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.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Trainspotting soundtrack

There is a handful of films where the soundtracks are made up of clever use of already released or maybe rediscovered songs, where the songs just work really well with the visuals but they also are great listening as albums in their own right.

George Lucas started it with American Graffitti and Scorcese always had great soundtracks. I even found myself completely out of character out of enjoying Layla at the end of Goodfellas…. (That's the magic of cinema, folks. I normally only enjoy the very end of Layla, when I know it's finished and isn't coming back).

The soundtracks for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are my favourite in this respect. They're put together with a real and obvious love and the songs are a great mixture of the popular, the forgotten and the obscure…As the joke goes…A man is tied to a chair in a disused warehouse, he's been tortured, doused in petrol and had his ear cut off. …And that is the only way that the A & R man would listen to Louise's version of Stuck In The Middle With You.

The makers of Trainspotting had definitely been paying attention and the soundtrack is a stormer, matching the film scenes cleverly but standing up as a great listen in it's own right. The opening track Iggy Pop's Lust for life has since become film makers first choice to accompany any form of running…and it's an absolute lesson in how to keep things simple musically. Hunt and Tony Sales on bass and drums play with the absolute confidence that lets you know they could do absolutely anything they wanted with the riff…but aren't going to because it doesn't need it and they have nothing to prove.

A useful game to try at home or work, to pass the time or to make life-changing decisions is when confronted with a choice just think "What would Iggy Pop do?" And then you can put you trousers back on and turn off the drug hoover.

Iggy Pop is a bit of a recurring theme throughout Trainspotting the novel. Quite right too. My favourite Iggy Pop line in a song is "Jesus, this is Iggy". My favourite Iggy Pop line in an interview though is his response to the question of how he relaxed. "I like to garden"

I saw him in Birmingham at the Hummingbird in about 1990. He ran on stage just wearing jeans and a leopard skin waistcoat. The waistcoat stayed on for one song. That's meticulous stagecraft and the kind of costume changes Madonna is still working towards.

By the end of the gig there may have been technical problems with his microphone…. at least I assumed that was why he took out the spare microphone he'd kept in his jeans…at least I think it was a microphone.

Connoisseurs of Channel 4's post pub kebab of a show The Word may also remember the collective look of alarm as the front row of the audience realised that Iggy Pop was careering towards them wearing a pair of transparent plastic trousers…spare microphone and all.

The other Iggy Pop song on the album is Nightclubbing. Obviously it sounds fantastic but what jumped out at me this time round is that it is a blue print for the early Human League sound, a fact not missed by the Human League who covered it

The revelation for me on the album though is Blur's Sing. It's a perfectly judged song for the film, woozy, disorientating and down right scary. The guitars are reverbed beyond recognition and the bass and drums are hammering on the walls. Amazingly it's from their first album when they were supposed to be little baggy popsters.

Damon Albarn has a solo track included, Closet Romantic. It's veers between a novelty hat seaside romp and deranged fairground organ and brass band. You just know he was trying to get some feeling of menace and thinking about Brighton Rock.

I can't remember if there is a scene in the film with New Orders Temptation…but no excuses are needed to include it. I always take New Order for granted a bit but Temptation is immediately and unmistakably them. It's got the little sequencer riffs, mechanised drumming and you can almost hear Hooky's motorcycle boots. The song's begins like an ending, as it fades in with Barneys' jiggly guitar and Wo hoo vocals. When it first came out there was an unfeasibly long 12inch version that is still playing on a forgotten turntable somewhere.

Indie Pop Pinups (and I would) Elastica and Sleeper both have tracks on the album. Elastica's 2:1 sounds great but sadly Sleeper's song is a very close but very dire version of Atomic…Hamster cheeked Louise Wener vocal style was always based on using breathiness to cover for up for lack of range…. but the ways she sings the actual line "Atomic" is somewhere between hammy Hammer Horror and the little girl who has raided the dressing up box trying to be scary. Not only is it very bad, it's also very long. A nightmare combination.

Underworld's Born Slippy sounds huge. It's lager lager chorus may have got sung too raucously and too often at too many clubs that are best avoided, but as a listener you still get sucked into the song. Is there something going on there or is he just shouting at traffic?

Always good to hear Lou Reed's Perfect Day but the way it's used in the overdose scene just makes it even more bizarre that anyone connected with the Children in need celebrity cover version thought it would be a good thing to do. Wasn't it always obviously one of Lou Reeds drug songs? Why not just do a medley of Heroin and Waiting For The Man possibly with Julian Cope's Out Of My Mind On Dope And Speed thrown in.

Will Elton John be covering the complete works of Spiritualized?

Mile End by Pulp another song about slumming, a Lo-Fi alternative Common People. This time without the choice. Musically jaunty but lyrically it's all piss and car theft. Perfect

I've been playing the soundtrack quite a lot, especially on a recent holiday in Wales where my packing had been touched by the spirit of Iggy. I'd managed to pack music, but no trousers. I remembered my bucket and spade though.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Motley Crue - The Dirt

Sometimes you really never can go back….

When a friend told me he was just starting to read the Motley Crue biography The Dirt I was down right envious, because I knew that I would never be able to read it for the first time again.

There are better books about music but The Dirt is the best music book. It's a rock book that rocks and it's a monstrous read.

It's an accurate Motley Crue biography because it is utterly, utterly stupid. It's also really funny and like all the best books it provokes deep searching questions….Like "Why?" and "Is that really a good idea?"

A good music book makes you curious about the music and usually ends up in a shopping trip. Yet I've read it twice and still don't feel the urge to listen Motley Crue's music, but I do now know far too much about the dimmest band in rock.

There's plenty of gross-out shared hovel stories and uncontrollable rumpy pumpy.

In the Motley Crue world safe sex means meeting up in Tommy's van after a night of sneaky shagging and clubbing together to buy an egg burrito so that the band members could wipe their band members on the burrito meat in the belief that this would throw their girlfriends off the scent.

Over and over again the bands complete inability to stay …out of trouble, off smack, in the studio, off each others toes, in touch with some form of reality, on stage and stay in the same room as each others' horrible personalities makes it even more incredible that they achieved what they did.

Of course that's partly because we all like car crash bands and car crash celebrities.

Singer Vince O'Neil's car crash killed Razzle from Hanoi Rocks and although there's plenty of regret, Vince's most touching tribute to his friend is the loving description of what Razzle was wearing " High tops, leather pants and a frilly shirt – a twenty four seven rock 'n' roll god, he wouldn't ever be caught in the jeans and Hawaiian shirt that I was wearing."………..A real rock n roller.

The layout of the book is great, from its Jack Daniels cover, silent movie style chapter introductions and the way that each character tells the story from their own view….A Robert Altman version of a chronic metal band’s story.

Refreshingly (and by the end of the book they had had lots of refreshment) even though deep down they all know they blew it (lots of that too) all of the band would do exactly they same again…because they're too stupid not too.

Vince O'Neil had a swimming pool heated to a bankrupting 90 degrees all year round. was also "Pussy Shaped"

The later chapters highlights include Mick Mars's (probably not his real name….that would be Methuselah) Aliens theory.

Tommy Lee's prison poetry, written to woo Pamela Anderson back, is staggering

I remember we used to meet

By a swing seat over the piano

And you chirped each pretty word

With the air of a bird

For real life poetry though it's hard to beat the conversation between Honey (possibly her real name) and Tommy.

"Guess what? She asked


"I found a minister, I bought some rings, I got everything set"

"For what?"

"I wanna get married"

"To me? But you just sold our pictures to a porn mag and didn't even tell me"

"It was going to be a birthday present for you. And I needed the rings for our wedding. So I couldn't tell you"

Since the book came out the Motley Crue story has got even stranger with Red Hot and Crue, a greatest hits tour from a band that still can't stand each other, a hip replacement for Mick Mars and a reality TV show based on Vince Neil having cosmetic surgery.

There are some constants though. Tommy Lee still has MAYHEM" tattooed on his stomach and I've got "Lets all tidy up" biroed on mine.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Generation X

For years I was secure in the knowledge that Generation X were a silly group. Times change though and occasionally so do my opinions. I've been playing the first album a lot recently and I think it's time to welcome it back as a Pop Punk classic. Time has definitely been kinder to it than I have been in the past.

Even though as individuals the band had been prime punky movers from the outset (Tony James had been in the London SS with Mick Jones and Billy Idol had been a regular gig goer with Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley Contingent) to my ears, at the time, they just sounded so desperate to catch up. With their lyrics and song titles they pursued the idea of youth and the possibilities of being young like a Punk rock version of the Tweenies. How about these two for starters. Youth Youth Youth and Wild Youth (and it’s gobsmackingly duff dub version Wild Dub…Billy even has to shout an explanation of what they were trying to do at the end of it “Heavy heavy dub, Punk ”… apparently.

Of course years later the ludicrous lyrics just add to my pleasure. “The Greyhounds rockin’ out tonight, to maximum rockabilly……The snooker hall is empty, cos they’re all out playing pool” (Kiss Me Deadly….a tale of scrapping and teenage sex).

The original album cover had the band in a stripy top huddle, (remember Kids…all the best bands have to feel like a gang even if they’re not really) and the songs just sound really exuberant with the drums scampering away like an over excited puppy and the guitars alternating between chunky DER DER DER DER and wailing Mick Jones style breaks. Ready Steady Go sounds fantastic and honestly Mr Idol I never doubted for a minute that you really were in love with Rock ‘n’ roll.

They played My Generation on Marc Bolan’s TV show (cue catch phrase “Keep Marc in your heart”) and the Bopping Elf introduced them with the words “The next band have a singer who some people are saying is even prettier than me…see what you think.” Of course my 14 year old self thought that if girls were going to like the band and they also fancied the singer then that lessened the band in some way. Hmm…That’s not a theory that I stood by for too long. I also remember my friend Flannel (not the name that appears on his birth certificate) using courtroom skills in a passionate defence of Billy Idols sartorial genius stroke of wearing a t-shirt with the sides cut off. I now realise that Billy Idol invented the tabard and Flannel went on to sell double-glazing

Promises Promises is a 5 minute monster (that’s failed the punk rock time timekeeping test) about where Punk was heading. It’s got the great Billy line “Soon we’ll get our gear from Marks and Sparks, Punks will take over Top Of The Pops” It fits in between The Clashes songs about the Punk movement like Garageland and All The Young Punks and The Adverts Safety In Numbers.

The decidedly lumpy second album Valley Of The Dolls has the singles King Rocker (“Crazy man Crazy”) and Valley Of The Dolls with it’s rebel rebel guitar and “song after song I can’t stop rocking… My ears are bleeding and all around young girls are fainting”. No I never them saw live but I think they thought they put on quite a show.

The other great lost single they made was Dancing With Myself. Careful research shows that it is not actually about dancing in much the same way that Turning Japanese by The Vapors is not about changing nationality and The Winkers Song by Ivor Biggun and the Red Nosed Burglars is not about winking.

I won’t be reassessing Billy’s cyber punk years and the solo hits as it’s just too horrible to think about but I did enjoy his acting in Oliver Stones film The Doors. He plays one of Jim Morrison’ entourage. At one point he jumps on the stage and gurns (fortunately without doing White Wedding…but you know he’s doing his Woargh and twisty lip thing) but his sole speaking part is the line “Yeah …fuck off Ray.” Excellent

Billy Idol played at Guilfest the other week and a beer tent correspondent reports that he did an acapella version of Crazy by Gnarls Barkley. Be afraid