Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Review: FAC. DANCE: Factory Records 12" Mixes & Rarities 1980-1987

Those forking out huge amounts of money to see The Stone Roses’ reunion shows this Summer might be surprised to learn how unfashionable indie music was in certain quarters during the Eighties. While admitting to a liking for The Chesterfields of The Brilliant Corners was never something to be entered into lightly, even a penchant for the decade’s big hitters was often sneered at – The Smiths, Bunnymen and company were ‘white boy indie’, music for bedroom dwellers (as opposed to Alan McGhee’s later bedwetters) and often played out to sparse audiences.

This was never more the case than in Manchester itself. While the Roses and Mondays have been afforded retrospective credit for firing up The Hacienda, the boom that nonetheless failed to save such a poorly run concern was largely the result of Music of Black Origin – achingly trendy nights like Nude and Hot brought acid house and funk to the masses while Thursday’s Temperance night was a poor third in the hipster canon.

Given that Joy Division were already abandoning the post punk template on tracks such as Isolation, their successor band’s swift embracing of dance music should have come as no surprise. Sure, it was always leavened with a dose of guitar – not least from Mr. Hook himself, but interviews with the foursome have always seen them quick to distance themselves from their indie roots.

As the primary act on a label whose other main assets, A Certain Ratio and the Mondays also owed little to Swell Maps or the Buzzcocks, New Order’s influence in Factory was profound. As a unquestioning fan of the brand, I was quick to lap up anything to do with it – the rectangular cassette boxes drew me in and I was soon investigating every obscure act the label could produce.

Pre-internet, this was always difficult – so the release of a double album of early Factory rarities brought back a few memories. It’s not one for completists – the accent is largely on dance music (Stockholm Monsters do not appear) and all the songs are twelve inches . Also, neither New Order nor the Ratio feature – one suspects more box sets could be in the offing.

The result is a fascinating breakdown of the influences on early Factory from a host of acts which, given they nearly all hailed from the one city, represent a robust musical scene. An array of former punks, purveyors of industrial experimentation and other assorted council house kids and scenesters make up the dramatis personae and if the music seems raw in comparison to post-1987 house and techno, it’s a good overview of how England came to be influenced by the sounds of Detroit, Chicago and New York, while applying its own rain addled spin on things of course.

Several tracks are straight up commercial – Shark Vegas’s Pretenders of Love sees a soul diva wailing over a vaguely New Orderish beat but isn’t that far away from Go West territory, and three tracks from 52nd Street nod vigorously towards The Big Apple. John ‘Jelly Bean Benitez’ remixes the version of Cool as Ice herewith included and Diane Charlemagne (later to provide vocals on Goldie’s Inner City Life) lends vocals to a track that Paul Morley announced as NME Single of the Week on its release.

There are anomalies – The Durutti’s Column’s plaintive fretwork is out of place in a dance compliation, good as it is – but many of the oddities provoke respect at the breadth of the Factory roster – from the Trojan records style dub reggae of X-O-Dus to Blurt’s Beefheartian work-out on Puppeteer; from twelve minutes of minimalist clubby beats on The Hood’s Salvation to Swamp Children’s warbling that recalls a range of acts including The Beatles of Revolution Number 9 and The Slits.

Most rewarding ultimately though are Section 25 – especially on their album opener, Looking from a Hilltop and the curious Royal Family and the Poor, a front for the projections of just one man in Mike Keane and critically berated at the time. John Cooper Clarke lends vocals of a seriously situationist bent to Art on 45 and Motherland contains a breathless vocal croon over low key but luscious synths.

So, it’s a real pot pourri and naivete is very much to the fore – angular skinny white kids attempting to conjure up the spirit of The Paradise Garage while remaining in thrall to Throbbing Gristle doesn’t sound like a great combination, but it largely works and just about every track stands up as a historical timepiece. Congratulations to Strut Records for making it all available.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Film Review: Anyone Can Play Guitar

What constitutes a scene? If Madchester and Merseybeat were defined by a restricted time period, the argument put forward by the makers of Anyone Can Play Guitar that Oxford had an identifiable flowering of talent – enough to define a city – seems unconvincing. A tradition maybe – after all, the bands that made up this grouping operated over a good ten to fifteen year period. Nonetheless, as a Berkshire boy trained to be suspicious of anything from the shadow of the dreaming spires (Joey Beauchamp included) , I was a little cynical on pressing ‘play’ – this despite having recently moved to the city and been talked into purchasing a copy of the DVD by the salesman at the marvellous Truck Store.

Add to that the paucity of the goods on offer. Radiohead? OK – genuinely good. Ride? Decent also – the commercial end of shoegaze they may have been and not a patch on My Bloody Valentine, but in retrospect a clear link between C86 and Britpop with some rattling good wig outs. Talulah Gosh? Vilified at the time for overdoing the tweeness – I liked them but then again I was a saddo. Supergrass? A sugar rush of singles but ultimately a trifle cartoonish. Foals? A ‘haircut band’ as Pitchfork would sniffily define them. As for the others - the acts that form the lion’s share of this documentary – the Candyskins, Swervedriver, The Unbelievable Truth, Rock of Travolta and some band called Dustball whom we were led to believe could have altered the whole course of musical history – footnotes surely.

But the brave attempt to start a record label in Shifty Disco, the establishment of the Zodiac as a premier live venue and club and those mainstays The Wheatsheaf and Jericho Tavern playing the Eric’s/Boardwalk role all provided a focus for Christminster’s disparate musicians to huddle around, and the thesis gradually becomes more convincing as the film continues, lugubriously narrated by Stewart Lee and starring a bevy of talking heads.

The result is a satisfying exploration of twenty years of indie music – a microcosm of the world at large with all the musical styles represented. Ed O’Brien represents Radiohead and there are engaging interviews with Mark Gardener of Ride and Gaz Coombes of the ‘Grass, as well as the movers and shakers from Shifty Disco itself. Sure, there’s no Thom Yorke but the movie ends up navigating the shark infested waters of copyright law rather well – Radiohead’s choicest cuts were presumably too expensive but other classics are present and correct. Fascinating too is the portrait of an eighties and nineties Oxford of a more down at heel tinge – not at the doorstep of the Bodleian I’ll grant you, but along the now suffocatingly gentrified Walton Street in particular.

But even more fascinating are the extra on the DVD with Andy Bell talking regretfully of his decision to allow The Sun to use Hurricane No. 1’s music and Mark Gardener trying to conceal his financial jealousy at his mate ending up in Oasis. Then, the Young Knives are wheeled out for a eye poppingly embarrassing interview – having initially refused to take part in the piece, they had a change of heart and treat us to half an hour of explaining why they are an Ashby-de-la-Zouch band as well as bemoaning the fact that their countryside homes disallowed them from properly exploring the Oxford nightlife – Keith Moon probably wouldn’t have let that stop him.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Magic moments

The Magic Band.
London Scala. 30nov11.
Dublin Button Factory. 02dec11.
Nottingham Rescue Rooms. 07dec11.
Leeds Irish Centre. 08dec11.

What sells the Magic Band as being something more than merely a Captain Beefheart tribute act is the fact that they contain some genuine ‘originals’, people who recorded and played out Don Van Vliet’s music with the man himself at the helm.

The stories around the recording of their most celebrated LP, Trout Mask Replica, where the band were essentially contained within a house under Van Vliet’s sometimes brutal dictatorship for nine months until the complicated sounds were tightly perfected, are sometimes exaggerated, but not by much. Two of the soldiers that went through those productive, but harrowing, POW-like experiences are represented here in the form of bassist Mark Boston (named ‘Rockette Morton’ by Van Vliet) and drummer John French (aka ‘Drumbo’).

With Van Vliet not only retired from the music business since 1982, but also departing this mortal coil in December of last year, you have a team without their captain, but with French as the most ‘loyal’ Magic Band member (in terms of albums recorded and tours undertaken, and the man often charged with turning Van Vliet’s unorthodox creativity into a readable musical ‘score’), it is appropriate that he should fill those big shoes.

Thankfully, French is an excellent blues singer in his own right, taking his cue from Van Vliet in much the same way as Van Vliet did from Howlin’ Wolf. Whilst he hasn’t got quite the same range, the growl is as hearty as you need to capture the essence of what watching Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band live must have been all about.

I was four years old when Beefheart retired and as such relish any opportunity to witness what is as close to the real thing as you could get. Okay so previous ‘Magic Band’ tours have seen a full complement of former colleagues in the Beefheart line-ups (Gary Lucas and Robert Williams no longer being involved), and are now augmented by drummer Craig Bunch and guitarist Erik Klerks, the latter of which was just one when the last Beefheart album was released, but with French, Boston and Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Whalley still in place, ‘experienced’ hands still remain on the tiller.

John French reported two years ago that there would be no further Magic Band tours as it was just too complicated to generate sufficient interest from promoters. However, a calling to play at another All Tomorrow’s Parties event has meant a return to touring action. However, with the prospect that the curtain may come down again at any point, I was determined to make the most of this seven date tour, arranging to attend four.

One thing you notice when witnessing the same set four times in eight days is that the highlights will not always be the same. In London, When It Blows It Stacks was of most significance as it marked the point the band settled into their rhythm. Prior to that, for the first twenty minutes, they looked very much like a band who hadn’t played on stage together for a good couple of years, and were undergoing some first night nerves. After that hurdle was overcome however, we were treated to nigh on a further two hours of Beefheart music played beautifully.

The roar after Big Eyed Beans From Venus closed the set, well after curfew, was testament to the excitement with which this return to the stage was being met. Naughty boys that they are though, as French attempted to meet the demands for an encore with an un-set-listed version of the a capella piece Orange Claw Hammer, the plug was pulled on the amplification. Does what is essentially a spoken word piece actually count as breaking the terms of the live music license?

It was over to Ireland for the second date of the tour, and here Clear Spot was raising its head above the parapet, whilst it was also becoming clear that while the start of the set was now coming out with requisite confidence, Steal Softly Through Snow might not be the most effective set opener, even if it does set up some of the more intricate playing that we can come to expect later on.

Whilst tunes like Click Clack are in the set for fans of the bluesier end of the material (French: “they say you’re not a blues band unless you got a train song”), there is also Hair Pie and Smithsonian Institute Blues for those keener on the jagged psychedelia side. Midway through the set, during a winding coda to Kandy Korn, French takes over the drum-stool for an instrumental set. Rather than being half an hour for the musos, for me this is one of the most exciting parts. After all, if you’ve paid, partly, to see ‘Drumbo’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘senior’ drummer, you want to see him, well, drum. In the midst of this is a solo which might be viewed as indulgent but actually fits perfectly between On Tomorrow and Alice In Blunderland. French’s drum stool slot ends with My Human Gets Me Blues which in combination with the subsequent Suction Prints would probably be my favourite part of the set, taken over all four nights. Two pieces which fly off in odd directions and go atonal to a certain degree and yet make the feet twitch. Who says you can’t dance to Beefheart? This is the finest dance music ever made.

In Nottingham, the band added Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning to the set to pay tribute to Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who had died earlier that week; their anecdotes about meeting him touchingly showing that, at heart, they were as much giddy fanboys as those of us turned out to watch them.

On the final night of the tour, in Leeds, French admitted to pulling on the glottal reserves after a heavy personal workload on stage over the course of the jaunt, but the on stage energy did not lapse. Taking place in a working mens club style venue with Christmas decorations obliterating the ceiling, and festive trees upon the stage, the atmosphere took on an added sense of celebration. Here, Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man took on highlight duties, possibly helped by the fact that more ladies were evidence in the audience, and indeed down the front in Drumbo’s eyeline, than at any other show.

Further quality moments were ones we’ve come to expect from a Magic Band set: Floppy Boot Stomp heaving into view like a Fiat Punto through a front room window; Circumstances taking cheeky liberties with two false endings but also taking no prisoners with the force of the inhale/exhale harmonica; Electricity which isn’t hurried, allowed to ebb and pulse tantrically, elongated as though it is suddenly a new age club anthem, and finally Big Eyed Beans From Venus where Denny Whalley’s lunar note floats with a similar sense of forthcoming ‘release’.

So, was it worth seeing them so often in the space of just over a week? Without doubt, as Beefheartian sounds are always ones which reward repeated listening, and the Magic Band perform that material with a real gusto, making it come alive in a way that records can only suggest.