LPs 2017

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Oops. Forgot to arrange my LPs of the Year into a neat shape. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

With great inevitability, soundtracks and scores have dominated my listening horizon. Curating a two-hour radio show of film music every week for Classic FM means I now habitually listen to a disproportionate amount of orchestral and instrumental music, with the bulk of it written in the 20th century ie. the past. I’m comfortable with this immersion, as I have lost touch with the modern sounds of the charts, and have trouble remembering the names of acts I hear for the first time on 6 Music. I heard a track I really liked yesterday in the car, for instance, by Mr Jukes, but I have no idea who that is.

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I know who Sleaford Mods are, and keep up with their prolific output (the documentary Bunch of Kunst was essential viewing), but it stands so far apart and above anything else I have heard in the last few years, it makes life almost impossible for the other bands! It may seem rather conservative to hold the new material of such established acts as Arcade Fire, Royal Blood, Billy Bragg and – eek! – Sparks, but I have long since stopped trying to impress anyone, and spend my CD money with caution. I probably played the Horrors album V more than any other non-orchestral, non-instrumental this year. It is, like English Tapas, fabulous, if not, like English Tapas, groundbreaking.

A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:

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I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)

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So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)

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Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.

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Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.

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Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.

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People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*

 

* Sorry, another ancient reference.

2015: the year in music

CarolFoalsWhatWentDownHoneymoonLanaDRsleafordmodskeymarketsRoughnecks+RoustaboutsYoungFatherswhitemenJohn_GrantGreyTicklesBlackPressureKendrickLamarToPimpaButterflyAdele25WolfHallsoundtrackjamiexxBlurMagicWmaccabeesmarkstoproveitSurfaceTensionimageJHotChipWhyMakeSense

Well, I surprise myself. (And at my age, that’s a surprise in itself.) I have a solid 15 albums, all released this year, worthy of compiling into an end-of-year list. I will put them in qualitative order, despite the iniquity of doing so – I purchased three of these albums in the last couple of days, keen to catch up, so while the majority have had a really meaningful run around my head in the car (we drove from London to Cork in October, there and back, and many points inbetween, with a battery of CDs to guide us), on foot and on public transport, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and John Grant have some catching up to do. What the hell. Here goes.

1. Sleaford Mods Key Markets Harbinger
2. Adele 25 XL
3. Young Fathers Black Men Are White Men Too Big Dada
4. Carter Burwell Carol Varese Sarabande
5. Foals What Went Down Transgressive
6. Jamie xx In Colour Young Turks
7. Debbie Wiseman Wolf Hall Silva Screen
8. John Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure Bella Union
9. The Maccabees Marks To Prove It Fiction
10. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Interscope
11. Pete Williams Roughnecks + Roustabouts Basehart
12. Rob St. John Surface Tension Rob St. John
13. Hot Chip Why Make Sense? Domino
14. Lana Del Rey Honeymoon Interscope
15. Blur The Magic Whip Parlophone

Sleaford Mods have been my lifesaver this year. I am at an age where I don’t expect to have my head turned by new artists (or newer artists, if you got there before me, and I rather expect you did). But this pair of East Midlands fortysomethings with their bendy vowels sounded as good as they read on paper. Good to get in at the ground floor with their eighth album – and I promise to dig backwards forthwith – but I’ve found it difficult not to play Key Markets through my ears. The only problem with it is that it demands your full attention. It’s not background music. So I’m reading less on public transport. And hearing the word “coont” a lot more.

I don’t discover music or artistes any more. How could I? I come to them at my own speed, and pay for the pleasure. I am no longer someone record companies or pluggers send records to. Why would they? (Actually, the quality indie reissues house 3Loop do, and I appreciate their loyalty.) This means I have entered a state of grace. I am a 6 Music listener, a Guardian music section reader and viewer of the BBC’s scant musical output (Later … With Jools Holland, Glastonbury, essentially) and these three institutions continue to direct me to a physical record shop on a physical high street. Not every month. Often in mini-binges, to catch up (and the prospect of a driving holiday in Ireland caused a phenomenal influx in late September).

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The big change in listening in 2015 has been Classic FM, who took me on in March. On a weekly basis this year I’ve been helping to curate a two-hour show of orchestral movie music and it’s been an education, as well as an excuse to play scores I already love. I’ve included two new, full scores in my Top 15, Carol and Wolf Hall, as I’ve listened to both as albums and returned to them again and again. The bulk of my iPod year has been taken up with classical music, and my savage breast is all the calmer for it.

And a final note about Kendrick Lamar. It was 6 Music and Alexis Petridis who between them led me to this artist and what turns out to be his third LP, and his second million-seller. Who knew? I bought the album – the “album of the year” for many critics – having only heard two tracks, and while slightly disappointed by the amount of “motherfuckers” on it, it’s clearly a work of uncommon invention and pluralism, and is a friend of jazz. I’ll need to try harder to get into it, as I really don’t like the interludes, but there’s something going on here, I’m just late to the party. As always.

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Oh, and a nice little link between two very disparate LPs: Rob St John’s delightfully immersive multimedia experience Surface Tension is based on recordings taken along the River Lea in London (it’s an elementally London record); Adele’s 25, which may have sold one or two more copies than Rob’s but they’re not really competing for the same audience, contains a lovely, gospelly song called River Lea. You have to look for connections, but they are always there. Buy both.

Whatever | July 2007

Whatever | Noughties indie
When did the indie bands get so damn greedy?

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It was a standing joke among readers of what used to be called the music press in the mid-80s that Prefab Sprout would reissue the single When Love Breaks Down every six months. They did so in the hope that the Great British Public would finally recognise it for the modern pop classic it so patently was and put it in the bloody charts.

The fast track to overground glory didn’t exist for a critically acclaimed fringe property like Prefab Sprout in those days, when “chart music” had a very specific sound: thunderous, sequenced drums, elephantine keyboards, Pino Palladino. With very few exceptions – Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order – critical darlings had to be grateful to splash around in the small pond that was the Independent Chart and hope there was no Acid House that week.

Kitchenware, a record label of character and wit, actually only put When Love Breaks Down out three times: first in October 84, when it failed to worry even the Top 75; again in March ’85, politely remixed this time, but still no Woolworths action in a climate of Belouis Some and Go West; and finally, November ’85, when it clawed its way up to number 25 and got them onto Top Of The Pops in time for Christmas. It was all very proprietorial in those days, “us” and “them”, and for one of “ours” to be seen chasing Gallup was frankly unbecoming. Prefab Sprout had banked sufficient goodwill for this willful act of gamesmanship to be filed as a moral victory.

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How very different the playing field looks today. As I write, Jamie T, gifted Wimbledon street-poet and darling of the NME, is in the charts with the tremendous Sheila. But wait a minute, wasn’t Sheila in the charts last summer? Yes it was. It reached a healthy number 22 in July 2006. So why release it again? Vanity? Creative bankruptcy? For a laugh? Or might it be that Jamie T and his record company Virgin are greedy, greedy bastards who regard the kids as contemptible idiots? (Oh, sorry, it’s got a new live b-side.)

Nobody in the industry will bat an eyelid that a number 22 hit is being lovelessly reissued less than a year later just in case it can get a bit higher this time. Over the last five years, such craven acts of ideological surrender have become standard practice, with labels treating the Top 40 as a fairground Test Your Strength machine, returning time and again with a slightly bigger hammer.

Newcastle new wavers Maximo Park enjoyed their first hit Apply Some Pressure in March 2005: it reached number 20. Eight months and two further hits later, they re-released it. Same song. Same mix. Live b-side, no doubt. This time, it reached number 17. That’s three places higher. In a single chart that only requires sales of about five thousand to reach such lofty heights. Kasabian reached number 19 with Club Foot in May 2004; a year later, the reissued Club Foot reached … 21. That, ladies and gentlemen of marketing, is three places lower. Why bother?

Am I being horribly old-fashioned and prudish in expecting younger, more idealistic bands in the first flush of success to act with a little more dignity?

WhateverIndieMunich2It was Harry Hill who, in the mid-90s, said, “I like the indie bands. Pulp, Blur and Oasis, they’re the main three, aren’t they?” A decade later and everybody’s an indie band, a bottleneck that leads to desperate measures, and the “firework bands” phenomenon, whereby we see a glut of credible bands who enjoy disproportionate success with their debut album – Hard-Fi, Editors, the Kooks – but may struggle to keep the blue touchpaper lit as younger indie fans, who’ve turned out to be just as fickle as pop fans, wander off. Arctic Monkeys may endure, but then, they have never re-released a single song, ever.

The indie sector first bent over in the early 90s, when great white hopes were signed to majors for sums indexed largely on NME and Melody Maker coverage and then dramatically failed to recoup. Fontana, having paid £400,000 for the House Of Love, managed to secure a Top 20 placing for a reissued Shine On only by putting it out on seven separate formats. Follow-up The Beatles And The Stones came in ten formats. It reached 36. The kids, whom the band’s previous label Creation claimed to be “doing it” for, were not impressed. These days, the kids don’t give a fig for honour or principle.

Hence, aforementioned Birmingham gloom-rockers Editors, whose discography is so engorged with reissues it actually reads like a haiku: Bullets, Munich, Blood, Bullets, Munich, All Sparks, Blood. The reissue of Blood, I hardly need mention, peaked 20 big chart places lower than the original.

Mind you, Editors are signed to Kitchenware.

Published in Word magazine, July 2007

Whatever | November 2008

Whatever | VE Day with Vodafone
Can any anniversary, event or initiative go by unbranded?

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The carnival atmosphere on VE Day, 8 May 1945, was hastily improvised on a ration-hardened whim and spread by word of mouth. The ad hoc spirit was summed up when, lacking a public address system, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham put a radio on the window sill of his office so that the gathering crowds could hear Churchill’s speech. But the pianos, gramophones and trestle tables gamely manhandled into the middle of the street would not be enough for today’s civic cheerleaders.

It was Mark E Smith who famously listened to a Verve record in the early 90s and muttered, “God help us if there’s a war.” A generation later, one can’t help but echo his sentiments, but for different reasons. Should some new Reich threaten the security of Europe, Britain would stand no chance; not because of the unfit state of its indie conscripts, but because our priorities would now surely be with forming a steering group to put out to tender the contract for branding of the war and a series of sub-committees to forward-plan the Public Private Partnership-funded post-war celebrations, scheduled for Christmas, naturally.

What a shame we would never get to experience VE Day Party In The Park with “top bands, special guests and Fearne Cotton”, and blanket live coverage on BBC1, BBC3 and Radio 2. The flypast and firework display would remain an idealised, computer-generated mock-up in a media pack, as would the walk of champions, the satellite-linked giant screens in major cities, a living memorial created through contemporary dance, a special edition of Strictly Come Fighting and sponsored livery on banners, buses and wristbands: “V FOR VICTORY WITH V FOR VODAFONE.”

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Because no event, anniversary or initiative can pass unmarked, unnamed or unbranded in this autistic age we live in, whether it’s 9/11, 7/7, Liverpool 08, Love Music Hate Racism, Concert For Diana, Broken Britain, America Decides, The Big Food Fight, The Big Read, The Big Clean Up or National Take Your Dog To Work Day, all competing for our already foreshortened attention spans like unlicensed cab touts. Even the latest recession has been branded: the Credit Crunch. Does that mean giant foam rubber hands for anyone evicted or laid off?

The worst of it is London 2012, the year itself logo-stamped (“because now 2012 isn’t just four digits,” states the Royal Mint, imperially, advertising its Handover Ceremony £2 Coin from just £6.95). As we hurtle towards it with all the speed of an Integrated Environment and Sustainability Management System-audited JCB full of East End dirt, we’re expected to stay not just enthused but patriotically so, for four years, thanks to what has already been branded the Cultural Olympiad, divided into Ceremonies, Major Projects and, I quote, Inspire Mark Projects (whatever that means – and who’s Mark?). It’s not all fun and games.

Rarely do I see something on TV which makes me want to re-enact the legendary protest of lorry driver James Holmes of Waltham Abbey, who kicked in his £380 colour television set on 1 December, 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy. “I was so angry and disgusted with this filth that I took a swing with my boot,” Mr Holmes told the Mirror. My own boot hovered within inches of the flat-screen during the 2012 Olympic Handover Concert in the Mall, sponsored by Visa. Never mind 9/11 – the world changed forever in the three minutes it took “indie pop” three-piece Scouting For Girls to cover London Calling by the Clash.

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Before a 40,000-strong afternoon crowd of mostly tourists, this mostly harmless bunch, dressed for the garden, nonetheless crystallised our own proud nation’s addiction to event coordination. The theme of the gig was songs about sport and winning. We Are The Champions and Nobody Does It Better had been taken, so Scouting For Girls opted to turn the greatest rock song of the punk era into a mayoral, flag-waving credit-card singalong. London Calling was not dredged from Joe Strummer’s angry guts to commemorate a geographical decision by an international committee; it is a howl of pain about the impending apocalypse, as foreseen from angles as diverse as flood (“London is drowning”), famine (“the wheat is growing thin”), and accident (“a nuclear error”). This Chas & Dave-style rendition was extraordinary indeed. The haunting line about “the one with the yellowy eyes” became … and I can’t believe I am about to write this … “the one with the 19 gold eyes.” Yes. Because Team GB won 19 gold medals.

Get it? If not, a media pack will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, send extra Sustainability Management System-audited JCBs of dirt, because Joe Strummer is turning in his grave.

Published in Word magazine, November 2008

Upriver

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When, in 1988, numb with the lack of creativity in my supposedly creative job, I founded my own fanzine and filled most of it myself with NME-influenced prose, I commissioned myself to write a two-page feature on aquatic metaphor in the work of Lloyd Cole, with tangential reference to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad. I headlined it Upriver. This allegorical fascination with bodies of water and the tidal movement towards the ocean has remained with me. Apocalypse Now is still my favourite film, on days when it’s not The Poseidon Adventure, and a dream about falling into the water with killer whales still haunts me. To borrow a line from Captain Willard, this watery thread weaves through my subconscious “like a main circuit cable.”

You can, then, imagine my delight when I received the latest album from Rob St. John, which is about a river. A committed, roving troubadour from Lancashire who first poked his head above water mid-last-decade and found purchase at Song, By Toad, an Edinburgh-based blog-turned-record label, he released a split 7″ with fellow atmos-folkster Ian Humberstone in 2011, which is where I came in. This was closely followed by St. John’s elemental deubt LP, Weald, which was my album of the year, a passion I was able to share via 6 Music, which still employed me in those days.

Four years later, I am unable to play Rob’s new album to you (I call him Rob as I was able to get my new softly-spoken hero onto 6 Music for an interview during that last mad surge of usefulness and it felt like we had been friends for years), as I no longer have a popular music-based radio station to play with, but I am able to tell you about it.

Surface Tension is right up my tributary. More than an album, it’s an instrumental “project” that explores “landscape and pollution … through sound, writing and photography” along the River Lea, which flows southeast from the Chiltern Hills and provides London with a good amount of marsh, not to mention the Lea Valley Park. Commissioned by Thames 21’s Love the Lea campaign, it exists as a 30-mimnute continuous piece of ambient music and recorded sounds, and a 48-page book of 35mm and pinhole photographs.

It’s far more bindingly conceptual than the already thematically focused Weald, but designed to be listened to as a whole, not as individual tracks. With all that said, you can sample the single on Soundcloud here. I could tell you that the work was made using binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones, tape loops, harmonium, analogue synth, tube organ, cello, piano and guitar, but you really need to hear it to appreciate it and – yes – immerse yourself in it. (Read more about Surface Tension and how to order it on Rob’s website.)

lovethelea2013 What a treat to hear music that is almost definitively ambient, certainly in its use of field recordings, many of which were in themselves recorded in fields, especially in the run-up to a business-led general election where the Green Party seem so vital again – to me, anyway – with their commitments to protecting the natural world rather than digging it up and putting a price on it. Rob St. John is one of those artists whose deep roots in the soul of this green and often unpleasant land make the very idea of recording using electrical equipment seem anathema, but whatever works. He has to put it out there. And he deserves to be heard. (Albeit magical, organic and otherworldly, Weald is more conventional in shape and sound, if you prefer a front door into his work and although the vinyl version sold out, you can still purchase it on CD or download it here. The only thing missing from the new LP is Rob’s gorgeous voice, of course!)

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Now, back to the classical music … (we quibble over terms!)

2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

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As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

Ballyturk

Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

Music 2013: Where are we now?

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVArcade-Fire-ReflektorArctic-Monkeys-AMKOD-12JimBobWhatIThinkAboutChrisTTTheBearbilly-bragg-tooth-nailJon-Hopkins-Immunitymusic-david-bowie-the-next-day-album-cover

Ah, music. A whole calendar year without once stepping in front of the mic at 6 Music has seriously affected the equilibrium of my musical clearing house. Though I seem to have been jettisoned by the network, my DJ’s pigeonhole was not sealed up, so some new music still got through, thanks to an assortment of kindly pluggers and expectant artists and managers, all of whom were sending me records in good faith that I might play them on the radio. This was not to be. (My only success in this regard was composing a piece celebrating 80s indie for Front Row on Radio 4, which allowed me to play short bursts of classics like Candy Skin by the Fire Engines and Don’t Come Back by the Marine Girls on national radio, not to mention plug Cherry Red’s historic Scared To Get Happy compilation.) Still, it means I have heard some new music in 2013, although not much. As I have discovered to music’s cost, there’s nothing like having a radio show to focus, organise and refresh your musical tastes. (I still miss the good influence of Josie Long and it’s been two years now!)

My exile from 6 Music has nonetheless pushed me back into the real world, where albums must be purchased. This really concentrates the mind. It makes your purchases more conservative. You buy records by artists you already like – Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, a resurgent David Bowie – although I’d lately lost my faith in Arctic Monkeys and hadn’t even sought out their new album AM for old times’ sake, but then I saw them storm it on Later and I put my money on the counter. So that’s how it works. I won’t order my Top 10 albums, as in earning a place here, they are all winners. I am on friendly terms with three of these artists. Luckily, they have all made records I like this year.

My Bloody Valentine m b v (m b v)
David Bowie The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
Arcade Fire Reflektor (Sonovox)
Jon Hopkins Immunity (Domino)
Various Artists Scared To Get Happy (Cherry Red)
Kitchens Of Distinction Folly (3Loop)
Billy Bragg Tooth & Nail (Bragg Central)
Jim Bob What I Think About When I Think About You (The Ten Forty Sound)
Chris T-T and The Hoodrats The Bear (Xtra Mile)
Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)

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I accept that the modern music scene is based on tracks, but I shall continue to call them songs, as I pretty much hate the modern world. A few songs have filtered through and found purchase and these are them.

Rob St John and the Coven Choir Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey/Shallow Brown (Song By Toad)
Steve Mason Fight Them Back (Double Six)*
Cud Louise
Daft Punk Get Lucky (Daft Life/Columbia)
Cloud Boat Wanderlust (Apollo)
This Many Boyfriends Tina Weymouth (Angular)
Low Plastic Cup (Sub Pop)*
The Wonder Stuff Get Up! (IRL)**

*These singles both came out at the very end of 2012, but I didn’t hear either until 2013, and I think they were on albums released in 2013, so fuck off.
**I think this one did, as well.

Velocity rapture

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It may seem a little prosaic, but do you mind if I just list some band names? Jasmine Minks. The June Brides. Mighty Mighty. Big Flame. Grab Grab The Haddock. The Wolfhounds. The Dentists. The Servants. The Seers. The Brilliant Corners. The Close Lobsters. Is this painting any kind of picture for you? Cherry Red records, the label who were at the epicentre of the birth of indie, are about to release a five-disc box set entitled Scared To Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989. It’s out on June 24, and there’s a gig in London on June 22 to mark its arrival.

The compilation boasts 134 tracks by 134 artists, beginning in style with Revolutionary Spirit by the recently reactivated Wild Swans on Zoo in 1982, and ending with Catweazle by future hitmakers the Boo Radleys on Action in 1990; in between, you will be transported back to a simpler time, when t-shirts had horizontal stripes, fringes were worn sticking out of the front of Greek fisherman’s caps and guitars were played in a masturbatory style that somehow perfectly crystallised the raw, undersexed emotion that lay beneath. I have been immersed in this grand testimonial for a week, repressing squeals each time a new memory is unleashed: Delilah Sands by the Brilliant Corners, Toy by the Heart Throbs (the first band I ever interviewed as a cub reporter for the NME at a picnic table outside a pub near Rough Trade’s Kings Cross HQ), Almost Prayed by the Weather Prophets, Every Conversation by the June Brides (a defining anthem of my early student years, which took me and my friend Rob to the Venue in New Cross) …

STGH - Cover

It’s also great to hear early efforts by bands who went on to greater things in the grown-up chart on major labels: Sick Little Girl by Pop Will Eat Itself, Quite Content by the Soup Dragons (whom I interviewed prior to their chart explosion and became good pals with), Motorcity by Age Of Chance (whose baseball hat I proudly wore to my first days at the NME, only to have it frisbeed across the art room by Steven Wells), Vote For Love by Jamie Wednesday, who would become Carter USM. It’s personal for me, this music.

As much as anything, it reminds me of being largely single and occasionally lovesick, which is apt, living on my own, subsisting off boil-in-the-bag Findus meals and large panfuls of mashed potato and cheese, and taping everything but the reggae off Peel and quirkily naming the cassettes (actually, I did record some dub, and certainly remember loving Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound at the same time, although there is no place for that here).

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It’s also amazing to hear Grab Grab The Haddock again, the group formed after the Marine Girls by Jane Fox, whom Rob and I adopted as “our” band and followed around a bit. (How bitter the disappointment when they put us on our first ever guest list at the old Marquee, and the doorperson told us that the support band had no guest list.) And the Marine Girls’ Don’t Come Back, all the more poignant for my having sort of befriended Tracey Thorn – certainly remotely – in middle age, as well as Jim Bob, and Miles Hunt (the Wonder Stuff are represented by A Wonderful Day).

There are some “big songs” here, as well as ones that may only mean something to the lucky few: Up The Hill And Down The Slope by The Loft (whom Rob and I saw split up, without knowing it, at Bay 63, supporting The Colour Field, and whose bassist Bill Prince would become my colleague and friend at NME and Q); Velocity Girl by Primal Scream; Just Like Honey by Jesus & Mary Chain; Shine On by the House Of Love. National anthems, all.

I met and interviewed and shared tour bus seats with so many of these indie luminaries as they crossed over to major label hopefuls in the late 80s and early 90s, catching them on the way up, but not necessarily that long before the way down. There are some bands I only remember by name, and not by song – the Corn Dollies, the Waltones, the Raw Herbs – but even the names evoke lazy afternoons and lager in plastic glasses and zip-up jerkins and cheap Top Shop Ray-Ban copies and plastic carrier bags full of fanzines; they speak of Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams and Ian Watson and other be-capped indie enablers.

Railway Children (too new)Wolfhounds

It is a commonplace now that the word “indie” has been stripped of all meaning. But this compilation places it back on an ideological pedestal at a time when it meant beating the system and operating by its own back channel.

As I wrote in 2006 for a piece in Word, the first time I remember seeing the word “indie” was in Sounds, the first of the weekly music papers to carry the indie chart, inaugurated in January 1980 in trade mag Record Business, after an idea by Cherry Red boss Ian McNay. It was based on sales from a network of small record emporia, and was open only to records independently produced, marketed and distributed, that is, outside of the infrastructure of the major labels.

The likes of Virgin, Chrysalis and Island, though established as indies in the 60s and 70s, didn’t count in the 80s as they were distributed by The Man, and this was key to our understanding of the word. The same ideological exile had befallen pre-punk stalwarts Chiswick and Stiff, when they took the majors’ shilling. The indie charts did exactly what they said on the tin, and rapidly became not just an indicator of what was selling, but a useful business tool for the alternative sector, especially in terms of foreign licensing.

Incidentally, I can’t have been the only Sounds reader who initially assumed that the chart bluntly headed “Indies” was dedicated to artists from the West Indies, and not Eyeless In Gaza, the Marine Girls and Crass.

My Select co-conspirator David Cavanagh nailed the scene in his Creation Records doorstop My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize (named after a line in the Loft classic), producing a revolving paint dream of indie life in 1980, as Alan Horne, founder of Glasgow’s Postcard, and Edwyn Collins, leader of Orange Juice, put 800 copies of the band’s debut Falling And Laughing into the back of Horne’s dad’s Austin Maxi and head South. They arrive at Rough Trade, still primarily a shop, though also a label. Geoff Travis, hippyish boss of RT, plays the record, digs it and takes 300 on the spot. They manage to get Small Wonder, another capital-based indie shop-turned-label, to take another hundred, and head back to Scotland, “in good cheer.”

It was, in many ways, all downhill from there for the true spirit of indie. But the 134 tunes under Cherry Red’s latest umbrella (and by the way, where would indie be without their pivotal Pillows & Prayers compilation?) are flag-bearers for its finest ideals. Cheap and largely cheerful, albeit wan and apparently permanently single, these songs do it for the kids. If the golden year of 1986 has its own flag – NME’s iconic (yes it is) cassette C86, all of whose contributors are found here, I think – then Scared To Get Happy might have to be casually known as C80-89. It’s that complete.

Let us not remember indie by the snobbish panic that marked the late ’80s when Ecstasy changed the rules. It was certainly too hot to wear leather trousers and tassly suede jackets when you were “on one”. Dance music, while energising the indie scene with heady possibility – and later leading to the comedown-drone of shoegazing – also rent it asunder. Again, as I wrote in Word in a piece brilliantly headlined, by Mark Ellen, Wan Love, in the ensuing cross-pollination, the proliferation of one-off post-Acid House singles in the indie charts offended the purists.

As the Cav notes, one week in July 1992, the highest-placed guitar tune in the indie charts was at number 13. Chart compilers CIN eventually went all Stalinist and excluded these bleeping anomalies, to protect the integrity of Mega City Four, The Family Cat and Midway Still. A similar ideological panic occurred in 1989 when PWL dominated the indie charts with hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. Until Pete Waterman inked a deal with Warners, he was more indie than the likes of The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff and The Fall, who had already made themselves ineligible by signing up with majors of their own. They were followed by the next wave, t-shirt bands like Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker.

With indie a marketable property, the majors started setting up their own “boutique” labels – Hut, Dedicated, Indolent, Laurel – all the credibility of indies, none of the tiresome independence. But let’s not go there. Indie: it was alright while it lasted. Now, where’s my fisherman’s cap?

Find out about, and pre-order, Scared To Get Happy (and explore the rest of Cherry Red’s catalogue) here.

Glock holiday

Spring-Breakers

Spring Breakers, the new sensation from Harmony Korine of Kids, Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy, reminds us once again how different American youth culture is from our own, no matter how hegemonic and irresistible its occupation feels, as our defences fall like pathetic dominoes before exported concepts like prom night, seasons, sweet sixteens, EDM, “Can I get …?” and local elections for police chiefs. Lord, save us from Spring Break. Were this film to be set in this country – or in Ayia Napa, Ibiza or whatever latest fleshpot British sixth-formers and gap-yearers flock to for sun, sex and sexually transmitted disease – it would be called The Easter Holidays. Not quite as alluring, is it?

The very phrase, “Spring Break … Spring Break,” is uttered again and again through Spring Breakers like a mantra, as if it’s Mecca or Oz calling, as opposed to Florida. The film, whose sense of occasion is never in doubt, even if its motives are, depicts a beach babe bingo Bacchanalia, the kind seen in rap videos, or, these days, cameraphone footage, where arse-cellulite vibrates to booming bass, liquid refreshment is siphoned through rubber tubes or simply applied to the skin, and flesh is fancifully fried like a human barbecue. It’s Club 18-30 without a rep in sight.

I have never been on a holiday like this. But you have to hand it to Korine, who’s 40 now: he “gets” what goes on away from prying parental eyes between the second and third semester, and it looks for all the world like the one captured in The Inbetweeners Movie, except without the bidet jokes and the failure to score drugs or have sex.

The music – “Electronic Dance Music” or EDM, the umbrella term over there for house, techno and/or dubstep, so it seems – is key, as it doesn’t just soundtrack these adventures in the skin trade, it provides the pounding, pulsing rhythm of their all-out, non-stop, heads-down hedonism. During their Easter hols, pleasure is their guiding principle and nothing else. If that pleasure might require danger to spice it – cocaine, armed robbery, drive-bys, premeditated murder – so be it. A quick call home to Mom and Dad will cover the cracks. (The wilder this vacation gets, the more demure, innocent and spiritual the calls home become.)

The girls whose story is told in Spring Breakers are played by previously wholesome Mouseketeer types – inspired casting, if you know their CVs, which I’m afraid I didn’t – Candy is Vanessa Hudgens, previously known for High School Musical, Brit is Ashley Benson from Days Of Our Lives, Cotty is the director’s wife Rachel, whose background is less apple-pie, and Faith is Selina Gomez, as famous for being the ex of “the famous pop singer who likes Anne Frank” as being in Disney’s Wizards Of Waverly Place. They are spring broke at the end of term and are forced to rob a Chicken Shack to afford the trip to Tampa, where the action is.

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I’m no student of Korine’s work, but I understand that this is being marketed as his most accessible film. It certainly may appeal on a base level to – presumably – the spring breakers whose hedonism it surely seeks to satirise and critique. I certainly felt, at the outset – and the film is a compelling riot of colour, music and movement – that we were in for a debunking of the moral and intellectual vacuum occupied by moneyed American teens. When the film takes its inevitable darker turn – when the Miami PD turn up, basically – and this particularly thin American dream morphs into a nightmare, I thought I knew what was going on.

But, without giving away the plot (such as it is; Spring Breakers feels like a dream sequence unmoored from hard reality come the final reel), Korine winds up complicit in MTV-gangsta-rap fantasies.There may be a price to pay for earlier pleasure-seeking, but there is little redemption or comeuppance.

Although full of flesh, and dictated by a rhythm of grinding hips and bottoms, it’s not as sexually explicit as you might expect, and Selina Gomez, in particular, does not do as much to shock or scorch her own image, as, say, Benson or Hudgens, but as far as you can tell, very little actual sex takes places. Maybe this is a comment? That the lifestyle is all bump and grind and no sexual congress?

If the film is a comment upon “Spring Break” itself, I would argue that, in the end, it’s not much of one. In its favour, it is visually splendid, however, all bright pinks and pastel oranges (and that’s just the skin tones etc.), and runs on a pretty persuasive energy. And James Franco is, as well as unrecognisable, thrilling in the main male role of silver-toothed charmer Alien, a drug dealer who manages to be appealing as well as repellent. His “Look at my shit!” speech, surely improvised by Franco, is a highlight of the film.