Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Conceptual Art: Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra

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

For the final installment in the series, Skif tells the tale of a chancer riding the wave of an unexpected musical revival...

* * * * *

Jack Collins (known at school as ‘Gip’ due to his constant, and bafflingly elderly, complaining about aching body parts) had been in bands before. In his mid-teens, when he wore his hair long over the eyes but not quite past the neckline (betraying an only recently acquired command over his own hair styling), he had played sagging bass in spirit-over-skill metal band Grunt Leg, playing exclusively in his dad’s garage. A "weekly residency" Jack called it.

Ordinarily, his audience would be his mum (well, for those moments that she happened to be getting a Tupperware box of pre-prepped scones out of the chest freezer), their bemused puppy (who, having being given carte blanche on the name, Jack had christened "Jason Newsted") and three nosepickers from the school youth club, assuming the invite commensurate to popularity.

As he progressed through his teens, twenties and early thirties, he worked through a number of bands, each less "röck" than the last. "Expanded horizons" he called it. Contrariness tended to be the view of the musically different guitarists and singers he discarded like flappy-soled brogues on an almost biannual basis. One vocalist, Tizzo, he couldn’t get rid of quick enough; her Shakira-like grunty stresses sounding like the last air dispelling from a fat bagpiper dying in harness.

You’ll note no mention of drummers, but there was one, Arn, in their monkey-eyebrowed dad rock effort, Desperate Vespa. Arn, however, had a few anxiety issues. So tense was he, you could have stretched his skin over a cake tin and made him his own snare drum. For gigs (by this stage, Jack’s bands had graduated away from the space next to his dad’s oil cans) Arn had to be rolled up in a beach towel and carried behind the drum set, else he’d never have left his dressing room sobs.

Naturally, constant musical shifts did nothing for Arn’s nerves and eventually he left. With all these problems, Jack vowed never to work with a drummer again, rather he would make do and mend with regards his percussion, particular as his interest in electronic music was increasing year-on-year. He went through a succession of drum machines that, as it turned out, he did have to punch the information into more than once.

All the technological problems and unreliable musicians meant that come the end of 2009, Jack felt that he couldn’t put up with the disappointments any longer and that a professional music career was never to be within his grasp after all.

On 31st December, whilst out at a typically depressing New Year’s Eve bash, Jack experienced an epiphany that would change everything. Whilst relieving himself (having consumed rather too much cask ale) he stared down at the urinal bowl and noticed something. There looking up at him was a single hair, specifically a pube like a hiker’s bootlace. It was the kind of thing you’d have to put real effort into growing, rubbing a bit of plant feed into your corduroy cap underflap each night and so on. Looking at that, Jack had his eureka moment, suddenly thinking that his vision just had to grow bigger, more impressive. Sod the three blokes and drum machine gambit - why not have six/twelve/eighteen bodies all creating a big sound, a magnificent, spirited, unexpected sound.

As he had been going through his late grandfather’s 78s recently, in advance of an assault on eBay, Jack had been quite impressed with the skiffle records: The Vipers, Alexis Korner and Bob Cort skiffle groups all skipping with polite energy from the crackle of the spinning shellac. He liked the atmosphere of the records but found these frugal groups with their tea-chest basses and ramshackle set-up a little lean. However he thought if he could get enough bodies, work up the scuzz a bit and add a few keyboards and electronics, he could get wall of sound effect going and bring the skiffle mood into the twenty-first century.

Even better, of course, he still didn’t need a drummer, just a couple of fellas who could fit some thimbles on their fingers and work a washboard like a bad-ass mutha rather than an 1850s mother. Getting together all the players he knew in the local area, he assembled a crew of fifteen players, booked some rehearsal time and a few weekends were spent getting together the sound and the name. With a couple of old school friends on board, his old nickname came back into popular usage and the XV became Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra.

Nine months later and an album, Things We Made And Did, was recorded and self-released, his contacts from previous bands helping with a minor distribution deal. Timing is of the essence in music and Jack had caught the 1950s revival of 2011 spot on, as milk bars sprang up across the nation, replacing boarded up Starbucks and Costas, and the ironing of a shirt re-asserted its importance to the sartorial turn out of young men everywhere.

Universal picked up on that debut LP and re-released it, with a bonus disc compilation of material from all of Gentleman Gip’s previous acts, thus putting Grunt Leg, Desperate Vespa, Bullets Like Nipples, Burnt Orange, Arbitrary Thing & The Juxtaposed Adjective, Lilliput Beast, Imbibe, The King The Cute and Assuage 89 on record together for the first time, much to the pleasure of virtually no one, least of all Jack. The main record however more than made up for it, attracting effusive reviews.

"Entertaining as a cat in a Stetson", said the Independent, "pioneers leading the nu-skiffle scene sweeping Shoreditch and taking on the world" said the NME, while the Daily Telegraph heralded the, err, "return to old fashioned musical values". A follow-up, Songs About Railways And Meeting Girls’ Mothers, was also met with 10 out of 10s and increasing sales.

However, as the band’s success increased, and the demands for long tours came along, the difficulty of spreading the cash fifteen ways, particularly when Jack had written all the songs, started to eat into the pleasure of getting out on the road in a double-decker coach. Tensions started to build, and relations weren’t helped by Heat magazine, which in its typical form (of being as subtle as a port hole in a toilet door) insinuated that the married couple (buglist Linda and washboard wrangler Pete the Taps) in the orchestra had been engaging in extra-curricular bed fun on the different levels of the tour bus simultaneously but unbeknownst to the other.

Before this could come to a head, Jack called time on Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra, issuing a press release ripping apart the interests of the modern media, and defiantly retiring from the music business. He lived as a recluse for years after, creating an enigma for himself that meant the two records continued to sell to connoisseurs and trend-chasers for many subsequent years. Jack had enough money to live in mid-range grandness but instead saw out his time in his by-now deceased parents’ house; the garage left as he liked to remember it, with rusting oil cans and chest freezer intact.

* * * * *

Thanks Skif. "Songs About Railways And Meeting Girls' Mothers", eh? Sounds like an early White Stripes album...

And that's a wrap! If anyone else fancies having a go, drop me a line - depending on interest, the feature could always be resurrected for a second run at some point in the future.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bass! How fast can you go?

Royal Festival Hall Clore Ballroom. 24apr09.

On the first appearance of real live human drummer Alex Thomas, the pre-programmed stuff takes a back seat in the mix. Y’know, for what might simply be termed an electronica show, Squarepusher’s set has much more in common with the hardcore punk of Discharge or Minor Threat, at points even the grindcore of Extreme Noise Terror or The Locust. It is certainly no surprise to learn after witnessing his drum work that Thomas earned his thumper stripes with Coventry death metallers Bolt Thrower.

It is often relentless and uncompromising stuff. It might leave some feeling they’ve been on the end of a sound beating or, more specifically, a sound-beating. Visual too, with the LED screens filling the stage around the players firing, flashing, oscillating and sparking on the command of the music.

photo by crazybobbles

Squarepusher himself, Tom Jenkinson, is a quite unassuming figure to be amongst all this; gently balding, neatly bearded and wearing the kind of black overalls one might choose for storming an embassy; man at SAS if you like.

The room itself with it expanse beyond the main floor and the hefty pillars means the show has a late night festival tent vibe and the room swells with expectation. Opening track Welcome to Europe stutters a bit under the weight of the bass taking over the track. However by the time Hello Meow appears, three tracks in to the eighty-minute set, the combination is ideal and enlivening. It is the real kick-start, only driven further along by the arrival of Thomas within his drum set.

Prior to this, and later in the set, it is just Jenkinson and his bass guitars working with, sometimes pummelling, the sequenced squeaks, synths and breaks. He is a virtuoso player, his fret, fretless and finger work barely comprehendible at his amphetamine canter. No thumb-slap humdrum troubadour he, this is hyper jazz designed to crash into the senses like a juggernaut making short work of a succession of bollards.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Happiness

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

This week's topic: Happiness

'The Nishikado' - Silvery (drmigs)

There are many different types of happiness, and if the forefathers of the English language hadn't been such a starch-collared bunch of scholars, we'd have a better distinction of the multiple types of happiness. Just like the Greeks had four major distinctions of love (agape, eros, philia and storge) and the Welsh have 4603889
distinctions of wet precipitation (I would type them but you'd think my keyboard was broken), English really needs more distinctions for the word happiness.

Slang and street language offer transient alternatives, for instance the happiness of being "made-up" is very different from the happiness of "woot". But turn to the OED and there's just "happiness". So I'm not going to write about my "happy" song, or a song that reminds me of a time of great happiness, I'm going to write about a song that evokes many types of happiness. The song in question is 'The Nishikado' by Silvery, and I'm afraid I'm
going to sink to paraphrasing Enigma to describe the many types of happiness. So...

Happiness Part 1.

Firstly, there's the face value of it. The kooky glam/indie sound and the hypnotically sing-along chorus just picks-up my attention, and tells me to ignore everything until the song is over. Within moments, the shoulders have been recruited, and there's a little bit of hands and arms, a bit of the two left feet, and I've gone. Just taken over by it. And each subsequent playing of the track just gets more involving. It's almost Pavlovian now. I'm transported to a silly euphoria of bad-uncle dancing at a wedding; I'm transcendentally involved with the music, whilst looking like I'm perpetually recreating a Monty Panesar wicket celebration. In all honesty, it's not a good look. But once the chorus starts, damn it, you can't help it, altogether now... "Toshihiro Nishikado, Toshihiro Nishikado, I miss my hero Nishikado, Toshihiro Nishikado". Its ohrworm potential 11. So this is a euphoric silly happiness that I associate with the song. Nothing more and nothing less.

Happiness Part 2.

Next there's the associative happiness. That satisfaction of trying to pin down what this sounds like, even though it is somehow unique, and the resultant memories of times past that such associations generate. There are undeniable links to the likes of Bowie etc, but the real hook for me is the comforting reminiscence to the psychedelic indie sound from the mid-nineties. Particularly the Parklife era of Blur. And so I'm led to the memories of those early forays into the diverse world of music, and the release from the saccharine emotional manipulation of pop. Parklife was very much a transitional album for me, and there is a little bit of Parklife in Silvery's sound. If only the organ...

Happiness Part 3.

Next we're on to the happiness of satisfying the inner geek. The happiness of finding something on your own, exploring it and being satisfied and surprised at the end of it. It's rare for me to discover a band that's had relatively little exposure, buy an album on the strength of one song and then be overwhelmed and infatuated when I play it. I've generally got too bad taste, don't listen to enough new music, or am just too tight to have this experience regularly. I'm certainly confident that this happens to me far less frequently than to most on this site. However, every once in a while I hear a song on an obscure radio show or via an obscure link that makes me impulsively indulge. When it all works out, I get attached to the album like a new favourite T-shirt, and usually get autistically attached to one track in particular. Other example tracks that could demonstrate this are the chillingly sincere 'The Freest Man' by Tilly And The Wall, or the vainly pompous 'Suspicious Character' by The Blood Arm. If you are not familiar with these tracks, I implore you to search them out.

Happiness Part 4.

The happiness of pithy journalism. David Quantick reviewed 'The Nishikado' thusly:

"'The Nishikado' resembles Suede's entire career in three minutes."

Happiness Part 5.

Then there's the scratching-under-the-surface happiness to understand more about a song. Whilst I was more than happy to sing along to "Toshihiro Nishikado, Toshihiro Nishikado, I miss my hero Nishikado, Toshihiro Nishikado", you can't listen to this too many times without wondering "Who the hell was Toshihiro Nishikado?" Turns out he was a computer programmer whose most famous programme was Space Invaders. Sometimes it's the title, or just a throwaway lyric that leads you to Wikipedia to find out more. Other songs in this category are the likes of 'Good Luck Mr Gorsky' by Sleeper, and 'St Swithin's Day' by Billy Bragg. I guess this is more a nerdy type of happiness, the satisfaction of learning and understanding.

Happiness Part 6.

And then there's the happiness of previously forgotten memories, which in this example were brought back by the last sub-category. Ahh, the tabletop Space Invaders in the Trent House in Newcastle. Memories of nipping over for a pint and a game of Space Invaders during an all-day practical, or for a quick one on the way home. Mind you, it was the worst place to start a pub crawl - no one would leave. The Trent House was too good, and the Space Invaders table was one of the many reasons for this. Apparently the table is now broken, but back in the day... fun fun fun.

I could go on, but I think I've well and truly made my point now. It's not my favourite song ever, it's not my happy song, but it is a song that reminds me of happiness, in its many and varied forms.

'Central Reservation' - Beth Orton (Paul)

Trying to pin down a song which I associate with happiness has proved to be something of a challenge. Not because I am a particularly moody so-and-so, but more because as an emotion it's not like I can think back to a night out, or for a song that is inextricably linked with a job or a person. At times I am happy. At times I am not. But every time I am, I don't have one song that plays on my internal jukebox.

But there are songs which make me smile almost without fail. Songs which prompt memories of times when I have been happy, and memories which I savour.

So it's to one of those that I turn.

The song is 'Central Reservation' by Beth Orton. It's a song about a romantic encounter the previous night - "I can still smell you on my fingers, and taste you on my breath" - and it's a really beautiful tune, which perfectly suits Orton's vocal talents.

It reminds me of my wife, and it makes me smile.

Before we were married we regularly used to drive to Newcastle to see my football team/parents (delete as appropriate) and the Beth Orton album was one which regularly accompanied the drive up the M1. We'd pile into our battered Nissan Micra on a Friday night, merrily chomping our way through biscuits, crisps and sweets, before phoning the (now sadly departed) local pizza shop once we got through the Tyne Tunnel.

Along with a couple of other CDs, it was that album which soundtracked numerous Friday night and Sunday afternoon drives (playing through the Micra's tape deck on one of those crappy personal CD car conversion kits).

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - Joy Division (Caskared)

We had worked really hard for months preparing the exhibition and the final push was intense. I had invited my friend and colleague to work with me on the project to make it more fun and to share the load. It had proved to be a good plan as we had over 40 participants, which to do alone is overwhelming. My friend and I had met on our Masters course; we were both from the Midlands and shared a sensibility of buoyant fun underpinned with some meaty discourse. I had been working abroad already for two years by then so had the lay of the land, but had chronic bouts of homesickness. Having my friend over brought some wonderful familiarity to my new home and sharing the work was a joy.

The final few days managing the installation and working with the visiting artists preparing their performances and works led us to working round the clock plus preparing an ambitious yet slim catalogue with an over-worked designer. But it worked!

The opening of the show was a dream when it hit after the hectic behind-the-scenes machinations of cycling across town, picking up the vinyl lettering, finding the right cotton, setting up amps and a lot, lot more. The opening night saw a blinding performance by two artists, also from the Midlands, with their homemade instruments followed by two more DJing from their laptops, alternating tunes from 'The Wicker Man' to woobley electro played out across the decking of the gallery’s yard. We were all exhausted but elated, fizzing with adrenaline, wanting to dance but the track was never quite right, plus no one else at all wanted to dance.

And then, "Love, love will tear us apart, again". Up on our feet, three of us from the Midlands, elated, dancing crazy, not a care for anyone else around us. The song sounded so good, so right, so much from home. For the duration we danced like loons feeling every pulsing moment of baseline, each layer of synthesised sound, singing along as we flailed and span. We revelled in the song’s sheer brilliance and its familiarity, embracing the collective, albeit mini-collective, affection we had for Joy Division all heightened by our own sense of exhaustion and accomplishment. The lyrics carrying the dark to our glee, making us feel all the more knowing as we enjoyed the moment. As the supercool artworldistas might have looked on in derisive disdain, our peripheral vision switched off as we could not hold our excitement in. The fact of that song playing there and then made us three all so happy.

‘The Good People of America’ – The Wanderin’ Allstars vs. The Cuban Boys (Skif)

Songs that remind me of happiness would, by definition, be all the songs that I like. I like ‘em cos they makes my face all full of smile and teef 'n' that. Over the years there’s nothing I’ve liked more than to make compilations, holding on to the tape format far longer than perhaps wise, considering the decrease in the friends with the capability to play them. These compilations haven’t changed anybody’s world or radically altered their musical tastes but the journey’s the thing, and retreading that journey by playing the second copy you made for yourself whilst at it over and over.

It’s like a long holiday slideshow really, more entertaining for those giving the show than those viewing it. The point is that all the songs we like are great and putting all your favourites in one place is bound to be a joyous thrill-ride that you can keep on taking until familiarity breeds if not contempt then, at least, fewer goosebumps than before. There are millions of these I could list here, but the modus here requires a singlet, so let’s see...

Songs that remind you of happiness might equally remind you of being on a dance floor, such as the night of my graduation ball when ATB’s '9PM: ‘Til I Come' came on and I went a little nuts possibly from the euphoria of a well-received karaoke performance.

They might be songs that sounded triumphant at a special gig – for me no Cardiacs gig is complete without 'Big Ship' and its tidal wave coda which has me leaping like a fourteen year old with joy so unconfined it’s got the freedom of every major city and a skeleton key for all the others.

Aside from nights out (which have been covered in this series already), these sounds may bring to mind a special lady (hopefully the current one) and, in this case, I’d be picking 'Your Charms' by Cinerama. Or they might be evocative of your team winning (Showaddywaddy’s 'Under The Moon Of Love' having been turned into Havant & Waterlooville FC’s terrace glory anthem) or of being on a great holiday (a busking skiffle band on Prague’s King Charles Bridge in 2002 performing an astonishing version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown'). All dizzy times, nostalgia for which is stirred by song.

However there are times when the happy comes at home, when a song in your collection can be relied upon to grab you and force you into a smile surer than if it had slashed your cheeks from the corner of your mouth up to your ears. I have this experience with a B-side remix of The Wanderin’ Allstars’ 'The Good People of America', released on the finest-named label in all Christendom, Artists Against Success, also home to the equally joyous MJ Hibbett & The Validators.

Quite simply, 'The Good People Of America' is the most preposterously giddy piece of electronic music I’ve ever heard. It’s off-kilter enough in its original form, even before The Cuban Boys added their patented happy hardcore tweak and heady camp abandon.

As it is it causes ridiculous shapes all over the room which means it counts Colourbox’s 'Official Colourbox World Cup Theme' and the Pilooski remix of Von Südenfed’s 'The Rhinohead' amongst its peers, but 'The Good People Of America' can always be relied upon to cheer me up, and the fact I can think of no one else I know who would see any merit in it whatsoever means it is a pleasure all of my own.

Feel free to add your own "self-gratification" remark at this point but I have no time to countenance your onanistic accusations, as I’ve got a bedroom to leap around.

'Om Namah Shivaya' - Future Pilot AKA (Ian)

It’s hard for me to connect a pop or rock song to happiness, really; songs that already are happy can be good and interesting, but not usually because they put me in a better mood, and it’d be wrong to say that the songs I really love make me happy in a direct sense. There’s something else going on. So of course I resort to a cover, if you can call it that, of one of the most important traditional Sanskrit hymns/mantras relating to the god Shiva. A devotional song in a language I don’t know, for a religion I have only a passing familiarity with (hey, I got 90% in my Indian Philosophy course) – that’s what really makes me happy.

In the expert if under-valued hands of Sushil K. Dade, it sure does. Dade has been around the Glasow indie scene for a long time and has the list of guest stars to prove it, and here, on the lynchpin track from the Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea album (which I can only assume is incredible - it’s impossible to find in Canada/online) he gets Stuart Murdoch of all people to ever-so-gently croon said mantra for about ten minutes. There’s a gorgeous violin part that kind of shades along behind him, and a lush arrangement that flutters in the background, but really it’s about the calm and peace Murdoch effortlessly portrays. It’s one of his best vocal performances, and it sounds like nothing else but a lullabye for the whole world.

In its loving resignation, 'Om Namah Shivaya' (lit. "Om, adoration Shiva") feels a bit like being cupped in a big fluffy blanket and being rocked gently to oblivion. Without a language I understand getting in the way, it hits me in a purely visceral way, and it’s all about the textures of the instruments and Stuart’s voice.

It’s such a benevolent song, in fact, that if I’m in a really bad mood I can’t or won’t listen to it; not because I’m afraid it will cheer me up, but because it feels mean and petty to hear Future Pilot AKA’s take on 'Om Namah Shivaya' without being at least basically open to the feeling of the song. It’s maybe the only track on my computer out of thousands that I feel that way about, and a testament to its beauty and its power. It’s easy enough to find a song that’s trying to make you feel happy – I’m more struck by the way this one seems almost bruised by your cynicism if you’re not.

'Surfin' USA' - Beach Boys (Ben)

Friday 24th June 2005, 9am. The previous day - which felt like the hottest of the year - is very much a distant memory. The heavens opened several hours ago and are not only showing no signs of closing but seem instead to be opening wider still. The Big Fella Upstairs appears to be mightily cheesed off, intent on literally raining down his wrath upon tents, tepees and toilets, fields, farm and festival-goers - upon what is, for this hallowed weekend each year, the most populous settlement in Somerset.

On coming into contact with the ground, baked hard by days of fierce sun, the rainwater forms a clear river that rushes across the grass, sweeping straight through our campsite, soaking a weekend's worth of clothes, destroying tents, carrying a box of wine and a pair of flip-flops off down the hill like a smash-and-grab looter with a TV under his arm.

At the bottom of Pennard Hill the scene is sorrier still - a muddied lagoon, the tips of tents barely breaking the surface, stunned would-be revellers staggering around in disbelief, a handful ignoring the warning sign of the floating Portaloos and wading in in the forlorn hope of retrieving their car keys and money from the canvas Atlantis.

And what consolation on the radio around which we're huddled? Chris Moyles, cocooned warm and dry in a London studio, chuckling about the conditions we're having to endure. The fat cock.

Fast forward two days to Sunday 26th June, 5.47pm. Brian Wilson and his band take to the Pyramid Stage. An enormous roar. "We've brought the Californian weather with us." An even more enormous roar. And then the first bar of music.

About an hour later, in the encore, as the penultimate song, he plays 'Surfin' USA'. The melody of Chuck Berry's 'Sweet Little Sixteen' married to lyrics inspired by popular surfing spots reeled off by Jimmy Bowles, the little brother of Wilson's girlfriend Judy. Of its time, you might think. Perhaps - but, if so, its time has come again.

In the early evening, beneath beautiful blue skies, before a huge crowd grooving, twisting and shouting away, drunk on sunshine and much, much else besides. A huge crowd who, just two days earlier, might have been seriously contemplating surfing as a means of getting around the site. A huge crowd who refused to be phased or disheartened by the weather and ensuing carnage, got stuck in and have survived, made it through to the end.

This is the reward for keeping the faith - and what a reward.

The song which followed it, the last of the set? 'Fun Fun Fun'. Of course.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Paul, Caskared, Skif and Ian for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is sadness. For the sake of symmetry, y'see.

A detailed analysis of the song Down Under by Men At Work (with mild racism towards Australian people)

It's one of the finest songs of its generation, but one that has been sadly ignored by music historians and scholars. Until now...

Traveling in a fried-out combie
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast

The opening to this strange tale. Our narrator it seems is backpacking around Europe in a camper van whilst listening to White Zombie. I would encourage any Australian backpackers not to hang out in red light districts, let alone have breakfast with European prostitutes, particularly if feeling uneasy and unsafe. It's certainly not a good way to spend a gap year and it won't impress on your CV when applying for jobs in the future.

And she said,

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Cant you hear, cant you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Clearly this makes no sense whatsoever. I can perhaps understand why European prostitutes think Australian men plunder, but why would they think Australian women glow? I'm mystified.

The next verse requires a more detailed line by line analysis...

Buying bread from a man in Brussels

OK - Our hero is now in Belgium. He's in a bread shop. A man works there. Although it's not clear a shop is involved, he may have just offered some money to a man on the street for bread. Typical Australian behaviour. So far so good though.

He was six foot four and full of muscles

This is where this particular tale from our Antipodean songsmith hits problems for me.

How about if he was in Ghent, would he have met a man carrying a tent?

If he'd been in Liege, would there been a siege?

I really have no idea what would have occured if he'd been on a day trip twenty miles from Brussels in the town of Geraardsbergen

I said, do you speak-a my language?

I assume he means English, despite the fact that the word speak-a is not in the dictionary as far as I can see. Although presumably if he'd already placed his order he would have already spoken. Unless he did the pointing thing.

He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

Now I'm really starting to not believe this story. An Australian is in Belgium buying a snack from a tall well-toned gentleman. What are the chances of him receiving a sandwich containing some kind of bizarre Australian sandwich paste without even asking for it? Slim I'd say. Unless he was in some kind of Australian themed sandwich bar, which seems possible when the following information below is revealed.

And he said,

I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder
Cant you hear, cant you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

What are the chances of that. The other guy is also Australian. The fact that he chose to wait for a verse and half a chorus to reveal this information to a fellow countryman is kinda rude in my book.

Now the second line clinches it. He's essentially saying. "Yes I'm from your beloved country, Australia, the motherland, famous for men drinking beer and puking up."

Then is starts raining. Of course neither Australian is adequately protected from the weather with a raincoat or wellingtons, so they need to seek shelter.

To conclude, let me say that I don't think this open air Australian themed sandwich bar in Brussels will stay in business much longer. It's a very niche market they are aiming for. In my view, this narrow focus combined with the lack of undercover seating could spell trouble for the future of the cafe. I suggest the owners branch out into more international food, perhaps soups and desserts from around the world. They could also employ more communicative staff who don't sing about sick whilst serving customers.

Lying in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not much to say
I said to the man, are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?

This trip has taken a turn for the worst. He's in India in a crack den. Again, it's not going to look good on the CV mate, why not go and see the Taj Mahal? Someone is trying to make him take more drugs, but then he brags that there are already lot of drugs in Australia.

And he said,

Oh! do you come from a land down under? (oh yeah yeah)
Where women glow and men plunder?
Cant you hear, cant you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

This is getting ridiculous. Our humble narrator is clearly backpacking but surely he can find room in his rucksack for a small waterproof coat or perhaps foldable travel umbrella. Especially if he keeps ending up in thunderstorms. Unless he sold it to buy crack.

And what of the surprised Oh! Perhaps he offered the other guy a vegemite sandwich.


The subject matter of the song Down Under by Men At Work is a clear fabrication and this band have been misleading the public for years.

Quite frankly I'm shocked and outraged by what I have discovered.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Conceptual Art: King Constantine

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

This week's installment finds Mike indulging his youthful fantasies. But don't worry, it's perfectly work-safe - as long as you don't mind the possibility of being caught reading about Rick Wakeman by a colleague...

* * * * *

In my prog-loving pre-pubescence, the concept of a supergroup appealed to me hugely – for what line-up could possibly make better music than a line-up drawn from my favourite musicians, as plucked from the world’s greatest bands? After all, this was an age where the weekly music "inkies" still had separate instrument-based categories in their annual readers’ polls, thus encouraging us to sift and rank our rock virtuosos of the day.

Too young to grasp that the whole might not actually be greater than the sum of its parts, I spent a fair amount of time choosing my dream supergroup line-up – even to the extent of constructing a mini-discography in their honour. And it’s this line-up which I shall attempt to recreate for you now, 35 years after I first scribbled it down.

So it’s welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends... and pray be upstanding for KING CONSTANTINE!

Lead vocals - Daevid Allen (Gong), Dana Gillespie

For sheer surreal invention and playfulness, who could be better than Gong’s founding front man? (Also known as Dingo Virgin, Divided Alien or Bert Camembert, depending on which album sleeve you were reading at the time.) But how was I to know that he was mostly singing about DRUGZ? As far as I knew, the "pot-head pixies" of Planet Gong mythology were just chirpy little fellas with china pots on their heads – and let me tell you, that mythology works just fine on a cartoon level. Perhaps it even works better?

As for Dana Gillespie, who was being managed by Bowie’s production company at the time, I had never actually heard her sing a note – but at the tender and unreconstructed age of 12, I had managed to convince myself that I fancied her something rotten, in her tight, bosomy basque and her saucy fishnets. Again, how was I to know that this was merely an early manifestation of Diva Worship, and that I would grow up to be as gay as a goose?

Lead guitar - Brian May (Queen)

This could so easily have gone the other way – Freddie Mercury on vocals, Gong’s Steve Hillage on guitar – but I preferred the pristine classicism of May to the heavy-duty free-form noodling of Hillage. However, this preference was eventually overturned by Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, whose more overt cock-rock influences struck me as mostly May’s fault, leading Mercury astray from his more florid and whimsical compositions on Queen II. (For as far as I was concerned, Mercury’s 'The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke' was pretty much the pinnacle of all recorded music to date. Yes, I was a singular child.)

Saxophone - Andy Mackay (Roxy Music)

A supergroup without a sax? Unthinkable! Again, there was stiff competition from Gong, in the shape of Didier Malherbe (aka Bloomdido Bad De Grasse) – but Roxy Music’s Mackay was appreciably dishier, and so he got the gig. Oh, I was shaping up to be quite the mercenary little Svengali, in the best Larry Parnes/Brian Epstein/Simon Napier-Bell tradition...

Violin - Peter Knight (Steeleye Span)

King Constantine weren’t about to stint on the arrangements, and so we needed a fiddle player to flesh out the sound. Steeleye Span’s Peter Knight was, in retrospect, one of my finer choices – check some of their darker early material, if you don’t believe me – and in sartorial terms, some of his outfits were way ahead of the prog pack.

Mandolin - Jean-Paul Crocker (Cockney Rebel)

Cockney Rebel barely used electric guitars on their first two albums (The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo), and I barely missed them. By the time that 'Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)' made Number One, Steve Harley had sacked most of the original line-up – Crocker included – and drafted in the session men. It gave him short-term success, but swiftly diminishing returns.

An underrated instrument, your mandolin. But not in King Constantine!

Keyboards and synthesisers - Rick Wakeman (Yes)

An absolute no-brainer, this one – for how could I not give the gig to the Greatest Keyboard Virtuoso Of All Time, Actually It’s Almost Like Classical Music Actually, Mummy I Think Even You Would Like Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Shall I Put It On For You Please?

Bass guitar - Overend Watts (Mott The Hoople)

All hail the mighty Hoople! Chris Squire from Yes was another strong contender for this position, but I wasn’t about to give an unfair advantage to any one group. Well, you could just imagine the power struggles.

Footnote: Last summer, I chanced upon Overend Watts in our village pub, taking a break from a charity walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Somewhat merry at the end of the evening, I found myself trying to curry favour by reciting the names of Mott The Hoople album tracks – only to shrink in shame when my fellow villagers outed me as a Eurovision fan. Separate budget, people!

Drums - Dinky Diamond (Sparks)

Sparks were another favourite band – and since I’d had to give Ron Mael the elbow in favour of Rick Wakeman, their drummer would have to do. Besides, how could you not want a drummer called Dinky Diamond in your line-up?

"Other instruments" - Mike Oldfield

Well, you’ve got to cover every musical eventuality – and I could surely squeeze some tubular bells into a couple of the album tracks, at the very least. Two slightly distorted guitars, anyone? Or how about a quick blast on the Uilleann pipes? Oh, he’d be worth his weight in gold.

Thus recruited, and with the obligatory Roger Dean sleeve art commissioned, recordings could commence for King Constantine’s debut album Lamplight Melodrama, from which the first single 'Nefertiti (So Good To Me)' would be drawn. (I could hum it to you even now, but some things are best left to the imagination.)

A dazzling line-up, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And were we looking at potentially The Greatest Band Of All Time?


* * * * *

Thanks Mike. A mention of Wakeman but no reference to capes or utter preposterousness? Must be a first.

Next time (27th April): Skif.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A night out

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

This week's subject: A night out

'I Wanna Be A Hippy' - Technohead (Paul)

My 17th birthday was, to all intents and purposes, a fairly unspectacular event. It was a Thursday, I went to college in the daytime and had my first driving lesson in the early evening. After that, and partly because I really couldn't be arsed to organise anything, I went to someone else's birthday party in Whitley Bay.

For those of you who don't know, Whitley Bay is the North East's version of Blackpool. For Blackpool's Pleasure Beach, see Whitley Bay's Spanish City (interestingly referred to in a song by Dire Straits, in which they compare a girl to the Spanish City - if that had been me, I'd have punched someone for making that particular comparison, but I digress).

Anyway, Whitley is all neon lighting, cheap vodka trebles, cheesy bars and an incredibly cheesy nightclub in which Friday night should really be known as Grab-A-Granny night.

Anyway, along I went to this birthday party, hooking up with some friends when I got there. It was typical of many of the parties I went to in my Sixth Form. The range of people was reasonably eclectic, brought together by a shared A-Level class with the host (in my case English), at a time when people weren't excluded because of musical taste, but rather everyone was embraced in a raging mass of hormones and shared desire for cheap booze.

So anyway, there I was in a party in a cheesy Whitley bar, chatting to mates who by and large were more inclined towards metal than pop when the Technohead song 'I Wanna Be A Hippy' came on, and my friends all started to headbang to it.

They were joined by a girl who I unrequitedly fancied for most of my Sixth Form years who was very much more into pop, who also headbanged away. I think I might even have joined in (although being an indie kid, I had curtains rather than a pony-tail so the effect was rather less impressive).

I'm not sure entirely that the image would have stayed with me for quite so long save for the fact that after leaving the party I wound up being knocked over and kicked on my way home by some drunken arse who took exception to me for no good reason. A fight which was thankfully curtailed by the intervention of someone I was with before I really took a beating.

That remains the only fight I've ever been in as an adult (although it's not exactly accurate to describe it as a fight, given that it was completely one-sided), and coming as it did on my 17th birthday it's memorable for at least two reasons, and the soundtrack to the memory comes courtesy of Technohead.

'Step On' - Happy Mondays (Pete)

There is always one for everyone. A song which is guaranteed to get you on the dance floor. For my friend Andy, it's Deelite's 'Groove Is In The Heart', for me it's Happy Mondays' 'Step On'.

Berlin, February 2000: I'm introduced one Saturday through a sequence of random locations including an Irish pub, a Nigerian bar and a house party, to my mate Kerstin and in turn through her to the weekly Karrera Klub night on Tuesdays at Sophienclub, a small, intimate venue where the Becks was cold and plentiful, the entry cheap and the music predominately guitar-based.

I'm sure you've noticed before the point when in a club (particularly at an indie night) the first influx of people have arrived and are stubbornly lurking around the edge of the dancefloor (or in this club walking through it to get to the bar) ignoring the DJ's attempts to get them moving. He's increasingly looking anxious and basically needs a pair of idiots to volunteer to be the first to cut some rug. In the case of Sophienclub on a midweek night around 11pm, this would invariably be my flatmate Martin and I.

Suitably refreshed and bored of standing around and waiting for our fashionably late friends to turn up, we would give the nod to Spencer, head to the 'floor with cigarettes between lips and beers in hands and the opening beats of the Mondays' classic would come on. After a few minutes and Martin's spot-on impression of Bez, a few others would warily join us, but Spencer would have by now have breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that more would follow and another Tuesday night's entertainment had begun. Later, plied with beer and with tired legs, we would step out of the club in the early hours of the morning, slowly head towards the night bus stop and search out our respective homes and beds.

This routine established itself soon after my first few visits to the Karrera Klub night and for my first two years in the city it was certainly a regular haunt, especially once I'd established that my employers had a very forgiving attitude to me turning up late on a Wednesday morning.

I didn't attend it as much in my last year in Berlin and when I did I preferred to be the one behind the decks; something that had presumably occurred once Spencer became bored with constantly playing my requests and had instead resorted to handing over the headphones and the keys to his record collection.

Looking back, I don't think I've consistently enjoyed a club night (or indeed club) as much as this place since; sometimes you feel you really belong and 'Step On' at Sophieclub is still a big part of that feeling five years on.

'Over And Over' - Hot Chip (Ian)

I used to go dancing. Well, first, for the longest time I didn’t go dancing (the standard white boy/indie reservations apply), not even listening when my best friend in first year university informed me that the key was that everyone was going to look like idiots so no one was going to take much notice of my individual awkwardness. But I got to grad school and friends wanted to go out dancing on Thursdays at a particular DJ night at one of the downtown bars. And at first it took liberal applications of alcohol at a friend’s apartment prior to the dancing, but as time wore on and it became clear that dancing was something I was at least borderline competent at and also something I loved, it got so that I could slip onto the dancefloor stone cold sober and get right into it.

Not that that was the usual method; we’d get together at a friend’s place, drink a bunch of beer, go to the bar and dance until we were sweaty and sober. When I go dancing, I don’t really fuck around –I’ve been with other friends, after this group of grad students brokeup via graduations, and too many of them want to dance for one song, go smoke a cigarette, go talk to friends, go whatever. Not me, and not the old crew. Sure, you take breaks for the toilet and for new drinks if you’re so inclined, but mostly it’s just hours of going to whatever the DJ gave you. And he was good – some anonymous technosongs I still don’t know, and some indier stuff (to this day I go alittle nuts whenever 'Wolf Like Me' or 'Modern Love' comes on), and even once when the floor wasn’t too full yet and he was willing to indulge me, The Knife’s 'We Share Our Mother’s Health'.

But the song that makes me think the most of those nights out, among the most enjoyable and fondly remembered of my adult life, was the one we only heard out part of the time. I shouldn’t have to explain why Hot Chip’s epochal 'Over And Over' is fun to dance to, but it functioned as more than a highlight of our nights in the bar for us. We usually spent the evening before the Albion at my friend Nate’s apartment, conveniently situated in the same building as my friend Brynna’s place and around the corner, literally a 30 second walk, from my place. Located a mere stumble from the bar, nicely appointed and with a fridge with enough space to store our beer, many a happy evening was spent gearing up there, although I’m sure to those foreign to the rituals of the half dozen or so of us, it just looked like we were boozing and chatting. But we’d all be getting progressively more eager and excited (partly because of Nate’s deft hand with an iTunes playlist, partly due to the booze, partly due to how much we all loved that night), slowly transitioning away from wanting to sit and talk to wanting to get up and move – and then Nate would play 'Over And Over'. And not only would that song, which we all loved, get us moving a little more, after a month or so it was the universal signal for "finish your beer, we’re hitting the dancefloor".

I still have a near Pavlovian response to the song, even above and beyond other Hot Chip songs I loved dancing to. Even if it comes on my computer in the morning as I’m trying to write something, part of my brain starts getting geared up to go out when those chimes and woodblocks start up. By the time the wibbly synthesizer kicks in, I might as well just save and quit the document – it’s bedroom dancing for the next five minutes, at least.

'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine' - The Killers (drmigs)

We were in Toronto, and it had already been a good day. Gordon Greenidge had commentated on me catching out Desmond Haynes in a spot of late morning cricket. We'd had some splendid sushi for lunch, during which the conversation with my wife went along the lines of "... you don't get it do you, I've just caught out Desmond Haynes ... Desmond Haynes!" And then, finally resigned to the fact that my one moment of sporting competence would never be comprehended, we'd headed over to Toronto Island for a spot of frisbee golf. All in all a good day. Tomorrow we were off for four days camping and canoeing in Algonquin National Park, so it would be an early start. Rather excitingly, our instructions were to get the first train of the morning to the most northerly metro station in Toronto, where we would be met by our guide. And Toronto's trains start early in the morning...

So, we weren't really going for a night out. NB For those of you who know me, me not really going for a night out isn't really news. Well, that Horlicks isn't going to drink itself, is it now? Anyway, no, we weren't really going for a night out, more an evening out. I'd been eyeing up a restaurant called East! for a few days now, so tonight we'd eat there before grabbing a cheeky pint at Smokeless Joes, and then to bed - as Pepys might say. And that is very much how the evening panned out. I had a delightful mango, chilli and tiger prawn salad for my main course, a stout at Smokeless Joes and a sleep full of wonder about whether we'd really encounter bears in Algonquin. As it turns out, we did. Oh, and I should also say that that evening we were also serenaded by The Killers and the Black Eyed Peas. Did I forget to say that? Sorry.

In truth, there was a particular reason I had saved up the East! meal for that evening. At 9pm the Much Music awards were going to start, which was to be a street event in the centre of Toronto. I didn't have to do much research to find this out - every third TV advert was for this event. Then there were the posters all over town, and the people handing out flyers. The Much Music awards were a big thing for Much Music; a kind of MTV clone that hadn't quite graduated yet. And they broken the bank for this one, on both of the headliners. We'd seen the stages being erected over the last few days, and they were being erected right opposite East!.

Now, we thought, if we're lucky, the headliners might show their faces or do a soundcheck an hour or so before the show. However, the place would be teeming as show time arrived. So we figured, let's get to East! a couple of hours before show-time and see what there is to see. We got a table, sat down - profuse apologies from the waiters: warnings that we might be disturbed, nothing they can do about it etc. Would we like to come another evening? Assurances from us that it's fine, not to worry. Yes, we realise it will be busy when we finish. No, really it's fine, we'll just take that chance and make do with the compromising circumstances. Bingo. Good food ahead, and we're in prime position should anyone soundcheck. No sooner had we ordered than The Killers came out and soundchecked.

It didn't start too promisingly - they spent quite a while sorting their balance out with the intro to 'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine'. Technically, this was quite interesting to listen to; a tweak of bass here, repeat, more emphasis on vocals there, repeat. But with our free-loading hats on, we'd hoped for a tune. Finally, Brandon and friends were happy. And then, from a whole 20 metres away, they decided to do a run through of a number of songs they were to play later that evening; well, if they didn't play the whole songs, they certainly played goodly chunks. 'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine, check; 'Mr Brightside', check; 'Somebody Told Me', check; 'Andy You're A Star', check; 'All These Things I Have Done', check. OK, so they were holding back a bit, and they weren't playing to the crowd; even though it was already well into three figures. But it definitely beat the piped music from the restaurant stereo.

Once The Killers were done, the Black Eyed Peas came out and soundchecked some songs from their Elephunk album, none of which I could identify for you. Just as the Much Music MC came out and tried to keep the swelling crowd sizzling and warm, our desserts were being finished off. Nicely done. A good meal for about a third of the price it would cost in the UK, a bit of The Killers thrown in for free, and one for the road at the homely Smokeless Joes to come. Yes, I admit, for the pedants amongst you, it may not have been a night out. But it was a bloody good evening...

'Birdhouse In Your Soul' - They Might Be Giants (Skif)

The kitchen cabinets and the shower cubicle are your friends. You can sing at them for hours on end, and they never complain about the racket, nor express mock concern as to the welfare of the bag of cats you appear to be swinging against the wall. It is in these arenas that I have sung many of my favourite songs, every one sounding an ideal harmony and entirely suited to my voice. Perhaps we should allow the fixtures in our homes to be more Simon-Cowell-critical with us as the time to find out that you really can’t sing a particular song really isn’t when you’ve got sixty pairs of irritated and angry eyes fixed upon you.

A recent study in the journal 'Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research' suggested that karaoke is good for both your physical and mental health. Not sure about the physical considering most of the people I’ve seen doing it were only able to do so through having consumed as much "courage" as would easily handicap the entire 16-strong field in a rhino steeplechase.

Mentally, I can vouch for the benefits. I will happily admit that I am a man awkward and inhibited in conversation with those with whom I am not already well acquainted. However, put all them unfamiliars together in a room, give me a mic and a monitor with some words on and then, tonight Matthew, I’ll be Elvis, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey or, on one fateful occasion, Shania Twain.

Ah Shania, Shania, Shania; you might have felt like a woman, but the good people at Southampton Ferryman & Firkin on a Friday evening back in 2001 really didn’t need me to empathise with you in the medium of song, yours or otherwise. As facsimiles go, it was like pencilling around the edge of it through tracing paper so thick you could wall your garden with it, and with an arm in the grip of St Vitus’ Dance. I’d forgotten the melody of the verses, which didn’t help.

Sadly, I was trying to woo a young lady that night and I can report back to the lab that this really isn’t the way to do it. If any young teenagers are reading this then, please, do try this at home and not in a large, packed out pub, particularly the Ferryman & Firkin in Southampton.

That night I vowed much the same as I did when getting lost and almost killed with my family when coming down a peak in the Lake District a different way to that which we came, "always go the way you know"; ergo "take no risks in the karaoke spotlight, sunshine, as you’ll get no lovin’ and make no friends of those who are fond of their ears" or, if you like, "don’t put yourself on the stage, Mr Skiffington". Not with unfamiliar material anyway.

Thus whenever I got the chance to get amongst again, I went with 'Burning Love', 'Love Is The Drug' or 'This Charming Man' - songs I knew I could do, even when sober. That was until a night out with former work colleagues in Liverpool back in 2006 when, after they’d requested an encore of my Smiths number that they’d enjoyed a previous time and which also went well that night, I allowed adrenaline-boosted over-confidence to get the better of me, and I spun the wheel, the arrow eventually coming to rest on ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ by They Might Be Giants.

Like I say, sometimes you don’t realise how much some tunes cycle the lyrics around without time for a sufficient intake of breath, nor how much your vocal range does not mirror that of the stars on 45s. However, one hundred and twenty eyes peering at you through lids pursed in mild agony or mounting odium soon brings such issues into very sharp focus.

'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air' - DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (Caskared)

Deep breath, and, "Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down..."

My sister was getting married. This song encapsulated the night of her hen do - well, the latter stages. It was a Saturday and I had spent all day at work to then drive for three hours to the other side of the country to meet my younger sister and her friends for supper followed by a club. My sister and I are not the types to share friends - we’re a little too far apart in age for that to have happened at school and then we lived on either side of the continent, and now either side of the country, not to mention our chasm of taste, opinions, value systems and all. But we are fiercely protective of one another and since we became adults we giggle on the phone and email banter is a joy, a silly joy. Her friends (my colleagues on the hen do) are even further apart - we don’t even share any blood. Fashionistas, heiresses, the most popular girl in school - it is with a lot of preening and sneering ... not really my type. I was scared as to how to get through the night but I was there for my sister so I would behave and get on with it.

The supper, fine, entertaining even, the girls have mellowed as they’ve aged and so have I. And then we entered the night club. My sister squealed with a repulsed glee. She had dressed in a very short dress, red patent stilettos and short fur coat – think Jamie Lee Curtis in 'Trading Places', plus her friend who had brought a veil. The club’s burly bouncers didn’t mind us, clearly a hen group entering – a cue for a shudder if ever there was one. The floors were sticky, the clientele sloshed, everything gloomy and grubby and the music... I can’t think how to describe its awfulness, but it wasn’t just the cheesy choons veering from Chesney Hawkes’ 'The One And Only' to S Club 7 via 5ive and 2 Unlimited (the DJ’s numerical set) but it was the way he would insist on playing only one minute of each song, to pack everything in so as not to leave anything out by the end of the night. The precious few cheesy songs that came along that I have a soft spot for, they were whipped away soon as we’d picked up on it. It was too loud to speak, so dancing the exasperated dance was the only way to go, the disjointed songs and the disconnected group. And then he started playing theme tunes.

"... now I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the Prince of a town called Bel-Air... dum de de doo de" and we rapped along. We all rapped along, perfectly synchronised with even the high pitched "You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air". The whole room. A hundred people all knew the words perfectly, even as we got towards the end, every word. We were compelled to finish the entire song, conversations had stopped mid-sentence as the song started. My inner snob wanted to sneer, but I couldn’t possibly not chant out the lyrics with everyone else, surprising ourselves that this knowledge was within us. Only the Russian friend of my sister’s looked on bemused, more than bemused, almost terrified at this cultish behaviour because we couldn’t stop right until the end "to settle my throne as the prince of Bel-Air". Even the DJ couldn’t stop this one before its conclusion.

We left at 3am to drive back to the cottage, my sister satisfied that the club had provided everything she wanted for her hen do and that song hit the nail on the head – a fluffy moment of everyone being together through a communal memory and nostalgia.

'Paradise City' - Guns 'N' Roses (Ben)

"We built this city on rock 'n' roll", sang Starship. Presumably the city in question was Rock City.

I've written before on this very site about the place that became a second home during my seven-year stay in Nottingham - and the fact that I'd forgotten about that speaks volumes about the damage it and the two-bottles-for-£2 Saturday night offer has wreaked on my memory...

At the time (April 2006), I lamented "it’s not like it were in my day etc etc" and went on to note that "we’re much happier down in the Rig now, once just the preserve of leather-waistcoated old cock rockers". That much is certainly still true, but you wouldn't catch me making the admission with any shred of sheepishness or shame these days - that was the last vestiges of the sneery teen who laughed at tasselled jackets, cowboy boots and hairspray, preferring the serious and meaningful (and therefore obviously superior) likes of Korn...

While the Main Room is now awash with as much identikit emo and lame metal as the toilets are with bladder-filtered lager, all lapped up by a new generation of the teenage me (yes, I'm now a sneery thirty-something...), the Rig is very definitely where it's at. Main Room staples of ten years ago ('Killing In The Name', 'Alive') now rub shoulders with the likes of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Poison and Guns 'N' Roses.

While a few of the old crowd still live in Nottingham (or have ventured further afield before returning), for most of us visits to Rock City have dwindled down to an annual pilgrimage every November to mark the joint birthday of two of our number. As they both turned 30 last year, it was an even bigger night than normal...

Fresh (and already very refreshed...) from a different birthday bash - a joint 30th and 1st that had gone on all afternoon - we met up with the collective in the Salutation, a favourite of metallers the Midlands over, before making the journey up the hill past Selectadisc to Talbot Street. The evening took on an added dimension in that we had in our midst a handful of Rock City virgins over from Cardiff for the night. You might well point to the fact that en route one was astounded and delighted to discover the Market Square Greggs was still open, and subsequently emerged triumphantly with a grin as wide as his sausage roll was long, as evidence that they're easily impressed. All the same, it's significant that, just as anticipated, they had the time of their lives.

There's something about Rock City that makes you check your inhibitions at the door and shed any thirty-something responsibilities conferred by relationships and jobs like a snake sheds its skin, if only for the time you're within those four walls. Suddenly, it seems, anything goes.

That night, with a whole section of the Rig's dancefloor commandeered by our sizeable group of 20+, some of whose eyes were being opened to a new experience and others who were transported back to a time when making it down the hill to Lenton and home was life's only real worry, there was only really one song for it.

And how to celebrate it?

Why, by a mass attempted breakdance, of course.

Of course, there's no green grass in Rock City - just lots of the mysterious substance referred to as Rock City black, which has ruined many a T-shirt and continues to baffle scientists by proving resistant to all known methods of chemical analysis; the girls aren't all pretty - neither are the blokes, it should be added; and I'm quite sure it's many people's idea of hell.

But, for me, Paradise City it certainly is.

* * * * *

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

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

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Conceptual Art: Plugs!

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

This week it's Caskared, who compensates for Paul's keyboardless wonders of a fortnight ago by including two in her line-up...

* * * * *

Electronic are arguably the definitive synth supergroup who wrote the stunning 'Get The Message' and more back in the day. They consisted members of New Order and The Smiths collaborating with a Pet Shop Boy, a Kraftwerker and more. Electronic’s evil twin could have been Hooky, Morrissey, Chris Lowe and an austere German, but no, those guys just didn't fit the pulsing wave oscillator needed for today. Instead, here is not an evil twin but a younger sibling, and so, I present to you the line up for my ultimate electro synth pop collective: Plugs!

Vocals – Alison Goldfrapp
Dusky, breathy, sweet, twisted, sleazy, warm, cold, detached and more. With Goldfrapp on vocals Plugs! has its fuzzy wonky warm heart (the fuse?) singing through their analogue and digital tracks. At other times her voice comes through as ghost in the machine, an un-person from the other side of the speaker mesh, stuck in the tubes.

Keyboards, bass and production – Alan Wilder
Now, whilst I adore Martin Gore and his songwriting more than anything, I have missed Wilder’s input to the Mode since he split pre-Ultra. Wilder is the one that took Gore’s spare church organ chord demo of 'Enjoy The Silence' and turned it into the most delicious electro. He was also key in Depeche Mode revelling in samples and pioneering sounds in and of the 80s. With plenty of songwriting elsewhere in Plugs!, Wilder is crucial to shape and push the sounds.

Keyboards, guitars, and woobley noodlings – Cian Ciaran, aka the guy from the Super Furry Animals
I last saw him hunched over some twiddly knobs near his keyboard bringing some eclectic high pitched squealing joy to some SFA woozy indie. As a member of Acid Casuals and Wwzz he has an electric indie soul to embellish and build the Plugs! sound.

Drums and sulky rapping vocals – Chicks on Speed
The Chicks sound quite frightening, but in reality they’re lovely and so will be excellent to have around in the studio and on tour for the other members of Plugs! Rather than all of the Chicks programming / improvising drums from shoes or samples, they will fly in whichever Chick is free keeping it true to their rolling system of members. One night it’ll be hi-hats from Tel Aviv, the next a German-American rapping in art-school-bored monotone.

Stylophone and tenori-on – Victoria Hesketh aka Little Boots
Whilst in danger of being over-hyped, Little Boots is flipping amazing. Her songs are beautiful creatures, great melodies and a use of tech and improvising around sound from gadgetry that works beyond novelty.

Token French band member – Sebastien Tellier
Tellier works arpeggios hard.

Animals to appear on graphics - tabby cat and a mirrored flat deer in an airbrushed Bowie glam-era glitter landscape quarry.

Potential duets with: Russell Meal, Laetitia Sadier, Stuart Staples, Jane Birkin, Scroobius Pip, Karl Holmqvist reading Gurtrude Stein, Penfold.

Plugs!: coming to a Tech Noir and red-eye radio slot near you soon.

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Thanks to Caskared.

Next time (Monday 13th April): Mike