Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Best of the Noughties

Bloody hell!  Here we are again.  Where did the year go? Looks like I blinked and missed it again. Even worse, looking at the calendar shows that it is nearly 2010 and that actually, a whole decade seems to have got behind us since those millennium celebrations, without so much as a by your leave.  Perhaps now is the time to have a look back at some of my personal favourite moments from the last 10 years?  Oh, all right then...

PJ Harvey – Stories From the City Stories From the Sea (2000). The decade got off to a cracking start with this effort from Polly Jean who suddenly discovered tunes but remembered to wrap them up in her finest edgy, raw and emotional playing.

REM – Reveal (2001). Possibly my favourite REM album to date having a symphonic ‘Pet Sounds’ ambience to it and some tunes that even Brian Wilson would’ve approved of. Consistent and accomplished if perhaps lacking a little in energy, but then ‘Accelerate’ didn’t turn out that well, did it?

Aimee Mann – Lost in Space (2002). Poor old Aimee. She just never seems to get the recognition she deserves and yet this is another fine album in a long line of fine albums packed with hummable tunes and astute lyrics. If only people would take notice.

Bangles – Doll Revolution (2003). Like the eighties had never gone away, the girls regrouped and produced what may yet be their best album ever. Time apart had given them space to grow musically and grow up emotionally. The result is this sparkling collection of songs given the classic updated psychedelic treatment overlaid with breathtaking harmonies.

Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004). Keane seem to have lost their way now but this debut is still as fresh as a daisy boasting gorgeous melodies, passionate vocals and a real sense of togetherness as a musical outfit. There was an endearing earnestness about them then that is still attractive now.

Sing-Sing – Sing-Sing and I (2005). The final curtain for Emma Anderson? Sing-Sing is no more and she has disappeared without trace leaving behind this little gem. The ex-shoegazer expands her palette to include trance-like ambients, heartbreaking ballads and jaunty sing-a-longs all wrapped up in stylised arrangements. Fab.

Nerina Pallot – Fires (2006). The Uk’s great unsung talent and answer to Tori Amos issues a bunch of superior singer-songwriter fare on her own label following being unceremoniously ditched by Polydor. Forget ‘The X Factor’, THIS is real talent.  Also, 'Real Late Starter' is on the bench as first substitute in my 'Song For Me' list.

Kim Wilde – Never Say Never (2006). The blonde-next-door returns from the garden as her 50th year beckons and produces a stunner of an album. New material rubs shoulders with reworks of old well-loved songs like they were long lost siblings. Guitars howl and drums reverberate in what could well be my favourite album of the decade. Pity the UK ignored it but the Europeans love it…and they’re right.

Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008). The new Madonna crashes the scene in the usual way: masses of outrageous sexual imagery and even more ridiculous costumes. The trouble is, she can play and she can write a great tune – ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’…the list goes on. Can she keep this up? Only time will tell.

Ting Tings – We Started Nothing (2008). The Mancunian duo has risen in meteoric style this year and although this is not an all time great album, it shows enough pep to give them the benefit of the doubt. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns (2009). Brighton’s Natasha Khan and her exemplary band have created a beautiful ambient world full of strange exotic instruments and shifting rhythms. Their Glastonbury appearance was quite mesmerising.

Little Boots – Hands (2009). Bolstered by a series of YouTube ‘at home’ videos, Victoria Hesketh has showed herself to be a rising star destined for the top. Blessed with a prodigious song writing talent, her down to earth personality was not best served by a slightly over-produced album. Yet the promise is there – no doubt about it.

Well, that’s it for this year. I’m off for a well earned break. I’ll see you all in the New Year. In the meantime have a look at Bloggerhythms' list - different and provocative!  Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Duffy and a Case of Fame Fright

As I have already covered numerous times in this blog, the road to fame is littered with Rock ‘n’ Roll deaths from just about every cause under the sun. But like most struggles there are not just fatalities but those that simply go AWOL. I believe that in the days when armies met in fields to cut each other to death with large swords, people were employed to search the nearby copses and hedgerows looking for deserters and redirecting them to the battlefield. Hence it was with interest that I read that Lily Allen is withdrawing from the front line music scene to hide in the woods…er, that should be, to have a stab at acting. Well, good luck to her, it didn’t do Billie Piper any harm.

Another that has vanished without trace is Welsh chanteuse, Duffy, who it is rumoured has been struck down with the dreaded performer’s malaise, stage fright and is considering becoming a recluse. This, if true, is a massive shame, as I have a lot of time for her debut ‘Rockferry’ which I have been playing a lot of late and would be sad to see her retire at such a young age.

Stage fright is not new and has affected the great and the good. Paul McCartney has admitted that it almost ended his Beatles career very early on when the thought of playing the NME poll winners concert in the early 1960s was too frightening to contemplate. Actually, I don’t blame him for this one as I always found the tone of the NME a bit scary myself. However, history shows that the beast was slain and he carried on playing live until 1966 when the fab four shunned touring to shut themselves up in Abbey Road for the duration.

One victim who didn’t fare so well was XTC’s Andy Partridge (of whom I spoke in Dear God). His fright immediately curtailed the band’s live performances after 1982 and XTC became studio-bound from then on, having been one of the busiest bands on the circuit in the late 1970s.

But to get back to Duffy, it seems that it is not just stage fright that is operating here but an all encompassing ‘fame fright’ born of the relentless pressure to succeed. The music industry really should try and nurture its talent a little more rather than squeezing the last drop out of every act in a rush to sell ‘product’. It’s very sad to see beautiful butterflies crushed on the corporate wheel.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Let’s be honest, in the early 1970s I had a bit of an Elton John phase. It’s not something that I care to talk about much these days, but having bought the single ‘Your Song’ in 1970 and then prevaricated through the next few years, I finally took the plunge in 1973 and got myself a copy of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ – no mean feat in those days as double albums were a considerable drain on my meagre income.

If truth be told I loved it and it was hardly off my turntable in those heady days of playing records from dawn to dusk (and beyond) but of late the classic fold-out album cover has been gathering dust. It wasn’t until I picked up a cheap CD copy that my love affair with it was re-kindled. No matter what you think of Elton these days, GYBR is a monster of an album. Comprising four sides of killer material with very little filler and covering a variety of styles that only the White Album can surpass, it remains Elton’s tour de force. If you only have one EJ album, make it this.

Generally, when you re-play old albums that once shared your life, there are two possible outcomes; utter disbelief that you once gave it house room or a warm glow of recognition and acknowledgement that you got it right. GYBR has nestled itself down into the latter category like an old pair of shoes – a bit old fashioned but fabulously comfy. What has struck me about it is the sheer energy and invention in both the music and lyric departments. The tunes and the playing are top notch and Bernie’s lyrics are some of his very best. The subject matter is as wide as the musical variety and it is difficult to remember what the 17 year-old me made of such themes as lesbianism, hookers and personal hygiene, but I did like the tunes so I probably didn’t take too much notice.

If I was going to be picky, I could’ve done without ‘Jamaica Jerk Off’ and possibly a couple of the cuts on the final side and to later cannibalise Bernie’s heart-felt peon to Marilyn Monroe in ‘Candle in the Wind’ for you-know-who is a hanging offence but the thing about all double albums is that they tend to benefit from being a sprawling mass, an outpouring of artistic endeavour so you have to take them or leave them. Personally, I’d take this one every time.

So what did happen to Elton? I remember buying ‘Captain Fantastic’ and a bit later, ‘Too Low for Zero’ but neither of these appears to be in my collection any more, so GYBR it is then. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer album.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

St Etienne - So Tough

In a fit of housekeeping tidiness some time back, I transferred all my LP/CD details into an Access Database. From there it was relatively easy to do a bit of nerdy analysis on my music collection. One of the facts that this threw up was that whilst I own a large number of albums by favourite artists, I generally own two albums per artist overall. On further investigation it appears that what happens is this: I buy an album that I like which prompts me to buy the follow up which disappoints and my interest in the artist stops. Repeat ad lib.

St Etienne was one of those bands that I had a brief flirtation with in the mid-1990s and is a classic case. Taking their name from a French football team, they were comprised smart-ass journalist/musicians, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley and fronted by sexy girl-next-door singer, Sarah Cracknell and they made slightly knowing pastiches of various musical genres from the 1960s and patched them up with 1990s indie-dance glue. In the right context they were eminently listenable but could become a little too clever if left to their own devices for too long.

I missed their debut, ‘Foxbase Alfa’ but picked up on them when ‘So Tough’ was released in 1993. I loved ‘So Tough’ with its winning melodies and clever film soundtrack links between them and this prompted the purchase of next up ‘Tiger Bay’ but this didn’t appeal half so much. Thus endeth my association. Interestingly, I now read that ‘Tiger Bay’ seems to be most fans’ choice as their best effort so I played it again just to check but there is nothing on it that captures my imagination like the beautifully brittle ‘Hobart Paving’ or the frothy ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ from ‘So Tough’. Interestingly, ‘Tiger Bay’ seems to have been messed about with dreadfully, re-released with a new cover, new song order and additional tracks added. Hmm...

I think I’ll stick with ‘So Tough’ but there is one thing that bugs me about it and it is that I have been unable to find out where the film links between songs are lifted from. One, I know, is definitely Tom Courtenay from ‘Billy Liar’ because I’ve seen the film and another sounds like James Robertson Justice, probably from one of the ‘Doctor’ films but as to the rest – I have no idea. Does anyone know what they are or can direct me to a point of information? The usual sources don’t seem to be able to help.

For more commentary on musical matters, see my book 'Memoirs of a music Obsessive'.

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Song For Me

It has long been a courtship ritual that all couples find themselves at a social gathering at least once in those formative years where they manage to make fools of themselves during the three minutes that it takes to play a pop song and forever after that song becomes ‘their tune’. Subsequent plays of their tune brings forth a rush of either cringing embarrassment or fond memory dependant upon what went on during the period.

If couples can have a song all to themselves, then why not individuals? Of course everybody has favourite songs but I’m thinking here more of a sort of signature tune that represents the person rather than just a once liked melody. If truth be told mine would probably be Garbage’s ‘Only Happy When it Rains’. It just seems so right in all sorts of ways.

First, it has a quirky song structure which is quite basic yet a bit mystifying. It only has two musical sections in it which alternate backward and forwards in a ABAB pattern which under normal circumstances would be labelled ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’ yet it is not really clear which is which. I love the ambiguity of it and the fact that it cannot be easily pigeon-holed. It feeds my appetite for the strange and off-kilter in art.

I’m only happy when it rains
I’m only happy when it’s complicated
And though I know you can’t appreciate it
I’m only happy when it rains

Second, the lyric is gloriously melancholic, born of singer Shirley Manson’s own well-documented depression, yet has an intrinsic uplifting quality and that is its utter open-wound honesty. As a true Piscean melancholic dreamer myself, I embrace the sentiments entirely and love the pragmatic anti-optimistic message. In fact its wry observations make me smile with recognition and for that alone it is worth its weight in medication as a pick-me-up. I recommend it unreservedly as despite it all, I always feel better for hearing it.

You know I love it when the news is bad
Why it feels so good to feel so sad
I’m only happy when it rains

And lastly, it is true: I’m only happy when it rains. Well, not exactly, but I really don’t like the sun in that sort of blisteringly hot all day every day holiday type thing. It makes me sweat and turns me lobster colour. I like the British climate and could never live anywhere where it is sunny all day.

I only smile in the dark
My only comfort is the night gone black
I didn’t accidentally tell you that
I’m only happy when it rains

Naturally, it helps that it has a great melody and has an edgy arrangement based around swirling guitars and thumping drums. The sledgehammer treatment surrounding Manson’s beautifully judged vocals lift it out from the usual pop mush of the charts and put it in a place where I am happy to seek it out. In fact Manson is one of the best live singers I know. She has great pitch control and bags of style. Sing it girl!

I’m only happy when it rains
You want to hear about my new obsession
I’m riding high upon a deep depression
I’m only happy when it rains

Yes, it’ll do for me.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

No Music Day

You know, the life of a blogger can be hard sometimes. Thinking up a new subject every few days and then writing about it in a witty and informative style can be a bit trying when the rest of your life is in a bit of a tizz, and you don’t get paid for it! So I am indebted to one of my faithful readers, Alan, who has alerted me to the following website, which claims to be supporting a 5 year plan to have 21st November named ‘No Music Day’, 2009 being the final year of the plan.

The fact that I’ve never heard of it during the period 2005 to 2008 doesn’t say much for the success of the campaign but nevertheless, it is worth a thought. The site lists a whole load of rules that apply on No Music Day but essentially no one is allowed to play, listen to, make, distribute or generally deal in music for 24 hours.

For me, the thought of not listening to music is a bit of a killer and may require chocolate biscuits but the concept of not playing or making any seems a bit draconian and indeed nebulous to me – for example, does that include not drumming your fingers on the desk or humming tunelessly without realising it? I think the policing of these proposals could be a tad tricky. How do you stop people ‘thinking’ music?

Nevertheless, on reflection, there are one or two benefits that occur. One is to stop all music playing in public places. So no music in shopping malls, hotel toilets, lifts or restaurants and definitely no music blaring at you when you are forced to hold on the telephone for hours on end. This I can identify with as there is nothing more demeaning to a great piece of music than to have it forced on uninterested listeners in inappropriate places whilst they are doing something else (press 7 if you never want to listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ ever again…). I have long bridled against this sort of music-as-wallpaper idea. It’s just not respectful of art.

The second benefit would be to stop builders, postman and tradespersons generally whistling tunes as a) it is a hideous noise and b) they never get the melody quite right or keep swapping keys which is even more galling. You feel like grabbing them by the throat and saying, ‘NO, NO, NO, it goes like THIS!!’

So, as usual, I am sitting on the fence here and going for a partial solution whereby 21st November becomes ‘No Music in Public Day’. This means I can carry on as usual without all that public broadcasting nonsense. Sorted.

PS Don't forget that my book, 'Memoirs of a Muisc Obsessive' is still available through Amazon to solve the problem of all those difficult-to-buy-Christmas-presents-for friends and relations!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Dear God

There are some subjects that are decidedly dodgy when it comes to writing a song. Anything to do with Yellow Ribbons and dogs named Boo immediately spring to mind, but there are others. Death was a bit taboo until The Beatles gave us the sublime ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and once upon a time sex would’ve been in the same bag – but you wouldn’t know that today. In fact, these days just about anything goes, as the song says, …except perhaps religion which still has the power to start wars.

I’ve been playing XTC’s ‘Dear God’ of late and wondering quite why it didn’t cause a heap more fuss than it did back in 1987 when it was first released as a single following the ‘Skylarking’ album. After all, see what happened to John Lennon after his ‘More famous than Jesus’ comments. Certainly there were music shops in the UK that refused to stock it as they feared a religious backlash and there was the usual contempt from some hard-line Christians but in the final analysis it became so popular with American DJs that ‘Skylarking’ was re-released in the US to include the song (to the detriment of ‘Mermaid Smiled’ which was dropped – only so much space on a vinyl disc!)

So what was all the fuss about? Andy Partridge, the writer, has said that it didn’t go far enough to express his anger but it still does a pretty good job of examining the age old question that dogs religion, if there is a God why does He allow wars, famine, disease and suffering in general? Partridge rants convincingly about his doubts of the existence of and benevolence of God in the middle of the song but the beginning and end are sung with a child’s innocence by the then 8 year old daughter of a friend of producer Todd Rundgren, a device which underlines the poignancy of the questions being asked of the deity.

Despite being such a hot potato, the song has been covered several times by a wide range of artists from Sarah McLaughlan to Tricky and was once referred to on Australian TV by native comedian, John Safran. Its popularity has traversed the globe and even today it pops up on ‘best’ lists and in blogs.

What it all comes down to is that it is a good song. It has a strong melody and a passionate lyric and that is what great music tends to have irrespective of subject matter. This song has proved that art can surmount its content and be counted as an achievement.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Human - The Killers

It seems to me that when a harassed journalist interviews anyone from the ‘great and good’ list and has already asked about their book/film/CD they immediately run out of interesting questions and then have to rely on plan B. Top of this list is generally, ‘What music would you liked played at your funeral?’ A bit of a strange question I always think as the requestor is in no position to appreciate their choice and the attendees probably hate it anyway.

And speaking of those that hate it, there have been cases recently of Church Officials complaining about the choice of music accompanying both marriages and funerals these days as the traditional is being scorned in favour of popular tunes. It is all part of our society’s urge to turn their back on tradition and embrace the here and now even if it turns out to be a one hit wonder. I have a certain amount of sympathy with the clergy on this point but that doesn’t mean that modern music is any worse than older compositions. Tradition has to start somewhere.

A recently quizzed celebrity answered the vexed funeral question with The Killers’ ‘Human’ and my immediate reaction was one of amused interest. First, the idea of anything at all being played at a funeral by a band calling themselves The Killers must be bordering on dubious taste unless it’s an Italian gangland affair and second, the song itself is not in the mournful dirge category that most would expect. So your intrepid reporter delved further to see what the attraction is. Having spent 59p to download it from Amazon, I listened to it several times whilst doing something else and gradually, it began to seep into my consciousness. There is an almost relentless optimism about the melody that infiltrates your soul. The earnest vocal is beautifully judged giving credence to the message that if we are human, we can make decisions about our own future rather than relying on fate. The combination of tune and lyric leaves you feeling strangely uplifted and ready to face the world.

‘Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?’

In this respect I can begin to understand why it was chosen to be played at a funeral. It is not so much for the departed, who will be oblivious anyway, but more for the benefit of those left behind and in this respect it is a wise choice and tradition should move aside for it.  YouTube won't let me embed the video here so you'll need to go here to hear it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Five Obsessions

Oh dear! Just when you thought it was safe, a fellow blogger nominates you to write about your 5 Obsessions – step forward, A Novice Novelist. I guess it’s a bit like one of those celebrity magazine quizzes where they are asked to name their favourite food, favourite colour underwear etc only worse as this digs into your very soul. So, here goes – starting with the obvious:

1. Music – This is truly an obsession. It is the one subject that I have had most arguments about so it must be. The thing is, I can’t help listening to it whether it be in airport lounges, hotel washrooms, friends’ houses or the background/incidental music to TV programmes. My mind is always asking, ‘Now, what’s that?’ like some out-of-control inquisitor (nobody expects...). Sometimes I miss entire TV shows trying to listen to what’s behind them.

2. My ipod – In the days before ipods, I would suffer terribly like some addict in rehab. I’d be at school or work or anywhere really and just get this dreadful craving to listen to track 2, side 1 of Talking Heads’ ‘Fear of Music’…or something and couldn’t wait to get home to play it. These days I can carry the majority of my collection around with me in a very small box thus relieving the craving at the earliest opportunity. The worst that can happen is that the battery runs out, which is a bit like having your life support system switched off, but without the dying bit.

3. Clutter – I hate it. I like my life to be orderly and my house the same. The trouble is; having two young children condemns you to clutter as a lifestyle. My wife tells me I am obsessive about tidiness but I disagree – I’d just like to order a skip and empty the entire house contents into it when no one’s looking, that’s all.

4. KitKats – This is a habit that I really should break, but then again, you only live once. This has been going on for nigh-on 10 years and the scenario is as follows: when I am at work and the clock veers toward 10.30 am, I have this strange need to go and buy a KitKat to eat with a cup of coffee. Weirdly, I have no compulsion to do this at home at weekends or on holidays but given an office environment and coffee and the impulse kicks in. That means I’ve probably eaten over 2,500 KitKats in the last ten years. Blimey!

5. Crime fiction – I love it. I’ve read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell, Minette Walters, PD James, Colin Dexter and a whole list more and I’m coming close to polishing off M C Beaton. When this happens, I don’t know what I’ll do.

Well that’s it. Do I feel any better for this confessional? Erm…sort of.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

And the Band Played On

As the owner of this blog and bearing in mind its title, it would be seriously remiss of me if I didn’t say a few words on the recently announced retirement of those two cockney sparrows, Chas and Dave, who once regaled us with their cheeky charm but frankly what is there to say?

Instead, I mourn the passing of the singing group that were once the Sugababes. It seems that the last remaining founder member, Keisha Buchanan, has now fled the coop and whether she was pushed or left willingly is not really the issue. What is important now is whether the remaining ‘Babes plus any newcomer really have the right to call themselves the Sugababes with all the global goodwill that goes with that name?

This is a matter that I have touched on before and as yet is still largely unresolved. My contention is this: should any band have the right to use their original name once all founder members have left?

In a recent issue of ‘Record Collector’ there is a page of gig adverts which includes the following; Focus (featuring Thijs van Leer), Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash and The Grounghogs with Tony McPhee. All these are really the thin edge of the wedge as none of them are the original bands but one member plus supporting players. Focus was never Thijs van Leer on his own and without Messrs Akkerman, Ruiter and Van der Linden the Focus name seems a little sullied. I’m not sure who’d want to see Wishbone Ash without Andy Powell (and Upton and Ted Turner come to that) but the name is still being used for commercial gain. It would be interesting to know what a conglomeration of Powell, Upton and T Turner would call themselves?

The case of the Groundhogs is perhaps more acceptable as Tony McPhee was undoubtedly the main man, but I’m sure long time fans of the band would still feel a little short changed without the remaining members.

My feeling is that all bands that do not have a single founding member should be forced by the musicians union to change their name. After all, from a punter’s point of view there is a little matter of the Trades Descriptions Act and the misrepresentation of goods. I dare say that Martin Turner would claim he has done just that by playing under the mantle of ‘Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash’ but I hear the sound of hairs being split. What we need is a decent judicial decision on this point then we can look forward to years of acrimony (see Pink Floyd).

Friday, 23 October 2009

Real Late Starter

I never really like to say what my favourite music is as a) it seems an admission of limiting choice and b) it changes from day to day and year to year but if trapped in a corner and threatened with all manner of unsavoury things, I would be forced to admit that the three areas of interest that have served me well are; Progrock, indie bands and female singers. And if you can find any hybrids of all three please let me know.

The problem with the current female singer market is that it is a touch oversubscribed just at the moment, what with Little Boots, La Roux, Lady Gaga, Florence and the machine, Bat for Lashes and err…Cheryl Cole all vying for attention. So the reappearance of sprightly contender, Nerina Pallot may just be a camel and straws situation if it wasn’t for the fact that she is not just another female singer songwriter.

Pallot’s USP is that she brings a bit of the exotic to the table. Born in London of French and Indian parentage but brought up in the Channel Islands, she has a quirky cosmopolitan aura that I find highly attractive and never more so than on her previous CD, ‘Fires’ back in 2005. So news that her new release ‘The Graduate’ is now available prefaced by the single ‘Real Late Starter’ is still welcome despite the rather crowded market place.

Instead of trying to describe her style, I have constructed a Warminger Pie Chart (pat pending) from which you will note that she marries the manic energy of Alanis Morrisette with the fly-away voice of Joni Mitchell whilst creating some distinctly pop/jazz Steely Dan style pop with a touch of Aimee Mann. Also, she is a talented piano player and I just love it when those who call themselves musicians are just that. Two fingered synth playing doesn’t really count.

I have yet to hear the whole album as it has not yet appeared on Spotify, but if the single is anything to go by it should be another great listen. Some of the new songs are available to hear in ‘work in progress’ mode over on YouTube. This seems to be something that many artists are doing to increase their exposure and which I quite like as it puts the listener in direct touch with the artist rather than waiting for news via third parties.

Check out the kooky video for ‘Real Late Starter’ as it is a real hoot and may touch a nerve for some of us…

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Chance in a Million

Sometimes it seems that the entire history of television can now be bought on DVD, from the great epic dramas to the really silly kids' programmes you used to watch eons ago when the world existed in black and white. But every now and then one particular televisual memory stays just that – a memory. For some unexplained reason and despite the numerous releases of really crap shows, there is always one that stubbornly refuses to emerge.

One of my all time favourite sit-coms was called ‘Chance in a Million’ and starred two actors at the start of their television careers, Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn. It ran on Channel 4 for three seasons of 6 episodes each between 1984 and 1986 and as far as I know was never repeated nor has it emerged on DVD. Generally there are reasons why DVDs are not released – problems with licensing soundtrack music (‘Moonlighting’ take a bow) or royalty difficulties with acting unions etc – but I suspect in this case it is probably to do with one or other of the stars. Both Callow and Blethyn have moved on to much greater things and I guess that they may not wish to be reminded of their humble sit-com beginnings.

But that is a shame, for ‘Chance in a Million’ was a wonderfully off-the-wall comedy, brilliantly acted by the two protagonists and they should be proud of it. Callow plays Tom Chance, an eccentric bachelor, given to speaking in unfinished clauses rather than sentences who is dogged by coincidence. If anything is highly unlikely to happen then it is certain to happen to him and he is frequently the victim of improbable circumstances. The local police have given up arresting him for crimes he appears to have committed and he fears for any woman he becomes involved with in case his ‘affliction’ rubs off on her – until a chance meeting with Alison Little, played by Blethyn, an on-the-shelf librarian who falls for him.

She is keen for their friendship to develop into something more intimate and part of the comedy involves his being largely oblivious of her seduction attempts. Eventually, however, they do marry in the final episode despite the inevitable catalogue of disasters which threaten to curtail the event. Brenda Blethyn has never been better than in her portrayal of the slightly naïve yet love-torn Alison. Her stoic acceptance of the chaos that surrounds them and matter-of-fact delivery of some of the funniest lines in the script really is worth seeing.

The scripts were written by Andrew Norriss (who later wrote the Brittas Empire) and Richard Fegen and in retrospect lay the foundations for the quirky humour used later by David Renwick in ‘One Foot in the Grave’.

However, it seems there is a God, because several episodes have appeared on YouTube and I have just spent a delightful few hours watching them for the first time in nearly 25 years. And yes, they are still utterly bonkers and I love ‘em.

A brief glimpse - Tom has accidentally picked up the loot from a bank robbery. Now read on...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Too Young to Rock 'n' Roll

Ever thought what the basic difference between men and women is? Women have a tendency to lie about their age. And it’s usually on the optimistic side. Now me – I rather wish I was a bit older than I am, say another ten years. That means I would’ve been born in the mid 1940s and thus would’ve been aware of the rising of rock ‘n’ roll and lived the whole experience in real time from day one. I really envy those who are currently in their sixties and who were lucky enough to do just that. As it is, my consciousness began in about 1962 just as the Beatles were bursting through and although I recall everything that followed, I missed out on the whole Rock ‘n’ Roll thing of the 50s.

Because I love pop music so much, I’m rather sad that I’m just too young to remember the real birth of the youth culture explosion that shook the 1950s to its core. As a result of my newly assumed age, I would’ve been in the school system throughout the 50s and into the 60s, when all those seminal records from Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and the rest were being made. Then, in 1964, one of the best years in rock ever, I would’ve transferred to higher education (hopefully). Imagine being at college during the mid-sixties in swinging London when the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks etc were in their pomp and Carnaby Street did it’s best to make you look a dedicated follower of fashion. Sort of.

It would also have meant that I would be in gainful employment by the late 1960s and in a position to buy up all those fabulous classic albums of the late 60s and early 1970s – ones that I could only ever dream about and finger the covers of at the time. Of course, it would also mean that I would’ve probably been too old to really appreciate punk when it appeared in the late 1970s and the Brit-pop revival of the 1990s would’ve irritated the hell out of me in my advanced years but I’ll take all that in exchange for a first-hand experience of everything rock has achieved in 50 odd years.

Of course, the other reason why I wish I was 10 years older is that I would expect to be retired by now on a healthy pension and have nothing to do all day but play my old vinyl and grumble that today’s bands are not a patch on those of my youth.

What?...Oh, I do that already.

Monday, 5 October 2009

What Value a Music Collection?

What is your worst nightmare? Nuclear war? Trapped in a dark basement full of spiders? Going blind? Or is it the one where you’re naked and….well, never mind. High up on the list of my darkest moments would be losing my entire music collection comprising as it does, not just LPs, CDs, Downloads and Cassettes but all those bootlegs and collectors’ items like rare versions, acetates and picture sleeves that have been lovingly assembled over the years. Well, that’s what going to happen to Radio DJ and TV personality, Mike Read.

Read has just been declared bankrupt for the umpteenth time since his heyday in the 1980s and as a consequence must sell his entire collection comprising approximately 120,000 items in the hope that it will raise £1M. Like John Peel, a large part of his residence is given over to storing all this stuff and now it’s got to go. I have no truck with Read, but I have to sympathise with his plight even though my own collection is less than one percent the size of his. To lose my collection would be like cutting off my own arm.

It is a part of me that has grown over 40 years of my life. It has become a diary of events, cataloguing the social history of not just me but society as a whole. Sixties protest, the summer of love, punk, the eighties boom years and the rise of technology are all represented in musical form. All my choices are laid bare from the inspired to the downright silly although admittedly some of the latter have been expunged from the record over the years.

Anyone looking my collection would have a pretty good insight into me as a person and this is why it is so difficult to part company with it and why I will clutch it to me until the day I die. I have no idea how Mike Read feels about it but I would guess that he is pretty devastated. But who will buy it? It’s a bit like buying someone else’s shoes – they’ll never quite fit and will mean nothing to them in the long term. No doubt most bids will come from the asset stripping community, keen to sell off the most valuable items and send the rest to the nearest charity shop. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

What’s worse is that my own children as inheritors of my precious collection will probably do exactly the same.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Composition of a Pop Star

Someone once said that there is 'nothing new under the sun' as it is recorded in Ecclesiastes I (1-14). Whoever it was, they were dead right. These days, whenever I listen to anything new, I am always reminded of something else be it singer, band, general song writing style, sound etc etc. After fifty-odd years of popular music this is bound to happen. So let’s have some fun with it.

I have taken three new-ish artists that I like to listen to and tried to break them down into their constituent parts – a bit like those chemical tests you used to do in practical Chemistry at school (although how anyone was supposed to keep that mystery compound on a bit of charcoal block when using a blowpipe through the Bunsen flame I’ll never know – mine usually ended up over the person next to me).

So without further ado, here are the results of my analysis. First up is Natasha Khan and her consortium, Bat For Lashes. As you can see, the main constituents are Kate Bush, Björk and Tori Amos with a bit of Supertramp rhythm thrown in around an Annie Lennox ambience. All very pastoral and ambient, perhaps traces of a bit of Pink Floyd and Chemical Brothers are missing here?

My second artist is Little Boots, whose debut ‘Hands’ is beginning to get under my skin after a bit of initial indifference. She is revealed as a sort of Kylie/Billie hybrid mixed with a strong 1980s electro-pop influence represented by Depeche Mode, OMD and the Human League. (I cheated a bit on the last band as Phil Oakey sings on one track).

My final analysis is the Ting Tings who are a strange mixture of punk/new wave and 1970s disco with the strangled vocal style incorporating the rap of Neneh Cherry and the paranoia of Poly Styrene and David Byrne (‘that’s not my name’!!). Their drums/guitar configuration ought to suggest the influence of the White Stripes but somehow it doesn’t really reveal itself in sufficient quantities to be significant. Perhaps a bit of Phil Collins drumming should’ve showed up?

I knew Chemistry lessons would be useful one day! Anyone else got any results they’d like to share?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Leavin' On A Jet Plane

As most people will know by now, Mary Travers, the ‘Mary’ part of Peter Paul and Mary, died on September 16th at the age of 72.

In the musical cauldron that was the 1960s, there were all manner of genres bubbling away and one of them was folk. The mainstream absorbed many bands whose musical ancestry was entrenched in folk clubs, such as the Byrds and The Mamas and Papas, but there were always a few that stuck quite closely to their roots. Here we speak not only of Simon & Garfunkel, Pentangle and early configurations of Fairport Convention, but of The Springfields, The Seekers and Peter Paul and Mary.

For me the latter three groups are forever remembered through black and white appearances on the countless TV variety shows of the early to mid 1960s but that is not the only reason why I have bracketed them together. The main reason is that all three had a strong vocal sound underpinned by the female within, Dusty Springfield, Judith Durham and Mary Travers respectively.

It is almost comical to watch these types of performers now, fighting for space by the single microphone whilst trying not to get guitars and basses in the way but it does remind you that a) they always sang live on TV and b) even with the primitive technology of the day, they sounded balanced and clear. If you watch closely you can often see these group members move backwards and forwards from the mic trying to strike the correct vocal balance at any one time. It is truly fascinating and reveals the professionalism of singers in those far off days.

My introduction to Peter Paul and Mary was, like most others of my generation no doubt, ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ their 1969 and final hit although my preference now is their cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ from 1963. I can’t help feeling that Dylan was well served by those that covered his songs in a more conventional ‘voice’ and that his reputation as a songwriter was boosted in the minds of those that had dismissed him as an idiosyncratic protester. With ‘Blowin’ Mary’s role in the group is shown to best advantage, making the verses’ meaning stand out and then adding an edge to the chorus to give it strength. It is a riveting performance. She will be sadly missed.

Here's a reminder of why:

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A Place to Play

You just can’t hold a good thing down, can you? Back in the mists of time when rock ‘n’ roll was the spawn of the devil, those in authority did all they could to protect the nation’s youth by suppressing it wherever possible. Often, acts were barred from the usual dance hall and theatre venues but like a tenacious weed, rock flourished in basements (famously, the Cavern Club) and increasingly stranger and stranger places.

One such location was the Chislehurst Caves. This is a 22 mile long series of man-made tunnels in Chislehurst, in the south eastern suburbs of Greater London. The caves were worked for chalk and flints up to the 1830s and then became a popular tourist attraction. During World War II they were used as an air raid shelter but shortly after VE Day the shelter was officially closed. However, in the 1960s, the caves were re-opened and used as a music venue. David Bowie, Status Quo, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd all performed there and in October 1974 a media party was held within its chalky walls to celebrate the launch of Led Zeppelin’s new record company, Swan Song Records.

There have been other odd venues, too. The Roundhouse, situated near Camden in north London was originally a railway engine shed (hence the shape) and it was where I saw The Stranglers play in 1977 although they were late on stage (probably leaves on the line), causing me a mad dash to Paddington for the last train home.

Churches are another unlikely venue for popular music (we all know about the devil and tunes) and I’m not talking about the ‘born again’ evangelists with their guitars and tambourines. Bjork has been known to sing completely un-amplified in a church (can’t remember where) and gave a stunning performance at the Riverside Church in New York a few days before the tragedy of 9/11. Many others including All About Eve have also used the atmospherics of old churches to good effect. In fact, the Union Chapel in Islington, London has been converted to a permanent venue for folk and rock acts alike.

I was present in the late 1980s when Siouxsie and the Banshees headlined in a Circus Big Top pitched in Finsbury Park, north London. Even in recent times, rock has infiltrated some of the unlikeliest venues. Cliff Richard once entertained the crowd at a rain-drenched Wimbledon whilst play was suspended and Brian May made a bit of a racket with his famous home-made guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.

It seems as though the bad boys of rock have finally become socially acceptable, although I don’t recall any gigs taking place in the hallowed halls of some of London’s Gentlemen’s clubs. Perhaps time will tell.

Friday, 11 September 2009

New Divas on the Block

Once upon a time we hip young things would listen avidly to the pirate radio stations and read the subversive, inky music weeklies to find out about strange new acts and then spread them by word of mouth. This was a system that successfully bypassed the grown-up world and ensured that pop music remained on the ‘us’ side of the generation gap. However, since the pirates are now outlawed, most of the weeklies have vanished and pop has passed into the hands of the establishment, it is no surprise to learn that it has become the remit of the staid national institutions to guide us in our listening pleasures. So it is good to see that that bastion of middle class respectability and national monolith, the BBC, is kindly telling us which new acts we should be listening to whilst we drive our 4x4s on the school run.

The latest state funded bulletin tells us that there are three new females on the block that we should be aware of if we are ever to hold a sensible conversation with our children again and they are: Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Little Boots. Of course, readers of this blog will already know about Florence and her wild bohemian ways but I have not yet commented on the other two.

Little Boots, or Victoria Hesketh is Little Miss Technology. She has spent the last few years posting numerous videos on YouTube showing her at home developing songs at various keyboards with the aid of her ancient Stylophone and strange Japanese instrument, the Tenori-on. These are all very entertaining in a talented yet home-made way. Unfortunately, when her debut album, ‘Hands’ arrived earlier this year, it was mildly disappointing. I’ve explored this subject before but it seems to be a case of initial inventiveness being smoothed away by a professional production. The songs are great but they seem a bit over-produced.  Hopefully she will get a more sympathetic treatment for her second effort.

La Roux, comprising singer Elly Jackson and keyboardist Ben Langmaid, is altogether another kettle of fish and I’m beginning to wonder whether all is not as it seems. Back in the 1980s when Electro-pop emerged from the massive development in synthesiser technology, there were a number of front runners in the genre. There were bands like The Human League and Depeche Mode and any number of duos - Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Eurythmics – and in particular, Yazoo. One listen to ‘Bulletproof’, purportedly by La Roux and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to Yazoo. That skipping, plinky-plonk keyboard is pure Vince Clarke and whilst Elly’s vocal hasn’t the resonance of Alison Moyet, the melody has a certain deja vu feeling. In the video, Elly even sports an early Moyet quiff. Are we sure that La Roux actually exist and that they are not Yazoo reincarnated for the noughties? Stranger things have happened.

Anyway, here's Little Boots in full 'bedroom' mode.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Definitely Maybe...Over

So Oasis is no more and Noel has finally given brother Liam a right hook where it really hurts – in the band. Not being a committed Oasis fan, I didn’t really know whether they were still going but it definitely maybe seems to be all over now. I was always a ‘Beatles’ rather than a ‘Stones’ fan so that is why I can’t get excited by their passing. Let me explain.

It’s funny how history repeats in certain circumstances and when Britpop lunged into view in the mid 1990s with Blur and Oasis slugging it out for the jangley guitar crown, I had a real sense of Déjà vu. To me it felt uncannily like the mid-sixties when the Beatles and Stones were having a similar argument about who was top dog in the singles chart. Back in the sixties, Lennon and McCartney released a new song every 3 months which Jagger and Richards matched for a considerable period as the competition raged. If truth be told I usually liked both but it became increasingly clear that whilst each Stones Single had a ‘house’ signature, with every new Beatles tune the musical envelope was being stretched and no release ever sounded like the previous effort. I think this is why I came to side with the Beatles and gave up the Stones in part in the late 1960s and completely by about ‘Exile on Main Street’.

And so it came to pass that when Oasis and Blur ran neck and neck thirty years later there was a strange similarity at work. Again, certainly for a year or two, I enjoyed output from both but it eventually became clear that Oasis, despite hoping to ape the Beatles, were really the reincarnated Rolling Stones and that Blur were in one important respect, the new generation’s Beatles. Basically all Oasis singles are similar, just as the Stones’ were and it is to their credit that they managed to create so many good tunes out of such a narrow remit but there’s no getting away from the fact that they hit on a formula and stuck with it. After all it did Status Quo no harm…sort of.

Blur were never quite the ‘new’ Beatles but they did inherit one important aspect of their makeup: their knack for experiment. You always knew that the next Blur single would be just a bit different from the last and possibly in a different style altogether. Witness ‘Parklife’, ‘The Universal’, ‘Beetlebum’, ‘Go 2’ and ‘Tender’ to see how different they could be. In the sixties I was a ‘Beatles’ man and in the nineties I was a ‘Blur’ man. It figures.

The best thing Noel can do now is have a stonkingly good solo career and blow his old heritage away, just as Paul Weller did. It makes an artist of you.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Lily 'Ashes' Allen

Just when you think it's all over, there's cricket. Having wrenched The Ashes from the long term grasp of arch rivals, the Aussies, in that balmy summer of 2005 only to promptly lose them again by being completely whitewashed 5-0 down under in the winter tour of 2006/7, the England cricket team have confounded us all by reclaiming the diminutive urn this summer – and without Pieterson and Freddie Flintoff for much of the series. I am amazed.

But I am more amazed by cricket’s new patron – Lily Allen. Was it not her being interviewed by Jonathon ‘Aggers’ Agnew on Radio 5’s Test Match Special (TMS) during the lunch break on day 3 of the deciding Oval Test? And was it not her who had to ask what the ‘Extras’ are that are added to the innings total? Oh Gawd! There has been a lot of adverse comment about the choice of interviewee on that day as the usual suspects are either veteran international cricketers or well known celebs who actually know something about cricket (and have a book to plug). But no, Lily declared her undying love for the game even though she was a bit wobbly on the rules.

However, she did strike a cruel blow against the administrators by saying that the new Twenty20 short form of the game was rubbish and that she only follows proper grown-up Test Matches. Hurrah! In fact she had a few ideas of her own. My favourite being that the Test series should be extended to 7 or even 9 games, to be known as the ‘All Out War’ series. Great Stuff! She clearly has a better grip on the game than some of those in charge.

Given her lack of a comprehensive knowledge of the laws of the game, I would’ve loved to have asked her whether she adhered to the ‘six and out’ rule having heaved the ball into a neighbour’s garden when playing at home with the family (I bet Keith bowls a mean leg cutter). And did she have any penalties in place for breaking windows? I only ask because I never actually broke any glass with a cricket ball myself – but my Dad once put a thick outside edge through the kitchen window (failed to spot the away-swinger) much to the consternation of my mother who was washing her hair in the kitchen sink at the time.

The standard of banter is always first rate on TMS and Lily’s contribution was a lot of fun. Even the real broadcasters have their moments of sheer surrealism. Like this:
Phil Tufnell (ex-England spin bowler and lad-about-town): ‘How did you prepare to bat, Matthew?’
Matthew Hayden (ex-Aussie opening batsman of some repute): 'I’d have a routine… (goes on for about 5 minutes about eye exercises and mental attitude etc etc)'
Tufnell: 'So having a snooze was completely the wrong approach then?'

I’m not sure Lily was so out of place after all.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Classical Gas

In addition to her piano lessons, my daughter attends a music school on Saturday mornings to learn choir singing, composition and musical appreciation. It seemed like a good idea at the time and she seems to enjoy it so we pay up and hope it is enriching her life. As a bonus, she became eligible for tickets to a children’s performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra at Watford Town Hall. Tickets were limited to two per pupil so she and I attended the gig and what fun it turned out to be.

The BBC Orchestra has a fantastic repertoire ranging from true classical pieces to TV and film themes to programme incidental music and we were treated to a selection from every area of their expertise. We thrilled to the themes from Dr Who, Mission Impossible and Wallace & Gromit as well as incidental music from the BBC’s wildlife programmes and pieces by Strauss, Bizet and Britten. Like all live music there is nothing quite like listening to a full orchestra in flight – the dynamic range, the punch, the sheer volume!

I love the Mission Impossible theme but you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard it played by a massive orchestra, it is truly awe inspiring.

And on the subject of classical music, I watched the ‘Proms’ on TV last night for the first time in a very long time indeed and for one reason only; one of the pieces on the bill was Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The ‘Rite’ is my all-time favourite orchestral work and this was beautifully played by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I was first introduced to this piece when forced to study part of it for Music ‘O’ Level when I was 16 and it has lived with me ever since. I have several recordings of it on both vinyl and CD and listen to it quite regularly. It is no less than a masterpiece but if you have never heard it before, be warned – it is not easy listening. The premiere of the ballet for which it was composed ended in an audience riot in 1913, so revolutionary was its rhythmic invention and primal bi-tonality.

To me it could only have been composed by a Russian. It is underscored by Russian folk tunes and amongst the violence and complexity there are moments of heartbreaking melancholy. It is one of those works that seems to underline my conviction that melancholy is a much maligned and misinterpreted state. At its best, it wields tremendous emotional power and can give you those goose-bump moments of sheer beauty. The Rite has some of those moments. But then so does Abba and my favourite band, Lush. Melancholy should never be confused with depression. Depression offers no hope, melancholy offers moments of insular reflection when the wonders of the natural world invade your soul and music is one of them.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Aimee Mann

Do you know, I have beavered away at this blog for over two years and 150 posts now and I still haven’t got around to talking about one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Aimee Mann. How has this happened? But in a curious way, this state of affairs epitomises her career to date in that she tends to be a forgotten talent and now I’m just as guilty of ignoring her as most of the buying public.

I first came across Ms Mann when her debut album, ‘Whatever’ was released in 1993. At that point I had no idea about her previous incarnation, ‘Til Tuesday’ who squeezed out 3 albums, largely written by Mann, in the late 80s, but was hugely impressed by her solo song writing. It is not so much the melodies that I like, although they are pretty good, but her assured chord progressions that seem to wrap you up in a familiar yet unfamiliar way. I became fascinated by the way she constructs songs around these ‘safe harbour’ chord changes that in the hands of others would produce yet another dull song. It is a gift.

Perhaps this is her problem. Perhaps it is the fact that by being the ultimate craftsman, she only appeals to purists like me and to the majority she is just another artist. Joss Whedon, another self confessed music obsessive, often used the fictional nightclub ‘The Bronze’ in his vampire soap opera ‘Buffy..’ to showcase unsigned or underexposed artists. He clearly felt that she needed more exposure by booking her to appear in Episode 8 of Season 7 doing versions of ‘This is How it Goes’ and ‘Pavlov’s Bell’ whilst a vampire brawl develops. She is seen coming off stage muttering, ‘Man, I hate playing Vampire towns!’

Strangely, her breakthrough came not from her own solo albums but from music she wrote for the film ‘Magnolia’ starring Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore, the screenplay being worked around the lyrics from the eight songs she contributed. ‘Save Me’ was Grammy nominated as a result and she suddenly appeared on the national radar.

Since then she has balanced the release of her solo work with more film soundtracks and has clearly found a niche for herself. Whilst this is good news for her it does mean that she has still not found major success in the pop world which is a shame but then the list of genuinely good artists who fail to sell mega-amounts of what the music industry would call ‘product’ is depressingly long.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Mountain Queen

I get the feeling that everyone has at least one album in their collection that they would risk a burning building to recover, but about which few people would be acquainted. (‘You mean you narrowly avoided third degree burns for ‘what’ by who!?’). If this isn’t the case I’m sure there will follow a deluge of comments telling me I’m completely wrong. Nevertheless, I do have a few of these gems by relative unknowns, but the one that rises to the top of the list in the burning building stakes is a 1973 effort by Dutch progrockers, Alquin and it is entitled ‘The Mountain Queen’.

The Mountain Queen will always merit a place in my heart (music division) because a) it was a bugger to find in the first place – and that fact alone gives it a sort of rarity mystique and b) it contains some of the finest instrumental rock outside of Focus despite the band looking like a bunch of hippy rejects. As with most card-carrying prog albums it contains two lengthy pieces clocking in at around 13 minutes each surrounded by a smattering of shorter fillers. There are some vocal moments, sung in a hushed whispery Dutch-accented voice but generally it is the instrumental sections that really shine.

Being a 6 piece band, Alquin had variety of sound as a major asset. It means that the two long pieces, the title track and ‘The Dance’ are constructed of a number of sections of differing moods including not just the usual guitar based rock but softer parts making use of flute, saxophones and keyboards. As is usual for bands of that era, the playing is fabulous and the musical dynamic carefully built throughout the length of the piece. This is why I like it – it is the mixture of great musicianship and the constructional understanding which prevents it from being a boring extended jam.

I first saw them when they had a TV guest slot on that holy of holies of serious music programmes, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ doing a cut down version of ‘The Dance’ and decided that I would take a chance on them (to coin a phrase). After an age of trekking around all the local record stores in the district I finally secured a copy. Thankfully, they didn’t disappoint and my slightly warped vinyl copy has been a constant companion until I finally managed to get hold of a CD copy (a twofer twinned with the previous album, ‘Marks’) only a year or so ago.

Would I still do the burning building bit now? Hmm...definitely.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Poker Face

I’m not usually one for sticking my neck out when it comes to predicting who will be a sustainable star of the future – and here you will be expecting the ‘but’ – but…I’ve been trying to get to grips with the hype that surrounds the artist that is Lady Gaga and can’t help feeling there is some substance beneath the image.

Despite not making my Top Three at Glasto this year, I did enjoy her live set and as a result vowed to find out a bit more about her. On the surface, she peddles the type of personality that I consider makes a great pop star; she’s highly individual, appears to have a modicum of talent and is completely bonkers. In many respects she reminds me of a young Madonna Ciccone circa 1984 in that she’s bold, brassy, sexually outrageous and wields a bunch of catchy tunes with ultimate ease. But as she exists in 2009 and not 1984 she has all the current understanding of modern R&B and avant-garde fashion to create cutting edge music/image packages in a style similar to Gwen Stefani. Because of her startling image and on-stage antics, she leans towards coming across as just another MeMeMe ambitious wannabe using the music industry as a means to climb the greasy pole to fame and considerable fortune. T’was ever thus.

But having watched a couple of her TV interviews my view has been moderated. She clearly has a frightening amount of self-confidence for someone of barely 23 years, some may say arrogance, yet she is considered, articulate, polite and has an endearing personality. More importantly, she is clearly a talented musician having played the piano since age 4 and has for several years worked the clubs whilst writing songs for the likes of the Pussycat Dolls. In other words, she has paid her dues in curiously old fashioned way rather than elbowed in on hype alone, the common method these days. It is going to be her innate musicality and genuine song writing ability that will sustain her when the public tires of the force fed media machine.

So whilst she appears to be a Madonna/Stefani clone, she has a background rooted more in musicianship rather than ambition alone and anyone who can write pure pop hooks like ‘Poker Face’, ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Just Dance’ and can perform genuinely innovative acoustic versions of those songs deserves to succeed. Whether she can sustain her impact henceforth remains to be seen but I’m hopeful. In the meantime check out this stripped down version of 'Paparazzi' and see if you agree.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Can't Buy Me Love

Right, let’s be a bit more controversial for this post. If history has taught us anything at all it is that, to quote a classic silver screen tag line, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. Even the greatest icons have their lesser moments, the trick seems to be to overwhelm those moments with a wealth of acclaimed work so that no one notices.

One of the greatest exponents of this principle was The Beatles who managed quite successfully to overshadow their own failings with a constant production line of brilliant songs. But strip away the good stuff and what are you left with? Welcome to some of The Beatles Worst Songs Ever.

‘Within You Without You’ – Does anybody not skip over this track nowadays? It is the wart on Sgt Pepper’s nose and not what most people would have you believe, i.e. a beautiful piece of eastern-inspired music, but a complete dirge. Whilst I am happy to indulge George in his other Indian influenced efforts (‘Love You To’ for example) and even John in his (‘Jealous Guy’) I really can’t be doing with this.

‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’ – Whilst I can live with most of McCartney’s whimsy (even frogs), I’m afraid that this just doesn’t do it for me and it rather spoils the otherwise excellent first side of the ‘White Album’. What were Marmalade thinking of? (answer: the money).

‘Dig A Pony’ – Fans will tell you that ‘Let it Be’ is just as good as other Beatles albums but this song belies that contention (along with a few others). Yet another Lennon/McCartney song that I cannot stand, basically because it is waaay too long and it drags like a sack of coal up a steep incline.

‘All Together Now’ – This song, knocked up to allow the Fabs to appear in their own ‘Yellow Submarine’ film, just redefines ‘filler’. It is rather depressing to see the greats of the popular song sunk to riffing around a nursery rhyme melody like it was their latest golden egg.

‘Octopus’s Garden’ – There’s a limit to how much ‘loveable’ Ringo a person can stomach, and this is it, or it could possibly be ‘Don’t Pass me By’.

‘One After 909’ – I feel that I dislike this so much because it arrived out of context. What was OK on the first Beatles album sounds naive and dated on ‘Let it Be’. Let’s face it, this is a bog standard rock ‘n’ roll structured song which belongs in the 1950s, not in the late 1960s rubbing shoulders with ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. It just reeks of barrel scraping.

Right, that’s it. I’m off to calm down and listen to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, arguably two of the greatest songs ever written. Strange that they came from the same stable as all the above!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Guitar Man

In the aftermath of the Glastonbury experience with its thoughts about guitars and guitar solos, it has become clear that I am a guitar man at heart. Even whilst watching my top act, Bat For Lashes, run through their exemplary set using predominantly percussion and keyboards, the occasions when my hairs stood up were when Charlotte Hatherley added a chord or a little guitar figure to the harmony. You see, guitar playing doesn’t have to be raucous; it can be subtle and supportive.

There is something about the sound of a guitar and the player’s ability to bend and hammer on notes that gives it a soul and it is a soul that all the keyboard technology in the world can never quite reproduce. Despite guitars going out of fashion, they are still the heart of rock and roll and will never die.

It also set me thinking about solos, those things that you rarely hear these days, and which players I would set apart. Of course in the 60s and 70s there were no end of budding soloists and it was probably the overwhelming magnitude of electric noise that finally gave guitar solos a bad name, but for me the most consistently enjoyable guitarist, if you ignore Chicago’s Terry Kath, was Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser of Blue Oyster Cult. BOC are best known for ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ but I think their best work preceded this.

I was first introduced to BOC by my roommate at University who had a copy of their debut LP and I carried on buying each release right up to about ‘Cultosaurus Erectus’ in 1980 before giving them up, but it is their debut and 1974’s ‘Secret Treaties’ that I would still buy today given the choice. BOC had an interesting 3-guitar configuration buoyed by the fact that many of them were multi-instrumentalists and when in full flight were truly magnificent. It allowed them to create multi-layered rhythms using all three players and showed that they had a grasp of musical structure beyond their peers. I saw them play live at the Hammersmith Odeon in the late 1970s and they ended their set with a song (forget which) which allowed each member to drop their own instrument and pick up a guitar so that by the climax they were all thrashing away at guitar parts. Fabulous…if you like guitars.

I love Roeser’s style; it can be exhilarating and soulful but it is never boring – a trait of so many would be guitar heroes and their extended workouts. Check out the final solo from ‘Dominance and Submission’ (Secret Treaties) to hear one of the best air-guitar solos ever. Guitars – I love ‘em.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Did They Really Say That?

There is something highly mysterious about the human brain. I’ve alluded before to how ancient barely-remembered memories can suddenly become unlocked when a suitable stimulus is applied. An offshoot of this phenomenon is the memory snippet that isn’t really lost but sits under the surface of your consciousness and pops up every so often when you least expect it.

I generally find this applies to phrases that make me laugh and it is thus a constant source of embarrassment that they often surface when I am in a public place and they make me smile inanely or, even worse, laugh out loud for no obvious reason, in the face of complete strangers.

An example of such a memory is a review of the Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album published in that reverent of all music weeklies, the NME in the late seventies. Did the reviewer really describe the introduction of the track ‘Sheep’ in the following manner?

‘...the song opens with Gilmour strumming over Wright’s swelling organ...’

Hahaha! Oh dear! It makes me laugh just to type it. I can’t believe this is true but when it suddenly pops into my brain, I can’t help but giggle.

Another example is some lyrics by Fred Wedlock. Fred was a comedy folk singer who trawled round the folk circuit and student unions of Britain in the 1970s doing one-man shows which comprised the sort of stories, gags and comic songs that went down well with student audiences. He actually had a rather cheesy national hit with ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ in 1981 but for the most part has been a more low key performer. Anyway, one of the songs in his repertoire was a long rambling talking blues which described the goings-on in a folk club and a few lines describing a fellow performer have always stuck with me.

‘His guitar was Japanese I’ll wager
With overdrive in E flat major
Fuel injected tuning pegs
And a hole for slicing hard boiled eggs’

OK, it’s not that hilarious but for some reason it still tickles my funny bone when I think of it. And there are many others but they are currently submerged in my sub-conscious and will not be making themselves known just yet. Some I may recall tomorrow, but others may not reveal themselves for years. That’s the worry of it.

So if you ever catch me grinning like a lunatic or guffawing about nothing in particular, you will know that I have been attacked by the pop-up memory syndrome.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Deep Purple Rides Again

Although I didn’t actually meet any strange kinda women, it has been a bit of a Deep Purple week. Firstly, I note with barely disguised knowingness that the riff from ‘Smoke on the Water’ was awarded ‘Best Guitar Riff Ever’ by some survey of worthies, ahead of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. Well, duh!

The standard joke here is that it is claimed that all budding guitarists play this riff when trying out Flying Vs and Fender Stratocaster replicas in music shops to the annoyance of all concerned. But it’s true. When I last visited London’s Chappells music emporium, then located in Bond Street, many years ago to replace my aged acoustic guitar, I tell you no lie, someone was actually playing Smoke on the Water, very badly. You couldn’t help but laugh! I never went in for this sort of thing, but just played a few chords furtively to check the action and made my decision. I mean, who wants to show the world how badly you play?

The second Deep Purple moment came when I raided my sisters CD collection with a view to listening to something new and amongst all the 70s disco, came across a copy of ‘Stormbringer’. This was an album that I bought (on vinyl) when it came out in 1974 but because it followed the rock-outs of ‘Machine Head’ and ‘Burn’, I didn’t really think much of it, thus it was actually the last Deep Purple album I ever bought and indeed, I subsequently sold about ten years later. At this point in their long and tortuous life, Purple were in Mk III configuration having replaced singer Ian Gillan with David Coverdale and bassist Roger Glover with Glen Hughes. The changes made a fundamental difference to their sound that predecessor, ‘Burn’ didn’t really reveal. ‘Stormbringer’ did.

However, listening to it again has mellowed my view. Originally I didn’t like it precisely because it wasn’t in the same mould as previous Purple hard rock albums, but now I quite like some of it for the very same reason. In retrospect, the parts I like are the funky, bluesy tracks but not the rather clichéd rock tracks. Interestingly, I listen to ‘Burn’ less and less despite loving it in 1973. This is when you realise that you have a sort of creeping movement in your appreciation of musical style and that your choices very rarely stay still over time.

The test comes when re-evaluating stuff that you used to love years ago only to find that it is scarcely listenable. It’s the bands that you can still bear to listen to that show how good they really were.

Now, dare I listen to those Mk IV Purple albums with Tommy Bolin?

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Glastonbury Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Michael Eavis has been quoted as saying that he thought this year’s Glastonbury Festival was the best yet, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Nevertheless, looking at the headline line-up of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and a reformed Blur, you feel he may have a point. Certainly, there was a good feeling about this year’s event and I for one enjoyed it immensely. It has made my task of picking my favourite three acts humongously difficult and I have thought long and hard about it, as well as going to the BBC website to see highlights of bands for the second time just to make sure. In the end, I have just had to go with what I enjoyed on a personal level rather than what was clearly good stuff but didn’t touch me in the same way. So here goes in time honoured reverse order:

In third place is Florence And The Machine who played to a huge crowd on the John Peel Stage. This is a controversial choice for me because a) they didn’t quite meet the hype put around by the media, and b) Florence’s singing was a little wayward at times. But what sealed their place on the podium was the performance. Florence prowled the stage like a wild animal and every feral snarl and leap was a captivating watch. This is what separates live music from MTV video. There was nothing choreographed, nothing thought about for more than a nanosecond just pure instinct – it’s called star quality and Ms Welch has it. Pity the music wasn’t a bit better but the performance was captivating and for that reason alone they get my vote.

In second is Bruce Springsteen. I am not a Boss fan and have never seen him play live but I sat through nearly an hour and a half of his set without knowing most of the songs and still loved it. I dare say that the size of the Glastonbury set up was not too daunting for Bruce – he’s probably played to bigger audiences before but somehow the occasion seemed to get to him and he looked like he was savouring every minute of it. He sang, he danced, he played guitar and risked life and limb in the audience and it was clearly as much fun as his old mate Joe Strummer had told him it would be. A true icon.

And so to the top spot and after much heart searching I’ve given it to Bat For Lashes who played the Other Stage on Sunday night. Never have I enjoyed seeing someone whom I wasn’t quite sure about blossom so assuredly on stage. Natasha Khan and her fabulous backing band (including Charlotte Hatherley on guitars, basses and keys) have elevated the nursery school music lesson to epic heights. All manner of strange percussion instruments were rattled and shook, ancient keyboards were prodded and a staggering variety of drums thumped, yet despite the musical complexity somehow you felt you could join in if only you had a detergent bottle filled with rice.

The playing was highly inventive, especially the drumming and Nat’s vocals were cool and beautiful. Top stuff.

There are so many other bands that have had to be relegated to the ‘Highly Commended’ category that I would have to continue this post into part 3 but mention in dispatches should go to Neil Young, Blur, Ting Tings, Crosby Stills and Nash, Franz Ferdinand, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Lady GaGa, all of whom I enjoyed unreservedly.

Follow that Mr Eavis.