Monday, February 23, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A friend

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

This week's subject: A friend

'The Riddle' - Nik Kershaw (Swiss Toni)

I didn't grow up in an especially musical household. Neither of my parents are particularly into music and because it had never formed a large part of their lives, it was only natural that my two brothers and I didn't initially form much of an interest ourselves. I've always found it a little hard to understand how two people, both just five or six years younger than Paul McCartney and presumably slap bang in the prime demographic for the Beatles, could have both have missed out on such a vibrant period of British music, but miss it they did. My mum tells me that she owned a copy of Revolver and my dad had a pile of 'Top Of The Pops' LPs that he had inherited from his father's pub, but their hearts weren't in it and our house was largely devoid of background music.

My first real musical exposure, then, came instead from regular visits to the house of a friend just down the road. Like me, Will had two siblings, although where I was a middle child, he was the youngest by several years. I don't know if his parents were especially into music, but his dad worked for Rotel, manufacturers of high quality stereo equipment, and their house was naturally filled with top-notch hi-fis. Although we spent a lot of our time together mucking about with computer games, playing with our Star Wars figures and riding our bikes outdoors, we did occasionally mess around with the record player and with his brother and sister's 12" singles. Although I can remember listening to the likes of Murray Head's 'One Night In Bangkok', a bit of Level 42 and 'Hole In My Shoe' by Neil from 'The Young Ones', the artist that always stood out the most for me was Nik Kershaw.

Both Human Racing and The Riddle were released in 1984, and we used to sit entranced by songs such as 'I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me', 'Human Racing', 'Wouldn't It Be Good', 'Wide Boy' and - especially - 'The Riddle'. Our listening coincided with our reading of 'Masquerade, the book of illustrations for children by Kit Williams that concealed clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in the UK. The book was first published in 1979, but the hare had only (apparently) been discovered in 1982, so the idea of riddles was fresh in our minds as we tried to work out what on earth Nik Kershaw was trying to tell us when he spoke of trees by rivers, holes in the ground and old men of Arran.

Kershaw has, of course, subsequently revealed that there is no meaning to 'The Riddle' at all, but to our ten-year-old minds it was a puzzle well worth trying to solve. Besides, it was (and remains) a fantastic record, and through it I began to discover a love of music that has stayed with me to this day. I can't say that I listen to Kershaw very much any more, but he has the proud distinction of being the artist who created the first two albums that I ever bought with my own money. Better yet, whenever I think of him, I can't help but think of the letter that I wrote to Jimmy Saville in the summer of 1984 asking if he could fix it for me and for my best friend Will to meet our hero. Saville never wrote back, sadly, and he certainly never fixed it for me.

Although his parents still live down the road from my folks, I lost touch with Will a few years ago after we both went to university. Musically we had drifted apart, with him baffled by my love of heavy metal and me a touch confused by his love of Lenny Kravitz. We'll always have Nik Kershaw though, and whenever I hear the chiming opening chords of 'The Riddle', I'm reminded of my first best friend.

'Howya Julia' - The Saw Doctors (Paul)

When I was younger, my friends and I would merrily copy albums for each other on to tapes. Of course, given that most albums were somewhere around the hour mark, this often left the best part of half a tape blank. However, rather than give each other a part-filled cassette, we'd fill the remaining blank space with other music which we liked, and thought the other person would appreciate.

In such ways, lifelong affinities to bands were created.

On one such occasion, my friend Duncan gave me a tape (Parklife by Blur from memory) which also featured about six songs by an Irish band I'd never heard of called The Saw Doctors. As Duncan explained to me at the time, in his view they sang about the important issues in life: beer, sport, religion and women, and did so in a generally bouncy fashion.

So I listened to the tape.

After enjoying Parklife the music of the Saw Doctors took hold, and I was captivated.

The first song to hit my Walkman headphones was 'Howya Julia' - which was all about the scandal which had erupted over the Bishop of Galway's illicit sex life. I loved it. To this day the lyric "Sitting in the chapel, attending exposition, dreaming Karma Sutra and his favourite position" makes me smile. From that point on, I was hooked.

Duncan and I went on to make a fairly hardcore effort to take in a few Saw Doctors gigs, on one occasion heading all the way up to Dundee and spending the night in a B&B to see a gig. We caught the Saw Doctors at festivals and generally every opportunity which presented itself. With hindsight, they embodied our friendship, built as it was around beer, sport, religion and women (or more pointedly our oft frustrated quest for women).

In subsequent years, the line-up to the band has changed, and to my mind they've never hit the peak of their third album Same Oul' Town, but Duncan and I have remained friends, thanks in no small part to our shared experiences following the Saw Doctors. Experiences which all flowed from the tape he made me, and the Bishop of Galway's extra-curricular activities.

'Pride & Joy' - Coverdale/Page (Skif)

Friends at school often come about merely as a result of trying to avoid cabin fever. Better, I guess, to talk with ill-informed and aggressive enthusiasm about the front plate of the unfathomable fem-bots stationed in their own enclaves elsewhere in the form room, than to fully acquiesce to the debilitating effects of going totally hat-stand stir-crazy.

That’s how Personal, Social & Health Education lessons felt back in them days as our form tutor held as little truck for actually educating us in these sessions as he did for presenting a professional veneer and not shuffling around the classroom talking and chuckling to himself about, well, who knows what. Whether it was our group that had driven him to his unsettling eccentricity, I am still unsure.

The first year or two had been OK. My best mate since toddlerdom, still occupies that role to this day gawd bless ‘im, had been in said form group, and so we could chat about things in Kerrang! (as our musical tastes back then dictated) and delight in our shared history of playgroup and beyond. However mid-way through secondary school he left for a brief stint in the grim north, leaving me scrabbling around for chums.

Another old mate from middle school, Sheep, was still around, and our collected sporting interests kept us entertained (he was to be the vice- to my captain in the first year of school cricket, before we switched roles for the second year after my hopelessness in the top job had been made excruciatingly obvious) but he had little interest in music, particularly not in the heavier spheres. However, there to fill the musical, and the, err, professional wrestlingal, voids of chat was Big Mark who had also lost his regular ally to another school.

Mark was big alright, as the name suggests, advanced enough in girth to make me feel thinnish. If it wasn’t for the cricket I imagine it would have been I who wore the ‘Big’ pre-fix particularly with my advanced height; however Mark was developed in many ways. Whilst the rest of us were tugging at the tufts to make good our swift escape from childhood, Mark’s appearance in the showers already took on the look of three whinchat eggs in a shoddily built nest.

Considering we were 14 at the time, perhaps the most impressive, and yet absurd, aspect of Mark’s look was the presence of a full beard, all dense curls and grease. Beneath his chin it hung, all curly and unkempt, like a bushy pube snood. Often he would be requested by our tutor, stopping by mid-chunter, to shave it off but Mark stubbornly clung on to it ‘til we all departed that place of learning.

Still, as I say, Mark was good for chat about the wrestling; in fact we would sometimes wrestle each other (ahem) in the form room, and often I would come off worse. He also shared an interest in loud music played with guitars and glottal shouting, although his interests lay mostly in what might be called classic rock. Once I went to stay around his house, and we would listen to Deep Purple, Rush, Free, AC/DC and the brief union twixt David Coverdale and Jimmy Page.

My musical tastes have shifted and warped, some might say, a lot since then, but if I ever I think of that Coverdale/Page album, and particularly ‘Pride & Joy’ (with its typically cerebral and poetic lines teaching us boys the language of love, such as "You look so good, oh babe, you must be bad"), I am taken back to when me and Mark were mates.

I think I’ve seen him about three or four times since school and not for a decade now, and there’s probably a good reason for that. It was certainly the more antler-locking of my male friendships as that visit to his house included a game of darts that soon degenerated to the point where he was flinging the arra’s at my bare feet requesting, as he did so, that I dance. His squall of excited laughter will live long in between my shudders.

'Shirley' - Billy Bragg (Pete)

Let me dedicate this to my mate Martin. After meeting randomly in an Irish pub in east Berlin early into my first stay there, we soon discovered a mutual love for North London football teams (and hate, for he's a Gooner) and indie music. So when he moved into a ramshackle ground-floor flat in Friedrichshain and needed a flatmate/decorator to help sort it out, I stepped in.

With the flat decorated, we spent the most of the summer of 2000 rehearsing (him on guitar and vocals, me on bass), smoking Gauloises Reds, cooking mountains of pasta and occasionally breaking off for a quick beer at Blühende Landschaften, our local round the corner, to discuss the finer points of his song-writing and my lack of bass-playing skill.

Besides his stuff, we did learn a few covers; the usual stuff, an Oasis B-side or two, there was a stab at Primal Scream's 'Damaged', but the one we really nailed was Billy Bragg's 'Shirley' (which contains one of my all-time favourite lines): "How can you lie there and think of England / When you don't know who's in the team?"

Unsurprisingly, our musical ambitions never went anywhere, apart from the numerous late-night sessions (we must have had deaf or at least very forgiving neighbours). Occasionally, we got the guitars out at various friends' parties; although Martin did go on to record a few songs with a mutual friend of ours (and a far more accomplished musician than both of us).

At the end of the summer, I returned to the UK for a few months and despite returning to Berlin in 2001, we never really "got the band back together" and there was only the occasional jam session. Since then we both moved between England and Germany several times, but always in the opposite direction and as a result sort of lost touch. Nevertheless, it only takes the first few chords of 'Shirley' to remind me of the days when I smoked, had the time to plug in the Fender at all hours of the night and bash out a few songs with Martin just for the love of playing music.

'The White Noise Revisited' - The Boo Radleys (Caskared)

We're 16. We're in J's front room. His parents are in France on holiday for the week. This is the third consecutive night of all of us piling into his house - playing music, laughing, drinking, getting chips from the chip shop, or fry-ups in the morning pooled from our parents larders, smoking outside, smoking something else in a car, some are coupling, but more are not although there are some electric teenage tensions between others, a misguided attempt towards another, dancing on shag-pile, cleaning up the vomit in case the parents find out, sarcasm rules, but so does the music. No one has slept enough, we just stay up enjoying, alibies all over the estate. The record player cranks up, or the guitars and singing, half with breaking voices. Baggy T-shirts, baggy music, a baggy from a shoe being passed round. This is a small-town teenage party in the mid-90s.

And my friend, with monopod hair (not to be confused with other obligatory boy dos aerial-pie-chart hair, not the rights-of-passage number-1-all-over Renton hair) is dancing. Giant Steps is on again, and now my scarf is around his neck and we're singing "Hey, what's that noise, do you remember? Do your remember?" My limbs are loosely flailing as I bounce in time with the jangly rhythm guitar. We're full of glee - our senses are fuzzy and supersharp, the sounds fill us and it feels like a time we're going to remember forever, our hedonistic 16-year-old selves all together in the front room. And then the music distorts and the tremoring synths hijack the sweet melody and finally the elephantine calls trumpet over the melody and J puts the grey scarf over his head and with one end in his hand his woolen trunk sears through the air in a Boo karaoke. I hurt with laughter and pleasure. I'm really happy.

Later at Glastonbury we race through the crowds. I am set on being in the front rows and J slip streams behind me as I nip deftly through the people. I get on his shoulders and we sing along, fizzing with excitement! It's the Boos! We meet them at the signing tent and try our hardest to make them like us. We see them so many times - J wins free tickets from a Radio 1 breakfast-related phone in and we go to see them twice in one week, and manage to blag backstage. Over-exitable, we try to play it cool. They start to recognise us, but probably not really, but it seems like... and we see them play Kilburn.

I become queen at getting us backstage. G has driven us to Milton Keynes so we can catch a later train back. The Chemical Brothers are DJing the Boos' after-party. We shake their hands while they're scratching their records. Caitlin Moran walks past, and Ash and Coast, we desperately try to not look like fans but in our band T-shirts and even though we're 17 by now we look about 12 and clearly not "industry" but we don't care because the Boos talk to us and Benny Green from 'Grange Hill' buys us a drink at the bar, it's his 32nd birthday. J and I share this night, it's brilliant and intense and baffling and wonderful!

Rewinding several years. I haven't seen J since we went to different high schools. He is a boy and I a girl so friendships weren't maintained. But I am bored and curious. I call round to his house. He is surprised but pleased, not sure of my agenda. I wasn't there to ask him out, I never wanted that, but I want to see if we could be friends beyond middle school. I want to see if his friends could be friends with mine. He was the only boy I knew and we managed to bring our groups together. We were the bridge between our schools. It worked. But to get to the party where our friends were so close, we have to bond and The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps does that.

When I call round to his house I suggest we go for a walk across the fields. It is dusk, he wears a navy tie-dye T-shirt and I my purple paisley hand-me-down shirt from my babysitter. We stride and talk music. We'd both started to read the NME since we'd left middle school. I was flirting with junior metal - Guns 'N' Roses et al but graduating to Nirvana and Sonic Youth although had indie credentials with aged 12 getting my hands on Popscene and other Blur and Cure singles. He had come in through the Beatles and now talked about the Boo Radleys.

Our next walk to see if we really did get on and that it was OK to hang out with someone from the opposite sex, he has recorded a tape for me. A C-90 with "Andy is a fool" written in pen and a scattering of the letter stickers that come with the blank tape adorned the cassette casing. I listen. It changes everything. Suddenly I hear what sounds like the most experimental thing ever. They were really doing something with the music. It chimes with me and I feel excited to hear what else was on the album. 'The White Noise Revisited' is barmy, weird. Makes me go "What?!" but then "Wow!" That album cements our friendship and I will forever love it for itself and for how much it reminds me of my dear dear friend J and the happiest days encapsulated by his elephant-dance to 'The White Noise Revisited'.

'Pretend We're Dead' - L7 (Alison))

By 15 I thought I’d out-grown the village I lived in; the people who went to the local high school were the people who had gone to the local primary school, my friends were lovely but there was nothing new to learn from each other and the local pub that would serve us felt like an after-school club. Saturdays spent trawling record and clothes shops in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Grassmarket hinted at a different world, but one that I didn’t have a pass to with 10 miles between home and the city and my 10pm curfew.

I first met Andy when I was visiting his younger brother (boyfriend to my best friend Zoe). He came into the house dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, standard uniform for his job as a bank teller. But that was pretty much all that was standard about his appearance; his head was shaved high up the sides leaving a narrow strip of long hair running down the middle, he had a silver bar in his eyebrow and another in his lip, his earlobe sagged under the weight of a hollow piercing and an inch of black ink peaked out of the collar of his shirt. As he swapped his shirt for a T-shirt he revealed two nipple rings and a body covered with tattoos. I was completely in awe.

Zoe and I made regular visits to Andy in the last few years of school. God knows why at 20 he tolerated two schoolkids. Truth be told he was an arrogant sod and I think he probably enjoyed our adoration. We were welcome as long as our offerings of Wild Turkey and Benson & Hedges lasted. He made it his mission to educate us musically and politically, an endless supply of Dead Kennedys and Black Flag vinyl formed the soundtrack to his socialist lectures.

L7's ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ always reminds me most of Andy though, the lyrics summed up the small town claustrophobia he seemed to represent an escape from. He painted the skeleton L7 hand logo on the back of my Doc Martens in a nod to the tattooed legs that feature on the picture disc. He was a pretty talented artist, illustrating for an Edinburgh 'zine in his spare time, and he expanded into piercing and tattooing. I vaguely remember spending a bourbon-fuelled bank holiday weekend in his room because he decided to put plaits and beads in my hair during which time there was a incident with Zoe’s navel, a big needle and a lot of blood.

Andy and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ had a huge influence on me, introducing me to the riot grrrl bands I loved, motivating my picture-disc collection and inspiring an image that would suitably upset my Mum for a few years. I didn’t stay in touch with him when I went to university and it’s clear that as friendship goes this one was pretty limited, but I love him for showing an alternative view to the one portrayed by village life.

'Pyramid Song' - Radiohead (Ian)

It’s odd, but I had a hard time coming up with a song that reminds me of a friend. Music is a huge part of my life, and my friends are another, equally large part, but there just isn’t that much of an overlap between the two. A necessary step of growing up as a perpetually infatuated music fan is to realize that the people you love won’t (and shouldn’t) always share your taste; but another part of that process is realizing that your friends and family not only might not love or have even heard of that Burial album you’re playing, but that even once they do hear it they simply may not care as much as you do, even if they do like it.

Let’s face it, the sort of person who spends their spare time writing about music for free on the internet (and to a lesser extent, the sort of person who then reads that sort of thing) is firmly on one side of the bell curve measuring how much a person cares about this stuff. I think it’s great, but if I restricted my friendships only to other people who want to respond to mix CDs with detailed track-by-track feedback and spend hours debating the merits of, I don’t know, Vampire Weekend or someone, I wouldn’t have many friends. As it is, you can split the people I spend my time talking to into roughly two groups: people I know in real life who I know and like for reasons having nothing to do with music, and friends I’ve made because of music, who are mostly far-flung and online but broadly speaking we care about the same things. I wouldn’t trade either group for the world, of course, but when you ask me to write about a song that reminds me of a friend, both present difficulties.

In the latter case, that’s because we all already have our opinions and tastes set too firmly, and we’re too remote to really have songs that are ours instead of mine and theirs. And in the former case… my friends know I’m a music geek, and they appreciate it, and they even make use of it ("Hey, can I borrow ____?"). But music doesn’t really form a big part of our friendship.

So we’re left with mixes. I’m an inveterate mix-maker, and not just for pretty girls (although yes that too). Half the time they never leave my hard drive (this used to be a much higher percentage – God bless the IMP), but it’s a pretty standard way for me to work through things or reconsider things or even just occupy a boring Sunday afternoon. Years ago I made one for a friend I don’t really talk to that much anymore. Nothing dramatic, just a sort of natural drifting apart, and I actually ran into her again recently, which was nice. But at the time, we had just started hanging out and she asked me, at one point, for a mix to explain, sort of, what music it was that I liked (probably in response to a fumbling "Uh, I don’t know, all sorts of stuff" when asked).

I don’t have the tracklisting here, but I do have it at home and I remember how fiercely proud of it I was at the time. I’d been asked to sum up my taste and I had done so, in 50 minutes no less! I had one of those moments of youthful arrogance or exuberance where I felt sure that those twelve tracks did and would explain my taste in music, maybe forever. It should come as no surprise to anyone that when I dug it back up a few months ago out of curiosity, it didn’t work nearly as well as I’d thought. It’s a decent cross-section of what I listened to at the time, but really that’s it – a time capsule.

Despite that, there’s a few tracks from the mix that, even out of that context, I have been unable to hear without thinking of that mix and that friend. 'Pyramid Song', from the then-new Amnesiac album by Radiohead, is a big one. The song was huge for me at the time, I’d eagerly devoured (and still love) the dreamlike video that was posted around online before the album came out, lined up to buy the album at midnight, and etc. The huge, aching space in the middle of 'Pyramid Song' is still something I respond to strongly, and so I suppose I was covering two bases at once at the time – my love for Radiohead, and my love for songs that sound like this.

It still works strongly as a token of remembrance precisely because it’s neither too sad nor too happy – unlike some commenters I take Thom Yorke at face value when he tells us "and there was nothing to fear, nothing at all", mainly because he sounds like he’s talking about the dream world or the afterlife and not this vale of tears. But there’s of course a gloominess, or maybe a regret to the song. And so when it comes up on random in my iTunes, I think fondly of my friend and how it sucks we no longer live in the same city, and I think of what I was trying to represent on that mix, how the attempt to convey to another human being how you feel about music is noble and maybe a little doomed, and I think about the fact that 'Pyramid Song' is the only song on the mix that she ever told me she liked.

'Mogwai Fear Satan' - Mogwai (Ben)

So much for all these wistful tales of the halcyon days of youth and friendships that have since faded - time to buck the trend and wrap up with a hopefully heartwarming story about friends reunited...

As regular readers of my blog will know, I've recently relocated for the fifth time in four and a half years. This latest move has reunited me with a dear friend whom, much to my sadness, I left behind in Cardiff when I first decamped to Oxfordshire in pursuit of gainful employment in April 2007. Small but perfectly formed, reliable and dependable, capable of altering my mood in an instant...

Yes, I'm talking about my stereo.

Up until her cruel abandonment two years ago, she had been my faithful companion, never leaving my side since she was bought in September 1999. My old multi-disc changer had broken - some problem with the disc tray (wasn't that always the issue with those bloody things, which were far better in concept than in practice?) meant that at the last the only thing it would consent to play was Seafood's 'This Is Not An Exit' single, and that only after much coaxing and swearing. So off I went to what was then Jessop's in Nottingham with my friend Martin, where the pair of us worked our way around the whole section pressing the eject button on every single stereo, repeating Alan Partridge's line "Nice action" and giggling to ourselves.

But when I saw her, a sleek vision in silver, it was love at first sight. She had a TPS system (basically, a nifty mechanism for skipping songs on tapes just as you would on CDs), but, if I'm honest, the USP was undoubtedly what happened when you turned her on - the screen lit up blue and the central panel slid back smoothly to bring the various knobs into relief. "Nice action"? The others didn't come close. And so, for the princely sum of £200, she was mine.

Several blissfully happy years ensued, and even after leaving her with my girlfriend in Cardiff I still visited regularly, cherishing our time together and pining for her when we were apart. Your iPods and iTunes and MP3s and laptops are all very well, thankyouverymuch, but this old Luddite rather enjoys the physical act of selecting an album from the rack and putting it on. It's more of an experience, affords the music and the creative endeavour more respect.

So, anyway, why 'Mogwai Fear Satan'? Well, it was around the time I bought her that my love affair with the Glaswegians was in its first flush. I already had a copy of the off-cuts album Ten Rapid courtesy of him (of whom I could just as easily have written using the same song), and in October 1999 I first saw them in the flesh, in the Ballroom of Nottingham's Marcus Garvey Centre. To say the earth moved wouldn't be stretching the truth - during the extended 25-minute-long strobe-accompanied blitzkrieg version of 'Mogwai Fear Satan' that closed the set, the wooden floor was vibrating so violently that internal organs were dislodged.

I immediately went out and bought Young Team, and the thought of that album's monumental final act zooming out of the speakers of my new stereo still sends a shiver down the spine. Since then, there have been other moments when she has been instrumental in forging my love for a particular band or artist, but that was the first.

So, thank you for the music.

* * * * *

Thanks to Swiss Toni, Paul, Skif, Pete, Caskared, Alison and Ian for their contributions this week.

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

Quoting us happy

Parts & Labor, An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump.
Shoreditch Cargo. 19feb09.

Named after Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting, An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump are an East London trio (roll call: C-Bird, X-Bird and D-Bird) operating on tribal caustics and supple drone, vocally oscillating between gothic horror and gospel soul. Their opener has the twitch of Nutbush City Limits about it, albeit filtered through a Jesus & Mary Chain shaped gauze.

Their sound is created largely by voice, bass guitar and two drums alone, whilst the division of labour is broken by their rotating amongst the roles. Considering the stodginess of their sound, it is the different vocal styles that provide the colour, one of them sounding like a gutter-stalking Tina Turner, another ploughing the mid-furrow twixt those dug by PJ Harvey and David Thomas. They keep their set to an impactfully brusque fifteen minutes and leave with the notion that they have the potential to become something very special indeed hanging as an ellipsis over the back of the now empty stage.

Parts & Labor are a much more elaborate proposition. Pedals, switches and synths are manipulated amongst the traditional guitar, bass and drums set-up in the wind rush of their emphatic, puffed-chest experimental rock. Dan Friel’s vocals recall stadium prog, whilst B.J. Warshaw’s come from a spikier place. Sarah Lipstate’s takes a relative back-seat compared to Friel’s plinth-shaking judder and Warshaw’s flailing, bass-flinging arms.

The understated hero of the foursome though is perhaps drummer Joe Wong, who keeps things elastically tight, never a catatonic hammer, always a rippling catalyst. Parts & Labor’s brash music is athletic and never seeks to trade in its vim for an unnecessary change of pace to show their range. What they do is create anthems for people who don’t like waving lighters, but who like waving, and challenging, themselves.

Parts & Labor @ MySpace
An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump @ MySpace


Now That's What I Call A Festival Line-Up

Now, I'm fairly happy with the bill for the Breeders-curated ATP in May - featuring as it does the likes of Shellac, Deerhunter, Holy Fuck, Foals and now Blood Red Shoes - and there's bound to be some good stuff on at Glastonbury. But the currently crop of confirmed artists for this year's Primavera in Barcelona is jaw-droppingly amazing: Sonic Youth, Shellac, Aphex Twin, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine, Oneida, Bat For Lashes, Crystal Stilts, The Drones, The Jesus Lizard, Yo La Tengo - the list just goes on and on.

On the subject of Shellac, according to The Line Of Best Fit their label, highly respect indie Touch & Go looks to be in a spot of trouble, though they're said to be scaling back and regrouping rather than folding altogether, as had been feared. If you're ambivalent or unaware of their contribution towards leftfield noise, you could do worse than take up TLOBF's suggestion of checking out Pitchfork's Top 25 T&G albums - it's an illustrious list of pioneering and influential (not to mention ear-damaging) records.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Back to Box

Black Box Recorder.
Kilburn Luminaire. 18feb09.

Black Box Recorder never actually split, never made a brash announcement, even though you might think them just the type that would. Well, specifically, that Luke Haines would be just the type that would, being a bit of a contrarian, grumpy of jowl and dismisser of the popular fad. His recently published autobiography Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In It’s Downfall, will fill in any gaps you may have.

Haines has worked through a number of provocative bands, through The Auteurs’ savant suaveness, Baader Meinhof’s abrasive pop and his maverick solo vision. However it has been as one third of Black Box Recorder, alongside former Jesus & Mary Chain type John Moore and vocalist Sarah Nixey, that Haines has enjoyed his biggest successes. That is if one measures success on chart places alone as the Auteurs, despite only skirting the outside of the Top 40, were a band that one feels are ripe for rediscovery and further laudation.

Yet the top twenty placing for BBR’s The Facts Of Life single clearly resonates, Haines displaying peacockishly, yet underpinning his feathers with devilish sarcasm, when introducing it tonight simply as “the hit.” Aside from that Haines says little, Nixey pulling focus despite both he and Moore being kitted out in bolo ties and sharp dress suits, all in front of a Union flag featuring, in giant silver lettering, the slogan “Rock N’ Roll Not Dole”. Moore occasionally pipes in with a dry aside, designed to playfully jab under the ribs of his band mates.

A new Black Box Recorder record is apparently now on the way after their five years out of the picture, all being active with their own projects, so it’s probably just as well that big declaration never came. Some of the songs are premiered tonight, such as Do You Believe In God?, introduced by Moore with “If this isn’t #1 at Christmas, we’ll definitely know the answer to the question.”

The new songs, on this display, share more with the band’s 1998 debut record England Made Me, than either of it’s successors, The Facts Of Life and Passionoia, the synths and samples backing tape being either low priority or low mixed at the beginning of the set, meaning that The English Motorway System is more of a chugger than a glider.

As such, the real successes of the night are the earliest material, particularly the cold, dead lullabies England Made Me itself and Child Psychology with it’s passionless refrain of “life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it.” Nixey vocals are as captivating as ever, emotionless and deadly, yet soft and glacial. Although sometimes it doesn’t quite pull together, such as with 2003’s The New Diana, which appears in the encore and feels lifeless in a way they would not have intended, they remain poker faced purveyors of concept art, their frissons of excitement contained in their deadpan outlook. Black Box Recorder warp their pop music but, and this is their secret, no more than is strictly necessary.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Yorkshire rippers


Seriously, what's with musicians' obsession and fascination with canis lupus? We've had Wolf Parade, Wolf Eyes, We Are Wolves, Wolves Of Greece, Steppenwolf and now Wolves Of Virginia. The latter are mere pups - so much so they don't even have a MySpace page and new singer Hannah reads her lyrics from crumpled sheets of A4 - but their reasonable approximation of Television playing quintessentially English indie and the frontman's natural stage manner are enough to hint at the emergence of another local pack on the prowl for attention.

Pulled Apart By Horses? That’ll probably be the fate in store for bassist Rob Lee (not that one, or that one) when he gets back to Leeds, if pictures get out of him sporting a T-shirt endorsing the work of Sheffield cock rock kings Def Leppard. His band may look like Kings Of Leon, but judging by the racket they make – a head-on collision of thrashy punk and Sabbath riffs that at times calls to mind Modey Lemon – they can only be the sons of a preacher man if the old fella spent his days spreading the word about the Church of Satan.

Having spent the last week squeezed together within the narrow confines of a van, it’s little wonder they set about their sub-half-hour slot like uncaged beasts. As charmingly named debut single ‘Meat Balloon’ gives way to ‘High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive’ and the on- and frequently offstage frenzy intensifies, guitarist James Brown (not that one)’s barnet mushrooms to epic Buzz-Osborne-esque proportions like some kind of hairy erection. Not to be outdone, frontman Tom Hudson ends ‘I Punched A Lion In The Throat’ rocking back and forth on the floor clutching his guitar in a disturbingly amatory fashion.

Which means their hometown pals Sky Larkin are quite a contrast. Not only have they shared a tour with the tweesters’ indie band du jour, Los Campesinos!, they now share a label (Wichita) and a producer (John Goodmanson). Pigtailed Katie Harkin (vocals, Korg, "tip toes guitar") also takes the time to thank us effusively for coming out to see them and "making our little hearts glow". Aww, bless. Well, Katie, all we can say is that the feeling is mutual.

Theirs is the confident performance of a band secure in the knowledge that they have a brace of great singles (‘Fossil, I’ and ‘Beeline’) behind them and a corking debut album (The Golden Spike) in the can. Particularly glow-inducing on the night is the slow-burning ‘Matador’, dedicated to PABH’s Rob in honour of his being so engrossed in a porn film that he was late for the soundcheck.

There’s nothing fashionable or self-consciously clever about what Sky Larkin do – early 90s college rock that could be described without any derogatory connotations as "classic" – but that’s all part of the charm. As an antidote to landfill indie and what is fast becoming its equally vapid, tedious and disposable opposite, sleazy electronica, The Golden Spike could prove to be an invaluable shot in the arm.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Conceptual Art: 'Bring Back ... Punk'

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

Over to Pete...

* * * * *

A year after the last 'Bring Back...', Justin Lee Collins, who, in hindsight, should’ve really thought a lot longer and harder about this, decides that an ever-so-slightly controversial episode on punk is the way forward to revive this ailing TV format (and his career). Similarly to previous versions, he plans to locate the main players, interview them and ideally arrange a performance at the end. However, rather than focus on one specific band, JLC recognises that a collection of UK punk veterans would not only provide more screenable material, but ultimately would create a bigger draw than any previous comeback tour.

Naturally, the first of this ageing super-group to be approached by Collins is Johnny Rotten. There is a mutual desire to rescue the latter from a retirement of spreadable butter commercials and the singer recognises that even the occasional Sex Pistols comeback tour doesn’t bring home the bacon. Nevertheless, the first step towards disaster is taken when the producers, keen to get him on board and happy to allow for possible controversy, agree to Rotten’s request that any later performance takes place live and without any time delay.

The next few weeks sees the bearded presenter waylay various members of UK’s early punk scene in his usual hilarious fashion. Much like previous shows, not all the interviewees are keen relive their brush with punk fame in this manner. Some, like Howard Devoto turn him away, whereas some, such as Pete Shelley and Mick Jones, agree to be interviewed, but decline to take part in the performance.

Hugh Cornwell, ex of the Stranglers, initially agrees to play, but then a week before the live gig wisely decides to pull out. Collins and the show’s producers, while reluctant to have more than one member from one particular band, are left with little alternative but to approach Steve Jones to replace him on guitar. The rest of the line up is made up by the The Damned’s Rat Scabies on drums and Paul Simenon on bass, both of whom regard this as a one-off jolly get-together.

With the filming in the bag and the line-up in place, there’s time for some last-minute rehearsals and the short set list for the evening is agreed: one song from each of the respective members’ bands, so that the sold-out Forum and the TV audience have got something to look forward to after having watching a bearded idiot make a fool of both himself and the subjects of his film for an hour.

Rumours of a wild-haired old man hanging around the venue with a large black bag shortly before the gig are discovered to be true, but the man in question merely turns out to be Malcolm Maclaren, who is waved through by security after the former pleads to be let in, apparently to reconcile himself with John Lydon.

The first part of the show is much as expected: it follows the story of Collins’ efforts to reunite the remaining founding fathers of UK punk, along with a variety of interviewees providing anecdotes interspersed with mild swearing about numerous on-tour escapades, brushes with the law and the censors, gobbing on the audience, as well as the inevitable clip of Steve Jones mouthing off at Bill Grundy.

Sadly, for punk lovers everywhere, the chance to see some greats in action soon disappears into thin air. Minutes into the live performance, the programme is pulled when Johnny Rotten, clad in a T-shirt with obscenities scrawled all over it, reveals that he has well and truly reconciled himself with his old manager. Before someone sensibly switches to adverts, it becomes clear to the horror of everyone else present and those watching at home, that Rotten has taken Maclaren’s advice that that it’s better for an old punker to burn out than fade away and adapted the lyrics of ‘God Save The Queen’ to incorporate the most extremist vitriol against pretty much any population group you would care to mention.

At the same time as the Channel 4 switchboards and the careers of everyone involved in this farce go into meltdown, a mobile phone clip filmed backstage briefly appears on Youtube before being withdrawn, suggesting that a cackling Malcolm Maclaren made it up into the rafters above the stage with what looked the skeletal remains of either Sid Vicious or Dee Dee Ramone.

Collins is led away in handcuffs, the venue is cleared by riot police, but only after fighting a running battle with the audience and a hundred tabloid journalists duly work themselves into a frenzy before settling down to write a series of inflammatory articles blaming music for corrupting the nation’s youth.

* * * * *

Thanks to Pete. Lydon and JLC - what a meeting of minds that would be...

Next time (Monday 2nd March): Swiss Toni

Monday, February 09, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: School

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

This week's subject: School

'Great Things' - Echobelly (Paul)

I was not cool at school.

I was very clearly a nerdy boy who did his homework on time, rarely went out beyond the weekly trip to Youth Club, and certainly didn't spend his evenings and weekends drinking cider in the park. Unsurprisingly, my musical taste was somewhat detached from the mainstream, and I spent many years listening to a selection of albums in Queen's back catalogue (this at a time when their output had tailed off on account of Freddie Mercury's death).

However, by the time I took my GCSEs the mid-90s was upon us, and my musical tastes were at least catching up with the times, and I started to listen to bands whose members were all amongst the living.

Now I realise that this is supposed to be about music which reminds us of "school" but for me, the soundtrack to my life is very much focused around my time at Sixth Form College. It was there, rather than at school, where life-long friendships were cemented over discussions about music, film and getting served in the pub. Similarly, nights spent in rooms swigging beer bought with no questions asked from the off licence and listening to music became an integral part of my social life.

To that end, a small number of tracks instantly take me back to those days: a time uncluttered by mortgages and the credit-crunch, when my football team wasn't a complete disaster and life was a generally happy place.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that my musical taste remains heavily influenced by the guitar-based music (largely better known as Britpop) which played non-stop on my Walkman throughout that period.

For me, the track that takes me back to those days more than any other is 'Great Things' by Echobelly.

It may be a bit on the twee side, but as someone who saw the world at their feet, I wanted to do great things (and the lead singer, but that's another story), and that song, with its bouncy upbeat tune and positive aspirational lyrics spurred me onwards through my A-levels to university and the life that has so far followed.

'From Out Of Nowhere' - Faith No More (Swiss Toni)

When I was 16 years old and these things seemed important, my friends and I used to have a psych-up song. I'm not really sure how it started, but it became a kind of good luck anthem for us in the summer of 1990 as we sat our GCSEs. Before we headed down to the school gymnasium for each exam, we would put 'From Out Of Nowhere' by Faith No More on as loud as we dared, as though this frantic keyboard-driven funk metal would somehow fill our heads with all the knowledge that we had steadfastly failed to absorb throughout the rest of the academic year.

It was foolproof, and had an almost perfect success rate ... but it did fail me once: one afternoon, with the end of our examination purgatory clearly in sight, we were listening to the song as usual before gathering our pencil cases and candidate numbers together and heading down to the gym for our Biology paper. Lost in the music, I leant back and rested my head against the windowsill. Almost immediately, I felt a sharp, stinging pain against the back of my skull and leapt to my feet wondering what the hell had happened. A glance back at the windowsill revealed the culprit: one of the largest wasps I had ever seen, and one that clearly hadn't taken too kindly to being used as a headrest, was shuffling accusingly on the windowledge.

My retribution was swift; I raised the enormous biology textbook I had been revising from, and I slammed it down with all my might. The wasp was obliterated. Annihilated. Atomised. I rubbed my head and I played the psych-up song again to try and get myself back into the zone, and then we all headed down to the gym.

I got my worst GCSE grade in that exam.

I rather suspect that this was due more to my lack of ability in the subject than it was attributable to either the wasp or to Faith No More, but I can't listen to that song without ruefully rubbing the back of my head.

(It should be noted that I nearly wrote about dancing on the playing fields to Phil Collins era Genesis, but after covering Dire Straits last week, I figured that a return to ropey heavy metal would be far less damaging to my credibility).

'Stay' - Shakespeare's Sister (Skif)

Let me tell you about Joanna. She was a piece of work – seven different kinds of bitch, in a bag. No, let’s not give her top billing. Let me tell you about Vanessa; a troubled soul, not exactly popular, a bit of a misfit.

It is 1992. We’re at school, somewhere in south-east Hampshire. It’s a drama lesson, and we’ve been asked to prepare something, in small groups. I can’t recall what I did, nor with whom, but I imagine it wasn’t exactly 'Henry V', whatever ensemble the cast.

Early on in the ramshackle showcase, Vanessa and chums got up to do their piece, an interpretive work performed silently with the cassingle of ‘Stay’ playing out of the portable in the corner of the room. Keen as people were to take the piss out of anything Vanessa did (and it was clearly mostly her work) there was some giggling at the earnestness of the performance. I may have been caught up in the initial giggles, but I tended to back the underdog so I would have righted myself soonish, I’d like to think. Earnest or not, work had been put into it, and not a little thought.

The loudest guffaws, and critical barbs, came from Joanna’s group, our villain for this piece believing herself to be an acerbic Kenneth Tynan all of a sudden. This brought glares from our teacher, a young pedagogue brought in to cover the long-term illness of the popular incumbent.

Sensing an opportunity though, ‘Miss’ called up Joanna’s group next and they proceeded to run through an a cappella version of an upbeat pop tune of the day, I want to say Kylie, with an accompanying dance routine that appeared as ill-prepared as a posthumous Oscar winner’s thank you speech.

Those involved in the mess kept bursting out into laughter, believing themselves hilarious. They were soon cut short, and found themselves on the end of a wonderfully sustained, steam-eared, Buddy Rich-esque "and as for you.../and another thing..."-type rant from our angry educationalist telling them essentially that while Vanessa’s piece was beautiful, theirs had dropped out the bubo-ridden anus of a dirty dog.

Joanna was a picture. Face like a smacked, well, face; mouth like a tiddlywink target; cheeks like a three-bar fire left on overnight. Considering this young lady once punched me square in the mooey in a CDT lesson, you can understand me basking in reflected vengeance.

... and that’s why there will always be a place in my heart for Marcella Detroit, for that one out of Bananarama who married Dave Stewart and, of course, for Vanessa’s quiet dignity in the face of supercilious bitchity.

'Chico's Groove' - The Chemical Brothers (Pete)

If I'm brutally honest, I was never really into music until I returned the UK at the age of 15, having spent the best part of the early 90s in the musical wilderness of Austria. I'm sure I could drag some (best) long forgotten Euro-pap hit out of the past which might remind me of my time at school there, however any mention of the "hits" from that era would scar your ears for the rest of your life.

I returned to London in 1994 to the start of Britpop, and initially it was this that certainly ruled the roost. However, a year later I started college and added a Saturday job to my life, so had a bit of cash to fund gigs and additions to my miniscule record collection. With a couple of thousand students, Richmond College (alma mater to Jamie T and ... ummm ... Crispin Kula Shaker) seemed huge compared to my previous school and inevitably there were new friends to prise open some new musical doors ever-so-slowly.

Some nameless person (but probably my mate Em) recommended Exit Planet Dust and I was hooked. It's etched itself into my memory like so many albums I bought around that time, probably because a limited disposable income meant I listened to my new purchases over and over again; nevertheless the combination of electronica and beats still sounds fresh to my ears.

I had a good time at college (bar my second year A-level results), but no one particular moment really stands out. I'd like to be able to say that this was because it was a two year blur of 'Skins'-like alcohol and drugs-induced madness, but the truth is that it just seemed to pass by unremarkably. Yet I still have fond memories of numerous lunchtimes spent on the concrete football pitch at Heatham House just up the road from the college, when, frankly, I should have spent more time in the library. There were around 12 of us who played there regularly; some skilful, some less so, all students, apart from Ginger Pete, who was in mid-30s, wasn't a college student, and just turned up one day, bottle of beer in hand and started playing.

If in the highly unlikely event that a film of my life is made, my college years would be neatly covered by the wistful euphoria of The Chemical Brothers' 'Chico's Groove' playing over the montage of images that this song brings to mind more than any other: Kez's bright orange Holland shirt, Samir smashing one in with his left foot, Damon (so-called because of his uncanny resemblance to Damon Hill) winding up to another lightning-fast yet pointless run down the wing, me almost scoring the best goal of all time (flicking a ball over my head with my heel whilst running and volleying narrowly wide), some unlucky sod kicking the ball onto the roof of the nearby Royal Mail sorting office. Happy days indeed.

'Theresa's Sound World' - Sonic Youth (Ben)

I was stuck in a strange dichotomy when I was a teenager.

My friends at home lived and breathed music. It was something far more important than background noise - it was something to read about, enthuse about, argue about. Everyone bought CDs most weekends, everyone wore sloganned T-shirts with pride, everyone was in a band or wanted to be in a band. It was through evenings and weekends spent sat by stereos in bedrooms ripe with that distinctive, musty teenage boy aroma that I was introduced to Nirvana, Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine, as well as a whole host of dodgy metal bands that grunge mercifully killed off.

And yet at school, 15 miles away, music hardly even seemed to be a topic for conversation, let alone something to obsess about. I knew of one guy in my year who had a precocious fondness for Orange Juice, and another a year or two above me who, when The Wedding Present released a new 7" single every month for the whole of 1992, bought the lot. A third, who knew I liked Smashing Pumpkins, approached me in the Sixth Form Centre one day and sang the chorus to 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings' in my face. But these were isolated cases, isolated incidents.

There was one person in my year, though, who I didn't really know and hadn't ever really considered potential friend material - until, that is, he came into school one day early in 1993 in triumphant possession of a copy of 'Puss'/'Oh, The Guilt', Nirvana's split single with The Jesus Lizard. (He would be off school for a couple of days when Kurt Cobain shot himself just over a year later.)

From that point on, although a real friendship never struck up, I started looking to Steve for guidance, and one Non-Uniform Day (the exciting Friday climax of the annual Charities' Week) I got what turned out to be the best recommendation I've ever had. As my friends from home would no doubt have done, he had taken the opportunity to wear a T-shirt advertising one of his favourite bands: a picture of a candle, hazy and indistinct, and the words "Sonic Youth" and "Daydream Nation".

I'd heard of Sonic Youth, and naively went up to him to ask if they were anything like Nirvana (that being a touchstone I knew we had in common). "Yeah, kind of", he said, "I'll make you a tape if you like". The tape he made wasn't of Daydream Nation itself - that particular delight awaited me a couple of years later - but their most recent album, Dirty.

It was, from start to finish, a revelation. I remember going on a family holiday to Cornwall that summer - which meant a seven hour drive each way - and listening to little else on my Walkman. Of all the songs on the album, once I'd got to grips with the stunning 'Drunken Butterfly', 'Theresa's Sound World' was the one which filled me with the greatest sense of wonder; I marvelled at the way it transformed itself from a somnambulent lullaby into a thrashing, raging crescendo of noise, and then repeated the trick once more to even more awesome effect.

And that was that - I was a confirmed fan. I may not be able to remember much about some of the subjects and some of the teachers, but I won't forget how I learned that particular lesson.

'Girls And Boys' - Blur (drmigs)

School covers a huge period of my life, hence to choose just one song to represent my school days is like saying that the winning song in the Eurovision Song contest is representative of European music (walk away from it drmigs, walk away ...). So this is more a post about how I found my dancing feet, which was an event that happened at school. I say school, more specifically the Sixth Form Ball.

The idea that the event called the Sixth Form Ball was anything nearing a ball is farcical. We didn't have a three course meal followed by some witty and inspiring speeches and then a band or two to which we could strut our pre-matriculationary stuff. This was a far less glorious affair. The Sixth Form Ents Committee would perform a perfunctory trawl of all the hotels in Coventry, and settle on the same cheap and cheerful hotel we went to every year - the one that didn't seem to ask any questions about serving alcohol to 16-year-olds. And tickets were leaked to the good teenagers of Coventry, to increase the likelihood of violence - I mean, to boost profits for the leaving day kitty. I should state here that only 50% of my Sixth Form Balls ended with a bouncer liberally head-butting people who decided to solve the complex issues of teenage relationships through the medium of glassing each other.

And so it was, that with a sense of precaution and excitement, we'd set off to this event in the finest collection of second-hand dinner jackets that the charity shops of Coventry had to offer. OK, I admit that this is a slight misinterpretation of the facts - I did buy a particularly tasteful waistcoat from Topman one year that was brand new. It had autumnal fruit on it - classy.

So, we arrived at the Ball, and the sum total of the entertainment was a DJ who was usually a perfect complement to the surrounding environment. Yes, our Ball was a disco in formal clothing. But we knew nothing else, and we were accepting, nay enthusiastic. The first hour and a half was spent in our secure small groups, with some serious shoe inspection to be done when you went to the bar. Eventually, the girls would start to populate the dancefloor, lured by the DJ playing the cheese card. And then came the awkward bit; the bit when the girls wanted the boys to dance. The bit when the cheesy music was still playing, and you wanted the flattery of a girl to invite you onto the dancefloor, but you really didn't want to go on the dancefloor. Really, really didn't want go on the dancefloor, and be expected to deal with that challenge of how to find the acceptable equilibrium between the pubescent forces of confidence, hormones and coordination, all the while trying to cling on to that 4/4 rhythm.

I should explain here, that I still share some of the sentiments that Stephen Fry expresses in his 'Bored of the Dance' podgram (from 13 minutes 27 seconds onward). I don't mind a ceilidh, there's rules, and as I will go on to describe, I like to dance on my own; but being expected to interact with people at a disco is a demand too far for me, a task that I find neither attractive nor appealing. So maybe it wasn't just an artefact of my age that lead to my awkwardness. Although there did seem to be more people sharing my predicament then, than do now. Hey ho.

So, there I was in that circle of hell that is the school disco. I knew inevitably that I'd have to get onto the dancefloor, or else I'd be dragged up against my will when the dancefloor was finally full and throbbing. My salvation came from the DJ who having gone through cheese, saccharine, and soft rock had finally stumbled on indie. I can't remember what the first couple of tracks were in the indie section, but I finally took to the floor when 'Girls And Boys' by Blur came on. I'd kinda wanted to hit the floor for a song or so, as it seemed like an acceptable window of opportunity. But for whatever reason, this got me onto the floor. And there I was, with the expressed responsibility to ignore everyone else, move to the music and stare at my feet. Here was a style, the dance of the self-conscious indie kid, that I could not only do, but enjoyed doing. I finally found my dancing feet, albeit only for one genre.

What made it sweeter was that those who'd been at their most fluent during the East 17 and 'Grease Mega Mix' sections of the playlist were suddenly lost. What flamboyant and confident gestures could they do to:

"Girls who are boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they're girls / Who do girls like they're boys / Always should be someone you really love"

I just bounced about a bit, stared at my feet a bit, got lost in the music, and finally found some dancefloor freedom. Much like I do now if I ever hit the dancefloor. This 'Girls And Boys' moment, is just one of the many reasons I'm grateful for the collective works of Damon Albarn and Blur. Although, I can't state clearly enough that I don't turn to 'Girls And Boys', or Blur, to remind me of my schooldays. If your schooldays really were the best days of your life, I'd really be in a sorry state today...

'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' - Hefner (Ian)

"No one called, no one wrote, no one even phoned / So no one knew that I was with her on my own"

Oh, please – I wish. When you say "school" I think "undergrad" (five glorious, worry-free years clutched firmly and warmly to the bosom of the university), not high school or grad school, and that was nothing if not years spent belatedly growing up after avoiding the whole relationships thing earlier in life (in my defence: I was an idiot). Whatever else 'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' and by extension Hefner/Darren Hayman was, it was definitely written from the perspective of a functioning if dysfunctional adult who had been around the track enough to develop more interesting problems than unrequited crushes.

"How can she love me, if she doesn't even love the cinema that I love? / What does she feel if she doesn't have the feeling that I have in my fingers, lord! / This joy I have could lift this ceiling from its rafters, but I'm not laughing!"

Getting together isn't the hard part, it's figuring out what you want and what they want (and god forbid you ever have a conversation about that) ... wait, school? How is this about school? Well shit, guys, I have to admit that just as the older and wiser always advised us, it's not classes or papers or grades that stick with me from school. It's the social life, the dating, the drinking, the tangled webs. It's also a certain heedless and unconscious self-importance we all walked around with, so that all of a sudden it's not just important that you like each other and get along; she has to like the films that you like or else why bother? I don't necessarily think it's an aspect of human nature for us to spend our adolescences running around going ME ME ME ME ME all the time without even noticing it, but we're certainly socialized to do so, and to have that phase stretch out into our early and mid-twenties for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford higher education.

Somewhere in there I got a philosophy degree or two (one of the better things I've ever done for myself), and they served me well, but in my mind school is always 4am, sitting at my clunky old PC, playing FreeCell and listening to songs very much like 'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' and atomizing the evening's romantic success or failure, trying to figure out just what exactly I was doing. I identify with Hayman more now than I ever did then for two reasons: first, that I'm more battle-scarred if no less hopeful than I was then, and second that I can hear more clearly the way Hayman stood in relation to the character he played in Hefner that I do to my undergrad self – affectionate towards but unsentimental about what a doofus/prick/self-saboteur/kid that guy could be.

It's pointless to resent or be embarrassed by the person you used to be (if nothing else, isn't a relief to consider that you're now a better, or at least more together, person?) and the only other option is a kind of bemused kindness to the sins and inadequacies we display when growing up. To quote the great Cary Tennis, "as long as you're breaking hearts and not kneecaps you are morally and ethically in the ballpark". Hayman always wrote about his own petty cruelties and failures of understanding with the kind of attitude that made it clear he'd grown enough to recognize them, although he wasn't arrogant enough to think he'd never repeat them. We are schooled, and we learn, but do we ever graduate?

* * * * *

Thanks to Paul, Swiss Toni, Skif, Pete, drmigs and Ian for their contributions this week.

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

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Conceptual Art: The Ex Factor

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

A day later than planned, the second installment of the second new feature. This time it's Lord Bargain's turn to be creative...

* * * * *

It’s Saturday 14th December 2013. It’s ITV, it’s 9pm and it is time for the final results show of 'The Ex Factor'.

In an attempt to make their last few million, Simon Fuller and Louis Walsh came up with the idea of resurrecting the careers of all those stars of the famous and iconic boy and girl bands of the 1990s and early 21st century. Weeks of heats followed as one by one the famous names fell. Bunton, McFadden, Gateley, Stevens and, er, H all bit the dust as they performed one of their own songs and a current hit single.

Last to go in the semi-final earlier this evening was born-again Buddhist Robbie Williams whose energetic performances of 'Could It Be Magic?' and Lady GaGa’s number one Queen cover 'Lady-o Ga-Ga' didn’t do quite enough to secure the public vote.
It’s now time for the final, and the surprise last person to be eliminated was audience favourite Ronan Keating. Expected to reach the final, his off-key attempt at Duffy’s 'Heart Of Stone' cost him key votes.

So, after eight million votes, the final line-up who will go head to head with The Ring-Ring’s 'That’s Not My Sleigh' for Christmas number one will be...

Justin Timberlake

Formed in 1995, NSYNC sold fifty-six million records between 1996 and 2002 including hits like 'Bye Bye Bye', 'It’s Gonna Be Me' and 'Pop'. After the break-up of the band, Timberlake became one of the world’s biggest solo artists and his career only hit the skids after an ill-advised duet and romantic dalliance with the recently sectioned warbler Mariah “potty” Carey.

Timberlake’s regular weekly performances of classic hits like 'Cry Me A River' and 'Lovestoned' reminded the thirty-somethings how much they fancied him in the 2000s. Although his arthritic back prevented him from some of the moves for which he became famous, his boyish looks kept him comfortably in the competition throughout.

Melanie Chisholm

Three of the original Spice Girls line-up made the final stages of the competition. Melanie Rascal was the first to leave the competition (her rap-infused version of 'Spice Up Your Life' didn’t go down well with judges Simon Cowell and Lisa Scott-Lee) whereas a pregnant Emma Bunton made it through the first few weeks before losing a sing-off with her long-time bandmate.

The Spice Girls were, until 2012, the best-selling girl group of all time (now second after the success of The Saturdays). Chisholm also had a successful solo career with albums such as 'Northern Star', 'Reason' and her soundtrack to the 2010 movie 'Liverpool Four'. The former Sporty Spice was in the final two of the show on four occasions but her regular barnstorming performances of hits like '2 Become 1', 'Wannabe' and 'Never Be The Same Again' saved her from an early elimination at the hands of (amongst others) Tony Mortimer and A1’s Ben Adams.

Shane Filan

The original five Westlife members made the heats. Only two made the TV eliminators proper – ex member Bryan “Katona” McFadden and heartthrob and “lead” singer Shane.
It was in March 2011 that Westlife secured their place in pop history as their thirty-third single 'Love Me In The Morning' sold a huge nine hundred copies to became their twentieth number one single. It meant that the fourpiece overtook Elvis and the Beatles to become the most popular act in UK chart history. Further singles 'Too Much Love Will Kill You', 'Please Love Me' and 'Love Forty' have since all reached number one and so their crown as the most successful group of all time is likely to remain for decades.

Now married to ex-Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton, the couple have five-year-old triplets whose ambition is to follow their parents' footsteps to the top of the charts. Already performing at their primary school as West Kitten Juniors, their debut single 'Whole Again Without Wings' reached number three in January 2012.

Jo O’Meara

A surprise public vote, S Club 7 singer O’Meara was originally eliminated in the heat stage until a tragic car crash after the auditions killed Donnie Wahlberg, Mark Owen, Myleene Klass and Sarah Harding. Performing the finest pop single of the early 21st century – 'Don’t Stop Movin’ – every week (in a different style, from country to heavy metal), O’Meara wowed audiences with her unusual covers – everything from Fall Out Boy’s 'When I Look In The Mirror All I See Is Death And You' to Alexandra Burke’s 'Chiquitita'.

Her quarter-final performance where she brought out special guests Bradley McIntosh and Hannah Spearitt was a particular highlight as the three chirped 'Don’t Stop Movin’ in an a cappella style backed by a group of schoolchildren from O’Meara’s home town of Romford.

Gary Barlow

If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop in the 1980s, Gary Barlow has been the undisputed King of Pop since. Responsible for some of the finest pop records in the last twenty years (the likes of 'Shine', 'Back for Good', 'Never Forget', 'Patience', 'Rule The World' and 'Greatest Day') Barlow’s songs have now sold an estimated four hundred million copies with their last album We Are It selling eighty million copies in the UK alone.

A clear favourite from start to finish, Barlow’s only hiccup came in heat five where his decision to perform early Take That hit 'Do What You Like' in the same style as the original (naked and covered in jelly) threatened to undermine his stylish performance of the Snow Patrol/Adele duet 'Chasing Cars On Pavements'.

Barlow has also written the song that is likely to be the twelfth consecutive reality TV Christmas number one – his reworked version of 2008 novelty comedy hit 'The Winner's Song' has been recorded by the quintet already for release on Monday.

* * * * *

Thanks to Lord B for that hellish glimpse into the future. I could have sworn I've heard that Fall Out Boy song.

Next time (Monday 16th February): Pete.