Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mash it up!

... as The Damned didn't quite sing.

I can't believe I've never done it before, but today I followed the link from A-Z contributor Del's blog to find the page where he's collected his assorted mash-ups produced under the name DJ Nite.

The first to really catch my attention was 'Come All Night', which plots The Streets' 'Has It Come To This?' on the graph of Lionel Richie's smoooooth bubble-perm-and-slip-ons classic 'All Night Long'.

More ambitious is the track which blends Franz Ferdinand's stompalong single 'Take Me Out' with Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition', before Nirvana's 'Smell Like Teen Spirit' and even 'Just Be Good To Me' make appearances towards the end.

As with all good mash-ups, it's both the moments of juxtaposition and the surprising moments of complete sync that catch the ear. Great stuff.

Friday, June 23, 2006

When the music's over

"I'll miss 'TOTP' in the same way that I missed the local greengrocer's when it closed. It had been there before I arrived and it's a shame that it's gone, but I haven't used it all that much recently". Thus quoth ByTheSeaShore in his post on the demise of 'Top Of The Pops'. Couldn't have put it better myself.

In truth I can't remember the last time I watched 'Top Of The Pops'. It was certainly before it was symbolically relegated to BBC2, as clear a precursor to its demise as any. The reasons for my not tuning in were manifold, not least the presenters and the increasingly rubbish selection of acts invited to perform (no real reflection of the make-up of the charts).

I could say that the decision to axe the show, a national institution, is untimely and appalling - but the sad truth of the matter is that it isn't.

It had clearly been in desperate need of being shot between the eyes for some time. Inspector Sands has laid the blame squarely at Andi Peters's door, and I can't disagree with him. Peters single-handedly destroyed the programme's unique identity. It's a worrying day when I find myself in agreement with Noel Edmonds, but he had a point (of sorts) when he said: "It's a tragedy when a broadcaster doesn't understand such a powerful brand".

The Inspector is absolutely right in saying that despite (or perhaps even because of) the changes in record-buying patterns and means of consumption, and the fracturing of the common ground in musical and TV terms, there was still certainly a place for the sort of show that 'Top Of The Pops' once was. Seeing a favourite band perform on the programme was the always source of much excitement, and as a whole the show played an integral part in my musical education. That's something of which The Kidz are now going to be deprived.

So what's left but to remember some of the moments that made 'Top Of The Pops' such great viewing? Of all the performances noted by Del, Eels' debut remains the most memorable for me - the trio stopped miming along to 'Novocaine For The Soul' towards the end and instead destroyed Butch's miniature child's drumkit as the song continued to play. Also worthy of mention on a personal note was Therapy?'s first appearance when they performed 'Screamager' - I fell in love instantly and bought the Shortsharpshock EP the very next day.


(See, it IS possible to write about 'Top Of The Pops' without making reference to Pan's People. Oh...)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: Z

And now we face the final curtain...

Z is for …

… Frank Zappa (Pete)

Much like The Fall, I've always admired Frank Zappa, but only from a safe distance. Like Mark E Smith, he was a prolific songwriter who wrote well over 50 albums, although a great deal of his material is hit or miss, if not frankly bizarre (think of an electric prog-jazz band falling down several flights of stairs). But then you'd expect nothing less from someone who called his children Moon Unit, Diva Muffin and Dweezil.

So perhaps this post is not so much of a recommendation, but more of an exercise in awareness. After all, Zappa lurked in the background of rock music history from the very beginning. His equipment going up in smoke at the Montreux Casino was the story behind Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water', while it's alleged that he gave Don Van Vliet his more recognisable name of Captain Beefheart. As far as I know he's never been cited by subsequent artists as a source of inspiration, but I've always liked to think that his music showed that weird can also be good and opened the doors of experimentation.

True, I've only heard a small portion of all the music he produced, but what I've heard I've liked, although I admit, I definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to Frank. Then again, sometimes you just need something completely and refreshingly different. If there's anyone to blame for this particularly vague interest, it's my dad, who's had a couple of Zappa albums kicking around for years. After borrowing his copy of Cheap Thrills for far too long, I thought I should invest in my own.

I played it again recently to remind myself before I started writing this. 'Catholic Girls' (along with quite a few others) still leaves me smirking, but it's fair to point out that he should be remembered for more than just his risqué lyrics (his band, The Mothers Of Invention, were banned from the Royal Albert Hall for "obscenity") and that he was a serious classic composer too. Well, at least when he wasn't trying to wind up his numerous critics.

Given that this is the last A-Z post (for now?), I think I'll finish with his perceptive remark about rock journalists as "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read". Fitting, no?

… Frank Zappa (Caskared)

Despite being early, the heavy grey metal door was already hot to touch from the inside after the morning sun had been baking it for hours already. I unlocked the door and stepped out. Across the dusty driveway polka-dotted with pot-holes was a wall. The wall stood around three metres high, brick but skimmed with a pinky-grey plaster topped with roof tiles. Z-Clan had tagged it, as has BG and UWC. An orange-afroed female face glared out above a psychedelic snail, apparently she represented Margaret Thatcher, and to her right where her shoulder would have been – if the graffiti artist had finished the portrait – was a stencil of a moustachioed rock legend. Frank Zappa. I turned the corner to find the stencil once again, only this time Zappa has friends: George Bush and Osama. Each sports a red nose added freehand, presumably at a later date.

I made my way through the cobbled baroque streets, turning first right, then left, Zappa stared out again and again. By my favourite café, on the way to the music library, near the supermarket, Zappa’s face again and again. The stencils were not all identical, they dated from different times. Sometimes where there was more wall available the facial hair dominated a little more. From time to time a smoking joint was added to the long face. Occasionally there was no face, but the name “Zappa” instead.

Moving through the old town to the Western edge the visage of Frank continued to appear staring out at me, then all of a sudden I was agog. Atop a pole was a brass cast of Frank Zappa. I was standing in a crumbling courtyard near a bus lane and chemists that was nothing special, except it seemed to be an official shrine to Zappa. The backdrop was a graffitied mural more impressive than elsewhere in the city, thought I, especially in the hazy sunshine. A large phizog of Zappa with a Zen-like gaze merged with a concert scene and various other psychedelic imagery. I found a plaque; the likeness was commissioned by a student and sculpted by Konstantinas Bogdanas, who was famous in Soviet times for producing statues of Lenin, Marx and other heroes of the day. By the time he made Zappa he was over 70 years old and the Soviets no longer ruled his home, a new icon with facial hair was in.

Welcome to Vilnius, Lithuania.

Frank Zappa never played in Lithuania, he was not of Lithuanian descent, he had never been to Lithuania, but he represented the freedom denied by Soviet rule for a group of artists called The Frank Zappa Fan Club. In the early 1990s they created exhibitions of mementos from their icon: letters, pens, clothes, only they originated from a flat in Vilnius rather than having any bona fide link. The heritage of pagan tales and the radical political upheavals lead to the exhibition ‘Memorial Objects Of Frank Zappa’ being a success and creating a new mythos for the new times. The fans petitioned the municipality wanting the monument and raised $3000 to cover the costs, the business that erected it accepted a bottle of liquor as payment. At the opening ceremony a military band played Zappa classics.

For more information on Frank Zappa, go here and here.

… Thalia Zedek (Ben)

“Who?”, you might well ask.

In the fairly unlikely case that you have heard of Thalia Zedek, you’re most likely to have come across her indirectly, almost without knowing it. Her initials are scrawled on the T-shirt on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1995 album Washing Machine, and she provided backing vocals on Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound the previous year. But she’s something of an alternative icon in her own right.

The daughter of a German mother and Lithuanian father, Zedek was born in Washington DC in 1961 and at the age of 15 was inspired by Patti Smith to pick up a guitar. Her first two bands were called White Women and The Dangerous Birds, with whom she first came to prominence when their single ‘Smile On Your Face’ received significant radio play on college stations, ultimately appearing on the legendary Sub Pop 100 compilation of 1986 alongside tracks by Sonic Youth and Cobain faves Scratch Acid and Wipers.

But Zedek left The Dangerous Birds in 1983 because they were “too poppy, not violent enough” (can you tell why I like her yet?), vowing to make music with men instead. The uncompromising and pioneering outfit Uzi were next for Zedek, and when they split in 1986 she joined the already-existing New York experimentalists Live Skull as a frontwoman. Like Uzi, they had a strong cult following but were often seen as a pale imitation of fellow Big Applers Sonic Youth, and they too split in acrimonious circumstances in 1989, by which time Zedek’s personal life had gone into something of a nosedive and she was hooked on heroin.

Thankfully both for the sake of her health and mental wellbeing and for the sake of those who valued her talent, she moved back to Boston and hooked up with Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw to form Come. (This is the “Chris” whose name also features on the Washing Machine T-shirt.)

1992’s Eleven: Eleven was the first full-length fruit of what was to prove a perfect partnership, a predictably dark record featuring a track called ‘Brand New Vein’ in which Zedek confronted her demons head on, and closing with a dead-eyed cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I Got The Blues’.

But Come’s best was yet to come. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was released in 1994, the year that Cobain killed himself and at a time when grunge was sliding further and further into grotesque self-parody. Named after a recently implemented policy on homosexuality in the US Armed Forces, it’s a gem. Not a brightly sparkling perfectly cut gem, of course, but rough-edged and scratched. The CD itself sets the tone, bearing an image of an abandoned pair of stilettos lying on a city street taken by Brokaw’s replacement in Codeine Doug Scharin. Lyrically Zedek continues to dredge her mind for words laced with menace, bitterness and disillusionment to sing in her characteristically deep-voiced bruised rasp; musically, with Codeine producer Mike McMackin on board, it’s a slower, more lugubrious and more experimental collection of songs, though still prone to bursts of lacerating violence. Seven-minute-long closer ‘Arrive’ is the highlight, ugliness distilled into something approaching beauty.

Two more Come albums followed – 1996’s brilliantly titled Near Life Experience (which saw Brokaw venturing into vocal duties on ‘Secret Number’ and ‘Shoot Me First’) and 1998’s longer and marginally more sedate Gently Down The Stream – but neither record quite matches up to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Unfortunately, neither did sales ever remotely match up to critical acclaim, and when Come went into permanent hiatus their status as a cult band of the post-grunge era was cemented. Zedek has since released solo material – as has Brokaw, whom I saw supporting J Mascis in Nottingham four years ago, when he played his song ‘Recidivist’ from Gently Down The Stream to (in essence) an audience of one: moi - but the real recognition she so richly deserves still seems elusive.

... Zero B - 'Lock Up' (Del)

A beat nicked from a 70s funk record. And sped up. A lot. A bassline that's completely out of tune with the rest of the record. Bleepy bits. Cow bells. Whistles. A hands-in-the-air synth breakdown. Ah, that'd be "Old Skool Hardcore" for you then. And this is one of the all-time greats.

One of those dance tunes that does just enough, keeps it devilishly simple and hits the spot. You can see the fields full of ravers going bonkers to this one. I wasn't of course. I was 12, and most probably tucked up in bed worrying about my maths homework. Still, the fact that it still sounded great to me several years later when I discovered it on the FFRR Classics compilation shows just how ace it is.

It's also the soundtrack to the last time a youth movement dared to stand up to the establishment. A time when people really did believe that everything was going to change. It did, naturally, thanks to the Criminal Justice Act, and the banning of congregations and "repetitive beats". The rave scene had to go legit or be wiped out. And wonderfully daft records like this began to fade away, as the scene splintered, with hardcore going either cartoon ridiculous (happy hardcore) or chin-stroking trainspotter serious (drum 'n' bass). To say "they don't make em like this any more" wouldn't be strictly true, because some people still do (usually in Germany, for some reason), but no-one takes any notice. Which is a bit of shame really.

… ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by Bauhaus (and other superior cover versions) (James)

Oddly, I think I heard the Bauhaus version first. As much as I think that Bowie – especially during the 70s – was nothing less than a genius; and furthermore, as much as I think that Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was monumental both as a song and as an album, I still think that Bauhaus’s version is better. Just in case you think it is just me: many Bowie fans (read: obsessives) that I have met have concurred (and that includes my wife).

Bauhaus’ version is simply more muscular, and contains more hubris than the original. It captures the excess of the song – the sheer rock ‘n’ roll-ness of it. In comparison, Bowie’s version is just a little tame. Play them back to back – I think that the conclusion is inescapable.

But this got me trying to think of other superior cover versions, and what it is about them that gives them that extra push over the original. The first conclusion I came to is that they are quite thin on the ground. Bad covers are a dime-a-dozen; decent ones are not that uncommon; but covers that leap over the inspiration of the original are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Covers that are better than the originals seem to add some specific quality. It could a quality already present in the original – such as with ‘Ziggy Stardust’; or it could be a whole new quality. An example of this could be ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklyn. Aretha took a damn good song, and gave it a whole new dimension by shifting the gender. Suddenly, a great soul song that had vaguely misogynist tendencies became a feminist anthem with such power that the original became almost forgotten. Another example would be Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ covered by Jimi Hendrix. The original, whilst lyrically very strong is musically hopelessly weak, but Hendrix’s version on Electric Ladyland sears into the consciousness with all the fire of the apocalypse.

In recent years, Johnny Cash, has proved himself a master at creating the superior cover version. In these, he has both taken away from the originals and added something that is very difficult to create – perspective. Two obvious examples will suffice: ‘In My Life’ spars the original to the bone, but for the rawness, it sounds so much more authentic. When Cash sings the lines “All these places have their moments / With lovers and friends I still can recall / Some are dead and some are living / In my life I’ve loved them all”, it sounds painfully real to him in away that it never could to Lennon in his twenties. Similarly, ‘Hurt’ outstrips Trent Reznor’s original in so many ways it is hardly worth discussing.

There are lessons here to the compilers of the manifold tribute CDs that seem to be appealing. I have several in my collection, but with the exception of one or two, most gather dust. The principle fault is that they treat the originals like Gus Van Sant; following step by step, but forgetting that music is a living, breathing thing. Songs need fresh inspiration to bring them to life again – otherwise they simply remain a thin reminder of what was so good about them in the first place.

… Zine-writing (and the degrees of separation from ZZ Top) (Skif)

Considering our subjective perspectives during this series, I have no qualms (but perhaps should) in supplying an autobiographical timeline highlighting what I consider my most vivid musical milestones.

When I was a nipper, the first band I really loved was the Pet Shop Boys, which I take some pride in still, but I had to rely on Santa for their records. I was also very fond of Queen, and I still think their ability to score huge hits with ambitious songs that rarely sounded the same (if you ignore Brian May’s guitar solos) is easy to forget, but same theory about Father Christmas’s whims. I remember writing into the evening local radio DJ to play ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ because I’d heard it as an entry theme for one of the performers at a night of professional wrestling at Portsmouth Guildhall. Klondyke Kate, I believe it was. 25 stone of toned athlete, and evil to the core. Booo.

However, the first band that I remember actively going out and buying myself, the band that tipped me into the world of active musical consumerism, was ZZ Top. It is my great regret that it is now 14 years later, half a lifetime, and I still can’t grow a good quality beard. I dug their blues that had been brought roaring into the plush 80s. Where it stayed, bless ‘em.

This got me into guitars and the influence of friends brought me to Metallica! Kerrang! And denim jackets covered in vaguely satanic patches! Oh and one blue ZZ one that soon got laughed at and hastily unstitched. Perhaps it was then, during my college days, that I sought to perhaps expand my mind a little, and used to spend all my money shovelling £1 CD and 7” singles into my HMV basket just to check bands out. Found some good ‘uns that way, The Fall and Compulsion making the biggest impression in the long run. The influence of Mark Radcliffe and Lard’s late night Radio One show also pushed me away from metal and closer to the big expanse we call “alternative”, and would eventually take in the country and western music that I had originally rebelled against and despised ‘cos my parents liked it, as well as folk, electronica, “world” music, and pretty much anything, really.

This explorative thirst got me hooked up with the student mag once I ended up at Pompey Uni and links being forged with the Portsmouth music scene. Chance meetings and svengali figures convinced me to release some music via our rag Pugwash, but this eventually morphed into an entirely separate record label, Elastic Fiction, run from home and entirely for the benefit of acts from the Portsmouth and South Hampshire area, oh and possibly my ego. The nature of this post suggests so.

There is only so successful a “local” label can be and eventually it had to be killed off, particularly when I realised that I wasn’t cut out for the business world, and particularly not within the record industry, and also that the label was a bit shit, in truth. It was clear that I was happiest involving myself in music as an observer and a writer, and doing the label thing had brought me into contact with many fanzine writers. Their supportiveness made me think they really were the best people in the world and, being an approval junkie, I fancied being thought of in the same way. God gave me tuneless hands, but at least I can hold a pen straight. Thusly, Vanity Project ‘zine was born, because if I take an interest in something, it can’t just be passive. I know that everyone reading this will understand how it feels to be hooked by music, to be excited about hearing something new and feeling that need to participate.

I, personally, would be fascinated to know what YOU consider your musical milestones. Similarly self-obsessed essays in the comments box please!

The next leap from zine review-writing has clearly been to be involved in something like this A-Z, an opportunity for which I have been grateful. Thanks to the organisers of this site and my fellow contributors. Oh, and to three hirsute Texan bluesmen for unwittingly setting me off in this direction.

… Zissou (Swiss Toni)

‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’ to be exact, the 2004 film starring the incomparable Bill Murray and a stellar supporting cast including Willem Defoe, Anjelica Houston, Owen Wilson and Jeff Goldblum. The film tells the story of an oceanographer on the trail of the mythical shark that killed his partner… It’s a good film, but it’s not really the film that I want to talk to you about. Well, not entirely. This being the A-Z Of Music, I suppose you’ll be expecting me to write about the soundtrack. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption, and I suppose that’s exactly what I am going to do. Sort of.

I want to talk about Seu Jorge.

Seu Jorge is the Brazilian musician and actor who appears in the film as one of the crew on board Steve Zissou’s boat. I’m not sure if he actually has any lines, but his contribution to the film is absolutely immense. Why? Because the film is interspersed throughout with shots of Seu Jorge lounging onboard the boat gently strumming an acoustic guitar and quietly singing Portuguese cover versions of classic David Bowie songs.

It sounds distinctly unpromising on paper, but somehow it works. There are no sacred cows here: ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Starman’, ‘Five Years’, ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘When I Live My Dream’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ - all come in for the Seu Jorge treatment. All are performed by this slightly shambolic looking guy with a sailor’s cap, an acoustic guitar and a fag hanging from the corner of his lips. All work remarkably well.

It’s one of those perfect synchronicities between film and soundtrack, and I can’t quite decide if it’s the film that makes the songs, or the songs that make the film. On the one hand, the film definitely wouldn’t be the same without the songs, but on the other hand, several of the songs appear on the soundtrack, but they sound a bit odd away from the context of the film.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack isn’t worth a look though - as well as those Seu Jorge covers, it does have some wicked instrumentals by Sven Libaek to offer, as well as ‘Search And Destroy’ by Iggy & The Stooges AND –as if that wasn’t enough – it has a Scott Walker song. Then, right at the end, as if to show us what we’ve been missing, we get original Bowie version of ‘Queen Bitch’, and it brings the house down.

I ask you: what more could you want?

It’s a pretty decent film too.

Is that it? Are we done now? Can I go home?

Ladies and gentlemen – it’s been an honour and a pleasure from start to finish. Are we back to A next week…?

… ‘Zorba The Greek’ (Paul)

As the curtain falls on this 26 (or thereabouts) week journey through music it's time to go out with a bang, and what better way for us all to finish than dancing arm in arm to the theme music to ‘Zorba The Greek’?

The song itself used to form a glorious curtain call to the Student Night at Rock City in partnership with the theme from ‘The A-Team’ (although I'm a few months too late to nominate that.)

So without further ado I give us ‘Zorba The Greek’ to see us charge into the night.

The burger van awaits...

… The Zutons podcast (drmigs)

In this last post on the A-Z Of Music it feels fitting to make a nod to the future. Or at least the future of podcasting. I like podcasts; they're a simple way to listen to media when you want to, rather then when it is available. For the uninitiated, think of podcasts as a listen again facility that you can download. However, it is also more than that; short programmes are being made solely for podcasting. Amongst such podcasters are The Zutons.

The Zuton podcasts are five to ten minute short documentaries on specific subjects. Four have been made to date on the subjects of 'Track By Track', 'Recording The Album', 'Making The Video' and 'The Story So Far'. Cynics will immediately say that these podcasts are just a clever marketing trick, which may well be true. But hands up, who doesn't like Guinness adds? So following that argument, not all marketing is necessarily bad.

The good thing about these four podcasts is that they don't assume prior in-depth knowledge about The Zutons, just a little interest in the band. Personally, I liked their first album without being an ardent fan. I thought the saxophone brought liveliness to the modish sound to which they aspire. Also, the vocalist has a nice curiosity to his voice (which always helps). So, to their credit, they do manage to bring some of their personality to their sound.

The four podcasts explore the inspirations behind the music, and the genesis of their sound. This, like the extraordinary Old Surber Station podcast, does add something to the appreciation of the music. For the anoraks, there's also the usual biog and “this is how we met” stories. But in the main they concentrate on the music and the events surrounding its recording.

It helps that the Zuton podcast is professionally produced. So many podcasts fall down due to their poor production. This finished edge to them certainly makes them stand out from much of the dross that is available. And whilst the band members aren't naturally charismatic, there's enough to sustain interest.

You can tell from my backhanded complements that I'm not massively taken by these Zuton podcasts. They're good, without necessarily being great. What I applaud about them though is their eagerness to embrace new avenues of media. Undoubtedly this will boost their sales, but it also makes their music available to new audiences, and provides a means for the interested to get more out of their music. Hopefully more bands will follow this trend. Bands have long since embraced the internet to great effect, with Gorillaz, The Flaming Lips and The Raconteurs being particular favourites of mine. It'd be nice to think that podcasting will take off in a similar way to band websites. Then it'd be as easy to get to know the people and inspirations behind the music as it is to get hold of the music.

… zzzzz (Jez)

Although in many respects I was a late starter, I rarely went to bed alone in my formative years. To the surprise of my folks my initial reluctance to go to bed transformed to eagerness one Christmas night. I’d received my first radio. It was a tiny MW affair with an all-important earplug allowing me unlimited forbidden listening during the hours of darkness.

LED illuminated my undercover world, and when I discovered some of the stations were broadcasting illegally offshore the illegitimacy of my actions was enhanced. For the first time I was experiencing feelings of independence.

My nocturnal activities taught me about the intimacy of music. I could imagine the weird and wonderful places receiving the BBC’s World Service when I’d only been to the end of the road. Nighttime was the right time for the creeps to crawl out of my radio’s speaker. The sounds bore little relation to the rigid daytime playlists. Most young boys experience mind expansion under their bedsheets, and in many respects I was the same, but I had DJs with me. Although, thankfully, Jonathon King stayed away.

I’ve upgraded from my original radio to one with a “sleep” setting, causing it to fade gradually. My partner and I have different sleep patterns. She’s an early bird, I’m a night owl. She sleeps heavily enough for me to be able to sneak into bed, hit the “sleep” button, close my eyes and listen to the soporific tunes my late night friends play. Maybe it’s The Blue Nile, or Miles Davis, or Kings Of Convenience lulling me off to sleep, but when half an hour is up the music slowly quietens to be replaced by my partner softly breathing, as I finish my shift and the early birds prepare to take over with their altogether different listening matter.


* * * * *

A perfect conclusion, don't you think?

Thanks to Pete, Caskared, Del, James, Skif, Swiss Toni, Paul, drmigs and Jez for their contributions this week and over the course of the A-Z, and to Del, Phill, Jonathan S, Jonathan B, Damo, Steve, RussL and Alison (to whom we owe special thanks as the person who came up with the concept).

Hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed receiving contributions and taking part myself.

So, that's the A-Z done with - but never fear, there will be a new collaborative feature appearing here sometime in the not-too-distant future. Just got to take a well-earned break and figure out what it will be...

(Incidentally, if you're a fan of football as well as music and don't think you'll be able to do without a regular dose of alphabetical action, our very own Swiss Toni and his accomplice Lord Bargain have just started an A-Z Of Football on their site Cheer Up Alan Shearer. The first installment can be found here. Drop them an email if you'd like to join in.)

Super grass


(Yes, this is long, long overdue...)

I'm not sure whether or not it still exists, but there used to be a club called Pieces in Nottingham. This inevitably led to hilarious exchanges about whether or not you were going to Pieces.

Well, it's along similar lines that I report I have now heard The Voices. That's Cardiff's The Voices, by the way, not this lot, who cite Coldplay and Oasis amongst their influences.

By contrast, Cardiff's The Voices might as well be from another planet as well as another country. Taking their cue from Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine and the sort of usual suspects that get me nodding my head, they fashion a dense, effects-laden and virtually vocal-less noise not a million miles from Spotlight Kid.

Comprising two male guitarists (one the spit of Jason Pierce) flanking a female keyboard player, they get through just four songs in the course of a half-hour set. The first, a long droning beast, is effortlessly impressive, as is the last, at the climax of which the keyboardist reverts to electronic drums. Another Cardiff band to write home about, then.

I first saw headliners Dead Meadow two years ago when they supported Mogwai on the second leg of the Happy Music For Happy People tour, and it's clear that a few things have changed for a band beloved of Super Furry Animals and Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre (amongst others).

Firstly, though Cory Shane, the second guitarist whom I suspected then wasn't a full-time member of the band, played on their latest album, he's not here tonight so they're back to being a threesome, at least temporarily.

And secondly, they've evidently started to write some songs. I'm guessing that the shorter, more neatly constructed tracks aired tonight hail from their fourth LP Feathers. They're all fine and well, and certainly still at an interesting remove from their post-hardcore-obsessed Washington DC brethren - but what is actually most enjoyable tonight is the Black-Sabbath-pre-Ozzy's-hair-dye-and-coke-phase-meets-blues-meets-psychedelia of their earlier records.

Whereas appearing before Mogwai on Rock City's biggest stage they seemed a little lost and remote, in this intimate room packed full with an enthusiastic Friday night crowd, and on a stage shrouded in green smoke, they are instantly at home.

Jason Simon's lyrics are barely audible given the noise they kick out, but no-one's bothered as the trio kick into another twisting, grooving jam that has my guitar-playing companion drooling into his beer and the rest of us nodding in time like dazed but deliriously happy puppets. Behind the kit Stephen McCarty, who appears to have gone feral, gradually morphs into John Bonham as the set progresses, and bassist Steve Kille hops his strange hop in front of an audience lapping up what his band are feeding us.

A fine way for Kille to celebrate his birthday, and a fine way for us to spend a Friday night.

Now to order a copy of Shivering King And Others, methinks...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: Y

Y is for …

… Yellow Brick Road (Caskared)

Oh, where to even begin? I’ll start with ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ rather than launch straight in with the Captain Beefheart, or Eminem, or Moy, or Harold J Peders, or Kidzone, or Allegro Milano, or Cliff Ames and Kyle Andersen, or Pinky Skeleton, or Crash Alley, or Brian Withycombe, or The Jesus Trip, or A’ State Hustlers, or The Shadows, or Dalva D, or Chad Lawson, or Elton John, or the “tribute to classic rock” band called Yellow Brick Road, or any of the others who have been inspired in some way by this enigmatic paving.

‘The Wizard Of Oz’ was an incredible feast of a film. Why? Because because because because. I still gasp everytime I re-realise it came out in 1939. Although not the first film to be in glorious technicolour, it used the medium brilliantly: Dorothy Gale is swept up from sepia toned Kansas by a tornado landing in a rainbow-coloured fantastical place. In musical logic, of course, Dorothy meets a lion, scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion and they follow the yellow brick road – well you would. “Follow the yellow brick road / Follow the yellow brick road” wind throughout the film. The music is sumptuous throughout, and Judy Garland voice carried her solos with emotion and enduring sincerity when she was just sixteen years old. The tin man has a bit of an accent shift due to dubious aluminium powder poisoning the original actor, but apart from that it still stands up as a pretty seamless production.

And the yellow brick road itself? It’s the gold standard, Oz is an ounce and it’s an allegorical protest against bimetallism – the wicked witch has silver shoes; or the yellow brick road is the walk to justice through using our hearts, our heads and our courage, and our small black dog, loyalty probably, and gingham, um, the matrix of interweaving elements creating an abomination of a pattern, oh but I like gingham, er. And apparently nothing to do with the synchronicity of the Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon if played as a soundtrack. But the idea of the yellow brick road and its spiralling munchkin-celebrated end at the entrance to the Emerald City is iconic.

The film was not instantly well received but gained an enduring notoriety and many musicians have referenced it but most famously by Elton John, which has in turn been covered ad nauseum. Elton John’s double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was written with Bernie Taupin and took twists and turns on their journey through musical styles just as all good prog-rock should. I’m not a fan, but the titular track is a cracking piece of singalong camp… much like its inspiration.

… Yellow Magic Orchestra – ‘Computer Games’ (Del)

Beep beep beep beep. The city is Tokyo. The year is 1980. A whole new generation is being introduced to a new form of music. But it's not records. It's not on the radio. It's computer games.

Who else but Japanese electronic geniuses YMO would take the music behind these primitive disposable video games and turn it into art? Along with the likes of Kraftwerk and The Art Of Noise, their electropop sound was incorporated into hip hop and disco, black music scenes that had never really heard anything like it before. I originally came across this as part of a Grandmaster Flash compilation. Hip hop is the great magpie of music, and takes what it can't find in its own black music heritage from other cultures across the world. YMO continue to influence artists across the board today, being sampled left, right and centre. You only have to listen to the dense electronic production of Timbaland or The Neptunes to see the fingerprints of these electropop pioneers.

I love starting a DJ set with its myriad bleeps and squeaks, like an explosion in an amusement arcade. It still sounds epic and otherwordly over 25 years later, and always catches people's attention. It's got that wonderful feel of retro futurism, sounding like a future we left behind so we could continue living in the past. An age before Pro Tools, 64 channel mixing desks and 128 bit mastering. Weird how we use more technology in music than ever but few records sound quite as forward-looking as this.

… ‘Yes’ – Manic Street Preachers (Swiss Toni)

You can buy her, you can buy her / This one's here, this one's here, this one's here and this one's here / Everything's for sale…

It seems slightly strange to say it of one of the most successful guitar bands of the 1990s, but the story of Manic Street Preachers always seems to me to be tinged with regret and only partially fulfilled promise. They’ve sold millions of records worldwide but will they be remembered for their music or for the disappearance of their non-guitar-playing guitarist on 1st February 1995?

The Holy Bible is their career in microcosm: released six months before Richey Edwards’s disappearance, it was hailed by many as a masterpiece but sold so badly that it wasn’t even released in the USA. The lyrics, 75% of them written by Richey, deal with some bleak issues indeed: anorexia, the holocaust, self-mutilation…

The only time that I ever saw the band performing the songs from this album was at the Reading Festival in 1995. They had a mid-afternoon slot, but made enough of an impression on me that the first thing that I did on my return was to try to buy the album on its day of release, only to be thwarted by the fact that in those days shops didn’t open on Bank Holidays. I saw the band play live several times after that, but after Richey’s disappearance, the band decided to mostly leave these songs unplayed. Perhaps they were simply too painful.

This album, and the opening track in particular, mean a lot to me personally. In September 1995 I left to spend four months studying Renaissance history in Venice. One of my clearest memories of that time is of walking back to my flat at about 3am in the morning from an evening spent in a bar somewhere across town. My walk took me across the Grand Canal at the Academia Bridge, through Saint Mark’s Square and on past the Bridge of Sighs. Usually this route would be absolutely teeming with tourists and pigeons, but at this time of the day it was completely deserted. The fog was gently rolling off the Lagoon and the Basilica was only visible as a hulking silhouette. It was magnificent, and these are priceless memories.

My soundtrack? Tucked into my coat pocket was my Sony Walkman (with graphic equalisers and bass boost, naturally), and in my Walkman was a cassette of The Holy Bible. As I made my way home I was listening to the opening song over and over again:

Two dollars you rub her tits / Three dollars you rub her ass / Five dollars you can play with her pussy / Or you can lick her tits / Choice is yours”.

… ‘Yesterday’ – The Beatles (Paul)

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away" – The Beatles produce yet another strangely touching lyric, accompanied by a strong melody. A hit is born.

A few years ago, I was invited to a wedding, and the bride and groom to be asked us to list our five favourite songs, presumably so that the DJ could pick some and make sure he was a real crowd pleaser.

Sadly a change of venue meant that the DJ in question never actually made the wedding and the exercise became a pointless one.

However, it really got me thinking. Not, what are my all time top five favourite records (a la ‘High Fidelity’). Instead I was drawn to the question: what are the five most inappropriate songs to play at a wedding?

Which is where The Beatles come in.

I'm always open to suggestions as to what should be included on the list, but so far I'd nominate:

‘Yesterday’ - The Beatles
‘Killing In The Name Of’ - Rage Against the Machine
‘I Hate You So Much Right Now’ - Kelis
‘It's The End Of The World As We Know It’ - REM
‘Smack My Bitch Up’ - The Prodigy

… Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips (drmigs)

Those of you who have followed my polemics will have realised by now that I like my music to have narrative and melody wrapped up in an experimental coherent album. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is the definition of this formula and is awesome (and yes, I say that in light of my comments on superlatives last week). It really is a very good piece of work.

The Flaming Lips had a summer to remember in 2003, much of it built on this album (but some of it was also built on fluffy bunny outfits). Like all good albums its cornerstone is a song of beauty. ‘Do You Realise??’ is one of those tunes that has such a clarity to it that if you open yourself up, it will move you. Simple as that. I don't mean to turn all macabre, but it's the sort of tune that you feel ought to be played at the funeral of someone you are close to. It doesn't wallow in cheap sentimentality; instead, there is an intimacy to the song that concentrates on the merits of living now rather than re-living the past.

The album isn't just one song however. It's a story, the story of… Yoshimi battling the pink robots. Track one, ‘Fight Test’, sets the scene and leads into the vibrancy of the next tracks, ‘One More Robot’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Parts 1 & 2)’. The album then permeates into more ephemeral realms with one track after another following Yoshimi's physical and mental rollercoaster. Yes, all that sounds weird, and it is. But it's a good weird, a weird that is artfully managed within a crafted musical structure.

It's these types of albums that expose the flaws in your generic formula of three tracks that will become hits and seven filler tracks that complete the album and pay the mortgage. That kind of album is lazy and opportunistic. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is the antithesis of that formula.

I feel there isn't much more to say really, as by now I'm preaching to the converted. If you're reading this website, the chances are that you will have come across this album already and formed an opinion on it. If it's not you're cup of tea, fair enough, but for me the album is damn near perfection. I can listen to it when I'm feeling distracted, when I'm feeling intense, or when I'm feeling nothing. It always does the trick. It's awesome.

… Younger Younger 28’s, Havant Asda, 20th August 1999 (Skif)

… or to put it another way, gigs in unusual places. If you’re a humble punter, the gig ideal is about the experience you can get (see my entry for “watching”), while for the bands or promoters it should be about the experience they are able to give. Ideally, this should be more than just be the bands themselves performing, as they could do that in any room above any pub in any town anywhere

For a really memorable gig, the setting plays an important part. I saw about 200 gigs at Portsmouth’s divine Wedgewood Rooms before I headed north but it’s hard to distinguish the memories of them as they all took place in that same visual “box” on the right as you walked in the door and headed, almost certainly, immediately to the bar on the opposite side.

The example I use to squeeze this idea in here is the Younger Younger 28’s, a chirpy synth-pop band led by the wonderfully handled Joe Northern that did the rounds around the end of the last century. One of their success-chasing gambits was to do a tour of supermarkets, and they rocked up at my local Asda (formerly the Havant Hypermarket before US ubër-grocers WalMart started to coil itself like a boa-constrictor around the UK retail market) to play just inside the automatic entry doors. A hack I knew from the local rag was also in attendance so in certain respects their publicity gambit was working. They reeled off a short set, including their single, to a gathered audience of about 30 people of which probably only the News journo, Claire, and I were there actually to see them. Then they left us with our empty baskets to go about our lives. Not long after, Asda knocked down the store and rotated it 90°. If only YY28’s had turned heads so significantly. As it was, they gave up the chase in 2001.

The flaw in my discussion here is that despite the venue, I can’t remember anything about the Younger Younger 28’s music now; aside from the fact you could position it somewhere between Bis and Showaddywaddy. Point is, I can’t remember their songs and I don’t think it inspired me to buy any records either. However, I am not suggesting that the setting for a gig “makes” your enjoyment of the music; after all the experience of hearing live music is slightly different from the experience of the “event”, if you get me.

Saying that, I’m sure many Glastonbury regulars would say different. Indeed, I count myself very fortunate that my only experience of Low in a live environment was in the Union Chapel, London on a snow-blanketed Valentines Day. Being sat in the pews (freezing, thanks to the outside conditions) made the experience of their sound much more special and memorable than if it had been in an identikit university venue or such.

Whether it makes the event memorable, or increases the spectacle and aural pleasure provided by a band’s music, I am in full praise of odd venues. I remember seeing a Czech folk band playing in Cesky Krumlov when I was hostelling there. They were sat round the picnic table that was shoehorned into the front room of a Vltava-side bar that wasn’t itself much bigger than said table. Around 20 of us were able to squeeze in around it, some of the other punters sat around the table with the band as they played. Wonderful, as were the skiffle band playing a brilliant version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ on the King Charles bridge across that same river 100 miles north in Prague. My two favourite memories of that holiday, I reckon.

I also liked my one year at the Truck festival too, not so much the main stage set up on the titular vehicle, but the fact the punk and hardcore kids were annexed to the sweaty barn ghetto, where occasionally they would appear, apple-cheeked and glistening, while us more twee types poked our heads beneath the flaps of stage-tents that would struggle to comfortably house a nuclear family.

Edinburgh in full festival flow is always fun too, with any space capable of housing at least four punters considered a viable venue. One year I ended up in a fully tiered and seated venue set up in the back of a lorry. It was a one-woman show. To a one-man audience. Some of you might point out that this is a music A-Z but a decent proportion of the Fringe brochure each year is taken up by musical artistes who, like every other performer, can end up doing their shtick in churches, office buildings, Masonic lodges, on the street or such. A couple of years ago, one comedian did a show for four people a day in his Mini. Know your audience.

This summer’s festival promises the most bizarre venue yet, the Udderbelly to be put up in Bristo Square. It will be a giant marquee in the shape of an upturned, purple cow. I don’t care if no musical acts play in it; I feel duty bound to tell everyone I meet about it regardless. In addition to this, the Fringe programme’s venue listing this summer will also feature a swimming pool, a bouncy castle and a tree.

Any other suggestions of odd places you’ve seen live music, do please leave them in the comments box.

… Young Marble Giants (Phill)

There is a temptation when creating and recording music to cram as much in as possible. More sounds, more ideas, more instruments, more samples, more, more, more.

Young Marble Giants were something else entirely. They were a band who valued quiet restraint, rather than empty bluster. For YMG, space and silence were something to be treasured and revelled in, only further serving to emphasise the icy, pure, clear voice of singer Alison Stratton.

In a 1980 article written in Sounds Magazine. Dave McCollough said: "Images the music makes are: tiny Welsh tearooms, childhood fear, coffee-bar intimacy, murder, lost love, sleep, tension and longing constantly underlied by an enduring eeriness in the music".

From South Wales, Young Marble Giants formed in the post punk era of 1978, comprising the aforementioned Alison Stratton and the Moxham brothers Philip and Stuart. Isolated in the Welsh valleys, they created stark, otherworldly music that transported the listener to somewhere else, yet was as cold and emotionless as the provincial world they were seeking to escape from.

YMG were / are an enigma. Their debut album Colossal Youth was released in 1980 on Rough Trade and is a thing of understated beauty, comprising fifteen gems of minimalist pop. The record remains a masterpiece and was / is like nothing else that came before or after. Simple, intimate and as sparse as an Arctic tundra, most songs just comprised vocals, bass and a guitar or organ, with perhaps a drum machine for backing.

In YMG songs, no note or lyric is wasted. Songs are skeletal and succinct. Each song says everything that the band wants to say, it is a statement of fact. There is no debate and no need for anything else.

After Colossal Youth the band released a few more tracks and EPs, before splitting up. Their career was a mirror image of one of their songs: short and to the point. Nothing wasted, never outstaying its welcome, but leaving the listener craving more.

Today, even in the wake of “Cool Cymru”, the band are largely unknown. However their influence on bands like The Sundays, Goldfrapp and Portishead is clear. In his journals, Kurt Cobain listed Colossal Youth as one of the ten records that changed his life: "This music relaxes you, it's total atmospherics. It's just nice, pleasant music. I love it. The drum machine has to have the cheesiest sound ever. I had a crush on the singer for a while - didn't everyone?"

Who are we to disagree with Kurt...

… Young Parisians (and other live bootlegs) (Pete)

There's something rather endearing about the live bootleg isn't there? Yes, I admit that it shows a complete disregard for copyright, but the way I see it, if the band / record company don't want to record a live performance then someone else should be able to, and release it as well. But, back to the topic at hand. Your average bootleg will have a dodgy cover, the sound quality will vary and if you're particularly lucky, a few typos as well.

My copy of Radiohead's Young Parisians, recorded at their Amnesty International benefit concert back in 1999, is a prime example. The cover image was almost certainly scanned from an issue of Q, the sound is iffy on the later tracks (that were recorded elsewhere), while the tracklist includes the obvious typo of 'No Suprises', and also features the added bonus of a new song called 'Lust'.

Still, I've been always been quite lucky; out of the ten or so bootlegs I've bought, every single one of them has been listenable, and I've been able to appreciate an example of what the band in question sound like live. Certain friends of mine haven't been quite so lucky though; purchasing a live Supergrass recording which must have literally been recorded in the venue's toilets. Alternatively, there was the Stone Roses CD that was in fact a thrash metal band playing somewhere in Germany.

Sadly, it seems as though in this era of iTunes, file-sharing, music weblogs and live sessions from artists’ basements, the bootleg has all but vanished. At least I haven't seen any on sale for ages, which is a sad loss indeed.

… ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ – Sleater-Kinney (Ben)

As my record collection readily testifies, and as the other week’s waxing lyrical about Codeine graphically illustrated, I’m very partial to a miserable bunch of bastards. Paranoia, depression, mistrust, fear, self-disgust and misanthropy are writ large on nearly every album, single, EP I own. I’m also far from averse to bands who take what they do extremely seriously, who invest (and occasionally burden) their music with statements of significant weight – whether political, philosophical, emotional or otherwise.

Which is where Sleater-Kinney’s 2000 single ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ comes in.

It’s a perky, bursting-at-the-seams-with-life, exuberant-in-extremis punk-pop gem. Its spirit is simply irrepressible. Regardless of your mood, it is guaranteed to contort your face into a smile. Founded on Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s neatly interlocking guitars, Janet Weiss’s thumping beat and one of those inch-perfect solos (you know what I mean), it’s the perfect song to put on before painting the town a particularly vivid shade of red.

But more than that, it’s a tongue waggled goadingly yet playfully in the po-faces of those male “artists” within the world of indie rock that Sleater-Kinney co-inhabit, a pinprick to the self-inflated balloon of their pomposity. The song’s lyrical message, like the music to which it’s set, is direct and arresting. “You’re no rock ‘n’ roll fun”, Tucker begins, “like a party that’s over before it’s begun”, going on to taunt her addressee for refusing to “hang out with the girl band”. The second verse -You’re no rock ‘n’ roll fun / Like a piece of art that no-one can touch / Your head is always up in the clouds / Writing your songs / Won’t you ever come down?” – puts it even more clearly.

As a whole, the song might then be translated as: “Oi, Yorke, get your head out of your arse, stop being so precious about everything, and COME FUCKING PARTY!”.

What made ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ even more striking is that it came from a band doggedly faithful to their early 90s roots in feminist politics and the American riot grrrl and queercore scenes. And that on the album which followed its release, All Hands On The Bad One, it is sandwiched between a song about the eating disorders of teenage girls (‘Youth Decay’) and a song about the cynical marketing of the riot grrrl image for commercial gain (‘#1 Must Have’). That hardly shrieks “FUN” at you, does it?

But, as the wry reference to “” in post-feminist call-to-arms ‘#1 Must Have’ indicates, Sleater-Kinney might often be fired up and itching to get something across, but they never resort to the humourless harangue or sociology-lecture-disguised-as-a-song to do so.

‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ works in perfect tandem with the album’s opener, ‘Ballad Of A Ladyman’, written in response to the band’s appearance at the inaugural Belle & Sebastian curated Bowlie Weekender in 1999: “I could be demure like girls who are soft / And boys who are fearful of getting an earful / But I gotta rock!”. Note: not “I wanna rock”, but “I gotta rock”. It’s a matter of necessity.

‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ is a clenched fist with painted fingernails punching the air, and an often timely and much-needed poke in the eye for both soppy sensitive songwriters who take everything (including themselves) too seriously, and for those who, like myself, do too – and as such it’s one of my most prized singles.

… Youth (by way of Yazz) (James)

I remember standing next to the DJ box in Liverpool’s The State Ballroom in about 1987. I was a goth, and while my mind was relatively broad at the time – courtesy of my mother’s old vinyl collection, I could have fitted well the old dictum “I know what I like and I like what I know”. I was sixteen years old.

The State was known a year or two earlier as a fairly cool yet mildly indie nightclub. At least that was how it had been billed. (It was featured in the film ‘Letter To Brezhnev’, by the way.) And while it still played the occasional Smiths tune, and other examples of mainstream indie music, dance music was creeping in.

So I was standing there and arguing, in some annoying fashion no doubt, that this dance music was shit, and where had the guitars gone. Now this argument was already technically redundant to me – I already had dance music in my record collection; Propaganda, Depeche Mode, even Dead Or Alive (who were produced by Stock, Aitken & Waterman no less). But somehow this fact eluded me – probably because they were considered cool in some fashion, or more serious, or wore make-up (a big bonus point for me in those days).

This is one version of “me” from my memory that I would like to erase – like the one that told my girlfriend’s friend that I was seeing someone else, truly not expecting her to pass on the devastating news. The reason I would so like to pretend that this argument in The State never happened is because that same arrogance and bloody-minded denial of the facts so pisses me off now.

I am a teacher, and since I am remotely young, I find myself in conversations with students about music. Hip hop (of the least exciting variety) and R ‘n’ B is de rigeur. The school has one notional goth, who genuinely is weird (and not in any good way), and since my appreciation for these genres is perhaps more… erm… nuanced, conversations often hit a fairly obnoxious dead-end. They are obnoxious because if I ever try to extend tastes just a little this way, or a little that (maybe a little old-school, or electro-beat, or whatever), the revulsion is immediate. Reasoning is useless.

The similarity between me in The State and my students, is, of course, age. Six months after this argument, Coldcut featuring Yazz released ‘Doctorin’ The House’. I haven’t listened to this in years, but I recall it being infectiously catchy and heralding some grand new thing. I couldn’t resist it, and in the months that followed, I bought records by Coldcut, S’Express, Bomb The Bass and any notion of my hatred of dance music was lost. It remained perhaps, a side interest, but the tall walls that separated me from it were torn down. Over the years that followed, other barriers have been removed, but I realised that such antipathy to a style of music was not natural for someone that considered themselves a music lover.

I also imagine that in six months, or a year, or even five, most of these students that have obstinately declared all but 50 Cent inferior will gradually extend themselves, if not a lot, then almost certainly a bit. “Youth”, as Oscar Wilde said, is indeed “wasted on the young” Wait until they grow up… then maybe they’ll buy Celine Dion records – but no, that is a different problem.

* * * * *

Thanks to Caskared, Del, Swiss Toni, Paul, drmigs, Skif, Phill, Pete and James for their contributions this week.

One more week to go...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: X

A week later than anticipated - sorry for the hiatus, folks...

X is for …

… X chromosome (Swiss Toni)

I sometimes reflect upon the fact that something is definitely missing from my record collection. I’ve got music in almost every conceivable genre: samba, indie, reggae, hip-hop, heavy metal, indie, lounge, rap, pop, punk, classical… Hell, I’ve even got an album of classic Wurlitzer tunes. There’s loads and loads of variety in there, but they’ve almost all got one thing in common – the Y chromosome.

I would say that at least 85% of my music library is predominantly the work of men.

Sure, there are some female artists represented in there, of course there are. Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Dusty Springfield, Aretha… but now I’m already starting to struggle to name the others off the top of my head and I’m going to have to check. Um. There’s some Portishead in there, Belly, The Breeders, Sleeper, one song by Hole, one song by Natalie Imbruglia. Er. Perhaps some Kylie. KT Tunstall. There’s probably some more, but not many more.

I don’t really know why this is. Is the music business sexist? Are men given more opportunities than women? Are there proportionally more records made by men than by women? Do records by men sell more than records by women? Or is it simply that I have prejudiced ears? Actually, I definitely have prejudiced ears (although I prefer to call them "discerning") but are they sexist?

Maybe everyone has bigoted ears. Perhaps women have a natural inclination to buy records by female artists.

Who knows?

Before you judge me too harshly; before you write me and my bigoted ears off as relics of a less enlightened time, I must ask you all to do one thing: have a look at your own collections and ask yourself if you too might be the owner of prejudiced ears.

… Xerox Teens (Skif)

The raison d’etre of this A-Z is to bring personal histories and interests into union. Share the wealth, and share a part of yourself. That’s why I enjoy being a part of it.

However as much as I like donning the ‘All Our Yesterdays’ flat-cap of rose-tinted nostalgia, I think generally that I prefer the possibilities of what I might hear tomorrow over the memories of what I heard last week. Running a fanzine puts me in a privileged position in this respect, and it’s always a real thrill to receive, usually unsolicited, another tune that can really flick the switch; bands that sound that little bit different; bands that sound genuinely exciting. Well, to me anyway. I have to acknowledge that what is genius to me is tuneless bilge to another. However, as we have seen from the entries thus far in our alphabetically sequential series, personal interaction is at the heart of what makes our various favoured musics special. It is a love thing, after all.

While this remains a trip down memory lane, as I can’t tell you about what I haven’t heard yet, I thought rather than wax nostalgic, I’d tell you about a band who’ve excited me recently, having appeared through my letter-box out of nowhere. It also gets me out of a lexically tight spot, so praise be to Xerox Teens for their timing.

First of all came a 7” (limited to 300 folks!!!) titled ‘Round’, and what a tune ‘Round’ turned out to be. A cyclical rumble wheels around the repeated Moogy pokes to the ribs and the intense theremin strokes. At the centre, is an MES-like rock ‘n’ drawl fighting to overcome the burst of hyenic, unhinged laughter. B-side ‘Man, It’s Hard To Beat A Woman’ is slightly more straightforward (only slightly, mind) surf-blues beefing ‘Monty-Python’ mother-in-law earache.

Another thing I’m in favour of is bands that don’t mind being a little prolific, as a Xerox Teens EP followed not long after and continued the fine work showed on the first release. The bad-ass bass and thug beats on ‘Darlin’ gather like hoolies outside a railway station while an excitable, attention deficient darts in zig-zags through their number, brass-synths and a steel band caught on the back of his shoe. ‘My Favourite Hat’ favours woody percussion and wriggles, tapping at its teeth with a spoon. ‘Sun Comes Up’ sounds like Devo’s ‘Whip It’ being melted over a spit, the soggy plastic then wound around broken talk radio. To finish was ‘Ba (Ba-Ba Ba)’ which captured the sound of colliery workers dolled up for a smooth Friday night at the lounge bar.

Tremendous, and just the ticket. As you’ll gather, I recommend them highly.

You might hate them, but I’d hope that you don’t.

… Xfm (Caskared)

I lived in London for a couple of years and finally I could tune into the legendary radio station that every indie kid across the land craved, Xfm. The first time I heard about Xfm I was living in the Midlands and they were about to close – a compilation tape to raise money for the station was released and it included ‘Xfm Is Ace’ by The Boo Radleys and The Tindersticks. Something went right, and Xfm was safe and has grown beyond expectations, but what is it?

Xfm is an independent alternative radio station that until last year broadcast only to London, but now outposts in Manchester and Scotland can be found, as well as through cable and online. Growing from a pirate station Q102 they turned into Xfm and became legal and full time in 1997. They supported the various alternative genres and were committed to providing a forum for unsigned acts; they were instrumental in the popularity of a huge number of bands getting decent airplay where the mainstream stations weren’t interested.

Xfm have been booming partly because what was the “alternative” world is pretty mainstream – the charts are riddled with the previously ghettoised guitar bands. Also Xfm nurtured a number of DJs such as Steve Lamacq, ex-Kenickie Lauren Laverne, and the now-poached-by-Virgin Christian O’Connell taking the breakfast show to a point of rivalling national stations (although I’m more a ‘Today’ girl for my breakfast listening). But the thing that makes me tune into Xfm online now I’m not in London is the way they give a home for some of the UK’s best comedians. It’s impossible not to mention that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant met Karl Pilkington at Xfm. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for a while hosted a tremendous show, as did Adam & Joe. I still listen to Jimmy Carr and Iain Morris being fantastic every Sunday.

The Xfm podcasts have been slow in coming but so far promise to become a stronghold of live sets and interviews if Goldfrapp’s is to be used as a bench mark. And the aforementioned Adam & Joe podcast contained a segment on the insane R Kelly DVD that has made me laugh so much I hurt. Xfm, a great place for R ‘n’ B baiting.

… ‘X Offender’ – Blondie (James)

Blondie were my first big musical love. Of course, Debbie Harry played a large part in that, especially once I hit those teenage years. But Blondie appeared in my life in 1979 when I was eight years old. Consequently, Debbie Harry has always been more like an aunt than a pin-up… albeit an inordinately sexy aunt. I was bought amidst a number of other 7”s, ‘Heart Of Glass’ with ‘Rifle Range’ on the B-side.

Within a year or so of picking up that single, I had bought (or acquired through a birthday and Christmas or two) all of the Blondie albums to date. Parallel Lines was obviously a big favourite, containing all the hugest singles of the time, but each of the LPs had their own charms. I liked Plastic Letters a lot, and Eat To The Beat got a lot of play. When Autoamerican was released, I quite like the disco elements. The only LP that remained under-played was their eponymous debut. Overall, it was too raw and lacked either the pop edge of the later LPs, or the energy of Plastic Letters. There were three songs on the LP that I did like, however. ‘In The Flesh’ was cool and sultry, but I was still pre-teen and having Debbie purr in my ears about such things was kind of lost on me. ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ was fun and bitchy, but it was in the midst of side two, which by and large I did not “get” at the time.

Track one side one, however, was a different matter. From the spoken word intro, that reminded me then, and still does, of the 60s girl groups that I caught from my mother’s old 7”s to Jimmy Destri’s insistent Farfisa organ. It remains a perfect pop song. I had NO idea what this song was about – only later did I find out that it was about a sex offender – but I would bounce around my bedroom to the rhythm changes and sing along loudly and pointlessly. This song alone kept the LP near the top of my record collection, as it was the perfect length to put on, play and then return the needle back to the beginning again before ‘Little Girl Lies’ began (a song I still regard weakly).

While I have learned to appreciate the album more, in truth I only really rate it for this song. It still captives me with the intro, the staccato guitar in the chorus, Clem Burke’s drumming (which I still rate very highly) and the classic late 50s style guitar solo. Blondie were always a pop band, and ‘X Offender’ remains amongst their greatest pop songs.

… X-Ray (Pete)

I'll keep it brief(ish) this time. Where is X-Ray? Xfm's music mag [have you and Caskared been conferring, Pete?], which disappeared almost as quickly as it turned up. For about 12 months, if not less, during 2003 and 2004 I finally had a music magazine that fulfilled every one of my wants. It was a nifty small ("handbag") size, its reviews were objective, the interviews didn't involve too much arse-kissing, the hype was kept to a minimum and for the most part it was an entertaining read. Something you could pick up and put down, and happily re-read on the bog (or some other location) a few months later if you so felt so inclined.

Naturally, like every other music magazine it had cover CDs, although the X-Ray CDs were a cut above the rest. Firstly, there was one with every issue, and secondly the compliers were more than happy to ignore obvious choices and instead go for relatively unknown signed and unsigned artists, thereby introducing me to Ambulance Ltd, Franz Ferdinand, Simple Kid and Razorlight among others, a while before they appeared on the radar of the rest of mainstream music press.

Then, all of a sudden, it was gone, leaving only highly vague promises of its return. Something that naturally hasn't occurred (or else I wouldn't be writing this). According to the Xfm website, "X-Ray is on holiday" and will return "as soon as possible". All I can say is that I wish that I too could go on a two year "holiday". Meanwhile, a massive void in the printed music press remains. And I'm still in a huff.

… extraordinary (drmigs)

OK, I'm stretching it again, but it's worth it. You see, by definition, the extraordinary is something that isn't abundant, so I'd argue that its rarity makes it something worth writing about.

In this current age, the superlative is king. Things that are good become the most amazing thing ever, and this is a shame as there's now less and less room in the lexicon to describe special qualities. “Extraordinary”, however, hasn't quite been bastardised yet, although some clarification is needed. Travis covering 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' wasn't extraordinary, it was just genre-bending. Dana International winning Eurovision wasn't extraordinary, it was just gender-bending. And The Crazy Frog wasn't extraordinary, it was just fucking annoying. This is what extraordinary is…

Extraordinary is the Olde Surber Station radio podcast. Now podcasts are a relatively new thing. Not cutting edge, but certainly a current medium. There are all sorts of contemporary rock, hip- hop, indie and house podcasts, but few (maybe only one) devoted to bluegrass, gospel and old-time music. What makes it more unlikely is that it is hosted by a pensioner from mountain country West Virginia.

Jack Lewis and his wife Carol live in the Olde Surber Station, a farmhouse in the Allegheny Mountains by an old railroad. They both play in a band called Oriskany Strings. He plays the washtub bass, and she sings. They're both passionate about old-time music, particularly music from the West Virginian Appalachians. So much so that Jack started broadcasting the Olde Surber Station radio show, which has now morphed into a podcast. It supports independent bluegrass, gospel and old-time music in an attempt to preserve “his” music for future generations.

For those of you who haven't dabbled with podcasting, they are often made by geeky enthusiasts (which is part of their charm). Someone loves something so much that they just want to tell the world about it. As a result podcasts are often littered with a detailed and in-depth analysis of their subject. And this is one of the prominent features of this podcast; how similar in structure it is to other podcasts. It's just another podcast, but an extraordinary podcast.

After listening to a few episodes I already feel educated. My only previous encounter with these genres was on the 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (incidentally it was whilst I was stuck with a persistent Ohwurm from this album, 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain', that I downloaded the podcast.) Now however, I've learned all sorts about the various regional instruments, and before you know it you'll be following his instructions to deconstruct the compositions by simultaneously tapping along to two (or more) instruments. Over and above all this education is the music itself. It's just nice, in a pipe and slippers kind of way. It's music with feeling, music with stories, and music that represents the people of the area. Isn't it nice to live in an age where new experiences are just a click away?

… Xylophone Man (Paul)

Sunday 4th July 2004 was the day when an institution ended: Frank Robinson passed away at the age of 73, taking with him fifteen years of musical history, and a sadly unrecorded back catalogue of tunes.

Doubtless those who knew him personally called him Frank (or something similar, Francis, perhaps) but to the vast majority of people he was Xylophone Man, the most popular (and probably least talented) busker in Nottingham.

Xylophone Man used to sit perched on a little stool, dressed in beige coat and dark hat, and sporting a beard that made it appear like Captain Birdseye had fallen on hard times, and he would busk.

Unlike many buskers, many of whom consider themselves to be talented beyond their actual abilities and who tackle musical works too complex for their limited abilities, Xylophone Man knew his limits.

His limits may have been bashing a few notes out on a child's xylophone, but he did it with charm and grace, and it worked.

He may not have earnt enough money to retire to a large mansion in the Peak District, but it obviously paid well enough to keep him in xylophones and he was always well turned out.

Sadly he passed away, leaving a gap into which nobody else could ever step and many happy memories for the people who visited Nottingham. His last interview can be found here, and he is now fondly remembered with an engraved paving slab in his favourite busking place.

… Xzibit (and mainstream hip-hop in general) (Ben)

Right, just stop me if, at any point in the middle of this, I start to sound like a grumbling Daily Mail reader haunted by visions of imminent social apocalypse. Or like David Cameron.

Stephin Merritt, the man better known as The Magnetic Fields, recently found himself accused of racism by the American critics Jessica Hopper and Sasha Frere-Jones. His crime? Confessing his dislike of hip-hop.

As a gay man, Merritt’s dislike probably stems partly from the openly homophobic attitudes of many of hip-hop’s biggest names, but more significant is his contention that hip-hop is itself inherently racist in that it sells a caricaturised version of black life to white middle-class consumers eager to hear the sounds of the street – in other words, it’s a form of self-debasing prostitution.

This, it’s worth pointing out, is a much more sophisticated argument than Cameron’s trotting-out of that well-used and ridiculously crude “rap lyrics are violent and influence those who listen to them to commit acts of violence” line. It’s also something I find it hard to disagree with.

The obsession with “authenticity” – with the “thug’s life”, with the street – not only results in an ironically distorted picture of black America, it also bores me senseless. The beats may be inventive and forward-thinking, but the lyrics rarely are. Sorry 50 Cent, I don’t care how many caps have been popped in your ass or how many hos you’ve banged. Equally tedious are the majority of hip-hop videos – get yourself some fat gold-toothed playaz, a load of bootylicious ladeez and a few pimped rides and you’re sorted.

Rap originated as a means of marking social superiority, of putting others down while simultaneously raising oneself up, so the braggadocio is at least understandable and “authentic” in itself, though personally I generally find it yawnsome, if not repellent – materialistic, self-important crowing about having the biggest cock. (That said, a clever and witty diss can be a delight, which is why Eminem often raises a smile with me – but of course he’s white…).

If it’s just as bigoted for my record collection to consist predominantly of white artists as it is for it to consist predominantly of men (as Swiss Toni suggests above), then I guess that like Stephin Merritt I’m bigoted, whether consciously or unconsciously. But should something that is above all a matter of aesthetic taste be denounced in quite such strong terms? I doubt it. After all, would it be racist just to proclaim a dislike of the sort of stuff I listen to, the skinny white boy indie?

In that world, “authenticity” is an almost equally serious obsession. To rockists, even slightly uncomfortable ones like myself, it matters that The White Stripes are from Detroit and not a pair of chancers from North London playing music they weren’t practically born into. To Coldplay fans, it matters that Chris Martin means and feels what he sings, that he isn’t just posturing but really is writing from the heart. And the insipid woe-is-me Sixth Form poetry of Starsailor and Keane is, to these ears, just as offensive and tedious as Xzibit telling me “My gun never been shy / That's how gangsters get by / It's either ride or die...”.

Some conclusions, then. Merritt isn’t a racist for expressing a dislike of hip-hop – indeed, he makes some very valid points. However, his attitude is questionable in its sheer dismissiveness. He, like me, is only really exposed to mainstream hip-hop, the most visible artists, and therefore neither of us should be so quick to tar all hip-hop with the same brush – that IS bigoted. How would he feel if a hip-hop fan dismissed The Magnetic Fields out-of-hand together with all other white guitar bands just on the strength of disliking U2 and Coldplay? He and I are just as guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

So, while Merritt’s criticisms ring true of mainstream hip-hop, the lesson to be learnt is that we should both investigate the genre more widely rather than simply writing it off. After all, what happens at the margins and in the footnotes is almost always more interesting.

(Thanks to Jon, Ian and Del, with whom I debated the issue on Silent Words Speak Loudest, for helping me to think it all through.)

* * * * *

So then drmigs - you thought you wouldn't be alone in cheating...

Thanks to Swiss Toni, Skif, Caskared, James, Pete, drmigs and Paul for their contributions this week. 24 down, two to go...