Music 2013: Where are we now?

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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.

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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) …

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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.

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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.

The needles and the damage done

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I hope you are able to see The Place Beyond The Pines without finding out too much in advance about how the story plays out. I innocently read the review by the seasoned and should-know-better David Denby in the New Yorker and found out exactly what happens in it. (I’ve read long-form reviews in UK publications, such as Philip French’s in the Observer, where the writer has expertly skirted around one key issue, so it can be done with discretion.) To be honest, it’s still a fine film, in my opinion. But the less you know the better.

It’s a melodrama, and that’s not anything like a criticism. I would argue that the definitive films noirs are melodramas, and this third feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (I never saw his first, but my review of Blue Valentine is here) certainly fits into that approximate genre. It’s also a grand family saga. It has the feel of an old-fashioned American miniseries, something like Rich Man, Poor Man, which older readers may remember fondly.

Because it’s showing at the Curzon, which is a small arthouse chain of which I am an enthusiastic member, I have to put up with the same fairly narrow range of trailers on a loop each time I visit. The Place Beyond The Pines has a striking trailer, in which Ryan Gosling is revealed as a stunt motorcycle rider (as opposed to the stunt car driver in Drive) and the father of Eve Mendes’ baby son, which he wishes to support. The trailer also reveals that robbing a bank is what he does to raise some funds, and that Bradley Cooper’s cop in some way confounds this plan. I commented to my friend Lucy that it gives too much away, but, having seen it, she assured me that it doesn’t.

So … the bare bones of the film – sexy images, by and large, of the main protagonists – are all that we who have seen the trailer actually know about The Place Beyond The Pines. Unless we have read David Denby. I tell you this so that, if you intend to see it, you avoid reading any more reviews (although you’re safe to read on here). The trailer gives away only half the picture. It’s a very clever trailer.

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And it’s a very ambitious film. Indie by nature, it ticks the credibility boxes by casting Gosling in the lead, but casting him opposite Bradley Cooper, who is a much more mainstream star, with cred of his own after Silver Linings Playbook. (Gosling started out as a cool actor in challenging stuff like The Believer and Half Nelson, but his commercial appeal grew, whereas Cooper hit big with broad-appeal movies like The A-Team and The Hangover and has been working hard to improve his licks, which is bearing fruit.) It’s a film about men, and these two are the men it’s mainly about, but not exclusively.

With its diners, carnivals, trailers, auto shops, car lots and 1st National banks, it’s almost a caricature of smalltown America as seen in the movies – as such it takes on mythic properties, and is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose beautiful work you’ve already seen in Hunger and Shame. Set and shot in and around the former Mohawk settlement Schenectady, it has a realism of place that’s hard to replicate, and despite the melodrama unfolding within it, it lends authenticity to the performances, which might otherwise tip into camp. (Many have likened Gosling’s brooding brute in a white t-shirt to Marlon Brando in his ape-like prime, and you can see where they’re heading.)

I think I bought into the film more than other critics, who’ve variously questioned the length (it’s two hours and 20 minutes, which is long for an indie), the third act (of which too much must not be spoken for fear of neutering its revelations), the paucity of anything much to do for the decent female actors (Rose Byrne is underused, too) and Cianfrance’s lack of control with the material as it expands outwards. I forgive it these sins. It’s bold, high-minded American cinema that isn’t afraid of having a character stop at a crossroads on his motorbike and fail to respond to a green light at the point when he is at a crossroads in his life. Neither is it afraid of visual rhymes – again, which should be savoured without me listing them here – or big themes like fatherhood and honour and, just maybe, the poisoning of the American dream.

Oh, and the music is superb. The score is by Mike Patton, formerly of Faith No More, and its haunting theme, The Snow Angel, pressed into effective service for the trailer, is a pre-existing tune written for a previous film, but no less fitting for it. There are also numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Suicide and Hall & Oates, and some passages by Arvo Part. It’s all put together with maximum care and attention. (And Hall & Oates’ Maneater has a hook in an earlier line of dialogue, it’s not just a hit song for its own sake.)

This and Compliance are my favourite American films of the post-Oscars year so far.

Marine biography

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At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)

Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)

I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)

So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.

Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’

In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)

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Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”

Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.

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In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.

She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)

And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”

I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.

I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.

Listening without prejudice

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As previously revealed, I took home around 20 pre-release CDs – mostly singles; a couple of albums – from my  6 Music pigeonhole last week. I uploaded them all at the weekend and have been listening intently on my ancient iPod ever since. (I’ve noticed that as iPods get smaller, headphones are getting bigger and bigger; my iPod is massive, and my headphones tiny. I’m no follower of fashion!) Anyway, I counted 19 new songs, most of them coming out in February or March. Few had actual paper press releases attached, and if they had information on a sticky label affixed by their plugger, I deliberately avoided reading it, so as to be able to listen to these artists, mostly unknown to me by name, without prejudice. Sometimes, seeing a picture of a band can influence the way you feel about their song.

Now, it’s inevitable that I won’t like everything, or even the majority, in a mass listening session like this, but let’s take out the artists I’d heard of first: Johnny Marr, The Vaccines, Low and The Wonder Stuff. I continue to be underwhelmed to the point of toothache by the Vaccines, who are doing very nicely without me anyway, so I shan’t lose sleep over our lack of a connection. I am already mad about The Wonder Stuff, in person and on record, and fully approve of their From The Midlands With Love project, whose final addition is Planet Earth and Get Up! Johnny Marr’s single Upstarts is OK, confident, driving, but again, he doesn’t need my support. Minnesota’s Low are minor legends, and their new single Plastic Cup is slow, lilting, melancholy and lovely, and its lyric actually has content (“the cup will probably be here long after we have gone”), which is something to cherish in this grey age. Oh, and ex-Beta Bandsman Steve Mason is also well established, and his new single Fight Them Back is effortlessly brilliant.

Since working with Josie two years ago (is it really? yes it is), I have become reconnected with new music, and new artists. So let us praise those songs by bands and songwriters about whom I know next to nothing. The pic at the top is of Tall Ships in action. As I type, I know I really love their coruscating but joyous single, T=0, but I have yet to look them up. They appear English, but who knows? Theirs is the real find of the batch, along with Wanderlust by Cloud Boat. (Nautical theme entirely coincidental.) Again, I know not who Cloud Boat are, or is. But the song is like a mini-symphony, even the three-minute radio edit; I’m getting James Blake, I’m getting My Bloody Valentine, I’m getting early Cocteau Twins … I’m getting something so delicate it makes a kind of mockery of what “a single” is, or should be. I have just found this image of Cloud Boat. Of course they’re in a church.

CloudBoat

Of the rest, I was initially quite taken by the sheer bombast of Pompeii by Bastille, even though it seems to be squarely aimed at the charts with its autotuned vocal and singalong chorus. Far cooler seeming are Io Echo, whose Ministry Of Love has real atmosphere, with female vocals far away in the distance, and more than a hint of Goth in its distorted guitars. Disco Sucks by The Computers has a good title, and is driven by old-fashioned rawk grit. I’m guessing they’re American, and very glad that Jack White came along a few years ago. Further up my street is the driving Ocean by Coasts (heavens: more water!), although, again, it sounds as if it has its eye on the post-Metronomy/xx prize. Also good is On The Spines of Old Cathedrals by Shrag, as it sounds like it was released in the early 90s. Spiky male-female vocals, apologetic drumming, but real energy. Unlike Bastille and Coasts, they don’t sound like they care too much whether or not you dance to it in a club.

I won’t mention the new bands whose tracks I didn’t latch onto. What would be the point of that? Not everything is for everyone. And anyway, I seem to have liked exactly half of the songs I uploaded. That’s pretty cool.

And now, to complete my experiment, I shall look up the bands I like, and provide links to their websites.

Tall Ships are from Falmouth, it appears. (I once lectured at Falmouth University – what a fantastic place.) There is another, American band called The Tall Ships, which is unhelpful, and the phrase “tall ships” mainly takes you to tall ships if you tap it into a search engine, but their MySpace page is here, the video is here, and their product is here.
Cloud Boat have their Facebook page (I really can’t get on with Facebook, but you may be more conversant with its workings), and the video for the full-length version of Wanderlust is here. If I was a band, I’d have a website that just showed a picture of me, and said where I was from. (Follow them on Twitter here.)
Coasts are a mystery. I don’t have the disc in front of me, so can’t even check the sticker. Look them up and find nothing as I did. Maybe I’ve got their name wrong. Still like the song!
Shrag have just announced that they’re calling it a day. Brilliant. This is me really getting in at the ground floor – they’ve only released three albums and about ten singles without me noticing. Still, I like the song, their blog is here, and they even have a Wikipedia entry. I’m going to seek out their last album Canines, from which the single is taken. It looks brilliant:
SHRAG

Io Echo are easier to find, as their name is unique. They have a website, and although I can see that they are a duo, and look quite amazing, it doesn’t say where they’re from. They seem to be very new, with a debut album to come. At least they didn’t split up before I “discovered” them. (Their MySpace doesn’t say where they’re from either.)
Bastille seems to be one man. He’s British and his MySpace page is here. Apparently Huw Stephens likes the song, so it might be a hit. I have no interest in the charts or predicting hits.
The Computers turn out to be British, from Exeter in fact, signed to Fierce Panda, and they look like they wish it was the 1970s. Good on them for that, and for looking like a band. They seem to run a club night called Disco Sucks. I don’t think they have a website, but this is them.

The following artists are well-established, but I liked their songs, and will provide links anyway, since I seem to be running an online fanzine all of a sudden. Steve Mason is here. Low are here. And The Wonder Stuff are here.

Sorry to namedrop but I was having a heated conversation with genial Martin Freeman at the Radio Times party on Tuesday night. He’s a massive music fan, as you probably know – indeed, I first met him when we were teamed up on the Radio 4 music quiz All The Way From Memphis, and had him on Roundtable a number of times – and only a few years younger than me, so we’ve both experienced that awful realisation that modern music doesn’t quite do it for you in the same way that modern music did in the past. Martin wanted to know if it was an age thing, something we all inevitably go through, or whether his feelings about modern music have something to do with the poor state of modern music. I think it’s a bit of both, but more of the former.

True, the singles charts are unrecognisable to me now, with everybody “featuring” on everybody else’s record and slick R&B and autotuned identipop dominant, but without Top of the Pops, I’m disconnected from them anyway. (If it was on, I guarantee I’d watch it every week, and know more.) I’m not in any way disinterested in new music, as I hope this experiment has proved, but even though it’s easier than ever to access music, for free, I find I need a curator, a filter, a third party to keep me up to date. And I have a pigeonhole! (I think Spotify is a smashing thing, but it’s too big. Where to start?)

What do others think? In the meantime, I say hooray for Tall Ships, and Cloud Boat, and Shrag, and Steve Mason, and Low, and The Computers, and a band I’ve not yet heard of who are going to blow me away. (I also got the Palma Violets debut album, which I’m still investigating, but I liked them on Later as they seemed to be young men who’d heard the first Clash album)

Hey ladies

By accident and not design, I saw two films at the cinema over the weekend that were about women. The first, Damsels In Distress, written and directed by a man, portrayed men in a very bad light; largely as thick-headed, arrogant dimwits or shysters. The second, Elles, written and directed by a woman, also portrayed men in a bad light; as desperate, shallow sad cases, sometimes cruel with it.

The first, and more successful, was Damsels In Distress. American indie auteur Whit Stillman takes his time. He’s only made four films since 1990. The first two, which I haven’t seen, were linked by low budgets, no stars, lavish praise and a concern for the urban haute bourgeoisie, Metropolitan and Barcelona. I’d like to see them. I saw The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, the third part of a loose trilogy apparently, because I was tempted by the subject matter, and I remember really enjoying it. It also revolved around two women.

Disco was set in the early 80s. Damsels is set now. Or, at least, I think it is; there are few clues that time has passed much since the 1950s, and because it’s set in a minor, fictional Ivy League college where the puzzling culture of fraternity houses still holds primitive sway, it all seems very remote and old-fashioned. That is, I’m sure, the point. (There is a subplot about the frat houses being closed down.) When I saw National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979, aged 14 – it was my first “AA” – this was my first exposure to the arcane college system of the United States, and I wasn’t worldly enough to spot that it was set in the early 60s. I realise that now, just as I realise that Happy Days was set in the 1950s, which I didn’t at the time. America seemed so foreign when I was a kid, I assumed it was still all about milk bars and the hop. Which, of course, to an extent, it still was in the 70s, and to a lesser extent, still is today.

Greta Gerwig is the only recognisable face. As Violet, she leads a group of prissy girls whose stated mission is to “save” dimwitted boys by going out with them and seeking to improve them. It’s a bizarre almost sexless set-up, but Stillman plays it so straight, it’s hard not to be drawn into this parallel universe. Nobody speaks as people speak; they are all dazzlingly eloquent and self-aware, and you will either find this a delight, or a massive irritant. I fell almost immediately into the former camp. If someone told me they couldn’t even sit through it, I would empathise.

It’s a 12A. There’s nothing in Damsels to frighten the horses. One subplot hints that a boy – duplicitous and untrustworthy, naturally – elicits anal sex with one of the prissy girls by claiming it’s a religious necessity for him, but this is as close to adult the film gets. It’s sort of the anti-Heathers. Gerwig’s troupe, who run a suicide prevention centre and offer tap-dancing as a therapy, seem brittle, remote and untouchable at first, but reveal deeper human feelings as the story progresses, even depression, all of which are whipped back into a fluff by an ending that comes as something of a shock, albeit a feelgood one.

It’s rare you see a film that reminds you of little else. Damsels is one such. (I gather it reminds people who’ve seen them of, yes, Metropolitan and Barcelona, the first of which was also concerned with an Ivy League college; Stillman went to Harvard.) It’s clever, wordy and weird, and if it puts women on too high a pedestal – and casts men into such a corresponding trench – well then, hooray for Whit Stillman. Better his breathless praise for the opposite sex, than Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s apparent disdain for her own, as we are about to see.

I’d read some lukewarm and hostile reviews of Szumowska’s French-language reverse-porn film Elles before seeing it, and such reviews are rare for anything with Saint Juliette de Binoche in. She plays an almost totally implausible journalist for Elle magazine, the kind who sits at home in her gorgeous Paris apartment staring at a computer and fielding calls about word-length from an unseen editor. (It may have been sloppy subtitling, but at one stage, she and the editor haggle over 8,000 “characters”, which must surely have meant words?) She interviews two female students who work as prostitutes to supplement their fees, and in doing so, unlocks her own inner prostitute. Not literally, of course, but that seems to be the thrust of the story.

It’s tosh. The studes, one French, Charlotte, one Polish, Alicja (hey, the director is Polish and she’s making her first French film, who can blame her?), seem not just guilt-free about servicing “bored husbands” for Euros, but empowered by it. They are certainly no damsels in distress. I may have missed a few meetings since becoming a feminist in the 80s, but the empowerment of women through submission to male needs and fantasies has always been a thorny one for me to grasp; clearly, women should enjoy nothing less than equality in all areas of life, from work to sex, but I’m not modern enough to see how pole dancing fits into this.

Anyway, Elles (rotten title) revolves around Binoche’s superwoman preparing a slow-cook casserole for her blasé husband’s boss, juggling the kids (including a particularly nightmarish teenage dopehead son), going food shopping and trying to fix the fridge door, while also attempting to finish her article, which chiefly involves listening to interview tapes that provide us with flashbacks mostly of the two students having frank sex with various men. Their clients run the clichéd gamut: from the businessman who bursts into tears after a premature ejaculation, to the shark in the hotel room who turns out to be a disgusting sadist (a rare instance of momentary distress there, but not enough for Charlotte to consider putting a stop to her extracurricular revenue stream). The only character who seems new is the middle-aged bloke who serenades his prostitute, naked, on an acoustic guitar. Was this odd moment of comedy supposed to show that not all men who pay women for sex are bad? That rather lets them off the hook, doesn’t it?

Although the sex is not titillating – or at least, not titillating unless you are titillated by seeing bored young women service older men – there is a lot of it, and I’m not sure it added much to the already fairly thin thesis. In the end, I found Elles infuriating, which wasn’t helped by the couple sitting next to me who had sought out the Noisiest Snack Available in the foyer and kept talking until I politely asked them not to.

I didn’t buy it. Binoche is literally never bad; and she gave the part her all – an “all” it didn’t really merit – imbuing a cardboard cut-out with life and radiance. But her grown-up journalist seemed to find the whole subculture of prostitution so shocking, you started to wonder if she’d ever read a newspaper article in her life. The scene where she gets drunk with the Polish student and they indulge in a sort of semi-erotic, quasi-Oedipal display of dancing to a terrible electro track is particularly embarrassing, and if it had been conceived by a male writer/director, you could have put it down to sleazy voyeurism. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps Elles is simply intended to be a protest about student fees. But a film about bar work isn’t really going to get the punters in, is it?