Monday, December 30, 2013

I’ll meet you at the till — some records from 2013

It’s been a year or two, I think, since I did a list of records-of-the-year for Monorail. It’s so nice of them to involve their customers, when they get it together. It’s not something I’d do without their prompting, though: a good list unearths treasures, and I always have the feeling that mine just list treasures unearthed by others (thanks, others!) Still, I admit that the top two were fixed in place before I knew I’d be doing a list: The Pastels, for creating a record which sounds — as S. said — as though it has always been there, a work of elegant consolidation, shot through with life-affirming pop moments. And Helen Love, for breaking my heart and putting it together stronger with every play: I’ve loved the Love for a long time, but still I was shocked by how thrilling and how moving Day-Glo Dreams is (see previous post). It’s a relief to still be finding pleasure in mbv a year on, and it was great to melt back into Mazzy Star (particularly ‘In the Kingdom’). It was an ever bigger relief to find Edwyn Collins brilliant once more, after the patchy Losing Sleep. Not that ‘Searching for the Truth’ isn’t up there with his best songs, but now we have ‘Too Bad (That’s Sad)’ as well, and it’s fighting fit. She & Him made songs I could drive and sing to, Ela Orleans came up with an entirely new kind of pop record, Ducktails mined the ’80s afterglow, Amor de Días mined that of The Clientele and Pipas (well worth doing), and Lispector made much more fun, earthy songs than I had for some reason been expecting them to. Oh, and Throwing Muses made a record so huge I had no hope of getting to grips with it before the end of the year, hence its absence here.
  1. Helen Love — Day-Glo Dreams
  2. The Pastels — Slow Summits
  3. My Bloody Valentine — mbv
  4. Ducktails — The Flower Lane
  5. Edwyn Collins — Understated
  6. Ela Orleans — Tumult in Clouds
  7. Lispector — Life Without a Map
  8. She & Him — 3
  9. Amor de Días — The House at Sea
  10. Mazzy Star — Seasons of Your Day
Reissue: East Village — Drop Out, or Linda Smith’s cache of albums at


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Sunday, November 03, 2013

Helen Love — ‘Day-Glo Dreams’

Last Christmas, Helen Love put out a red vinyl single called ‘And the Salvation Army Band Plays’, which went: ‘I wrote you a letter and a Christmas card / But I didn’t send it to you ’cause you’re not in this world’. In the scene it sketched, Songs of Praise is on TV, the flat is a mess, and freezing. It’s the bleakest Christmas song I know, and the first Helen Love record ever to leave me feeling down. At the time it struck me as brave, but something of a mis-fire. It was certainly a change of direction: It’s My Club and I’ll Play What I Want To, the preceding album, was a pure rush of fun, and ‘Calm Down Dad’, the only other single in the interim, was in the same mould. They hit such a high with that album: as subject matter, the 1970s were a golden age, an inexhaustible supply of joyful songs, it seemed. But ‘And the Salvation Army Band Plays’ is desolate (I was going to say contemporary and desolate, but you can’t really tell when it’s set). There’s a song on Day-Glo Dreams called ‘Our Mum and Dad’, built on a similarly heartfelt foundation, which has quite a different effect.
Our Mum and Dad, they look straight down the lens
In funny flared trousers on the banks of the Thames
On holiday June ’75
Knowing what’s coming, those opening lines make me gasp, I can’t get enough breath in; and yet the sound is lighter than the gloomy Christmas song. There’s humour and a ton of affection in place of that song’s despair. It’s so beautiful, like Hüsker Dü’s ‘Hardly Getting Over It’ with more attention to detail, and I’m always in bits by the time it gets to:
The ’90s flew by and Dad moved to his chair
And Mum left the choir as she couldn’t get there
And nobody came to the house
Side one ends with some deft synth-string twirls, and you sit, not knowing what hit you, and not wanting the people you love to ever get old. You need the vinyl version, because you need the pause.

Around the core of this deeply moving song blooms what is probably Helen Love’s best album. It follows the fluid, glitzy 1970s of It’s My Club with a starker, clunkier 1980s, which pop music is at once a part of and an escape route from. The instrumentation seems crude at first: a pseudo-Fairlight staccato clatter, which mimics the bombast of mainstream ’80s pop, but never mocks it. Simultaneously, the lyrics move from eulogising a heavily mythologised 1970s to dealing directly with a far more down-to-earth 1980s, reserving the right of course to eulogise discos within that (see ‘You and Stacy’). ‘We were the useless kids from the hard estates’ sings Helen on the title track, explaining at a stroke why the Ramones and Rodney Bingenheimer and Gibson Les Paul Deluxes, and that whole glorious world she’s spent years constructing, were necessary in the first place. ‘Shy Girl’ is part of the explanation too, actually:
Now I’ve fallen for a shy boy
What a dumb thing to do
’Cause he’ll never be my boy
’Cause I’m just a shy girl too
Whilst also being definitive on the subject of shyness (and a big YES! for that), it’s surely implied that the Helen Love masterplan is partly facilitated by shyness: either you can get into fights with the bad kids, or you can retreat and make something amazing (cf. Kristin Hersh’s ambition for Throwing Muses to ‘leave a big, fancy present on the table and tiptoe out of the room’). Shyness can let you say all the things in life you’d like to, under certain circumstances.

‘Spin Those Records’ is a virtual re-write of Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, and is, as such, incredibly catchy. This and the single ‘Atomic’ go either side of ‘Our Mum and Dad’ in the album sequence; both are great pop songs, and both are set decades in the past. ‘Playing Dare / Everywhere’ is one compact couplet from ‘Spin Those Records’, making it 1981 or 1982; and ‘Atomic’ is about teenage love: ‘Don’t tell your Mum and I won’t tell my Dad / That when we are together it all goes atomic’. Mum and Dad again, but it’s alright, because it’s thirty years ago, and they’re still young themselves.

There’s something going on here that isn’t just nostalgia, and which steps way beyond the fandom and the teen tales of their earlier songs. Take ‘Bubblegum’, for instance, from Radio Hits 2. There’s a young man on a bus, going to work. He’s been dumped suspiciously wittily by his girlfriend (‘You should put an advert in the music press / “Sensitive boy needs a girl in a flowery dress”’ — ouch!), and he wishes he was ‘fourteen and going to school’, instead of grown up, with a bruised ego and on his way to a dreary job. You’re not supposed to feel all that sorry for him, but still, the distancing is there: he’s probably only seventeen, but he wishes he was fourteen. That’s the age to be. Day-Glo Dreams revisits this kind of territory a lot, but no longer from the vantage point of the late teens or early twenties, and you could react in several ways. ‘I’ll meet you outside the Spar when I have finished my tea / I’ll make sure no-one’s following me’ could be a bit of a strange thing to be singing in your (I’m guessing) early forties, but alternatively, in doing so with a clear, unblinking eye, you might end up with a record which contains all the fun of dancing in discos to ‘Don’t You Want Me’, and all the pathos of the years gone by. ‘Don’t Forget About This Town’ links present and past neatly in a bus ride through a dying town centre:
And all around town more shops are closing down every weekend
And I’m staying on the bus with you
’Cause there’s nothing else we can do
Nothing in real life, maybe, but there’s always pop music to escape to. Turn up the synth and the Linn drum beat.


The illustrations are my niece’s entry in Elefant’s colouring in contest, the original art being by Jean Duprez, who I hadn’t realised was also behind the BMX Bandits in Space cover.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tenniscoats Weekend: DCA, Dundee and Mono, Glasgow, 4th, 5th and 6th October

It can be hard to face the comedown after one Tenniscoats show, let alone three of them. They have so little to do with Monday morning, they’re a month of Sundays, they’re Debbie and Joey, they’re miles of smiles and butterfly wings. Last Friday we went to the new DCA opening (of Hiraki Sawa’s Lenticular) because the art at these things is sometimes good, and there’s free wine. I had a quick look at the web page first, and was downright shocked to see a link to page announcing a Tenniscoats set the following day. The link has gone now, probably because the event is in the past, but — could I have imagined it? Some photos on Flickr are all that remain to say I didn’t. We arrived for the opening on Friday, and found them in amongst the crowd outside the two galleries, where the wine table is, overlooking the bar. I wanted to say ‘welcome’ and somehow didn’t, like an idiot. There wasn’t much time, anyway: within a few minutes, Ueno started playing the Spanish guitar he seems always to have with him (it was a surprise, looking afterwards at old clips on YouTube, to see him with a saxophone in one), and Saya played her red and black melodica like a pied piper, as they led the audience into the smaller gallery for a brief set. They played just one song, in the light of the Unseen Park film which ‘was made with the assistance of nine Taiwanese children who imagined being transported by make believe vehicles’, as the info page says. Ueno had fun pretending to be chased by some of them.

Saturday arrived, and Andy sent a text 45 minutes before the 1PM set, saying ‘is it true?’, having only just spotted my Facebook effusions. We dashed off to collect him and drove back in to town with excessive politeness, under the circumstances (‘You don’t need to let them all in’, said S.), arriving only five minutes late. This time they were in the bigger gallery, and played in front of the two-screen Lineament, in which a 12" record unspooled surreally, and a single screen film which mirrored the northern lights along a vertical axis. The audience was seated in near darkness, and the two Tenniscoats wandered throughout the forty minute set, independently of each other, coming close to the audience at times, at others gravitating to the light of the films, or walking behind us. They played the space — a space which could have dwarfed a band with five times as many members. Saya dragged her autoharp along the floor for a gravelly sound, and somehow got percussive, shuffling sounds with just her feet (this was all unamplified). And she sang so beautifully, with such strength and fragility, such playfulness and melancholy. She had a go, too, at mixing the Lineament soundtrack with their own performance. It didn’t quite go, Ueno strummed louder and she turned it down to silence again. Apart from that moment, it was a very pure, calm set, bathed in the intermittent darkness of the gallery.

On Sunday in Mono... They started out pure and calm too, actually, but they couldn’t contain themselves for long. They may even have topped their amazing 2009 set at the same venue, which was already the best thing I had ever heard. Here’s what I wrote on Monday evening:

It’s going to be impossible, again, to get anywhere near describing Tenniscoats in front of a Glasgow crowd. Do they have off nights? Do they ever get annoyed? It’s hard to imagine them doing normal, everyday things, they always seem lit up with happiness, like nothing could bring them down. I hope nothing ever does. There’s the danger in writing about them that they come over as sickly sweet, or indiscriminately positive. But that’s not it, they don’t say that everything’s brilliant, they make everything brilliant, every single time. They fill you with love, put a spring in your step. It’s so simple, you wonder why no one else has thought of making music like this. Just an old Spanish guitar, plucked good naturedly by Ueno, mostly short melodic phrases and chord sequences, nothing flashy, he gets an intimacy out of this that electric guitars just can’t do (or that other musicians can’t do); and Saya, singing with an infectious joy... she sings to an audience in a way I’ve never seen anyone do. It’s a bit like the way my three-year-old niece fixes you once in a while with a piercing gaze, bold and inquisitive. She’s done it since before she could talk, and it always amazed me how well she managed to communicate without speech, just by saying ‘Boo!’ and looking. Saya can make a connection like that with a whole audience — in fact, she asked for all the lights in the venue to be turned on yesterday so she could see the audience’s faces. A giant game of peek-a-boo. It made me think of my favourite line from The Pastels’ latest album, ‘Don’t forget boldness / Never roll your eyes’. Saya’s performance is all boldness, it’s a demand for a return, but a demand which gives you the strength to make it.

They began with ‘Song for a Friend’ from Pastels / Tenniscoats’ Two Sunsets, which was beautiful to hear. Between that and the encore, an inevitable ‘Baibaba Bimba’, I don’t think there were any songs I knew (there were a few repeated from the previous day), so hopefully there’s a new record in the offing. One had English lyrics, ‘Raindrops / Raindrops / Raindrops falling on flowers’, two had guest stars — Duglas T. Stewart and Katrina Mitchell — and after Douglas’s turn Saya held him back for another song, which he clearly wasn’t expecting. She taught him the backing on the spot (John Hogarty joined him at the mic at this point, possibly for moral support), and then encouraged the audience to join in too. It went, in ‘ba-ba-ba’s, like this:

We continued for the duration of the song. Saya’s harmonies darted in and out, the first something like:

Others were beyond my rather basic transcribing ability. But you are to sing along with those two, please. The accompanying chords, strummed for an entire bar each, are C, G, Am, G, F, G, C, G. 150 BPM. Off you go. Tenniscoats, I’m sorry I didn’t say ‘welcome’, but you know I love you, you know we all do.


Photo above by Chris S., his complete set is here.
Lenticular is at Dundee Contemporary Arts until 5th January.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Shirley Collins — ‘America Over the Water’

It’s the voice of those who for generations have been despised, abused and neglected, and for their part in keeping the music alive, I feel they should be honoured, and their music shouldn’t be appropriated by people who don’t understand this. (p.57)
Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax are at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, just prior to their great song-hunting ‘Southern Journey’. She finds the festival ‘a great disappointment’ (p.56), due to the liberties the performers take with their material. There’s a singer with a voice which is too operatic (Martha Schlamme), and a band who kid around too much (The Kingston Trio). There are other performers she does like, who are less ostentatious, less prone to mix and match styles (Jimmy Driftwood, Jean Ritchie, Frank Warner, Earl Scruggs). Her criticism raises a question about what folk music is: if its great virtue is that it is open to all — a way of history being told, for once, by the losers — then how can rules be imposed by the winners? Disliking a performance is one thing, censuring it for failing to conform to a particular mould is more dubious. Presumably Martha Schlamme intended to sing the way she did, and The Kingston Trio intended to kid around. It’s similar to the old rockism debate, argued firmly on the side of tradition, and against the kind of stylistic hybridity which is the lifeblood of pop music. There is also a class element to what Collins says: she may mean that folk music should only be made by the ‘despised, abused and neglected’, and that modern distortions by performers jumping on the folk revival bandwagon are therefore an affront to and a dilution of a proud outsider tradition.

America Over the Water tells two stories, in alternate chapters. One is the story of Collins’ journey with Lomax, and the other is an account of her childhood up to the age of 17, in 1952, when she realises she must move away from the backwater of Hastings if she wants to make it as a folk singer. The austerity of postwar small town life contrasts in interesting ways with the kind of life Lomax leads, always on the move, a voracious cultural tourist and archivist. It’s not that he’s rich (the ‘Southern Journey’ gets increasingly hand-to-mouth near the end), but he has a global perspective, a need to be everywhere. Just how un-cosmopolitan Collins is comes out in her cooking, which fails to impress Lomax. She prepares a dish called ‘sukey’:
You put milk in a saucepan, added chopped up cheddar cheese, a knob of butter and white pepper (the only sort there was available then), put it on the heat and stirred it till the cheese was melted and stringy, and then you poured it over toast. It did make the toast soggy, but we’d loved it as children. (pp. 23-4)
Some of her strongest impressions of America are of the food she finds there:
And the food on the train! I mean, even the breakfasts were out of this world! To start, a choice of strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe and honeydew melons, figs, prunes, blueberries...... a choice from a dozen cereals, followed by eggs with ham, sausage, bacon, fish, with toast or muffins, french rolls or sweet rolls, pancakes, wheatcakes, and perfect coffee! All this on a train! (p. 40)
This is from one of the letters home to her mother and sister that Collins gives in their entirety. She’s no mean archivist herself, and includes many letters, postcards and photos in the book. If she can find a piece of writing she did at the time, she uses this directly rather than re-writing, and it helps to capture the spirit of this irrepressible young woman, who seems to have made friends wherever she went. The final chapter, ‘The Ending’, gives a potted history of Collins’ subsequent career and the loss of confidence which led to her giving it up, so there’s a fragility too to the joyous letters from an earlier time. Their spirit won’t be lost, but it won’t remain quite unbroken either.

And the music of the ‘Southern Journey’ itself? There’s plenty on that, of course, on the ‘heart-stopping intensity’ (p. 135) of Fred McDowell, the ‘dangerous sexual charge’ of Willie Jones (p. 146), the ‘soft whoomping’ (p. 103) of the Memphis Jug Band, among many others. To come to this book from the ‘Southern Journey’ records would work well, I’d imagine — it even contains Lomax’s complete recording logs at the back. But I came to it through Collins’ Anthems in Eden LP (and to that via Rob Young’s book Electric Eden), with its guitar-free English folk music sung so plainly and so beautifully. What she says of Almeda Riddle’s singing is true of hers too:
There was such a clarity in her style, and she had that rare and admirable quality of serving the songs, rather than the songs serving her. (p. 159)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Saturday at Doune the Rabbit Hole

My calves were stiff this morning. Is that what happens when you drive a long way? It wasn’t very far, really (about 65 miles), but I’m still new to driving, and was quite tense on the way back in the dark with not wanting to kill people (us, mostly, the roads were quiet). So far, it’s not quite the flotation-tank experience I once imagined it to be, but it is very useful. Andy and I made the trip yesterday to the Doune the Rabbit Hole festival, to catch The Pastels, The Sexual Objects, The Monochrome Set, Clinic, and whatever else was on offer.

A continuous cavernous booming sound wafted up the slope to us as we got out of the car. We had timed our arrival in order to see Vladimir, and they seemed likely to be the source. Cutting across a field in a hurry, avoiding cowpats, we followed the sound and found them, in a box with the sides punched out, in front of an also side-less marquee. They worked really well in the context – surprisingly well, for lunchtime, outside. Their thing isn’t my thing, though. The one- and two-note melody lines (you know the notes, from Johnny Rotten), the maelstrom of sound, of squalling guitars, pinned by heavy, heavy drums. There’s no lightness, but there is power, they certainly carry off the posturing. And their cover of ‘Born Slippy’ is great – the one-note melody fits right in.

Foxgang were pretty cheesy, the best moment was a mock-impassioned chorus of ‘Nicola! Nicola! Nicola! Nicola!’, but mainly because that’s Andy’s wife’s name, and I was imagining her embarrassment if she’d been there.

Helicon made us both wish we were watching The Cosmic Dead instead – their freak-outs were too tame, the best of them nicked the bass line from Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’, but that was the only lithe thing about them.

Date Radley and Friends were the first nice surprise of the day: a folky voice that sounded a mite strident from a distance made more sense closer to, and it was good to find a band not intent on booming. One of the Friends was great on harmonica and clarinet, and there was some serious dressing up going on, too (Alice in Wonderland, thought Andy).

Washington Irvine seemed OK at first – again, not too boomy, and quite pop. I could only hear them with my left ear at first, the right being engaged by the band at the Low End stage, which was directly to the right of the main stage (AKA the Jabberwocky stage), about fifty yards back. Here’s the bizarre thing: the band playing there did the same clattering set three times a day, with almost no-one watching, and their only discernable effect was to disrupt the sound from the Jabberwocky stage. We were told they’d done this on Friday, and they were certainly bugging the hell out of everyone yesterday too, for most of the afternoon. I think someone said they were something to do with a cider promotion, but they carried on well past the point that it obviously wasn’t working. Another bizarre thing, though: moving further towards the centre of the area in front of the stage, cutting out a good deal of the interference, Washington Irvine became awfully dull.

The second nice surprise of the day were Machines in Heaven, a synth / guitar quartet who reminded me a bit of Moscow Olympics for their blissed out sound, which was all about the synths. There must have been drums under there somewhere, but it was the washes and the hooks which dominated. That, and the energy of the performance, which was at odds with the medium (or is that just a cliché?) Their songs seemed fluid, but controlled; the singer threw himself about, in fact, controlling things via his own equipment, and by signals and instructions to his band mates. It was very un-passive electronic music. Vocals were occasional, and he stood mostly behind a Technics keyboard with a Korg sticker over the last four letters. He picked up a bass for the last song, a full on assault of digital noise which drove away the little girl who had been happily dancing to the rest of the set (kids dancing was a feature of the day), and discarded it violently at the song’s end.

Panda Su was particularly badly hit by the inexplicable effusions of the Low End stage, because her songs are so quiet – a line or two or guitar and synth intertwined, with a spare drum pattern maybe. I like the songs, but not unreservedly. As with Vlamimir, there’s a lack of lightness, sometimes they are glum and little else besides. For instance, ‘Bee Song’ as it is on the I Begin EP is lit up by the simplest descending keyboard line, but that line never makes it to live performance, so it just sounds like she’s complaining about getting stung by a bee, rather than… I don’t know what. But the EP version suggests something the live version misses. Having said that, I’ve seen Su performances where she does manage to expand the songs live in the most minimal way – but any chance of that was lost in the background noise yesterday.

Jesus, Baby! was a four-minute performance by Davy Henderson and some other Neu Reekie folk, altogether gentler than the Sexual Objects, and rather lovely, with a bit of stop / start and some vocal harmonies and crooning. But mainly, it was a hilarious gesture, to summon a crowd for a single song. Jesus, Davy!

‘Dum dur du dum, dum dur du dum,’ go the drums while I’m trying to buy some tea from a hippy stall and the guy’s taking forever over it and has accidentally put green tea in with the mint because he got carried away, and actually the whole first song is over by the time he’s done. Still, The Monochrome Set. Played a monochrome set. They’re a band I’ve never investigated, so I know two songs, but they have such a solid aesthetic that it barely mattered. The drummer wore a fez, and it might be this association which made the band’s clipped rhythms sound slightly Egyptian. They were great rhythms, anyway, lean and infectiously danceable. The guitarist wore a novelty suit with a pattern made from cut up bits of the iconic BBC test card, and told us it was too hot, being nylon. So why are you wearing a stupid suit then? Stagecraft, I guess. ‘Jet Set Junta’ came early on, and with that and the band’s theme song I was out of prior knowledge, but they kept playing and I kept bopping. But I’ll be finding out more now.

The John Knox Sex Club were great: a bit like the Bad Seeds, a voracious, vicious take on folk tales that others spoil with veneration.

Teen Canteen amazed me by having a lead singer who sounds almost exactly like Ronnie Spector. Not quite as rich perhaps, but a brilliant pop voice, very specifically in that early ’60s Spector mould, even down to the vibrato. Who uses vibrato these days outside opera halls? They announced one song as a forthcoming single, and as well as The Ronnettes (enormous compliment), it made me think of Aqua (not so much, but there’s that line in ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky’, with which it shares a tune). Looking forward to the single, anyway.

Speaking of The Ronnettes, you know how there is a joy in some recordings, which is probably the best defence of records as a medium, now that money no longer makes them unassailable? And how ‘Baby, I Love You’ has an almost frightening quantity of that joy? Well, there’s no stylistic connection, but I always linked The Pastels’ ‘Classic Line-up’ with that record, and Stephen’s voice on that recording with Ronnie’s. Again, there’s no literal similarity in the sound, but the warmth that pours out… it’s the same stuff. ‘Here comes that sound, pulling everything around’. It’s a clever song too, because it’s about the feeling it evokes. It’s been a long time absent from The Pastels’ live set, as they explored different territory, but the last few gigs I’ve seen they’ve played it – perhaps because it chimes better with the feel of Slow Summits than with Illumination or Two Sunsets. Yesterday’s gig was a bit of a challenge for them because Tom lost his passport and got left behind in Paris after they played at Rock en Seine, as Stephen announced after a walloping opener of ‘Baby Honey’. They had to leave out the songs which rely on Tom’s flute, which shifted the balance of the set towards Stephen’s songs. Katrina sang on ‘Check My Heart’, ‘Nothing to be Done’, and an impromptu ‘Over My Shoulder’ (to fill in some time while John replaced a broken guitar string), but the rest was all him: ‘Wrong Light’, ‘Fragile Gang’, ‘Summer Rain’, ‘Different Drum’(!), ‘Classic Line-up’ – it was a great set. It being a festival, there was a man dressed as Wonder Woman down the front wigging out to it all.

There’s more? You bet! The Sexual Objects were on next, at the Fruit Stand stage, Davy having discarded the smart wheat-coloured leather overcoat he wore for Jesus, Baby! and strapped on his beloved (I presume – he’s got to love that thing) red-and-white Jazzmaster guitar. Before they started, he kept asking the sound man to turn up the monitors, saying ‘as far as they’ll go. Just turn it up until it really hurts’. That’s probably sweeter if you bear in mind that it was very small stage, with a small vocal PA. They sounded great though: crunchy, wild and controlled. Davy marshalling his troops was a bit like the way the leader of Machines in Heaven did it, actually – imperious. This was a set of mostly Cucumber material, which has been well honed by now, but there were still areas for messing about and improvising within the structure – like the breakdown of ‘Merrie England’, which I’m guessing is never the same twice. So, you know, ‘Here Come the Rubber Cops’, ‘Full Penetration’, all that lot. There was a new song, less up-against-the-giant-amplifier than the rest (will we see a mellower second LP, or was that misleading?) They thought they’d finished, when a woman with dreadlocks came up with a great way of demanding an encore: ‘That’s sad. Nobody wants that.’ So they did a few more songs. ‘Don’t make it sloppy!’ Davy instructed his band. And they didn’t.

Clinic were headliners on the Jabberwocky stage. I think I last heard of them in 2001, when Walking With Thee came out, but actually they’ve done loads of records since then. I was never that attached to Clinic, for some reason. Internal Wrangler was a fun record, and one buzzing with a certain fast tempo. When they slowed their songs down for the second album, I couldn’t see the point. Their set yesterday was very good, and in fact the Walking With Thee tempo seems to be the one they stuck with, both for drum and drum machine songs. The drum songs had a motorik feel, the drum machine ones zipped along on even more relentless beats. There was plenty of energy, and the crowd loved it, getting closer to a moshpit than we’d seen all day. By the end, though, I still wasn’t that attached to Clinic, though I enjoyed the Internal Wrangler songs they encored with. I get the feeling there’s something I’m missing.

Not with Rozi Plain, though. She began by reassuring us that whatever pitch of excitement we’d been wound to by the other bands, she and her band were there to wind us right down again. I had forgotten how funny she is live. Funny peculiar and funny ha ha. The band sounded beautiful, particularly the drums, sculpting out spaces for Rozi’s reverb-heavy guitar to hang in. Her delivery is so relaxed, it’s hard not to get drawn in. Someone kept shouting for ‘Humans’. ‘We will play “Humans” at some point,’ was her response at first. Straight after they did play it the woman shouted for it again. ‘Now we’re going to play “Humans” again’, said Rozi, deadpan, before playing something else. Two or three requests for the same song from the same person later someone else shouted, ‘Shut up, Charlotte!’, and Rozi chimed in, with an emphatic shake of the head, ‘Yes, shut up, Charlotte!’ Still good-natured, remarkably. Nothing could break that spell. And ‘Humans’ was great when it came. I was humming it all the way to the car.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

People and Places: Passion Star and Spare Snare

[In a lame attempt to rationalise a box of CD-Rs recently, I found my precious home-made Passion Star CD, comprising a live recording I made in 1996, and their 1994 cassette Soap. It’s incredible from start to finish; at least, the live recording is, and the tape is very, very sweet. In 2006, just because I missed them, I wrote an article for Tangents, pairing them with Spare Snare for some reason, and pinching the to-and-fro structure from Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, which I was reading at the time. Anyway, it seems the Tangents archive is down at the moment, so, because I still miss them, here’s the piece again, all 1822 words of it (1822 web words seems more now than it did seven years ago.) I can’t really file-share the recordings here, but if anyone’s interested, give me a nudge.]


Once there was a band called Passion Star, whose drummer was at my school, and who played every so often in town, drawing a pub full of underage drinkers. What was unusual about them was that they didn’t rock: they were three seventeen year old boys trying to be The Sundays. Their sound was crisp, sensitive with a shrug. It was 1993, the year after Blind came out, and of course Blind is the best record ever made, so who could blame them? All the same, it wasn’t a tactic adopted by many, and it presented the problem of... how do you sound like that? You’ve got to be cocksure to be so fey. You’ve got to be able to nail a tune, too - there’s no posturing to fall back on in Sundays-world, no 12 bar blues patterns. So instead: tapped out hi hats threaded with mobile bass and sketched in by guitars which were brittle but never angular. Topped with a bravely high vocal, less strident than it was to become, almost modest at this stage. Singing, on set closer ‘Carolyn’ - and this is what killed me - ‘Carolyn, you are my life / Please be my wife’. I’ve no idea how grounded this was in a real situation, whether there actually was a Carolyn standing in the audience, chattering away, having her sleeve tugged by a friend saying ‘Shh! Shh! Did you hear that?’ Whether or not, it’s the most romantic thing I’ve heard in my life.


Once, maybe a year or two later, there was a band called Spare Snare. There still is a band called Spare Snare, for that matter. They have a new album out, on their own Chute label, Garden Leave. It’s their seventh, and it’s brilliant: surly, sweet, recorded ‘in Jan’s living room’ and the drums ‘in Jan’s hall’. I’ve promised to leave writing about it to Andy, who has an actual review copy, so. Spare Snare didn’t sound like The Sundays, or anyone. There’s a song on Guided By Voices’ Vampire On Titus which kind of does, actually, but apart from that - unique. Lo-fi as fuck in the beginning, on their barely competent, intermittently poptastic Live At Home. It took me a while to get it. The barely competent thing was where I got stuck, but it was part of the package: for ages, Jan would play gigs with only two strings on his guitar. Garden Leave has no guitars on it at all, only a mandolin made to sound a bit like one. 2004’s Learn To Play... is, well, called that. Live At Home (‘pronounced give’, they printed on a later sleeve, in case anyone thought they’d been trying to be cool) starts almost agonisingly slowly, ‘Thorns’ with its hung-over slide guitar, and ‘Shine On Now’ with that irritant two string fuzz hanging there like a taunt. They once gave out button badges which read ‘No Social Skills’, and this is the essence of it: if we’re a bit messed up in our actual lives - not massively, not basket cases, just normal - then why would we polish the music that comes out of that? That would be a lie. People may lie to us and to each other; society may be entirely constructed around the creation of smooth and deadly surfaces, but we decline to be part of that. We’re not going to lie. That’s what Spare Snare stand for.

The pace picks up, grudgingly, on its own terms, making way for pop classics ‘As a Matter of Fact’ and ‘Bugs’ (‘I’ve got bugs on my mind / I’ve got bugs on the wall’ - somehow this manages to be glamorous). It’s a record which dares you to like it, and doesn’t much care what you decide. By the time I went back home from university for a holiday, I’d decided, on balance, against.


Coming back from town one day, I saw a poster for a Passion Star concert on the railway bridge. I’m not aware of anything else having been advertised in that way, ever, so it was doubly a surprise. They were still going, three years on? It was hard to imagine, they’d been such a part of an earlier time (when Belly ruled the earth, before Oasis ruined everything), and so delicate it seemed inevitable they’d be blown away. Was it possible that Carolyn still hadn’t noticed Richard’s coded message?

The gig was in the back room of a hotel, and pretty packed it was too. Before the main set, Richard got up with his twelve string and did some songs. His voice had made the leap from determined but timid ambition to formidable self possession, and he blazed through these four new songs (I didn’t know for a fact that they were new, it just seemed as though he was spilling them out, hadn’t had time to rehearse them with the band, and needed them to be heard), all of them breathtaking. They really were. I taped the gig, and on the strength of it have prowled around many another with a tape / minidisc recorder hoping for this amount of spontaneous thrill. It’s hardly ever happened again (Bill Wells Trio managed it, and Jad Fair). Again the subject matter - even the words themselves - walked a tightrope between emotion and cliché. Asking for ‘just one smile’, declaring ‘I’ll be taken / I’ll never be fakin’ / Just give me back my life again’, describing ‘a quick sudden anger’, volatile, desperate, intense and unquestionable. Brilliant pop, like The Beach Boys’ ‘I’m So Young’ revved up and with just a dash of Eitzel longing in the tank.

When the band joined him, the non-timidness continued. The new drummer could do dynamics and stuff: they could now rock, in a tender sort of a way, and the Sundays-isms were reduced to an echo and a way of making the best songs out of the worst situations. It was a happy occasion: bassist Adam announced, to cheers, that they were to sign a record deal the next day. At least two songs were introduced as ‘the next single’, and it felt as though good things were around the corner.


Jan worked in Virgin, everybody knew that. Even so, it felt like a vindication and not nepotism when an entire stand of CDs announced Spare Snare’s 1998 album Animals and Me. This was the point at which, belatedly, I got it. Finally, a bit of ambition! Strange name for an album, but at least they’re trying to shift a few. Took it home, put it on.
Where the answers lie, I don’t know
Between you and me, I’m not sure
Figure out what is truth
Don’t get no clues from these books
Even stealing’s fair enough
’Cause all I wanted was my half
More or less the opposite of Passion Star’s grand romance, the Snare do description rather than aspiration; uncertainty and caution is their bag. Animals and Me makes this explicit. In the opening words, in ‘The Lies Count’, but most beautifully on ‘All I Wanna Do Is Touch’ (whereas Passion Star are after someone to ‘guide me through’), bruised, numb and a little like watching a tear descend a face which is usually hard as nails. The writing around the edge of the CD reads: ‘All rights reserved. Manufactured in the E.U. Fuck with us and we’ll kick your fucking head in.’ It’s a rearguard action which doesn’t wholly convince, now they’d made a ‘proper’ record which doesn’t undermine its own sound at every step. You love them for trying anyway, for being contrary buggers. But once you’ve let on that you’re capable of lines like ‘If I had a hi-fi, would you stick around? / Would you scratch my vinyl, make my tapes unwound?’ there’s really no going back. I saw them play these songs, unfortunately minus tape recorder, and it was so exciting. Possibly for the first time, their live sound was more ragged than the recorded, making the songs from their breakthrough LP even more thrilling. ‘We don’t do interaction.’ Yes! ‘Why don’t you stop complaining?’ Goal! The Snare have a surliness which makes me feel like a teenage girl watching The Beatles. I urge anyone who’s anywhere near Glasgow on 28th December to go and see them ‘promote’ Garden Leave at King Tut’s.

Around this time - again it’s a little hazy - Passion Star reached the apex of their stab at fame and, three singles under their belt (the first two, ‘Someone, Somewhere’ and ‘To Be The One’ are so great), did a national tour which took in Dundee. There were signs that things weren’t going quite so well: an extra guitarist who beefed up the sound unnecessarily, a picture on their third single which looked like someone was trying to appropriate them into being a boy band. There weren’t too many people in the audience (it was entirely un-advertised and far from home), so Chris marched us backstage afterwards and, after leaving his number on the wall for Lauren out of Kenickie in case they ever played there, instructed a downcast band that the best way to get a crowd in Dundee was to play on a bill with Spare Snare, get some local support in. They nodded, gave us some beer, grumbled about the new guitarist. They were supposed to come back a few months later but it didn’t happen, and the last I heard of them was that ‘To Be The One’ was to be featured in the film Shooting Fish. It was, but it got faded out too early, just like the band themselves. You can hear a bit of what I mean at Adam’s website (see link below). Some of this is post beefing-up, but the first ‘To Be The One’ single is a great record, and ‘Waiting’ is one of those four acoustic songs I was talking about.

Every few years, always by chance, I discover that there’s a new Spare Snare record, and the world seems a righter place for it. Learn to Play is my other favourite, and the Love Your Early Stuff comp is pretty unbeatable (and a better way in to the Live at Home material, I found). You wouldn’t have bet on them lasting this long, and if they’d signed to a real record label in the early days then they probably wouldn’t have. The long haul suits them, though, in a way it’s hard to imagine happening with the brightly burning Passion Star. Who’s to say which approach is better? Both give great pop. Why even compare them? Because, I suppose, they’re my ‘secret’ (though that’s nonsense - it just feels like it), they come from the places I come from, and because, if you haven’t, you really ought to hear them.

Spare Snare:
Passion Star mp3s:

[Both of those links still work, remarkably; The Snare, of course, are still going strong, and the album before last, Victor, fairly blew my mind. And actually, Tangents is still online-ish at the Internet Archive.]

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Abbé Prévost — ‘Manon Lescaut’

MOOCs, then. A good idea? It seems so, at first glance. The extension of university teaching into the wider, virtual world, for free, and with peer review taking the place of assessment by a tutor, seems just what the attention-atomising internet needs at this point. It’s unlikely that peer review could ever be as good as the thing it’s replacing, but that’s fine, because you wouldn’t want universities to be replaced. It’s good advertising for them, and great news for those of us with day jobs who nevertheless want to keep our brains ticking over. So I registered with Coursera a while ago, not really thinking I’d get around to taking a course, and then one came up, with an interesting reading list and premise, called ‘The Fiction of Relationship’. So far it is touchingly old school. When I last studied English at university, fifteen years ago, literary theory was in the ascendancy: authors were dead, and texts were absolute. This meant that you couldn’t read anything autobiographical into a text (what a horrible word for ‘book’), and you couldn’t study anything in translation because the translated version wasn’t the text at all (talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water). ‘The Fiction of Relationship’ is opposed to both of these hang-ups, and it’s a delight to find that the first book on the course is a) French and b) so sharply focused on one man’s ruinous passion for a woman that it’s impossible not to engage emotionally, take sides, and relate the story’s events to real life. Up yours, Barthes (I’m paraphrasing slightly from the second lecture).

I won’t say too much about the book here, as there’s a mini-essay on it due tomorrow, and I’d probably end up plagiarising myself. It reminded me a little of another eighteenth century novel, Henry Fielding’s Amelia, for the murky moral world it portrays, in which sex-as-commodity is the norm (and it’s the upper classes who are the predators, as they can afford to buy it), and for the protagonist who goes against the grain in believing in something as idealised as love. Neither Billy Booth, Amelia’s husband, nor the Chevalier des Grieux, Manon’s lover, are exactly on the ball, but from what I can remember of Amelia, Booth is not as crazily cavalier as des Grieux, who is blind to everything but Manon, and accedes to her every misguided whim, landing himself in jail twice, and killing a prison guard during one of the subsequent jailbreaks (which, weirdly, doesn’t matter at all as the novel pans out). It’s a great read, and it’s interesting, too, to find the source of Serge Gainsbourg’s song ‘Manon’, and to find that Henri-Georges Clouzou made a film based on the book in 1949, the year before The Wages of Fear. That would be worth seeing.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Kate Bassett — ‘In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller’

The week before last, as part of the publicity for his production of the play Rutherford and Son, Jonathan Miller appeared on Radio 4’s Midweek, alongside tennis player Jimmy Connors and Masterchef winner Natalie Coleman. Libby Purves kicked off with a jovial question about what everyone was best at cooking, and Miller, totally uninterested but polite, said he could probably boil an egg (he didn’t say that he ever had). It was completely the wrong programme for him, a light chat show on which vivacity and an easily compressed life story are the requirements: ideas are nowhere. The part of his life story he compressed for the purpose was his complaint, featured in several other interviews recently, that no-one wants to employ an opera / theatre director his age (he’s 78), and that Rutherford and Son is therefore probably the last thing he’ll direct. I don’t recall what he said about the play itself, except for another line which runs through those same interviews, that it is ‘as good as Chekhov’. The ageism complaint may well be genuine, but it is also surely Miller touting for business: he’s announced his retirement from directing quite a few times over the decades, and usually it sounds more voluntary. It is striking how ably he has used the media to get across these two points (the play’s great / what next?), and striking, too, how the ‘what next?’ part undermines the promotion of the play. He still can’t see what Kenickie saw in their teens:

I never complain
It doesn’t get you anywhere
It’s always the same
Push too hard you break the frame
In Two Minds is the story of Miller pushing too hard: sometimes making insightful leaps across boundaries, sometimes breaking the institutional frames he needs in order to function. It leaves you with the impression that he is, as he complains, unfairly neglected in Britain; but also that he is never satisfied with himself, or his country in general, and that his verboseness on these topics has contributed to the neglect. It is interesting (though a cliché) to compare him to Alan Bennett, a national treasure on account of his grumbling: but Bennett’s attacks tend to be levelled at the state, and are done thoughtfully, often creatively, or woven into the narrative he has made of his own past (there are many examples, but I’m thinking particularly of the section on his mum’s Alzheimer’s in Untold Stories, in which he accuses care homes of starving people). On Miller’s rift with Peter Hall, Bassett turns up an anecdote which captures his always-on, motormouth propensity:
One actor even recalls him launching into a riffing, blistering diatribe while on public transport, such that an American tourist, sitting opposite, bid them adieu as he got out, saying: ‘Jeez, I don’t know who this Peter Hall is, but I’m sure glad I ain’t him.’
He had sensible points to make, in the seventies, about why Peter Hall’s National Theatre was wrong-headed, but he made them so tactlessly that they just came across as points scored in a feud. ‘I thought the National Theatre should no more be located on the South Bank than the National Health Service should be located in St Thomas’ Hospital’, he is quoted as saying here. I found almost exactly the same phrase in an interview from this year: it’s another of those points he wants to get across, regardless of the questions he has been asked. Bassett calls his objection ‘the Congregationalist argument’: he didn’t (and doesn’t) believe the Arts Council should be spending so much on such big, London-based organisations, believing it has a duty to the country as a whole, not just its capital city. There should be many National Theatres, not just one.

I’ll limit myself to one more motormouth quotation, though they are such fun. This is from Miller’s son William:
He was a terrible driver! Then someone would cut him up and he would wind down his window, shouting abuse and shaking his fist. His favourite was ‘I’ll rip your fucking thyroid out!’ sometimes followed by ‘And I bet you don’t fucking know where that is!’
Miller’s documentary TV series, The Body in Question (not available on DVD, but you can find the whole thing on YouTube) has a hilarious selection of vox pops in the first episode, in which he asks people on a busy London street what they know about internal organs: where they are, how big, and what would happen if they stopped working. One poor chap gets it almost right about kidneys, saying that they filter the blood, but goes on to speculate that if they were to go wrong you would explode. The next scene has Miller at a table of internal organs, which he proceeds to dissect as he explains briefly what their functions are, assuring the viewer that kidney failure won’t blow you up. It’s a fascinating, awkward moment: he doesn’t seem to realise quite how condescending the remark is or how creepy the context. This obliviousness is a weakness in that it betrays a disconnect between presenter and audience, and leaves him open to the kind of mockery Private Eye indulged in with its ‘Doctor Jonathan’ parody, or Spitting Image’s ‘Jonathan Miller talks bollocks’ sketches. But it’s a strength, too, in that Miller as a presenter cares more about education than anything else: entertainment is certainly in the mix, but the bogus chumminess of so many TV documentaries nowadays is not, and neither is the accompanying reduction of the subject matter to the most basic, linear version of its story. The Body in Question is a great series, covering anatomy, diagnosis, treatment and the history of medicine, often mixing two or more of these in essay-like juxtapositions. It is noticeably crammed with metaphor: there is a string quartet, for example, who play sheet music with mistakes and omissions to illustrate how DNA can mutate. This tactic allows Miller not only to explain how the body works, but also to explain how its systems came to be understood:
Moreover, all this tied in with Miller’s thesis that advances in scientific understanding emerged from thinking associatively, from drawing parallels, spotting similes, grasping that one thing might serve as metaphor for another. When fire pumps, for example, began to be widely used, William Harvey realized the heart might work in that way. When gun turrets were developed in the mid-twentieth century, using predictive generalizations to aim automatically, it dawned on cognitive psychologists that the brain might, similarly, have in-built conjectural models to facilitate anticipatory action. ‘That was’, Miller stresses, ‘the series’ absolutely key idea: the heuristic value of metaphorical thought in the course of medical history.’
Thinking associatively? Learning in a way which encourages you to discover things for yourself? Michael Gove would hate it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Pastels — ‘Slow Summits’ (Part Two)

The Pastels, Fire Engines and Strawberry Switchblade
On Monday, the ever-wondrous Pastels release their first LP since 1997; or since 2009 via 1998 and 2003 depending on what you include. It’s an event, anyhow, and it’s been interesting to watch the build-up of publicity, from the celebratory localism of the ‘Check My Heart’ video, to the radio coverage and interviews in the press and online. The day before their interview, 6 Music repeated The Pastels’ 1997 Peel Session, and that’s been a great discovery for me, having missed it the first time around. Familiar songs made unfamiliar, lit from different angles, including a version of ‘On The Way’ which blows the previously muted song — the most curious corner of Illumination — wide open. This and ‘Ship To Shore’ anchor the session to Aggi’s mysterious, haar-like voice, making a fitting send-off for the soon-to-depart bassist and founder member. Listening to the 2013 Pastels against the 1997 model is to hear a band who have left behind the great fog of sound they surrounded themselves in then; they’ve come inland, on a road trip perhaps, from the coast to a mountain top. There’s been a shift towards melody and pop, but it’s a shift that can still take in swirling instrumental passages, and the record is full of joy, light, wistfulness, tenderness. All the good stuff. What follows is an interview I did with Stephen by email in January, as a way of providing some background to my press release, which he and Katrina gently nudged in the right direction through several drafts without hijacking it in the least.

First, the questions, which I apologised for at the time, and which still don’t seem very good. Their elbows stick out all over the place:
  1. What made 2012 the right year to finally get this record made?
  2. Your previous few records have been very calm and beautiful; Slow Summits seems to shake things up a bit, where did that come from?
  3. ‘Check My Heart’ is going to be a single, isn’t it?
  4. How important were the collaborators to the sound of Slow Summits?
  5. I’ve wondered before about the city / countryside tension on your records; here there seems to be a night / day tension as well. Which is best?
Over to Stephen:

I think the questions are extremely helpful, actually. I’ll try to answer them while probably responding to certain parts of the press release too.

1, 2, (5).

It’s not really the case that Slow Summits could have happened at any time since 1998, in fact if the record had been recorded in any one of those years it would have sounded completely different, and been much shorter too! Songs arrived at different times, only ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Slow Summits’ (which was ‘Slowly Taking Place’) go back to that period after Illumination which I think is documented on a John Peel session [from 1999, not the one referred to above]. Being able to work in different situations with The Last Great Wilderness, Do I Mean Anything To You... and Two Sunsets was really useful for us in terms of artistic momentum and the type of music we felt was needed for the film and theatre productions (calm and to an extent, beautiful) was the kind of music we wanted to make anyway. Really that was the common ground we found with Tenniscoats too.

From the start, in the sessions for this record, we had a sense of wanting to do something else too. To maybe make music that could move quickly from one feeling to another. So, we set out to make a record with a bit more production and not to always just let things take place. We didn't try to go against that but we tried to be exciting and unexpected too, to mix up our styles. We asked John McEntire to ‘produce’ if he felt it was ever needed, and Bal Cooke (our Glasgow sound engineer) too. Most of the sessions were quite concentrated and took place over a few days but the overall timescale was probably unusually long and the sessions were all a bit different from each other (places, personnel, other factors). In the end, in compiling it we emphasised some of these changes so that the record has clear contrasts (day and night, city and countryside, calmness, the wild moment) and maybe a bit of the oddness of records we love like The Faust Tapes, Swell Maps In Jane From Occupied Europe and Brian Eno’s Another Green World.


‘Check My Heart’ is going to be a single.


Collaborators were extremely important to the record but it starts from us. We’ve got an extremely good group at the moment and I hope that comes through. I think The Pastels is always a group sound. We wanted the record to have a real sense of propulsion and in the beginning we were able to invite Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok from To Rococo Rot to play on the first session. In a way this established a style of having Katrina and one other drummer, which in later sessions was usually John McEntire. Gerard [Love] and Tom [Crossley] probably contributed most in terms of ideas and time spent with us working on the record; both are so inventive and unique. And John [Hogarty] joining the group was great, he’s just a really exciting guitar player. Alison [Mitchell]’s got a very particular soulful trumpet sound. And Norman [Blake] was there some of the time too, he's contributed so much to our music over the years, and helped a lot on ‘Summer Rain’. It was important for us to have Annabel [Wright, previously Aggi] singing on the record and as soon as she was on ‘Secret Music’, with the sound of her voice, it brought a sense of completeness to the record. That was one of the most emotional moments.

Craig Armstrong’s arrangement for ‘Kicking Leaves’ was a massive anticipation. We left the song quite empty but with little bits of production here and there, so it was so thrilling when he ran it with his gorgeous parts. Also, so great to be there for the recording with the string section.

Finally, it has to be said, John McEntire is an incredible engineer and musician. He was an extremely important collaborator, and Bal Cooke too. Both stepped in to play things when needed, unegotistical, great team members.

[That’s the end of the interview bit, and he went on to make a few specific suggestions about the press release. I wanted to include the following, even though it refers to possibly the most misguided thing anyone has ever attempted to say about The Pastels, because it takes in, too, the love that they are all about: the plain, ordinary kind, extrapolated to take on the whole dizzying world.]

And I have to say, I am a bit stumped by the blaxploitation reference in ‘Night Time Made Us’ [I was trying to compare it to Curtis Mayfield, and missed]. I think you really had the essence of the song with what you said about your grandmother [she died not long before I first heard the song; hearing it again, it made me think of her, her old house, her paintings]. For me, it’s about growing up and being protected by the love of my parents and the influence they had on me. But it's about also knowing I had to move out from that to find other things. The excitement of warm summer nights and the chilling anticipation. It’s my main memory of being a teenager.


Domino’s Slow Summits page.
The Pastels’ website.
The What Presence! exhibition, now at Dundee’s McManus Galleries, where you can see the triptych above.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tom Doyle — ‘The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie’

Poor Yaki. And Paul. But most of all, poor Billy. ‘Billy’s dead,’ I said to S., mournfully, as we set off on Sunday afternoon to look at pictures of him and others in Harry Papadopoulos’ fantastic What Presence! rock photography exhibition, which has now rolled around to Dundee’s McManus Galleries. We were roughly opposite Bonnybank Road (where the MacKenzie family once lived) as I said this, though that wasn’t deliberate, and had walked along Lyon Street (cf. the short-lived Associates spin-off group 39 Lyon Street) a minute or two previously. So many landmarks in The Glamour Chase are five minutes’ walk from my flat, it’s an odd feeling. ‘He has been for some time,’ said S., not unkindly, to bring me back down to earth. I know it’s spurious to claim any kind of connection based on shared geography, especially with (of all the clichéd things to identify with) a rock ’n’ roll suicide, so I won’t, but still, having just finished this splendid book, I do feel a little as though Billy’s spirit haunts this place. ‘He was alive an hour ago,’ I protested. That’s the magic of biographies, isn’t it? By telling the stories that make up a life, they do something much more powerful than fiction’s suspension of disbelief: a good biography will reverse the fact of death, for a while, at least.

To tie in with What Presence!, there was a screening on Friday of a TV documentary based on Tom Doyle’s book (also called The Glamour Chase, you can watch it on YouTube), followed by a Q & A with the author. Doyle came across as garrulous verging on incoherent, beginning every answer to Lorraine Wilson’s questions, ‘Yeah, totally,’ and proceeding to not really think about what he was saying until he was three quarters of the way through. It wasn’t a bad effect, necessarily (he was warm and enthusiastic), but surprising nevertheless in someone who writes books. After that, still having half of it left to read, I kept noticing straggly sentences with too many clauses, and phrases which didn’t quite say what they were obviously supposed to mean. Neither of those tendencies make Doyle a bad pop writer: on the contrary, he has a bullish way of interpreting Billy’s actions that cuts through the mystery / bullshit and always gets to the funny side if there is one (there mostly is). He stacks anecdote upon anecdote until you’re left with the left with the impression that here was a mind like Captain Beefheart’s: autocratic, wired to make life the absurdist artwork, unable to even consider practicalities like cooking, money or record contracts. He gives a balanced account, too, of Billy’s artistic achievement, picking out successful songs on unsuccessful albums during the mid to late ’80s, keeping a tally on the number of years without a hit, and the unbelievable sums WEA and then Circa paid out for these records which didn’t sell (it works out as over £250,000 each for four albums, one of which wasn’t even released, and the last of which sold around 3,000 copies). So Sulk is the masterpiece, as everyone knows, and the posthumously released work with Steve Aungle the return to form.

As the documentary wraps up, the various talking heads (Siouxie Sioux, Marc Almond, Martin Fry) pay tribute to Billy’s talent, but Alan Rankine takes a different tack: ‘I’ve had a hell of a lot of laughs in my life so far, but I’ve never laughed as hard as I did with Bill’. The stories in this book are just great: the early jaunts to New Zealand and Los Angeles, getting married at seventeen in LA so as not to lose a job chopping onions at a hot dog stand. The punks who gobbed on the Associates during a gig, and ended up on the receiving end of Billy’s ability to projectile vomit at will (powered in this instance by vodka and blackcurrant juice, swigged for the purpose); or the other vomit story, of the ‘restaurant crawl’ in Paris, Billy claiming that by eating and then throwing up the food of all these swanky places, he was absorbing the best nutrients on earth. There are the record company scams, beginning with the Associates’ first single, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, intended to attract the attention of David Bowie’s music publisher, as they hadn’t sought permission to cover his recent single. Later he would charge just about everything to the record company’s account, like a Holiday Inn room for his beloved whippets, or a taxi from London to Dundee when he was finally dropped from WEA. There’s a lovely portrait of domestic oddity from the time he and Steve Aungle shared an Edinburgh flat in 1994, in order to concentrate on their songs. There were ‘no pots and pans in the kitchen, only a champagne bucket’, which makes even less sense of this:

both found themselves sonically addicted to the soothing qualities of the ‘pinging’ sound emitted from the timer on the old-fashioned cooker in the kitchen. ‘It was just this hypnotic ping that you could hear from any room in the house,’ the musician remembers, ‘and you got so used to hearing it, if it stopped and we were right in the middle of something, I’d go, “Oh, the pinger’s stopped” and Billy would run down and put it back on again. [...] Then, Billy used to try to get me to make all the tea. He said, “Steve, you might think this is a bit weird, but I think the kitchen’s malevolent and I can’t go in there any more.” (pp. 192-3)
A daft note to end on, but if this biography is anything to go by, he was as daft as he was amazing.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Olivia Manning — ‘Friends and Heroes’

On the train to Bucharest, she had watched him surrounded by admiring Rumanian women, his face alight as though with wine, his arms extended to embrace them all. To someone so enamoured of the general, could the particular ever really mean anything? (p. 168)
Friends and Heroes, book three of the Fortunes of War series, continues the story of a marriage made in haste and regretted under fire, the boredom and the terror of war prompting disillusionment and then renewed affection between Guy and Harriet Pringle. He is as much of an extrovert as a bookworm can be; she as much of an introvert as a woman in search of adventure can. The backdrop is the Second World War of the non-combatant ex-patriate British community, in Bucharest and then, when Rumania falls, Athens.
She had once accused him of considering her feelings less than those of anyone else with whom they came into contact. Surprised, he said: ‘But you are myself. I don’t need to consider your feelings.’ (p. 177)
Guy is more aware, and clever, than Harriet gives him credit for, though perhaps that wasn’t the best thing for him to say out loud. He’s an English teacher, and an inspired one, with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. At the drop of a hat he will put on a play or a revue, he’s always at the centre of things, and absolutely selfless. Harriet comes to see his generosity, which is genuine, as a limitation: it is so universally applied that it amounts in the end to a lack of ambition, and of focus in general. It means that he will fritter away his talent.
They had learnt each others’ faults and weaknesses: they had passed both illusion and disillusion. It was no use asking for more than anyone could give. (p. 309)
Harriet, who quickly tires of the company whose approbation lights up Guy’s face as though with wine, marvels that she has married someone so different from herself; but by the end of Friends and Heroes she appears to have got over her little almost-fling with a soldier and accepted that, for better or worse, Guy’s side is where she belongs. Her extreme affection for a cat near the end of the novel* seems like a compromise: she knows she won’t get the particular attention she needs from Guy, but she no longer considers being unfaithful an alternative.

It isn’t all about Harriet and Guy, though. Yakimov, that prince without capital, so selfish and so endearing, faded, ineffectual, an extraordinary comic character, having endured most of Friends and Heroes delivering news sheets by bicycle (an improvement on his previous destitution), meets his end pointlessly. The final section of the book is called ‘The Funeral’, and I’d been hoping the insufferable Lord Pinkrose would be its subject, but no.
There would be no one left who had known him in life or remembered that the scraps of cloth lying among his long, fragile bones, had been a sable-lined greatcoat, once worn by the doomed, unhappy Czar of all the Russians. (p. 315)
Poor Yaki.

* This is not the first cat which has been important to Harriet, and one also crops up, again providing a substitute for human affection, in Manning’s School for Love.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Paul Eddington — ‘So Far, So Good: The Autobiography’

I made the mistake of reading this just before going away on holiday, without it, so I shan’t do a full review. If you have about you any fondness for Paul Eddington, though (and why wouldn’t you?), this is a great read, and surprising in several ways. One is the extent to which he was a theatre actor as opposed to a television actor. Another is the year of this book’s publication, 1995, the same year that he died (given the title and the presentation, it can’t have been posthumous). A third is the way it is told, which, to be critical, might be said to lack dynamics: the book is largely a string of theatrical anecdotes, put into chronological order, with little space devoted to anything more personal. Marriage and children are mentioned as they occur, but he doesn’t pause to reflect about The Important Things. It’s actually rather refreshing, and revealing perhaps in a way he didn’t intend, because this approach surely comes from the same stoicism which enabled him to keep acting through, and until very nearly the end of, twenty years’ worth of skin cancer. This could so easy be a memoir that fits into the awful ‘Hard Lives’ section you see in book shops nowadays, but it remains upbeat, though his symptoms are described, briefly but candidly. There is a TV interview he did, after his face had been disfigured by the disease: it’s upsetting to see, and hard to recognise him, until he starts talking, in his disarmingly jovial way, saying ‘You have to be pretty fit to be as ill as I am’. Bless you, Paul.

Some theatrical anecdotes. First, for fans of The Prisoner and Danger Man:

But Patrick McGoohan, whom I remember as a fee-paying semi-student, was a difficult person to help. After rehearsals Geoffrey [Ost], as all directors do, would hold a ‘notes’ session. He would approach Patrick, nervously tapping his left forearm with his right hand. ‘Ah, Patrick,’ he would say. Patrick would glower. ‘Er, very good, very good,’ Geoffrey hastily added before passing on to the next actor. (p. 68)
On John Gielgud and some members of the Bloomsbury set (this occured when Eddington and Gielgud were both in Alan Bennett’s 40 Years On):
        ‘Did you really know Vita Sackville-West?’ I asked one day.
        ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied.
        ‘Gosh!’ I said. ‘What was she like?’
        ‘Oh...,’ he hesitated. ‘Tiresome old dyke.’
        He seemed to have known all the people Alan had written about. One evening he observed, ‘I can’t think why Ottoline Morrell had an affair with Bertie Russell. Terribly bad breath, you know.’ (p. 120)
On Lawrence Oliver, with whose wife, Joan Plowright, Eddington appeared in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Olivier came round afterwards looking thin and old but not actually ill. He told me how awkward it was for him to go to the theatre nowadays, especially the Olivier. ‘Everyone nudging and pointing.’
        I said, ‘Why not wear a big hat and dark glasses?’
        ‘I’ve tried that,’ he said, ‘and nobody recognised me.’ (p. 159)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Adam Hochschild — ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’

Last July I read a piece of family history written by a cousin of my mum’s, about the time his grandparents (my great-grandparents) spent in the Congo as Baptist missionaries. The start of their time there (they stayed from 1906 — 1916) coincided with the end of King Leopold II of Belgium’s rule over the territory, which he gave up following a decade long campaign by E. D. Morel and others. The campaign sought to bring an end to Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo’s wild vine rubber, from which he drew enormous profits by a system of forced labour, under which it is estimated that the country was de-populated by around ten million. It is the kind of figure which is impossible to get around: critical faculties go to the wind, and moral outrage and horror are the only possible response. My mum’s cousin felt this acutely, and consulted mum, her sisters, and a cousin of mine who works in Sudan before letting anyone else read the document. To be complicit in such a regime would be a terrible thing, and they concluded that there was complicity on the part of the Baptist Missionary Society, but not from Frank and Daisy as individuals. Coming now to Adam Hochschild’s book, I found this in the afterword (added in 2005; the book was published in 1998), which would seem to mitigate that somewhat:

[Kevin] Grant shows how virtually everyone who has written about Morel, myself included, has overlooked the way Baptist missionaries had already started to draw large crowds in Scotland to ‘magic lantern’ slide shows about Congo atrocities two months before Morel founded the Congo Reform Association. (p. 314)
It’s a minor point, though, in the scheme of things. Missionaries are not central to Hochschild’s story, being neither the administrators nor the victims of brutality, though they can be useful as witnesses. Some (like William H. Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian) did speak out against the atrocities they encountered, and the horrific photographs upon which much of Morel’s campaign relied were mostly taken by Alice Seeley Harris, a Baptist missionary. Several are reproduced in this book, including one with the following caption:
Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more shocking photograph, and it is easy to see how a campaigner’s polemic could, and should, be built around images like this. King Leopold’s Ghost itself, though, is an incredibly measured book; certainly compared to Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, which I tried to read last year, but gave up, finding it too upsetting. The books have different purposes, of course: Conan Doyle’s cause has gone now, and Hochschild’s is to do with not forgetting history. Several times he compares events in Leopold’s Congo to the more familiar holocaust of World War II (with its lower death count of six million). He doesn’t labour the point, but isn’t it incredible, and shameful, that one event is so much less well known than the other, though they are separated by fewer than forty years? At times, too, Hochschild expresses regret that so much of his story has to come from the points of view of Europeans and Americans. Where victims’ testimonies exist, he uses them, but they never amount to a life story. It could well be that the names in the caption above are all that is known of Nsala and Wala: in narrative terms, there is no competition between that and the minutely documented life of a king.

There are three or four fascinating, interdependent stories here, nonetheless, only one of which revolves around royalty. Leopold himself is emblematic of the dangers of disconnecting effort from consequence: all that ‘targets’ stuff I got so worked up about last time. ‘Encapsulation’ is another term for it; ‘friction free’ another. He appears to think himself absolutely benign: one version of Leopold has him importing The Times from London by express train, having it ironed to kill any germs, then reading it in bed every night. When the paper began to criticise him, he cancelled his subscription, but still sent a servant out to buy it for him in secret. This is not a Hitler-like figure: Hochschild reminds us that the deaths he caused were not a genocide, technically, because it wasn’t ideology which lay behind them, but greed. Elsewhere he can be far more worldly, especially in his manipulation of the press and public opinion. He claimed his activities in the Congo were philanthropic, and / or (depending on whom he was trying to convince) scientific. On the one hand he took advantage of public anti-slavery feeling by targeting, in his rhetoric at least, Arab slave traders; on the other, he used Henry Morton Stanley to map out the territory he was to exploit, in the name of exploration. On the world stage, he gradually achieved recognition of his anomalous, personally owned state of Congo, by having his millionaire friend Henry Shelton Sanford wine and dine the big wigs of Washington: once America had recognised the Congo, Germany followed, and then the rest of Europe.

Stanley and Shelton are both interesting characters (Hochschild barely has a good word for Stanley: a bully, an emotional cripple and a relentlessly inaccurate self-publicist), as are E. D. Morel, future MP for Dundee no less (OK, that’s the least interesting thing about him), and Roger Casement, a British diplomat whose report on Leopold’s regime was instrumental in bringing it to some sort of account. Casement was Irish and gay, a mesmerising talker and as bold as he was foolhardy: he was knighted and executed by his adopted country, for a second exposé of atrocities he wrote in South America, and for Irish nationalist activities respectively. Throughout his adult life he kept diaries of assignations, almost deliberately undermining his work by providing information about his (then illegal) sexual activities which could be, and was, used against him. In the last few chapters, the achievements of Morel, Casement and others is placed in a bleak context. ‘Why the Congo?’ (p. 279) is a startling question after all that has gone before, but it seems that what happened there under colonialism was far from unique: for all his public relations expertise, Leopold was vulnerable in the end because he made too good a story, too good a target (and here we are back at encapsulation). The after-history of the Congo is sobering, too, and includes the US / Belgian sponsored assassination of a democratically elected prime minister, Lumumba, in 1961. He was followed, after a 1965 coup which had ‘United States encouragement’ (p. 302), by the reassuringly militaristic Mobutu, whom Hochschild compares to Leopold:
His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. [...] ‘Those who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldūn in the fourteenth century, ‘always want to imitate the conqueror’. (p. 304)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Hookers for Jesus — ‘Hymns for Beautiful Losers’

Not sure where he got this idea, but Andy asked me to write a press release for the forthcoming Hookers for Jesus EP – their first, and the second in a series of releases which pretty closely matches The Pastels for speed of output (at least, if we are conveniently ignoring soundtracks and collaborations, and comparing singles with albums). The Candy Store Prophets gave their 1999 single Songs for Angels the catalogue number Piss One – Piss being short, somehow, for Pioneer Sounds. That band split up a few years after the single, but two of them – Andy and Graeme – have of late been playing gigs as Hookers for Jesus. As you’ll know, if you’ve been paying attention. Strange, bleak, sometimes hilarious gigs, which for me outstrip the dear departed Prophets because their sensibility is wilder and more pop. So it’s great news that they have an EP ready to go – catalogued as Piss Two – and an EP launch this Saturday at Beat Generator Live!, Dundee. I must admit I was slightly hoping, when this moment arrived, that they might consider S.’s illustration of some garbled lyrics at their first show when putting together the artwork, but it was not to be. That there on the left, though, is the tree that never flew.

EP launch Facebook event page / Hookers for Jesus Facebook

Hookers for Jesus were born under punches: a freezing end-of-month gig above a pub, in a room with black balloons and an untouched cake hinting that the previous event there was a celebration gone wrong. And of course, that fits so well, because Hookers for Jesus are a celebration of the gone wrong. ‘Been on a losing streak longer than I can recall’, goes the closing ‘We Are All Broken People Now’; ‘I’m on my belly, creeping, crawling’. Over a pensive, icy, two-chord backing, swirling in delay and decay. It would be almost true to say that the song is saved from self pity by the bitter pay off line, ‘No matter how bad it gets, I wouldn’t ever ask you for your fucking forgiveness’; except that it isn’t, because it doesn’t want to be saved. The delivery is stone cold, defiant, and the lyric is vague enough to be more about the idea of failure and abasement than any specific instance. It doesn’t say — as Meursault do, for example — ‘I'll be sorry for you if you’ll be sorry for me’. It says, ‘This is mine, keep off’.

And so it is that Hymns for Beautiful Losers, though it is doomed and damned, is pricklier and altogether more fun than the lines quoted above might suggest. There’s a delicious sense of self-mockery to the sampled choir voices which introduce ‘Drifting into Unthank’. The music, as it unfolds, is so opulent, so light on its feet, fizzing with Sci Fi effects and rumbling with kettle drums; snatches of Chinese zither and pizzicato violin burst on the tongue. Its themes are alienation, mortality and underachievement, the whole is just so ludicrously ambitious, it’s one of my favourite pieces of music, and the centrepiece of the EP. It is flanked by two pretty songs, ‘Promised Me Dots’ and ‘On a Night Like This’, the pop song and the ballad of the piece respectively, the latter speculating that ‘Even the angels might have abandoned me’, recalling the title and cover of Andy and Graeme’s previous release as (two of) The Candy Store Prophets — their Songs for Angels 7" single.

Opener ‘Cabaret Song’ has a story to tell, of drugs, sleeping around and the tedium of getting a bus all the way from Scotland to London. Whilst it shares some of the sense which inhabits the other songs here, of time passing, and things getting worse, it is more specific, more immediate:
In a matter of a minute, civilisations rise and fall in your sitting room, beautiful colours explode in the wall, the room was a gallery of breathtaking intensity, that’s when I became frightened.
Overdriven guitar snarls over a chorus of ‘Something’s wrong I’ve fucked my head’, and subsides into woozy synths and lopsided drums for the monologue verses. As it ends, we’re back with entropy: ‘Life sure passes by quick when you’re young and jerking off’. And it goes even more quickly when you’re older and still jerking off. If you’re looking for a record that’s not afraid to say so, without necessarily weeping buckets in commiseration, Songs for Beautiful Losers is the EP for you.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Pastels – ‘Slow Summits’ (Part One)

It’s up! I was wondering when and where that would happen, but the press release I wrote for the wondrous new Pastels album Slow Summits (out in May) is now online on a brand new Pastels website, here. Huge thanks to Stephen and Katrina for asking me to do it.

Part Two will feature some of the things which got discarded along the way.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ian F. Svenonius — ‘Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group’

First off, this book has a great feel. I was talking a while ago about how what the internet really lacks is any kind of friction, and although I must admit I did buy this book on the internet (it was so easy), the moment your hand hits the cover it is slowed down by its texture, which is more like velvet than your average paperback. You just have to pause to paw it. Its diminutive dimensions (107mm x 174mm x 12mm) are a good fit for my left, book-holding hand (98mm x 200mm x 30mm) and it recalls, in form and function, a 2002 reprint I have of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond’s The Manual [How to Have a Number One the Easy Way], which is only 147mm tall, but otherwise much the same. It features much better proof-reading than some of Bill’s books, some cute hand drawn illustrations, and what is possibly the best author photograph of all time. It’s very well written, too, as you’d expect from such a witty songwriter, and yet... This is a ridiculous accusation, really, but it feels — once you’re off the texture and into the text — a little too scattershot. Its polemical thrusts are isolated (mainly accusing the US gov’t of fascism), and there is the problem that, since The Manual came out at the height of the music industry’s monetary success, there has been such a change in the ‘greatest thing in the world to be’ that — well, a pop star certainly isn’t it, anymore, let alone a member of a rock ’n’ roll group. In 1988, it was obvious why a manual explaining how to have a number one single was a good idea; in 2013, though, why would anyone who doesn’t already know all about groups want to find out how to make one?

So maybe scattershot is inevitable if you’re starting out from the endpoint — the group — and trying to justify its continued relevance, but Svenonius has plenty of interesting ways of arguing the case. For instance,

In a country alienated from national feeling such as the USA, where individualist, capitalist ideology strongly dissuades identification with the group and instead encourages sociopathic selfishness and greed, subcultural bonding is a radical act. Without rock ’n’ roll, it is virtually impossible. (pp. 64-5)
This is kinda great, although it doesn’t really follow that because Americans are encouraged by free market rhetoric to be selfish, rock ’n’ roll is the only way to be community spirited. Though it certainly is a way. And it’s interesting that ‘national feeling’, here, is seen as a positive thing — in the UK, of course, it is usually shorthand for bigotry. It is also interesting that this argument arrives hard on the heals of its opposite. As part of the string of seances which make up the first section of the book, the spirit of the still-living Paul McCartney has the following to say, via the medium of light-bulb Morse code. He is responding to the question, ‘Was the British Invasion a conspiracy?’:
Yes. It was a brilliant ploy to reconfigure the popular street-club model into a commercial enterprise which would harness anti-social tendencies and teach fealty to market values. (p. 51)
Maybe context is enough to make sense of this: when rock ’n’ roll was popular enough to generate stupid quantities of cash, it was an instrument of capitalism; now that it can’t, the sword-stick has become an umbrella to huddle under. It’s indie snobbery, it’s common sense, it’s Tony Wilson’s idea that possessing wealth is a sin (think he nicked that from Buddha to justify the Factory table). It’s the ruler of the universe in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, living with his cat in a remote shack, embodying the idea that nothing makes a person unsuitable to rule as much as a desire for power. It’s Orson Welles, who became great as he lost his worldly position, and was infinitely preferable as a maverick, a Hollywood pariah. Svenonius echoes what Welles has to say about greatest things in the world to be:
All art is, after all, a failure until the circumstances of history change and somehow that kind of expression, for whatever reason, cannot be replicated any longer. Then it is perfect and therefore dead.(p. 70)
He also relates rock ’n’ roll to the industrial revolution:
Once the machines had taken over, humans were off the hook. They no longer needed to do laundry, thresh wheat, or stamp dies. They were saddled with the oppressive ‘leisure time’ paradox. Not coincidentally, they — for the most part — abandoned their former hobbies such as painting, poetry, and writing, and focused on creating something as brainless, self-satisfied, and repetitive as their masters. First they tried modernism; then abstraction, collage, avant-noise, and existentialism. Eventually these experiments were retired with the discovery of the most devolved mode of expression ever. It was called The Group. (pp. 165-6)
Now that’s a theory. Ominous not only in its biblical intonation, but in its suggestion that now, through and beyond industrialisation, we have reached a stage where we can replicate anything. And if nothing can die, nothing can ever be perfect again.

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