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