunately the same is actually good.

There a fantastic sound on An Airbag Saved My Dub which just made me sit up until I’d worked out how they’d done it…a backwards cymbal. Honestly it’s better than it sounds! Backwards guitar sounds crop up regularly from the Beatles onwards where basically the guitar has been taped and then the tape reversed, so that it goes loud to quiet with a kind of sucking sound. So, that’s been possible for 40 year. But it takes modern technology to isolate a cymbal from the drum track and then apply the same trick to just the cymbal. Obviously it couldn’t be done on the 70’s dub tracks that Easy Star All Stars had learnt their trade from. It’s an example of where the dub version of OK Computer is as innovative as the original.

In Paranoid Android the joyously, mentalised guitar is replaced by brass and it ends up sounding like The Specials, which is another time when contemporary white rock (obviously in the late 70’s that would have been Punk) met Reggae/Ska.

I think The Radiodread album works really and keeps the spirit of both the reggae tradition and the Radiohead album itself. Even if it didn’t though, Reggae Music has never had a problem with novelty and .often the quality control has been appalling too. There have been too many nasty lightweight lovers rock covers of soul and country songs. Maybe the root of this is in the fact that certainly before the era of cheap technology the industry was controlled by a handful of studio owners who also released the records. There were no exclusive long-term contracts or career development. The singer would be paid for each recording session (if at all), they would use the in house band and move on to the next studio. To keep up the interest and the willingness of the studios to pay, then you’d need hits or gimmicks…and either would do. When you think of the small size of Jamaica and the small number of people involved it is amazing to think just how much was achieved, using very basic equipment. Here’s a thought. What would it taken for Reggae to have become the dominant global musical force that Rap is today?

Jamaican music evolved through Ska, Rock Steady, the vocal trios (where reggae met soul/doo wop which was the beginnings of Bob Marley) through to dub and the digital sounds of the 80’s and Dancehall. Everyone needed a new sound and so the music continually developed. I didn’t like the sound of the 80’s reggae and lost interest really. Some music is written to sound right in a specific environment or location and if you’re not there then it just doesn’t work. I wasn’t actually spending my nights in a Kingston.Dancehall. I never got House Music for the same reason. Music is like footwear, sometimes you’re in boots when you’d rather be in slippers and sometimes you just don’t see the need to go through the musical pain barrier to see why people like something. Which is just one of the reasons why I don’t wear stilettos.

The Zutons/Wreckless Eric

The Zutons name conjures up an image of 50's sci fi, but the band are actually closer to Scooby Doo as they play scampering eager to please pop featuring songs about Thelma and Daphne…er actually Stacy and Valerie, but you get the idea. The band look suitably cartoony. They've got a big haired bassist, some good comedy beard work from the drummer and their very own Daphne. Sax kitten Abi. Short on skirt long on saxophone.

Their first album Who killed the Zutons, sounds like a collection of Pop songs set to an imaginary B movie soundtrack where the song titles like Havana Gang Brawl, Dirty Dance Hall and Moons And Horror Shows illustrate what the band were going for.

It's got odd chants and gear changes and was more in keeping with the Scallydelic sound of the likes of The Coral. Sea shanties ahoy! (There was a time when Liverpool bands seemed to be more influenced by the likes of Beefheart and Zappa rather than their traditional first stop influences of Beatles and Love. The band name that best sums up that era is….The Wizards of Twiddly. I've never heard them, but I think I know what they sound like. You probably do too.)

The Zutons second album, Tired Of Hanging Around is a more straightforward poppy affair though. The sax lines in particular sound more imaginative and less like an enthusiastic parping Scrappy Doo. There's also been much more attention paid to the backing vocals, but it's subtly done. It's not Queen.

Singer Dave McCabe's voice has the right amount of innocence and yearning, which you need in big eyed pop music. The musicianship is really good too, with lots of space between guitar bass and drums. The drums have a good natural sound. It actually does sound like a decent drummer is in a room playing drums really well. Hmm revolutionary concept. Just drums. No added tweakery. Sound Engineers have had decades to build up the expertise and techniques to do it….So why would a band want to have a drums sounding like anything else? They are righteous instruments of rock. They just need hitting. That's it. Nothing else.

Valerie is a terrific pop song. I'm fairly sure that the line about "I miss your ginger hair and the way you used to dress" isn't addressed to Mick Hucknall.

Oh Stacey (Look what you've done) is tale of a girl drinking her inheritance. "She should have kept her head and got of bed more in the mornings…Now she drinks away the will and she's not proud of it"

The girls names the band sing about do come from a different generation, and it's this and the sax that keep reminding me of Wreckless Eric. From the Zutons Scooby Doo gang to the Pub/Punk eccentric who got away.

There was always something of the pub about Stiff…all day drinking and crumpled clothes with mystery stains. Of the original Stiff signings Wreckless Eric had the unenviable distinction of being less successful than Elvis Costello and Ian Dury but he might have nosed ahead of Jona Lewie had it not been for the small matter of Jona Lewie having the Christmas single in Stop The Cavalry.

Wreckless Eric's first and most famous single was Whole Wide World and it's been covered by Black and The Monkees amongst many others. (The ultimate Wreckless Eric cover version though has to be Sir Cliff of Richard who did Broken Doll)

Whole Wide World has got all Wreckless Eric's trademarks…cracked vocals, scratchy rhythm guitar honking sax and it's got geography. "When I was a young boy my mother said to me there's only one girl in the world for you and she probably lives in Tahiti"

My well loved copy of his debut album is in the 10 inch compressed buffalo dung coloured vinyl format. (As all records should be) It's actually easier on the eye than the cover itself…. Wreckless E in matching leopard skin suit joyfully walloping a Rickenbacker. Short pissed Pubrocker in animal print…Form a queue, girls!

Reconnez Cherie has got a terrific opening line and then moves from lust to the imagined life of the artist selling his paintings in Paris.

"On a convenient seat by the lavatories beneath the sodium glare,
We used to wait for our bus in a passionate clutch and go as far as we dared."

He also manages to rhyme "Night in my Zodiac" with "Pac a mac."

His songs are often about the outsider in a shabby small town…maybe there was still rationing in his 1970's seaside town. There is something comical about him but his songs were really good, great tunes and clever, funny lyrics. In the 80's he signed to Go Discs, (home of Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, which proves my point really) as The Captains of Industry

If the Temptations I Wish It Would Rain has the claustrophobic, humidity of New York in the summer (think of the scenes in Spike Lees Do The Right Thing) then Wreckless Eric's song of the same name, keeps the title but makes his song feel English. The claustrophobia is from The Small Town and The Girl. The weather's still hot though. It's also got a great twangy guitar.

His alcoholic 1980's are behind him, he's still playing and he's published an autobiography, A Dysfunctional Success. As befits a great English eccentric and misplaced national treasure, he's spent most of the last 20 years in France.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Brian Eno

The sum of all human knowledge can be reduced to 2 unshakeable facts. Rod Stewart likes blondes and the first 2 Roxy Music albums are miles better than anything else they've done since. Scientists and divorce lawyers may have been researching the Rod question for years but I think the Roxy conundrum is simply due to the presence (and then absence) of Brian Eno.

The first Roxy Music lp is a very strange affair, with a song about Casablanca (2HB as in To Humperty Bograt) and Chance Meeting, which has the guitar sound from hell, which was always used on sitcom Butterflies to announce the fact that a teenage bedroom door had opened. Here was a band that thought (quite correctly, but also uniquely) that the oboe was an instrument of RAWK. The band looked the part too, part Glam Rock, part crooner, part futuristic Teddy Boy, not to mention Phil Manzanera's star shaped spangle specs and then this straggly haired, egg headed man-lizard Brain Eno making wibbly noises with keyboards and oscillators the size of a telephone exchange.

The second lp For Your Pleasure doesn't cross as many musical styles as the first one, but it does have Do The Strand (and you cannot beat songs about dance crazes…especially if they're imaginary dance crazes) and In Every Dream Home A Heartache. You also can't beat a song about isolation, luxury ("Bungalow Ranch Style") and a blow up doll. "I blew up your body, but you blew my mind."

After leaving Roxy Music, Eno made 4 bonkers pop albums. Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Another Green World and Before And After Science.

Here Come The Warm Jets has got song titles like The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and Needle In The Camels Eye to confuse and confound the pop pickers. It's also got Baby's On Fire, which Eno sings in an exaggerated, vowel torturing style, supposedly in bitter tribute to Bryan Ferry's vocal attributes. When Mark Riley acrimoniously left The Fall he used to cover Baby's On Fire with possibly similar snidey motives. Mark E Smith used to repay the favour though with a Bo Diddley style song called Hey Mark Riley (which went something along the lines of "Saw Mark Riley by the window sill, listen to your words it's A New Face In Hell"). I once saw Mark Riley and The Creepers try to play this as their own impromptu encore. I still treasure the look of horror on the bass player's face as he tried to play a Bo Diddley beat, obviously for the first time and obviously without having even heard it before in his life.

My favourite Eno album is Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. It's the impeccably played but ramshackle quality of the arrangements that I really like. The song titles are fantastic cut-up nonsense. My evidence for the prosecution includes Burning Airlines Give You So Much More, Mother Whale Eyeless and Put a Straw Under Baby. The vocal style is sly camp. The songs break all the rules. of Pop, but still sound warm and involving and indeed you do want to get involved. You want to hear the stories from this other world, even though you're only catching snippets that maybe you'll never understand. Back In Judy's Jungle has treated guitars, rattley drums and a one-note bass with lots of space. It sounds like an Oompah band about to fall over.

The guitar playing throughout is fantastic with scratchy, rattley rhythm playing. I've a horrible feeling the excellent drumming (It's not just loose, it's positively floppy) may be down to Phil Collins. If it is YOU'RE STILL NOT FORGIVEN.

I love the bass playing on Third Uncle. It starts with 1 bass note that gradually gets echoed as the manic scratch rhythm and clattering percussion take over. There's an 8 note bass run that seems to come out of nowhere and goes straight back there. He only does it twice but to my (bass player's) ears it just seems to crank up the song far more than seems possible. And then there's the one note again …but dropped down lower and flatter. And the only vocal line that stands out is "I thought it was you."….And then Bauhaus went and covered it.

Put A Straw Under Baby has an impossibly woozy feel, with scraped, discordant string arrangements (Vic Chestnutt or even Junco Pardner from Sandinista). In many ways it's like a nursery rhyme or one very scary lullaby.

The Before And After Science album has Kings Lead Hat (yes it's an anagram of Talking Heads and yes he produced More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light). He was involved with Bowies three Berlin era albums Low Heroes and Lodger. The instrumentals on the second side of Low in particular show Eno's stamp.

He created space around U2 after Steve Lillywhite's big messy rock sounding second lp (and I do like to leave a lot of space around U2.) and he rescued James who were floundering after the power and seat of the pants feel of their live shows failed to make it onto vinyl. They turned into something different though….but that different thing was still interesting because of Eno. The ambient albums like Music for Airports and Music For Films shone a light on the work of people like Harold Budd and the collaboration with David Byrne on 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is arguably the first album where the vocals are completely based on samples.

Much is made of Eno's legendary non-musician status and call me sceptical but I bet he's picked up a few tricks over the years. Fortunately he just keeps cropping up, a kind of Zelig figure who makes the people around him more interesting

Friday, September 15, 2006

Songs about shoplifting

Despite shopliftings popularity (but it's not legal yet Kids) I can only think of 3 songs about it…..and one of them is not The Smiths Shoplifters Of The World Unite. The Slits, Jane's Addiction and Madness definitely deliver the stolen goods though.
Shoplifting by The Slits has the great opening line.

"Put the cheddar in the pocket
Put the rest under the jacket
Talk to the cashier, he won't suspect
And if he does...
Do a runner!"

Punk Rock and cheese theft. The Slits were a fantastic group, who just sound even better when you write it all down. Ari Up is the patois speaking German stepdaughter of John Lydon and started The Slits aged fourteen with Viv Alberteen and Spanish drummer Palmolive. They were one of the first all girl bands who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs without a behind the scenes Svengali. They toured with The Clash, recorded 2 classic John Peel sessions despite the fact that they couldn't tune their own guitars and learnt to play well enough to make the staggeringly good album Cut in 1979 (and you do know the sleeve. They're topless, loin clothed and covered in mud). Budgie, later to be in Siouxsie and the Banshees became the new drummer and they recorded I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Their version of is arguably (but not by me, I'm definite about it) the best cover version ever. And that was released as a B side. That's the way to do it. The second lp The Return of The Giant Slits was a bewildering and difficult mix of styles and was a precursor to more widespread interest in World Music. They also covered John Holt's Man Next Door which Massive Attack would do 20 years later.

Cut still sounds great today. By the time they recorded it they'd kept the whooping, screeching call and response vocals but thanks to Punk's adoption of Reggae they'd learnt new tricks and approaches to the sound. The drums are mixed high and sound skippy and rattley with a lovely light touch to his playing. I think he made up for that though in the Banshees though with Timpani drums and Gongs. They're still obviously the same songs from those early Peel sessions but now the guitars scratch rather than buzz, leaving great big spaces. It's a clever, original sound. On Shoplifting there is contradiction of Ari moving from English sweary phrasing to adopted Rastafarian.

"Ten quid for the lot
We pay fuck all
Babylonian won't lose much
And we'll have dinner tonight"

Then it's into the utter girly joyousness of them all belting out the chorus. And what a chorus. In a song about shoplifting, you can't beat "Do a Runner Do a runner". As the song careers out of control you can hear a stoned, giggled "I've pissed in my knickers"

I do have a couple of pop theories. One of which has Madness as the musical version of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. Underneath the jolly videos there is a real sense of melancholy, nostalgia and loss. Suggs vocals are clipped but precise, emotional but economical and his speaking voice is a source of wonder to me (although with all his commercials it's more of a source of wonga)

Deceives The Eye is a really good song about moderately successful shoplifting that was hidden on the Work, Rest and Play ep in 1980.

"In the earliest days of my shoplifting career
You could safely say I was filled with fear
It was nail biting work from the very start
But several quick successes soon gave me heart
After a while I could pick or nick or steal
Some shirts some trousers and a few lps"

There's nothing subtle about Jane's Addiction approach in Been Caught Stealing. It's a bullet hard rock record where the power comes from the bass and drums rather than the guitar. Their approach to shoplifting isn't subtle either.

"When I want something
I don't want to pay for it
I walk right through the door
Walk right through the door"

It's also got barking dogs revving motorcycles and vocals that sing along to the guitar solo. Nothing over the top then. You can almost hear the pride in Perry Farrell's high, slightly whiney voice as he sings.

"My girl, she's one too
She'll go and get her a shirt
Stick it under her skirt
She grabbed a razor for me
And she did it just like that"

It's love then. I think I first heard it at a wedding, sadly not as the bride and grooms first dance.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Young Knives - XTC meet the Gang of Four

You can’t go wrong with a band that dress like Vic Reeves and sound like both Gang of Four and XTC. Doubly good. The Young Knives are the undisputed champions in this (admittedly not hotly contested) field. Another good reason to love them is that their bassist calls himself The House of Lords.

Voices of Animals and Men (and I think that’s an Adam and the Ants song but we’ll gloss over that) is the follow up to 2002’s The Young Knives Are Dead.
The band look like they wear a lot of moleskin and corduroy. They probably relax at home in smoking jackets and cravats whilst cradling a vintage tawny port and a fine cigar. On stage though, it’s all New Wave gurning, twin vocals and cleverly meshing bass guitar and drums. They’ve got a really good stripped down sound but it still feels like they’re hitting their instruments really hard. And that’s good.

Andy Gill from Gang of Four produced the lp and one of the things that the two bands share is one speaking voice behind another vocal. Gang of Four did it on Anthrax while The Young Knives Half Timer follows the Trainspotting’s anti consumer rant of “choose leisure wear, matching luggage…” theme with the deadly, bitter humour of
”A Salary…smash the system from within
Get yourself a promotion and then take your children to the zoo
For the weekend, with the extra cash”

The lyrics are really good and just need to be sung in slightly mannered and pompous (but still punk rock) style. The Decision has
“I wore the blue and the green
I mixed the matt and the sheen
That’s not the way to be seen…..
I am the Prince of Wales. I am the Prince of Wales”.

This is clever, literate stuff and like British Sea Power they seem to be a band with some ambition. The Manic Street Preachers had a similar approach to the first line of their songs. Manics lyrics such as “Libraries gave us power” (from A Design For Life) and “I am an Architect” (from Faster) simultaneously amuse and enrage but also demand that you listen. Public Enemy did it by having jaw droppingly great song titles like Night Of The Living Baseheads.

She’s Attracted To has a Park Life feel to it with it’s “I’ve met some bone idols in my time” lyrics and sung/spoken lines. The meet the parents and walk dogshit into their house scenario spills out into the street as singer Henry Dartnell bellows “You were screaming at your mum while I was punching your dad.” Exactly how a single should sound.

Loughborough Suicide’s “I want to do it on the Tennis Court
I want to do it where they’re playing sport” is a fine companion lyric (maybe a young friend?) for Belle and Sebastienne’s “Now he’s throwing discus for Liverpool and Widnes” (from The Stars of Track and Field, a paean to athletics and rumpy pumpy, from their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Gang of Four were musically adventurous and ahead of their time. 27 years later it seems strange to remember that there were bands that were determined to make difficult and absolutely political music and could have a backstage argument about the class struggle and flavours of crisp. Now we’re all too busy watching big tellys and hoovering up consumer goods. The Gang of Four mixed disgust, rage and bewilderment at what was going on around them with Art School theory and Marxism but they also sung about the process. So if you’re going to sing a love song then there’ll be another voice putting another view, or stripping away the meaning. Actually if you were going to sing a love song then you wouldn’t do what the Gang of Four did and call it Love like Anthrax

At Home He’s A Tourist is capitalism and nightclubs, and condom commodification.
“Out on the disco floor
That’s where they make their profit
With the things they sell
To help you cop off.”

It’s odd to remember the Packetgate argument with the BBC when they were due to appear on TOTP. The BBC objected to the line “the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket”. The John Peel session version has “Durex “ rather than “Rubbers” so there had already been some self censorship. The band offered to replace the line with “Packet” but the BBC insisted that the only word acceptable to a family audience, pre watershed and pre safe sex would be “Rubbish”. The band didn’t agree and were dropped from the show.

The first 4 XTC albums are consistently high in quality and imagination, mannered vocals and top notch playing….a bit like the Young Knives then. If there was to be an XTC song that linked the two groups it would have to be Respectable Street with it’s great lyric

“Avon lady fills the creases
When she manages to squeeze
In past the caravans
That never move from their front gardens”

Obviously and irrefutably, Buzzcocks were the ultimate Punk singles artists, but I don’t think XTC were far behind. I don’t need to argue the point really. Just look at their first five singles: Science Friction, This Is Pop, Are You Receiving Me? Life Begins At The Hop, Making Plans For Nigel.

I was right wasn’t I?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lord Large: Northern Soul and Punk Rock

Left Right And Centre by Lord Large (Featuring Dean Parrish) was written by a 15 year old Paul Weller but has just been released by Acid Jazz. The records an absolute gem, but the story behind it's pretty good too. Weller had recorded it as demo with the Jam and had written it in the style of the Northern soul records he was listening to at the time. The long forgotten demo turns up on a bootleg unearthed by Weller and Steve Craddock in a New York record shop. Lord Large was the keyboard player in Electric Soft Parade, while Russ Winstanley is the Wigan Casino dj who persuaded Northern Soul Trooper Dean Parrish to sing a 30 year old song written by a 15 year old in Woking.

Re recorded it sounds absolutely authentic and absolutely right. Getting Dean Parrish to do the vocals was a masterstroke. If a voice can sound muscular, then he's been working out. He always had a gritty macho style (Edwin Starr as opposed to the masculine, yearning style of say Tyrone Davis. It's "Huh!" and "Ugh" rather than "Oooh") and Dean Parrish's voice still sounds fantastic. As a performance it stands comfortably alongside his other Northern Soul favourites Determination, Tell Him, Bricks, Broken Bottles and Sticks and most famously I'm On My Way. Some of the phrasing even sounds like Paul Weller, so the tribute act has come full circle really.

Paul Weller was never shy about his debt to Soul though. Last year he recorded a version of Nolan Porter's If I Could Only Be Sure. The original is built round a sly little guitar riff (a bit like The Letter by The Box Tops) and a subtle vocal performance. Before he auditioned for producer Gabriel Mekler in 1967 Porter had been in a college group singing madrigals. Ironically the future soul singer sang Donovan's Sunshine Superman and was promptly sent home to listen to Otis Redding for 2 years.

His best remembered song though is Keep On Keeping On. Northern Soul fans adopted some odd records (Al Wilson The Snake, and those instrumentals that veered between floor filling genius and Testcard music), but Keep On Keeping On really is an odd one. It's a terrific record and doesn't sound like anything else. But it's still amazing that dancers adopted it as the vocals are mixed really low, it sounds spooky and it's got this clumpy rhythm. So clumpy in fact that Joy Division used the riff for Interzone, but even more strangely (after all there's nothing strange about musical theft) an early Joy Division demo was actually produced by Northern Soul dj Richard Searling and I think a version of Keep On Keeping On was recorded for a session for Piccadilly Radio. (I have this last point as supposed cast iron fact in my head but haven't been able to find further proof…. If anyone has got any actual proof I'd love to know for sure.)

The Northern Soul/Punk connection is interesting though. At the time Northern was the music of choice for your mate's psychotic older brother. Maybe that's how Joy Division knew about Nolan Porter, (The mind boggles at the thought of what a psychotic older version of Peter Hook would have been like though.) I don't remember anyone at school liking the music but I do remember leaving a mates house with a stack of records (he saw it as a band toolkit…everything you needed to know about music could be found in the debut albums by Television, Ramones, Patti Smith and The Doors) but being steered away from his older brothers box of Northern Soul. (That small box in those days would have been worth a large car but thankfully they're all now on reissued cds for the price of a curry)

A grizzled punk veteran once told me of the night he'd gone to a Pistols gig at Wigan. The gig had been cancelled so they'd all gone to Wigan Casino. The Punks tried to look surly and bored, as the regulars eyed them with bemusement and then increasing hostility… They did indeed get their kicks out on the floor.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New York Songs

Although it seems to have been around forever, after first being played on the radio as the best track on the latest album and then as the forthcoming single, The Strokes You Only Live once still sounds great. It's clipped guitar and drum intro sounds like Blondie's Heart of Glass and the main riff reminds me of Altered Images I Could be Happy. The brilliant thing about the record though is the way that it floats. U2's Pride has the same feeling in the bits where Bono isn't yelping. (We shall not talk of U2 again)

You only live once also has strangled cat guitar playing, which I've been partial to since deciding that I Don't Mind by Buzzcocks has everything I need in a pop song, (including strangled cat guitar behind the "I used to think you'd hate me when you called me on the phone, Sometimes when we go out, well I wish I'd stayed at home" middle 8)

The Strokes used a mix and match Mr Potato Head approach to turn themselves into a modern retro New York group with Television, Blondie influences, skinny ties and great hair. The template for previous generations though was Ronnie Spector. The Ramones chose their name because it sounded like a New York 60's girl group and Blondie's original approach was equal parts Girl group to New York Underground.

Ronnie Spector released Last Of The Rock 'n' Roll stars last year and her career was both started and smothered by Phil Spector. He projected all his production skills and pop visions onto her voice and then married her. Success, royalties and Phil Spector's paranoia kept her in a mansion but she had to drive with life size replica of him in her car. Then there was alcoholism and marriage to Steve Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteens' guitarist turned Sopranos actor who swapped a bandana for outrageously coiled hair that looked like it had been styled by Mr Whippy.)

The songs have been chosen to reflect her life, struggles and place in pop history. She does a really good version of Johnny Thunder's You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory. The best track though and also the single is All I Want.

It sounds like a mid pace girl group song and the lyrics work really well because they not only sound like mid paced girl group lyrics should (The formula = regret, life's been unfair, boy done me wrong, don't need jewellery just the love of my man) but they also work for anyone who's feeling domestically miserable, even if they weren't married to a paranoid pop producer with a big bang hairstyle currently on trial for murder. Her voice still sounds fantastic.

"I don't need flowers or fancy things

I gave up on diamond rings

Just want a little pat on the back from you

Not just another little subtle attack from you

Just a little something to show me that you care"

Lou Reed is the ultimate New York artist and chronicler of the city. A musical Samuels Pepys.

Romeo Had Juliet is the opening track from 89's excllent New York album and it's one of his observational songs where he's identifying a list of characters and describing their stories, ethnic backgrounds and hairstyles. After 25 years of song writing he was still (luckily) describing what New York looks like. You've got a job for life son.

"Manhattans sinking like a rock

Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock

They wrote a book about it

They said it was like ancient Rome"

The sound of the record is fantastic. It's got one of my favourite intros as the tape rewinds the previous take, before the version proper starts…then (like it says on the sleeve notes) bass, guitar and drums…it's all you need. Two guitars, one on each side of the mix, you can hear what they're doing and the playing is stripped down to the necessary. And it's got a strangled cat guitar.

"Something flickered for a minute

Then it's gone"

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cars and girls/Bikes and Blue Orchids

It's an undisputed fact that the best music has always been about cars and girls (although The Ramones did rule themselves out by having neither when they started) but could there be a place for the bicycle in pop? After all chemist Albert Hoffman first identified the wibbly effects of LSD after a wobbly bike ride. The grateful 60's psychedelic acts responded with Pink Floyd's Bike and Tomorrow's My White Bicycle. I'm not exactly sure what threw up the Mixtures Push Bike Song though. For the second week running I'm going to have to mention Alessi's Oh Lori. Sorry. "I want to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars".

Queen's Bicycle Races obviously defies all description and understanding…apparently though "Fat bottomed girls will be riding this way so watch out for those beauties oh yeah". The guitar solo is completely bonkers and sounds like a chase scene from a silent movie.

Kraftwerk not only recorded Tour de France but are all keen cyclists, with a habit of breaking off interviews to go training. Age of Chance though just dressed up in the gear. Their version of Kiss is not a great record…unlike their preceding single Motorcity, which is!

More bike and Pop links? When The Redskins split up their bassist Martin Hewes became a cycle courier. Mary Hansen from Stereolab died after being knocked off her bike and Nico died of a brain haemorrhage after falling off her bike in Ibiza. She was initially misdiagnosed as having sunstroke because she seemed to be bizarrely overdressed both for the climate and for bike riding.

I saw a Nico gig in 1982/83 in Manchester which was excruciating. On another occasion I saw the Blue Orchids play Waiting For The Man as an encore with Nico on vocals. That was really good though, partly because they could really do the Velvets rattley sound but also I felt they must just have enjoyed the fact that they were actually doing THAT song with THAT singer.

I always thought the Blue Orchids were a great band but not a great advert for heroin. Martin Bramagh was an early member of the Fall and their sound is like a woozier more melodic version of The Fall's early sound. The early Rough Trade singles Work and The Flood still sound fantastic, squawking guitars and murky keyboards. The Flood fades out on a single repeated chord. I remember once playing it to a friend who knew more music theory than me….it utterly pained him that the chord never resolved itself.

I loved it even more after that.