Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A job

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

This week's subject: A job

'Science Is Golden' - The Grates (drmigs)

A song about a job... this should be a relatively short post, as let's face it, I've never really had a job. Well, that's not strictly true. I leave the house of a morning, come home at night, get a wage, get a pension and pay National Insurance. But it's not a job job.

Basically, I went to university, and never left. I have changed campuses and whatnot, but over a decade after first entering a uni, I'm still bumbling around the corridors of academia; I'm just wearing a bit more brown these days. OK yes, to say I've not had a job is an exaggeration. I very fortuitously have managed to secure a research scientist job in Birmingham for about three years, and a staff post at a neuroimaging centre. And I do do worky stuff, alongst while burying my head in research.

I was keen to establish my work history, so as to make the point that it's tricky for me to nail down a song that reminds me of a particular job. I kinda feel that my career has been a continuum rather than a clearly punctuated set of epochs. Hence, my associations with different jobs isn't so clear cut, as I've typically been doing very similar jobs, just in different places and with increasing responsibility. That said, I do have a song and a job to write about, so don't worry; this aimless waffle has a purpose, even if the preamble may appear somewhat academic.

So, as I've already said, I was lucky enough to secure a research scientist post in Birmingham for just under three years. Which probably is enough info for most of you on TAON to piece together my contacts. I shared an office with Alison, and played footie with Ben. Somewhat inevitably, music became a topic of conversation. As is abundantly obvious, I'm no muso. I have no musical pedigree, and my learnedness on the matter is almost certainly less than anyone else who posts on here.

But that's immaterial to the fact that I like music. And there are aspects of my work that are infinitely enhanced by a tune or three. For instance, brainwaves are much more easily analysed to a suitable soundtrack. And to me, the idea that you can draft a report or paper without music is ludicrous. It's just kinda necessary. As a result, I listen to quite a few tunes. And whilst at Birmingham, my musical exposure broadened no end.

To try and narrow down one song to that period of time in Birmingham is pointless. There was so much new stuff that I was exposed to, it would be ludicrous to try and catalogue it. However, there is one song that I associate with my work in general that I was introduced to by Alison, and that is 'Science Is Golden' by The Grates.

When you're trudging through data, or doing a repetitive analysis, you need something up-tempo. I like to nod my head and tap my foot, and if I have just enough of a distraction from one source only, I can get in the zone. Otherwise, my train of thought has a habit of being a bit like a Julia fractal set. I find that music like that of The Grates etc is lively enough to keep my grey cells on the straight and narrow.

There is an initial and obvious association with my work as a scientist, and 'Science is Golden', which I don't think I need to labour. Quite naturally, I like the overall sentiment of the song. It starts with the wonderfully confrontational "What's the go with all these new set of rules that you live by? / 'Fraid you might die, watch 'em go by...", and the confrontation continues through to the confident exclamation "I don't know why you lay me out to follow / I don't know why you lay me outside, because / Science is golden! / Science is golden! / Watch yourself, 'cause science is golden!" You can see what it's saying, so I'm not going to analyse the song any further. You can easily do a YouTube jobby, or check out the lyrics yourself. What I want to get across is what this song reminds me of.

It's not just the kind of music that I listen to when I work, it's more than that. One of my current roles is to get across the general field of brain imaging and neuroscience to people new to the field. Every now and then, I'm approached by someone who has an insatiable curiosity for the field; someone with a wide-eyed enthusiasm to learn. And that's fantastic. I love days when this happens. It's great to see that spark of enthusiasm, that questioning imagination; and it's great to be kept on my academic toes. And if there were a soundtrack to these occurrences, well, it would have to be 'Science Is Golden'. The energy and message of the song somehow mirrors the carefree questions that come from the passionate student. And that's the real reason why I associate 'Science Is Golden' with my job. And what a happy association it is.

'Wannabe' - The Spice Girls (Swiss Toni)

For a number of months between finishing university and starting my first "proper" job, I worked behind the counter of the HMV in York. In theory, of course, this was a dream job for a young(-ish) music lover, certainly far superior to any bar or waiting job, coming as it did with a flat 25% discount off everything and first pickings of any sale. Standing behind a counter listening to music and making sneery faces at all the people buying 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'? Sounds brilliant, no? In practice though, it was a bit of a nightmare: the long days were incredibly hard on the legs and we would sometimes be forced to work unpaid overtime when the manager would simply lock us all in the building until the sale was fully put out.

We would get to listen to music all day, it's true, but the fact was that we were forced to listen to the albums that were most likely to sell. All day. On endless repeat. You soon learn to mostly tune it out, phasing in and out and noticing it only as a marker that another hour has passed. It is, however, impossible to completely shut it out, and before long you are anxiously scanning the release schedules to see when the next Now That's What I Call Music album is coming to torment you. We were, at least, spared the hell that is Christmas music. In the run-up to the festive period we mainly listened to the endlessly released Ministry Of Sound-type compilations that were newly released for the Christmas market. We resisted any actual Christmas music until Christmas Eve, and even then we had that off by lunchtime as none of us could bear it for a second longer.

Worst of all, I think, was when we were allowed to listen to an album that we actually liked. Although it was initially a blessed relief to be able to put on OK Computer by Radiohead or Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers, endless repetition will eventually kill something that you love as surely as it will kill something you hate. It was many, many years before I was able to listen to that Radiohead album and really appreciate how good it was, so efficiently had its impact been deadened by repeat listens over the course of a couple of weeks.

There were funny moments too, of course. I still chuckle at the way that we would race across the shopfloor when The Fat Of The Land rolled around to 'Smack My Bitch Up' and we had to desperately hurl ourselves across the counter to prevent such foul language being broadcast across the store... that is, until I taught the store manager how to use the programming functionality on the CD player. I also remember a long, animated and pretty much pointless discussion with a colleague over whether 'Insomnia' by Faithless was a better song than 'Kevin Carter' by the Manics.

What I remember most, though, is the fucking Spice Girls. This was the time when their debut album was out and they were absolutely bloody everywhere. I must have heard that album played over and over again solidly, ten hours a day, for at least a month. An unfortunate legacy of my time in the store is that I am unfortunately able to remember every single word of the whole damn album. I wish it wasn't so, but it is sadly a cross that I will have to bear until my dying day. Every last bloody "Zig-a-zig-ah".

Dream job my arse.

'Strangers In The Night' - Frank Sinatra (Ben)

At university I somehow avoided having to get a term-time job, but it came at a cost – I had to work over the summer holidays, when everyone else seemed to be off interrailing or "finding themselves" by getting fucked off their faces on Thai beaches and on the east coast of Australia. Bitter, moi?

The first two summers I worked at the same place, a local farm centre run by a spectacularly dysfunctional family who never seemed happier than when they were at each other’s throats or pinching pennies. The parents owned it, the son and his wife managed the farm, one daughter ran the shop and the other the café – all of them equally unpleasant.

I was set to work in the café, and I’m still not sure what the worst aspect of the job was.

Being bossed around by a grouchy woman whose arse was, incredibly, nearly as wide as she was tall (seriously, she waddled around like a pyramid on legs, having difficulty fitting through doors)?

Or perhaps having to work with a sweaty, blubbery chef who thought nothing of handling food straight after coming in from a fag break or accidentally dropping a burger on the floor, wiping it on his sleeve and slapping it back in the bun to go out to a customer?

Or was it the customers themselves – who, before the schools broke up, were largely mothers who looked sneeringly down their noses at you as you served up their plate of chips, their adorable offspring less interested in seeing their first sheep than in kicking each other in the shins?

Or clearing up after the kids (which occasionally involved mopping up a slick of spew in the soft play area) or the odd animal that had taken an illicit wander into the café (I once had to be very quick sweeping up after a goat, when one small girl went running triumphantly to her mum with what she thought was a handful of raisins)?

Still, an invaluable learning experience, I guess – one I thing I learned being not to put on a full percolator of coffee and forget to put the glass jug underneath.

Anyway, enough preamble. Those tragicomic months may have played out to a commercial radio soundtrack of the very worst kind – Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ and Madonna’s ‘Beautiful Stranger’ (come to think of it, the chef had worse teeth than Austin Powers) – but thankfully I don’t associate either quite as strongly with the job as ‘Strangers In The Night’.

Each year the farm centre held a summer fair over one weekend in August – not much more than a few small fairground rides and additional activities, but it seemed to draw in the punters all the same. The second year (I think it must have been) I was asked to work on the gates. Even though this meant being cooped up the best part of seven hours in a wooden shed at the entrance collecting money, it was infinitely preferable to another gruelling stint in the kitchen – particularly given that it was a glorious summer’s day.

By mid-afternoon the steady stream of people arriving had stopped, and I was able to sit there, feet up, with the shed door open, looking out over sunlit fields and the wooded valley in the distance beneath a cloudless sky. The music floating hazily over from one of the fairground rides in the paddock wasn’t the usual thumping techno, but a compilation of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits. Sedate and serene, ‘Strangers In The Night’ in particular seemed to suit the moment perfectly, somehow.

Of course the moment was just that – a moment. The serenity didn’t last long, no doubt rudely interrupted by something or someone, but just long enough to be savoured and committed to memory – a memory that will hopefully last longer than the memory of the job itself...

'All I Want For Christmas Is You' - Mariah Carey (Skif)

The girlfriend I spoke of in the last Memories Can’t Wait was, amongst other things, a Mariah Carey fan. I remember being incredulous about this at the time. “How can you”, I hoitily used to put it, “as a student of music, like that (and here I got technical) shit?” An arrogant positioning you’ll agree, and no less annoying than the “that has no musical merit what. so. ever” my old man used to hit me with when disgusted about my musical choices on MTV back in the early- to mid- 90s. Not exactly a man passionate about his music but then, by the same token, who did I think I was?

Why wouldn’t someone studying music enjoy Mariah Carey when said singer makes a habit of hurdling all the notes in her range in every song, looking every bit the hubristic showpony, if a showpony were to have a head that looked like a beige plectrum. Mariah’s music, to my mind, has less soul than a centuries-buried skeletal husk. As discussed last time, me and the first girlf clearly weren’t meant to be together. The differences were insurmountable, the differences in our esteem for Mariah anyway, but that was more than enough.

So how does this relate to a job? Well, my first position after qualifying as a librarian was at an NHS library in Liverpool; a great place with great people. One of them, Nic, was about as polar an opposite to me as you can get, enjoying 'Big Brother', Jeremy Kyle, clubbing and such, but we got on famously. Well, I’d like to think so anyway.

As such I can forgive her for the greatest crime known to ears – making me enjoy Mariah Carey. Well, I say enjoy, it was more an amiable toleration, but still this was progress. Of a sort.

Now you might imagine that listening to an album of Christmas hits in the workplace on a loop might have you wishing for a heroin addict’s used needle to plough deep, DEEP into your temple. Well, put aside that thought and now imagine that you have the same single Christmas song playing over and over and over again.

Then once more.

Last time.

I promise.

I mean it this time.

You know you love it.

No this really will be it.



Hey, you know what we haven’t heard in a while?

There will be some of you that imagine this will have been like being on a water-slide. A water-slide like that one which the mop-haired, boss-eyed fella who conceals a proximity card in his trunks sweeps down in that Barclaycard ad. Only this water-slide is littered along its entire route with turkey guts, monkey entrails and bum product. You’ll imagine it was a long journey of unimaginable horror that shaped me, changed me, that gave me a new appreciation for life once I had come through it all.

Yet, you know, I’m still alive. I’m here, able to tell you about it, so how bad could it have been? Is Mariah really so reprehensible? Isn’t 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' not just a joyous celebration of love and the holiday season?

I grant you, there may have been a Stockholm Syndrome element to all of this.

* * * * *

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

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

Look to the future


It's that time again - when the new year's brightest prospects (as selected and hyped by labels, media types and bloggers alike) roll into town one by one to hawk their wares. By the time February was out last year, the likes of Vampire Weekend, Black Kids and Glasvegas had all paid Oxford a visit. And tonight we've got three of 2009's most hotly tipped bands from across the pond, all of whom have been the subject of the Guardian's New Band Of The Day feature in the last six months, performing together on the same bill.

So, the cream of new talent or just sour, rancid old milk? Without further ado...

Bear Hands hail from Brooklyn (or at least that's where they call home now, perhaps conveniently), so it's no surprise to learn that former tourmates include MGMT and Vampire Weekend. While Dylan Rou's vocals have more than a little of the Robert Smith about them, their vaguely danceable post-punk reminds me of nothing so much as fellow Brooklynites Proton Proton, about whom Sweeping The Nation tipped me off a couple of years back. The bloke earnestly preaching the virtues of MDMA in the bar before the show turns out to be Val Loper, Bear Hands' bassist who also doubles up on a big floor tom to supplement TJ Orscher's already impressive drumming.

But ultimately Rou's appeal to sympathy - the box of 7" singles is very heavy to cart from venue to venue, apparently - fails to sway me, partly because the single in question, 'What A Drag', is a curiously odd choice, by some distance the slowest song of the set and all the poorer for it; partly because the lyrics to the closing song about Vietnam are toe-curlingly bad; and partly because throughout they threaten to explode without ever making good on the promise. Still, paws for thought, you might say...

Originally, Portland's Hockey were due to headline, and it's not hard to see why: they're confident, slick and armed with an arsenal of songs that you can tell instantly will propel them to much, much wider attention before the year's out, by which time all of us here tonight will be mentioning the night we saw them in the insalubrious back room of an Oxford pub.

If I had to pinpoint a problem, though, it'd be that they're absolute wank.

"If James Murphy produced The Strokes", claimed the Guardian. Well, 'Too Fake' certainly sets out like it thinks it's LCD Soundsystem but then launches into a chorus that's pure Killers, while elsewhere their gruesome dollar-sign-eyed funk ("new wave/soul" suggests their MySpace site) is merely Maroon 5 thinly veneered in cool. The nadir? That would be 'I Wanna Be Black', for which frontman Benjamin Grubin tries his hand at rapping.

Bassist Jeremy Reynolds was the person on the receiving end of Loper's pre-gig MDMA evangelism, but, given Reynolds' yellow drainpipe jeans, afro and alternating gurn and pout, it seems as though the Bear Hands man may have been preaching to the converted. Hockey would be hilarious if the prospect of them achieving superstardom at the expense of other far more worthy outfits wasn't so appalling.

Passion Pit prove to be a significant improvement on the band they replaced at the top of the bill (how could they not be?) but are still unconvincing cast in the role of the evening's saviours.

Maybe it's the name - apparently both a porn film and the nickname given to drive-in cinemas where randy teenagers go to play tonsil tennis, but it still does them the disservice of making them sound like a very bad emo band dreamt up by a bunch of 14-year-olds who hang around shopping arcades wearing My Chemical Romance T-shirts and trying their hardest to look bored and serious.

Maybe it's their appearance - I don't generally like my bands to look like the cast of 'American Pie' fronted by Seth Rogen.

Maybe it's the overwrought, histrionic nature of much of the material, or Michael Angelakos' falsetto that's so piercing it simultaneously unnerves the local canine population and keeps glaziers busy ('Skins'-endorsed single 'Sleepyhead' being a case in point).

But, as you'd hope given that they featured in the BBC's Sound Of 2009 list and have been signed by Frenchkiss Records, there is nevertheless plenty to recommend their collegiate synth pop - and more to come, if the quality of the new song for which Angelakos asks permission to play (rather daftly - hardly any of us have heard the Chunks Of Change EP yet) is a reliable indicator. Could have done without his solo encore song about seaweed, mind.

So, on the evidence of tonight's showcase, at least, the forecast for the year in music is patchy - some brighter spells, but the odd serious fucking shitstorm too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Conceptual Art: Keyboardist not required

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

This week, it's Paul's turn at playing svengali...

* * * * *

Sticking with Swiss Toni's svengali approach, and with the music-makers of the last few years lined up against the wall like schoolkids in a playground picking teams, it's time for me to take my pick of the cream of the crop who will stand like a colossus over the musical landscape, intimidating all with their brilliance.

Right, let's start with a frontman. Every successful band, like every successful football team, needs an inspirational leader. Someone who the fans can instantly connect with. I want a character, a strong voice, an inspiration, someone who will inspire a nation. Bono? I hear you shout. No.

I want Tom Jones.

The voice, the staying power, the leathery face, the bedpost which has been reduced to saw dust by excessive notch-cutting.

Behind Tom, penning the songs to which his mighty lungs will give life I need someone who has sufficient ego to hold his own when discussing creative differences, but not such a massive ego that it'll go all Stone Roses and lead to years of delay and an eventual irreconcilable split. Equally, I don't want some egotist smashing his guitar after every show (those things cost money) so out goes Pete Townshend.

I need an axe man I can trust.

I need Noel Gallagher. (More specifically I need Noel Gallagher when he didn't have any money, and when being in a band was all he dreamed about, and when he was at his creative best).

On bass, I want an introvert. I want the tall nerdy kid who is going to spend his life staring at the drummer and picking up the girls which Tom and Noel don't want. I want a man who will let genius flow without stealing the limelight. Every team needs its hod-carriers as well as its artisans, and mine is no different. It's got to be John Deacon.

The only member of Queen to retire with dignity (that is to say, to not appear on a record with 5ive), he saw that the good times were over, and he knew when to quit while he was ahead. When my band eventually goes its separate ways, I don't want the bassist to be appearing on every TV show under the sun trying to cling on to the last remnants of fame. Not for John the delights of a bushtucker trial - he knows when to quit, and more importantly for the purpose of this exercise, he also knows how to play bass.

On drums I want energy, I want enthusiasm, but equally I don't want anyone who thinks they can sing. Seriously, who wants to go to a gig where the flipping drummer is worrying about hitting his harmonies? I want my man worrying about hitting his hi-hat and his snare, with scant regard for his or anyone else's safety.

I need an animal at the back of the stage, with a crazed look in his eye, sweat pouring from him to the point where roadies have to keep a mop to hand to prevent any unfortunate electrical mishaps.

I don't need an animal, I need Animal. The muppet show knew they had a good thing when they saw one, and the day Animal entered their auditions, they knew they had a keeper. Ralph on keyboard may have been a sensitive soul, but Animal's the one with the real spirit of rock 'n' roll coursing through his veins.

So there we go: Tom, Noel, John and Animal.

Hmmm, looking at it, this band clearly needs a little more - they need something to keep the fans going, they need a reason for teenage boys to feel a bit uncomfortable when watching the band perform in the same room as their parents (on TV obviously, not in an intimate gig in their lounge).

So, with that in mind, let's chuck a further vocalist into the mix. One who is prepared to give as good as she gets on the tour bus, and could probably teach most people a thing or two. Ladies and gentleman, there is only one person I can think of to fill that role, and it's Ana Matronic from the Scissor Sisters.

For completeness, and because you can never have enough people on a tour bus, let's add one more to get the crowd going and keep them there. Bringing his own maracas and determined to shake his money maker, Bez will be appearing for all live gigs. Yes, that's right Bez - a living, breathing example of what happened if you didn't listen to the kids from 'Grange Hill'.

What's that - keyboards? If you think any good bands have a someone on keyboard, you can just sod off and think again.

Right, so there we go.

If anyone has any suggestions for names, leave a comment, and I'll pick a winner next week.

* * * * *

Thanks Paul.

Noel Gallagher and Animal in the same band? Surely they HAVE to be called The Muppets?

Next time (Monday 30th March): Caskared

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Made for the chamber

North Sea Radio Orchestra.
Camden Roundhouse FreeDM Studio. 07mar09.

Lovers of the abrasive may not warm to the North Sea Radio Orchestra. Or they might, everyone needs to relax their angles and jut every now and then. I suppose I should use myself as an example. Ordinarily I favour grubby sounds that tweak and jab over the more delicate song writing. Aside from that it’d be fair to say, I am no aficionado of classical music, despite a fondness for a big orchestral sound.

However, give me a chamber ensemble of ten playing sounds that evoke medieval early music as well as Victorian parlour recitals, and I melt. Perhaps because the North Sea Radio Orchestra circle around the family of groups that orbit Cardiacs, m’all-time faves, groups like Shrubbies, Sidi Bou Said, The Monsoon Bassoon, Lake Of Puppies and Stars In Battledress (the latter of whom support tonight, sharing a member in James Larcombe). When I last saw NSRO, at St-Martin-In-The-Fields in 2006, they performed with the North Sea Chorus, containing many members, part and present, of the bands listed above, so in a way it was like watching my own personal super group, whilst sat uncomfortably in a pew.

For this concert there is no North Sea Chorus (and I am sat in a chair), the harmony parts taken by band leader Craig Fortnam, his wife and lead vocalist Sharon, and Dug Parker. Yet the pieces lose none of their power for this downsizing, and Sharon’s solo parts, such as on the William Blake arrangement The Angel and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Every Day Hath Its Night, are equally remarkable as she shapes her mouth widely to surf the longer notes, but without resorting to a bellow.

The North Sea Radio Orchestra make a pleasingly delicate music that might not excite the pulse but that caresses and sweeps, particularly in their longer cycles like Kingstanding and He Gives His Beloved Certain Rhymes (instrumental and vocal pieces respectively), like interlocked dandelion seeds on a placid coastal breeze.

North Sea Radio Orchestra @ MySpace


Monday, March 09, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A partner

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

This week's subject: A partner

'You're Gorgeous' - Babybird (Skif)

Keen as you might be to project your conjoined index and middle fingers in the direction of your glottis upon seeing that title, do read on, as what follows is certainly not a soppy eulogy to big big love. This one’s not about the current incumbent, and thus will contain very little by way of sop.

When we think of our exes, a usually modest squadron of the jiltees and the jilters (well, only the latter in my case), it’s perhaps best for our mental well-being that that memory be combined with a cringe. A deep stomach-stapling, goose-fleshing, "Ye Gods"-exclaiming cringe. That is how I remember my first girlfriend, when I hear ‘You're Gorgeous’ anyway.

The mid-90s, littered with ephemeral dance pop and the Dadrock types keen on parkas and helmet hair that were dragged along in Britpop’s undertow, also had the ability to propel the occasional bedroom popster with grand ideas and articulate execution to brief stardom. There was Jyoti Mishra, better known as White Town, almost inexplicably taking 'Your Woman' to the acme of the tip-top pop charts. In addition, of course, there was Stephen Jones, aka Babybird and, err ... well ... umm ... Scatman John? Like I say, it was occasional.

Babybird’s biggest hit came out in October 1996, reaching #3 and staying in the Fun Forty for nigh on four months. That same October, I began a four year relationship that went on, roughly, three years too long, but that’s easy to say with hindsight. Naturally, in that October, it was all fresh and new – and I don’t just mean that relationship, I mean any. My mid-teens had dragged considerably amidst unrequited love (that admittedly I didn’t bother to communicate other than via the medium of the mixtape), mournful poetry and the music of Morrissey. You like clichés? How d’ya like them clichés?

Also in that October, being my first semester at university, I was given my first assignment as a cub music reporter for the Student Union mag: to go and interview Babybird prior to his red-hot sold-out show at Portsmouth’s wonderful Wedgewood Rooms. The gig took place exactly a week after ‘You're Gorgeous’ had hit the charts, and thus interest was high. As such I had to undertake my interview at the same time as the representative from our university radio station. I would later blag a subsidised trip to a Sheffield student radio conference out of said station despite having little to nil involvement with their output, so I can’t be too bitter about it.

The PURE FM type asked many questions upstairs in the old Wedge dressing rooms, and appeared very relaxed about the whole process, making herself at home and comfortable on the battered old sofa next to Stephen, whilst I perched on the edge of a plastic seat on the other side of the room. I think, all in, I asked two questions. The first I remember not, but given my greenness in the role, it was probably something like "Where do you get your ideas?" or "What’s your favourite dinner?" rather than anything that would penetrate a musician’s soul and have them providing me with an answer that managed to squeeze Genesis P. Orridge, auteur theory and Tom Paine’s 'The Rights Of Man' into the same scholarly sentence.

The other question I asked is the source of my cringe. You have to remember I had been going out with m’then ladyfriend for exactly two weeks, and tonight (revealing here a schoolboy error in terms of timing the amorous pounce, particularly if your student loan has already been earmarked for plentymuch snakebite 'n’ black) was her birthday.

So there I was asking a talk-of-the-nation indie artiste to dedicate a song to my girlfriend, seemingly believing him to be a wedding DJ or a working man’s club bingo caller. It wasn’t as if this was a genius romantic brainwave of mine either, having spent the entire day up to that point being brow-beaten into it by a lady already skilled, in a fuggin’ fortnight for Christ’s sake, in the art of guilt-tweaking manipulation.

Of course, I knew that the song 'You're Gorgeous' itself, whilst perfectly fine for the wooing if you take the chorus and its gentle musical sweep at face value, is actually about a sleazy amateur photographer exploiting a girl desperate for fame. Thus when requesting this favour, even more embarrassing in the presence of the cool radio type, I was pointed in the caveat that "It doesn’t have to be ’You're Gorgeous’ though". Yet come the encore, there he was, dedicating his hit in a Wedgewood Rooms suddenly pin-drop silent save for one teenage girl yelping. Fair play to him, of course, but I can’t help feeling he enjoyed the irony-heaped-upon-irony of it.

So, whenever, I hear that song, I feel that awkwardness, that embarrassment about having to ask against my better judgement and in a situation completely devoid of sweetness or charm, what with having had to be asked over and over again to do it. Young love, eh? Crap, innit?

Besides, I always preferred ‘Too Handsome To Be Homeless’ anyway.

'Fever' - Peggy Lee (drmigs)

I was 19, and in a ridiculously romantic relationship. I was in one university town, and C was in another. We only saw each other at weekends, and so our relationship didn't deal with the mundanities of who should buy the milk on the way home from work, or who should do that miscellaneous bit of washing-up. No, we wrote letters, went to cafes, bought flowers, went to parties; every day was like the first day we'd met. We were well and truly caught up in the throes of young love. If we had been puppets, Richard Curtis would have been the puppeteer. We looked into the sky one night and a shooting star appeared that spanned the whole of the horizon, strangers even stopped us to tell us how happy we looked. This wasn't so much a relationship than a mutual infatuation, which felt as though it was being controlled by fate. No doubt we sickened our respective flatmates to the core.

As you can imagine, the currency of this relationship was overblown romantic gestures. For example, I went away for a weekend to see my family, and when I got back to Newcastle station on Sunday evening, I got off the train with a focus on. If I could get that bus, I'd be home half an hour earlier, and hence, be able to have a longer chat to C on the phone. I headed across the concourse with tunnel vision, only for something to appear in my periphery, and tug on my arm. It was C - she'd come down to Newcastle, and surprised me by waiting to meet me off the train. She'd been there for well over an hour, not knowing when I'd arrive (this was in a world before mobile phones). And just when she thought the plan was destined to backfire, I appeared, and then seemingly threatened to walk straight past her. However, as befitted the relationship, the plan worked to perfection. I was completely taken aback, we got to spend the evening together, and she got the first train in the morning so she didn't miss her Monday morning lecture.

In such a context, it will come as little surprise that eventually there was the inevitable mixtape. C liked her music; she played in both classical quartets and also a signed band. So music was a natural medium through which she expressed her feelings. As befitted the intensity of our times together, we put on the tape in her room, complete with pre-requisite candles and a bottle of wine. We were soon lost in the music, and were carried away with the sentiment. And then it happened - the song that will forever be the song that I shall associate with C began to play. First there were the drums and the double-bass; that was fine. That was perfect, and the clicking fingers too were good. All good intense stuff. An understated cool that spoke to the mood perfectly. I think I even held it together for the lines "Never know how much I loved you / Never know how much I cared", but when the lines "When you put your arms around me / I get a fever that's so hard to bear" came on, the side of my lips began to quiver, and I tried to block the flow of air to the back of my nose. By the time the lyric "You give me fever / When you kiss me / Fever when you hold me tight" was upon us, I'd gone. Gone in uncontrollable fits of laughter. Everything had suddenly become too OTT and quite faintly ridiculous.

This, as you can understand, wasn't the intended response to this song. There was an uncomfortable moment when I was beside myself in stitches, and she was a little uncertain why. But soon she too was swept up by the ridiculously OTT circumstances, and we were both prostrate with laughter for the rest of the song, and more. Halfway through the song we were both listening to it as if we were actors in a Channel 4 sitcom; actors who were meant to be in a moment of passionate sincerity, but couldn't hold it together to get through the scene. Comedy gold for the out-takes track on the DVD, if only this had all occurred in the studio. In the end we pulled ourselves together, and this song soon became "our song". The song we'd play to mock each other when we'd made a romantic gesture too far.

After a few months, we came to that point where the honeymoon was coming to the end, and it turned out that a relationship built upon a series of overly romantic first dates didn't have the substance to maintain it over a long distance. As it came towards the Christmas break we sadly drew a close to our passionate term together. We decided that we couldn't make a long-distance relationship work. Maybe 'Fever' was the perfect metaphor for our fling. An uncontrollable fever, with a sentiment summed up by the way in which the song finishes: "Fever till you sizzle / What a lovely way to burn". And indeed, I'm sure for both of us that our relationship would have slowly fizzled into a pleasing winter memory, had I not fallen in to what was to be a long-term long-distance relationship with a cousin of C's that New Year's Eve. Honestly, I didn't know they were related ...

'Stuck With You' - Huey Lewis & The News (Swiss Toni)

"Oh listen darling! They're playing our song."

Lots of couples have a song; a song that has special resonance for them as a pair; a song that, when they hear it, makes them smile wistfully and perhaps allows them to shut out the world and to share a brief moment together, gazing into each other's eyes. Where these songs come from, I don't know. Perhaps there are rules and guidelines that must be adhered to. Perhaps the majority of couples sit down together in the early days of the relationship and thrash this critical issue out:

"I thought Fugazi darling."
"Hmm. What about 'Too Drunk To Fuck' by The Dead Kennedys?"

Perhaps not.

What I do know is that, although I did get an input into the record that soundtracked our first dance at the wedding ('Fell In Love With A Girl' by The White Stripes), I most certainly did not get to choose the song that has now indelibly become associated with the moment that my wife and I first kissed.

The location itself was bad enough really: the grimy cafe at the Tamworth Services just off the M42 between Birmingham and Nottingham. Not the most auspicious of places for a relationship to start, I agree, and certainly not the first one that you would pick from a list. We had stopped on the way back from a week-long residential training course in the Mendips, and it just sort of happened.


For me it just sort of happened, although my wife tells me that she'd set her sights on this moment from the first time she met me, some eighteen months before. I, naturally, had been completely oblivious to this, and had only started to notice her - to REALLY notice her - a few days before, as we went caving and abseiling and other tasks apparently essential to leadership in a mainly office-based environment.

It was nice, and it was the start of a relationship that has lasted for the best part of a decade so far, and I hope it lasts a good long while yet.

... but if I have one regret, it would be over the song that was playing through the crappy PA system of that service station as we awkwardly kissed for the first time. It's something that I had absolutely zero control over, but also something that I am now completely stuck with as being "our" song.

The song in question?

'Stuck With You' by Huey Lewis & The News.

"We've had some fun, and yes we've had our ups and downs / Been down that rocky road, but here we are, still around / We thought about someone else, but neither one took the bait / We thought about breaking up, but now we know it's much too late / We are bound by all the rest / Like the same phone number / All the same friends / And the same address."

See what I mean?

Happy to be stuck with you? Well, yes. But with the song? Do I have to be stuck with the damn song too?

'It's A Motherfucker' - Eels (Ben)

"It started with a mixx", sang indiepop scamps Los Campesinos! on an early B-side - and so it does for a lot of relationships. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy tries to woo girl by handing her compilation after compilation of obscure and (with hindsight) wildly unfit-for-purpose tracks...

Y'know, things like The Black Heart Procession's sinister single 'A Truth Quietly Told', which still gives her the creeps eight years on; Stephen Malkmus' 'Jenny And The Ess-Dog', with its tale of an ill-fated romance between a young Jenny and an older man; The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'April Skies', which admittedly she does love, but which nevertheless wraps up with the cheery lines "Sun grows cold / Sky gets black / And you broke me up / And now you won't come back / Shaking hand, life is dead / And a broken heart / And a screaming head / Under the April sky"; and, most alarming of all, 'Fixit Girl' from Chris Morris' frankly unsettling Bluejam album.

So, less an exercise in sonic seduction and more a "this is what you're letting yourself in for", then.

But, in amongst them all, a song that hit the nail on the head: 'It's A Motherfucker' from Daisies Of The Galaxy, Eels' finest hour. The slow and deliberate piano refrain and opening couplet - "It's a motherfucker / Being here without ya" - is enough to indicate that it's hardly upbeat and flushed with the optimism of a blossoming romance, but it is heartfelt and possessed of a simple but remarkable emotional resonance. She loved it straight away.

Of course, after a while I had to reveal I'd taken it out of context - E isn't pining for an absent lover at all, as the tape might have seemed to be implying, but for his dead mother, the inspiration for and regular subject of the songs that make up Daisies Of The Galaxy. The fact that the title's a wry joke somehow underscores rather than undermines the poignancy.

There was certainly never any "thrashing out of this critical issue" (cheers ST!) - it just definitely became (and still remains) "our song". In 2003 we had the good fortune to see Eels perform it live in Birmingham, and, as I've said before elsewhere, if we were to get married (which we're not) there would be no doubt as to the choice of song for the first dance. Sod 'Angels' or '(I've Had) The Time Of My Life' - if one couple of our acquaintance could have Morrissey's 'Hairdresser On Fire' playing during their wedding ceremony and another could opt for The Magnetic Fields' 'Strange Powers' (opening lyrics: "On the ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island / Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand") for their first dance, then 'It's A Motherfucker' it would be...

'Putting Out Fires' - The Bluetones (Pete)

Bloody hell. Where do I start? Or rather, who do I start with? You see, for every girl I've seriously fallen for there's been a song (or two) that reminds me of them (I'm using the term partner here in its very loosest sense). Here's a few candidates for you:

'Honeymoon' - Phoenix

'Ruby' - Kaiser Chiefs (frankly, if the only song that reminded me of the girl in question was a Chiefs one it was doomed to fail)

'Out Of Sight' - Spiritualized

'Dirty Epic' - Underworld

'One Night Is Not Enough' - Snow Patrol (a song that has been particularly apt on several occasions).

But for this girl/woman (can some one tell me at what age does either term become inappropriate?), there's a whole album's worth of songs to consider, such as Elbow's 'Newborn', The Courteeners' 'Not Nineteen Forever', the above-mentioned Snow Patrol track, a track off Wild Wood that we listened to on a hotel bed when she was my "plus one" at a mate's wedding. In short, because we've known each other for so long, and have at various times been (just) close friends, then progressed well beyond that and now ... well, frankly neither of us really know what's going on now, so there's more than enough material for a compilation.

I wrote the above a few weeks ago, but now having met up her again earlier this evening, explaining the choice of artist and song is so easy. There was a definite sense of occasion when we saw The Bluetones perform our one of our mutually favourite albums live in its entirety a few months ago and 'Putting Out Fires' is her favourite track on the album. It's a complicated, bittersweet sort of a song, and to some extent that sums up our relationship.

I think I've rewritten this post more than any others so far, probably because I'm not sure entirely how to phrase what I've wanted to say. Instead, I'm going to stop and listen to some music instead, because sometimes (and excuse the mixed metaphor) music scratches the itch better than words can. I think you know what I mean.

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

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

Monday, March 02, 2009

Conceptual Art: The Fantastical Existential Death Experience

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

This week, Swiss Toni shares his vision of a band called The Fantastical Existential Death Experience...

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Bugger talent contests; bugger sticking an advert in the NME and bugger endless auditions... if I have to be a svengali, then we're going to do things the old fashioned way. I'm in charge and the only people who are going to get anywhere near this band are the people that I INVITE to come and play for me. No one will refuse me, obviously. It is such an honour to join this band, that not even death can prevent you taking up the much sought after invitations. Being fictional need not be too much of a hindrance either. I have strict criteria for the people I want in my band - the strictest: every single member is going to have to have done something that has moved me in their musical career. There's going to be no room for just any Tom Waits, Richard Hell or Henry Rollins.

Let's start with the engine room, shall we? Drum and bass: the heart and soul of any good band. In my books, a good drummer can normally be identified by one of two things: the sheer number of drums that he has in his set-up or the way that he joyously sings along to every hit of his drums. In the former category, I take a long look at Iron Maiden's Nico McBrain, who has more drums lined up in front of him than he can possibly have a use for, and in the latter category I instantly think of Cast's Keith O'Neill, the most entertaining drummer I have ever seen, and whose "ba-doom doom bah" vocalisations easily proved more interesting than John Power. Spanning the two categories is Metallica's Lars Ulrich, a drummer who thinks he ought to be the centre of attention at all times, and who has such short arms and such a massive drum kit that he is forced to play with extra long drumsticks. The man I'm going to ask to join the band though is White Denim's James Petralli. On the face of it, Petralli fits neither of my criteria for a good drummer, playing as he does upon a kit so small that it almost looks like a toy, and not noticeably singing along with every hit of his kit. He is, however, without a shadow of a doubt, the best drummer I have ever had the pleasure of watching. White Denim are only a three-piece, but both bassist and guitarist play facing into Petralli and taking their lead from him as they jam and improvise around their own songs. He's a genius and he's in the band.

Bass. The heartbeat of any band. My enduring love of heavy metal throws up a few candidates here: Flea, Les Claypool from Primus and his elastic playing style, Lemmy... because he's Lemmy. Slap bass legend Mark King is probably worth a mention here too, but there is only really one person in it: the son of the owner of a marginally successful telephone sanitization business, a reknowned Shrewsbury Town fan, prize-winning gardener and an afficionado of the strategically placed foil-wrapped cucumber... Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap is in the band.

Keyboards. Hmm. I'm not a massive fan of these in my band, but there are one or two outstanding candidates that are forcing my hand: Clint Boon from the Inspiral Carpets and Jon Lord from Deep Purple. Much though I love 'Saturn 5', at 67 years old, it's the genius hand behind the keyboard solo in 'Fireball' that gets the invite.

Guitar? I'm picking two. On rhythm guitar we have the Bahamian legend that is Joseph Spence. He was called "the folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk", and although his distinctive calypso playing is reason enough to pick him, what really assures him of a place in the pantheon is his bizarre grunting vocal style that makes him a real shoe-in for backing vocals. He's dead, but that's no reason not to include him in the band, eh? Lead guitar goes to Johnny Marr. Every solo record that Morrissey releases makes me realise more and more what genius Marr brought to The Smiths.

Morrissey himself is an obvious candidate for lead vocalist, as are Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash and the air-raid siren wail of Bruce DIckinson. The place goes to the most honeyed bass baritone voice ever to be committed to record, Scott Walker. His journey from boy band idol, through existential crooner and on to meat-slapping avant-garde and borderline unlistenable genius has been well documented, but listening to Walker changed my musical horizons and so the 66-year-old is an essential choice.

So. There we have it. The band is together. James Petralli on drums, Derek Smalls on bass, Jon Lord on keyboards, Joseph Spence on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Johnny Marr on lead and Scott Walker on vocals. That's a young Texan, a dead Bahamian, a 67-year-old in semi-retirement, a 66-year-old perfectionist who doesn't perform live and who releases records at the rate of less than one a decade, a 45-year-old nomadic genius and an entirely fictional character. Some of the songwriting combinations in there are fascinating - can you imagine what a Walker/Marr song might sound like with a driving Hammond organ backing track and Joseph Spence grunting and howling along behind Walker's smoothly tormented baritone? If I was you, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for the concert dates or for a record to appear on the release schedules. The record, if it ever materialised, is certain not to be the least bit commercial.... but I'm in it for the art, man. After all, what kind of svengali is in music purely for the money?




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Thanks to ST. I know exactly what you mean about Morrissey's solo material...

Next time (Monday 16th March): Paul