Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: K

K is for...

… Keith (Jez)

Ahhh, the birth of a boy, the chance to continue the family line. But what do you call the little blighter? Well, the current method seems to be to use as little imagination as possible and name the tiny beast after whoever seems to be enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. Last year it was probably Leonardo, before that, Brad and so on. Some employ other techniques. Attempting to visualise their sprog as a famous musician twenty years down the line they stick on an exotic moniker. I can’t think of any at the moment but I am just saving my brain from heating to the temperature to hard-boiled eggs. I know one name that it wouldn’t be though – Keith.

Sixty-odd years ago though things were very, very different. If someone says Keith to me now I think of that one in ‘Eastenders’, or every bloke on his own in the pub – ever. Even me. But then, whenever any young Keith who had just developed the ability to speak was asked what they wanted to be, well, it was obvious: a drug addicted, solo loving, chick shagging, TV throwing, fully fledged rock star.

Take a look:
Relf (Yardbirds)
Reid (Procul Harem)
Emerson (ELP and loads of other bollocks)
The first singer in Pink Floyd was a Keith. He was replaced by Syd Barrett and guess what his middle name was.

There are four years between this lot.

Does anyone know if there was a Keith that inspired the naming of this bunch? Surely not Penelope.

… Kentish Town Forum (Pete)

I'll keep this short. Mainly because it doesn't need to be long and otherwise you'd be getting a 400 word post on Kula Shaker…wait! Come back! In any case, I'm saving that post for M (is for Crispin Mills)… only joking.

I think everyone who has been to at least a few gigs has a favourite venue. Although I've been to a few memorable nights out during years abroad, the Forum in Kentish Town (or the Town & Country Club as it used to be) has been venue for quite a few of my stand-out gigs in the UK. It's been a while since I was there; Lemon Jelly back in 2003 was probably the last time. The night itself was enjoyable, although the memory that really sticks out is the 15 minute bingo game before the main act overseen by the Grim Reaper (or perhaps just a man dressed in a black-hooded cape with a scythe).

So why a favourite venue? Well, it's small enough to provide an intimate atmosphere (compared to the Brixton Academy), but big enough to not to feel cramped as the Astoria. Waiting time at the bar usually isn't too long and the quality of bootleg merchandise outside is above average at worst. The bouncers are generally restrained enough to tolerate a bit of crowd-surfing (or at least they were during Supergrass in the autumn of 1999). It also has a balcony, something that always adds to the atmosphere, although it can be more than a little unnerving when you're down the front and the balcony is swaying beneath your feet as it did at the end of the Bluetones gig in 1998.

Looking back, I don't think I've ever seen a bad gig there so. I've seen one or two indifferent performances, but nothing that I could actually describe as bad (Ash at Brixton 2002 or The Coral at the Empire in 2002). So long may its charmed existence continue.

By the way, Kula Shaker are reforming. I'm not joking now.

… Kevin Keegan (Paul)

Well taking a massive liberty, K is actually for footballers and their influence on music.

Kevin Keegan, Glen Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Ian Wright, Paul Gascoigne – all have tried to launch pop careers and all have failed. Generally (and in truth fairly obviously) this is because their talents lie on a football pitch rather than in a recording studio.

Now a record buying public which gladly hands out money to get the Crazy Frog to number one and keep it there for a bloody long time clearly has a sense of humour, but even the masses weren't convinced by the likes of ‘Diamond Lights’ or ‘Fog On The Tyne’.

On a broader level, songs about specific teams have tended to perform slightly better, although teams who've recorded cup final songs have certainly had a mixed response. For every ‘Anfield Rap’ or ‘Ossie's Dream’ there are a thousand songs that mercifully vanished without a trace.

Watching Newcastle United at the 1998 FA Cup final I was astounded to hear some terrible dirge by Sting being played over the Wembley tannoy which apparently was our Cup song. I'd never heard it before, and I've never heard it since, and with it lie hundreds of other Cup songs which were bought by tens of people at the time of their release.

The only lasting success seems to come from songs for national teams. Probably this is because the pool of those prepared to buy the record is significantly deeper – ‘Cheer Up Peter Reid’ may have been the best-selling record in Sunderland a few years ago, but the likelihood of it selling any copies ten miles up the road, let alone elsewhere in the country was remote.

Comparatively, even pretty rubbish records that relate to national sides stand a chance of selling copies in the build-up to a World Cup.

In the unlikely event that a decent song is released, then it has the chance to achieve immortality – wheeled out at every opportunity simply because it stands out as the wheat amongst the chaff, and repeated at subsequent tournaments in the place of whatever the latest official record might be.

In World Cup year it's probable that you'll hear ‘World In Motion’ by New Order, or the 1996 version of ‘Three Lions’ by Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds more often than ‘We're On The Ball’ by Ant & Dec or whatever this year’s official record happens to be.

Football's influence on music in a positive manner may have been limited, but when a good one comes along it sticks around for a long time.

Those of you, like me, who revel in such records should always be thankful that of the five footballers who turned up for the ‘World In Motion’ recording session one of them was John Barnes. Despite my love of him as a footballer, it's fair to say the record wouldn't have been half as good if it had featured the dulcet sounds of Peter Beardsley rapping.

... Killing Joke (Skif)

Formed in Notting Hill in 1979, after Paul Ferguson and Jazz Coleman placed an ad in the Melody Maker reading “Want to be part of the Killing Joke? Total publicity, total anonymity, total exposure”, Killing Joke are certainly one of the most intriguing acts to survive, just, from the post-punk era. They have overcome several interesting and trying periods. The press backlash toward their commercially most successful LP Revelations; several acrimonious break-ups; Jazz Coleman quitting the band and going to ground in Iceland in 1983, fearing a worldwide apocalypse; as well as his solo work and time as composer-in-residence with the New Zealand String Quartet.

Seemingly resurgent at the beginning of each decade, they have raised the bar for themselves and others at various points of their fascinating career. Their music has rarely stood still and to experience one “OH!” of Jazz Coleman’s grazed, glottal bark, is to experience life itself. It is a call to action, a call to dance. A ‘Wardance’.

I got my first taste of it thanks to my teenage love of metal and my subsequent subscription to Kerrang!. After being a naysayer to the ways of rock, I was eventually sucked deep in via Metallica, and thus I explored through the glossy tome of rock. The features on Killing Joke were intriguing, Jazz Coleman in his shamanistic outfit and war-paint that made him look like a kind of hybrid of a hobgoblin and a sinister death-bunny. So I checked out Millennium, and it opened up a world beyond the confines of metal’s anti-social grunt. What a record: Geordie Walker’s classic guitar riffs that applied to a deft touch to the heavy; Youth’s electro-ambient underscore, and that voice, Coleman in full command.

The follow-up Democracy wasn’t quite as good, but I remember they had a tour booked and they would visit the 400-capacity Wedgewood Rooms. Myself and others were giddy with excitement at this, only to be dashed by a postponement that, as yet, has not been officially cancelled, but ten years on, I guess I should put hopes of a rearrangement to bed. It took me seven and half years to finally see them live when they made their comeback in 2003. Killing Joke was a decent LP, but more straight with its guitars.

Along with Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke bridged a gap between post-punk and those still thirsty for harder guitars and a cynical outlook. They were keen to experiment with synths and gradually more and more electronics. Millennium was the peak of this development, the LP finishing with the dramatic, inspiring ‘Mathematics Of Chaos’ that makes me tingle just to think of it.

They may not be quite as glorious now, but they are still one of the most important and inventive hard-edged bands this country has produced, and can still startle on the live stage.

… Kim Gordon (Ben)

(I know I’ve touched on them already, but you were going to get a whole post about Sonic Youth at some point – and here it is.)

There are many reasons to love Sonic Youth, and Kim Gordon is just one of them.

The daughter of a UCLA sociology professor, Kim Gordon moved to New York from California in the late 1970s. She was an art graduate rather than a musician, and when she first arrived she began curating gallery shows. Before long, though, she’d become so enamoured with the city’s fertile music scene that she felt compelled to get involved in producing rather than simply consuming. While playing with a band called CKM she was introduced to Thurston Moore, the chemistry was instant and after a few false starts (Male Bonding, Red Milk, The Arcadians) Sonic Youth were formed.

It was a marriage made in heaven. Moore, goofy and wild, was fascinated by punk rock and the nascent hardcore movement, while still harbouring a love of Alice Cooper and Kiss from childhood. Gordon brought a love of improvisational jazz and modern pop art to the table. Meanwhile, guitarist Lee Ranaldo had played with avant-garde guitar noise composer Glenn Branca. And this collision of “high-brow” and “low-brow” took place in the creative cauldron that was New York – a city that had inspired The Velvet Underground and more recently Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television and the no wave bands such as Teenage Jesus & The Jerks collected together on the seminal Eno-produced ‘No New York’ EP. Magic was bound to happen, and it did. A quarter of a century on, and they’re still with us.

Gordon’s distinctive vocal style may be something of an acquired taste, and her dicking about with a trumpet at All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2000 tested even my patience, but her contribution to Sonic Youth has been immense. Perhaps most significant is the political and polemical edge she has given them. Despite her reluctance to be labelled a card-carrying feminist, Gordon has written sharply about sexual harrassment and the objectification of women (‘Swimsuit Issue’) and sensitively about the awkwardness of female adolescence (‘Little Trouble Girl’). She is firmly in control of her sexuality, which is understated and assured but never flaunted or exploited cheaply. And that, inevitably, is part of her allure. Women – and particularly mothers approaching fifty – remain marginalised in the macho male-centred world of rock ‘n’ roll. She has refused to play boys’ games, instead showing it can be done on her own terms without compromise, and as such has proved an enormously influential role model.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gordon is consistently fascinated by female musical icons and their manipulation by or of the media. Her mid-80s obsession with the current Mrs Ritchie led to a song called ‘Madonna, Sean And Me’ and the offshoot Ciccone Youth cover of ‘Into The Groove(y)’; ‘Tunic (Song For Karen)’, on 1990’s major label debut Goo, was her homage to Karen Carpenter, and the band also covered ‘Superstar’ on the If I Were A Carpenter tribute album (“like Darth Vader on helium”, according to one unimpressed Amazon reviewer); and troubled self-obsessed diva Mariah Carey inspired ‘Kim Gordon And The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream’ on 2004’s Sonic Nurse (the song was originally titled ‘Mariah Carey…’ but was changed following threats of legal action).

Gordon has had other musical flings along the way: she’s played with Lydia Lunch, vocalist on ‘Youth classic ‘Death Valley ‘69’, under the name Harry Crews; she’s been a part of The Lucky Sperms and The Supreme Indifference; and in 1992 she formed side-project Free Kitten along with Julie Cafritz (ex Pussy Galore), Mark Ibold (Pavement) and Yoshimi (of Boredoms, and, yes, that Flaming Lips song). As someone with a voracious appetite for all aspects of the arts, it’s unsurprising that playing music hasn’t been the extent of her ambitions: she directed the video for The Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’, set up her own clothing label X-Girl and last year appeared in the Gus Van Sant film about close friend Kurt Cobain, ‘Last Days’.

But it’s as a member of Sonic Youth that she is rightly most well known. I’ve seen them live five times now, the most recent two years ago, and there’s been precious little more memorable than the sight of Kim Gordon, freed from the constraints of having to play bass, prowling the Brixton Academy stage in high heels performing ‘Pacific Coast Highway’, her song about a serial killer picking up a female hitchhiker: “Come on get in the car / Let’s go for a ride somewhere / I won't hurt you as much as you hurt me”…

Kill Your Idols? Little did they know they’d become idols themselves.

… Nat ‘King’ Cole (Del)

There are plenty of Kings in the world of music. Kings Of Leon, for instance. The Kingsmen. Kings Of Convenience. King Of Woolworths. Kingmaker. And, of course, Elvis Aaron Presley: The King. But my vote goes for my Grandfather's favourite singer: Nat 'King' Cole.

For me, he is *the* voice. The greatest. Greater than Elvis. Greater than Bing, Frank, Aretha, John and Paul, everyone. One of those artists whose legacy is so huge, it's almost impossible to make out in the up close and personal noise of pop culture. But pull out and it's there, part of the very contours of the pop landscape. Ask the average person for their favourite Nat 'King' Cole and they'd struggle. But then play even a snippet of 'Let's Face The Music And Dance', 'On The Street Where You Live', 'Unforgettable' or the sheer romantic perfection of 'When I Fall In Love' and their face will light up. Who could resist? The horns, the strings, but more than that, the voice. The voice that no string of superlatives can describe. “Velvet” seems too rough, “smooth” too coarse. It's simply unique.

Many of the arrangements complement the voice so perfectly, it's as if they were crafted in heaven, not a recording studio. 'Let There Be Love' is just perfect whimsical fun. A piano line so cheeky, you can hear the smile in his voice as he reacts to it. 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' is a song you can't help but submit to, muted brass chasing away any disaster! What came first: the saying or the lyric? It's inseparable. But my personal favourite has to be 'Autumn Leaves'. Melancholic strings circling around his vocal brilliance, lamenting a lost love. My favourite season, and predictably miserable. All topped off with the voice. The voice, the voice!

"But most of all, please, let there be love..."

Ladies and Gentleman, the King.

... Kula Shaker Kings of Leon (Swiss Toni)

You really couldn’t make up Kings of Leon, and I’m not sure that anybody would believe you even if you tried. For the record though, let it be stated that Kings of Leon consist of three brothers (Jared, Caleb and Nathan) and their cousin Matthew (with their other cousin, Nacho accompanying them on tour as their technician). The brothers are the sons of an alcoholic, itinerant Pentecostal preacher, and they apparently grew up roaming the Southern States of the USA, spreading the gospel and living out of a car.

No. I’m not sure I believe it either.

They come from a long tradition of Southern rock bands, and if you were being harsh, you could probably describe them as little more than a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Allman Brothers covers band. They certainly look a lot like they stepped out of the 1970s, with their flared jeans, tight T-shirts and flowing hair. Sadly, some of the more ridiculous facial hair from their debut album (Youth & Young Manhood) has now gone, but they all still sport fairly silly haircuts, and Nathan the drummer is hanging onto his straggly beard for dear life (apparently it’s a hit with the ladies, so maybe he’s reluctant to get rid of it for fear of losing his powers).

They’re sometimes called “the Southern Strokes” by lazy journalists looking to categorise them, but for my money they’ve always been better than that insubstantial bunch of New York poseurs. Unlike The Strokes, Kings of Leon look like the kind of band who aren’t afraid to get a good sweat on when they rock out in front of a baying crowd, and you have to love them for that.

I’d love to tell you what the songs are about, but I’m afraid I can’t understand a word that Caleb Followill is singing, except that he sounds as though he in great pain. What I do know though is that they rock a fat one and are absolutely exceptional live – their gig at Nottingham Rock City in December 2004 being a dead cert for my notional list of all-time Top Five gigs…

… actually, now I start to think of it, much of the second album (Aha Shake Heartbreak) is about life on the road, groupies and all, so perhaps I could hazard a guess to the meaning of ‘Pistol Of Fire’…?

Perhaps better not to dwell on that thought though, eh?

… The Kinks (drmigs)

To achieve clarity in anything is an achievement. Whatever your art form, and whatever your profession, if you can make point or argument clearly and accessibly, then you've done your job well. And it is clarity, amongst many other features, that defines the songs of The Kinks.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that all songs must have a descriptive narrative. Far from it. What I'm saying is that art has to say something. Some music works because it communicates the angst and uncomfortable-ness of the emotions that it is trying to portray (were back in Radiohead 'Creep' territory here), and with such songs the clarity comes through the reproduction of angst in the song. The clarity in The Kinks songs also relates to the ease with which you can empathise with what they are singing about.

The Kinks songs follow the principle: “Do all that you need to do, and no more”. Typically, this consists of well-crafted lyrics over simple melodies. And this works because it complements their subject matter; songs of affectionate fondness towards innocent and happy times. Indeed, it is no coincidence that their music is resonant of the Swinging Sixties (for example, there's every bit of the Kings Road Dandy in 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion'). The backdrop of their music is a world where the Baby Boomer generation is busy spending their days and nights liberating themselves and each other. However, the skill with which they portray these feelings has left songs that feel as relevant now as they must have done then. There's certainly been times that I've felt 'You Really Got Me', 'Dead End Street' and 'Everybody's Gonna Be Happy' could have be written for me.

This accessibility in their music is undoubtedly why they've been major influences to many subsequent musicians. None more so than Damon Albarn. For me personally, I'll never forget the Ray Davies / Damon Albarn duet of 'Waterloo Sunset' on Mark Radcliffe's White Room. It was stunningly good. No only did it sound good because both Ray and Damon sung it with affection, it sounded good because the song works as well today as it did when it is written. And that's just it you see, when you write with such clarity, and make something so coherent, it'll always be good. Be it an industrial landscape by LS Lowry, a tragedy by Shakespeare, or 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks.

... Kraftwerk (Caskared)

Art pop synth experimental rock, at times difficult to listen to, but always challenging, and we need them. Kraftwerk are decidedly Deutsch, clinical and ordered. Their sound has pushed beyond the vanguard and dragged everyone along with them. Their records have titles like Autobahn, Expo 2000, The Man Machine, Pocket Calculator and Computer World. The titles are delightfully dry, but the music is not. It is sometimes cold, but ripples like Glass.

Kraftwerk were formed in the early 1970s and the line-up has shifted slightly throughout the years. Previously two of the founding members had recorded with a band called Organisation, whose name is verging on parody, and later another combination left to form Neu!. Throughout their lifespan, Kraftwerk have experimented and pioneered new technologies and approaches to making music. Often their work crosses into the realm of sound art, with pieces like ‘Autobahn’. The 22 minute piece aimed at capturing and transposing the monotony of journeys up and down the German motorway; an edited version of Autobahn reached the charts. Monotony is a key word – it’s not easy music despite often being paired down, it is experimental. Unsurprisingly their influences are cited as being the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream and there are legions that rate Kraftwork from David Bowie to Afrika Bambaataa to Depeche Mode. Kraftwerk have been remixed by Orbital, DJ Rolando and UR Infiltrated amongst others who hook onto the hypnotic relentlessness of each piece.

Their most accessible hit, and one where the word ‘song’ is most easily applied is The Model, yet it is dispassionate with metronomic precision. Many of their songs feature heavily effected vocals, or vocals emanating from a Speak and Spell programme. Playing live might seem like an oxymoron, but the legacy of their training in improvisation and soundscape shape their performances, although it is perhaps not visually obvious from the sight of four middle-aged German men standing still behind laptops.

Their website embodies their ethos – it’s interactive and intelligent, and aims for a purity. They have lasted because they continue to experiment and embrace each new technological advancement. Their graphics are part of their pared-down art, super-stylish and using a retro chic that neatly acknowledges where they have come from.

* * * * *

Well, readers, I think it's safe to say we've got off lightly - not one but two contributors threatening to write about Kula Shaker...

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


Blogger Simon said...

Excellent work as always, but it must be pointed out that Peter Beardsley actually was one of the other players who turned up to the studios, and according to Barney they were so strapped for player options he was tried out. I'd also mention that it was almost called E For England, the backing was a loose adaptation of an existing Other Two track and Shoot! magazine dubbed it the worst football song of all time (before anyone else outside the studio had heard it, natch), but that'd be going too far.

6:00 pm  
Blogger Del said...

Wonderful stuff all round, yeah!

Kentish Town Forum? Lemon Jelly? 2003? I was there, too! In fact, I'd brought along a girl I wanted to impress, but bumped into an old friend, who then promptly snogged her later that evening. Happy days...

The Kinks: I remember that White Room performance vividly, as a Blur worshipper. Damon could hardly look at Ray Davies he was so in awe!

And in answer to a question about my KLF piece last week, there is a book Bill Drummond wrote several years ago called 45, which contains lost of weird anecdotes. One of which is how he nearly wrote a Scottish World Cup song. Another is how he came up with the idea of Interstellar Leylines, and then spoke to the media at length about it. Causing a certain Jazz Coleman of the Killing Joke to travel to Iceland to recharge himself from one of them. Even though they only existed in Bill's weird head. Which worried Bill immensely.

I love it when a plan comes together. But no Kylie? This will have to be rectified...

7:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

***I is for inCulto UPDATE***

inCulto have just won their heat to represent Lithuania in this year's Eurovision with a parody song 'Welcome to Lithuania' with the line 'Land of the beautiful lay-deez'.

12:46 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Have to admit I thought you'd have picked Kylie Del - presume you are now planning your entry for M.

Simon, I know Pedro was one of the few to turn up for the recording of the song. Thankfully I've never heard his attempt at the rap, but I'm prepared to wager that whilst it may have been used if Barnes hadn't turned up, the record would have been infinitely poorer for it.

1:03 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

drmigs: You're absolutely spot on about Bill Bailey - brilliant. And it features Kevin Eldon, which is generally a guaranteed mark of quality...

Caskared: I look forward to seeing / hearing inCulto on Eurovision. It'll be interesting to see what Eurovision fanatic Mike of the Troubled Diva blog makes of it...

Del: Cheers for the book suggestion - might have to seek that out.

1:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

drmigs: The K & D Sessions is a work of genius. Well, the first disc is at least.

del: What was the bingo prize? I've forgotten.

10:50 pm  

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