Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: S

S is for …

… Salad (drmigs)

Look up a description of Salad and they'll probably be described as Britpop indie also-rans, but even if that was a fair reflection of them, they were my Britpop indie also-rans. I say mine - they were my friend Paul's really. He'd heard them on Steve Lamacq's show and introduced them to James (he of the red wine) and me. And we three enjoyed Salad whilst the rest of the Sixth Form said "Who? What's the name of their album? Drink Me? Eh? No, you want to be listening to Guns ‘N’ Roses…"

Yes, they were Paul's band, then our band, then when I went to uni – I guess they were my band. There's nothing like your very own band that you can't get enough of, and no-one else has heard of. It's not an elitist thing - it's more like a secret den down the spinney. It's your music that does it for you. It's not some big corporate supergroup that everyone has heard of, and has an opinion of (even before they've heard them) - it's that CD that you like to tune in to because it puts your head in the place you want it to be.

So, to the music. Salad were full of an energy which was underpinned by understated tachycardia-esque bass lines. On top of these were catchy repetitive choruses, nervous riffs and unsettled melodies that complemented the anxiety and uncertainty of their lyrics. The best example of this was the uncomfortable ‘Your Ma (Will Do It)’, their one song that I've never really been 100 % at ease listening to. However, even in that song, Marijne Van Der Vlugt's crystal-clear vocals bind it together, so that even though there was a lot going on, the sound is still coherent. Indeed, it was the energy and clarity of her vocals that made Drink Me work.

Marijne, was the very much the face of the band. Former model and MTV VJ, when live, she held the audience with her persona, and when listened to, she held your attention with her voice. Maybe the best example of her voice was on the Warchild album where Salad sang 'Dream A Little Dream' with Terry Hall. It was beautiful, and showed the better side of Salad.

Sadly, their light was to twinkle and fade away. Although Drink Me was a good album, they never made a big impact, with no identifiable hit singles that mark them out. Their three best songs (IMHO), ‘Motorbike To Heaven’, ‘Drink The Elixir’ and ‘No.1's Cooking’ never got beyond preaching to the converted. With a little more craft and continuity in their songwriting, Salad could maybe have had a bigger impact than they ultimately did. We'll never know. But even though they never made the big time, at least my Britpop indie also-rans kept me happy. Thank you for that Salad.

… Sarah Records (Jonathan B)

It’s 1989 and I am living in a shared student house in drizzle-drenched Wolverhampton. There is just about enough room in my tiny bedroom for a single bed, a wardrobe with the door hanging off, and a stereo I picked up in a second-hand shop for a tenner. Every day my first action on waking up (well, maybe my second action, after lighting up the first of the day’s twenty Silk Cuts while imagining myself to be some kind of indiepop Jean-Paul Belmondo) is to reach over to the turntable and set the crackling needle over the seven-inch single of the same track - Brighter’s ‘Does Love Last Forever’. Three minutes and twenty seconds later I would be ready to come out from under the covers and face the world - at least until an hour or so later when I would catch sight, for the first time of the day, of that cute but unattainable girl with the blue coat and the Pastels badge from out of my Latin American Politics seminar, and remember why it was that I had to listen to songs like ‘Does Love Last Forever’ in the first place.

Brighter were the quintessential Sarah Records band - a bunch of nice, sensitive young men, probably from the Home Counties and certainly sporting second-hand cardigans and floppy fringes, whose stock-in-trade was jangly guitars and thin, reedy but strangely affecting vocals about unrequited love. Their stablemates included Birmingham’s Sea Urchins, who in true indiepop style only ever released one single that was any good at all, but it was an instant classic, the insanely catchy ‘Pristine Christine’. And then there was Another Sunny Day, who probably had a few songs but the only one anyone remembers was one minute and twenty-seven seconds long, and went by the almost-too-Sarah-for-Sarah name of ‘I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist’. Sometimes I would put that one on the turntable first thing in the morning, if I was running a bit late for my French New Wave Cinema lecture, or my timetable foretold of repeated sightings of the cute girl with the Pastels badge.

All of which makes Sarah Records, formed in 1987 by a boy-girl duo of starry-eyed fanzine editors in a basement flat in Bristol, sound like some sort of support group for thin, reedy young college boys who didn’t have a lot of girlfriends. Well I suppose that’s how it worked for me. But there was more to Sarah than lovelorn lyrics and careworn cardigans; these kids were out to change the world. According to a website written by the label’s founders (the names are Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes), the aim of Sarah was “to release 100 of the world’s greatest pop records, to show up all the other labels by doing it properly, and - by means of 7" singles, fanzines, flexidiscs, jigsaws, board-games and inflammatory literature - to raise the moral and political consciousness of the world to such an extent that, when the time came to release that 100th single, the global socialist revolution would be but a mis-timed handclap away”.

Release number one was the aformentioned ‘Pristine Christine’, and number one hundred (accompanied by a full page advert in the NME announcing the voluntary spontaneous combustion of the label) was a compilation, There And Back Again Lane. In between we were introduced to acts like The Field Mice, who would go on to global megastardom (or at least to become a sort of thinking man’s St Etienne, which in indiepop circles amounts to more or less the same thing), and others, like the tuneful Orchids, the jaunty St Christopher, and the simply heavenly Heavenly, who would shimmer only briefly before fading to obscurity.

And that global socialist revolution we were promised? Well that turned out to slightly tricky to organise from a back bedroom in Bristol - but the label did attract a devoted international following, and profoundly influenced a new generation of indiepopsters in far-flung locations. Among modern-day acts, Seattle’s Postal Service, Norway’s Cardigans, Australia’s Lucksmiths and Madrid’s Juniper Moon all show discernible traces of that Sarah sound - while closer to home it is no coincidence that the jingle-jangle second track on Belle & Sebastian’s new LP The Life Pursuit bears the name ‘Another Sunny Day’.

By those who knew and loved them, Another Sunny Day and their ilk - the boy-and-girl-next-door bands who made up the Sarah roster, with their homespun three-minute recordings and home-made three-minute hairstyles - would be remembered forever with lasting and heartfelt affection, even with something approaching gratitude. Certainly Sarah Records will always have a place in my heart. I still occasionally get that Brighter 7-inch out, remove the cover (which in classic Sarah style has no picture of the band, instead featuring a sepia-tinted photograph of what looks like a rain-spattered puddle somewhere in suburban Bristol) and set ‘Does Love Last Forever’ off on the turntable at 45rpm. And then I wonder - whatever did become of that cute girl with the blue coat and the Pastels badge?

… The Saw Doctors (Paul)

Handing me a copy of Parklife, my mate told me he'd filled the remainder of the B-side with some songs by an Irish band. They're great he said, they sing about sport, drinking and women - you'll love them.

So began my appreciation of Galway band The Saw Doctors. I was instantly captivated by ‘How'ya Julia’, a song which deals with the disgraced Bishop of Galway's pursuit of ladies. Other songs on that tape extolled the delights of celebrating the completion of the harvest with a great many drinks, and the pain of never receiving the goalscoring pass you were crying out for.

Needless to say I was hooked.

In the years that have followed, The Saw Doctors have released several fine albums (my personal favourite being their third, Same Oul' Town), and briefly flirted with the UK Singles Chart Top 20 on a couple of occasions. However, the real joy in their music is found when they perform live.

All gigs have a unique feeling, but the numerous Saw Doctors gigs have always had something of a special party atmosphere, where the crowd throw off the drudgery of life, and simply party for a couple of hours - bouncing up and down, and singing along.

Sadly, as with most bands, age is starting to take its toll. The venues they now tour are smaller than they used to be, and the fans seem to be getting older. The band is also starting to resemble The Farm in so far as each album seems to feature a slightly modified line-up.

However, much as you would with an ageing relative, I prefer to remember the band in their pomp: carrying a party spirit with them wherever they went, and singing songs that varied between the pointed (the Irish attitude to abortion) and the playful (how much the band wanted to kiss The Bangles). But no matter what the subject matter, the sheer enjoyment shines out of their music and lyrics, which is what lifts them up and gives them a permanent place in my CD collection.

… Sci-Fi Lullabies – Suede (Pete)

A long time ago, when life was a lot more easy and carefree, I moved to a city where a beer cost you 30p a pint. It's fair to say that the most important decision I faced while packing for my year in Prague was what music to take with me. This was before the age of iPods, although I did meet someone out there who had some sort of early mp3 player. It was about the size of a brick. Anyway, I digress. I managed to whittle my choice down to about 40-odd CDs, a figure that amazes me now.

If there's one album that stood out of the 40 and reminds me more of the nine months there than anything else, it's Suede's Sci-Fi Lullabies, which was played an almost obsessive amount of times while I was there. It's not up there in my top albums now, but is more likely to get a listen than most from that era, as I occasionally want a reminder of travelling home late at night on a rattling tram listening to 'Bentswood Boys' or 'Europe Is Our Playground'. If you even remotely like(d) Suede, then buy, borrow or steal it. It sounds of its time (I won't mention the "B" word), but that's no bad thing.

I remember reading in a review somewhere, Select perhaps (which tells you how long this was), that Morrissey once asked Brett Anderson if he could cover some Suede B-sides. Whether this story is true or not I don't know, but it does show the band did put some real effort (and quality control) into their B-sides, allowing them to play sets at fanclub gigs comprised exclusively of said tracks.

For a B-sides collection, it gels well and feels like a "proper" album (unlike most), probably because there aren't any live tracks or debatable covers. In fact, there's no real filler, although the last track of the 27, 'Duchess', is a bit lazy with its lyrics and possibly an omen of the 'Head Music' phase: “She live in a house, she stupid as a mouse” anyone? But that's really as bad as it gets.

The rest is a collection of more thoughtful and melancholic tunes, with less of the stomping (the cracking but aggressive 'Killing Of A Flashboy' aside) you'd have expected from Suede. At the same time it illustrates exactly how a band changes when one of the key songwriters is replaced, in this case Bernard Butler by Neil Codling and Richard Oakes. From the sordid to the vaguely optimistic via a few satellite towns. The perfect B-sides album? Near enough. Especially if you like the whole "neon glow of London and urban decay" feel to your music.

… Selectadisc (Ben)

Last week I began my A-Z contribution with the following sentence: “I lived in Nottingham for seven years, and without a doubt the biggest drain on my financial resources during my time there was Rock City”. True enough, but then that obscures the fact that there was another drain: Selectadisc. The amount of money I’ve spent there is truly frightening. Perhaps I should have just set up a direct debit.

Nottingham’s Market Street, just off the city’s focal point Market Square, is home to the only branch of Selectadisc outside London. (Incidentally, it’s a measure of the vibrancy of the city’s scene that it’s also home to the only branch of the Social outside the capital.) Black-fronted with the name in white and orange, the main shop has enormous windows displaying an array of albums both instantly recognisable and obscure, new and old. The effect on me when I try to walk past is much the same as the effect lingerie-clad ladies prowling around behind the plate glass windows of Amsterdam sex shops have on drunken British stag parties: I can’t help but stop, gawp and then venture inside knowing it’s going to cost me.

The main room contains all the relatively mainstream rock and pop CDs, with a section reserved for new releases, a wall of bargain CDs and a singles section which, though it’s now very slim, is always worth a trawl through if you want to hear something of a band you’ve been reading about but are reluctant to buy a full album. New releases are often as cheap as £10, and if it’s a band’s back catalogue you’re looking to amass then Selectadisc is definitely the place for you. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth, Joy Division – nearly everything more than five years old is well under a tenner, and often just a fiver.

Upstairs is the vinyl section – not somewhere I frequent, being sans record player, but well-stocked it seems – and in the adjoining room are the specialist sections: dance, hip hop, US punk, industrial, electronica, post-rock… This is where the staff comments really come in handy. Each CD is in a plastic wallet, and in the case of more obscure specialist material, this wallet bears a hand-written sticker offering a description of the sounds contained therein, and detailing bands that are either literally connected through shared members or are in a similar sonic ball-park. And rest assured – the staff certainly know their onions. I’ve bought several albums almost solely on the strength of these recommendations – particularly during my emo phase – and I’ve never been disappointed once.

So, your arms are full (perhaps they should supply shopping baskets, or even trolleys?) and your credit card is groaning in anticipation of what’s to come – it’s time to go to the till (where, evilly, there are more cheaper goodies piled up to catch your eye at the last minute). Back to the Amsterdam strip-club analogy: it’s perfectly possible to emerge from both that kind of establishment and Selectadisc with your dignity intact, but woe betide anyone who smilingly hands over a Stereophonics album to someone on the other side of the Selectadisc counter. You will be laughed out of the shop, or at least dismissed with a sneer of contempt. They’re a cooler-than-thou judgemental lot, you see – but then so they should be. That’s their job. If you want to buy a fucking Keane album, fuck off to Virgin – they don’t want your money in Selectadisc, it’s dirty. If, on the other hand, your stash includes a Yo La Tengo album and some German techno, then look out for that almost imperceptible nod of approval as the person serving you disappears off to find the CDs for the cases – it’s priceless.

It’s rather appropriate that I’ve been able to cover Rock City and Selectadisc in successive weeks, as both are absolutely focal to the music scene in Nottingham. The walls of the shop are plastered in overlapping bill posters for gigs and advertisements for prospective band members. How instrumental it must have been in getting like-minded individuals together and making things happen. Indeed, Simon Feirn, once of Bob Tilton and then of the noisiest bastards in the East Midlands Wolves! (Of Greece), used to actually work there. Maybe he still does, serving you politely – the antithesis of his stage persona, rolling around like a man with 50,000 volts passing through his genitals.

When Fopp opened a store in Nottingham, and I first ventured in, it felt wrong. Sure it was cheap and independent (certainly in comparison with HMV and Virgin) and it had its own musician member of staff (Six. By Seven keyboardist James Flower) – but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was cheating on a loved one. It was only ever a brief flirtation, though. Now, when I return to the city, there’s only one record shop that’s going to get my custom.

… sharing (Caskared)

Sharing music has been instrumental in developing my tastes and excitement around music. From an early age sharing can forge friendships and help mould social groups at school. When I was a pre-teen I was listening to Michael Jackson, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Madonna because they were what I saw on TV. When I re-kindled a friendship with a boy from my middle school after our first year at separate high schools we talked incessantly about music. He made copies of albums by Suede and The Stone Roses and introduced a whole genre of indie to my young ears. I had never heard such music before; finally it felt that THIS was what music SHOULD be.

Our friendship group was cemented through a preference for indie and experimental music, our social lives revolved around going to see local bands and saving up to see bands play in the nearby cities of the Midlands. If anyone bought a new cassette it would do the rounds especially if the band were likely to tour. As we all lived off pocket money and were too young for anything more than a paper round, we supplemented each other’s music collections through sharing and the wonders of blank tapes. Between us we would buy the entire back catalogue of a band and share the fruits. We’d all be pilot fish looking in different ponds and pooling what we found for the furtherment of everyone.

The radio was a rich source for us. Live sessions would be recorded and passed round. We would in turn evangelise about the music we adored on the radio programmes we would host on the local charity station. We were hungry beyond our means so sharing was the only way to be. Whoever bought the new Sparklehorse album or St Etienne single would come into school and proudly present their cache.

We were all aware of the problems of piracy, but as we all spent money on seeing the bands play if they toured, or we would buy the merchandise we rationalised ourselves out of any feeling of guilt. When CDs usurped the cassette many of us updated our collections through bona fide purchases and through sharing we took risks in listening to unknown quantities that received no radio airplay but because it had been lent to us we were open.

One of my greatest pleasures remains sharing music I adore, although the mix tapes I make now require a few clicks and the burn button instead of the hours spent cross-legged on my teenage bedroom floor recording cassettes in real-time on my back-to-back stereo. I will forever feel a thrill as I receive a mix CD, a small insight into the mind of the giver and hearing the unexpected that might lead to a feast of aural delights I might otherwise never have known.

… shocks (RussL)

Electrical ones, specifically. At any festival ground there's always a secret, closed-off section of the backstage area, in which treatment is administered to the poor roadies who were half-incinerated in horrific accidents. Combine a large electrical transformer, a splattering of rain, an easily-singed beard and a sizeable gut that provides plenty of fat to fry with and you have yourself one sizzled stagehand. Festivals represent the pinnacle of the hubris of humankind - if God or whatever forces are in charge had wanted us to listen to non-folk music out of doors, water and electricity would have been made into a more enticing mix.

Why do I risk the wrath of Mean Fiddler's hired goons by informing you of this illicit infirmary? In The Art Of Noise's last installment, two people spoke warmly of the Reading Festival. In the interests of providing the fair and balanced perspective for which this website has become world-renowned, I feel obliged to give you the curmudgeon's point of view. Festivals - well, they're crap, aren't they?

You can keep your eye-straining attempts to see a band from about four miles away. You can keep your ear-straining attempts to make out anything approaching music amongst the muddy sound earlier on in the day, and your patience-straining attempts to not get frustrated later on when the sound seems to have improved but a sudden gust of wind puts paid to that.

I don't want to risk trench foot and dysentery by standing knee-deep in mud, and if I'm for some reason forced to I want to be able to have a proper shower afterwards. I don't want to pay a fortune for crap food prepared in a van by a bloke with bits of his face dropping off, and if I'm for some reason forced I don't want it to go straight through my body and force me to get rid of it in a rapidly filling chemical toilet, which by the end of the weekend is stacked ram-packed full of toilet paper with something unpleasant sitting on top like a lion on a hill proudly surveying the valley below.

You're missing the point!” they usually say. “The purpose of a festival isn't to hear music or avoid gastro-intestinal diseases, it's all about the social aspects!

Yeah, right. Imagine a festival campsite. What can you see, stretching off as far as you can see in every direction? Students, that's what. I shudder at the very thought.

I'd rather see the bands I like at proper gigs. I would finish this by wishing a plague upon festivals, but given the sanitary conditions that would be tempting fate.

… skiffle (with particular regard to Lonnie Donegan) (Skif, of course)

Ah S, the letter I’ve been waiting for so you, the readers and writers of this encyclopaedia, if they aren’t indeed the same thing, can be the latest in a long line of poor unfortunates who’ve had to suffer me banging on about skiffle. It gave me my nickname after all; how could I ignore it in the grand scheme of this ‘ere thing?

Let me put you straight on one thing from the get-go though, is that there is no denying that a lot of music made within the 1950s UK skiffle movement was pretty twee, all beards, pipes and beige cardies, and certainly tame by comparison to the rock ‘n’ rollers who followed not long after. The reason I say the 1950s UK skiffle movement, is that there have been more than one, the jug and spasm bands I referred during J also played a form of skiffle and the 50s acts took on much of their playing ethic and areas of repertoire. As Lonnie Donegan once put it, skiffle is “a mongrel music” rather than a musical style in itself.

Donegan, and others such as Chas McDevitt, The Vipers and Ken Colyer, would often arrange folk, country, jazz and traditional tunes to fit the spirited, ramshackle skiffle sound. Of course, skiffle was as much, if not more, about the fashion in which the music was performed, particularly with regards instrumentation, as it was the tunes themselves. That is not to say the tunes suffered as I would argue that Lonnie Donegan’s recordings of ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and ‘Wreck Of The Old ‘97’ rival, if not improve on, Woody Guthrie’s originals.

I’d also suggest that Lonnie spearheaded a revolution which, all of a sudden, made music accessible to the common man. Consider, when you think about how people praise Kurt Cobain for getting kids to pick up guitars again, that in the years surrounding the skiffle boom, guitar sales went up from 5,000 to 250,000. Consider the modern day phenomena in our alternative circles of tape and CDR labels, of bedroom DJs, of getting stuff out via four-track or mp3 or MySpace or wherever, however, cos you simply have to, even of this fanzine culture. That’s our DIY, the grandchild of the plethora of skiffle groups that popped up in milk bars, community halls, even living rooms half a century ago. Also consider the current interest in “found sounds” which Bjork, for example, has been putting to use on her last couple of LPs, and then think of how tea-chests, corrugated boards for the washing of clothes and metal finger-tip protectors were removed from their context for the purposes of performance. Lonnie may not have used the washboard himself aside from on his hit version of ‘Rock Island Line’ but he still represented the very best of the genre.

Critics might argue that skiffle burned out within four years of ‘Rock Island Line’ but it should not be devalued for the fact that the music itself has largely dated. Skiffle made young people ready for rock ‘n’ roll not just as consumers but as creators, and I’d rank it equally with punk, Riot Grrl and acid house in terms of its cultural impact.

Lonnie himself may have spent much of the following 30 years not knowing whether to be a crooner or a music hall act but in his final years he went back to basics and sounded wonderful. In 2001, I had the pleasure of being at the Guildford Festival and watching Lonnie headline the second stage. At 70 years of age, he had lost none of his youthful exuberance and humour. It was an unforgettable night, so much so that I journeyed to see him twice more on his penultimate farewell tour. That I shall never get the chance to see him perform again is disappointing, but that I had the opportunity at all is a great honour.

… Spinal Tap (Swiss Toni)

David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnell, Derek Smalls and a myriad roster of now deceased drummers: together they make up Spinal Tap – surely the most legendary band in the pantheon of rock. Initially founded as The Thamesmen in England at some unspecified point in the 1960s, the band had a novelty hit (‘Listen to the Flower People’) before changing their name and turning to heavy metal. Initially they were the The Originals, then they were the The New Originals but soon they settled upon the now immortal name Spinal Tap and began to make musical history.

The band was of course immortalised in Marti DiBergi’s 1984 documentary (“the, if you will, rockumentary”) ‘This Is Spinal Tap’…

Oh hang on.

They’re not real? What do you mean they’re not real?


Just try telling that to Eddie Van Halen, who famously failed to see the funny side when he first saw the film, or to Steven Tyler, who was apparently so convinced that the film was based upon Aerosmith that he threatened to sue. Even a great thinker like Liam Gallagher was fooled. As Noel told Observer Music Monthly:

Yeah, he thought they were real people. We went to see them play in Carnegie Hall. Before they played, they came on as three folk singers from the film ‘A Mighty Wind’. We were laughing and he said: 'This is shit'. We said: 'No, those three are in Spinal Tap. You do know they are American actors?' 'They're not even a real band?' 'They're not even English! One of them is married to Jamie Lee Curtis'. 'I'm not fuckin' 'avin that', he says, and walks off right up the middle of Carnegie Hall. He's never watched Spinal Tap since. He'd seen the film and loved it and thought they were a real band”.

The beauty of Spinal Tap is that they COULD be real. They are utterly ridiculous, and yet this only makes them more believable as rock stars. In fact, in a world filled with vegan, teetotal, yoga practitioning rock stars like Chris Martin, we could probably do with a few more bands like Spinal Tap.

They’ve got the songs too. I bet Coldplay wish they had written something half as good as ‘Big Bottom’, ‘Bitch School’, ‘Sex Farm’ or ‘Stonehenge’.

And I bet Chris Martin’s been working on his own ‘Lick My Love Pump’ since the day he learnt how to play the piano…

… Steeleye Span (James)

When Ashley Hutchings formed Steeleye Span in 1969, he had a deliberate plan in mind. Having just completed the legendary Leif And Leige LP with Fairport Convention, he had concluded that it had not gone far enough. His vision was to see the electric rock sound properly married with old English folk songs. Leif And Leige had been a grand start, but there was a way to go, and Fairport weren’t quite up to the task.

He gathered two couples who were embedded in the folk traditions that Fairport weren’t. Terry and Gay Woods came over from Ireland – Terry having previously been in Irish electric-folk pioneers Sweeney’s Men with Andy Irvine. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior were the second couple, who had both been doing the folk circuits for several years. Steeleye Span, with several changes of line-up – including Martin Carthy on the second and third LPs, went on to produce four spectacular folk-rock LPs before sliding into the same endless tourism as Fairport.

Now why am I bothering to tell you about this? Because it is my sad experience that most people I have spoken to about music have made generally unfair assumptions about British folk music in the late 60s and early 70s – ie cardy-wearing, fingers-in-ears traditionalists or beardy-weirdy pseudo-hippies. Steeleye Span do not deserve such a fate.

On their debut Hark! The Village Wait, and the standout track (to me) ‘The Blackleg Miner’, Hutchings’ marriage is almost complete. Tim Hart sings a dark song about a scab miner over a driving rhythm and forceful banjo, which creates a pace and freedom of playing that looks forward to The Pogues, who Terry Woods would later join.

Things really kick in on the second LP, Please To See the King. Martin Carthy’s guitar playing throughout is as sharp and jagged as Andy Gill’s (though never less than folk), Ashley Hutchings’ bass playing is sparse yet muscular and newcomer Peter Knight’s fiddle playing creates a light droning effect, playing lightly on the melody. The third LP, Ten Man Mop continues with the same line-up and the same feel.

To me – and this is a difficult call – the fourth album Below the Salt was their finest. This might be ironic since it was the first without Hutchings, and Carthy too had left, so the line-up changed once again. It is somehow as folky as anything Steeleye had ever produced and yet the heaviest too. The opener, ‘Spotted Cow’, is predominantly a jaunty, unpretentious folk tune, with occasional slabs of heavy distorted chords on guitar. ‘King Henry’ is a seven minute ghost story about a female spirit who forces herself upon the King. At either end of the middle section of the song, the fiddle and the guitar trade jarring, disjointed and sometimes vicious solos. Perhaps the highlight is the closer ‘Saucy Sailor’. This song, sung by Maddy Prior features a light, nautical melody which segues into one of the most beautiful codas I have ever heard. It perfectly highlights Steeleye’s ability to use the folk genre to create new textures which adds something dynamic and new to old songs. In this Steeleye both prefigure and in some respects push further than many of their new-folk and alt.folk contemporaries of today. (Worthy followers include Espers and Alasdair Roberts’ No Earthly Man.)

After this Steeleye produced one more LP that is creditable, Parcel of Rogues, before slipping off into pop-rock like All Around My Hat, which, while pleasant, is nothing to write home about. But for these five years they produced some of the most beautiful, interesting, experiemental, and forward-thinking music, whilst never writing an original song. And that’s an achievement too.

… Steely Dan (Steve)

Marc-o of Johnny Domino introduced me to the ways of the Dan a few years back when we were recording our second album. Even though we were recording on an eight-track, we got pretty obsessed about getting the best takes and the best sounds out of our equipment. I guess he made the link to the legendarily exacting Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

I don’t know a huge amount about them, but I’m guessing that they weren’t great at sports when they were at school. A pair of weirder-looking jazz-nerds you would be unlikely to find. I’m also guessing they got bullied in their youth, which would explain why they’ve used their intellect to bully journalists, session musicians, ANYONE, in their career. The most famous example of this is the recording of ‘Peg’ from Aja where they auditioned an endless parade of the world’s best guitarists to play the solo, dismissing them all until Jay Gradon pulled out the winning take. This is one of the weirdest guitar solos ever, starting of all woozy like heat haze off the Pacific Coastal Highway before heading into staccato chromatic runs, ending on showy hammer-on and pull-offs.

I love the precision, I love the fact that I’m not probably not meant to like them (see also Billy Joel, ELO, etc etc). But mostly I love how they made me feel this morning. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for one reason and another and today I popped an old Steely Dan compilation Marc-o made for me into my Minidisc for the walk across town.

Something about the cool little world that they create – kind of the sleazy upper class flip to Tom Waits’ sleazy lower class visions of West Coast America, all tales of coked-out excess, dirty old men and naïve would-be models – made it feel great to be walking across grey old Derby. I had to play ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ twice, it made me feel so giddy – the “rumpty-tumpty” shuffle, the fact that you can practically HEAR the band looking at each other and going “Yeeeaaah!”, the beautiful sun-drenched harmonies, and – again – a crazy, virtuosic, jazz-influenced guitar solo played by the awesomely named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. What more do you need from music? It just made me want to run about grinning and clapping like an arse – and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it should be about? At lunchbreak I bought Can’t Buy A Thrill on CD and began what I know will be a long trek through their recorded work. Radio 2, here I come.

... Stereolab (Jez)

Everything is futile. We crawled out of the sea to manufacture our own demise. Some people compensate for this by inventing a belief system that makes their futility seem less so, somehow making everything worthwhile. Well good for them I suppose, as long as they don’t try and kill each other trying to prove their story is better than the other’s. Mind you, I don’t suppose it would matter too much anyway, seeing as everything is futile anyway.

So what’s the point in me writing about Stereolab? None really. In fact there isn’t any point at all. But I suppose as some people choose religion, well, music helps me through with the hopelessness of it all. I’m not being flippant here either, let’s face it, if I’m wrong I could well burn in hell for eternity. Shucks, it’s a chance I’ll take.

Stereolab have the ability to bring divinity into my life. Their music can draw out feelings in me that are too numerous to list here. In fact, just write a list of emotions and that’ll do the trick. Lyrics range from diatribes on global economic systems to bands forming to play gigs on the moon. From the diary of a woman who morphs into a man for no particular reason to philosophical treaties on our existence. As for the music? I couldn’t do it justice. Recurring themes and patterns, time shifts, minimalism, discord and extravagant layering. They nod in respect to jazz, classical music, Kraut-rock, industrial and have a newly discovered expertise in 70s blaxpoitation movie funk. These people can make me laugh with guitar noises.

Laws of nature decree all bands lose it and become rubbish. I can’t think what will be worse, the inevitable demise or the equivalent euthanasia to prevent this. Either way I’ll cry as though I’ve lost a relative. My proudest moment came just after my long-suffering partner and I saw them at a tiny gig in Nottingham. They came off stage and my idol Tim Gane squeezed past us in a corridor. I stared at him lasciviously, he stared at my girlfriend.

So, if there’s no God, why does their music sound like it’s being played in the cathedral of heaven by some divine angels? I’ve been born again.

… Stock, Aitken & Waterman (Del)

The most successful British production team... ever! We all know their records, and as much as some would like to deny it, we all secretly adore them. Genuine mavericks, they beat the majors at being commercially successful, capturing the energy of the gay disco scene and thrusting it straight into the mainstream. And when the record industry tried to ostracise them, John Peel and the indie press stood up for them! They're the closest the UK has ever got to emulating the music factory of Motown. It was the sound of a Bright Young Britain. And even now you can spin any of the following and guarantee a full dancefloor...

Hey Roadblock!” “I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky”. “You give me one good reason to leave me, I'll give you ten good reasons to stay”. “Goddess on a mountaintop”. “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-take or leave us”. “Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you”. “Watch out, here I come”. And just listen to the "Oooooh”’s at the start of 'Especially For You' and tell me you don't get chills.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Jonathan B, Paul, Pete, Caskared, RussL, Skif, Swiss Toni, James, Steve and Del for their contributions this week.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Heaven knows I'm not so miserable now


A performance poet appearing between sets. A raffle and tombola. A square of astroturf for picnicing on. Autons just don't do your average gig.

Feeling Gloomy is the weekly club night brainchild of two individuals going under the names of Leonard and Cliff, and the Gloom Aid festival at which Autons are playing today is a pre-club night event in aid of Depression Alliance.

By the time we arrive shortly before 8pm, we've unfortunately already missed several bands. Bristol foursome You & The Atom Bomb have not long taken to the stage, and it's not long before I'm very glad we didn't miss them too. They're a splendidly chaotic band that call to mind The Go! Team in the sheer number of different ideas they pack into each song, but musically they're more reminiscent of the dearly departed Dismemberment Plan, a post-punk energy and effervescence allied with a playfulness, an eagerness to experiment with form and a post-modern pop sensibility. A mini-album called Shake Shake Hello?! is coming out on Sink & Stove at the beginning of July, and if you, like me, were a sucker for Travis Morrison's crew then you'd be well advised to check it out.

After the performance poet's last slot of the night (he goes under the moniker The Bro's Grim, appropriately enough), Hertfordshire's My Passion set about depressing most of us further, if only because their youthfulness reminds us of our own age. Currently rather more of a concept than a fully-formed band, the quintet have the name (a bit gothy, a bit angsty) and the look - Duran Duran for the teenage Kerrang! reader of 2006 (think perfectly triangular fringes, make-up and black ties) - but the songs are lagging a little way behind. Not that their bevy of bouncing ballgown-clad young ladyfans are bothered (or the legions of people to have found their way to their MySpace page), and as other bands have proven, exquisitely chiselled cheekbones can get you a long way - though perhaps only so far.

By the time headliners Autons appear, the Sixth Form Leaver's Ball directly in front of the stage has by and large dispersed (though some stay on to shake their thang), and the crowd forms something of a semi-circle. I feel rather like a cricketer in a fielding cordon, Portsmouth's finest smashing out corker after corker for our ears to catch.

Like You & The Atom Bomb, drummerless electro-rock trio Autons come with the Steve Lamacq and Rob da Bank seal of approval and possess (or are possessed by) something of the same maverick spirit. 'Conspiracy Theory' is a risky opener, building as it does slowly though inexorably to a tremendous finale - "Don't wanna go to hell! / Don't wanna go to heaven! / Don't wanna end my life on a 747!" are lyrics that are crying out to be hollered by more than just the three Autons. To then plough straight into the short sharp shock of airwave-bothering genius single 'Snakes' so early into the set is also potentially risky, but in the event it simply marks a confidence in their material, and the possible lull never materialises.

Instead, the beats get faster and more frenetic, David Jones's serene falsetto juxtaposed incongruously and yet somehow perfectly over the top. 'Class Traitor' and 'Ice Major' sandwich 'Shine Tester, Shine Tester', before 'What She Said' brings things to a premature close. Well, I say premature, but it's perfectly judged if the old adage "Leave 'em wanting more" is to be believed.

Watch out for Autons' first appearance in NME this week (in the Radar section, I think). During tonight's gig one song is dedicated to Matt Taylor whose late, late penalty earlier in the afternoon gave the band's beloved Pompey a vital win in their fight against relegation. It seems like it's promotion to the Premiership that Autons have got to look forward to.

The night doesn't end there, either. In fact, it's yet young. Plenty of time for the raffle to be entered (first prize: a signed Moz poster - I'm still waiting to hear), the 'Rock Profiles' DVD to be won on the tombola, the DJ to take over, house "air band" (ie not just air guitar, air everything) The Miserabilists to take to the stage and much more hideously overpriced Grolsch to be drunk. Jolly good cheer, all told.


Autons interview for R*E*P*E*A*T fanzine

Autons' MySpace page

Too twee or not too twee

Just noticed in catching up on some blog reading that Feeling Gloomy has Inspector Sands's seal of approval, as does Holloway Rd indiepop / soul / Motown club night How Does It Feel, on whose site I discovered the Twee Test. Questions include: "What's your favourite Belle & Sebastian song", "Have you ever worn your pajama top to the pub?" and "Do you throw like a girl?"...

And while I'm on a music links tip, I'll stick these two in here, both bands whose sites I've stumbled across on MySpace and whose songs I've quite enjoyed:

Project: Venhell - noise rock from Aberdeen a la Les Savy Fav, Shellac and Lightning Bolt

Magdalena - an art rock band from Glasgow who feature an aspiring writer among their number

If you're looking for a site that regularly sorts the wheat from the MySpace chaff, then check out the regular Chart Of Darkness feature on Sweeping The Nation (most recent recommendation: Franz Ferdinand approved art-poppers The 1990s).

Also well worth a look on STN at the moment: an interview with Fyfe Dangerfield of Guillemots and, following the announcement that a line from U2's 'One' is the UK's favourite lyric, Simon's suggestions of forty arresting opening lines (the opener to Nick Cave's 'Into Your Arms' - "I don't believe in an interventionist God" - gets a mention, and rightly so).

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: R

18 letters into the feature the Times Online has called a simple idea, but compulsive reading and our first case of overlap! But not to fear – the same subject has been approached from different angles by two different contributors, as you’ll see…

R is for …

… ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ – Boney M (drmigs)

Right, I'm not telling you this week, I'm asking you. What's going on with this track? It's a historical tribute to Grigori Rasputin, and at the same time it's a massive disco hit. How does that work? How did this track possibly come about? Now historical folk ballad, fair-enough; a rock tribute to his life style, that I could buy. A foot-tapping disco number, err it just doesn't seem right. But it worked… How do I know it worked? Because if you're reading this, you will know the song. And what's more, you've been well and truly ohrwurmed. It's that effective a disco number that it eats into the neural fabric of your auditory cortex and temporarily short-circuits itself; so that whenever there is silence, what you actually hear is: “Ra ra Rasputin / Russia's greatest love machine…"

I just don't understand – really, really don't understand – how this song came about / how it works. There's clearly a combination of genius and eccentricity at work - counterbalanced by a healthy disregard for common sense. No sensible band could hatch this crazy song. No manufactured ‘Pop Idol’ / pony-tailed pink-champagne-sipping producer / music industry sycophant could have made this song. So it's no surprise therefore that it was the brainchild of Boney M. But just because they were an eccentric disco bunch doesn't wholly explain the song.

Now it’s not that it's historical. There's no shortage of obscure songs about interesting historical characters. Characters whose stories musicians believe will be a compelling narrative for a song. In the folk line there's examples such as ‘Matty Groves’, in the
indie / rock line there is ‘(Good Luck) Mr Gorsky’. Both songs that made me go away and find out more about the protagonists. As did Boney M's ‘… Rasputin’. But folk and indie have a cerebral nature to them; disco, by definition, isn't cerebral, it's physical. And a physical genre would seem to be incompatible with a historical tribute. Cleverly however, Boney M take the sex and immortality aspects of Rasputin's legend, and work them into an involving rhythm. The story is a story of excess, and the subject of excess clearly lends itself to the clubbing scene.

So maybe I was wrong when I said I don't know how it works. It's very simple and very cunning. I'm just in awe of how they came up with the idea in the first place. It's not even that I particularly like the song; in fact it's often an irritant. However, I do salute Boney M for being brave enough to stick with the idea and make the song. History and disco aren't natural bed-fellows and anyone who has the foresight to think the unthinkable, and then execute it successfully, deserves respect in my book. Yes, even if it will leave me musically hallucinating "Ra ra Rasputin / Lover of the Russian Queen…" as I close my eyes and try to get to sleep tonight…

… Reading Festival (Pete)

I'm surprised that no one else has mentioned festivals yet, unless someone is saving "V for V2005". I have to admit that I haven't been to Glasto or Roskilde yet, so Reading remains my idea of a music festival. It might not be as good as Farmer Eavis's little June soiree, but it ain't bad.

From my first Reading, where on the last night I ended up running drunkenly round various campsites with twenty-odd strangers, all of whom were wearing binbags. And that was after playing football with Terrorvision's roadies. It's been the stuff of endless memories for sure.

Taking loads of Immodium to resolve the problem of a dodgy post-burger stomach. A Glo-stick fight between two opposing campsites in 2002 – harmless, but still a truly breathtaking spectacle. Buying a huge ex-army poncho to save myself from a wet Saturday in 2000. Heading back each night after the last band to light the campfire and open the next beer. Making early morning trips to the Salvation Army tent to get a cheap cup of soup and a roll. Shouting out whatever happens to be the slogan that year at the top of your voice at three in the morning. Crowd-surfing to 'In It For The Money'. Watching a load of metallers wreak havoc on Kevin Rowland's set and seeing Daphne and Celeste dodging the bottles of piss.

I could go on for a while here, so I'll move onto the bands. Perhaps not the usual suspects, but Mansun opening their 2000 set with 'Take It Easy Chicken' sticks in my mind, along with a frantic 'She's Got Spies' from the 'Furries at my first Reading in 1997 or even the moshpit during the Wannadies' 'You And Me Song'. Or perhaps even a triumphant 'Bittersweet Symphony'. Or Blur finishing their '99 set with a gorgeous and heartbreaking 'Sing'.

Perhaps the one thing that sets Reading aside from most other festivals is its timing. The site isn't that big, so by the third day everyone has visited all the stalls at least once, is probably suffering from a hangover and wanders round in a daze (although the latter might well be down to the Herbal Highs salesman). This adds to the definite air of resignation and reflection that lingers, not just because a long and enjoyable weekend is over, but because the end of summer is upon you. It can be a little depressing, but at the same time, I can think of few better ways to round off the summer months.

… Reading Festival (Paul)

August Bank Holiday Weekend, 1998. I spent more or less the whole weekend standing in a field wilting in the scorching heat and telling people where to park their cars in the guest parking area, before catching the odd glimpse of a band when I had a break.

For the paltry sum of £30 a day, I worked twelve hour shifts at Reading Festival, and thoroughly enjoyed myself into the bargain.

When I was there (and presumably this is still the case) there are two groups of stewards at Reading. There are those who donate most of their money to the Labour Party, and as a consequence get to steward the main arena, and there are those (like me) who keep the pittance they are paid but have to look after the entire campsite, and work longer shifts into the bargain.

As it was, my friends and I found ourselves working the 9am-9pm "day" shift. Needless to say we didn't exactly see much of the festival line-up unfold.

But that only made the bits we did see all the more special.

Having realised that by wearing our fetching fluorescent bibs we could wander backstage, we took maximum advantage of this, and blagged our way backstage on the Saturday night. There we quaffed booze with semi-famous people (well Kenickie and Steve Lamacq) paying ten pence more per pint than the main arena for the privilege. However, we did get to stand in the pit, right in front of the speakers, whilst the Beastie Boys played their magnificent encore, before watching them trot off the stage and into a waiting car in their Guantanamo-esque orange boiler suits.

Memories from those days are generally more confined to the work than the music, with a particularly fat obnoxious 4x4 driver launching a tirade of abuse in my direction for me asking him to park his car in a fairly snug (but sufficiently roomy) space instead of the massive four car gap on the other side of the row a memory that still burns in my mind.

Similarly, being bollocked for using the walkie-talkie frequency which the whole stewarding team had simply to communicate how many car parking spaces we had at one end of the field stands out.

Despite the meagre pay, the hellish overnight bus from Newcastle to London we used to get there, and the small number of twats we dealt with (including Sol from ‘Hollyoaks’, and Phil Mitchell from ‘EastEnders’ – the glamour!) it was a fine time, with glorious weather, stodgy food, ample supplies of booze and occasionally brilliant music to be enjoyed.

... (hyper)reality (RussL)

I once had a disagreement with someone over how "miserable" the metal band Khanate sounded. They said very, I said not so much. I love the band to bits, but the music made by them and most of their peers can't be called "miserable" so much as "a highly stylised representation of misery". When people are actually in the depths of despair they don't suddenly start screaming like their goolies have been caught in a vice and/or doing... everything... really... slowly, do they?

Such, however, is the nature of art in general and popular music in particular. Whenever we talk about an artist showing a lot of emotion, we're more often than not referring to the fact that they've managed to produce an effective depiction of it. How they actually feel is irrelevant. We can’t read the minds of our favourite acts, and unless we happen to know them personally we can never be sure that they weren’t full of the joys of spring when writing a sad song (or vice versa).

The "character" of a performer works in a similar way. Many have turned their back upon bands they used to like because they "sold out" and betrayed some previously professed principle. In the case of an abandoned ethical statement I can almost understand, but when it’s a matter of changed aesthetics (be they musical or image-based) then how can anyone not directly involved sensibly make that judgment? Can we really be certain that what they did originally wasn’t selling out and what they’re doing now isn’t more true to themselves?

Does any of it actually matter? I would contend not. Some people spend a lot of time and effort searching for the ‘real’ stuff, but I don’t see the need. Lest I be misunderstood, let me reassure one and all that I’m not advocating the “Stop thinking and enjoy it, maaaan” school of abandoning critical faculty. I just think we need to adjust our viewpoint and accept that pop is the ultimate hyper-real art form. It creates bigger-than-life avatars of things we think we know about, toying with our emotions and sense of reality. If it feels real, that’s all it needs to do.

… reggae (James)

I remember the first reggae record I ever bought. It was ‘Amigo’ by Black Slate and it was 1980. I can’t remember exactly why I liked it. I don’t exactly remember that much about it at all. It was kind of jaunty, and I have some recollection of being quite impressed by their dreadlocks. Not counting ‘Pass The Dutchie’ by Musical Youth (which is probably kind of unfair), it was a while before I bought another reggae record. I think it was probably ‘Off The Beaten Track’ by African Head Charge on the On-U Sound label in about 1989. More details on my obsession with that label can be found here.

In my late teens, I moved to Toxteth, with its rich mix of people and an even richer trove of music. Here I tuned into local pirate stations and had my ears blown apart with such a wealth of sounds – it resulted in a staggering learning curve. On the radio I encountered dancehall classics, roots and dub, Shabba in top form, Dennis Brown, King Tubby. Moving to Birmingham, I was fortunate enough to share a house with someone with a solid collection. Here I began to hear whole LPs, and spot differences. Most of all, I heard one of my reggae heroes (via On-U Sound) in his glory, Prince Far I. Since then, I have dug deep into back catalogues, compilations, anything that will unearth more gems.

But why do I love reggae so? Why do I still feel that buzz when listening to classics like the Lee Perry produced ‘Police And Thieves’, or the earthiness of ‘The Twinkle Brothers’, or the energy of Big Youth or Dr Alimantado?

Could it be the beat? Reggae, of whichever stamp, has that perennial offbeat that drives it onwards inexorably, never stopping, just pushing forward languorously. Reggae is never in a rush, but you know that it will get where it’s going. Reggae makes you want to stop and admire the scenery; to breathe in the air (or whatever); or maybe stop and sashay a little. Not considering the heavily sexualised dancing of the dancehall scene, reggae invokes a dancing in me (even in my soul maybe) that is marked by an almost absence of movement.

Could it be the bass? The bass maketh the reggae, and no one uses the bass like a reggae player. The sustain carries over the attack, rumbling and grounding every other sound, lifting it up high by sheer contrast. One of the pleasures of reggae at festivals is hearing the bass way before you see or hear anything else, bouncing hypnotically in the distance as the listener approaches with the reverence of Hajji.

Or could it be the spirituality? Religion and music are queer bedfellows at the best of times. Very few artists pull it off without appearing pompous at best, or hokey and amateurish. But in reggae, invoking the name of Jah is as natural as bling to hiphop. Here I find it refreshing and cleansing. Prince Far I calls me to be “free from sin” and to “read a chapter”; Jah Woosh calls me to “redemption”; while Dr Alimantado asks me if I am having a “wonderful time” and reminds me that I should think about the poor and oppressed. It is a political spirituality, and not a dogmatic one. While it recalls old school Bible study, it doesn’t beat you over the head with meaningless doctrine, but calls you to a better life – a life of peace, equality and righteousness – which is never a bad mix.

Do yourself a favour, throw a little Prince Far I on the stereo, open the windows, catch a breeze, and watch the mood lift. Go on, you’ll feel better for it…

… regional accents (Swiss Toni)

Considering its size, the UK has always seemed to be home to a disproportionably large number of distinct regional accents. Some of these accents have become oddly famous worldwide thanks to the export of British music. The most famous example of this is probably the flat vowels of the Liverpudlian accent which became unavoidable throughout the 1960s through the ubiquity of The Beatles. John Peel used to delight in telling how played up his Scouse accent when he lived in Dallas in order to seduce women. Apparently he never used to say OUTRIGHT that he was the fifth member of The Beatles, but the girls used to hear the accent and somehow assume that this must have been the case.

As the Arctic Monkeys return from their first sell out tour of the USA (including an appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live’), it would be nice to think that something similar could happen to the Yorkshire accent. I wonder what the American crowds have been making of lyrics like “And yeah, I’d love to tell you my problem / You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” and if they understand their “owts” from their “summats” yet.

For all that The Beatles showcased their accents in their films and in their many TV appearances and radio interviews, the Scouse accent is actually notable only by its absence in their music. If you didn’t know that the band were from Liverpool (and how could you not?), you would surely struggle to place them there simply by listening to their music. For many other bands, this would be a whole lot easier. Never mind their jingly-jangly guitar sound, with Lee Mavers’ accent, could The Las have come from anywhere else but Liverpool? The Futureheads and Maximo Park are both unmistakeably from the North East; Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol could only have come from Northern Ireland; The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were professional Scots, their leader never knowingly bothering to play down his origins. Even Blur, bless their Mockney little socks, are easy to place in Essex. Of course, there are many others…

But what have all of these bands got in common, aside from having easily placed accents? That’s right: they’ve all been relatively successful in the UK, but have made little impact anywhere else. Could it be that having a distinctive accent is actually a handicap to achieving global success? What have U2, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Coldplay, REM and other stadium rock behemoths of their ilk got in common? Yup. Largely accentless English singing voices.

Tell me I’m wrong. There must be someone who has achieved global success with an accent… surely?

… Rock City (Ben)

I lived in Nottingham for seven years, and without a doubt the biggest drain on my financial resources during my time there was Rock City.

It’s as a gig venue that the Talbot Street club is best known – certainly, it’s one of the few British venues that American bands have queued up to play, and amongst touring metal bands it’s afforded legendary status. Motorhead return to play there every November – perhaps that’s the only routine Lemmy has to live by other than the bottle of whisky for breakfast?

I don’t keep a record of every band I’ve ever seen, but I do keep hold of gig tickets as a memento whenever possible (meaning I try to avoid paying on the door). Sifting through the pile suggests that the first Rock City gig I ever went to was Swedish rap-metal RATM wannabes Clawfinger in December 1997. Between then and May 2004, across Rock City’s three rooms (the Main Hall, the Rig and the Basement or Disco II as it used to be known) I saw an incredible number of bands. The gigs headlined by Fugazi, The Hives, Jane’s Addiction, Mogwai, Queens Of The Stone Age, Rocket From The Crypt and Spiritualized are among the best I’ve ever been to.

But others stick in the memory for other reasons: seeing Franz Ferdinand and The Fiery Furnaces on the same bill, supporting Hot Hot Heat in front of a half-empty Main Hall; watching The Icarus Line’s Aaron North walk along the Basement bar spraying Coke onto his guitar; finding my face pressed up against a fellow gig-goer’s chain-mail shoulder pad at a System Of A Down gig, and then seeing the looks on the band’s face as four or five fans pogoed up and down on the roof of a van outside afterwards; the whole Mr Miyagi & The Kung-Fu Fighters experience as detailed by Paul a few weeks ago; and the support band to The Icarus Line the first time I saw them there, who rejoiced under the name Shat, included in their number a vocalist covered in prosthetic penises and played a song called ‘Gonorrhoea Fountain’.

In recent years Rock City has gone from strength to strength with the opening of two new smaller sister venues, the Rescue Rooms and Stealth, both of which have enabled it to retain (or perhaps regain?) something of a monopoly on gigs of all sizes in the city. Securing the services of booker / promoter Anton of the cooler-than-cool Night With No Name has also been a real coup.

But it’s not just as a venue that Rock City will forever have a place in my heart. Throughout my undergraduate years there was a weekly pilgrimage to the Saturday rock night, back when it was a particularly ungodly place – cheap beer, uniform black clothing (much of it PVC), long hair, toilets awash with bodily fluids of all kinds, darkened corners occupied by couples indulging in all manner of sexual activities…

And then there were the regulars, whose faces we soon got to know: JS Clayden of Pitchshifter; Big Pete, who – as the name suggests – was a 6ft 8ins gentle giant and would place himself in the middle of the moshpit for people to bounce off; two different Dave Grohl look-alikes (one from his Nirvana days, the other from Foo Fighters) and a big-chinned Kurt Cobain look-alike who helpfully wore the smiley face T-shirt; and Wendy, a gargantuan spiky-haired metaller who wore black tank-tops to show off her knife wounds.

I recall one friend once being told by the bouncers to remove his Topman T-shirt because the image was offensive in that it suggested (falsely) that he was a member of the Hell’s Angels. Of course, recollection in tranquillity has often been made difficult if not impossible due to one bottle of Rolling Rock too many. On another occasion I woke up at 4am to find myself sat on the steps outside with my shoelaces tied together.

Things change, though. It’s not like it were in my day etc etc. The music isn’t as good, the characters have gone (all except the fat man who wanders around all night talking to no one with his head down as if scouring the floor for change), and we’re much happier down in the Rig now, once just the preserve of leather-waistcoated old cock rockers. A symptom of advancing years, perhaps, but you can’t argue with a bit of AC/DC.

… Roisin Murphy (Caskared)

Fashion shows can be fantastic – I mean real fashion shows. The lights, the absurdly angular models treading the runway, the vision of the designer turned into clothes, the anticipation of the crowd and the loud loud music. It’s a million miles away from the high street, it’s an event, the bleeding edge of cool is the aim. I am watching a Ukrainian designer’s collection at Russian Fashion Week, heavy black layers with sculptural metal spirals skewering the material. There’s an intensity, and then it quadruples: the models are marching to Róisín Murphy’s ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’. The electric Cherokee call opening is usurped by an artificial wood-block one-two-one-two; the models respond left-right-left-right. The synthesised hi-hats syncopate and the shallow percussive sound unravels, the shallowness feels mischievously appropriate. I break out into a grin as I recognise her voice and nod in time with the “one and only true note”, the cameras flash “taking a picture”.

The whole of Róisín’s album Ruby Blue is a delight. Much of the album has a futuro-domestic feel through its tricksy samples that could have used vacuum cleaners (‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’) or plumbing (‘Sinking Feeling’) as source material. There is a keen pace with a tick-tocking tempo (‘Through Time’ and ‘Dear Diary’) and the album dances by with an upbeat glee. Her vocals hit the right balance for each song; in the title track she leers and chants to the heavy distorted guitar, and at other times she sings sweetly (‘If We’re In Love’). And of course, the whole album is entirely eccentric, but how could it not be as she is one half of Moloko?

From hearing ‘Killer Bunnies’ played at a friend’s house from their first album Do You Like My Tight Sweater, I knew Moloko were something unique. Róisín and Mark Brydon made Moloko, the Russian, or nadsaat, for “milk”. Hilarious, menacing and completely original, Moloko produced albums and a remix of ‘Sing It Back’ stormed Ibiza which rocketed them to a wider public. I never liked that remix, but I did like the fact that everyone who bought the album on the strength of the single were exposed to ‘Radio Moscow’, ‘Indigo’ and ‘Remain The Same’, all songs that experiment with ideas of epic glam mod.

… Ronnie Ronalde (Skif)

You’re a referee punishing a foul. Maybe you’re a kettle flagging up your internal boil. Perhaps you’re just a dribbly letch wishing to alert a distant lady to the fact. Whichever of these you are, you are a whistler and as such share a great deal with Ronnie Waldron, born 1923. [Hmm, have you been reading John’s comment on Swiss Toni’s site, Skif?]

Early in his life, he would busk for pennies on the streets of London and this eventually led to the music hall stage, as well as a new stage name, as he joined Arturo Steffani’s Silver Songsters, working with the likes of Nat Gonella and George Formby. His virtuosity led to great success both in the UK and abroad, earning him the title Mr Variety, his whistle now in legend for apparently making Marilyn Monroe shiver and Roy Roger’s horse Trigger frisky

Others in music hall and vaudeville have been famed for their whistling, such as Brother Bones who recorded the whistled version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ that the Harlem Globetrotters use as their theme, but Ronnie has been arguably the most famous of their ilk. Aside from whistling melodies and bird calls over delicate orchestral pieces (such as with his most famous number, the naturalistic ‘In A Monastery Garden’) Ronnie would sing in a quasi-operatic way that also made him a contemporary of Josef Locke and David Whitfield.

Now 82 years old and emigrated to New Zealand, Ronnie still plays shows, and even undertook a 40-date tour of the UK in 2003 to celebrate his 80th birthday, as headliner of a Golden Years Of Variety bill. Having been switched on to Ronnie’s status as the world’s most eminent siffleur by the nostalgic patronage of John Peel I went to see the Southsea leg of that tour, at the Kings Theatre, three years ago this past weekend as it happens.

The problem for variety revivalists nowadays is that most of its original audience have died away and, as such, the theatre only had about thirty people in it, dotted about the seats. Ronnie nonetheless performed and told anecdotes as though regaling the packed stalls of his post-war hey-day. A kindly grandfather now, dressed in a tight-fitting scarlet suit and a frilly shirt, age meant that his singing voice could not soar as it once did, but his incorporation of tweets and trills within tunes such as ‘Mockingbird Hill’ and ‘Tritsch Tratsch Polka’ made for warming and innocent entertainment from a bygone age.

I took my mum to that show y’know; sometimes you can leave the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, or at least the pretence to it, for another night. Speaking of which, am I the only person to have seen Ronnie Ronalde, Whigfield AND Napalm Death in concert? I hope not of course, just a shame that it wasn’t on the same night. That would have been a real rebirth for variety.

… The Rutles (Del)

The Rutles story is a legend. A living legend. A legend that will live a lifetime, long after lots of other living legends have died. The Pre-Fab Four. Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry.

Some parodies fall flat on their face under the weight of their own smugness. But some are so perfect, so exacting, so ruthless, possessing such wonderful attention to detail, they become greater than the sum of their parts. The Rutles 1978 biopic ‘All You Need Is Cash’ was a quite brilliant rewriting of the history of The Beatles, created by Eric Idle as part of Rutland Weekend Television, with all the Pythonesque genius you'd expect. Guest stars included Bill Murray, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and a certain George Harrison. It is one of my all time favourite rock ‘n’ roll comedies, only bettered to my mind by ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. The Rutles’ full career from the Ratkeller in Germany, through ‘All You Need Is Cash’, ‘Sgt Rutters Only Darts Club Band’ to their collapse and ‘Let It Rot’.

But what makes it truly wonderful is the accompanying music. Each track on the soundtrack appropriated the style, lyrics and production style of a number of Beatles tracks. Some were obvious: 'Ouch!', 'Hold My Hand' and 'Piggy In The Middle' hardly require a musicologist. But often things are more subtle than that. The songs were all written by Neil Innes, whose solo track 'How Sweet To Be An Idiot' was plagiarised by Noel Gallagher on 'Whatever'. To avoid such similar mistakes, Innes actually sat down with John Lennon to ensure that The Rutles’ songs never copied original Beatles tracks directly. So instead of lame covers, it's like discovering a new Beatles album, with inspiration drawn from across The Beatles' career. But, and this is the key, the songs are still fantastic pop and stand up on their own. Nowhere is this more true than on closer 'Let's Be Natural', just a great song which is 'Dear Prudence' from a parallel universe.

‘All You Need Is Cash’ was arguably a more telling portrayal of The Beatles’ career than their own Anthology series which followed 15 years later. Never ones to miss a trick, The Rutles “discovered” a bunch of old tracks in Barry's shed, which appeared as Archaeology. On it, the art of pop pastiche was raised to a new level. The songs are like a love letter to The Beatles, each one combining elements from across their canon. Centre piece 'Shangri-La' manages to cram in 'A Day In The Life', 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite', 'Penny Lane', 'Yellow Submarine' and more before morphing into a never-ending fade-out chorus half 'Hey Jude' half 'All You Need Is Love'. Archaeology is the great lost Beatles album, with a healthy dose of winkingly ironic nostalgia, more rewarding than the three Beatles Anthologies combined.

The Rutles’ genius lay in managing to both harpoon the mystique around Beatlemania, and show almost unrivalled affection for The Beatles' work. Plus, they created two “comedy” records that stand up to many repeated listens. A rare feat. Do a pooh pooh!

* * * * *

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

silver jews live

You ever done that fantasy gig line-up thing? Or the ultimate festival line-up, even? It's kind of a boring habit of mine, when I'm too tired / bored / anxious to think about anything else. That and a fantasy Spurs line up which consists entirely of Robbie Keanes. When I do it I start with bands I missed because I was too young or stupid to go and see them before they split up - The Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr - or people I could never conceivably have seen - The Clash, Can, Joy Division etc. Then I fill in the bands I love and have seen; Blur, Pavement, The House of Love, PJ Harvey. Finally I end up with the two still-going bands who I've never seen and would, frankly, die to see. XTC haven't played live since 1983 or something like that, and aren't ever likely to do so. So I end up with the band who are - in my meaningless opinion - probably the finest on the planet right now - Silver Jews, who never started touring in the first place.

Except of course that, more than ten years into their career, they've started. They've just played a run of dates in the US and are coming over to the UK very shortly. And... I'm going to be away when they come. Unbelievable, but I don't feel too bad as I had already assumed that I would never get to see them. And I figure, I'm gonna review 'em anyway, something which would have been impossible a few years ago, but with the wonderful advent of MP3 blogs I've managed to download four full concerts from the tour, including what is officially the first ever Joos concert at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA on March 10th. And, well, it was stunning.

The reclusive, remarkable, drug and alcohol ravaged genius that is Jews mainman David C. Berman has always been a bit of enigma, refusing to play live, refusing to read his song lyrics at poetry readings (he's the author of 'Actual Air', one of the finest collections of American poetry I've ever read), and sacking and reinstating Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich and Steve West on regular occasions. His most recent album, Tanglewood Numbers, saw most of them back, along with Will Oldham and his wife, Cassie, but on tour only Cassie and Bob make the line up - the latter only for a few, nostalgic numbers. So there's no Malkmus. He's barely missed however - the show is all about Berman, who apparently has to perform with his (extraordinary) lyrics on a music stand in front of him as he can't remember them. And god, we've waited a long time to see him do this.

The outpouring of collective joy from the audience is immediately obvious the moment the band takes the stage. Berman's voice, greeting the audience, is surprisingly nasal. "You wanted the jews, you got 'em", he announces. "This isn't my speaking voice", he continues, "but I know you don't what it is, so I'm making you think this is it, fuck you". Then he counts to four, hits his guitar and sings "In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection / slowly screwing my ways across Europe, they had to make a correction". The audience wants to laugh but instead it whoops deliriously as the musics kicks in. The formula is set. Every lyric - "I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men's room walls" - is met with hollers of approval. Is their another living musician who raises cheers with every other line? Finally the songs ratchets up to the point everyone is waiting for; Berman sings the pay-off "If you don't want me, I promise not to linger / but before I go I got to ask you dear about that tan line on your ring-finger". At which point, although I can't vouch for the spines of the "real" audience, mine seems to explode in a tumult of tingles.

It's by no means a practised performance; Berman's voice is even flatter and less expressive than on record (but this is the man who once sang "all my favourite singers couldn't sing"), and the band turn in an accomplished set shorn of Malkmus's pyrotechnics. None of this matters at all, however - the sheer pleasure of finally hearing songs that have lived like friends for years kills all possibility of disappointment. And Berman is clearly a beguiling frontman - frequently quietening the band down to tell jokes, praise the audience and address good-natured heckles. The set itself is drawn in roughly equal measures from across the band's five-album back catalogue. Berman says next year he'll learn 15 different songs and come back.

In the meantime, he's picked such glorious songs to play. Nastanovich - still the friendliest man in the world, by the sounds of things - comes out for an incredibly emotional run through of 'Trains Across The Sea', which unfurls like something heart-breaking by The Velvet Underground. "Half hours on Earth", Berman sings, "What are they worth? I don't know". The song over, he notes, new to this, "No-one ever told me, I just found this out this week, that it sounds shitty on stage, like I thought it would sound as good as it does in your car, or at home. It sounds worse! How are you supposed to rock out, it sucks!". It's funny to think that this stuff is new to him.

Elsewhere, 'New Orleans' is lovely but the first time I miss Malkmus, and several songs from Tanglewood Numbers sound super, but it's the classics that really sound amazing. 'Dallas' takes my breath away, alternately hilarious - "I passed out on the thirteenth floor / the CPR was so erotic"- and beautiful - "How d'you turn a billion steers / into buildings made of mirrors?". Guitars chime melodiously around Berman as he begins to spin stories, addressing the crowd. It makes me burn with desire to visit Dallas, not an experience I've had before. "Sorry if I'm harsh on a song that means a lot to you", he apologises afterwards. Hardly.

'Horseleg Swastikas' is equally fine. "And I wanna be like water if I can", Berman croons, "cos water doesn't give a damn". The song quietens down for a piano break and Berman observes, "you know, I guess this has been a pretty good first concert. There's been some screw-ups. But er, I only really started practising for the tour a few days ago. And I know you guys waited for a long time. I didn't deserve to do that to you". I think I know what he means.

'Slow Education' is another song packed with lyrics the crowd has waited a long time to hear him sing. "When God was young / he made the wind and the sun / and since then / it's been a slow education / And you got that one idea again / the one about dying". 'Buckingham Rabbit', from American Water closes the set and it's worn-out sounding and euphoric, Berman having relented and okayed an encore he was determined not to do, getting Steve West - "an excellent human being" - on to drum. It's another song which I associate so strongly with Malkmus that it's impossible not to wish he was there, but the Joos do an outstanding job without him. "So the rent became whisky / then my life became risky", Berman sings. Ain't that the truth. It's not long ago that Berman tried - and failed - to kill himself.

But it's great to see/hear him in such good form. "You know, I've caught a lot of you guys looking at my wife tonight", he jabs. As the guitars build and lead us out at the end of a remarkable set, a huge, warm cheer erupts from the crowd. "See you next year", he mutters, oblivious to the fact that half of this crowd is probably intent on following him round the States for the next couple of weeks. And, yeah, it looks like it'll have to be next year for me, David, but it's worth waiting for I suspect. In the meantime, I get lovely Pavement flashbacks as Bob comes back out on stage to apologise that there'll be no more music tonight and tell the crowd how beautiful they are. Still a gentleman after all these years.

Hear other dates from the tour here and here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: Q

Rather later than anticipated - sorry...

Q is for …

... Qbert (Del)

Wiki, wik, wik wikawaaaaarrrrrghhhh!

Ever since Grand Wizard Theodore moved the record back and forth against the needle and realised it made a cool noise, scratching has been a part of hip hop. And top of the scratching tree are the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. And the best of all the Piklz is DJ Qbert. When not being named after an 80s video game character, he answers to the name Richard Quitevis, hails from San Francisco and is Filipino American. And he can make noises with records that will make your head spin.

He's simply the best. He and the Piklz had to "retire" from the DMC World Championships to give someone else a chance to win. He made one of the first albums ever consisting solely of scratching, Wave Twisters. You can also see him in action in the great documentary Scratch, where he cuts it up amongst the such esteemed company as DJ Shadow, Mix Master Mike and Cut Chemist. But Qbert is the don dadda of them all. Wikiwikiwaaargh!

How come whenever I try it the tone arm shoots off the record? Curse these clumsy Anglo-Saxon digits...

... quality control (Jez)

Blokes in the pub everywhere: “Yeah, they WERE good. But their later stuff was shite”. And it’s usually true, whoever the artist is.

Of course there are various reasons for this. Perhaps success breeds contempt for the audience. Maybe the new lifestyle brings amnesia regarding the miserable life the band was trying to escape from. Just listen to the new Streets album, and there won’t be any prizes for guessing that the next Hard-fi album will be on a similar subject, although I defy anyone to actually research that one. I’ll be watching Dizzee Rascal’s next move with particular interest, and also Radiohead’s. In the case of the latter they have indulged in constant reinvention with sustained quality. Think of the amount of people who’ve tried that and failed: Prince, David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Clash. In fact almost anyone who has tried invention has suffered from it.

Well, almost. Think of The Beatles. Even Ringo’s cameos acted as a jovial counterpoint to music so boundary-pushing that it must have come as light relief. I can only think of a couple of songs in their later work that show real lapses: 'Maxwell’s Silver Hammer' and 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'. Both are written by McCartney, which perhaps explains the fluctuations in his later career - some really good stuff, a lot of 'Frog Chorus'es. Lennon also floundered although he didn’t seem to suffer from a lack of quality control in his solo stuff, just a lack of quality.

Perhaps it helped that The Beatles were incredibly prolific, then split up, then started dying. Death is always the best method of quality control. If Morrissey had gone the same way as Ian Curtis we wouldn’t have to put up with endless “returns to form”. The same goes for Stevie Wonder who hasn’t made a decent record since 1981. Marketing departments’ last refuge is the “return to form”. Whenever we see the phrase we know Neil Young has missed the mark again. However, if that’s the label then maybe we should celebrate the fact these people have made some bloody great records during their lives.

Others adopt the monkey / typewriters approach – if what you do all day is write songs then you must finally come up a good one. Apt then that U2’s is actually called ‘One’. Call in the quality controllers boys. Or the Grim Reaper.

… Queen (Paul)

Queen stole the show at Live Aid in 1985. They weren't the biggest band on the bill, but by the end of the evening there was only one band that everyone was talking about.

Founded in the early 70s by students Brian May and Roger Taylor, the band grew as they were introduced to Freddie Mercury and successfully recruited John Deacon following an advert they placed looking for a bass player.

Despite a handful of previous albums, it was 1975's A Night At The Opera which was to feature the song that would come to define the band. Earlier works, including the Seven Seas Of Rye, had hinted at a dramatic, theatrical beast waiting to be unleashed, but it wasn't until 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was bequeathed on an unsuspecting world that Queen finally announced their arrival on the grand stage. Complete with one of the first music videos, the song grew (primarily a result of the patronage of then Radio 1 DJ Kenny Everett) and steadily climbed its way up the charts, and into the consciousness of the nation.

Further records followed, as Queen became one of the largest bands on the planet throughout the remainder of the 70s and 80s. However, with such an outrageous, mesmeric frontman, they were always destined to be dogged by some controversy.

Their cross-dressing video for the single 'I Want To Break Free', which memorably featured Roger Taylor as a schoolgirl and Mercury in tight PVC skirt whilst still sporting his trademark moustache, was to alienate their firmly heterosexual American fan base, a market they never really recovered until the 90s.

By that stage, Mercury had become a victim of his rock and roll lifestyle. The years of cocaine-fuelled promiscuity finally took their toll, and on 23rd November 1991, Freddie Mercury announced to the world that he had contracted AIDS. He died the next day, leaving a part-finished album to be honed and released posthumously.

By the time of his death, Queen, with Mercury at the forefront, had risen to the pinnacle of the UK music scene, with a large and impressive back catalogue to their name.

Ironically, one of the defining Queen moments actually took place after Mercury's death, with 1992's 'Wayne's World' breathing new life into 'Bohemian Rhapsody', and revitalising their appeal in America in the process.

Mercury's death was in some ways a mixed blessing. Regrettably it deprived the world of a supremely talented singer and frontman but equally it spared the nation the horrible spectre of the band carrying on way beyond their prime, playing increasingly smaller venues to increasingly ageing crowds (a la Status Quo). Sadly, this hasn't stopped Taylor and May doing something similar. However, at least Mercury will always be remembered for his show stealing Live Aid performance, and not as a bloated old man making repeatedly ill-advised attempts to remain fashionable to today's youth.

... 'Queen Bee' – Barbra Streisand (RussL)

I'm kept awake most nights wondering why Barbra Streisand isn't considered cool. The spelling of her name was clearly an early tentative experiment in text-message-style vowel exclusion. You would think that she'd be a hero to the young, wouldn't you?

'Queen Bee', anyway, is from the 1976 Streisand / Kristofferson soundtrack album A Star Is Born, and is definitely one of the more overlooked gems in the cannon of popular music. Listen to it and I'm sure you'll be shocked. You'll get your first surprise when you realise that Streisand sounds sassy. You'll get your second surprise when you realise that Streisand sounds CONVINCINGLY sassy.

She's helped no end by the accompaniment, of course. The Oreos' r'n'b duo styled backing vocals help the tune to slink along, while stabs of brass add a bit of drama. The horn section does admittedly end up sound a lot more mannered as the song goes on, but it's not enough to spoil anything.

It's the lyrics that really elevate the song to greatness. They're a witty assortment, with multiple rhymes in each line (there's probably a technical term for that. I don't know it.) having the surprising but very effective result of making the whole thing sound that bit more naughty.

"So in conclusion it's an optical illusion if you think that we're the weaker race / Men got the muscle but the women got the hustle and the truth is staring in your face".

Ain't that the truth, fellas?

... Quelqu’un M’a Dit – Carla Bruni (Swiss Toni)

I’ll agree it doesn’t sound all that promising on paper: Italian supermodel releases album of her own compositions sung entirely in French. As sales pitches go, that’s a pretty bad one – right up there with those guys in Deep Blue Sea who thought it would be a good idea to genetically engineer man-eating sharks so that they became more intelligent. After all, what could possibly go wrong? What’s the worst thing that could happen?

There’s a precedent: you might sneer at the very thought of Naomi Campbell releasing a record, but her album (Baby Woman) sold over a million copies worldwide. Alright, maybe the bulk of those sales were in Japan, but a million sales? You can see why a record company might sit up and pay attention when another supermodel posts them a demo tape. I’m sure even Kate Moss would agree that a million sales are not to be sniffed at. As an added bonus, in a world where the best bands are often the ugliest – Arctic Monkeys anyone? - when you sign up a supermodel, you can be reasonably confident that you’ll be getting some half-decent publicity shots…

So your gut feeling is probably telling you that any record by a supermodel is likely to be shit, isn’t it? I’ve not heard a note of Naomi Campbell’s album and yet I’m reasonably confident that it’s one of the worst things ever recorded. Would I consider buying it? Of course not.

It’s against these kinds of preconceptions that Carla Bruni, a model most famous for dating people like Mick Jagger, Donald Trump and Kevin Costner, released her debut album a couple of years ago. What were the chances that it would turn out to be any good?

Well, do you know what? It’s a fantastic album. I don’t own another record that sounds quite like it, but if you forced me to make a comparison, I would say that it sounds a little bit like Norah Jones in French. For my money though, Bruni has a lighter touch and a slightly more mischievous air about her than Jones. My French isn’t really good enough to be able to tell you if the lyrics are very profound, but they do sound great. To my doltish English ears, songs sung in French sound pretty enticing at the best of times, but when paired up with Bruni’s delicious breathy vocals and gentle guitar playing, then the whole thing is irresistible. If I ever see her live then I might just pass out.

One song in particular stands out for me: 'La Derniere Minute', the last song on the album, and consists entirely of Bruni, a guitar and a metronome. It’s exactly one minute long.

Bruni is an utterly convincing chansonnier, and when I listen to the album today, I still find it a delight. I can’t even remember what on earth possessed me to buy this, but I bless the day that I did.

… quick, march (Skif)

If The Verve, Massive Attack and The Bee Gees have managed to teach us anything through their music video work, it is that tunes can often be quite effective when attached to a consistent, mid-tempo gait.

Marching is not just a way of drawing attention to a hypnotic, repetitive rhythm or melody however, it has also been the focus for song, and a genre, if you will, all of its own. It is an essential part of musical life that you cannot escape even in death, there being marches of course for both your matching and despatching. Sadly, as far as I know there is no ‘Birth March’ to round them off but hey ho, the march, in tune or lyrical form can appear almost anywhere.

Football terraces up and down the country have often boomed with the sound of a beered-up choir getting behind their team with ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. Being a Southampton supporter as a child (before my attention switched elsewhere), it often confused me why opposition fans would be so keen to wish us well. It is of course a religious tune though (marching being a prevalent theme in these, of course, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ being another example), taking the apocalyptic imagery in its six verses from the Book of Revelations. So the main difference between Portsmouth and Southampton fans would appear then to be that while the former try to enjoy uber-fan John PFC Westwood’s Fratton End bugle, Saints supporters clearly favour the Archangel Gabriel’s trumpet.

It’s not just in football either, but in politics. You can usually get an early indication as to the extent of any particular pressure group’s collective get up and go by examining their chosen method of protest. Sit-in or march though, the tunes will still come barking out of megaphones, but I’ll bet there are plenty more tunes have been written about the more active method of demonstration than the passive.

So, the march has been represented in songs such as ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ and ‘White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land’ by Phil Ochs and Billy Bragg’s ‘Marching Song Of The Convert Battalions’, but the march also gives a method. The marching band, one of them things you used to see during football half-times before penalty competitions were invented. However, in the US, the marching band is still very much allied to the sporting occasion, half-time field shows regularly taking place at American football events, and with the addition of baton twirlers or cheerleaders to add to the spectacle.

Collegiate football field shows have also led to the development of fight songs, which are closely associated with each particular university’s band. Some of the more popular fight songs include Notre Dame’s ‘Victory March’ and the US Naval Academy’s ‘Anchors Aweigh’.

Marching bands as little institutions, of course, developed from the military bands which themselves grew from the fife and drum playing that would see troops into battle. Eventually this developed into something more ceremonial, and many of the traditions have survived in the modern marching bands, as players follow similar orders to troops on display. “Aboooooooooout turn”. Marching bands are usually led by a drum major using a large baton or mace, but the size of bands can vary greatly, but usually focus on adapted percussion instruments. Woodwind and brass are also fairly essential components.

March music was at its height between 1850 and 1940, largely before the coming of the more versatile and innovative jazz sound. Bands were often part of circus events or allied to particular communities or theatres, sometimes giving gazebo concerts and the like. One of the more famous march composers was John Phillip Sousa who composed America’s official march tune ‘Stars And Stripes Forever’. In England, Kenneth Alford was known as the British March King, who wrote what is probably our most famous addition the march canon, ‘Colonel Bogey’.

All together now, “Hitler, has only got one ball…

... quiet (James)

It’s too quiet in here; turn the music on. Quick, dammit. The silence is beginning to swell and vibrate, and suck the light from the room. Quick, I can almost hear the voices…

I have never liked silence. The Tremeloes may have sung that ‘Silence is Golden’, but to me, silence is a dark and frightening shade of murky sub-mariner green. All is fine until I realise it is there, and then my thoughts begin to amplify inside my head and begin to feedback. My wife has suggested that mental illness might be at the heart of this, but since there is a relatively easy solution, I am happy to report that no diagnosis has yet been made.

I sleep with the radio on, and ensure that almost all waking hours are filled with music (as opposed to TV). The dangerous real-world beyond my front door is OK, because that comes with its own soundtrack. For all the potential horror such a lifestyle might engender, it has served me well. It has resulted in my obsessive quest to fill that silence with as many good sounds as humanly possible: CDs for up-days, CDs for rainy days, CDs for can’t-be-arsed days. It has been a long and sometimes arduous mission – sometimes it looks as though there is no end in sight – but I hereby vow that silence will be perpetually ended.

But here is an interesting thought: in the early days, this quest was pursued with vigour. I played anti-quiet music: loud-metal, loud-dance, loud-indie, loud-soul. The common feature of all this music was loudness. Not merely volume, you understand, but also style. Otis Redding was a favourite in my teens, but never the ballads, always ‘Hard to Handle’ or ‘Shake’ or ‘Day Tripper’ and so on.

But somehow, with age, I have found the war change. From bombardments of anti-quiet, a war of subterfuge has developed. Gentler anti-quiet has been employed; calmer, subtler sounds that gently lay upon the quiet – keeping it from rising up. But from the other side, I have noticed that the quiet has begun to infiltrate the very troops marshalled to defeat it. Even clear and definite examples of anti-quiet have succumbed: Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home...’ falls back into silence for a good ten seconds; sneaky surprise tracks on CDs force you to grapple with silence to find them. I have noticed that at the very heart of some kinds of anti-quiet, silence lurks within – dub-reggae, for example: almost as important as the drum and the bass are the large stretches of silence that separate them.

The quiet, then, may ultimately defeat me. I may have a never-ending series of CDs to wage war with, but the music itself seems to be the weak point. The music gets quieter, and sparser, and spacier, and the quiet creeps in unannounced.

But quick, hang on, the CD has just finished. Let me just pop a new one on before the voices start up again…

... Quiet Is The New Loud – Kings Of Convenience (Pete)

Not quite so much about the album, but rather the New Acoustic Movement as a whole. Frankly, the whole idea of a collective of acoustic bands (or pairs as was frequently the case) annoyed me from the outset. I suppose music journalists had to find a moniker for the assorted bands that emerged in late 1999 and 2000 such as Kings Of Convenience, Ben & Jason, Turin Brakes, I Am Kloot (in 2001) and so on, but the "New Acoustic Movement”? Naaah.

The music press always prefer to simplify matters, hence the all-encompassing terms such as “Britpop” or "trip-hop", the latter of which apparently drove Portishead and Massive Attack nuts. Anyway, I digress. "New Acoustic Movement" was taking this idea too far. It was as if journos thought that a gaggle of Nick Drake wannabes with acoustic guitars who harmonised softly could take on the wave of rubbish nu-metal bands that were around at the same time.

While it might have been a handy term, it conveniently ignored the fact that all the bands included in this "movement" varied so much from each other. The Kings, for example, went for a subtle approach, with bittersweet songs about awkward relationships, while the 'Brakes went for much warmer, almost pop, melodies, but with a hidden spikiness in their lyrics.

Ultimately, it was a short-lived affair. After The Optimist LP, Turin Brakes released another two albums that revealed a barely unchanged style. Ben & Jason went on to write a song for Martine McCutcheon and disappeared off the radar (let that be a lesson to you all). Thankfully, at least Erlend Oye and Eirik Boe took the hint, tiptoed away to Ibiza and back to university respectively and came back again with a richer, fuller sound and a better second album.

Regardless of its longevity, it was refreshing at the time to come across a whole series of bands and artists playing stripped down, quiet reflective music, but the movement wasn't the success that some were hoping it would become. Probably, as the boys from Kings are happy to admit, because "it'll never be a ringtone".

... “quirky” (and other rock hack cliches) (Ben)

(Following on neatly from Pete's piece above...)

A brief glossary of lazy music journalism cliches:

Quirky”: shorthand for “This band can't be pigeonholed because I can't think of anyone else they sound like, and, what's more, they're a bit odd”.

Eclectic”: shorthand for “This band can't be pigeonholed because they combine an incredible variety of different genres and styles in ways I can't get my head around”.

The new X”: shorthand for “X have proved a phenomenal success. Finding a similar band and hyping them up will be almost as lucrative for us as it will be for the record companies. This band are the closest thing we've encountered so far – to hell with their own unique qualities”.

Like X on drugs”: shorthand for “This band are like X, but to the max. And a bit weirder”.

X meets Y”: shorthand for “Well, I can't plausibly describe this band as 'the new X', or even 'like X on drugs', so this will have to do”.

A return to form” (see Jez's piece above): shorthand for “This band have been past their best for years. You've continued to buy the albums but each one has been yet another disappointment. We have to find some way of drumming up interest, though, both for our own sake and for the record companies we kow-tow to”.

Watch this space”: shorthand for “I like this band a lot, or I have been told to hype this band up. They will be back working in McDonalds before the year's out”.

But hang on a minute - I write reviews, and I've probably used all of these terms at one time or another. Enough of the self-flagellation - time to go on the offensive (or at least play devil's advocate).

Bands might hate pigeonholing, but isn't that (to an extent) part of the music journalist's job? You have to find an economical way of describing a band's sound in terms that aren't too obtuse or abstract (I don't mind impressionistic reviews, but those that leave you no clearer about what the record sounds like are ultimately pointless). What better way than to give the reader some familiar touchstones?

And in any case, if these are lazy terms, they're often no more lazy than the bands of which they're used. Bandwagon-jumpers (“the new X”) are legion, while the adjective “eclectic” can be a sly dig (“This band has no idea of what they want to sound like”, “This band somehow thinks that combining rap and rock is like inventing the wheel”).

And then there's “quirky” which, like “wacky”, can be a form of insult to denote the sort of self-conscious and forced attempts at oddity that bands feel they need to set them apart. Often it's about as convincing as the accountancy middle manager wearing his Bugs Bunny tie.

Is it harsh to say that some bands get the cliches they deserve?

... “quite good (Jonathan B)

It was 1985, and I was a gawky teenager growing up in Fenham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. My life revolved around two regular events: Newcastle home games every second Saturday and, on alternate Wednesdays, the arrival at Coulson’s the newsagents of the new Smash Hits magazine - my gateway to the universe of pop music.

I loved everything about Smash Hits. I loved the language. Any pop star returning to the chart fray after an absence of six months or more would invariably be reported as being “back. Back! Back!!”, and any reference to an amount of money was followed by the words “a snip!”. The ex-lead singer of The Beatles was known as “Paul cheeky chappy fab-four thumbs-aloft McCartney”. I loved the interviews, which employed this patent surreal cheekiness to prick the self-importance of the typical 1980s pop star. Fish of Marillion might be asked “What colour is a Tuesday?”, while Sting would be asked for his considered opinion on who would win a fight between a gazelle and a zebra.

I loved everything about Smash Hits. But most of all I loved the “snippets” page. This was where you read about 7 inch releases from mysterious bands whose records you never seemed to hear on Radio 1 during school lunchbreak. Orange Juice. The Soup Dragons. Half Man Half Biscuit. Despite (or perhaps because of) their curious nomenclature, no-one ever asked these bands what colour they thought a Tuesday was - they were treated with an amount of deference, in fact, that was not always accorded to the likes of Simon Le Bon. You got the idea that these bands with the funny names were the ones that the Smash Hits people (who I thought of as sassy older cousins, versed in the ways of the world) really wanted you to like.

One Wednesday a particular snippet caught my eye. It was a postage-stamp sized picture of a quartet of gawky boys from Hull calling themselves The Housemartins. There was a short interview, in which they explained how they were touring the country but had no money to stay in hotels, so were being put up by fans who they met at gigs - thanking them by giving them a framed picture of the Humber Bridge. They also had badges to give away at their gigs - adorned with the slogan “The Housemartins are quite good”. They had a single out, a jangly guitar affair which they were hoping might do quite well - it was called ‘Happy Hour’.

I don’t know whether the controller of Radio 1 was an avid follower of the Smash Hits snippets page, but the next week something strange happened - Gary Davies played 'Happy Hour' on lunchtime Radio 1. It was an irresistibly catchy jangly guitar tune all right - but also, in the context of these conformist Thatcherite times, thrillingly subversive, pouring scorn on the sort of slick-suited young executives we were just learning to call “yuppies”, in whose world “the haircuts smile and the meaning of style is a night out with the boss”. Needless to say Gary Davies didn’t get the joke. But all over provincial England, a million embryo teenage indiepopsters, looking for an escape from the empty pompousness of the likes of U2, Duran Duran and Simple Minds, pricked up their ears.

The following Saturday we all went to Woolworths to buy this curious-sounding new single, which duly shot into the Top Ten. They showed the video on 'Top Of The Pops', and we saw The Housemartins performing their funny, jerky dance, which incorporated a knock-kneed shimmy reminiscent of Peter Beardsley wrongfooting a clumsy full-back. The whole thing was as far away from Duran Duran as it was possible to get while remaining in the same country, and I, for one, was besotted.

A couple of years later the DJ in JB’s Dudley (I had left Newcastle by then and was a floppy-fringed student at Wolverhampton Polytechnic) played ‘Happy Hour’ on indiepop night and the crowd booed, then shambled sulkily off the dancefloor - the chart-friendly Housemartins, it seems, were too mainstream for their avant-garde tastes. I thought this was unfair - if it wasn’t for these gawky boys from Hull, many of the happening young indie kids might still be sporting Chrissy Waddle hairstyles and pastel-coloured cardigans from BHS, and buying Dire Straits LPs. I know I would have been.

It was The Housemartins, after all, who got jangly, awkward guitar pop onto Steve Wright In The Afternoon, and so paved the way for the likes of The Wedding Present and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox And We’re Going to Use It to launch an assault on the Top Twenty, as the 80s turned to the 90s, and Thatcherism began its long, slow death. Sure, these boys were no Sex Pistols (they didn’t spit at their fans - instead they sipped tea in their living rooms and gave them framed pictures of the Humber Bridge) - but in their own quiet, quirky, and quintessentially English way, this quartet of quaint boys from Hull changed the face of British pop music - at a time when, as the cheeky Smash Hits people knew quite well, it really was in need of a shake-up. You know what? Those badges were right. The Housemartins really were “quite good”.

... quiz (drmigs)

Music, like sport and train-spotting, is so rich with trivia that should you so wish, you could spend the rest of you life in the comfort of your own anorak. Music is an ever-evolving field, with new vibrant activities in many genres; yet it also has a rich history, which being person-centric, makes its minutiae fascinating. There's fact, fiction, rumour, conspiracy theory, stats and gossip enough to satiate many a muso's intrigue. Which makes it the perfect subject for quiz material.

The special thing about the music quiz is that it is the home of the specialists. Whilst the general pub quiz is a broad church of people who fancy that they know a bit about this and that, the music quiz is for a different demographic. In the music quiz, everyone is on their subject of choice, so win lose or draw, it's a fair cop. It attracts this crowd because the pleasure and reward comes from knowing the answers. People who only know the opening bars to Robbie Williams songs don't hang around for more than a couple of quizzes, because 0/10 round after round just isn't any fun. It's not like a general knowledge quiz, where you will always have one good round; if you don't know any music, you just won't score any points. Simple.

However, if you know your stuff, then the rewards are good. Each question you get right is a vindication of your introspective pursuit of musical knowledge. And the challenge is twofold: knowing the answer, and knowing it before the rest of your team. On this latter point, I must admit to a touch of transferred experience. Me, I'm crap at the music quiz, but I'm not bad sports quizzes - and the principles are similar. What it comes down to is that the geeks rise to the top, and knowledge is power. There's no “I've got the fastest car / I've got the prettiest face”; it's “I know Bowie's first single and I know who was the rhythm guitarist in Creme Brulee”. (OK maybe that's a different kind of trivia... ) But the point is that there is a certain type of pleasure that comes from being tested on stuff that you've learnt just because you wanted to.

And then there's the other side to the music quiz, the stuff you didn't know. If you are interested in music trivia, then a question at a music quiz is a win-win scenario. You get a question right, and it's seratonin all round; you get a question wrong, and you learn something new. It's a cosy and wonderful thing.

If you've never sampled the music quiz, you must, because it's a happy place. And the recipe for success (other than knowing everything about music ever)? A good team name (The Illegitimate Love Children Of William G Stewart is always a good fall-back), someone on your team who drinks cider, and someone who wears a coat with a furry hood (especially in summer). Whilst fulfilling these latter requirements won't necessarily win you the quiz, they somehow never seem to hinder the winning team...

* * * * *

Thanks to Del, Jez, Paul, RussL, Swiss Toni, Skif, James, Pete, Jonathan B and drmigs for their contributions this week.

Back at the usual time next week, I promise.