Thursday, 24 November 2011

When I was younger and working through my Shakin’ Stevens phase

When I was younger and working through my Shakin’ Stevens phase – all bootlace ties and rockabilly clothes – my brother was slowly becoming a goth. Not a complete one – more of a rowdy dark punk – all Birthday Party and Banshees.

But his biggest love was The Cure.

Dragged up to Scotland to wait indoors whilst Paul and my cousin watched The Top explode on stage at Edinburgh Playhouse - I’ll admit I wasn’t that enamoured by the funereal gloom of the cassette tapes of Pornography and Faith purchased in WH Smiths – upstairs for a few pounds that Paul would play in to the wee dark hours on his Sony Walkman.

However as my teenage years came rushing in – and my aversion to the day-glo pop started to cement into attitude and arrogance – I found myself whistling to the tune of the underground – I say whistle – you can’t really whistle A Hundred Years – but you get my drift. It wasn’t Frankie now – it was something different. So over the course of the year – through trips to record shops and heads buried in Music Papers you could say my tastes were changing. A Smiths concert under my belt and then off to see The Cure.

So this year I was on the bus to Edinburgh – sat next to my cousin, her friends, my brother – all black eyeliner and ill fitting clothes – I was having my piece of it – my head on the door tour and there in the mists and rain of Scotland developed a lasting love for the Robert Smith howl, scowl and prowl. All black suits and white boots – lipstick smears and endless beers. I was reading an interview from Mr Smith in the Guardian – not the real bit – you know The Guide – the listings not the politics part – not that the Guardian is on the edge of radicalism. It was a Guide from the summer – I don’t keep them – I started this post a while a back.

Anyway Smith was being interviewed and I was suddenly transported back there – 1985 and the dry ice in The Playhouse and the Cure arriving on stage all beautiful and strange. I’d even had my hair done like Porl Thompson – all curls and ribbons – now my hair is also like Porl’s – lost and thinning. He can command a stage can Robert Smith – he does it with ease – all nerves and humour – that connection with the audience through blunder and lack of confidence. But it takes some guts to front The Cure – to keep it going over 30 years.

And as ever I have fallen in and out with their music – this fascination [street] slowly dipping as I watched them night after night at my brother’s insistence through the Kiss Me Kiss Kiss Me and Disintegration Tours. These behemoth events of largesse for the mass[es] in black. But I guess there is integrity within this unit of misfits that underpins the gloom. You don’t really hang around for that long if you don’t believe it [note the current whereabouts of The Mission]. So Paul and I would venture off to see The Cure every time they announced a tour – and we’d end up in cheap dives – hostels and B&Bs near Wembley as we met with the ‘scalpers’ to get another row closer to the stage – and they’d all be proper London ravers on the take from mugs like us – hiking a front row ticket to a monkey – or a carpet. It was both intimidating and exciting – but we exchanged the cash and tickets and all got we wanted.

Then it would be into town – shoparound and back to the back gates as Smith and co arrived – with cursory nods and glances and then chats and jokes – bits of things signed and anecdotes. You see I guess they understood the need to meet and greet and discuss things – it makes your day. I know in an early piece of writing I talked of meeting Morrissey and Brian Wilson and and and – but Robert Smith was an unassuming front man in some ways – but clearly he wanted us to look at him. I’ve always done that with cultural tribes – you know stare at a Punk – it freaks them out – they want to frighten you – so stare – and stare hard. Obviously if this is the rule then Goths are adorning themselves in a narcissistic manner and want your adoration – so look away. Simple really. It might just have prevented Columbine.

But we came to gawp at The Cure – this feeling waned in the end. I was getting down to the Spaceman3 sounds and resisting the urge to backcomb my hair.

However – where is this post going – what’s it dealing with? Essentially it’s about sincerity and integrity - and there’s not a lot of that in the music industry – they pile them high and sell them low – we just consume. Yet Robert Smith has held onto that feeling of giving you a piece of himself in a tune – which is what the fans want really – a connection – a shared experience. And I felt it again in the interview – in The Guide.

A truthfulness.

So I returned to The Cure – not Shakin Stevens – although that might come – all rockabilly denim and greying quiff and listened to the Head on the Door. Which I hadn’t done for about twenty years. It still holds up – that independent spirit yet playful promise of a band who would grow and grow – blow up but not go pop. I have since lost my Head on the Door t-shirt and tour programme – I have not yet lost my memory.

They are a good bunch The Cure – they run a tight ship.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

University life – Fantastic life [PART 1]

On arriving in London – that long odd journey down with my dad at the wheel – thinking about that now – he was only 40 years old. That’s me this year. My mum helping with directions – specifically after the Blackwall Tunnel, but let’s say it hadn’t been an easy ride from Scunthorpe to the smoke – i blame the directions on the A2 – you want Blackheath take the Peckham turning. But we were not to know. My sister tucked in the car - journeying to London with her brother. 

And a girlfriend in the back – all young love and pots and pans, bowlheads and dreams. Well that wouldn’t last.

I wasn’t exactly fresh faced – I had grown up in a northern steel town – the girls there would break their arms just to get out of PE – but London was a different place - I say London – this was Lewisham [before the Police Station – still rocking the Army and Navy] Been rolling up that hill - been running up those streets – to Granville Park. It wasn’t a bad place to begin a romance with London. 1989 – Goldsmiths’ – halls with students and the fading grunge scene mutating into ecstasy and sharp suits. This was the ‘baggy’ crossover writ large – like the trousers I would wear. ‘Tell mum to get no less than 20 inches – otherwise they might as well be a pair of straight legs’ – I had said to my brother – as my mum took a trip down to Ashby Market – but hey Ashby has always been a touch seventies so the stalls had those loons stacked high- waiting – just waiting.

I had arrived deep in love with the velvets and leather – from our dalliance and then friendship with the Scream. Straight up to Camden – for fifty pound biker jackets and dreams of Sid Vicious like behaviour in the clubs as we bounced bike chains of NME journalists heads. We didn’t – but we did once shower Bob Stanley in fanzine confetti in Deptford because he said we were too obvious – all Mary Chain and predictable – when we thought we were loud and dangerous. We weren’t and he wasn’t right either but perhaps he didn’t deserve it – although I always hated St Etienne after – irrational but deep seated.

Being in London then was exciting –it still is exciting. I love the city – I was returning from Nottingham this weekend and as the 125 approached this sprawling mass I had to marvel at its size. It’s sheer bloody vastness. All stories and streets. In the city I’ve a got a thousand things I want to say you. And as a slightly vacant, opinionated and arrogant young thing coming to London gave me a further spring in my step. Student life started at Granville Park – all Victorian floors and grandness – I was coming out a three bed semi council house – this was a different experience completely. One wrapped in cheap cassettes and cigarettes.

I remember the interview at Goldsmiths’ – I’d had a couple already Liverpool, Birmingham and Bradford – and I ventured down to this one with a yearning to get in. I had chosen my universities and polytechnics because I wanted to see bands – go to gigs – feel the throng of the crowd – and of course London was the holy grail of gigs – of the ULU, Camden Falcon, the Town and Country Club and Hammersmith Apollo – all those adverts in the NME announcing tours and shows by singers and groups that bypassed the North East time and time again.

But to this fine city they came – again and again. I had travelled by train – my mum lying about my age and using the family railcard to purchase a ticket for a pound. I would leave her in central London and make my way to New Cross station and then follow the map round to university. Suited and awkward I travelled on trains – with my rucksack full of notes and this and that.

And there it was a simple building on a busy road. Home of the YBAs and soon to be Blur, the studying point for John Cale and Brian Moloko although not at the same time – the list goes on and they tend to with universities – they attract people – people that do stuff. So it was show around and wait a bit – me nearly blowing all my chances as I asked if my interview at 2pm could be moved – why – because I wanted to record shopping – I needed the afternoon to peruse the racks – turned out my interview was even later – I’d jinxed it see. Met Phil on that day too – a wonderful friend who I’ve since let go by the wayside –like the fool I have always been. He takes pictures now – he does stuff.

So ushered in to a small stuffy room expecting to quizzed on the ideology of Marx, or critique the construction of sexuality in the modern age – but Mike Phillipson talked about the fanzine I had written and put in my application. It was an instant connection – an anthropological trawl through the sub culture of style. This place had Dick Hebdidge – I wanted to go. Tutors talked of art, of politics and fanzines.

I wanted to go so badly. So I worked a little harder – it’s as simple as that.

Left as dusk was coming – I had to meet my mum at HMV on Oxford Street. Simple. No phones then – no text to tell how the interview had gone. Just meet outside at 4pm. So I got there. Get off at Tottenham Court road and walk up Oxford Street. And wait. Well buy a few records. And then wait.

Time ticking – darkness setting in. Waiting for my mum. I’m waiting for my mum.

Not panic – more frustration. She wasn’t showing – which meant I wasn’t going home – picking up the train and making our way back to sulphuric skies and blast furnace dawns. So what do you do? You can’t phone – you shouldn’t leave your spot – she might appear. I think I spent half my teenage years waiting at specific places for faces that I needed to see.

However – what you need to know in all of this is that Oxford Street is a fair size and HMV had two shops. You can work out the rest. Suffice to say we used the managers to convey messages and eventually made our way to Kings Cross and home.

Tucked inside the rucksack was My Bloody Valentine’s Ecstasy and Wine – a Lazy compilation to unite the chiming and bending guitars of the group who would go on to break Creation [I know this is a lie] I often return to this album more than Loveless and Isn’t Anything. It has a spine tingling beauty and youthfulness that I like to wallow in sometimes.

It’s filled with possibility – much like I was back then in London.

This also has added karaoke appeal

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Super Furry Animals are welsh

I am not welsh

I listen to a lot of welsh acts

I like the welsh acts.

I need to confess that I missed the Furries first time round – I’d had my fill of McGee filled rock at that point. It was all getting messy and everyone was being touted as this and that on covers of magazines and newspapers that lasted a week to two months. It was an explosion of laddishness that I hated but somehow appropriated through a swagger and a nod to the ladies with my rolled up Loaded under my arm – it used to be the FACE.

It was all style over content then – still is.

So it was with a slow shuffle and an emphasis on the late that I finally tuned in [turned on and didn’t drop off] to The Super Furry Animals. Once again my brother Paul played his part – in forcing my attention to the West [that being the geographical location of the country - not his part in making me embrace a capitalist culture – which I haven’t – but that’s another story – and it doesn’t involve Billy Bragg – but it might discuss The Housemartins] I arrived, as I said late in the day, I remember Fire in my heart – filling with me an ache - the simplicity of words capturing those feelings of emerging love – so simply put by Gruff Rhys that eventually explodes with the ba ba baas of The Beach Boys.

It was a beauty to say the least.

So I guess it started there [ it had to start somewhere] and then I think I read that this Beach Boys influence permeated the whole package – these psychedelic druids mining the harmony and humour of their place – their space. This is a group who with their first advance bought a tank – and went raving [or so the story goes]. A sort of hard edged acid tinged Family Stone for the 1990s. And with Rings Around The World – came that realisation that I had been missing out on a whole stack of tracks.

Yes – Rings around the World is the ‘critically acclaimed’ album – the most mainstream – but so what – you form rock bands to play to the masses. Not fucking stay at home and live your art maaan – this is pop – pure and simple. So from the opening Hellos to the final chords – SFA triumphed in the manner in which they conceived a stormer – form A then down to Zee. What followed from this was back catalogue mining and library sales finds of Minng and Out Spaced – not that this will happen again. The Tories are closing them down – not the Super Furries – the libraries – dismantling any sort of access the working class once had to other thoughts and ideas other than the X-factored opinions of pricks and dicks. I know I live in a wonderful part of London – christ my part is known as the village – but they were quick to shut the library down – and all the wives of the bankers who live on the streets in houses through gated driveways – complained bitterly into their fucking Starbucks coffees – short of a principle or an ideology of equality about the ‘sad loss to the village’. It is shocking though – boxes piled high with ‘For Sale’ scribed on the side – they will sell the stock away – they will not replenish nor buy it back – the libraries are over. And it is in libraries that I found solace and sounds – taking out a tape, a record or video – not forgetting the books and magazines that added to the thoughts already growing in this tiny mind. This is where revolutions happen – in the head – and then on the streets.

You amass culture through exposure to stuff. If there’s nowhere to find it – then how are you gonna mine it? It can’t happen – and I am certain that whatever story these bands I write about would tell – one will be of shared experience and access to ideas – through friends, from books, listening and borrowing – learning they call it.

But back to the Furries – this behemoth of a group – carved with wit and excitement – roots and culture in woolly hats and slight tinges of the Britpop explosion. But there were better than that – McGee could see that – we all could see that [in retrospect in my case] this band providing something much beyond the weekend and seeping into my life through their combination of the harmony and the techno undertow that makes their music flow.

So with pleasure I forked out for tickets to be entertained and amazed in 5.1 as their music ran rings around my ears in a hall in Hammersmith. We don’t get out much in my house - and this was a mid week adventure. It was years ago – but I remember it fondly. Building from Slow Life in space helmets through the majority of Rings with nuggets thrown in along the way – the Furries commanded the stage with authorative cool. Although it was an odd experience to be back inside a concert hall – as gig goers had changed – this new success for them – of which I was riding the tailcoat of had brought with it the one album purchase fan – the disinterested punter – on the phone and talking during the quiet ones. I’ve never really understood that – if you don’t like it – then fuck off home. Even with the support acts – get the fuck out the front of the stage – we’ll make room for you after.

So we spent that time in the company of welsh men – welsh musicians. And we enjoyed it.

And then they left the stage. For awhile – encore time – running late – trains to catch at London Bridge – the screens lit up – and sounds came through speakers – all governments are liars. All governments are liars and murderers. Strobes and squelches – as guitars and keyboards came together to tell us about the man and how he feels about us. This crescendo of techno – I was back in the clubs – liquid bass lines and breakbeats – they’ll do it for a forty year old man – the Furries tap right into that well, that moment when it all comes together and you feel euphoric.

But we had to leave.

We had to catch a train.

And Paul told me they appeared again in their ‘Golden Retriever’ suits – all super hairy and furry. It’s on record though – locked down on one side of a 12 inch. Absolutely beautiful and at about 7 minutes in you can hear me leaving [you can’t]

I will witness this again – and I will stay to the end.

Here it is in two parts.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

When it became embarrassing to talk of Funk

I am a heavy admirer of the super heavyweight sounds of the US funk scene – but somewhere over the years it became a cliché. A north London DJ route that’s all open sandwiches and jazz bars. I blame ACID JAZZ – I shouldn’t I know - but the whole music got wrapped in a soul boy styling when we should have just been sharing the tunes not trying to dig so deep in the crates that every record played was a one-off – a unique slice of soul that no one had heard but made you hip because it was rare – man – really rare.

I‘ll tell you what’s rare – Polar bears they’re rare.

Anyway, I once was a deejay – for a night sometimes – not as a career choice – dropping 45s of funk as we warmed up a room ready to go wild for the drum and bass – right in tha face at the end of an evening. And those nights were fuelled with our chemical beats for all those speed freak – northern soul stompers making way for the hardcore partiers in tha house. I loved finding a funk 45 that had been sampled and dropping those tunes – the essence of the hip hop scene – distilled in a bass line and a drum break that would make you stop in your tracks [which of course is ironic given we were playing tunes to make you dance]

And clearly I spent many years safe in the notion that I had the funk. But somewhere amidst the James Brown hollers and the loose booty of the family stone a barrier was built. So I’m trying to figure this out. You see I was trying to make a compilation the other day/ night and I’m the selector – so it’s about my choices – I control the flow – ya’ know – but I take a walk in the park and right by the Johnny Pate selection, WAR don’t get a look in, I’ve got reasons for not selecting Mary Jane Hooper and I’m [Humpty] dumping the Vibrettes.

Why is this?

It’s not that I don’t like the songs – it’s as if something has crept in beside it and sullied it and part of me feels it was the sudden rush to funk up the 90s and the noughties that killed it for me. Throughout those youthful years – before wrinkles and weight would make me weary – I would happen across a gem – a diamond – a belter of a tune. In a car boot cardboard box [Slaughter’s Big Rip Off soundtrack by James Brown for 50p], or stall in Greenwich [Richard and I carving out the cash to purchase Me and Baby Brother by WAR for four pound] or in a handful of scuffed and scratched records in SCOPE on the high street [Memphis Soul Stew on an Atlantic 4 track ep] or PDSA near Sainsbury’s in Beeston [that’s Nottingham folks - where I would purchase funk delight after funk delight as animal lovers offloaded vinyl by the cartload]

Mixed in with these finds would be the scraps of information picked up in reviews, interviews, or conversations with older folks, hip hop headz and soul boys. Scouring the sample clearance information on Three Feet High and Rising to see where that Potholes beat came from – which of course is the mighty Eric Burdon & War’s Magic Mountain – listen for yourself at – it’s easier now to find this and that.

No one was taping their records for the internet generation. Not that I’m against it – it’s wonderful to tap right in – drill on down to the sounds that inspire the underground that go overground for us all.

But the funk scraps we were fed were tantalising. I remember a wonderful friend of mine’s brother – Carl he was called, a true funk and soul aficionado – crafting columns for Blues and Soul, starting up his own magazine and building up a collection that rivalled any North London wannabe – this was real NORTHERN soul – brother. And he gave me a box of records – stuff he wasn’t hip to – for a small fee – early Mo’Wax, compilations, Acid Jazz, Grant Green and Mick Talbot’s solo album. But there on side two of a nondescript funk album was Jimmy James’ Root Down – soon to be sampled by The Beastie Boys – this huge ever pulsating tune from the centre of the Funkiverse – building from bass through drum roll and organ swipes – setting the funk up for the day ahead. I lived with these tunes – the market find of Black Ceasar in the Loire Valley while we camped – the Quest sample album picked up in Selectadisc on the way home from work – or the random 7inch from The Five Stairsteps [ok – I know it’s soul – but it’s a little funky – their bassist used to hang with the family stone – you’re bound to let that rub off on the fretboard] thrust into my hand by the owner of a lovely yet incredible messy store on Lee High Road [that’s Lewisham folks]

Mixed with that came tales of legendary films with Dolemite and Coffey Brown – or watching The Mack on video through a find from Chris – Carl’s brother and all round wonderful bloke – lost touch with him but fondly remembered in these parts - discovered in a discounted bin in a shop in Ridings [that’s Scunthorpe folks].

So what changed?

As I said I think the ubiquitous use by advertisers to sell us the carnal and exotic became demeaning – divorced the fury from the funk and rendered it solid – commodified through hot pants, knee socks and bubble blowing girls – forgetting the struggles that funk had endured. Rendered in vibrant colours to represent that 70s swing – they were burning records back then – they were burning lots of things back then – including the cross. And now it’s a photoshopped urban image with a day-glo vibe shifting tunes that spoke volumes about circumstance and opportunity. Check the Chi-Lites For God's Sake Give More Power To The People for want of anthem about being oppressed and depressed. But those off the peg fancy dress – let’s ridicule a style – appropriate the hate and laugh at the threads of sub cultures fighting for a corner kind of made me wary of the whole thang. Whilst Tarantino told us how hip he was in his blatant ripping off of film making by directors who were never given a chance with mainstream audiences.

Somewhere in all of that – I stopped listening and starting skipping the tunes.

It is not funk’s fault that it got sold out. I should stop being embarrassed and remember to listen more because when the bass and guitar and breaks connect – it makes me want to dance. And I have always loved dancing – you can’t do that to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports – you can do it to The Meters.