Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Enough Stuff

Stuffy/The Fuses.
Brixton Windmill. 23jan09.

“Join me or die” goes the lyric of the 2005 Stuffy/The Fuses single Where’s The Captain. My ‘single of the year’ that year as it goes. It’s an iconic phrasing, one which suited the title of their debut album, a brash statement of intent. Now, here at the last ever Stuffy/The Fuses gig, on the table manned diligently by Stuffy’s mum, is a limited edition t-shirt that features an unfussy statement of lament; “nobody joined us, so we died.” Combined with the last line of In The River, “peace at last and it’s all over”, coming towards the end of the main set, it is clear they are keen to press our emotional buttons tonight.

Stuffy, or Steven Gilchrist to the middle-aged lady behind the closing down sale stack of CD’s and bits, has long had trouble holding onto musicians. There are always three Fuses alongside Stuffy but it was a completely different trio that recorded the Join Me Or Die! LP. The second record Angels Are Ace was the product of Stuffy on drums and vox, Jen Fuse on guitar and occasional lead vox, Jon Fuse on bass and Lucy Fuse behind the keys, and it is that foursome which has stuck until this untimely denouement. With other projects eating into their respective time, it is as amicable a parting of the ways as you’ll get. In my interview with Stuffy for the final Vanity Project fanzine he said, “2006 – the classic line-up. I wouldn’t want to do this band with anyone else.” Now, of course, he never has too.

I’ve been to this type of thing before: what was supposed to be Sidi Bou Said’s last gig at the also much missed Highbury Garage ten whole years ago,. Mind you, they did come back for an encore a year later, then formed Tetra with the exact same line-up (but, in fairness, with a completely new set of songs). Happy as one might be to get that one final chance rather than it all petering out, these things are always bittersweet events. Happy/Sad/Happy/Sad. It makes for an odd night of entertainment.

This perhaps explains why early in tonight’s set, there is a distinct lack of vim about Stuffy and his Fuses. However, the affection in the room acts as one final gale of wind in their hitherto sagging sails, and the momentum gains. “We should split up more often” he states with a cheery grin slapped across.

The Brixton Windmill is and isn’t an ideal venue for this type of thing. South East London is their manor, and the Windmill’s admirable ethos of spit and sawdust independence and ramshackle good times is entirely in keeping. Yet the sightlines, being a back-of-the-room-with-only-a-foot-high-stage-and-massive-pillars type joint, aren’t exactly conducive to allowing all present to soak in their one last look. It’s like holding a wake in a school youth club, one in which the upkeep of the place has been left in the care solely of the children.

And who wouldn’t want to get a good look and to stare at Stuffy one last time? The public school blazer, most likely bought from a charity shop; the fidgety drumming married to that unlikely yelp; the massive collapse of curls on his big potato head looking like a guardsman’s bearskin after an excited mauling by a feral cat – it’s fascinating, always bringing an extra animation to t’riffic tunes such as Evel Kneivel and Joe C (Is An Idiot).

As stated the evening builds from slender beginnings to a portly climax befitting the occasion. Father & Son Divorce starts the elasticated crescendo, sounding anthemic and magnificent, but it is the three song encore that seals the deal. Friend has long been a live favourite and features Stuffy leaving the confines of the drum-set to stagger about the crowd giving hugs and lyrics projected into startled ears and faces from about an inch distance.

Ahhhh Song follows, striking a triumphalist chord as the combined vocals of band and crowd dig deep into the lungs to roar with full gusto. The last song Stuffy/The Fuses ever play is Where’s The Captain? and the forgotten verses matter not a jot . In fact the sudden memory-jogged brain burp of “join me or die!” after a period of looking at the ceiling scrabbling around for the correct lyric is perhaps appropriate – the final rallying cry, very nearly overlooked.


Stuffy/The Fuses @ MySpace
Vanity Project interview
Where’s The Captain? video


Monday, January 26, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Winter

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

This week's subject: Winter

'Cocoon' - Bjork (Ian)

I don't want to suggest that winter makes Canadians think about fucking. But I do live in a part of Southern Ontario that suffers from winters just cold enough to be socially retarding, and summers hot and humid enough to ensure that nobody wants to do much of anything. I probably feel it more than most, living as I do in a nice apartment that happens to be cheap – primarily because the building is old enough that the apartment is mildly uncomfortable one way or another for about half the year. Summers are interesting, because with everyone running around half-naked, at loose ends and possibly drunk, romance (or a reasonable facsimile) tends to be in the air – but on the other hand, everyone feels gross and overheated in the first place, and that can put a damper on amorous pursuits. In winter, on the other hand, any activity that's going to warm you up is good for that reason alone, and since nothing tends to send core temperatures soaring quicker than sex... there are a lot of late summer/early fall babies in Canada, is all I'm saying.

Which makes 'Cocoon' doubly appropriate. Vespertine, the album it comes from, has been dubbed by a colleague "the Bjork album for people who like winter" and that's apt enough – from the album art, to the sound (all those crystalline harps and music boxes and beats made of walking on snow and cracking ice!), to the sensibility, Vespertine is one of the only albums I own that just doesn't make sense during the warmer months. But while the majestic 'Pagan Poetry' might be more stirring, 'It's Not Up To You' more powerful and the brief instrumental 'Frosti' a more direct example of the album's wintry bent, it's 'Cocoon' that puts me most in mind of the conditions outside. "Vespertine", after all, is a term in biology referring to things relating to or happening in the evening.

'Cocoon's lyrics are joyously blunt, not to say prurient or explicit (although both Bjork's delivery and the context leave no doubt what "Gorgeousness! / He's still inside me" is all about), and those lyrics coupled with a beat that sounds wintry even if it is just cards being shuffled and warm synthesizer tones makes the song sound like nothing more than the kind of day where it's too cold to do anything but stay under the blankets. 'Cocoon' doesn't mention winter at all, which makes perfect sense to me – in the depths of it, we try to ignore the weather too.

'Bruxellisation' - The Electric Soft Parade (Pete)

An easy, if oddly-titled (what is "Bruxellisation"?), choice from an underrated album, bought from the wonderfully named Mr Dead And Mrs Free, without a doubt the best independent record shop in Berlin.

Towards the end of the hot summer of 2003, I escaped the numerous joys of Portsmouth and Southsea, and returned to live in Berlin for the third time, with the intention of staying there for longer than the one year it turned out to be. There are plenty of songs that remind me of the city and of those 12 months in particular, but it's this lovely yet melancholic song that reminds me of waiting for the bus outside work in the snow during the cold November of November 2003.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was eagerly anticipating the second ESP album, probably because a shambolic performance at the Astoria in 2002 remains to this day the only gig I've ever walked out of. Nevertheless, it's fair to say that at least mildly interested in getting my hands on The American Adventure. I can't quite remember, but I'm guessing that although I bought the album on the way to work, it didn't find its way into my CD player until the late afternoon, perhaps while wasting a few minutes before heading out of the office.

Either way, I was at the bus stop when 'Bruxellisation' came on. More likely than not I was heading to post-work football with my colleagues before meeting with friends to have a few beers, watch VfB Stuttgart briefly come alive in the Champions League and play some cards. Perhaps later I would've headed across town late at night to stay over at my then girlfriend's place in Prenzl'berg.

At the time, stamping my feet to keep them warm, I think I just really enjoyed the song for what it was, the second track on a new record, and was thinking more about what the next few hours held in store. But now, five years on, I'm instantly reminded of waiting in the bitter cold for the X83, on a mid-week November evening four months into a glorious year-long stay in Berlin, on the way to happy nights with close friends and it makes me feel more than a little homesick.

'Romeo And Juliet' - Dire Straits (Swiss Toni)

There are some bands that will just never be cool. A lucky few are hardy perennials, weathering the fluctuating tides of fashion, always seeming to remain relevant and popular. Other bands are washed in with the current and spend a few, brief moments blinking in the sunlight of a revival before disappearing back out with the tide and into the history books. For some though, their total lack of cool has an air of permanence and seems completely bulletproof. Dire Straits are very much in the latter category: their headbands, gruff Geordie charm and rolled-up jacket sleeves seem, in spite of their massive popularity back in the day, to be like a dimly remembered dream. Surely Dire Straits are utterly revival-proof?

Or so I thought until I walked into the Rescue Rooms bar early one evening after a very disappointing Seasick Steve gig. There was a student night on at Rock City that night after the gig, so the bar was packed with kids waiting for us oldies to vacate the venue so they could strut their stuff. As I sat down with my pint, I couldn't help but observe that students now are far younger and fresher-faced than they were in my day. Perhaps I should have known that revival was in the air when I spotted a guy who couldn't have been much older than 19 wearing a "Truffle Shuffle" t-shirt from 'The Goonies'. I was idly wondering if he'd even seen the film when the achingly trendy looking DJ started to play 'Romeo And Juliet' by Dire Straits. As well as being slightly bemused at the warm reception it was receiving from a crowd who weren't born when 'Money For Nothing' was troubling the top end of the charts, I was suddenly hit with a vivid memory of the last time that I had heard the song...

I was on a skiing holiday in La Rosiere a few years back when we decided to ski across the mountain and down into Italy. It was quite a hack, but for the first time in the week, the sun was shining and we thought that the prospect of a proper pizza for lunch would make all the effort and the discomfort of the long drag lifts worthwhile. The final run down to the bottom on the Italian side was a quite challenging black run, made even more difficult by the fact that it was pretty icy in places. I would never consider myself to be a particularly expert skiier, but I managed to negotiate the treacherous slopes with some ease and, as the incline began to ease off, I began to relax and to enjoy the feeling of the chill wind whistling around my face. As I neared the bottom, I began to make out the muffled notes of a huge PA system that was blasting music up the mountain, and as I got closer, it began to play 'Romeo And Juliet'. I hadn't heard the song in years, but this was Italy, I reasoned to myself - musical fashions work differently here. Besides, as Mark Knopfler really began to get going, I was reminded that, actually, this was a really good song.

"Juliet when we made love you used to cry / You said I love you like the stars above I'll love you till I die / There's a place for us you know the movie song / When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong Juliet?"

Our little convoy gathered at the bottom of the mountain around the speaker and as we contemplated our lunch and our long ski back over the mountain to France, we all shared a little moment with Dire Straits.

For a few minutes in the Rescue Rooms bar that night several years later, I could almost smell the snow and taste the grappa.

"You and me babe: how about it?"

'Come Live With Me' - Stacey Kent & The Vile Bodies (Dr Migs)

I thought of winter, and didn't want to think about Christmas, because although Christmas is in winter, winter isn't Christmas. Not that I was going to wax lyrical about 'Mistletoe And Wine', you understand. But in my not thinking about Christmas, it was all I could think of. Everything from 'In The Bleak Midwinter' to 'Mr Blobby' seemed like potential material to use, yet simultaneously material that I didn't want to use. So I closed my eyes and pictured the perfect winter scene: admiring the snow falling through the light of a sodium vapour street lamp, whilst drinking brandy around the naked carcass of a roast duck. Damn it, it was the 3KJ christmas meal. And then I suddenly knew the song that reminded me of winter.

After the moment described above, we shut the curtains, added the washing-up to the decaying matter in the kitchen sink, and put on the video of the splendid 'Richard III'. This is the Ian McKellen 'Richard III', and it blew my socks off. The titles set the scene; we see that the plot is transported to an image of the late 1930s in which Britain is a Nazi state. And as those of you who are familiar with the play will know, somehow the film has to get to the "Now is the winter of our discontent" soliloquy. Which I feel bound to add is not just spoken by Ian McKellen - his eyes, lips, neck and even his todger get in on the soliloquy.

The link between titles and soliloquy is made by a swing band, plus vocalist, called Stacey Kent & The Vile Bodies (a band name for the literati if ever there was one). And what they play is an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's poem 'Passionate Shepherd To His Love'. It's magical. When I first heard it, I somehow thought I'd heard it before, but clearly I hadn't. However, after I listened to it once, the words stuck with me, and became hard to dislodge. Only to became even more tender and dear when my grandmother read the poem at my wedding. The words/lyrics are warm, and perfect to get you through a winter. Be it Richard III's winter of discontent, or a cold winter evening in front of the fire with a loved one.

I really can't write anymore - partly because I'm a bit intimidated writing about it, All I can do is urge you to crank up Uncle Bryn's "The You Tube", and look and listen for yourself. Happy winter.

'We're All Going To Die' - Malcolm Middleton (Ben)

What do you think of when you think of winter and, yes, Christmas?

Picture postcard snowy scenes and comforting log fires? Joy, merriment and mirth-making unconfined? "Mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme"?

Or bitter coldness? Oppressive darkness that descends by 4pm every afternoon? The ever-present threat of being laid low by flu? "So this is Xmas, and what have you done?" Feeling forced to spend time in the company with colleagues and relatives you loathe? Excruciatingly bad knitwear?

In 2007 the roll call of classic Christmas singles grew by one with the release of 'We're All Going To Die' by Malcolm Middleton, formerly of Arab Strap. It was accompanied by a video following the exploits of a drunken, anti-social Santa, and it was utterly brilliant.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm no wholehearted subscriber to that second perspective on the season, far from it. There's much about winter and Christmas that I positively love. But all the same there was something refreshing about a song that seemed to go so dramatically against the grain of the prevailing mood - and against the grain of all the sugar-frosted shite released at the same time.

'We're All Going To Die' sounded like a misanthrope's anthem, fired up with anger and laden with despair. It might have been stating the obvious, but it wasn't an obvious that people like to contemplate - and so there was a value in ramming it home, like the adult equivalent of telling a self-deceiving ten-year-old that Santa doesn't exist.

But even then, as Middleton himself suggested, this wasn't necessarily a pessimistic outlook, or a cause for feelings of hopelessness, despite how it might at first appear. On the contrary, the song could be taken positively, as a timely reminder to enjoy life as a consequence, to squeeze every last drop out of it. In these terms, wasn't it just a Glaswegian (i.e. blunter and more direct) rewrite of The Flaming Lips' majestic 'Do You Realize??'?

'We're All Going To Die' was pipped to the Christmas #1 slot by 'X Factor' winner Leon Jackson's cover of Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston's 'When You Believe' and is never likely to be piped out in between Slade and Wizzard pre-Christmas in shops, but if 'Fairytale In New York' can become a popular festive standard, then you never know...

* * * * *

Thanks to Ian, Pete, Swiss Toni and Dr Migs for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is school.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Conceptual Art: Nautical But Nice

Yes, it's another new regular feature. Feeling spoilt?

Every fortnight Conceptual Art gives a different contributor the chance to play Svengali and manufacture his or her own imaginary band or artist, deciding everything from what they sound like, how they look and what they stand for to how their career pans out - all (hopefully) in the name of entertainment and jest...

First up is, er, me...

* * * * *

By day twenty-somethings Ross, Jamie, Cameron, Hamish and Barry are hardy trawlermen, working out on the stormy seas off the coast of Orkney, but by night they're the Sanday Singers, moving from church to church and pub to pub performing acapella versions of popular Scottish folk songs. Word gradually spreads to the mainland, and they score a couple of gigs in Kirkwall and Stromness. Present at one such gig happens to be a Sony record exec, recuperating from the mental breakdown during which he signed up Scouting For Girls.

Returning to London with the scent of cash in his nostrils, he pitches the quintet to his bosses as the new Westlife, and they, eager to get their hands on the teenage and blue rinse pound, are easily won over. The bewildered fivesome are persuaded to give up their day jobs and summoned to London, where a five album deal awaits them. Within a week of signing it, they're assigned a manager, a publicist, a stylist, a choreographer, a confidence coach, a translator and a new name: Nautical But Nice.

Three months later and the self-titled debut album is ready for release. A prized spot on 'The National Lottery: In It To Win It' is secured, and they introduce themselves to the British public with 'Caught In A Net', their own take on Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds'. As they wrap up, the audience erupts, the cameras cut to Dale Winton mopping a tear from his cheek and suddenly Nautical But Nice are overnight sensations. 'Caught In A Net' spends four weeks at #1 in the singles chart, while its follow-up, a soulful original called 'Plenty More Fish In The Sea', goes even better, lasting seven weeks at the top spot.

The MOR market duly conquered, their manager and his employers set their sights on a more youthful demographic. At the suggestion of their stylist and choreographer the rough beards, Fair Isle sweaters, Sanday tartan kilts and stools are ditched in favour of naked torsos smeared with cod liver oil, strategically placed sou'westers and raunchy dance moves for sexy disco number 'Sardine Queen'. Teenage girls and housewives swoon (though that may just be the smell); the Daily Mail - hitherto one of the group's most ardent supporters - erupts in a froth of outrage, speculating furiously about the impact their metamorphosis might have on public morals and house prices; and the cash registers just keep on ringing. A remarkable twelve months is crowned with an arena tour supporting Boyzone, Barry's Christmas duet with Leona Lewis and Cameron's guest appearance on Channel 5's 'Extreme Fishing With Robson Green'.

Keen to strike while the iron is hot, Sony corral Nautical But Nice back into the studio early in the new year. After a few false starts and one canned effort, Mark Ronson-produced second album Cod Reggae is finally released in the summer, but in the fast-moving world of pop they discover they're no longer flavour of the month. The covers-free record - featuring 'Morag', an uncomfortably personal ode to Jamie's mum, and 'Winds Of Change', a suitably blustery power ballad in tribute to the shipping forecast - is critically panned and publically unloved.

From there things go rapidly downhill. Sony are hit with a lawsuit from Birds Eye for the unauthorised use of images of fish fingers in the album's artwork. In an interview with Take A Break, with their publicist away in the toilet for a Columbian pick-me-up, the group reveal that 'Plenty More Fish In The Sea' - rather than being the consolatory arm round the shoulder for a lovelorn friend that everyone had imagined - is actually a heartfelt protest song against EU fishing quotas. The ensuing uproar in Brussels leads Radio 1 and Radio 2 to ban the song on political grounds and, at Gordon Brown's insistence, Sony issue a hasty apology in a bid to avert a diplomatic crisis.

Worse is yet to come. Backstage after a shambolic gig at G.A.Y., Ross is handed a "disco biscuit" and, surprised to discover it's rather more potent than a Rich Tea, spends the evening spewing copiously and clinging to the floor of the VIP area for fear of falling overboard. Meanwhile avid bird-watcher Hamish, intrigued by mention of a "shag", is surprised when what transpires turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cormorant. Both are even more surprised when photos are splashed across the front pages of the News Of The World under the heading 'Caught In Our Net'.

The group lose their contract advertising Fishermans Friend, Sony rip up their deal shortly afterwards before releasing a best of entitled So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, and they sink almost without trace, last seen working in the kitchens at Loch Fyne in Twickenham in the hope of scraping enough money together to get back home.

* * * * *

Next time (Monday 2nd February): Lord Bargain.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The overimportance of being earnest


Ah the joys of a long weekend. Lucky for those of us who couldn't make the Melvins-and-Mike-Patton-curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas that two of the bands personally chosen to appear decided that coming across the pond for a solitary couple of days wasn't enough, so extended their stay to take in a handful of additional dates together. The gig was originally booked for the Regal, but given my most recent experience of that particular venue I'm actually glad of the late switch - even despite my well documented dislike of this place.

Shine a light Torche are heavy. And they just seem to get heavier and heavier, slower and sludgier. Yet there's also the curious anomaly of sweetly sung vocals rather than guttural belches, which makes the overall effect like having an enormous wrecking ball swung into your head by Josh Homme. Enough to make you fear for the lives of any retired wrinklies of their native Sunshine State who have the misfortune to find themselves in their path.

The focus of visual attention, as is so often the case, is drummer Rick Smith, who also bashes skins in an outfit called Shitstorm. Displays of energy and exuberance aren't usually the done thing in doom bands, so Smith's jack-in-a-box routine, eventually performed in nothing but a pair of briefs, is all rather novel. The band's second LP, the evocatively titled Meanderthal, found a home in the UK on Mogwai's Rock Action label, and with friends like that their wrecking ball may yet make quite an impression.

It's rather fitting that the headliners, signed to Mike Patton's Ipecac label, should have chosen to pass through Oxford on their whistlestop UK tour, given that its more pretentious residents insist on referring to the Thames as the Isis as it passes through the city. Reflect on the namesakes for a while and a surprising number of similarities between band and river come into focus (well, perhaps enough to hang a gig review on, anyway). Both have been around a long time, are internationally renowned and carry with them a weight of significance. Both are associated with depth and power. And both plot a twisting, turning course.

Over the years, and largely thanks to their 2002 record Oceanic, Isis the band have become synonymous with post-metal (indeed many credit them with having invented the genre), a leftfield approach to making intensely heavy music that shows an appreciation for the value of giving lulls and passages of ambient drift room to breathe in amongst the skullcrushing riffs. (Of course, they didn't spring up suddenly in a vacuum, themselves drawing inspiration from Neurosis in particular before going on to influence Pelican, Cult Of Luna and Russian Circles amongst others.)

The term of description preferred by Aaron Turner, the band's frontman and founder of Hydra Head Records, is "thinking man's metal", and he's also been quoted as claiming: "metal in general has long been unjustly maligned as solely the province of knuckle-dragging meatheads". That's as may be, but therein lies the root of my dissatisfaction with tonight's show. I find the best I can do is admire from afar; out-and-out enjoyment never really creeps into it. There's too much chin-stroking; too much frowning (sure there are bands I like whose seriousness also verges on the ridiculous - hello Sigur Ros! - but somehow the LA outfit's steadfast refusal to crack a smile at any point irritates); too much patient build-up that, while no doubt technically impressive to those intently studying these things down at the front, loses my attention too easily.

Ultimately peers, friends and tourmates of theirs like Mogwai and Tool do something similar better, with greater subtlety, emotional impact and force. Tonight at least, neither the workout Isis administer to the brain nor the workout they administer to the ears truly satisfies. I expected to be bowled over immediately, and yet here I am speculating that perhaps "thinking man's metal" is a contradiction in terms for a good reason. Metal is by its very nature visceral, it's immediate, it's brutal - in other words, it's defiantly anti-cerebral - and perhaps it's best left that way.

Quote of the day

"typically thought up by some lance corporal halfwit ... unaware the term had been used before to refer to that pre-Beatles milky light pop with a Norrie Paramour orchestral arrangement".

Luke Haines on Britpop in his new book 'Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall'.

By a strange coincidence (well, prompted by the start of the new regular feature), I was re-reading the In The Dock debate about Britpop the other night, in which my argument was trounced almost anonymously. Certainly seems as though the man behind The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder would have agreed with me that it was a media-constructed and musically soulless phenomenon.

That said, he would also have agreed with Paul's comment that my beloved Nirvana were indirectly responsible for it all: "Without the abrupt end of Nirvana there would have been no lightentertainment battle for No1 between Blur and Oasis. No young British artists. No Cool Britannia. Not only did Cobain kill himself, he went and left the bloody door open on his way out"...

Anyway, a sneering, scathing and darkly witty appraisal of Britpop from someone who was a disgruntled mole in its midst? Definitely one for the shopping list, then...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: New beginnings

Yes, at last, nearly two years after we packed up the gavel and wigs and wrapped up In The Dock, there's a new regular feature here on The Art Of Noise. The title's courtesy of Ian and the premise is this: every fortnight contributors dredge their memories and write about songs that remind them of a particular subject. It really is that simple.

So, without further ado, let's begin at the beginning...

This week's subject: New beginnings

'Ever Fallen In Love' - The Buzzcocks (Dr Migs)

There's always been music; music that made nice sounds, music that sounded chirpy, music to sing along to, music that made you happy. But there had never been music that spoke to my inner neuroses, or lyrics with which you have an inner discorse. Now maybe this was because at the tender age of 14 I was naive to some of life's darker torments, but there was darkness before the age of 14. So maybe it was because I simply wasn't listening in the right places.

However, as alluded to previously Sunday evenings in these early teen days became dedicated to Samantha's Sunday Night Party; a show hosted by Samantha Meah on Radio WM. It was an eclectic beast, and a quick check on YouTube reminded me about quite how local radio it was. For instance, the fact that their Scratch and House versions of the 'Worm Song' are still available for download to the desperate and reminiscent provides a pointer as to why it was Sunday night fodder. Although such freedom did come with its reward. The music wasn't some sanitised Smashy'n'Nicey-esque playlist that was so endemic of the early 90s, it was at the whim of the presenters. And hence the music was as equally eclectic as the features and chat. And thus my education began.

Being 14, it wasn't something subtle that was going to take me inward in my musical engagement. The transition from music being an entity that you engage with in an uplifting manner, to being an entity that you can internalise and mentally digest began with one song. And as is the way with such transitions, first there is the Eureka moment and freedom from having your problems understood, and then there is the subsequent low as you have found a conduit with which to wallow in with self doubt. Is this all getting a little too obtuse? Think of this as finding a musical and emotional equivalent of treating heartburn with a Burger King and a vodka and Coke; this is the music that you want to listen to, but until you can manage your intake it will leave you in a worse state than when you first listened to it.

And so it all began with 'Ever Fallen In Love' by The Buzzcocks. Who knows who it was that I was in love with at the time. But it was clearly someone that I shouldn't have been in love with. And as is the way with Sunday evenings, I was probably feeling reflective about the last week and pensive about the week to come. Add to that the hormonal cocktail that is puberty, and you can see that it wasn't going to be hard for the right song to eventually hit me in the stomach and leave me winded.

So to the song. 'Ever Fallen In Love' starts so directly, with the insecure punk sound of the Buzzcocks. The intro is purposeful, and then its briskly into the flesh and bones of the song:

"You spurn my natural emotions / You make me feel like dirt / And I'm hurt / And if I start a commotion / I run the risk of losing you / And that's worse / Ever fallen in love with someone / Ever fallen in love / In love with someone / Ever fallen in love / In love with someone / You shouldn't've fallen in love with."

And before you can catch yourself, the rest of the song carries on relentlessly until two minutes in. Here, there is an instrumental that is questioning, haunting and quickens the pulse, leading you straight into the final lyrics that tie the song up in a manner that ensures the ending isn't abrupt, but instead is teasingly reflective. And that's it. It's over. Just enough time for you to take in the message of the song, get lost in your thoughts, relate the lyrics to your contemporary heartache, whilst all the while being dragged along by pacy rawness. And to top it off, the ending results in you being left in a neurotic bundle of confusion. Marvelous. There's nothing like a quick dose of emotional self-harming in your early teens to ensure a nice and stable passage through the teenage years.

As you can image, I'm still attached to this song. And though the relationship turmoils of yesteryear have been replaced by the stability of marriage, it still resonates with me as a song; if only as a reflective piece (he says not wanting to find a decree nisi next to his bowl of muesli...). Soon enough, other songs came along to perform a similar function, with Gene songs being high on the list. You didn't disturb me at uni if Gene was on in my room... I wasn't worth speaking to and couldn't be reasoned with. However, I'll never lose a connection with this song, and each inevitable cover version gets a frank response; mostly negative. Only Nouvelle Vague have taken the song in a direction that complements the way I hear and relate to it. Their bossanova / jazz tempos capture the reflective nature of the piece without removing its reflectiveness and soul. However, the original is still the best in my book, and will always be my favourite.

And so, err, that's it. The new beginning that relates to this song was a new beginning of me turning to music for something more than what Stock, Aitken & Waterman had to offer. It was the beginning of me using music for introspection. And God am I glad that I found it.

'Never Let Her Slip Away' - Undercover (Lord Bargain)

You know how it is. You’re 18 years old, the sum total of "life with girls" has been some fruitless pursuits as a schoolkid and then you get landed in a world where everyone is the same age and fundamentally looking for the same thing. (The pursuit of knowledge, obv.)

It happened to me in a kitchen in a weirdly shaped hall of residence in a suburb of the city of Coventry. I remember the chain of events, if not the specifics. A screening of the odd narcoleptic drama 'My Own Private Idaho' was scheduled, and one by one my hallmates decided they couldn’t go until there was just two of us. We took a packet of value custard creams and went together.

It later became apparent (of course) that this had been deliberately staged in an attempt to match-make and, as these sorts of plans go, it was a relative success - we ended up being together for five years. I suppose there’s nothing else like your "first love" – however it pans out. New town, new friends, new independent adult life and now this new person who makes you understand all those esoteric things about love and emotions which you hadn’t encountered before.

Naturally, there is always some shameful musical accompaniment to these matters. For a while it was the not-very-well-remembered 'You' by Ten Sharp (a song that I remember also for spending three consecutive weeks at number ten in the singles chart – quite how I know these things I am not sure). For sheer apt lyrical content, however, it was short-lived covers band Undercover (see what they did, there?)’s version of the old Andrew Gold hit 'Never Let Her Slip Away' that was the soundtrack to my dream love life. With strange early 90s bibbety synthesizer, the follow-up to their previous smash hit 'Baker Street' (yes, that one) was on regular rotation in my uni room.

As a lovestruck teenager, you can’t argue with a song that goes "I really only met her 'bout a week ago / It doesn’t seem to matter to my heart / I know that I love her / I’m hoping that I never recover", can you?

Can you?

'Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye' - The Black Crowes (Swiss Toni)

It is 1992. My parents have now gone, and I'm left alone in my room one Sunday afternoon in September at the very beginning of what is supposed to be one of the golden periods of your life: university.

I hadn't really got very much to unpack, and I didn't have a TV, so I sat on the end of my bed, looking at Humbert, my already rather sickly looking rubber plant, and wondering what happened next. My hall of residence seemed oddly quiet, but although I knew that everybody else was probably feeling much the same as I was, I wasn't quite ready just yet to get up and knock on anyone's door and introduce myself. What if everyone else had already met and they were now all down at the bar making the friendships that would last them a lifetime? What if I didn't meet anyone? What if nobody liked me?

The silence and sense of isolation soon became stifling, so I wandered over to my stereo and quietly flipped through my CDs, trying to find the one that would match my mood but also just might entice anyone passing to pop their head round my door. Iron Maiden? Perhaps not. Metallica? Hardly. My youthful obsession with heavy metal largely meant that subtle textures were rather missing from my CD collection, and I somehow felt that the first record I played at the beginning of this new chapter of my life was imbued with significance. After a short period of contemplation, I selected a CD that seemed down-tempo enough to match my mood, but that I hoped at least wasn't going to scare anybody off. I loaded it carefully into my CD player and pressed play.

I'd like to say that the music filled my room and I soon had a stream of curious people knocking on the door wanting to meet the coolest cat in town, but the volume was pretty low and the record I'd selected was The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion by The Black Crowes, so it seemed hardly likely to mark me out the hippest kid in the halls. The album had only been released earlier that summer, so it was still pretty new to me and it was as good as anything to break the silence. By the time I got to 'Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye', which is a brilliant song, there was a small, tentative knock at my door and I met my new next-door neighbour. I'm not sure she was a Black Crowes fan exactly, and our friendship was soon to follow the old cliche that the first person you meet at university is the person you end up liking the least, but at the time I could have kissed her, and I still like to think that it was the Black Crowes, and 'Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye' in particular that got my university career started.

'The Cedar Room' - Doves (Ian)

You want to talk new beginnings? For me, this one has them in spades. Lost Souls came out in 2000, as I was going to university, and as this was back when I was still reading the NME (online, from Canada), when they raved over this new band and their awesome song 'The Cedar Room' I promptly downloaded it, fell in love, found a copy of the album at the student newspaper and took it in exchange for a perfunctory review. Doves have never quite hit the same heights as they did here, to my mind (and I found Some Cities mediocre enough that I got some hate mail), but I still look forward to whenever they get their next album out, because Lost Souls in general and 'The Cedar Room' specifically was one of many albums that not only resonate with my first year of university, but changed my musical taste.

In my high school years, no doubt for reasons of age and hormones as much as anything else, I was always looking for music that was louder, faster, MORE than I’d already heard (even if, oddly enough, I was never all that interested in metal and rather selective in my punk tastes). Anything from Mogwai’s 'With Portfolio' to Super Furry Animals’ 'Do Or Die' was instantly and hungrily absorbed, and if I liked the albums they came on, it was despite the quieter, more gently paced material around songs like these than because of it. These days, of course, I’m more likely to put 'Tracy' or 'Some Things Come From Nothing' on a mix, and 'The Cedar Room' is one of the earlier stops on that route. I’d already been interested (via Spiritualized and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, mostly) in a certain musical conception of, for lack of a better word, grandness, and when the NME trumpeted just how magnificently, sky-scrapingly sad 'The Cedar Room' was, I just had to try it. It’s a great song, I’d still argue today, but it is kind of glacially paced (that is, slow but accumulating and powerful). As I began to fall for more songs like that I found myself paying more attention to bands like Low and Red House Painters and even far more abstract propositions like The Necks, acts I once would have found impossible to sit through.

A few years later, I'd record my initial series of reactions to the song (and like every writer, I flinch a little at everything my younger self did). I don’t write that rawly about past or present emotional states that much any more, not from embarrassment so much as because... I don’t have to, really. I’ve grown up, more has happened to me, it doesn’t seem less important so much as less urgent. But at the time, and then again three years later, it did seem vital, and I remember many a late night listening to 'The Cedar Room' and its still wrenching chorus, sometimes on repeat. That’s another reason why 'The Cedar Room' reminds me of beginnings – in my post-high school life, in my romantic life (albeit embarrassingly late and painfully lopsidedly), in my music-listening life, and also in my writing life. That article was the first Seconds: Perfect Moments In Pop column I’d write for Stylus Magazine, the first place to give me any sort of a writing job and still (in my heavily biased opinion) one of the finest outlets the internet has ever seen for high quality writing about popular (and not so popular) music. Seconds was one of my favourite columns, and one where I did a lot of work and much of my best work – but if I hadn’t found a song I just NEEDED to write about as much as I did 'The Cedar Room' (three years later marked the re-entry of the woman in question back into my life – we kissed, once, and I swear to you the lights dimmed), I might not have ventured there at all, or if I did I might not have found myself as fearless about topics and styles of writing as I was after I’d ripped off the scab with that article.

So leave aside that 'The Cedar Room' is inarguably a classic of turn-of-the-century Brit-rock – I’d cherish it for all of the things it triggered for me even if it wasn't a great song. And on the right night, if I’m alone and in a slightly melancholy mood (i.e. tipsy) and you wander past my apartment door, you might even hear me bellowing along...

And I tried to sleeeep alooooooone, but I couldn’t dooo it! / You could be sittingnexttomeee, and I wouldn’t knoww it!

'Skip To The End' - The Futureheads (Pete)

It's a classic line from Simon Pegg's character in 'Spaced', what's not to like? But seriously, at first I was unsure as to what song to choose for this topic. New beginnings? Hmmm. Then I thought back to the start of my last two relationships and I was reminded that this song seemed to be played more frequently than others on both occasions (not only through my earphones, but, mysteriously, on the radio as well). I'd always liked the punchy, aggressive, yet upbeat intro and the Barry Hyde's shouty voice, but since the beginning of 2008, the apt lyrics were what caught my ear:

"If I could cheat, I would skip to the end / And decide if it's worth going through with. / Skip to the last, paragraph, just before we start, / To see the happy ending, or the broken heart."

Compared to other songs (more of which in a later topic) it's not so much about the above-mentioned persons in question, but more about my general mood at the time, i.e. I've met someone new and I'm not sure how it'll all work out, but it's fresh and the muddle-through optimist in me believes it can only end in a happy ending (hah). Even so, nevertheless the impatient part of me still wants to know... well... if it's worth going through with.

'Music Is Moving' - Cortina (Mike)

Beware of false epiphanies. Especially dancefloor e-piphanies, of the artificially induced kind. Since that false dawn of December 1994, my quest for profundity through pharmaceuticals had undergone a steady process of mission-shrink, to the point where all that remained was a restless urge for transitory oblivion. Weary of chasing rainbows, disillusioned by diminishing returns, and rapidly approaching my sell-by date (Malone, the hedonistic figurehead of 'Dancer From The Dance', Andrew Holleran’s fictionalised memoir of gay clublife in 1970s New York, had staged his disappearance at the age of 37; I was four months shy of entering my fortieth year), I knew the game was nearly up.

For the past six years, the London after-hours club Trade had been my Shangri-La. It was a unique subterranean melting pot, where artists and academics rubbed sweat-slicked shoulders with pumped-up ‘roid-ragers and off-duty rent; where the fuck-off-I’m-fabulous queens checked their attitudes at the door; where Cupid and Psyche necked beneath the strobes, before noshing each other off in the bogs. It was equal parts heaven and hell; salvation and damnation; Plato’s Symposium and Dante’s Limbo. It could unfurl your inner eye, or it could hollow out your soul.

I loved it.

I feared it.

I had to haul myself clear.

On the weekend of Trade’s tenth birthday party, we completed on the cottage: a bucolic bolthole on the edge of a national park, with an oil-fired Aga and a funky rustic-modern makeover. Seagrass on the stairs; Farrow and Ball stripes in the bathroom; rare-breed cattle grazing over the road. An eagerly awaited lifestyle paradigm shift, that would save us from the reductive cycle of Saturday night excess and Sunday evening regret.

But fuck all that for now; I had a ticket in my bag, and unfinished business to conclude.

It was the perfect grand finale. All the old faces had turned out, willing the club to recapture its glories: before the death of DJ Tony, high priest of the eight-to-ten slot; before the raid; before the hubristic global branding; before fucking ketamine; before the music even had a name.

It was a night of mwah-mwah-how-are-YOU breast bumps, of oh-my-God-it’s-THIS-one fist pumps, of wall-to-wall, back-to-back, solid gold, all-time-classic Trade Anthems. 'Let’s Rock' by E-Trax. 'Marmion' by Schoneberg. Vincent De Moor’s 'Flowtation' and Armin’s 'Blue Fear'. The Tony De Vit mix of Diddy’s 'Give Me Love'.

Are you all READY?

WHAT would you like to hear again?

BRING the beat back, BRING the beat back...

BRAIN is the weapon! That’s what I TOLD you!"

And in amongst the classics, a single new tune – or at least new-ish, for I was already losing my trainspotter’s touch – had been placed on near-hourly rotation: a catchy, fluffy, piano-driven, almost handbaggy confection called 'Music Is Moving' (fast forward to 2:00 for the good bit), which was evidently working its way through the ranks, and heading towards the canon of greats. With each successive play, the whoops of recognition got fractionally louder: just like that night in '95 when 'Hooked' was breaking, or that night in '97 when 'Give Me Love' brought the whole club together for one of those unsurpassable we’re-all-in-this-crazy-ship-together moments, or...

Well, I wouldn’t be around to witness its progress. Six years on from that false dawn, I was finally standing on the threshold of my – and, crucially, of our – true new beginning. And while the Trade juggernaut might have lumbered on for a few more increasingly undistinguished years to come, this was where I visualised the end credits rolling, the slowly fading refrain of its final anthem wrapping around itself again and again and again.

True to my pledge, I never returned.

"Closure", as the kind-eyed stranger in the middle of the dancefloor put it.

"Like being unchained from a lunatic" – Sophocles, via Molly Parkin.

* * * * *

Thanks to Dr Migs, Lord Bargain, Swiss Toni, Ian, Pete and Mike for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time (by which time I might feel sufficiently inspired to contribute myself), is winter. In the meantime, though, there's another new feature starting next Monday. You lucky, lucky people...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Quote of the day

"He was a great friend, brother, musician, trooper. Irreplaceable. He will be missed ... For all that knew him behind the facade of Mr Cool and Quirky, he was a kind-hearted, genuine, warm person who always believed that people meant well even if they did not. As a musician Ron was The Guitar God, idol to follow and inspire others."

Amen to that, the thoughts of the remaining Stooges on guitarist Ron Asheton, who left the big stage on Tuesday.

Sod showy virtuosity and frilly technique - Big Ron was all about hitting on something as simple as possible and playing it very loud and for a long time. And when the results were as good as the dirty, slouching, lustful riff of 'No Fun' - without a shadow of a doubt the riff which bullies its way into my head most often, with no prior warning - then "Guitar God" he could be rightly acclaimed.

Just as much as (if not more so) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton is the reason I rank The Stooges above every other punk band. OK, so The Sex Pistols had a bigger cultural impact - but they weren't very good, really, though, were they? And the Clash may have had more diverse sources and brought greater subtlety and political nous to the table, but they've just never gripped me with the same primal claw that the likes of The Ramones have. (I'm no fan of the jingoistic bias that tends to canonise British punk bands and ignore the Americans - I'm looking at you, Mr Savage...) And The Stooges were there before the lot of them, blazing the trail.

My Stooges-loving friend Martin has just found out the news in the last hour (it's gone midnight) and decided to pay his own tribute: "Right. I don't care what time it is...I'm going down to my shed to twat drums to 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'".

RIP Ron.

Top tips

Everyone seems to have put together their 2008 year end lists (everyone, that is, apart from me - still to come, honest...) - here's Emily Eavis's from today's Glastonbury newsletter:

"1. Little Joy - Little Joy
2. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
3. Hot Chip - Made In The Dark
4. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
5. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
6. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
7. Nick Cave - Dig, Lazarus, Dig
8. Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night
9. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
10. Coldplay - Viva La Vida

If this is any kind of indication of how this year's bill might shape up, then Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Nick Cave would do very nicely indeed, thankyouverymuch. Of the rest, I can't see Kings Of Leon being invited to play again, but Coldplay could be in line to headline again and Vampire Weekend, Elbow and MGMT would hardly be surprise choices for prominent Pyramid Stage slots.