Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: N

N is for…

… Naked Truth (Skif)

I know we’ve had one about quintessential “local” bands, but I can’t remember if we’ve had the entry yet to signify the first band you ever saw live. Now there might be some internal dispute regarding the long-forgotten-never-really-known Naked Truth as my first gig ticket read “Living Colour” and they were indeed the headliners but, strictly speaking, the Truth (as I never called them) find themselves first on the list.

Yes, I keep a list. It’s vital. Like I apparently once saw Foo Fighters at a festival, but I can remember not a jot of it. In addition, I discover looking through today that comedian Ross Noble strutted his stuff, and no doubt extended some monkey-related tangents, before me halfway up a Wedgewood Rooms comedy bill eight years ago. I was clearly oblivious to his future stardom.

That’s an anally-retentiveness-betraying aside though, as the thing about this is, the question “Who was the first band you ever saw?” like “What was your first record?” demands either a cool, or a desperately but humourously uncool, answer. On both counts I fail. My first record was Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. Cool artist, you might argue, but not exactly one of his finest hours, artistically speaking. So it’s not quite right, is it? It was 1984 after all, so it could have been ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ just as easily as it could ‘Agadoo’. A very unhelpful mid-ground.

And, as I have suggested, when it comes to first live band, I have Naked Truth as the bottom rung of a funk-rock double bill in a quarter-full Portsmouth Guildhall. I remember I’d never had a sonic experience like it, the noise making my young milky ears ring for the best part of a week and certainly kept me awake that night, the entire gig kind of re-running itself in my head. I thought all gigs would be like that. Sadly not. Ah well though, these days I need to keep earplugs with me to prevent my tinnitus getting any worse, so perhaps it’s for the best.

My second gig was not long after the Living Colour show; Manic Street Preachers at the same venue supported by indie hip-hop midgets Credit To The Nation and the gloriously brassy Blaggers ITA who, with the benefit of hindsight, were a pretty great little band all told. I’d be proud to have the Blaggers propping up my myriad others like Atlas under a heap of musicians comprising the lauded; the derided; the famous; the forgotten; and, errr, Whigfield. Ahem.

As it is I’m stuck with Naked Truth. Although not necessarily. The list can lie. If we pre-date it to include concerts attended with parents, I can proudly announce that the first band I ever saw were the Royal Marines Band featuring the Milton Glee Club Choir. Ow’s about that then?!

… Nick (Caskared)

Who has a deep, rasping voice that seduces listeners into his baroque and brooding world?
Who sung the opening line “I don’t believe in an interventionist god” on a song played surprisingly frequently on radio?
Who had a chronic heroin habit and also a song on the ‘Shrek 2’ soundtrack?
Who won the Q Classic Songwriter Award?
Who duetted with Kylie Minogue in a ballad about murder?
Who wrote an introduction to The Gospel According To St Mark?
Who retains an epic and macabre spirit throughout three decades of recording?
Who writes nine-to-five in an office?
Who covered a Johnny Cash song, and was also covered by Johnny Cash?
Who won Time Out Book of the Year?
Who else would call a double album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus?

Who featured in a BBC Radio 2 documentary presented by Brad Pitt?
Who was born in Rangoon but grew up in Warwickshire?
Whose gravestone reads “And now we rise / And we are everywhere”?
Who is cited by Graham Coxon, Lou Barlow and Lucinda Williams as an influence?
Whose songs featured posthumously in the films ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘Garden State’, ‘Hideous Kinky’ and ‘Fever Pitch’?
Whose right hand finger-picking technique has internet forums in a frenzy 32 years after his death?
Whose romantic autumnal folk was a stalwart of sculpture studios’ stereos in Newcastle Upon Tyne?
Who created airy and floating phrases by beginning on the third beat?
Who is the reason for annual meetings in the church of Tanworth-In-Arden?
Whose soft melodies and tender swelling orchestration timelessly wrap around the listener?

Nick Cave and Nick Drake respectively are my answers.

… NME (Pete)

When I was young and foolish, I treated the established printed music press as the Gospel truth. I consumed – no, devoured – Q, Select, Melody Maker and especially the New Musical Express. Swells, Kitty Empire and the rest provided vital weekly reading. Occasionally my fix took me to new levels and I bought a copy of Mojo. But for some reason over the last few years I've not bought a single copy of a music mag (weekly or monthly) for ages and the NME especially.

I suppose there are a number of reasons for this such as plentiful free reviews on t'internet, but there's one thing in particular. The hype. Here's an example from a recent NME issue (that I didn't buy I should hasten to add): "The greatest band in the world today"… Hmm. Well, I don't have anything against The Go! Team per se. In fact, I think they're pretty damn good. But "the best band in the world"? I'm not buying it.

Yes, I realise that the circulation numbers are falling and that hype sells issues, but it just seems as though it has become a bit excessive of late. Somebody might want to correct me, but the NME's writers recently declared the Arctic Monkeys’ debut the fifth best British album of all time. Riiight.

I think the turning point, for me at least, was back in 2000. On the front of one week's issue there was a blacked-out silhouette with the headline that went something along the lines of "This man is the future of rock". And whose visage were we blessed with the next week? Andrew WK. 'Party Hard' indeed. After that, the only thing I can say is: "Don't believe the hype". Especially the NME's.

… nobodies (Ben)

The flame of punk may only have burned brightly in Britain for the briefest of periods in 1976 and 1977, but its subsequent influence on almost all aspects of popular culture (music most obviously, but also film, art, fashion, literature, comedy…) has been enormous and can still be traced today – not least in the ‘Pop Idol’ / ‘X Factor’ style programme. No, really. Bear with me on this one...

The early to mid 1970s. A time when rock stars were rock stars. Untouchable and utterly beyond the reach of the fan, the mere mortal, who could only dream of breathing the same rarefied air as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin and was expected to gape open-mouthed up at the stage while the caped figure of Rick Wakeman wanked off another self-indulgent-in-extremis harpsichord solo. Rock was not for the common man.

Then came the inevitable backlash – punk. Suddenly being a technically gifted musician meant next to nothing. Indeed, you didn’t even have to be able to play at all (see: Sid Vicious, first “drummer” for Siouxsie & The Banshees and later infamously the replacement on bass for Glen Matlock in The Sex Pistols). This and the DIY ethic was enormously exciting and liberating. Punk bands generally didn’t (and couldn’t) style themselves as somehow “superior” to those who came to see them, and if they did the audience knew it was a lie. There was no chasm between the bands and the fans, either in lifestyle or literally in the live environment. It’s no coincidence that stage invasions were commonplace – the dividing line between performers and audience members was permeable. Music was back in the hands of the people. Anyone can play guitar (as Radiohead put it).

And it’s that essential democratic principle which stands at the heart of ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘X Factor’: anyone can do it, anyone can become a pop star. Talent is almost irrelevant. If packaged in the right way – receiving the right intensive voice coaching, buoyed by the right level of hype (hysterical), performing the right songs, backed by the right amount of money (lots), dressed by the right stylist – it could indeed be you. It’s an achievable dream.

That’s the message the programmes propagate, and therein lies their mass appeal. It’s not a fiction or myth either. How else could you possibly explain the triumphs of Gareth Gates, Michelle McManus, Rik Waller and most recently Shayne Ward? It’s a simple recipe: take people out of their humdrum existences, put them on a pedestal and let the British public’s overdeveloped sense of pity and love of the underdog do the rest. The sympathy votes flood in. And it all has precious little to do with music or ability.

All of which makes Liberty X’s ‘Being Nobody’ an astute piece of self-reflexive pop criticism. The video depicted the five band members (the band from ‘Popstars’ over whom Hear’say triumphed, lest we forget) being assembled like robots on a factory production line, and the song itself was a Richard-X’d-up cover of the Chaka Khan song ‘Ain’t Nobody’, its meaning altered by the simple fact of who was performing it so that it became a comment on the star-making business.

The album on which it appeared was called Being Somebody, the way it contradicted the single title pointing towards the transient and ephemeral nature of the fame game (and – presciently – towards their own fate). One day nobody, the next somebody, the next nobody. Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes is more like five. Anyone remember Alex Parks? Chico and Journey South will go the same way, thank fuck (if only they’d consoled themselves with The Go! Team’s ‘Everyone’s A VIP To Someone’ and stuck to singing the shower…). The reason is simple and familiar: anyone can do it, and will, and they’ll be fresher, brighter and more novel than you. It’s not so much that nobody does it better (see below) as that everyone can do it just as well. Longevity depends on having been a somebody in the first place.

Grossly simplified and half-baked though this undoubtedly was, the general point I think remains. Punk is responsible. So next time you find yourself watching John Lydon sat in the jungle grumbling about Peter Andre and his ilk, just bear it in mind.

… ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – Carly Simon (Paul)

‘Nobody Does It Better’ is one of only two Carly Simon tracks that I can listen to. So my love for the record is certainly not out of a strong affinity for the artist.

Instead its inclusion is a result of two factors: the first and obviously most important is that it was the song which my wife and I first danced to on our wedding day, and consequently whenever I now hear it, I'm instantly transported back to one of my happiest days on the planet.

Secondly, and crucially for this particular piece, it's my favourite James Bond theme song. Now that's quite a bold statement, because there are several strong contenders for the role, but I think on balance it has the edge.

Bond themes themselves are a curious beast. The first, ‘Dr No’, itself has no real recognised theme music (in the way that we'd today consider a Bond theme). However, once ‘From Russia With Love’ had set a precedent, every subsequent Bond film sought to produce a piece of music that instantly captured the flavour of Bond, gave a hint of the story and allowed plenty of time for scantily-clad silhouetted women to gyrate and play with firearms.

Shirley Bassey, the undoubted queen of Bond music, singing ‘Goldfinger’, Louis Armstrong's timeless We Have All The Time In The World’, or Wings giving birth to new Bond Roger Moore with the slightly darker ‘Live And Let Die’ all are rightly held high in my esteem.

Like every other fan of Bond I have my favourite, in the same way that they'll have a favourite Bond, Bond girl, villain and film.

For me, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is a classic in terms of iconic imagery (Bond's Union Jack parachute, the submarine being swallowed by the ship), villain (Jaws), and girl (Barbara Bach) but it's the music that really sets in apart, and for that credit must go to the vocal talents of Carly Simon. Many have tried but nobody has done it better.

… Nottingham (Swiss Toni)

I moved to Nottingham on the day that Princess Diana died: 31st August 1997. I had idly turned on the television as I was packing up my videos (remember them?) and was confronted with the tragic news. Over the course of the next few days and in between the unpacking of boxes, I watched with fascination as a small patch of grass around the corner from my new home began to disappear beneath floral tributes. They arrived slowly at first, but soon a little sign went up on the tree – “for Diana” – and as the fever gripped the nation, a trickle became a flood became a torrent, until you couldn’t see the ground at all for rotting flowers. I’m sure the fact that there was a florist over the road has no significance. It’s only in my cynical head where the owner put that sign up on the tree, isn’t it?

Anyway. I digress. The number one single that first Sunday I spent in Nottingham was just perfect. ‘Men In Black’ had been toppled after four weeks at the top, and Elton was yet to take up residence with his execrable re-working of ‘Candle In The Wind’. For one glorious week ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ sat at the top of the hit parade and for once the best selling single in the UK was also the best single on sale.

Maybe it was an omen for my time in my new city?

It’s sometimes said that no good bands have ever come out of Nottingham. That may be true, but that doesn’t stop Nottingham being a musical town. Firstly it’s a great place to watch bands. Over the course of the last nine years, I reckon I have probably seen more bands and attended more gigs than at any other time of my life. I wish I could tell you that this was because I indulge my love of music by spending every night scouring the pubs and clubs in search of live music. It wouldn’t be true though, as my gig-going experience in Nottingham has been largely confined to three venues: The Rescue Rooms, The Arena and Rock City. Of the three, Rock City is my favourite, and may be my favourite venue full stop. Since its refit, it’s not quite the sweatbox of old, but when it’s full it’s still a bearpit, and the floor is still reassuringly sticky.

These aren’t the only places to hear music in Nottingham though. Almost every pub seems to have a live act on at weekends. As you might expect, the same names appear in different venue across the city, but special mention should be made of one man. Forget Bob Dylan’s Neverending Tour, Roy de Wired must be the hardest working singer / songwriter in the world. Judging by the number of posters, this guy must be playing at least two gigs a night. He’s everywhere, and he does a very respectable cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Freefallin’’ too…

Nottingham is such a small city that you even become familiar with the buskers. There’s the Patagonians – ‘The Fast Show’’s generic name for those bands with Pan Pipes – who play outside Marks & Spencer. There’s that bizarrely talented and bluesy guitarist who is always outside H&M. There’s that homeless guy up near Ted Baker with his tin whistle doing a shrill version of ‘Dirty Old Town’. Lest we forget too, there is also a plaque dedicated to the old guy with child’s xylophone who used to play a couple of notes and then triumphantly lift his hands to the sky and beam toothlessly at passing shoppers. He may not have attracted the same number of floral tributes or books of remembrance as Princess Diana, but he won’t be forgotten. I’m proud to live in a city so musical that it remembers its buskers with such affection.

… nutters (Jez)

If pop musicians were sold in cans, their major ingredient would be listed as “nutters”, just in front of “filler” and “animal derivatives”. Fuelled by a need to be adored by absolute strangers these egotistical fruitcakes are normally rejected before they even see the signpost marked “fame”. Although for some it is that very “uniqueness” that gives them the key to the golden door.

So, what do they do when they pass Go? Well, we hated them in the first place. They were outsiders remember, eschewed by society. Stardom is just circumnavigation of society, we are undeserving of the affection they had previously offered and as any dictator has probably said as a fledgling: “Boy! I’m gonna make them pay”.

Examples? There are hundreds of them; maybe you can add your own. The criterion is along the lines of – any sort of rock star behaviour that makes the royal family seem vaguely sane qualifies. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Pete (Man Of The People) Townsend telling Mick (Idiot) Jagger: “Never go on the tube, man – the dirty, smelly people are down there”. Jagger just looked on quizzically wondering what the tube was. Nutters.

Celine Dion, being far too important for anybody to see her move her Gillian McKeith look-alike body from dressing room to stage, would get into a box and get pushed by her lackeys past the great unwashed. Nutter.

As Thomas Dolby said: “It was us made them that way”. Mind you, he was probably a nutter too.

* * * * *

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


Blogger Ben said...

Caskared: To that Nick Cave list, you might add: "Who is currently sporting an interesting moustache while performing the promotional duties for his film 'The Proposition'?" The man's an absolute legend. Whisper it, but Nick Drake's never really interested me, though...

Pete: I have to say in Andrew WK's defence I disliked 'Party Hard' at first, but it soon became a firm favourite. Still love it. Never even entertained the notion of getting or hearing the album, though. Perhaps that's why he disappeared.

Jez: Here's one for you - Axl Rose of Guns N Roses demanding at Leeds 2002 that the entire backstage area be evacuated for him, the band and their entourage prior to their arrival on site for their headline slot. And then there's J-Lo's infamous demands. But, y'know, she's still Jenny From The Block.

12:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear alternative answers to my questions!

Way to Blue by Nick Drake was a sculpture studio stereo stalwart of my Newcastle days...ahhhh.

Pete: I remember the days when I thought I would always read the NME, always, then I reached 18.It was great while my phase lasted! Kid music polemics create a fervour, whether it's support or reactionary, it's all part of the fun. Although ultimately a bit stupid. I do agree with your post.

8:34 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Swiss Toni - Roy de Wired's great! I once spent a sligtly surreal five minutes in an impromptu chorus line with him and several others dancing to New York New York outside the Ice Stadium at 4 o'clock in the morning. Happy Days.

9:40 am  
Blogger skif said...

Andrew WK? Great fun. Then his moment passed. High-octane goon-rock, we hardly knew ye.

His first LP, yes I own it, is usually good for clearing the cobwebs and any pretensions to pretension you might have.

Momentarily glorious. Nowt wrong with that.

4:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

skif and ben - Admittedly 'Party Hard' did have its moments, but "the future of rock"...I don't hink so.

As for the NME. Of course, it used to have just as much hype a few years ago, but seemed a bit more objective.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Pete: Whether or not Andrew WK was any good, the point remains that hyperbolic praise and the search for the "next big thing" is essential to the NME because it sells copies. If there aren't any stand-out new bands, then things risk going stale, so they have to intervene and raise some unworthy bunch onto a pedestal. Unlike those of (say) Mojo, their sales depend on a vibrant scene with lots of great new bands coming through.

12:22 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

the NME was summed up for me when (as mentioned above) they picked the Arctic Monkeys in their top 10 British albums of all time on its week of release. It's pretty good, but really? No of course not. They're flavour of the month and the NME currently loves them (and will no doubt hate them one day soon).

Will that album stand the test of time like "The Queen is Dead" or "The Stone Roses"? Only time will tell.

They only do it to annoy people like me, I reckon.



1:05 pm  
Blogger Del said...

Lovely stuff. Erm, sorry I missed this week. I was indisposed in Bristol, away from email. Plus, my dog ate it.

Pete: The NME does hype, for sure, but I do still read it. And I think you're right, Tony, there is a certain element of piss of the oldies (which is, to Arctic Monkeys fans, what we are). I'm on the fence!

Ben: I blame the Spice Girls 100%, personally. But I think you're right in as much as it was inspired by punk. Wannabe sounds as lofi and DIY as any pop song before or since.

Paul: What's the other Carly Simon song?! 'Why'? 'You're So Vain'? What?!

Anyway, I would've chosen New Order. And maybe just focused on Blue Monday. Most influential pop single of my lifetime, I reckon. There, I said it.

12:21 am  

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