Sunday, April 29, 2007

In The Dock: Easy Listening

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Easy Listening

The case for the prosecution (Ben)

Ah, the poisoned chalice that is a genre prosecution…

It’s with that in mind that I throw caution to the wind and set out on what will no doubt be an intensely personal rant / crusade (see also: Britpop). Perhaps it’s worth saying now that I’d be surprised if I get any votes, let alone sway you the jury into finding in my favour…

Beyond the well-rehearsed riposte that genres cannot be dismissed wholesale because of the ever-present danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the defence case will (I imagine) focus on the pleasure easy listening can bring given the right context. Relaxing in a deckchair on a beach on a hot summer’s day, beer in hand, barbecue sizzling and Andy Williams’ ‘Music To Watch Girls’ playing on the hi-fi – what’s not to like?


Simple, conservative and whiter than white, easy listening is the Jim Davidson of musical genres, and – to these ears, at least – almost equally as offensive. “Offensive?!”, I hear you cry, “But it’s so … nice!” Yes, it might seem perverse, but there’s no contradiction – it’s precisely that “niceness” that I find offensive. Stick with me on this one…

Let’s take a very broad question, one which is the bane of music lovers the world over: what sort of music do you like? Most people are reluctant to pigeonhole themselves by naming a single genre (as the question implicitly demands) simply because their tastes are far more diverse than that. But it begs the further question: what (if anything) does all the music you like have in common, that all the music you dislike does not? What, for you, makes music good?

For me, it’s about whether or not it does something to me. But more than that – that something should be fundamentally positive. Music should stir, rouse, excite, energise, inspire. But easy listening is not a stimulant but a suppressant, instead working to numb and dull the senses. This anaesthetic aesthetic, if you will, finds its most contemporary manifestation in the form of “chill-out” (Christ, that term sets my teeth on edge), as is underlined by the fact that on Amazon the likes of Zero 7 and Royksopp are classified together with Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr and Dean Martin under the title “Easy Listening”.

Of course, a song that does something to one person may leave another quite cold. And in any case, you might well respond, what’s wrong with liking music which is easy on the ear, which can be experienced as pleasant aural wallpaper, which doesn’t pose any kind of challenge or threat to the listener? After all, just as there are times when it comes to films that only a no-brainer will do, surely there’s a time and a place for easy listening?

But then isn’t there something hugely depressing about an inherently reactionary musical genre which not only keeps its listeners insulated within a comfort zone and fights shy of novelty and challenge but is actually celebrated for doing so? Admittedly, without the likes of easy listening the concept of the avant-garde would be meaningless, the margins only being marginal relative to the centre ground – but it is equally important to bear in mind that, in any art form, without the shock of the new there is no progress, just a standing still that soon becomes stagnation.

So, if you want to be stimulated by what you listen to; if you’re not content simply to be a passive consumer of music; if you reject the belief that it’s your right to put on an album, sit back, cross your arms and be entertained without being challenged in any way or having to put in any thought or concentration or effort; if you care about music as a creative, innovative and ever-evolving art form, then vote for the prosecution.

And if you think I’ve grossly overstated my case, committed heinous generalisations or got myself tangled up in rhetoric, then at least give me the satisfaction of instigating a debate…

The case for the defence (SwissToni)

Here we go again then; another entire genre of music has been put in the dock for judgement. Am I alone in experiencing a slightly weary sense of deja-vu? Did we learn nothing from our experiences with R'n'B, cock rock, goth, britpop, house music and Hip-hop? Had we not established beyond any reasonable doubt that music in all its infinite varieties cannot simply be filed into tidy and all-encompassing categories? Even if it could be, did we not agree that the very idea of condemning an entire genre was nonsensical? This is the "Crazy in Love" principle, forged in the fires of the R'n'B debate: if there is a single song in a genre that you like, then you cannot logically condemn the whole category.

And yet here we are.


Oh come on then. Let's do it.

What's to like about "Easy Listening"? The very term itself conjures up images of cardigans and comfortable slippers and seems custom made to be said with a slight sneer of distaste by all right-thinking music fans. Easy Listening. Unchallenging. Background music. Like many generalisations, I'm sure that this one contains a grain of truth (many of which I feel sure that the Prosecution case will be sure to bring to your attention). Like all generalisations though, it obscures more than it illuminates. It's just a label and "Easy Listening" is no more always about music being "Easy" than "House music" is always songs about buildings. Not challenging? How about Scott Walker, an artist who somehow managed to hang onto a mainstream audience long after he started singing songs of alienation, existentialism and death? That honeyed baritone and the lush orchestration of the arrangements may fool you into thinking this is background music, but listen more carefully and you will hear tales of drink, loneliness and despair. Unchallenging? This is an artist who now slaps sides of meat on his records as a percussive instrument. Val Doonican he is not. Easy Listening? Hardly, although that's where he's filed in record shops.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that every Easy Listening artist is as challenging as Scott Walker though - clearly they are not. And so what? Why would they need to be? Music doesn't have to be challenging to be any good does it? Music can be uplifting, life-affirming and mood enhancing; it can be a companion when you are lonely and can be your support in times of crisis; music can express those feelings that you cannot or dare not articulate. Although I have a personal preference for spiky guitar bands and a lingering affection for silly rock music, I find that the music I turn to in my quieter moments is often very different indeed. When I am feeling low, I listen to Dusty Springfield and I am always, always carried away and somehow uplifted by the clarity and the aching sadness in her voice. I defy anyone not to be moved by some of those classic Burt Bacharach songs.... Dionne Warwick's definitive (whatever Cilla thinks) version of "Walk on By", Dusty singing "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", "(Always) Something There To Remind Me" sung by Sandie Shaw, "Make It Easy On Yourself", "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa", "I Say A Little Prayer", "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"... the list goes on. Would you cast those classics into the void? Can you really imagine that the world would be a better place without them? No, of course not. Would you really turn your back upon songs as golden as "Beyond The Sea" by Bobby Darin, or "The Street Where You Live" by Vic Damone? Moon River? Wichita Lineman? It's pointless just listing the songs at you because I could probably go on forever. All are likely to be classed as "Easy Listening", all are fabulous. Even the existence of a million crappy "Easy Listening" songs are worth it just to hear any one of those gems.

Christ, I even think there's room in the world for ludicrous, tight trousered performers like Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. Can you honestly say that you've never sung along to "Delilah" or "Release Me" at some point in your life?

Oh, just me then?

Some of those songs could perhaps be classed as guilty pleasures, but if you like a single one of them, I would urge you to acquit “Easy Listening”. To purloin a phrase from Burt, what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Let the haters vote guilty.

* * * * *

Thanks to Ben and to SwissToni for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Friday, April 27, 2007

In The Dock: Arena gigs - verdict

In favour of James' case for the prosecution: 3 (Ian, Wan, Stevious)

In favour of Damo's case for the defence: 7 (Mike, Caskared, Swiss Toni, Alison, JonnyB, David, Nick The Snick)

Abstentions: 1 (Ben)

I hereby pronounce arena gigs not guilty.

Thanks again to James and Damo.

Coming soon: Swiss Toni and I share our no doubt rather different perspectives on easy listening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ban this filth?

Something of interest to anyone who participated in the In The Dock debates on R'n'B and misogynistic hip-hop over on The Art Of Noise: Def Jam founder Russell Simmons has spoken out against the use of sexist and racist words in songs.

Whatever your views on the words themselves, it's quite unusual for someone within the industry to call for what amounts to the voluntary censorship of lyrics - especially when that person is responsible for the label which introduced the likes of Public Enemy, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys to the world...

Fab Macca thumbs aloft?

The Maccabees/The Rumble Strips, Leicester Charlotte, 21st April 2007

After catching half of the set closer by a passionate solitary acoustic guitar wielder who turns out to be Derek Meins, former singer with briefly hyped Scottish New Rock Revolution coattail riders Eastern Lane whose solo work I'll have to look into further on this short evidence, not to mention the personal achievement that comes from yet again being ignored by clipboard-wielding street teamers collecting email addresses, a band take the stage who might have done very well in terms of ticket sales had they been headlining. If The Rumble Strips are known for anything it's the continual comparisons to Searching For The Young Soul Rebels-era Dexys Midnight Runners, the soul-punk voice of Charlie Waller backed by a two-man brass section, with the soul power prophesising replaced by a very Noughties Brit-indiepop submerged melancholy, but their set has hidden depths that equally hint at Northern Soul, new wave and fifties rock'n'roll, one song in particular bearing no little resemblance to Waller's previous employment in Vincent Vincent & The Villains. However, four songs in trumpeter Henry Clark launches into the mournful note over a rumble of tom-toms that signifies debut (and next) single Motorcycle and the place, not to put too fine a point on it, goes apeshit. While Waller doesn't quite hit every high spot along the way, on Motorcycle he excels, pulling off the pivotal huge held note before everyone charges towards the finish, not least the extra fifth live member who switches between bass and pummelling the hell out of a single drum. The elegantly dishevelled Waller is not a man of many words but he's clearly relishing the reaction, pausing a couple of times between songs to shake the hands of people at the front before launching into another mod-pop shakedown at full throttle. It occurs to me as No Soul closes their set in a welter of energetic self-belief and both backing vocal mikes being knocked over that they could easily cross over, if the young pop audience will take to this sort of set-up.

It also occurs to me that when the headliners come on I need to be nowhere near the front for fear of my personal safety.

What The Maccabees do isn't really groundbreaking, it's fair to say. In fact, in terms of this decade it's hardly original, betraying signs of the ongoing post-punk revival - rapid clean guitar strokes, heavy ride cymbal, skipping bass, resolutely British accented vocals about the everyday, Orlando Weeks not totally unlike the Rakes' Alan Donohoe. Forthcoming debut album Colour It In is as wearing over its course as it is excitable just because with a couple of exceptions it's all like that, lacking much of the cleverness and musical subtleties of those who've properly transcended the mini-genre. What they do have is a kinetic energy and tightness born of having done this live thing pretty much non-stop for a couple of years. Their audience respond in kind, three glasses going flying before Weeks has had a chance to start singing, and the night is liberally scattered with crowdsurfing and stagediving from all vantage points. Weeks himself is an edgy, active frontman, often seeming lost in his own band's maelstrom, while lead guitarist Hugo White sings along even when not required to and often ventures ahead of the monitors to let those at the front grab at his instrument. Nothing much in the set really constitutes a let-up in pace until closing with highlight to date First Love, much of which Weeks doesn't feel the need to sing on when everyone else is doing it for him. Coming back on (unfortunately too late for the bloke who was conclusively out on his feet and having to be manhandled past me to the bar seating) for a couple of B-sides having exhausted the album, it's clear the band are genuinely relishing that their music is causing this reaction, having already told the throng that they were better than their adopted home town crowd in Brighton a few days before. Whatever the see-through nature of the primary influences, you'll do well to find a young band more infectiously adored on the live circuit.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In The Dock: Arena gigs

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Arena gigs

The case for the prosecution (James)

I hate it when bands become big. Part of it, I’ll admit, is because of my innate music snob tendency. I like when bands are little and that there is some sweet cult charm about them. But there is a more profound reason, and this is the type of issue that we are talking about today. The bands, by necessity, become distant from their fans. I understand this, and I do not REALLY hold it against the musicians / artists themselves. After all, there is an economy of scale going on. However, the by-product of this process that is most depressing is the drive to play big gigs, really big gigs, arena gigs.

The principle problem is a clear one for the music lover. I want to see an artist perform. I want to see them. I want to see the look in their eyes when they first nervously, or brashly, scan the room. I want to see whether they are earnest or casual. I want to see the look on their face when they talk between songs. Performance, to me, implies a direct interaction with the audience. Arena gigs completely fail to deliver on this. Unless you happen to be in the first 20 metres – in which case you are liable to be crushed – you are totally reliant upon huge over-hanging visual screens. Failing this, of course, I get to see a trained ant run back and forth on a make-believe stage. But this is not what I have paid my money for. I have paid my money for a performance. I desire a sense that the artist is responding to me. The artist is no more responding to me that if I were watching it on TV.

Secondly, they are prohibitively expensive. Now, as it is, there is no artist that I would willingly go to see again in such a venue. (I recently rejected the opportunity to see one of my favourite artists in a medium sized venue, because, by the time I found out about it, the only available seats were at the rear.) But it is difficult to imagine that shelling out £50+ is a decent spend. Will the experience outweigh the benefits of say, £50+ worth of CDs, or five local small venue gigs? I sincerely doubt it.

The venues themselves are impersonal and generally unpleasant to attend. The audience is herded in and out like cattle and the facilities are appropriate for the same. The seats are functional at best and tightly packed. Given that I might be in these seats for some time, I want to feel comfortable. The nature of the arena further treats me like an economic commodity, as the ridiculous ticket cost isn’t enough. Hawkers and sellers want to strip me bare with shoddy merchandise and over-priced lukewarm refreshments.

Some might say that these factors are offset by the unique selling point of such gigs; namely, the intense collective adoration of such a vast number of fans. I must concede that such a large number of singularly devoted enthusiasts can create a heady and intoxicating experience – a level of euphoria. This is hardly news: Plato criticised it, Rome glorified it, and Hitler utilised it. But it is dependent upon two things. Firstly, that the crowd is so uniformly devoted. This is not so consistently the case – too often I have been to gigs and many people appear to have judged it as simply a thing to do, rather than a religious pilgrimage to a sacred icon. Secondly, it is dependent upon wanting to be sucked blindly into such a herd. I quite like to retain my critical faculties – such things have helped me out over the years.

To conclude, while I do not NECESSARILY hold any malice towards the artist, arena gigs fail to deliver in any worthwhile fashion. They seem to be an abandoning of artistic importance, and an acknowledgement of the economies of the music businesses. Finally, it is hard not to see this as a snub to the music lover, who wants to see nothing more than a personal musical performance, something that reveals something intimate. Such gigs might be shows, but the possibility of an artist baring his / her soul before a hushed crowd has long passed.

The case for the defence (Damo)

What’s wrong with arena gigs?

1. The band are dots in the distance unless you got there early enough on the night (standing gigs) / were incredibly fortunate and / or very quick to get a ticket (seated gigs).

2. Arenas are owned by big corporations who only sell rubbish beers and inedible food at high prices. When you went out to see a show, you wanted to enjoy yourself and the whole "experience" contributes to that (or not, as the case may be).

3. The sound is frequently echo-laden / too bassy / too trebly and you wish you’d stayed in and just put the record on.

4. Wherever you stand, you struggle to get a decent view.

5. They’re too damned expensive, by and large.

Yes, this is the defence case. And the defence would like to point out that points 2-5 apply to a very high percentage of non-arena gigs too (point 5 in particular – almost all gigs are getting too expensive now). So if we’re going to look at the distinction between enormodomes and your local brewery venue, we’re going to have to start elsewhere.

I love gigs in little venues. I like being able to see the band close up, possibly even exchanging a bit of inter-song banter (NOT heckling) that they can actually hear. But I also love shows. You know – big lighting rigs. Flames shooting into the air. Things going BANG! The singer flying above the audience on a wire. People that say they dislike arena gigs are saying they’re only open to the "up close and personal" experience and not the concept of a big "show", whereas I’m contending there’s room for both.

So it follows that I haven’t got much time for bands doing arena gigs purely because their audience base means they can, who then just stand on the stage and knock the hits out in their sleep. Why would anyone actually bother going to an Oasis gig these days? Even Emily Eavis ran down their last Pyramid Stage headline show. You’ve got the space – use it. Peter Gabriel brought down a circular stage from the ceiling halfway through the show on his last tour... but not all the way to the ground to start with. Instead the road crew tethered his feet to the underside of the stage and he pedalled around it upside down, still singing. Before riding a bike round the crowd for 'Solsbury Hill'. Rammstein shoot jets of flame into the air and the crowd, and row a boat over it. And flame their keyboardist alive in a bloody great big cauldron. Muse hide the drummer inside in a big spaceship made of video screens when they don’t need him. THIS is what we want!

Sadly though, we also have to look briefly at the boring logistical side of things. There’s a lot of debate right now about how touts are ruining live music. Your favourite band puts tickets on sale, they sell out almost immediately, then a large proportion of the tickets end up on eBay. And part of the reason for this is that people are so worried that they’ll sell out quickly due to the touts that they get in first. It follows that the larger the venue you put a band in, the more people that can see them. Even putting all this aside, if Arctic Monkeys played a tour of small pubs tomorrow, you wouldn’t get a ticket. You might not WANT to, but you take my point. You get some great shows in arenas, but sometimes they’re also a necessary evil if you regard any facet of your music taste as remotely "populist".

But that’s a digression, and admittedly a rather prosaic one. The main thrust of my argument is that variety is the spice of life. You wouldn’t want every show to take place in an enormous featureless building. But sometimes you want a spectacle – the musical equivalent of a fireworks display – and guess what? You’re going to need a big room for that.

* * * * *

Thanks to James and Damo for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

In The Dock: Guns 'N' Roses - the verdict

In favour of Del's case for the prosecution: 10 (James, Damo, Ian, Stevious, Paul, Caskared, JonnyB, Alison, drmigs, David)

In favour of Phill's case for the defence: 6 (Swiss Toni, Nick The Snick, Wan, Ben, Martin, Planet Me)

Ultimately a bit closer than it initially appeared it would be - but the outcome was never in doubt. In Del's words, "Guns 'N' Roses, like the outlaws they always wanted to be, are guilty as hell".

Coming next week: James and Damo debate the merits of arena gigs.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

50,000 500 (approx.) Fall fans can't be wrong


Tonight's ticket, snapped up at the very last minute as the headliners soundchecked, was procured for me by someone I recognised but couldn't quite place. And now there he is on stage, and it all becomes clear: Mike Carter, formerly the improbably tall bassist with The International Karate Plus, is now the improbably tall bassist with Heck.

A quick visit to their MySpace page reveals nods in all the right directions as regards influences (Shellac, Pavement, The Velvet Underground, Sir Les Ferdinand...) and some of their self-descriptions are much better than I could muster: "A stag do stepping on a landmine", "The frenzied abortion juice of Gang Of Four being swilled round the mouth of a Krautrock prostitute that's fucked on the skag of Sonic Youth, or something"...

Sadly, the foursome - featuring Jemma Roper (formerly of Sammo Hung) on vocals - don't really live up to that promise. They do have their moments, though, such as a song that may possibly be called 'I'm Not A Doctor' during which Roper - resplendent in what appears to be an orange boiler suit - sings something like "Can you shake it as I'm watching it?" while the boys crank out their Love-As-Laughter-in-a-carcrash racket. That enough reference points for ya?

Judging by tonight's crowd, Roper is unusual simply by virtue of not being male, not being middle-aged and not having a neck as thick as my thigh. Personally, it's a worrying glimpse into a potential future consisting of leather jackets, receding hairlines and the occasional ruck.

The Fall, the band to whom they've all been drawn, are bona fide legends, the second genuine Peel favourites I've seen this year after Persil. In truth, though, we're talking about one man, the founder member and the one surviving face from their inception in late 70s Manchester: Mark E Smith.

Tonight, in keeping with his persona, he's disdainfully late. When he finally puts in an appearance, after an experimental electronica segment set to a background of similarly warped and cut-up images of James Brown, Pavarotti and Elvis (amongst others), and after his latest bunch of hired hands have kicked things off, it's long gone 10pm.

The years have most certainly taken their toll - Smith looks just like a man who's spent a large proportion of his fifty years drinking and doing drugs. Indeed, watching him staring his belligerent stare out into the distance as if looking for someone on the horizon with whom to pick a fight, mouth hanging open all the time as if about to expectorate a gobbit of tar, it's tempting to speculate as to whether he's got an impossibly youthful and blemish-free portrait of himself stashed away in the attic.

All eyes are on Smith - and not just those of the crowd. The dapper rhythm guitarist in particular eyes him with the sort of nervous suspicion china shop owners reserve for passing bulls. Predictably unpredictable as ever, he amuses himself by adjusting amp settings, turning things off, shoving his microphone in through the hole in the bass drum and then grabbing someone else's when there's a line that needs to be delivered. When, with back to the crowd, he starts tinkering with the keyboard, the keyboard player wisely steps to one side and lets him get on with it.

Of course, it's as well not to forget that, without the band whose best efforts he seems intent on sabotaging, Smith is not much more than a grouchy, substance-ravaged loon of the sort you inevitably find yourself sat next to on the bus. This being the first time I've seen The Fall, I've no idea how the current line-up compares to those of the past - but certainly they seem bang on the money.

An acquired taste The Fall may be, but they're one that I've been gradually getting rather fond of and tonight's show is enough to erode any residual reservations. What marked Smith and his assorted cohorts out as pioneers when they first emerged in the late 70s was actually remarkably simple: they took the scabrous riffs from late 60s / early 70s garage and the repetitive, insistent motifs of Krautrock to create a mutant species of rock all their own - one which is an ideal accompaniment to the barked ejaculations of a grouchy, substance-ravaged loon.

Following a set in which 'Theme From Sparta FC' and 'Reformation' are the highlights, they disappear and re-emerge for an encore, and then do it again - all except Smith, that is, who, having decided he's already given his public quite enough, sings the final song off stage and out of view. The awkward bugger.

All I can say is that whoever stuck their neck on the line and invited him to read out the classified football scores on BBC1 and then be interviewed by Ray 'Stubbsy' Stubbs deserves the George Cross. (Worth watching again and again just for the "You look like you've escaped from Strangeways" line...)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

CSS at Maria, Berlin, 12 April 2007

(By Caskared)

Not many bands come on to the chanting from the audience that they suck, but “C S S SUXXX” was a glorious start to the gig by the upcoming art-pop stars. I missed the support bands completely but judging by the buoyant mood the crowd were in I think I may have lost our on a treat. I had last been to the venue in 2002 when it was Deli, a warehouse night club, and glad to see its entrance is still a dirt track through some railings. It felt suitable for the sort of DIY chic of the band and audience of low-fi cool kids. I got in sometime after 11 to the sounds of To the 5 Boroughs by the Beastie Boys, a nicely irreverent choice to prelude the main attraction. And they are attractive, and fun, and upbeat, and superstylish in an art-school southern hemisphere kinda way.

As a band they’re really tight, their sound was impeccable, like listening to the record, but with added energy. The lead singer relishes her role and danced in her tasselled leotard shambolically throughout the set. The guitarists gave good reverb and the keyboards and drums pushed the songs through their paces with uptempo melodious charm. Lovefoxxx was chatty with the audience, asking us if we were in love before launching into Alcohol. She can’t really sing, more anti-sings, and it sounds great! The whole project was based on just having fun, and that’s how they are on stage, having fun, and infecting the audience. And they’ve still got an energy forged from not quite believing their luck, although if they didn’t have such great songs then their popularity might be simply luck.

Highlights were Meeting Paris Hilton, the rudey dance to Art Bitch, a smoothed out A La La that rolled through our ears and the finale (and they teased us that they might not play it) Let’s Make Love. Their final song set the dancefloor to revel, sounding fresh and like an absolute pop classic that it is. And they finished just in time to catch the penultimate S-bahn home.

Catch them before they get overexposed or before they burn out!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In The Dock: Guns 'N' Roses

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Guns 'N' Roses

The case for the prosecution (Del)

Guns 'N' Roses. I remember when they were huge, comfortably the biggest band in the world. My friends all loved them. Seduced, no doubt, by the bombastic tunes, the outlandish attire and, of course, the fact that they were, y'know, dangerous. An outlaw band. Bad to the bone. Too cool for school. I felt that I really should like Guns 'N' Roses. But I didn't. I really didn't. And I still don't.

The main reason for this is that I simply don't rate them. This is, of course, the most subjective part of my argument, and the one most easily dismissed. As with many of the acts prosecuted so far, you already know if you like them or not. If you're wavering, I'd hazard a guess that you're a fan of some of the stuff off of Appetite For Destruction ('Sweet Child Of Mine', 'Paradise City', etc), the so-absurd-it's-funny 'November Rain' and maybe 'Live And Let Die', 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' or one of their other covers (more on those to come...). And, well, fair play really. Their debut isn't a bad album really, as much as I'd love to hate it. There are a handful of good tunes on there. And coupled with the image and the hype, it made them the biggest band in the world. And this is where my latter day resentment kicks in. They simply didn't deserve to be.

Outlaw rock 'n' roll. The very idea makes me cringe. It is, of course, bollocks. It's all a lie. Rock 'n' roll had long since lost its ability to threaten the system by the time G'N'R turned up. Maybe in the 60s, maybe rock 'n' roll might have done something really revolutionary. Fact is, it really didn't. And although the moral majority might gnash and wail about Marilyn Manson, or Eminem, or whoever is the shocking flavour of the month, it's all hype, bombast and bullshit. Guns 'N' Roses were a group of smackheads who got lucky. They had a few tunes, and an interesting look that told made an A&R man's eyes light up with dollar signs. All they were interested in was money and fame and drugs. And they got it all in spades.

After all, they signed to the oh-so-outlaw Geffen Records and released Appetite... with a deliberately offensive cover. Ooohhh, shake ye pillars of society. They swore in interviews and were generally unpleasant. Testosterone-fuelled teens lapped it up. They even lapped up misogynistic crap like 'Get In The Ring' from the half-baked Use Your Illusion double release. G'N'R were as self-consciously "punk" as Donny Tourettes, and therefore just as contrived and false, which is arguably the completely opposite of what punk was supposed to be in the first place. The record company simply kept them drugged up and pushed them around the world on tour, submerged in a bubble so that they believed what little talent they had could be spread across two albums of tosh. Kerching!

For better or worse, the tidal wave of grunge wiped hair metal off the map. But, G'N'R are now held up as some sort of musical high water mark. Eh? Come on, people! They weren't very good! Axl Rose is clearly a tool! They made lots of money off the back of being nasty pieces of work with about three OK tunes! They padded out their sets with covers cos they couldn't be arsed to right their own songs! And, possibly the greatest crime of all, they took the reggae breakdown out of 'Live And Let Die'!

The final insult is that Axl is still dragging his tired corpse around the world, living off past glories so faded you can barely make them out. We're more likely to see actual democracy in China than the Chinese Democracy album. I actually feel for the fans who were seduced back in '87. They don't deserve this. Guns 'N' Roses are a textbook case of everything that I despise about rock 'n' roll.

No amount of rose tinted nostalgia can disguise the fact that Guns 'N' Roses were a far from great band who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Where there should be invention and creativity, there was intoxication and laziness, where there should be passion and ambition there was cynicism and diminishing returns.

Guns 'N' Roses, like the outlaws they always wanted to be, are guilty as hell.

The case for the defence (Phill)

You know where you are? You're in the jungle baby!

Guns 'N' Roses are the quintessential rock band. They took lots of drugs, drank lots of alcohol, swore like troopers, urinated on planes, looked ridiculous and wrote great songs.

When I defend Guns 'N' Roses I’m mainly defending the classic lineup of Axl Rose (lead vocalist), Slash (lead guitar), Duff McKagen (bass guitar), Izzy Stradlin (guitar) and Steven Adler / Matt Sorum (drums), plus the addition of Dizzy Reed (keyboards) – I am not talking about the Guns 'N' Roses of the late 90s and 21st century which is basically Axl and a bunch of random other people including a guy with a KFC bucket on his head. Although they were really good at the Leeds Festival in 2002!

Appetite For Destruction is quite simply of the best albums of the 1980s and one of the best debut albums of all time – FACT!

Every single track is a stone cold classic. Axl’s vocal range and lyrics, Slash’s perfect guitar lines, solos and pinch harmonics. And the other fellas, they were good too. 'Nighttrain', 'Welcome To The Jungle'...

Slash and Axl were a great rock double act, a bit like Morrissey and Marr but with tattoos and a drug problem.

Even if they had never produced another album, their legendary status would have been secured. But then they went to release two albums on the same day – Use Your Illusion I and II. Of course there is the "legendary" 'November Rain' video, listed as the 9th most expensive ever made and worth every penny for the helicopter shots of Slash playing guitar in the desert.

And what about Slash? Stoke on Trent’s finest son. When he left the band they had to replace him with TWO guitarists, that’s how good he is.

The latest G'N'R album Chinese Democracy has been in production for over 10 years at a cost of about $13million. It’s probably the most expensive album that has never been released – take that Stone Roses!

I don’t really expect to win this, because to truly appreciate G'N'R you probably have to be a spotty 16-year-old living in Midwest America. However, Guns 'N' Roses were a great band – this you cannot deny.

And finally, don’t let the fact that Axl Rose is a ginger twat sway your opinion. Remember you can be a twat but still be in a great band.

* * * * *

Thanks to Del and Phill for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Stumbling Bloc

How to put this? Broadly speaking, I like the new Bloc Party album - but it also irritates me in a number of ways.

For a start, there's the fact that it's been billed as something of a concept album, a portrait of life in London in 2007. In each song Kele Okereke deliberately sets out to address a different topical issue. It all feels rather contrived and a bit pretentious, and certainly enhances rather than detracts from their reputation as overly earnest and po-faced young men.

Their debut Silent Alarm gradually came to seem rather joyless in its seriousness, and A Weekend In The City is much the same. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the way Okereke tackled the issues was engaging and interesting - but unfortunately his lyrics are all too often a bit naff, veering too close to Sixth Form poetry (see 'Hunting For Witches' and 'Uniform' in particular).

But this too could be overlooked if it was a musically remarkable album - but on the whole it's not. Sadly, just as I feared, the stand-alone single 'Two More Years' set out the blueprint for what was to come next - A Weekend In The City is slicker and poppier than Silent Alarm, with the two things I particularly loved about the latter - the clever post-punk guitar lines and Matt Tong's effervescent drumming - at something of a premium. 'I Still Remember' is a case in point: decent enough, but neat and distinctly radio-friendly, a definite shuffle in the direction of the mainstream. A shame, because they're at their most interesting when operating at the margins.

A Weekend In The City's two real high points are 'On' (aka the one about drugs) and 'Kreuzberg' (aka the one in which Okereke lays his soul bare about his confused sexuality). Both repeat the trick of SWSL Single Of The Year 2005 'So Here We Are', building to a moment of epiphany. 'On' blooms into a gorgeous warm chorus which captures the feeling of coming up, while 'Kreuzberg' is even more striking for the way in which the music is sympathetic to Okereke's tale of infatuation and bitter post-coital disappointment.

Just a shame that the rest of the album isn't as good.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Some blessed night


Don't you just love it when a plan comes together?

Having rated Howling Bells' self-titled debut album above all others released last year, I was quick to snap up tickets for their visit to the Point - and subsequently discovered that their first support band would be The Spencer McGarry Season, a band I've been trying (and failing) to see ever since clapping ears on their contributions to the This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us and Quench Local Mixtape compilations ('The Unfilmable Life And Life Of...' and 'To The Liars Take Me'). Serendipitous indeed.

The Cardiff-based new wave pop trio, led by Spencer himself (tonight sporting a fine pair of braces), have set themselves the task of producing six albums, each in a different style. They're currently working towards Episode 1, the tracks for which find them drawing inspiration from XTC and The Kinks. Tonight is probably not their finest hour (not helped by a crowd as yet more interested in alcoholic lubrication than in onstage goings-on), but 'To The Liars...' and the Talking Heads pigeon funk of penultimate song 'When Stupids Come To Town' suggest they could well be the next band to make a name for themselves outside of the Welsh capital - and most likely the first to include footnotes on their setlists...

Far more deserving of the crowd's apathy are Stoke-on-Trent's The Alones. Dressed like The Rakes, they are fronted by vocalist / guitarist / songwriter Stuart Whiston who looks like Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, sounds like Richard Ashcroft and proclaims in the chorus of 'Silver' that "You need heart and soul and love". A shame, then, that amidst their blandly generic take on early Oasis, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Killers, heart and soul are conspicuous only by their absence. C'mon lads, are you really content to drift through the motions and surf the post Arctic Monkeys wave while waiting to picked up by a major label and get a big wodge of marketing cash behind you? A bit of imagination wouldn't go amiss.

Thank god for the headliners.

Aussie exiles Howling Bells played Cardiff at least three times last year, and on every occasion circumstances contrived to mean that I missed out. When I finally caught up with them at Summer Sundae in August, it was a bittersweet experience: on the one hand, they were utterly mesmerising, but on the other there was at times "that sense of mystery demystified, of seeing how a delicately flavoured and lip-smackingly delicious meal has been rustled up in the kitchen". The sweetness outweighed the bitterness, though, and suffice to say that I was markedly less articulate and intelligible about their set when I drunkenly zeroed in on the band's unfortunate guitarist Joel Stein later that day...

The foursome have now been touring their start-to-finish-splendid debut almost incessantly for well over a year, with this being the last night of their current stretch. That could potentially have meant a brisk and disinterested run-through without feeling, but instead it seems as though the long period on the road has had a more positive influence. There's less stiffness, more looseness about the performance which benefits the songs and which suggests they're increasingly relaxed and comfortable together. Joel, whose deft fretwork is integral to their sound, pulls shapes while to his right, in the centre of the stage, his sister Juanita, formerly an ice maiden, has thawed. Her languid hip-shimmying is as seductive as the songs themselves - no wonder the spotlight is trained on her all set long.

The gently flickering lights which garland stetsonned drummer Glenn Moule's kit are a neat visual representation of Howling Bells' songs. 'A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts' is a case in point, smouldering dimly, then bursting into bright flame, before fading gracefully out into darkness. Their evocation of their native Australia seems markedly more tame and less visceral and violent having heard The Drones' Gala Mill, but it remains sensuous and inexplicably beguiling.

If there's a disappointment, it's that we aren't afforded any real glimpse of new material. The encore-less set consists of that first album in its entirety except for 'I'm Not Afraid' plus one non-album track two songs in, which was also aired at Summer Sundae. While 'Across The Avenue' loses a little something in performance and singles 'Broken Bones' and 'Low Happening' are the best received songs of the night, my personal highlight is 'Setting Sun', its chorus a blazing triumph that stays with me as we drift out into the night.

Friday, April 06, 2007

In The Dock: Glastonbury - verdict

In favour of Martin's case for the prosecution: 4 (Ian, James, Dead Kenny, Wan)

In favour of Swiss Toni's case for the defence: 7 (Ben, Caskared, Nick The Snick, Damo, Desmond, Mark, drmigs)

Abstentions: 1 (Alison)

The jury has spoken and Glastonbury is hereby pronounced not guilty. Closer than I (and Martin too, I think) anticipated, though.

Coming next week: Del and Phill go head-to-head over Guns 'N' Roses.

Meanwhile, on the subject of festivals, check out Simon's guide to some of the smaller events taking place this summer - just to make sure nothing's slipped under the radar. The Summer Sundae bill is looking a whole lot healthier than it did a week or so ago, and the presence of Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks at Green Man may sway me thataway. Just don't start reeling off the list of bands appearing at the forthcoming (and sold-out) All Tomorrow's Parties weekender, curated by Dirty Three, as I may start to cry...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Field music

While you make your mind up about Glastonbury In The Dock below, or if you just failed to get a ticket, here's a quickly thrown together guide to where those largely turned off by the perceived corporate nature of the big festivals can go in Britain outside the Glasto-Reading-V-T axis:

Wychwood, Cheltenham racecourse
Friendly, small scale, eclectic but world music-friendly effort in its third year
Dates 1-3 June, full weekend price including camping £95
Notable acts announced at time of going to upload: Badly Drawn Boy, Eliza Carthy, Camera Obscura, Levellers, Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Fun Lovin' Criminals, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Adjagas, Anoushka Shankar

Download, Donington Park
Post-Monsters Of Rock meeting place for the mohawked/nose studded
8-11 June, £145
My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Enter Shikari, Marilyn Manson, Slayer, Velvet Revolver, Korn, Wolfmother, Evanescence, Machine Head, Megadeth, Bowling For Soup

The Outsider, Rothiemurchus, Cairngorms
Debut for an "environmental" minded Latitude-esque effort with outdoor activities
22-24 June, £50
Crowded House, KT Tunstall, Guillemots, Idlewild, Willy Mason, Eddi Reader

Latitude, Henham Park Estate, Beccles
The thinking man's Reading seems to be the pitch for the culture-hopping Melvin Benn brainchild
12-15 July, £112
Arcade Fire, Damien Rice, The Good The Bad And The Queen, Magic Numbers, Jarvis Cocker, CSS, Wilco, The Rapture, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Patrick Wolf, The National, Midlake

Fflam, Singleton Park, Swansea
First time for what the organisers reckon will become Wales' answer to T In The Park
13-15 July, £100
Keane, Manic Street Preachers, The Feeling, Placebo, Enter Shikari, Ordinary Boys, Feeder, The Stranglers, Levellers

Guilfest, Stoke Park, Guildford
Former folk weekender, traditionally diverse but mostly aimed at the older festival goer
13-15 July, £100
Madness, Squeeze, Supergrass, Magic Numbers

Indian Summer, Victoria Park, Glasgow
Nearly two months earlier than last year's debut event, with a strong line-up promised
14-15 July, £65
Flaming Lips, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Rapture, Annuals

Wakestock, Pwllheli Inner Marina and Abersoch Beach, Abersoch, Pwllheli, Gwynedd
"Europe's largest wakeboarding music event" - mostly dance with the odd interloper
20-21 July, £55
Cascada, Just Jack, Scratch Perverts, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Air Traffic, Mr Hudson and the Library, Ferry Corsten, Rodney P, The Cuban Brothers, Hot Puppies, Norman Jay, Brandon Block

Truck, Steventon, Oxfordshire
Independently run gathering of the indie kid hordes, food provided by the local Rotary Club
20-21 July, £55
Nobody yet

Secret Garden Party, somewhere in Cambridgeshire (it's officially secret, you see?)
Bestival meets Alice In Wonderland in a proper multi-acre landscaped gardens
26-29 July, details released in late April
Nobody yet

Cambridge Folk Festival, Cherry Hinton Hall grounds
Radio 2-sponsored acoustic roundelay with very decent pulling power this year
26-29 July, details released in May
Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Waterboys, Toots and the Maytals, Kate Rusby, Alabama 3, Martha Tilston, Seasick Steve

Summer Sundae, De Montfort Hall and Gardens, Leicester
Popular family friendly affair, "grandson of Glastonbury" according to Steve Lamacq
10-12 August, £85
Divine Comedy, Spiritualized Acoustic Mainline, Magic Numbers, Echo & The Bunnymen, !!!, Spoon, Gruff Rhys, The Aliens, Rumble Strips, Duke Special, DJ Yoda, Cud

Green Man, Glanusk Park, Usk Valley, Powys
Alternative folkiness formed by It's Jo & Danny which outgrew its original home last year
17-19 August, £98
Joanna Newsom, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Robert Plant and The Strange Sensation, Vashti Bunyan, Gruff Rhys, Bill Callahan, The Earlies, Tunng, Euros Childs, John Power

Connect, Inveraray Castle, Loch Fyne, Argyll
A new one, similar to Indian Summer and on the corresponding weekend to that event from last year
31 August-2 September, £125
Bjork, Beastie Boys, Primal Scream, LCD Soundsystem, Mogwai, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Jarvis Cocker, CSS, The Go! Team, Divine Comedy, The Only Ones, Idlewild, Big Star, Tilly & The Wall

Bestival, Robin Hill Countryside Adventure Park, Isle of Wight
Rob da Bank's utterly unique mish-mash, this year going for a world record for ukelele playing
7-9 September, £115
Beastie Boys, Chemical Brothers, The Cure, Billy Bragg, Madness, Gregory Isaacs, Gossip, Soul II Soul Soundsystem, Calvin Harris, Levellers, Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip, Maccabees, countless DJs

End Of The Road, Larmer Tree Gardens, nr Salisbury
Second year for laid-back Green Man-inspired festival season closer
14-16 September, £95
Super Furry Animals, Herman Dune, Howe Gelb, Euros Childs, Broken Family Band, Seasick Steve