One for someone who has strangely become a bit of a hero to me for his consistently socially positive media comments of recent years.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Saturday, March 30, 2019
In so called 'Swinging' London in the mid Sixties there was a sudden craze for dressing up in Edwardian or Victorian garb by the au courant. Fifty years on it seems there's an even odder, (though much, much smaller), vogue among some youngsters to live their lives as if A Whiter Shade of Pale is still topping the charts. Far out! Let's head round to Lucille Furs's pad. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
Sadly, this turns out not to be just off Carnaby Street. In fact you'd have to go all the way to Chicago, Illinois to check out their threads and the rest of their gear. There's actually something quite ludicrous about the conceit they're trying to pull here.
Still, I like the music, sometimes despite myself. Another Land rides The Summer of Love seemingly fuelled by the conviction that it's actually happening now. Each to their own.
Friday, March 29, 2019
Writing a series like this, which encompasses almost forty years of music, moments, memories, emotions and most of all people can feel like revisiting all my memory lanes. Definitely the case with this one. Two terms into my first year at university. Something of a Brideshead Revisited moment in my life. I lived in a block in Fifers Lane the university accommodation for new students at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
I'd made a special set of friends. The friends you make in the first year at university are some of the most special ones after all. The one you forge bonds with over ideas, literature, politics and reactions to the people around you as you really become yourself. For better or for worse.
The Go Betweens were definitely part of that process for me. We had The Smiths. We had R.E.M. Prefab Sprout. Aztec Camera. Lloyd Cole. The Triffids. And the Go Betweens. They were nowhere in the wider scheme of things. Not even a blip on the lower reaches of singles and albums charts but discerning critics knew. And so did we. They were as good a band as any in the world in that point in time.
They were playing Kingston Polytechnic over Easter during the break between second and third terms. I guess we discovered so from the gigs pages of the weekly music papers. Definitely NME rather than Melody Maker for me by this point in time. My parents lived just across the river in Teddington, every bit the idyllic family home, just across the road from Bushy Park and Hampton Court where I used to take girls that I fancied, imagining our eyes would meet as we lost ourselves in the maze.
Ben and Sue, North London friends, (there's a whole book to be written about the difference between North and South London and what it means when you meet people at university), came down to the gig. Sue I suspected might have had a bit of a thing for me. She didn't get the Hampton Court treatment.
We went to the gig with my sister and her best friend. A sign this truly had hipster approval.It cost £1.00. Seriously. One pound. One moment of the whole thing stood out in memory. Hey it is over thirty years ago. The moment we walked into the hall to see the band in all their glory with the lights full on playing their soundcheck.
It's something that sticks out in terms of all the things I've seen. Brilliant light, brilliant band, brilliant sound. They were playing Head Full of Steam I think. At the end of it Lindy Morrison the band's fabulous, and fabulously tall drummer got up from her stool and stretched her wonderfully loose limbs.
I wish I could tell you more. But more than that is lost to time. I know they were great. But these are all the memories I have left. But I was there. And it cost a quid I tell you.
The Tallest Man on Earth is a great name to go out into the world with, Kristian Mattson gets plenty of respect from me for that and also for this, the first song from his forthcoming new album, I Love You, It's a Fever Dream which follows in a few weeks.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
New York's Olden Yoke, whose eponymous debut album was a great favourite of mine last year are back already with a second LP Living Theatre due in May. Ahead of that comes this, Cotton & Cane, (a play on The Go-Between's Cattle?). More driving Chelsea pastoral indie folk. Wonderful stuff!
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
A belated acknowledgement of one of the most distinguished records of 2019 thus far. placeholder, note the small 'p', ( not really sure why artists care about this kind of thing), is a sleek, elegant album from American Meg Duffy, who has had Kevin Morby associations previously, but now plies her trade under this moniker putting her records out on Courtney Barnett and Jen Lohers Milk! Records label, another indication that they are pursuing a quiet but assured world domination agenda.
placeholder is another ace in their gradually fleshing hand, following closely on the heels of the similarly excellent Tiny Ruins album Olympic Girls. It's a slightly more morose prospect than that one, a record, (if it's possible to imagine one), on mild, GP prescribed anti-depressants with just sufficient edge to dull the more severe aspects of the world while simultaneously conveying it in blurred, atmospheric hues.
The album sleeve is an interesting one. Duffy with a shirt wrapped round her as if she's just been in some kind of accident and is standing at the roadside now, in front of the wreckage. placeholder doesn't really surrender the secrets of its glossy depths but is all the more interesting for that discretion, with songs that don't do verse / chorus but nevertheless follow a sustained and compelling route. For a more in depth account, go here for a friend's review on Pop Matters, otherwise, just hear the record.
This choice calls to mind the relativity of a lot of these things. I didn't see The Who at The Cavern in 1964. Or Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour. Or The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in 1976. I didn't even bother to go and see the Jesus & Mary Chain when they were playing my own university campus in my first year in the midst of the riot encouraging infamy of their early days.
But I did see The Sonics play the Newcastle Riverside in May 2014. I really did. I can virtually see the 'so what?' shrugs of my reading audience. The Sonics? Weren't they one of those Sixties Garage bands that Lenny Kaye and old hipsters in black and white hooped tops and thinning bowl cuts go on about? Might be slightly more impressive if you'd seen them in Tacoma in 1963.
The Sonics actually go back to 1960 which I imagine puts them before Iggy, Lou, Alice and pretty much anybody else in the Punk Rock stakes. So you think you're cool. They are definitely cooler. Their records are pure, raw, tight, driven R & B while sounding distinctly Punk at the same time. They have no end of lean, mean, attitude. They're among the very best.
They were well into their Sixties by the time I caught up with them. It mattered not one jot. They still had more tricks up their sleeve than 95% of bands will ever know. They managed to seem like a set of very nice gents while giving off more attitude than a gang of seventeen year old muggers can muster.
I kept eye contact with the swaggering six foot two sax player Rob Lind for the last few songs of the set and in return he handed down the night's set list after they were finally done. I've still got it somewhere in my flat.It's not always about seeing a band at the moment in history they'll be most remembered at. Sometimes, it's just about seeing them at all.
It's difficult to gauge exactly how good a record is when its influences are so nakedly, immediately apparent. Such is the case with French band and their album Meadow Lane Park recently released on Elefant Records. The influence of Stereolab, Broadcast and Saint Etienne pervades it as does that whole sensibility that so inspired them, exotica, the Fifties and Sixties. Mod cool.
It's a good record. Don't get me wrong. But it's not as good a record as Foxbase Alpha or Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Well of course that was hardly likely. Still, if you fancy a trip to a place where the future still seems like a good idea, this is a record with a lot of fine moments.
Much talk about the forthcoming Weyes Blood album Titanic Rising due in mid-April on Sub Pop and just how good it's going to be. That's as maybe. But this, the trailer song Everyday is more than deserving of its own spotlight. One of the first truly great songs I've heard this year. The melody and atmosphere are just things to die for. The promo too. Almost literally. I'll be back for Titanic Rising.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Really to get an idea of what this was like you just have to listen to the album My Bloody Valentine were still touring at the time, their breakthrough, Isn't Anything which had come out well over a year previously. But play it very, very loud and imagine yourself locked in a synthesis of bodies of teens and early twenties that feels as if it is genuinely becoming a sea. Or else just go the whole hog and listen to it underwater.
Because whenever I think of that gig, I think of being not an individual in a crowd but molecular in structure, more jellyfish than man, part of a swaying liquid mass. With this enveloping blaze of colour and noise pulsing off the stage where the band was playing, like some lighthouse flooding the rocks of the stormy seas.
The music and vibe given off by My Bloody Valentine at that point in time had an incredible essence. They were doing something genuinely new but strangely indefinable, from the moment they released the You Made Me Realise EP on Creation in 1988. They actually seemed on the cusp of an extraordinary breakthrough.
The band obviously thought as much themselves. They took an extraordinarily length of time to complete the follow up to Isn't Anything, Loveless, almost bankrupting their record label in the process. They also were an astonishing live proposition, having a tendency at the time and thereafter of holding a chord in You Made Me Realise for minutes on end onstage til the audiences ears were on the point of bleeding. In general for playing their gigs at health threatening volumes. For making some kind of record breaking attempt every time they went onstage. Just play the album like I said. It's all there.
Mundane gig details. The ticket cost £3.50. I went during the last year of my time at university, with Andy who has been the gig going friend of my life. I remember nothing specific about the evening except that the band barely spoke to the audience if at all and there was an inexpressible suppressed sexual aura about the whole evening. I've never associated a gig with such sheer claustrophobic energy. I've seen My Bloody Valentine since but didn't really need to . 1988-1992 was their moment.
I heard in the oddest circumstances yesterday that Scott Walker had died . I'd just arrived for a short break to my parent's house in Canterbury and my mother, who is Brexit obsessed at the moment, (she's not for it, I hasten to add), had the television on to watch the latest proceedings in parliament. On the text feed on the bottom of the screen a long sentence commenced beginning with the words 'Scott Walker' . I realised long before it came to its end what it must be about. The BBC would hardly have been announcing that a new album was imminent.
It felt strange. Scott Walker was a particular artist but also a uniquely special one. At the start of his career as the focal point of The Walker Brothers, (of course they weren't brothers and none of them were called Walker), he was as famous as anyone on the British Pop scene and as fabulously attractive as any Pop Star had ever been. When my parents saw the news surrounding his death he didn't mean anything to them. I had to mention 'The Sun Ain't Going to Shine Anymore', the one song of his I thought they'd know. But my mum, watching the onscreen photo montages of him, said, 'he was very good looking'. It was undeniable. Frankly, Scott Walker was a Golden Lord. He was the epitome of what Pop Stars were supposed to look like.
Yet he also had that voice. That rich, deep gorgeous wondrous croon that could easily have captured the MOR or the Beatnik crowd. Walker ultimately chose the Beatniks. He was too much of a quester, some might say a poseur to take the straight Pop lane- his bookshelves crammed with Camus and Kirkeggard. His record shelves with Brel and Greco. He craved for some of that timeless quality of true art, that thick texture of genuine artistic depth for himself. That rich, dusty, melancholy. And by god he achieved it.
I don't think he's a poseur, but a truly great artist. One who had pretty much everything. His almost lifelong association and friendship with Bowie, who considered him one of the absolute touchstone artists, speaks volumes. Because in addition to the looks and the voice, Walker also had the intellect and the vision. Like Bowie he realised that Pop offered an almost unique opportunity, a playground for daring and bravura. If the Walker Brothers were wonderful, Scott 1 to 4, the set of solo albums that followed them, were something else, something quite dazzling. Quite unique.
This isn't a complete career obituary. Look elsewhere for those. I'm not enough of a completist or an expert to be qualified to write one. Many of Walker's records I just don't know. I bought Tilt, his much vaunted avant gard album of 1996. I listened to it a fair bit. It was staggering, but Walker didn't take me with him. I didn't listen to his late period records. That's not to say that I didn't rate them. I just didn't listen to them.
Anyhow, Walker was a great artist and leaves a huge void. If you don't know his back catalogue go and explore it. It's one of Pop Music's truly great adventures. A model lesson in bravery, artistry and beauty. He was a one off.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Smashing Pumpkins, it seems almost cute all these years down the line. But believe me. They're well worth writing about. Because I was there. In the Nord-Rhine Westfalen region of Germany at the height of Grunge in late 1993. Dortmund to be precise. This gig came at a highly emotional point in my life. I was twenty seven and not doing very well in terms of love. But I did have a very good set of friends with whom I worked and socialised. And I went to this gig with one of the best. He's no longer with us. Died last year in fact.
That was a good time. I'm sure each and every one of that small community of expat teachers would look back from this twenty five year remove and say that was a good time. It may not have seemed so great then. But the heart of what made it so was the people. We went out together, every day it seemed, and drank and ate, but mostly drank and drank and smoked and smoked and talked. And laughed. A lot. Such times in life are rare, although you don't necessarily realise it while you're going through it. But you have the right people around you. That's the key to it all.
So where do Smashing Pumpkins fit into all this? Like I said it was the moment of Grunge. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Tad, Alice in Chains and various bandwagon jumpers and also rans. Half the male world seemed to dress in plaid.
Matt, the friend I alluded to earlier, was a good person to meet just then because he was very, very much into Grunge. He had grown his hair into a pony tail, not coincidentally I would say. I met him at about the time when I first arrived in Dortmund along with the rest of the teaching circle that I worked with. They were immediately accepting and welcoming to me when I arrived and so was he. A short while later he started to invite me round to his flat on Friday nights with a couple of other blokes from the community. To drink, and talk, and watch TV, and listen to music. And smoke dope. Then go out and meet the most of our circle, mostly women, for drinks. Me generally pretty zombified, Matt much less so.
It's difficult for me to separate the time I spent with Matt from smoking dope. Because he did an awful lot of it. In company and on his own. It fed into his sense of humour which was dry and idiosyncratic but always funny and life-affirming and is one of the things that I'll miss most about him. So we, either just the two of us, or Adrian or Charles, or whoever else was with us would sit and talk and smoke and listen to a whole range of music which the dope almost invariably made sound better.
Smashing Pumpkins arrived almost a year into my time in Dortmund and strangely I discovered the band, not Matt. They had started their rise a little after the other major Grunge bands and were on the cusp of releasing their second album Siamese Dream, the one that broke them. I read a gushing review of them in Melody Maker I remember, and thought there might be something there.
Me. One one of those Friday evenings.
We both pretty immediate converts, saw that they were playing pretty soon in Dussledorf an hour away from Dortmund on the train and resolved to go. It was a sunny Sunday in late August over a quarter of a century ago. We drank beer, we talked, about a slight tiff Matt was having with his girlfriend of the time, we had some wurst and chips at a Greek takeaway and made our way to the venue.
The Verve, who were labelmates of Smashing Pumpkins played a support slot. A few years down the line they rode their own wave and had their own moment but it was not that night. They tried to conjure up their own spell, make their own atmosphere, but their charms were largely lost on an audience that was not there to see them. A short break to set up the stage and the Pumpkins took to it.
And were utterly mesmirising. From the moment they set up Cherub Rock, as good an opening track as any album has ever had, to the moment they left after a couple of euphoric, draining encores. They, the classic line up of Corgan, Iha, D'Abo and Chamberlin, did a set that made them seem like you were witnessing the very best band on the planet. They did quiet. They did blisteringly, beautifully loud. Billy Corgan did the most excrutiatingly extravagant rock moves and made them seem like the best ideas imaginable. People talk about bands experiencing an imperial phase and it seems like a cliche, but that was a band at the absolute peak of their imperial phase and I saw them. Words are actually insufficient to explain how good they were.
We were both almost nonplussed by the experience. We took the train back to Dortmund and went for a couple more beers to a seedy run-down bar in the red light district which we came to call Smashing Pumpkins pub ever after. I got into an argument with a beer soaked regular for putting a Borussia Dortmund drinking song on the jukebox when they'd lost that weekend. Those are my memories of that night.
So, to now. I'm sitting at the laptop on my desk in Newcastle reliving it, all these years down the line. I have a picture of Matt facing me, on a card that the partner of his last years sent me at in November to invite me to his funeral in Holland where they lived and he'd spent the last fifteen years of his life. I couldn't make it, to my regret and am belatedly writing this instead.
Close male friendships are a strange thing. Non demonstrative and mostly lived out through humour, beer and discussions about music, football, film and politics. Life doesn't necessarily intervene too often. But Matt was an irreplaceable friend and that Smashing Pumpkins gig was an irreplaceable experience. He'll be missed. By more people than he would have known. And certainly very much by me.
As for Smashing Pumpkins. I don't really listen to them anymore...
It's always interesting to see the roads that bands choose when making a comeback after a long time away. Take Arizona's Meat Puppets, always the most contrary of bands. Dusty Tales just released, is their first album for eight years, and it's worthy of a small celebration for its obdurate individuality if nothing else.
The band embrace their advancing years rather than raging against them, and Dusty Tales comes across as something of a local community hoedown. In many ways the spiritual forbears of the record might be New Purple Riders of the Sage, Poco or C,S,N & Y, and they're apposite selections giving the record a grained and ancient texture.
Meat Puppets always took an eccentric route to arrive at their chosen destination though and it's apt that the same idiosyncrasies surface here. After a clutch of likeable country pop opening tracks that wouldn't seem out of place on a Best of compilation, they veer off the desert road on fourth track, Unfrozen Memory to embrace the madness of the outback.
There are baroque, rococo moments, take album centerpiece The Great Awakening, which is almost Prog Country, but whatever style they choose there's a craftsman's mastery to the manner in which the band handle proceedings. A few tracks later on Vampyr's Winged Fantasy they go all Blue Oyster Cult on us in a Metalloid moment that I frankly found horrid. Nevertheless, if this means that the record doesn't always flow, then so be it. Meat Puppets were always going to conjure up the oddest brand of easy listening.
And now to the record's most surprising but strangely apposite moments. Their take on Sea of Heartbreak, Don Gibson's stone gold 1952 Country & Western classic. They hold this gem up to the light once more, and infuse it with fresh wonder, surging into its glorious chorus with barely disguised relish. It's a wonderful moment, like when R.E.M. broke into Don't Go Back to Rockville towards the end of the second side of Reckoning, reminding us that this is supposed to be about having fun after all.
Dusty Tales is a dignified but cranky beast, something from a bygone age, the sleeve image is well judged. You might not like every song on here but you'll probably be glad that they exist. Meat Puppets once again fly the flag against the ultimate sin of craven conformity.
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Friday, March 22, 2019
Thursday, March 21, 2019
The world and his wife are not beating down Half Japanese' door in 2019. Well let's face it they never really have done and are hardly likely to start doing so now. After all, the band have been plying their trade in a determinedly low-fi manner all the way back to 1979 over 18 albums, numerous singles, cassettes and myriad other releases and tours. They've possibly flown as far under the radar as any 'known' band ever have. Much has changed for them over the years but at the same time nothing has.
So how best to evaluate Invincibles, the bands latest record, released quietly just last month. On its own merits probably. I like it. I imagine I would like most of the Half Japanese back catalogue even though I haven't heard much of that apart from Best of collections. Because they all sound a bit like this don't they? That's intrinsic to the band's charm and appeal.
This record makes Pan's case very cogently, to me at least and I'm enjoying it more with every play. Half Japanese still hang around in the High School corridor with the Velvets, The Modern Lovers, Daniel Johnson, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth and Kurt, their ultimate fan. Subject matter; vampires, the walking dead, alien spacecraft, the teenage crush, them and us. The geek ultimately will clearly inherit the earth. The menu remains the same as does the shambling ill-begotten, intentionally inept musical manner they choose to get their message across in. Most of it works. At least for me.
So Invincibles, fifteen songs between two minutes and the cusp of four, fifteen dweeb manifestos. Perfect. Or at least perfection judged by their own wonky criteria, formulated in stone over the decades. I commend them to you.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
It's comforting to see that Teenage Fanclub are still here thirty years down the line, like a marriage between friends you like that lasts. Here's their second single from a time when they were one thing that they no longer are anymore, conspicuously young.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
A rather lovely record from the word go this one. The new album from New York City singer Emily King entitled Scenery. It's altogether beautiful pop confectionery, light as a feather and equally quick on its feet.
The influence of Prince is here in spades but there's nothing wrong with that. At least not for the most part. That man left myriad trails to explore behind him. After Janelle Monae did something not dissimilar, (triumphantly), last year with Dirty Computer, my record of 2018, King takes her lead from the small man but this time predominantly from him at his gentlest.
Not generally an overtly sexual record as both Monae and Prince's so often are, Scenery is for the most part generally of an altogether more delicate and romantic hue. Nervertheless, or perhaps as a direct response to this approach, I fell hard for it on my first introduction to it yesterday. There are some fabulous songs here and it all knits together quite seamlessly.
If you have to dock her points occasionally for occasional gross larceny from the small purple one, for the most part King performs her pirouettes and double salkos with admirable grace and fluidity. The record of the first quarter in this particular category on It Starts With a Birthstone.
Monday, March 18, 2019
An evening out in July and the best gig I saw this year: Saw this one, just in time. The Trembling Bells, sadly, are no more.
The Cumberland Arms is a community style pub on a small hill above the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. In addition to the normal social drinking that goes on there, it arranges a range of different events including hosting regular gigs in its small upstairs room above the bar. I've had some wonderful nights there over the years; Thurston Moore with Michael Chapman, Subway Sect, The Blue Orchids and The Nightingales and just last Wednesday Trembling Bells. An evening fit to compare with any one of them.
I went alone, taking the taxi from Central Newcastle in a foul mood. I'd had a run in with a dreadful corporate drone at work which had depressed and angered me, and I'd thought about passing on the gig. This however is not a good idea in my experience, always leaving a 'what if?' question mark hanging which I've always harboured since missing an early Stone Roses concert on the cusp of their fame in my university days, when I'd come down with a slight cold and stayed in. After all, if things don't work out you can always leave early. I certainly did the right thing this time round.
The Cumberland Arms is a very pleasant venue, particularly during this apparently endless, glorious summer. I sat in its front garden supping beer rather than watching the support acts, who veered towards the more conventional kind of Folk that I've always been wary of. Various members of the band wandered past at various points and we exchanged pleasantries. I also saw a good friend of mine, Steve Drayton who's a local celebrity and all round man on the scene whose Record Player evenings at the Tyneside Cinema were a definite inspiration leading me to start writing this blog more than five years back.
Needless to say Steve was great company as always and his friends were fine people too and this all helped to while away the time 'til The Bells were due to play. Just beforehand I found myself inside the small back bar when Alex Neilson the drummer, main songwriter and leader of the band came past me. I told him that Christ's Entry into Goven (the centrepiece of their wonderful latest album Dungeness),was my favourite song of the year, which it is, and he thanked me, shook my hand and asked my name, then went off to prepare to play. I thought nothing more of it at the time.
A few minutes later upstairs dramatic rumours were whispered. Alex was not well at all, (food poisoning apparently), and wasn't sure to play. The rest of the band assembled somewhat nervously onstage without him while he hovered at the doorway uncomfortably.
Just as they seemed about to set off without him he made his way though onto the low stage and they started to play. What followed was the finest hour or so of live music I've experienced this year.
Trembling Bells aren't for everyone, partly because they aim high. Their music is perhaps best described as Cosmic Folk although there's a large dose of Prog in their mix. They remind you of things, how could they not given their sound? In my case these are a lot of things from the early Seventies that I probably wouldn't choose to listen to myself, (not being a Prog man by any stretch of the imagination), but in their hands it all becomes deeply palatable and appealing.
Perhaps the most immediate set of references for what they do come from main singer Lavinia Blackwell who was perched at the front of the stage on keyboards and mic. As soon as she opens her mouth and sings, the reference points are undeniable; Sandy Denny, Grace Slick, Mariska Veres and Sonja Kristina inevitably come to mind and the spirit of their most wonderful records is invoked.
That the band, (and Neilson most of all apparently), become slightly disgruntled by such comparisons, is understandable because of how good they are, but the comparisons are inevitable and its actually a veiled compliment to them as what they do is so powerful and thought through.
The evening passed in a happy blur. It felt like 1972, (when I was six and into Chicory Tip). The fact that the walls of the room were visibly sweating was little more than an irritant. At a certain point Neilson from his drum stool made a reminder between songs to, 'Go and buy our records'. In many respects he was quite right to do so. They're far too great a band to still be playing venues this size at this point of their career. Frankly, it's a damning indictment of our time and tastes.
And then the highlight. At least for me! When it came to playing Christ's Entry, Alex said, 'I'd like to dedicate this to Bruce...' and off they went. I found the gesture incredibly touching and if it incurred Mr.Drayton's humorous wrath the next day in a message to me on social media, 'As their Number One fan, I should have had it...' , so be it. I left the venue sated and momentarily freed from the grip of the corporate drone. Pretty much only music can do things like that. So, Trembling Bells, you were and are wonderful, Dungeness is a genius album and I'm now an even firmer devotee than I was before Wednesday night. Many thanks!
Sunday, March 17, 2019
The second consecutive Hammersmith Palais gig on this series. It was a great venue, sorely missed by those who remember it from formative nights in the Eighties like me. I travelled home from my university during my first term at university in Autumn '85 to see it and went to the gig with my brother and sister who had been won over during the previous couple of years by my non-stop record player rotation of the band's early albums.
R.E.M., R.E.M. Where to even start with my love in my late teenage years for R.E.M.? It's something I'm not yet completely over, even all these years on down the line. Probably never will be. It's difficult to explain to the uninitiated, who knew the band primarily through Losing My Religion, Everybody Hurts and the like, when in an almost miraculous outcome as the Eighties became the Nineties that they arrived at a place when they were pretty much the biggest band in the world.
But that's not my R.E.M.. My R.E.M. were a much more self-consciously obscure and mysterious concern. One on whose early records the lyrics were virtually indecipherable and the instruments and backing vocals weaved in dense complexity in and out of the mix to create a world that those who were disposed to what they were offering, a love for literature, art and Rock and Roll folklore, melody and enigma, fell for big time. For some people they were the band. I was one of those. My love for R.E.M. between 1983 and 1986 knew no bounds.
For me personally, looking back, it was actually about more than liking the records, the look of the band and what they said in interviews though of course all of these things played their part. It was actually about becoming myself. My adult self. This process only happens once in life and if you're fortunate as I am to be part of a loving, nurturing and supportive family, it's a moment of unique opportunity.
With all of that, you are still only allowed one first love. In life I was fortunate enough to experience two, before and just after this particular evening. One of them, a few months back before this gig during a six month gap year break in Switzerland where I'd met, worked with and fallen for a young Danish girl who I still wonder what became of, all these years later. That was unrealised, though the experience was enough in itself, a quite golden set of memories that are still there for me whenever I choose to take out a photo album in the bottom drawer of my desk and relive them. It's easy to do. Memories are like that. The other was waiting a few months down the line with someone I met then and is another story to be told elsewhere. Needless to say I played her R.E.M. records ceaselessly, much, it should be said, to her irritation.
Never mind that though. This is every bit as much about R.E.M. as it is about me. After all they themselves were embarked on their own precious journey of discovery at this point, three years into a career that had by now seen them find their way onto the front cover of magazines seen them become critics darlings and also make definite commercial inroads that the pack of wonderful American alternative guitar bands they came to prominence with in the early Eighties, were thus far denied.
I'd seen them before, a year back at the London Lyceum and attempted to do so in one of their first ventures to British shores when I'd stood in vain in a queue at The Marquee, off Oxford Street on a gig that turned to be sold out. I pretended for a while to have been there, such is the self-deceiving nature of the teenage self to friends who knew little about the band and certainly weren't captured by the spell that I was personally under. This time though I'd bought three tickets in advance, costing £4.50 each, a remarkable historical detail in itself, reminding us just how far we are now from then.
At the front of the stage after the supports had played and the stage been set up for the headliners were row upon row of clean-cut American college kids, representing the inroads R.E.M. had already made into the heartlands of their own markets. As the band took the stage, in altogether more hobo garb than their compatriots, and the backing tracks heralded the start of Feeling Gravity's Pull the atmosphere changed. Peter Buck played the eerie guitar figure that launches the song, rhythm section Mike Mills and Bill Berry kicked into gear. The crowd surged forward the college kids blanched and retreated to the back of the venue and we were off.
I can remember only fragments of the night. R.E.M. cherry picked from their first three records, they did a clutch of covers. Michael Stipe ad-libbed between songs off the cuff on politics, southern narratives and the absurd. They were playing different sets every night in those days. Writing their own scrift in a way that only a band fully confident in their own abilities can. My brother recalls a moment when Stipe and Buck seemed to fall out visibly over where they were going next.
The band built a thrilling intensity that rolled remorselessly through their set and into two lengthy extemporised encores. They nailed it. It still remains the best gig I've ever seen. Because of where they were. Because of where I was. I've seen so many wonderful bands and artists since but never one where the stars seemed so utterly aligned.
James Yorkston has become over his fifteen years of making records, something of a British Folk legend. For this is what his music is. Folk at its most reflective and ruminative with an inbuilt awareness of lives that have been lived and the delicate and transient of the lives that we ourselves are experiencing.
His new record, The Route to the Harmonium, ( and that is one terrific album title), is another brick in his wall, a record to slide onto a shelf of an excellent body of work. Best listened to early in the morning as the world renews itself in light outside your window, like all good records it's best absorbed in sequence and in its entirety. I did this yesterday morning and it's an experience I'll never quite forget. Like all the best journeys.
The Route to the Harmonium breathes in the air it was written and recorded in and breathes or occasionally spits it back out. It's what you, (or at least I), want from music, an unexpected invitation into a thinker, writer and artisan's universe.
Some time back in 2014 Irishman Adrian Crowley's Some Blue Morning was my favourite album of that particular year. The Route to the Harmonium plays a similar trick to that wonderful record. It summons something quite magical up for the listener. Makes the silence speak.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Connie Converse is the most magical artist. I'll have to write more about her on here on here at some point. Enough for the time being to say that she made a series of home recordings that you should hunt down with indefinite haste. Also that The August List do her legacy and memory justice here.
Another day, another series. I plan twenty of these and haven't made my list yet. Just a set of evenings and experiences that stick out in my mind for one reason or other. Starting with this, my very first gig, and ample evidence that this is not some late bid for credibility. I was seventeen when I went, a late developer emerging from a spotty undistinguished teenage phase, looking for ways of constructing a self.
Hammersmith was a bus ride away from my family home in South West London. Still my favourite part of that city. Even now, I dream about being on that and other local bus routes. I went to this on my own. Not ready for a girlfriend to share a particular teenage rites of passage with at this moment. Thompson Twins and Tears For Fears were both set to embark on what turned out to be sustained assaults on the British and global pop charts which would bear decidedly mixed fruit though we were none of us to know that at the time. The pop world, particularly in Britain was about to change, reflecting the times. Undoubtedly for the worse. I'll brook no arguments with that
Tears For Fears first. I had quite a bit of time for them at round about that point. Their debut album The Hurting was out and I'd bought it. All exaggerated teenage mannerisms and psychodramas but I was a bit like that at that moment and still have the diaries to prove it. Late developer as I said.
I'm listening to it now. I'd maintain it's a reasonable record but that may be my teenage self confusing me. Still, some fine melodies, magpie thievery and the title track, Mad World and Pale Shelter, some opening salvo. The singles are generally the ones that stand the test of time best. I stood a few rows back from the stage in my John Lennon specs and curly mop of hair, probably swaying slightly. Lost in irredeemably teenage thought.
The record overcomes me now eventually in terms of it's non-stop angsty projections, particularly when the pace drops. Some tracks actively repel me. I no longer have a Holden Caulfield fixation. They had tunes but little depth. Still, they were right for me at the time. I enjoyed them and they were probably one of the best support bands I've ever seen, all these years later.
Now, after a tea break to come down from Orzabal and Smith's emotional contortions I'm back to reflect on Thompson Twins. They had just made one of the most remarkable transitions in all of pop history. From a seven piece, Talking Heads fixated political seven piece to a mop haired trio of almost cartoon-ish quality, probably better suited to their name, derived from the moustachioed detectives in Tintin
I was unaware of the complete nature of the band's metamorphosis when I bought the ticket for this. I think I would probably have preferred to witness their earlier incarnation. Listening to the record this gig presaged, their breakthrough album Quick Step & Side Kick now is frankly a much more harrowing experience than getting through The Hurting, which is at least supposed to be distressing. The pop version of the Thompson Twins were one of the most conspicuous attendees of the garish pop party of the early Eighties. Duran Duran and Nik Kershaw were also there along with numerous other fortunately mostly forgotten arriviste ghouls. It was an unedifying spectacle. As for Quick Step & Side Kick, it was at the time and is still a deeply vacuous and frankly upsetting listening experience. I'm not a snob. At least not completely. There is always space for pop records that don't appeal to Velvet Underground fans like me. Some of them are just fabulous. But this is an affront. Listen to it yourself if you don't believe me. On second thoughts don't. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
I think I enjoyed them well enough. The sound was certainly impressive for a trio. Then they put down their instruments and started dancing around the stage. The music continued. It was an early lesson for me, both about the nature of the music business and about life itself. Thompson Twins and I pretty much parted company when I left the venue. Tears For Fears and I a couple of
years down the line when I heard the singles from their world conquering second album Songs From the Big Chair and they left me utterly cold. Still, for better or worse, these two were my first. Oh good, I can take Quick Step & Side Kick off now. The things I do for this blog...