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.