Wednesday, 27 May 2009

An Apology to Allison Crowe

I don’t usually get angry in this blog but this just about takes the biscuit. Once upon a time in this country, I could roll up at a music venue and expect to see any international artist that was printed on my ticket. It seems this is now a quaint old custom that has no place in the bold new world of today.
Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Crowe, of whom I have written before in these pages, was due to play ‘The Halo’ in Battersea Park Road, London on Monday 25th May. I was due to go along and hopefully get in on the door but come the day, I couldn’t make it. Probably just as well - this is what happened to her when she arrived in the UK (report courtesy of the Telegraph):

‘Allison Crowe, 27, claims she and her two band mates were fingerprinted and had their passports confiscated shortly after flying into Gatwick Airport.

She said they were shut in a room where they were denied contact with the outside world for six hours and that she was told she would never perform in Europe again once her passports had been stamped by the UK Border Authority as "barred from entry".

The group were targeted because they failed to obtain a Certificate of Sponsorship from the venues they were playing in, a little-known visa requirement brought in last November to combat illegal immigration and terrorism.’
Here is the rest of the news item.

Allison and her crew were subsequently deported. So unelected, incompetent-beyond-belief Prime Minister Brown, having ruined just about every other aspect of British Life now turns his dead hand to Border Control. For the last 10 years he has made the ludicrous assumption that no-one is a terrorist and has waved through every murderer, rapist, religious fanatic and urban guerrilla in the known universe to take advantage of our over-generous benefits system. Now it seems he has had a complete change of heart and thinks EVERYONE is a terrorist, especially white female Canadian pianists who can sing a bit. Current policy is apparently to deport them and to ensure that they never come back, ever.

I’m thoroughly embarrassed and completely lost for words. Allison, how can we ever make it up to you?

Here is Allison’s magical version of ‘Hallelujah’ which has been viewed over 3.5m times on YouTube. Musician or terrorist? You decide – the UK immigration authority obviously can’t.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Oops! Wrong Planet

When I browse through my music collection, as I do from time to time, I come across certain LPs which fill me with a sort of how-on-earth-did-I-get-to-own-that feeling. Here’s the story of one of them.

At the end of the seventies, I left home and shared a dilapidated house in London’s Brondesbury Park with a small army of others. One of the female inhabitants had a copy of Utopia’s ‘Oops! Wrong Planet’ (Todd Rundgren’s band when it was recorded in 1977) which she played from time to time and I thought reasonably interesting but nothing special. Little did I know that this album would inexorably find its way into my collection some years later.

My job at that time involved the management of commercial properties in the West Midlands which meant a drive up the grid-locked M1 every so often to deal with property related issues. One such jaunt took me to Wolverhampton where there was a dispute on at a shop property close to the town centre on the corner of Dudley Street and Lichfield Street. Having concluded business, I did what I normally did on business trips and wandered about the town looking for a record shop to spend half an hour or so browsing the stock. Just along the road on the other side of Lichfield Street was a beauty. It was run down, painted a sort of mauve as I recall and so dark inside that you could hardly see the scruffy LP racks and walls festooned with tatty posters and ‘wanted’ ads. The sort of place that used to thrive then but is all but gone now more’s the pity.

My half hour turned into rather more like an hour but the stock was fabulous and to a seasoned browser, this was heaven. I did all the normal things music collectors do – like checking to see that the shop has all the LPs you already own on the wholly unjustified premise that your favourite bands have released a new LP that you didn’t know about and you would find it lurking just here. And, as expected, under the heading ‘U’ I found it – ‘Oops! Wrong Planet’ by Utopia and by some peculiar sequence of events that even now evade me it was under my arm when I eventually emerged, blinking into the bright Wolverhampton sunlight (a minor feat in itself). And I was a few quid down – funny that.

So that is the story of how I came to own it and I still don’t really understand it. I really must play it a bit more often.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

15 Minutes

Andy Warhol famously postulated that ‘In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes’, and although I still seem to waiting for my golden quarter of an hour to turn up, there is no doubt that some ‘ordinary’ people have had theirs and then some as the limit gets extended by fate to infinity (and beyond). I love those old black and white iconic photographs of unknown people that are now instantly recognisable years after they were taken – the two women on a windy Margate seafront trying to keep their skirts down whilst eating ice-cream springs to mind. Other, perhaps more serious examples would include the student in Tiananmen Square and the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima.

But it’s not just photographs that allow the statutory 15 minutes to extend over the decades in contravention to Warhol’s law. There are many instances in music where the average man-in-the-street is called upon to contribute a small favour which inadvertently becomes part of a rampaging monster.

This thought occurred whilst I was listening to 10 cc’s ‘I’m not in Love’ where in the middle section a woman’s voice scolds, "Be quiet, big boys don't cry...” Who said that? I did a bit of research on this and it turns out that they were spoken, not by anyone in the band or associated with it, but by a woman named Kathy Warren, the receptionist of the Strawberry Studios where the band recorded the track, probably in between doing her nails and answering the phone. It is instances like this where Kathy’s 15 minutes of fame is extended to 15 years and maybe 15 centuries for all I know on the back of a massively successful single, that show how fate moves in a very mysterious way indeed.

Further examples are provided by the voices recorded for ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by various members of the Pink Floyd management, road crew and sundry studio doormen. They had their 15 minutes almost immortalized by one of the biggest selling albums of all time but probably didn’t expect to at the time. Reportedly, Paul McCartney’s responses were considered too cautious and thus missed out. I’ll bet he’s kicking himself now (or not).

It is a rather pleasing irony that those who specifically set out to make themselves world-famous have often failed miserably, yet those that have no such intent have had notoriety thrust upon them. Of course, they weren’t paid for it, but who said fame pays?

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bat For Lashes

In the world of media it is more difficult than ever to be original, unless you are so out in left field as to be in a parallel universe where no-one can see you. Whenever I buy something new these days I can’t help but hear influences and no matter how hard I try to ignore them, they nag away at me.

My last purchase was ‘Two Suns’ by Bat For Lashes, or Natasha Khan as her mother probably knows her (can’t quite imagine, ‘Bat, you’re tea’s ready!’). Natasha hails from Brighton (a town that looks like it is helping the police with their inquiries, as Keith Waterhouse once put it) and this is her second solo effort, released earlier this year.

I’ve listened to this album a few times now and although it is definitely growing on me, I can’t quite get away from the fact that some of it sounds very much like early Tori Amos and much of it like mid-period Kate Bush with a bit of Bj√∂rk thrown in for good measure. Of course, to be quoted in the same sentence as these artists is a compliment in itself and there is a certain comfort in a recognised style but to reach real stardom, there has to be more.

There are basically two styles on show here. The first has a very rhythmic almost tribal base of drums and oriental percussion where her fragile and often treated vocals dance around in melodic style. This style puts me in mind of Kate Bush, especially around the period between ‘The Dreaming’ up to ‘The Sensual World’ where she was experimenting with the ‘no cymbals’ philosophy of Peter Gabriel. The second style is solo piano based much in the style of Ms Amos and has a slightly melancholic and otherworldly ambience. In fact the final track features Mr Melancholic and Otherworldly himself, Scott Walker, in a weird duet.

Thankfully, the more I listen, the more her own personality is beginning to show. I like the atmosphere of the album and the way that it transcends her influences in a way that all good musicians should strive to achieve. It is all very well borrowing styles but it’s what you do with them that counts. She has added a strange exotic nuance into the mix that hints at Indian sounds and scales. In fact the arrangements are very accomplished and set up the songs beautifully. If you are into what I would call uplifting melancholy then this is for you.

Is this a new talent in the ascendancy? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Television Rant

Are you one of those people, as Dennis Norden used to say, that defiantly sits through all ten minutes of the credit roll at the end of a cinema film? No, nor am I. I’m usually to be found with the scrabbling-for-the-exit crowd on such occasions but when it comes to television, I am the veritable leopard who changes his spots. There are two reasons for this.

First, whenever I am watching some drama or other there is always someone playing a bit part with a maddeningly familiar face that try as I might, I just can’t put a name to and spend most of the time ignoring the plot and having the following discussion:
‘Isn’t it someone from Eastenders?
‘Well, weren’t they in that horror thing we watched last Christmas when we couldn’t get ITV2 and the sound was on the blink?’
‘Don’t think so.
‘Well it must be James Nesbitt’

Of course, we all know what happens. At the end of the programme you gear yourself up to examine the credits as they race by at breakneck speed thus relieving your rampant curiosity, but then the screen splits, the credits get squashed to one side and the text is reduced to a size only a barn owl could read. So inevitably you end up never knowing and it nags at you for the rest of the week.

Second only to this frustration is the desecration of the ‘let down’ period. Normally this short duration of time should occur when you’ve just been watching another re-run of ‘Morse’ or similar where the episode ends in an atmosphere of magnificent tragedy. At this point, all you want to do is wallow in the memory of it whilst the poignant theme tune plays for a minute or two, the credits roll and you sort out your emotions ready to face the world again. So what do you get? The millisecond the drama ends you get this:
‘STAY TUNED FOR DESERT ISLAND CELEBRITY FISH GUTTING – NEXT ON THIS CHANNEL’ in an irritatingly shouty voice entirely inappropriate to what has just preceded it (usually someone’s death).

Your tranquil reverie in the post programme ‘let down’ period is completely and utterly ruined. And for what? So that the TV company ensures that you don’t channel hop and miss their precious programmes. Well, I’ll channel hop whether they like it or not and especially when they treat viewers like lame-brained sheep who can’t make up their own mind.

So, TV companies, if you really want to keep me as a viewer, reinstate the credits at the end of programmes and don’t shout over them. It’s so much more civilized.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Client A, B (and C)

How the devil does rock manage to keep going all these years? It is a fair question and one which many cynics would answer, ‘It doesn’t’. After all, popular music is now well over 50 years old and the means by which it remains fresh and vital must be stretching to the limit. There is a disturbingly large (and growing) stack of evidence to suggest that nothing much has changed since the 1970s but this would be a touch unfair as not all things have to change to be good. Nevertheless there is always the worry that time is running out for pop music, but then something always seems to turn up if you look hard enough.

The mechanism for rock’s chameleon-like quality has always been its ability to absorb and reconfigure diverse elements into a new whole and as long as this continues we ought to be alright. Take the following for example. What do you get when you merge these elements?
Depeche Mode
Scandinavian Air Hostesses

And the answer is…Client. Client is a collaboration between Kate Holmes, electronic music exponent (late of Technique and wife of Oasis discoverer, Alan McGee) and Northern soul singer and ex-Dubstar member, Sarah Blackwood. Formed around 2002 the members of Client originally attempted to remain anonymous behind pseudonyms Client A and Client B and shunned publicity photos but trying to keep the world’s worst kept secret was too trying so they have since revealed themselves, as it were. These days, along with Client C (ex-Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley) they perform their Kraftwerk inspired electronica to mainly German audiences, dressed in their trademark Scandinavian Air Hostess uniforms and have released 4 albums to date. Originally signed to Depeche Mode’s ‘Toast Hawaii’ label they now release material through their own ‘Loser Friendly’ label, but like Kim Wilde these days, seem to find a more appreciative market in Germany and other European countries.

I picked up a download of their second effort, ‘City’ on Amazon for £4.98 and have listened to it quite a lot. The hand of Depeche Mode is very much in evidence from the word go but it is deliciously edgy and a bit 1980s retro with some nice tunes. I always felt that it was only Depeche Mode that really understood electro-pop back in the day and it’s good to see that they have passed on some of this acumen. Also, I love Sarah Blackwood’s voice, northern vowels and all, and it’s amusing to know that Alison Goldfrapp hasn’t got it all her own way in the electronic stakes, horse’s tail or no.

It’s comforting to know that the rock chameleon circuits are still operating even if they are a bit rusty these days. Now, what can I do with ‘Bed-sit poetry’, ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Jangly guitars’? Damn! It’s already been done.