Thursday, 17 December 2009


When I began writing about music online just over eight years ago, there were perhaps four or five really good music blogs on the go; well-written, thought-through and genuinely passionate blogs which told their readers something about their writers and provoked or persuaded them to go out and find the music about which they wrote so evocatively.

The field was open, and for a while we had it all to ourselves. Free to invent styles, formats, approaches, with real interaction – probably because there were far fewer bloggers with whom to interact.

Come 2003 or thereabouts and the sphere inevitably expanded; new names came on the scene and it was livened up considerably but in the increasing clamour there developed a tendency to shout, just to be heard. A tendency towards argument for argument’s sake. The setting up of defences, hostile relations, a distinct aggressiveness. The urge to stamp one’s feet in the hope of getting the lion’s share of the job market oil.

The mp3 blogs – all function and customer service, largely minimal critical input - pretty well took over, and Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al have all done their bit to regress blogs back to a state where the tired trope of blogs as vanity publishing for writers who can’t get a proper job may at least in part be justified (Twitter, if nothing else, demands concision; twenty consecutive 140-character streams of a semi-written article clogging up my inbox are unlikely to keep me following you).

At the opposing end of this decade many music blogs appear to be written by bitter and resentful people. But the same could be said of most music writing, whether online or in print.

What’s more, most of the music blogs which matter – i.e. those with interesting, well-conceived and genuinely informative writing – tend to specialise in niche markets. There’s a blog out there to satisfy every individual. But there are precious few capable of standing back and viewing the whole picture, putting everything together, coherently or otherwise. And again, it’s the same story with music magazines.

The depressingly regular air of negativity, usually undertaken in the venerable old student magazine manner of sarcastic satire – because it absolves the writer of any need to believe in anything – pervades 2009 music writing like a recalcitrant virus. It is of course the tried and tested route to popularity, helps make your name as a critic or helps re-establish your name if you’re getting to a certain age and the work’s beginning to dry up. And to be fair, many of the writers in question have families to feed and there’s a recession on.

But a life of slagging stuff off is the easiest of all lives. It’s child’s play to sit down and scribble 300 splenetic words on so-and-so or such-and-such, or else utilise statistics (since any set of statistics can be manipulated to produce the outcome you desire) or school debating society level strategies on behalf of the writers who will argue, with plenty of substantive evidence, that it’s Monday when actually it’s Thursday. Easy to pen a slag-off. And it feels good as well, doesn’t it? Cleanses you, as though you’d just been to the bathroom. Takes a load of responsibilities off your back.

Trouble is, the difficult stuff takes skill and talent. That is, constructing a well-written, properly-argued piece, taking all available evidence into account and remembering never to take your own views or prejudices for granted. That takes time and effort and is therefore not encouraged in today’s must-have-80-words-by-yesterday marketplace. Also, quality writing takes time, patience, dedication and not a little skill to read. If it’s ambiguous or densely layered, then it doesn’t make headlines and thus ends up unread.

Message boards too. There are message boards and fora for every prejudice and passion and they all end up the same; populated by bitter and resentful people who have found a target for the inner fury, rage and pseudo-authority which they are unable to project in their normal lives. The kind of person to whom tetchiness is as natural and instinctive as breathing. Not the sort of place for the sensitive and troubled type who will most likely be bullied, ridiculed, driven out of the “community” and, in extreme cases. perhaps a little closer to suicide. Or the ordinary reader looking for creative exchanges of ideas and information.

What I eventually realised, years after I ought to have done, was that far greater rewards are to be gained by transferring the time and energy spent contributing to message boards to your own writing. Build your own castle instead of squatting in others. You’ll be happier and much more fulfilled in the end. And I haven’t regretted leaving the message boards behind at all.

I do regret not posting more about the music of now – or indeed of any time – on this blog but Then Play Long has become my priority work, and rightly so; I’m extremely proud of it and what it has achieved, even though I fully realise that this will be the work of a lifetime and that I may not live to tell the full story (unless, by the time I reach 2009 in approximately seventeen years’ time, albums have long since absented the market). In addition, of course, there has been the book of this blog to put together – fifty or so of its best/most representative posts – and various other projects to consider. Not to mention my actual life.

As far as this year is concerned, there will definitely be a list to come, probably soon after the New Year (but, with any luck, much sooner than February!), and as with last year’s it will be distinctly different from any other list doing the rounds. We have no plans for end-of-decade lists. This is in part because there is a crucial year missing within me – 2001 – and I need to address that time in belated detail. But there is also the fact that the various lists which have emerged are pretty dreary and identikit. The trouble is that everyone seems to be voting for records which they think will get in the top ten, rather than their ten actual favourite records – which of course would make infinitely more interesting reading – and the inevitable mass consensus culminates in the predictable and unrewarding results.

Oh, and one more thing. Comments boxes. I would estimate that approximately 90% of comments which get posted to my blogs get rejected. Even allowing for spammers and trolls, it’s an unusually high proportion but the reasons for my hardcore approach to comments are simply that I don’t consider my blogs to be brick walls upon which any passing gimp can spray whatever they want. I have the final say in what gets published and really anything that doesn’t have an element of punctum to it, regardless of who posted it, gets binned. In particular I’m keen to dissuade the type of commenter usually referred to as a “nitpicker.” The blind man finding fault in the elephant. The person obsessed with finding the one wrong thing in an argument rather than celebrating the thousand things that are right about it. Nothing wrong with correcting misconceptions or facts if they’re wrong, of course, but if the information is delivered in a tetchy manner – and you recognise that after eight years of dealing with it – then I’ll simply incorporate corrections (if of course they are actually correct) into the piece and not publish the comment. This demonstrates respect for the time and intelligence of visitors to these blogs, and encourages commenters to raise their standards. Blogging is still in its infancy, and arguably still learning to walk, talk and think; but its best examples have I feel proved themselves to be as profound and life-changing as any great literature of the past.

And to any new visitors, I say; if you come to my blogs with an open mind (since music writing is currently being suffocated by writers who won’t or can’t change their minds), a keenness to learn and a willingness to question your own opinions and feelings (as well as mine, provided that it doesn’t get personal or hurtful), then I think you’ll enjoy them.

And finally, from someone who has in the last eight years been guilty of all of the above sins, and far, far worse, I wish you happy reading, and an even happier 2010.

Monday, 30 November 2009


Received my copy of this book in the mail on Saturday and all I can do is urge you to go out and buy it. The Paul Lester piece is maybe the best thing he's ever written and the Penman coda is, to put it mildly, a major event; the kind of writing which made me want to start writing in the first place. Lots of emotional and theoretical fireworks going on and my contribution is nicely placed at Chapter 6 like a Christine McVie calming the house down in the midst of multiple Buckinghams and Nickses. You'll be pleased to hear that most of the contributors, myself included. will have their own books coming out in the course of next year, but in the meantime this is an ideal Christmas present for those wondering what happened to decent printed music writing in the last ten years.

Monday, 16 November 2009

To Listen Is To Feel: GLENN GOULD: The Latecomers

In order to talk about the central, it is necessary to get out of it to the outside.

The other afternoon I went to the ICA to see/hear a presentation by Mark Fisher (aka k-punk) - he was inaugurating the Deep Listening Club (as part of Calling Out Of Context), a rough group of listeners who will gather now and then to listen in near darkness to sound pieces, albums, etc. It happened in a white room with gray cloth-covered canvases here and there; even if the lights were on, there wouldn't be too much to distract the eye from the ear's work. I use the word work very deliberately, as we were not there to just hear what was coming out of the two speakers, but to listen.

What we gathered to hear was a sound collage by Glenn Gould called The Latecomers (1969), a documentary of sorts about life in Newfoundland, Canada. I don't know if I was the only person in the room to have ever lived in Canada, but the show felt intimate to me in so many ways (and I haven't even been to Newfoundland)! As the piece continued and gathered strength, multiplied layers, I really felt as if I knew these people, smelt the sea air, felt the constant play of surf on the shore, experienced their rural lives and awkward acceptance of change since they had joined Confederation in 1949. As goes Newfoundland, Gould says, so then goes the rest of Canada. Solitude is solitude of the mind, eventually, against the government and the natural elements. (The general audience at the ICA probably didn't know this, but The Latecomers was broadcast in November of '69, just two years after the general centennial celebrations, forever associated with this great song and Expo '67 in Montreal; a kind of Canadian cool was being developed as well, by Gould, by Marshall McLuhan and by future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.)

Fisher introduced the idea of how odd and discomforting and intimate listening to something in tandem with strangers can be (and is); people gather regularly to watch things and attend museums; why not gather to listen to things as well? As someone who was taught music appreciation at a rather young age (even before I officially was taught to sit & be quiet and listen to music, my father was teaching me how to do this by example - he never lectured me that much, trusting I would find my way, memorize songs, become familiar with instruments, etc.), this didn't seem quite as odd as it may have been to others. It's hard to know, as after Gould's piece was over no one said what I expected - that they had not had this kind of experience since they were kids in music class, or perhaps just in the backseat of their parents' car, eyes closed, radio on, listening...

No, the talk was about how this sort of thing - gathered adults in a place to listen intently to something - had happened before (the North in the first half of the last century) and there was some comment in general about the structure of the piece and its actual produced qualities. But no one took the piece in and felt it hit them; or if they did, they didn't speak up. When Gould played back his first piece of this trilogy, The Idea of North, to a friend of his, she listened for a few minutes and then started to cry, and Gould was very touched and pleased with her reaction - in some ways I would guess that she understood his message, what was underneath it, and was less concerned with the technicalities of the piece.

The Latecomers takes you into the tough, isolated and foggy world of Newfoundland and gives you back, oddly, a version of yourself, particularly if you are a creative person on the outside (even in super-central London, a mere half mile from Buckingham Palace itself). It isn't necessarily tear-jerking, but the listeners that surrounded me were perhaps a bit too guarded in their responses (I wondered afterwards if some food & drink afterward would have loosened them up a bit) and no one who spoke seemed to take in and digest the subject matter - the perpetual Canadian/Gouldian subject matter of independence, collectivity and how to deal with technology. They are definitely autobiographical and in a way to fail to respond to The Latecomers is a failure to respond to the mind behind it as well. As the listeners are all residents on their own island that is also grappling with letting go of the past in order to get to a better (it is hoped) future, I would have thought the piece would have set up a mirror; instead I could only conclude that the blankness around me was a reflection of how either deep Gould's work went, or how maybe some people were lulled into a kind of non-observing hearing of the piece instead. I hope not; I hope that those who did attend got over the mere novelty of their being together in the first place and were able to also sense the joyful determination of the Newfoundland people, people who are defiantly independent even in the face of opposition or defeat. A collective sense of purpose is what unites them, as it should form in the Deep Listening Club.

As for me, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to the next listening session; perhaps this time it will be Scott Walker, though it may as well be Charles Spearin's The Happiness Project, a unique work also from Canada that deals with, well, happiness. (Or is that too radical for the ICA?)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Mike COTTON SOUND: Soul Serenade

On Saturday I found this compilation The Mood Swings: An EMI Music Sampler in the charity shop, buried amidst a pile of what largely looked like the usual collection of music magazine freebies. Actually I had been looking for it for some years and it was one of those quietly electrifying moments which makes the whole used music junkie endeavour worthwhile. As usual, these things always surface when you're NOT specifically looking for them. It was part of a 3 CDs for 99p deal and when I tell you that the other two I picked to make up the numbers were Shut It!: Music From The Sweeney and the superb Hed Kandi Back To Love 3 2CD compilation of vintage 12-inch mixes (how often do you see the 12-inch mix of Shannon's "Let The Music Play" on CD, rather than the inapt and inept 3:32 edit which gets lumped onto every compilation ever? Plus Dan Hartman's "Vertigo/Relight My Fire" in its entire nine-and-a-half minute glory plus half-forgotten glories like KC Flight's "Planet E"?) then you'll recognise that it was one of those magical days. Amazed that no one wanted any of these but there you go.

I knew of The Mood Swings because a friend of mine in The Music Industry has had a copy for some time and I quietly grrrr'ed every time he played it. It came out in 2000 and is so obscure that this is probably the first mention it'll get on Google. Unbelievable because it's a fantastic compilation; all (or largely) instrumental and clearly intended only for industry use and circulation - it was a limited edition and several tracks, including the one under consideration today, bear a dubious question mark about copyright ownership on the sleeve credits. It starts off with the Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Firecracker" (what an opener in this Bonfire season!) and then goes all over the place, checking in at familiar stops ("Nut Rocker," "Hit And Miss") before diverting into less expected sideroads (fairly unknown tracks by Les Paul and Sandy Nelson, things like Helmut Zacharias' '64 Olympics theme "Tokyo Melody") and finally, and beautifully, moving into Warpland with tracks from Plone, Boards of Canada, Jimi Tenor and others, settling perfectly with Nightmares on Wax's "Les Nuits" as a closer.

It's a brilliant anthology and this track in particular - track 2 - is totally unavailable on CD. One of those meat-and-spuds R&B tunes that seemingly everyone and their dog covered - King Curtis recorded the original version - this reading has an extra, rather frightening spark to its strut. These days Mike Cotton is better known as a stalwart of the UK trad jazz scene but for a period in the sixties his band went into R&B mode and became reliable backers of many visiting American soul stars. This version of "Soul Serenade" - in its King Curtis manifestation, already a huge floorfiller on the nascent Northern Soul scene - was recorded specifically for use as the theme tune to Mike Raven's pioneering Radio 1 R&B show which ran throughout the late sixties and very early seventies. Mike Raven - now there was a life, or several lives compressed into one. Tall, saturnine and lightly bearded, he came across as a slightly unsettling missing link between Peter Wyngarde and Charlie Gillett. But he lived; wartime Army officer, ballet dancer, photographer, explorer, actor and then - well into his mid-forties - a DJ, and a hugely influential one at that. And after that he went back to acting (in Hammer and Amicus horror films) before spending the last quarter-century or so of his life as a farmer and acclaimed sculptor. I very much doubt whether today's call centre probot drones with their Better Music Mixes could even begin to match that. His was an absolutely fascinating life and I draw your attention to this very fine tribute website. Really it ought to be an example to all of us. The whole process of life is about change and if you don't change your life regularly it's not worth having.

But "Soul Serenade." That lovely, winking come-into-the-parlour five-note carillon of organ and bass guitar before erupting into a lusty, high-pitched brass shuffle. Superb guitar solo - from, I believe, Micky Moody, later of Whitesnake - and a fevered Hammand solo where you can actually hear the keys rattling like St Peter's impatient bouncer - and then a hysterical, volcanic and totally unexpected (if extremely abrupt) coda. Simultaneously brutalist and welcoming, and worth grabbing whenever and wherever you see it.
(UPDATE: No sooner had I posted this yesterday than I saw in the paper that Luther Dixon, co-writer of "Soul Serenade," had died. RIP big man indeed.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


I can't say I'm bereft by the loss of the Observer Music Monthly. Obviously I'm not going to gloat about anyone losing their job either but who can say they didn't see it coming? It fell between every conceivable stool; earnest but not mischievous, po-faced (especially when it tried to be funny), too much time wasted trying to be "fair" and not upsetting the artists/PR companies/other assorted backslappers, and frequently (as with this month's chief feature) coming on like your grandad doing the Mashed Potato to deadmau5 when striving manfully to be With It. I mean, the first wave of Brit Pop was Ivor Novello and Noel Coward wunnit (cue howls of protest from the Marie Lloyd Appreciation Society). I wouldn't have minded reading a feature on either or both of those two. Or indeed writing one. It's a bit of a bore when I look for something interesting to read about X or Y and end up having to write it myself. Happens a lot.
But I stopped taking the Observer ages ago, thanks to its continued rightward drift, only ever skimmed OMM online, and I guess many others came to the same conclusion. And it was very quick to skim. It really was tedious; the print equivalent of Later with Jools H, worthy in the dullest manifestation of worthiness anyone could conceive. Not sexy or verbose or provocative other than provoking the usual yawn when one opened up its pages and saw yet again that tired old claque still in place - Sawyer, Morley, you name them, I'll blame them, dead thoughts leaking from dried pens - instead of exciting, new, young writers who actually have a hunger for music and aren't afraid to tell the truth. Or at least do some entertaining encomiums and slag-offs.
So what's the solution? It's no use looking to the other, non-newspaper connected monthlies, except for five minutes apiece in Sainsbury's. If you're alive you can forget about going on the cover of Uncut for a start. But Q and Mojo and their still surprisingly numerous imitators are no better; stillborn medium-form nostalgia or sarky soundbites about "new" acts, and, as always, actual critical commentary reduced to the barest of minimums. How soon before they cut down from the current 80-word limit to tracklistings and emoticons?
OK, the way things are now it's a no-win situation. "All music writing now is free. Deal with it," some will say, and not without justification. So the print monthlies and the broadsheet music sections are backed into a corner; because they don't have "fuck you" money they have to please the majority of their demographic and their advertisers and that means not offending, toeing the line, playing safe, knowing which side your bread's buttered. However I refuse to believe that there isn't still a market for a literate and entertaining regular print music magazine. One that will attract and startle. One that will not convey the past to the garbage heap but will not live in the past either. One that treats its readers as intelligent, astute, independently-minded grown-ups rather than one-year-old babies from Burma (copyright: Danny Baker) who need everything spelled out to them as though Google or brains didn't exist. One that's colourful but not superficial. One that's intense but not closed off (cf. The Wire). One where Zizek and N-Dubz can happily coexist, one whose writing will stimulate and inspire the next generation of music writers. And, most importantly, one which will employ the current generation of provocative and original music writers rather than the same old withered hacks and/or their mates. I'm working on a business proposal now.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

DARKSTAR: Aidy's Girl's A Computer

I recently bought the 5 Years Of Hyperdub compilation on CD. I know - I can already hear the rude laughter ricocheting from Dalston Kingsland. If only I'd been there at Wonky Warehouse Records in Newham at 2:48 pm on a cold Wednesday afternoon in March 2006 I could have snapped up some limited edition etched 10-inches. Worse, I bought it on the basis of an article I read in the Guardian. Pathetic, isn't it? MC Scavenger, waits for everyone else to do the donkey work then just strolls into HMV like a middle class plantation owner. Who the hell does he think he is?

Now I know that there is some form about all this 'nuum business and that there's been some right royal sparring going on. It's like 2004 all over again. I've been happy to keep well clear of it, mainly because nobody seems to have come up with a ready definition of what "hardcore continuum" means. There have been a lot of unready definitions for sure but the slugging matches have been great fun to watch (never mind dull old Melanie Phillips, get Melissa Bradshaw and K-Punk and Dan Hancox and Alex SBA and all the rest of the combatants on The Moral Maze! Watch the ratings shoot up!). Furthermore, and confusingly, although Dan's piece is exactly the sort of article this simpleton wanted, it wriggles out of the nuum dilemma entirely by stating that the movement epitomised by Hyperdub's records is "so new that it has yet to take a street name." Maybe all those confused Clapton and Waits fans would have become even more befuddled and sped off to the Independent. Even so, the comparisons to Scriabin and the exceptionally New Pop French philosophy kick - ah, that pesky New Pop, it just won't go away, will it? - are bang on and Kode9 himself comes up with this very handy pocket definition (trust a Glaswegian to get to the point!). I totally get it.

Reeling from that rarest of things - a music article in the Guardian that's actually of some practical use - made me ponder a bit more. Mainly the fact that the main reason why it's been hard for me to get my head around the whole nuum business is that it's been so inadequately explained. You see, there are two ways for the punter to go. One type of punter reads apparently complex, multifocal articles and wonders: "hmm, I wish the writer had explained it a little better." The other type reads the same articles and mourns: "oh, I wish I was cleverer so I could understand what the writer was saying." I'm definitely in the first category. Given that I went to grammar school and Oxford and once wrote a detailed 6500-word essay on Finnegan's Wake it therefore stands to reason that if I can't grasp something it's probably the fault of the writer rather than me. If I'm interested in something I want it explained to me in simple (never to be confused with simplistic) terms. Of everyone who's had a go K-Punk relates to me most because he has demonstrated evidence of listening to the key records and making or at any rate discerning useful connections, both philosophically and sociopolitically, although Melissa Bradshaw has also put in her highly entertaining, splenetic guinea's worth. Doesn't get me a whole lot closer to assimilating and understanding the thing as a "movement," however, especially since much of the movement, rhythmically and otherwise, on the key records seem furtive, restrained, crepuscular, skirting around the boards of foment like the nocturnal urban rambler who shrinks himself against a hidden wall until the gang has passed and the streets once more know silence.

Then again I'm someone who reckons that the minimalist (in volume if not intent) warping of perspectives and harmonics has also worked when maximalised in a pop context. Let's get something straight now. Anyone who doesn't get "Bonkers" shouldn't be writing about pop in 2009. Should actually give up listening to pop, let alone write about it. Back to your Editors CDs, Grandad. It's the same as it was with "Jack Your Body" and "Pump Up The Volume" in 1987 - the goalposts have been shaken out of their roots and a lot of people have been caught short or caught out.

(Was there the same kind of maximalism in 1987 pop? Perhaps from the rap and PWL perspective, but it's remarkable how both "Jack" and the original mix of "Pump" carried that same furtive mist of scurrying paws within their rhythmic templates. Nevertheless "Bonkers" represents a culture shift and not a Shoreditch surrender.)

But enough of the rambling. "Aidy's Girl's A Computer" is great and moving. It tentatively pops into the lower left hand corner of our eyesight with a few plaintive bleeps and then the beat - a familiar 1995 sort of beat - kind of wanders in. There's a processed voice saying something which sounds like "feeling" and which provides a poignant harmonic bent to the quietly bustling rhythms of the song itself. But then the beat divides itself, absents itself for stretches, and the central body of the song quivers like a soon-to-be-discovered earthworm. The abandoned PacMan searches throughout the song's pores for this "feeling," can't quite grasp its essence. Eventually there is a long drone, sustained like the most perfect of damaged sunrises, and at the end the same (?) voice utters: "Good morning." Pure Kraftwerk, pure magic, and this is just one of the marvellously versatile factors which go into this collection of tracks and make the last five years seem - not different, perhaps, historically, but crucially augmented. The spaces are perhaps more in keeping with the heritage of Oval - picture this lone waster proclaiming back in the day that 94 Diskont was the future, or at any rate one of the most viable futures, when everyone else was salivating over Menswear and Gallon Drunk - than JA dub techniques, but as with the latter it is left for the listener to fill in the spaces; as Mingus said of both Elvin Jones and Dannie Richmond, the beats never go anywhere near the beat, and are therefore more mobile and perhaps more tactile. Beautiful and one of the year's key tracks, whatever anyone chooses to call it.


Don't know how long this is going to stay up, given that the paper is shutting down next week, but it's amazing how critics somehow manage finally to let go when they know their job's coming to an end. I previously never thought Paul Connolly anything more than a Somerfield Petridish but his remarks on the new Leona are a masterclass in the noble art of considered invective and makes me feel more at ease about the far distant time when I'll have to write about this impeccably dismal album. It's as if the real Paul Connolly has burst out and run a glorious lap of slag-off honour. Almost a Peter Finch in Network moment really. More of this in general please and MUCH less of the recycled press release/bland yea-saying. You might actually get more readers.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

PROCOL HARUM: Pandora's Box

Caught this on the radio the other night. Lena hadn’t heard it before and was blown away by it. It’s a curious record to be sure, and an even curiouser single to go Top 20 (only just) in 1975. While the video squeals “1975!” nothing in this record sounds remotely like anything happening in 1975, not even the 1975 of “I’m Not In Love” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I have it on one of those old school no-frills double compilations called The Collection which I bought for about 10p donkey’s years ago. I miss those compilations of old; I’ve been going through a number of them for TPL of late – the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Hollies, the Seekers; somebody in EMI marketing knew what the time was in 1968 – and all you got were track listings, a couple of photos, and that was it. No liner notes, scholarly or otherwise; the artists were a mystery and as the listener it was up to you to formulate a story out of their music if you didn’t know them already. I don’t have its parent album since Procol’s Ninth was a bit of a stinker, though I thoroughly recommend going out and getting their first four albums plus the live album they did with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra plus 1974’s Exotic Birds And Fruit which may well be their masterpiece. Grand Hotel from 1973 isn’t bad either if you’ve never heard John Cale’s Paris 1919.

Procol were definitely in a bit of a quandary by 1975 and it’s unsurprising that Gary Brooker blew the whistle a couple of years later; Leiber and Stoller had been drafted in to produce Procol’s Ninth and it seems to have been a botched back-to-basics type move with a couple of odd cover versions (tackling “Eight Days A Week” was, to put it mildly, misguided). Moreover, “Pandora’s Box,” the album’s only decent track, seems to have been laid down much earlier and rescued from the shelf.

It really is a strange piece of work. Keith Reid’s free association historical namechecks, ranging from Handel to Morse, get their typical airing, and there is the overall “Salty Dog” feeling of being marooned in the middle of nowhere, groping to find treasure, or revelation, in strange lands, as evinced by the Paul Bowles-like “marble staircased plain” which materialises so ghostily at the end of each verse (there isn’t really a chorus). The song stops and starts and there are elements of both 1969 and 1981 at work; the Harrison-esque Leslie cabinet guitar solo, the general still-can’t-find-our-way-home aura of fuggy mystique, but also a serene cleanliness in the pronounced marimba strikes, the petrol station synthesisers (Korg string?), the peculiarly cheery flute solo and Spanish main-brushing slow samba beat, as though the mystery is cleaning itself up clinically in preparation for an airily brushed future. And that weird, where-did-my-hands-go guitar delay throb which lurks as though wanting to blow the song up. Ah, the title's forewarning of the selfish, unthinking Westerner come to fuck up the East with their stupid sixteenth century ambitions.

Its principal factor, though, is Brooker’s voice – this is a less clearcut journey through jazzy towpaths than Traffic’s, though Brooker and Winwood do tend to get bracketed together as countrified white soul psychouts. At least I do, and maybe Kate Bush does too, given Brooker’s key contributions to her (comparatively) recent albums. But look at him on the video clip, and swim in his strangely upturned eyebrow of “plain” – am I the only one considering the subtle influence of Bill Fay?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I'm curious enough to want to check this out. There's a copy downstairs in the Oxfam branch where Lena works and I'll put in a fair bid.

UPDATE: Got it for £1.99. Extremely fair, I must say. Will report back later.


Rosie's a scream, in'she? I was away on holiday a little while ago and she posted this presumably thinking I wasn't going to find it when I came back. Actually she's got me bang to rights. Historians, eh? What do they know? If you weren't there you'll never understand and you should shut up. It's the truth for sure. That Hilary Mantel, for instance. What does she know about Thomas Cromwell and sixteenth century Britain? She's only fifty-seven! She should hand back the money to Booker and send her CBE back to the Palace straightaway. Wouldn't trust her with a tithed pole.

Really I'm more of a tiresome middle-aged egotist. I'll deal with old when/if I get there (if the propsect of "old" incorporates the necessity to write about albums by Kasabian and White Lies, though, I might have to rethink that concept). I've never hacked for the NME though. I did do two years freelancing on Uncut and then they got fed up with me and stopped ringing me. Quite right too. I wouldn't have hired me back in the 2004 day. Which makes me more than grateful to the people who did. But that's another story.

Still, I do feel the need to correct a few assumptions which are still floating around whatever is left of this here quarter of the music blogosphere (does anyone still use that term without rue or irony?). Only a few, mind. I'm only going to address this topic once and then it's back to normal business. I'm aware that some people still perceive me as a "bloated-egoed (sic) nobody" and "wannabe journalist." A shyster. A flip-flopping bandwagon jumper. A stuck record (there he goes again, punctum this, punctum that). A lost case. A bullshit merchant. An unalloyed egocratic wreck. An obsessive trainspotter. A bitter old carcass of a man rotting away in penurious hell who missed his chance 25 years ago and has nothing better to do than have a go at Guardian music writers. A straightahead tl; dr crackpot. And that's just the readers who like me boom boom.

For those who need it clarifying, here's how I do on Popular. Again, pay attention because I will say this only once. I read what Tom has to say about each entry. Then I turn to my specially preprepared commentary (sorry to burst the spontaneity bubble but, some of you may be surprised to hear, I do have both a day job and a life and it does save a lot of time if I turn to one I made earlier), tweak it to take out anything overtly personal or anything about which I might have changed my mind since originally writing it, and then add anything that occurs to me in the course of retooling the entry. Then I post. Then I stand back and let everyone else get on with it. If anyone wants clarification of certain points or wishes to correct any historical or aesthetic inaccuracies of mine then fair enough and I'll respond if the discussion is relevant. But otherwise the comments boxes take their own course and I don't wade back in; certainly it is no longer my business to start or engage in pointless "arguments" which is precisely why I'm taking this onto the blog rather than filling up valuable debating space on Popular. My instinctive view is that most Popular readers sigh "tl;dr" to themselves when they see my ramblings and move on quickly around the inert mass. But again that's fair enough. I can't force people to read me. The important thing is that I said it and it works as an integral part of that particular community.

And, just to wrap things up, one final word to those who really have nothing better to do than carry on with the slurs, or have the habit of accusatorily dredging up things I said four or five years ago when my life and views were utterly different from what they are now: when it comes down to it, you don't know me, you have no idea about how I've lived my life, what I've done with it, what I've lived through, what I've learned or how I learned it. So think good and hard before you make assumptions.

Friday, 30 October 2009


I saw this in the paper yesterday and although I’m glad that someone other than me is banging this particular drum it’s a shame that Lynsey had to lower the tone a little – and I use my metaphors VERY carefully, I’ll have you know – and turn the piece into yet another grumble about Class, fourteen years after Jarvis put that non-argument to bed (if only he could drag himself out of his own self-made bed and start making decent music again, eh?). The charts full of poshos and BRITites? Forgive me for missing something peculiarly obvious here but I look at the current chart and at number one by a whomping great margin (nearly 293K copies/downloads sold) is a working-class lass from Newcastle. Can’t say I think much of it, or about it – although the title track of 3 Words is an unexpected, winding wonder, even if I suspect the song was taken straight off the BEPs’ spare shelf and I might have preferred Emma Bunton or Mel C to sing it with – but Cowell or no Cowell (and actually it was Louis Walsh, but hey ho) this isn’t exactly the Bullingdon Club Hit Parade. Don’t see any reference to quadrangles, dormitories or gimlet eyes in Calvin or Tinchy’s story either. Ah, generalisations, don’t they make complex arguments so simple?

As I’ve said I don’t know how many times, the formula is simple; reinstate TOTP at a time when everyone will be guaranteed to watch it (and yes, I agree with Lynsey here quite fervently, if they have to shift an episode or seven of EastEnders to do so then fine – who’s watching it now anyway?) and refrain from all efforts to make the programme “cool” or “relevant”; the kids are lost to the online world and the only way you’ll get them back is by going for the huge X-Factor Event button and pushing it; something, as in days of olde, that families watched together and could argue over – call that music, boy or girl, &c. Have the show do precisely what it was intended to do in the first place; reflect what is selling, get the artists in and encourage them to make a show of it. And the presenters – don’t get call centre drones who are only allowed to wear Cool Black and talk in Method Acting whispers (i.e. you can’t hear them), get personalities, get Moyles, Westwood, anyone, to go on there and be gloriously daft and naff. Make it Family Light Entertainment and marvel at any subversion that sneaks through – isn’t that why we of a certain age all remember it so well anyway? Watching Later with J Holland is like attending school assembly. The populist alternative is needed. Otherwise Cowellism will keep dominating the charts because what’s there to compete with him?

But where I have to diverge pretty wildly from Lynsey is when she starts prattling on about most of today’s Top 40 being guff compared with the exciting charts of 20 years ago. Again, let me remind you of some inconvenient facts – and if you’re quick you can hear it online – but the charts of October 1989 were fucking terrible, Jive Bunny taking out a mortgage at number one, blandness everywhere; nobody with any sense took any notice of the charts then. These days things are going a wee bit downhill from the epic beauty of earlier 2009 – but again most of that is ascribable to the Cowellite effect – but if you asked me to choose between the Top 40 of now and that of 1989 then it’s a complete no-brainer, just as I would never swap today for 1978 again if you paid me. As usual, the writer is really lamenting being 34 and tied down by the shit of an accumulated life rather than being fourteen, carefree, all fields round here &c. And if one more person cites bleeding “Starman” – a hit three years before our Lynsey was born – then I’m going to have to go all Pigmeat Markham on their coccyx. Argue for TOTP’s reinstatement by all means, but quit pretending that things were better in anybody’s old day. Otherwise we get TOTP2 with Steve Wright and the same old clips you've seen a billion times before to keep Mr Compliance happy = graffitied aesthetic mausoleum.

Friday, 23 October 2009

ELTON DEAN'S NINESENSE: Happy Daze/Oh! For The Edge

I’ve said things about Ninesense before, and it’s more than nice to have their two Ogun LPs – or most of them, but I’ll get back to that in a moment – back on CD, not just to remind today’s F-Ire types of their illustrious predecessors but also to revise my own views towards their recorded output. Certainly until a few years ago I was slightly cagey about both Oh! For The Edge and Happy Daze in terms of their worth as records; were they really representative of the roaring, apocalyptic band I saw on stage at the Third Eye Centre around the time of punk, or was there a degree of holding back? The question was further shaken up by the arrival of the Live At The BBC CD containing the two sessions they recorded for Radio 3’s Jazz In Britain, one of which turned out to be their only recording with Mongezi Feza in the line-up, and both of which contained tunes from their previously published albums, but in a notably rougher and more vibrant form.

Conceptually there was no ambiguity about the group; they were a pretty direct crossover between Keith Tippett’s old sextet and the Brotherhood of Breath and their music reflected that, both danceable and troublesomely spiritual. Oh! For The Edge sees them in action, albeit reduced to Eightsense by the absence of second trombonist Radu Malfatti, before what sounds like a sadly sparse audience (you can count the handclaps) at the 100 Club in March 1976, and the band appears to expand in order to fill the room (hear the still astonishing “Forsoothe” for evidence of this). Happy Daze was recorded in the studio some 16 months later, fresh from being performed at the Bracknell Jazz Festival. As a “suite” it doesn’t really hold up – the ongoing curse of prove-yourself-to-us-jobsworths in terms of grants and commissions; if you’re wondering why sixties and seventies recorded British jazz is so befuddled by “suites” which never quite cohere as a whole it’s because it was practically the only way to get funding – and indeed (as the BBC disc confirmed) all of these tunes already existed, but as an album it works a lot better than I remember it, and Tippett’s work on the ballad “Sweet F.A.” in particular remains dazzlingly, limpidly and mischievously exceptional. And Dick Whitbread’s collage for Oh! For The Edge is still one of my favourite of all album covers.

The problem is that, on the CD, side two of Oh! For The Edge has been truncated; in order to fit both albums onto one CD, that side’s key performance of Feza’s “Friday Night Blues” – some 12½ minutes long on the original record – has been cut down to its final five minutes or so, i.e. Elton’s alto solo (discreetly faded in) and the final theme statement. The trouble is that this imbalances the album completely; Feza’s death was a major torpedo to the scene which Ogun celebrated and documented and the whole of side two was structured as a tribute to him, with the relaxed swing of “FNB” being bookended by Dean’s solemn “M.T.” and the final “Prayer For Jesus.” Furthermore, by editing the performance, we miss a wonderful solo by Harry Beckett – Feza’s replacement in the group, whose solo pays explicit tribute to him – and (shame!) one of the few recorded solos by Mark Charig on tenor horn. The length is essential to accommodate the stretch and release, following on from the cathartic roars of “Forsoothe,” and it is a dismal reflection on the stupid state of funding that economics have dictated that Ogun cut down the album in order to accommodate everything on one CD (rather than a 2CD reissue, which really should have happened). So I’m afraid for the full picture you’ll need to keep an eye out for the vinyl original, complete with whatever absurd price has been pasted on it.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

SHIT ROBOT: Simple Things (Work It Out)

It’s the same old story; he woke up this morning and his baby was gone. The opening descending cascade of whole tone cloudy synths depicts him struggling out of his dream. But this is a loneliness far more acute; unlike the Jagger of “Miss You,” this guy can’t even make it out of his house to strut down the street in assumed grief. A Mr Fingers weightless bass; memories of a lifetime passed, mendaciously ticking away his remaining minutes.

This guy is Ian Svenonious, once the mainstay of Nation of Ulysses, then of The Make-Up, and his is one of the most exceptional vocal performances of this decade. This isn’t simply a weary, bluesy loneliness, but something far more acute, and a feeling sinisterly recognisable. He can barely function. The 1987/9 beats (“Aspirin Trax”?) continue to count him down but he is stumbling. The vocal owes a good deal to Alan Vega and rather more to the Presley of “Heartbreak Hotel,” that original widowed sprite that just won’t go away from pop, has been sentenced to live forever. At regular periods he issues a ghastly, multiphonic shriek, which sounds like breath being reversed back into his lungs at double speed, but more often than not he quivers, shivers in Marcus Lambkin’s echoes. There may be simple things, but without “you” he can’t do them. The occasional quadruple smash of Roland snare drum and cymbal fails to propel him out into the air.

He thinks awhile about where technology has brought us, about machines which can sing, and all he has to do is open his eyes – but even that is fraught with impossibility. His teeth chatters, his nose groans in a way seldom seen since the Lennon of “Cold Turkey.” The requisite House piano enters, less regally than the Lincoln Mayorga of “Big Man” or Andy Williams’ version of “God Only Knows,” and the track is cooking as well as ticking but his internal absence of fire is unquenchable.

Eventually, the bassline reveals itself as “The Sun Rising” – or should that be “Can You Feel It?” (the Larry Heard one, not the Jacksons – but then again, MJ could and should have sung this) – and the singer’s distress multiples upon itself; he is reduced to Gene Vincent hiccups, Phil Minton avant-scatting, anything to emphasise his WISH for someone just to “come to my house” and “help me out.” But the only answer he gets is from Lambkin’s impersonal spellcheck robot intoning “Work it out! Work, work it out!” like a cross fitness instructor. His blood and spleen decorate the track like buckshot ballast, still freezing in that padded corner, wondering if his hand can ever reach the door. I’ve been there, he is clearly still there, the son of House in a mess of wired-up blues. The best DFA record since “Yeah.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Listen to words like “She looks so cold and splendid” and look at that cover and then talk about attendant irony. I knew the second half of 1982 wasn’t quite going as it should have done when Leisure Process failed to conquer the charts (at least the national ones; all four of their singles did pretty good business back home in Scotland). If “Love Cascade” from the beginning of that year suggested a Human League with Howard Devoto as lead singer, then their second single took the funk from the Ultratheque and transformed it into rolling, petulant waves of water.

Much of the success of “A Way You’ll Never Me” can be ascribed to the friendly tug of war which persists throughout the record – and the 12” version is absolutely vital to find – between singer Ross Middleton’s imperiously detached lectern and the juice into which the rest of the musicians are squashing his pronouncements. Middleton sounds aggrieved, more than mildly excited, during the verses (“B-b-baby’s got a brrrrrrrand new toy/She’s-a-cracracracracrackin’ up theeggshell boys”), before switching to solemn, Sunlight washing up liquid hymnals for the slowly mounting chorus. “Just contemplate her beauty/She sees through you and me.” He could be singing about a Green Gartside comma-inverted Ideal Girl, or about Thatcher, or about New York, but it is the disparity between his soaring ambition and the rambling ramraid of the music behind and beside him that makes this song work so well.

Middleton raps midway through and sounds like a 14-year-old (as he should, and as the song demands). “Someone young just gave to me/The gift of synchronicity” he announces, a year ahead of Sting, before Gary Barnacle – the other half of LP – breaks in with a moderately inflamed Davey Payne-esque R&B/skronk alto solo. After a final, frantic octave leap on “SPLENDID!” Middleton settles into a long, grumbling fade – why CAN’T you be like her/it/them? Producer Martin Rushent does his characteristic stereoscopic 1964 Linn drumkit thing and keeps the song’s spaces as wide open as the Hudson.

But the medals here go to the guest rhythm section, Mark King and Phil Gould, on loan from Level 42, then not quite having broken through to the mainstream and still being described by Morley as “pop ECM” (hear 1981’s “Turn It On” and argue otherwise), but with experience under their belts with “M” man Robin Scott, so they were quite accustomed and attuned to New Pop tactics. Gould’s drums throb throughout like a patient migraine while King gives one of his finest recorded performances, his bass banding rubbers around the track like an exploding Durex machine, the song’s tricky 11/8 rhythm admirably steered. Just four nigh-perfect singles – “Cashflow” and “Anxiety” followed in 1983 – and that was it; no album, no CD compilation (as yet – hint hint), and the enterprise petered out. Barnacle has continued to blow sax for just about everyone in British pop over the subsequent quarter century, and I’m not too sure what happened to Ross Middleton – there was a bit of “where has he gone?” hopeful enigma in the music press at the time but my guess is he went off and got a Proper Job – but this vivid quatrain is as valid and great a New Pop quartet as the Dollar/Horn tetraology.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Vera LYNN: Whose Garden Was This?

She is now number one, of course, and has beaten the entire Beatles back catalogue in doing so. I note that on Then Play Long I am currently heading towards an ending which will take me back to a time before the story even started; but this is not the time to speak of Moebius strips. Nor of “My Son, My Son,” her only UK number one single, which does not appear on her current UK number one album.

But it may be a time to speak of “Whose Garden Is This?,” a 1972 B-side (to a surprisingly buoyant reading of Brel’s “If We Only Have Love”) which is also absent from the present compilation, and perhaps not without reason; we think of the nightingale singing the world back from the brink of extinction, but not of the nightingale crying for a world where nightingales, and everything else, have ceased to exist.

The song was written by Tom Paxton and is set in an undetermined post-apocalyptic world. The singer is the innocent but puzzled child addressing a survivor of the preceding horror, wanting to know what sort of world used to exist. Here, all that remains is the look of what used to be – “I’ve seen pictures of flowers/And I’d love to have smelled one,” “I’ve seen blue in some pictures,” “I’ve heard records of breezes.” But the secondary senses cannot compensate for the direct loss, and the singer has difficulty in comprehending all of this. “Can you swear that was true?” the singer asks, and in Dame Vera’s case almost demands. A subtle horror gently creeps upon her and shadows her brow.

Paxton undoubtedly wrote the song with environmental concerns in mind, but the Voice of the War renders it far more sinister. Alyn Ainsworth’s refractory strings and woodwind float like summery debris behind her, and her voice becomes steadily more distressed, its natural authority being slowly undermined. No more bluebirds or cliffs; she arrives at a ghastly dead end. “Whose forest is this?” she cries at the end, before uttering a terrible, stentorian, echoing roar: “Then why is it SILENT????!!!!!” – and the song vanishes into its own halls of mirrored dread. If you wonder whether the voice of “We’ll Meet Again” could ever terrify you, then look no further.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


They only came out yesterday but already the indications are that the mass Beatles re-indoctrination programme isn’t quite taking the grip on the public’s imagination that various vested interests would have liked. In the midweek album chart Abbey Road and Pepper are in the lower half of the top ten; Revolver, Rubber Soul and the catch-all box set are scattered between #11-15, the White Album is in the top 30 and the practical (and practically unheralded) 2CD remaster of the Past Masters compilation of non-album tracks has sneaked into the lower end of the Top 40. Hardly the monopoly that some were predicting, and there is a rich irony in the fact that all of the Beatles material is being comfortably outsold by Dame Vera Lynn (and only Jamie T currently stands between her and total chart conquest). Is this the final rebuke to fifty years of otherness or merely this decade’s Josef Locke?

I can’t say my heart was racing at the thought of yet another anniversarial/keep the cash registers tinkling repackaging of the Fab catalogue, and on fairly cursory inspection of the new issues cardiac arrhythmia was not achieved. Whether the aesthetic totality is actually heightened by the fact that you can now hear the sixteenth tambourine on “Hey Jude” I will leave for others to debate. The packaging is pretty reasonable and attractive in a standard Rhino reissue programme fashion, but it doesn’t exactly scream out “BUY ME!”

Worst of all is the complete non-taking of the opportunity to make these albums more complete by adding on any bonus tracks. So you still have to fork out eleven quid for half an hour of music (with the early albums) without anything extra other than a poky-looking DVD “mini-documentary” on the making of each of them. There doesn’t seem to have been much effort made to make these issues different. The Pepper cutouts appear on a page in the booklet but can’t actually be cut out. The photos are good but not mindblowing. Personally, with Pepper for instance I would have done a 2CD package with the original album on one disc and all the other 1967 sides (including the Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine tracks) on the other. Plus “Carnival Of Light.” I would have missed lunch for a week to get that! Who wouldn’t?

Nor do I approve of the belated kowtowing of the NME, a generation after they termed Pepper an “Exocet to the very heart of pop.” The current edition is fairly nauseating, full of “if you can’t be as good as Lennon and McCartney, FUCK OFF”-type corporate cheerleading. In other words, the usual admonitory cane which reappears to swish every successive and successful generation – no matter how good you think you are, you’ll NEVER be as good as this. That’s some encouragement to give today’s pop kids. Beat them over the head with a sharp, Fifty-Year-Old Fifty Quid Man stick.

The biggest irony of all this is that I myself have been “rediscovering” the Beatles through Then Play Long; without being told by any snake oil salesman to do so, I have found my own way back into them, and moreover done it the old way, through (largely) my ancient, battered vinyl originals. Sure, they may sound “cleaner” and “fuller” now, but their maximal impact came when they were blasted out on tinny Dansettes or prehistoric Bush radiograms; that’s how they were designed, and that’s still how they work best. Listen to That Opening Chord on the original A Hard Day’s Night album and I can still be blasted back into tomorrow; listening to it on the remaster suggests….the Twang! Or Kasabian! Surely that wasn’t what was intended.

My re-exploration of the Beatles’ work – at a time when lazy journalists still claim there’s Nothing New To Say About Pepper Etc. – has been a revelation and a self re-education; it’s clear how great they were and it’s fascinating to see how they fit in with their times, or made their times fit in with them, but it’s equally clear to me that they should stop being put in the path of today like a stern Customs officer. My stance was the hardest one; try listening to these albums as though I were listening to them for the first time. Maybe that will be the true legacy of the current reissue programme; that kids wondering what all the fuss was about will find out (and I do envy their genuine first time listens). But the evidence at the moment seems to be: people want to find their own paths to music, and the Beatles are good but they’ll find out for themselves, in their own good time.

(Envoi: Lena watched Help! on TV with me for the first time on Saturday and was astounded that it’s had so much bad press. It still looks as though it were made in 1995, not 1965!)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Since my student days in the early eighties I've intermittently indulged in amateur DJ-ing. At university I mainly did parties; I had a reasonably hip and happening 1981 type of record collection and everyone else had cassettes of Supertramp, James Taylor and Cat Stevens so the market was clearly open. Although N*ck H*rnby has his main character describe similar feelings in H*gh F*d*l*ty, I have to reiterate that there are few greater kicks in life than watching a roomful of your peers dancing to and enjoying the music of your choice. It's something I've never grown out of loving; the reaction to my DJ picks such as "Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel" or the 12-inch of "Chant No 1" was wondrous to behold. I really got into it; every week James Hamilton would list the BPMs of that week's new entries in his Record Mirror column and I would incorporate them into meticulous wallcharts. As I'm also musically trained - if you call Grade VI piano and clarinet "trained" - I was able to relate each record to its natural segue partner in terms of keys, etc.

After university I started working in the NHS and have since made a point of offering my amateur services whenever the situation invites it; for summer balls, Christmas dos, leaving parties and thus forthly. The advantage of doing this was that (a) you KNEW your audience intimately and thus could get away with being unduly adventurous in the midst of current hits and firm favourites ("Ah, MC's at it again with his Aphex Twins and his Atari and the Teenage Riots, bless him"), and (b) because it was a larger spread of people, demographically, than your average student/indie disco night you could widen your scope to encompass lots of different musical styles and approaches. I was pretty damn good, actually; those present when I worked at King's College Hospital in the mid-late nineties still speak of magical nights at the Dulwich Sports Club, complete with lots of stories and capers I daren't reproduce here, although my fabled mix of DJ Otzi's "Hey Baby" into the closing section of Peter Brötzmann's "Machine Gun" - in key and in tempo - still inspires gasps of "was I really there?"

Over recent years, for multiple, exhaustively-documented reasons, the activity has kind of tailed off. I've done three DJ sets at Club Poptimism over the last couple of years, two of which were in tandem with my wife Lena. The most recent of these was at the end of last month, and since it was relatively early on in the evening we did a fairly experimental forty-minute set. This is vital for any would-be DJ; trying and testing things out, seeing what works and what doesn't, knowing what to leave out of the current chart and what to put in, fashioning the right combination of newies, oldies, familiar reliables and relative obscurities depending upon your audience, being able to tell or at any rate fabricate a story. Gratifyingly the set went down pretty well - the occasional wooden spoon-wielding ingrate notwithstanding - and if only I hadn't mucked up the sequencing such that the Black Ingvars' "Bananas And Pyjamas" (they're a Gothenburg metal group who dress up like the Teletubbies and cover children's songs in the Loud Heavy Rock Metal style) accidentally switched to momentary blankness, it would have been flawless. Oh well - I'd been out of practice and was a bit rusty.

As enjoyable as doing Poptimism sets is, there comes a point when you want to do something a bit more. and inevitably since it is, strictly speaking, someone else's club night you have to adhere pretty readily to their agenda which can sometimes be frustrating when you want to strike out further. Furthermore I want to get back into DJ practice again; it's been a long time and my fingers are itchy. The only answer really is for Lena and me to set up our own club night but I'm afraid I have absolutely no idea how to get this going. We certainly have a lot of ideas which extensive research (ahem) shows are not being catered for in clubs elsewhere in the capital, but how to make the first move? Is it as simple as going round pubs and asking if you can hire the upstairs/downstairs room free or dirt cheap on the last (whatever) day (it is) of the month or similar? Publicity is another matter and we've got plenty of ideas in that department. But just from the point of view of getting started, how does this middle-aged novice go about it?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


The boundaries seem as steeled down as ever. In one corner, a worried middle-aged man – those Art of Noise/”Firestarter”/Frankie B-side royalties evidently don’t last forever – fulminates curiously against mythical millions of music critics who have no other mission save to undermine his self-regarded role as a “traditional skilled gamekeeper,” much as Rick Wakeman or Annie Haslam might have moaned in 1977. In another corner, Matthew takes a timely swipe at the latter and a more subtle one at Alex Ross; I’ve only speedread The Rest Is Noise thus far and am already faintly irritated by the underwhelming conclusions at which it appears to arrive, but clearly I need to read it properly. I also recall the sniggering, in-joking London Symphony Orchestra making fun of Ornette’s score for The Skies Of America back in 1972 before the man himself picked up his plastic alto and embarrassed the tea drinkers into silence. But Morley might want to have a word with the likes of Giles Swayne or Jonathan Harvey about exactly how much more lucrative the life of a classical composer is than a “music journalist.”

It’s all running away from death, of course; I recently obtained a copy of Nothing, not having read it at the time of its publication because I didn’t feel I needed to, and clearly many others felt the same way, such that it vanished peremptorily from print; I had to order a copy from a wholesale book company based, of all places, in Abingdon, and as you can see, there are plenty of copies left. As for the book itself, it consists of over 400 moderately excoriating pages, partly autobiography but mostly an attempt by the author to come to terms with the suicide of his father. It’s probably twice as long as it needed to be and simultaneously about half as long as it ought to be; the concluding semi-catharsis reads like a draft TV documentary script. Does it tell us much about Morley? As ever, only as much as he wants to tell; in terms of (in Dominic Fox’s words) “renegotiating relationships with the dead,” I’m not sure there’s anything here to renegotiate. Morley gradually discloses the kind of person his father was and the various turns of events and happenstances which led him towards a crossing in inaccessible Gloucestershire in the summer of punk, but one still feels that he is holding something vital back. I could speak – indeed, do speak – as someone who has seen two dead bodies in his life, one of which was his father, but since grief, like music writing, isn’t the Barclays Premiership I’ll leave it at that.

Music “writing.” I have occasionally described myself (for professional purposes) and been described by others as a “music journalist” but I much prefer to think of myself as a “music writer.” Music journalists have to be in the thick of things, or invent a thickness to match the wonders they’ve just discovered if they expect or are expected to be taste makers; music writers are by definition a more leisurely bunch who tend to express feelings about whatever they’ve just listened to, or to help them negotiate their own uncertain paths through life, using whatever resources they need to achieve passage. Music journalists are active, music writers passive. Music journalists write it straight down and wait for the kisses or the shrapnel; music writers spend maybe too long trying to write a work of literature inspired by a work of art. Or, if you’re me, you do it because it’s the one thing in your life you’ve discovered that you’re good at doing.

There is, of course, much to be said for stringent theorists such as Max Harrison who can articulately and evocatively discuss pieces of music and musicians in painstaking musicological detail with the critical discipline inherited from the great nineteenth century essayists such as Hazlitt; but there is also everything to be said in favour of those reporters who find themselves in the midst of a revolution and can successfully convey the essence of the changes to their readers.

For a generation-old solution to this – and how pleasant that its columns end more or less at the point when Leavis died! – I direct you to The Disco Files 1973-1978, essentially a collection of the weekly columns Vince Aletti wrote for Record World magazine during that period. Unashamedly reportage-based, but his writing is so evocative and passionate that it betrays the reality of a music jiver who hunts down and picks up everything he can find and then attempts to make gut level sense of it all, as well as interacting with other DJs to see whether he’s right or not – and since the DJ charts reproduced in this anthology come from the likes of Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons and David Mancuso the importance of liaisons is heightened. We watch as successive revolutions occur; dazzled by the Moroder/Cerrone moves of 1976-7 in particular (and Trans-Europe Express and “Magic Fly” get their correct dues at the time it counted), we hardly think about punk occurring in a parallel world at the same time. Aletti’s discussions of records like “Devil’s Gun” by CJ & Co. or Cerrone’s “Love In C Minor” are potent enough to make you want to pull these records down from the shelves – and he also uncovers an entire universe of Canadian disco of which I had no previous idea at all. Music journalism at its best and most vital, Aletti’s columns contributed to the changes as crucially as Tynan’s Observer columns of the fifties (and try to track down a copy of Tynan’s 1975 anthology A View Of The English Stage); they refused to chronicle in pickled aspic of delayed reaction or subsume the music under a prefabricated aesthetic order; most importantly, perhaps, they obviate the music journalist's trapdoor of "either/or" by disregarding it entirely. Moreover, the writing clearly keeps the music journalist alive – and that really should be its point.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

SCOTT WALKER: Lost In The Stars

While the moon prepared to be landed upon forty summers ago, Scott Walker was in our top ten with an album of show tunes derived from his shortlived peaktime BBC TV series. This series did its best to persuade its public that Walker was harmless, safe, a reliable crooner in the Humperdinck camp into which so many reluctant late sixties solo male artists were being pushed; those deemed too glossy for the bedsits – but who in turn-of-the-sixties Britain wrote better about bedsitland than Walker? – or too clean for prog/metal, or too solitary for groups.

Walker has resisted all attempts to reissue this record (and various others, such as 1972’s film theme collection The Moviegoer) which he has deemed unrepresentative of what he has been about. Certainly the record’s commercial success somewhat cancelled out Scott 4, sneaked out (under his real name of Noel Scott Engel) towards the end of 1969 without anyone really noticing. At the same time he was “enjoying” a Top 20 single with the non-album “Lights Of Cincinatti,” which despite its vague made-to-measure sentimentality and less vague melodic resemblance to “The Twelfth Of Never” contains one of the most heartfelt vocal performances from this lost Ohio boy.

I finally tracked down a copy of the album this weekend, and unexpectedly so, since it was sitting in the £1/please-take-it-off-our-hands racks. Surveying the package, its presence wasn’t entirely surprising, since its condition betrayed the fact that this record had been through the wars (“The War Is Over”!), although on turntable testing, despite the ceaseless “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” crackles in the background, it played perfectly well (only jumping a couple of times, and I managed to clean out both of the offenders). Most significant, however, was the fact that the cover, with Scott’s studiously glum profile, was cleft precisely in twain; there was a straight rip right down the middle, as though Walker himself had intervened to divide his public misperception.

The record itself holds an interesting assemblage of tunes, and nearly uniformly fine vocal performances – he takes a deep breath, goes for that high C at the end of “The Impossible Dream” and nets it easily, but “The Look Of Love” really isn’t him. The song selection, too, is gratifying non-obvious; Aznavour’s “Who (Will Take My Place)” has a particularly truthful vocal. Robert Farnon’s bitter-lovely “Country Girl” is given the right kind of tender grieving, the Jobim essay (“Someone To Light Up My Life”) makes one wish he had sought Antonio out first hand. Much of this provides a fascinating counterpart to the controlled, internalised melancholy evident throughout Scott 3. Set against this must be Peter Knight’s arrangements, which generally do Walker no favours, and sub-Rat Pack big band romps like “Will You Still Be Mine?” and “The Song Is You” are genuinely ill-conceived.

But Walker’s “Lost In The Stars” stuck with me; Sinatra’s earlier reading may well be the definitive one, but this version actively builds a bridge between showbiz obligations and the less easily negotiable conduits of Scott 4; the singer foresees his loneness – never to be confused with loneliness – in his resigned sigh of “And one little star fell alone.” He resigns himself to God finding his mislaid constellation but the song – an “Ol’ Man River” for the apartheid age – requires its singer to drift confusedly between clouds of doubt and hope. Knight’s orchestra is relevant but discreet, but Scott already knows that where his star is heading, few will dare to follow him; the delicately pregnant pauses and perspectival differences between his “Little stars” and “Big stars,” echoed by orchestral pauses of varying volume, finally lead him to an outbuilding of terminal uncertainty; his voice wanders off into the middle distance, Knight’s strings and woodwinds cut the thread with tonality, and he might be playing chess with Death, or be the boy child awaiting baptism by ashen angels; as with Neil Armstrong, he is aware that he will never really get back to where he once belonged. Not when you've seen what he saw.

Friday, 26 June 2009

"...and though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver..."

It is always dangerous to judge anybody on the basis of who they were, what they did and how they behaved in their youth. That is, judge them for the rest of their lives because of the way they started, or were made to start. Especially if from the start they are told in the firmest of tones, and with the harshest of menaces, that they are different from and superior to everybody else.

Nobody told the young Elvis that he was going to be God, and so he was able to maintain that position of Everyman to his people, equal to everybody else and superior to none, the oldest story that his country tells. But Michael was made swiftly aware – and I do not mean to underplay the violence implicit in that word “swiftly” – that he was special and was bound, as in irons, to remain special. No matter that every speckle of special shortened his life by another crucial minute, or hour, or year, as if he had to use up all his donated and inherent energy to maintain the façade of specialness. All to allow his father to experience fame and greatness at second hand, whatever the cost to either.

Damn the misdiagnosed prodigies. For every Shirley Temple Black there has been a Judy Garland, for every Bonnie Langford a Lena Zavaroni, for every Mozart a Mozart. Dying young and inglorious, their lesser energies used up and exhausting the red dye on their balance sheets since all their greater energies had been devoted to making their youth special at the cost of potential adulthood.

I know that of which I speak, since I myself was supposed to be a suspiciously prodigious child, and newspaper clippings of this alleged genius continue to survive. I began talking in a coherent tongue at an absurdly early age, got the hang of elementary reading and writing not long afterwards, and somehow this contrived to make me “special” and “gifted.” The fact that I did not start to walk until the age of 18 months should have set off early alarms, but in the sixties such alarms were not yet being manufactured. As it is, I don’t really recognise the four-year-old me staring intently at a letter from the National Association for Gifted Children – was I really reading it? And if so, what did I learn? – in the pages of the Scottish Daily Mail. Or the ten-year-old me busily pretending to type on a Smith-Corona typewriter on our kitchen dining table on the cover of the Hamilton Advertiser, the one who was already noted as keeping scrupulous and comprehensive records of the pop charts and was expected to be a published author by the age of thirteen. As it is, my first book is scheduled for publication in September 2010, by which time I shall be forty-six. A defiant late starter compensating for the absence of any meaningful early starts?

How was I supposed to know? The first recognised case of Asperger’s syndrome was not diagnosed until 1981, too late for my school or my father and nearly too late for me. So I fumbled my way through grown-up life for twenty years, and then that life was snatched away from me, and so I had to resort to writing since the person to whom I was accustomed to telling my tales was no longer around and I had to tell somebody. And so I got my life back, painfully and messily but it was all there, and the prospect of living longer than my dad is suddenly a graspable reality.

Michael Jackson, as he was, didn’t live much longer than my dad, who also died not long after his fiftieth birthday of heart failure which I knew from eight painful years of first hand experience to have been the product of a protracted suicide bid. The first automatic thing I uttered after hearing the news this morning was a mock-resigned “Just like Elvis,” but despite Lisa Marie, Michael was never just like Elvis, in any sense of the word “just.” True, he hung on for eight more years than Elvis managed, and if it matters (as it does) my dad’s demise owes much more, circumstantially, to Elvis’ than Michael’s. But did he hang on? He had not issued a significant musical statement in more than eight years. Instead he was lumbered with the wreckage of legend; trials for child abuse which faltered when instincts realised that gifted children will always be children and will always act like children and see the world and other human beings through the eyes of a child, crass crawls to service, or flee from, unimaginable debts. The stupid need to earn a living cemented his approaching passing; were those fifty O2 concerts always going to be as uncatchable a mirage as Welles’ The Other Side Of The Wind? Don’t we now visualise our imaginations of those concerts as infinitely superior to what any reality would have revealed itself?

But I saw him, at Wembley in 1988, wearing socks made of angel, faster, hipper, bolder, lighter than any other entertainer I had ever seen, and I never thought to look for any strings; the concert was less theatrical – less shiny – than Prince’s Sign “O” The Times show which I’d caught in Paris a year earlier. But there was never any doubt, either there or on his demolition of Motown 25, that he was not equal to the rest of us.

And yet when he emerged from the embryo of the sixties he wanted to be everybody’s friend; listen to that uncomplicated complex simplification of James Brown and “Cloud Nine” that swishes across “I Want You Back” or “ABC” and hear the glow of one who should never need to worry. How he and his brothers allowed the groove to settle, ferment a little, in their Philly years before graduating to “Blame It On The Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground),” stoking up the fuel and the remembrances, until he finally caught his own chains in 1979 with Off The Wall, a pop-up encylopaedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it; experience his contagious confidence on “Don’t Stop” (with young Janet joining in on the percussion, as eventually did the rest of the planet) and feel the ooze of someone who knows that this is his moment.

Off The Wall, aesthetically, was his moment, and there was nowhere for him to go from there except upwards. If the video for “Can You Feel It?” unambiguously pictured him as (a) God, then Thriller slowly and subtly confirmed it; sneaking out at the end of 1982, when all thought that New Pop had finished, and completely misread for the first few months of its existence (but then “The Girl Is Mine” was perhaps not the best trailer the record could have had), it revealed its hands patiently; “Billie Jean” was already grasping lessons from Martin Fry and Trevor Horn – or Quincy was there to grasp and advance them – and “Thriller” the song steps up the Temperton Britfunk template and turns it into a soulboy Escalator Over The Hill.

Every Michael Jackson album has a deceptively long shelf life, and so Bad wasn’t as bad as most instantaneously assumed (since Michael and Quincy had listened to Propaganda and they hadn’t), and Dangerous drew lines between swingbeat and the Cocteau Twins, and…but more of that when I get to those albums in TPL. The point is that, as Jackson’s stature and godhood grew, his inquisitiveness did not shrink; even in the seemingly unpromising plains (to those whose walking boots felt insufficiently secure) of History there is ravenous rancour (“Scream” where Jam and Lewis finally get, via Janet, into him) and unexpected static beauty (“Stranger In Moscow,” as profound a 1995 melancholy as “He Thought Of Cars”).

And he was expecting to be the new King, and kind of expecting his bigness to be interpreted as holiness – but, as I will never tire of saying, this is the fundamental point and purpose of art; to exceed oneself, to make claims towards God. What was the more egocentric – his Brit Awards performance of “Earth Song” or Cocker’s interruption of it? “Earth Song” plaintively, and then with increasing ferocity, asks questions of the 1967 which spawned it; why haven’t we got this golden paradise now? Why, in fact, are we killing everything off, including ourselves? What about Marvin indeed? Cocker’s bum, in contrast, was reductionist, petty, as sarky a tongue stuck out to his better as those which the striking Sheffield miners used to aim at the 21-year-old Cocker attempting to read Penguin Classics in the café.

Not that it seemed to bother or stir Michael much, except that after 1995 there wasn’t much else; a wan remix album, the still (by me) undecided epilogue (as it turned out) Invincible. He was gradually compelled to deal with the world, the humbling, humiliating world, the world which baffled him as to why it couldn’t simply respect and admire what he could do. If only he could do it again. Maybe those O2 gigs would have formed an astonishing knockout comeback, not to mention the album he had begun to record with of the Black Eyed Peas in the producer’s chair. But essentially that half century of gigs were being performed for the money – or maybe they weren’t. Maybe he still felt he had something to prove to his dad – a father who, like mine, was not averse to violence as a tool for hammering in the assumption of greatness. Perhaps, like my dad, he had been rehearsing this moment for years, ducking away or bowing out at the last second like the most evanescent of magician’s doves.

And of course none of this will, in anyone’s end, least of all Michael’s, matter. What will matter are his shrieks, gulps and cries of joy (and, occasionally but starkly, sorrow) throughout Off The Wall, and especially on its lovely side streets of tracks like Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” where he grabs the song and simply swims with it into the sea of swing. The way his socks turned tungsten into pearl. The way he made all of us feel, however feebly we wish to admit it. Particularly when he had to be grown up, and therefore act human, like the rest of us. We must be careful not to start treating his memory like a child.

Friday, 29 May 2009


This bill brings back some timely memories. The nice thing about having homes in both London and Oxford – ah, those salad days of post-Thatcher prosperity (or, in my case, despite-Thatcher) – was that it made Reading the easiest of places to get to; you could come out on a train in either direction and despite the gloomy fifteen-minute trudge from Reading station to get to the festival site it was easily accessible and you could get the train home at a relatively civilised hour (I was and have never been one for the overnight ooer-missus-where’s-me-sleeping-bag festival “experience”; I’m afraid that given the choice of sleeping out in a muddy field, having my tent nicked and being urinated upon by passing creatures and sitting comfortably at home with a cup of cocoa and Bill Evans or SE Rogie on the stereo it was always a no-brainer).

Remarkable, really, how the three days divided up almost mechanically; Friday was clearly the Melody Maker day – and the only day we attended - but it’s also fair to say that most of the acts featured were somewhat past their aesthetic apex. To dispel some venerable apocrypha, New Order did not respond to numerous audience requests for “Atmosphere” by performing the similarly-titled Russ Abbot 1984-5 novelty hit, but only they seemed in tune with things to do with 1989 (and the only act on the bill capable of making us forget about the rain that was splattering down upon us at the time); the House of Love and Sugarcubes were strictly 1987 time (ah, the hilarious and never obstructive Einar, the reason why we all drew a breath of immense relief when Björk finally did the decent thing and went solo, even though it’s his Stephan Micus slide-trumpet thingy – or Psychic TV/Coil Tibetan bone thingy? - that provides the punctum to “Birthday”). Tackhead were the Stones’ support act for their Steel Wheels tour at that time and acted like it; a far cry indeed from the get-back-to-the-back blackened fury of their ’85-7 peak (I’ve never quite worked out how the Tackhead people could simultaneously burn behind Mark Stewart and cheerily back up Jagger on his lamentable three-stage-wasting TOTP performance of the Tebbit-friendly 1987 flop “Let’s Work”). Spacemen 3 did their thing for people who liked that sort of thing. As for Gaye Bykers On Acid, I always resented them for having the talk and lacking the walk; every time I come across their 1987 Drill Your Own Hole album in MVE or in the charity shop I devoutly wish the record was as good as it looks.

Saturday was clearly Q/Hornby-friendly day (a few years later this whole bill could have been, and probably was, fully transposed to Finsbury Park for the Fleadh) while Sunday was Melody Maker as its readers would ideally like it day; the big crowd pleasers with MBV and WDE pasted on at the bottom for probable placatory purposes (together with the Butthole Surfers, then just passing their peak). Still, has anything dated as embarrassingly as up-to-the-minute ’86-9 music? Living Colour (the TV On The Radio of their day, and just as overrated), Jesus Jones (first album was moderately entertaining in a John Craven waking up on the M25 kind of way but nowhere near as good as PWEI’s second album), indie chart one hit wonders the Mighty Lemon Drops…The Mission if nothing else meant it (and “Tower Of Strength” is a great single whichever way you look at it) but the Wonder Stuff? I didn’t even think they were a good idea at the time but clearly too many other people did.

As for MBV live; true, Isn’t Anything was at the time still a fairly culty secret (it certainly didn’t have anything like the cred cache of the Roses or the Mondays) and it’s also true that their gigs at that time were definitely more miss than hit. But maybe my favourite MBV recorded document is the tape of the show they did at the venue formerly known as the Town and Country Club on Saturday 14 December 1991, just off the back of Loveless’ release. Somehow everything came together in that gig; the use of flute to carry the melodic top lines of the songs was inspired (and, unlike some of the other gigs on that tour, the sound system was good enough to pick the flute up rather than drowning it) and the bring-the-boys-home extended finale of “You Made Me Realise” was a blasting joy, AMM finally fused with Count Five (via the Cocteaus), a red current of endless climax, sternly driven but powered by a strange serenity. The music eventually fed back into the closing tape of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” (never did the latter sound more apt) and we bought the tape on our way out for a fiver. The guitars were still ringing in our ears when we went out for breakfast on Sunday morning, but in the sense of happily pealing church bells.

Friday, 8 May 2009


This is probably long overdue but again I don’t go all Mark’s absolutist way. I don’t really think much about Sonic Youth much these days and it’s been a LOOOOOONG time since I hopped off their wagon (but then again I stuck doggedly with them all the way to Goodbye 20th Century which at least qualifies me for a bronze service medal)…

…but the Neil Young de leurs jours thing won’t work either and the reason is all to do with this baggage trap of not forgetting the past or at the least rate not keeping it in its clean but secluded bottom drawer – OK, “Death Valley ‘69” was in truth pretty hokey from (anti-)conception and between you and us I never listened to anything on BMR except that but as a spring of coiled up (not to be confused with Coil upped) argument for life (how could Lydia’s barks be confused/with anything else?) 1985 needed “DV69” more than vice versa and it needed to be SEEN to exist in a one-star* Five Star** world.

*I’m quite content at how well this piece has held up over the last five plus years; don’t necessarily agree with it all now but I still wouldn’t throw it out of anyone’s window.

**Bigging up Five Star in BLITZ in 1988 of all years – was this the point where Paul M lost his oars? And also the original/inherent tragedy of unquestioning/entrapping P*pt*m*sm?

Anyway my feelings about SY remain indispensably confused. But I do think that the time when they mattered and were seen to matter has to be that ’86-8 period, just at the point before archiving tipped over and tied us in abominable bounds to the past, including last week (hi Gil!), when yes this was essentially avant-nerd collectorism but then the essence vaporised. How this happened is thusly:

1986 – the year of nascent/dying world loudness; the end of the old (but workable) disorder and the start of an ineluctably despite all our best instincts attractive brutalist futurism of M25s, Big Bangs, canaried wharfs, ignorant icebergs. All ‘86’s best music sounded best on the motorway; the Kraftwerkian post-romance of clangs upon metal, the doorstop shoulder mobile of immediacy and EVOL worked its fabric of not-quite-nothing into the year’s burning tarmac exceptionally well since it was loud and broody but couldn’t be nailed down. A skull-aimed expressway living to tell an uncanny epilogue.****

1987 – the triumph of a shinier, more colourful, more exuberant loudness, and Sister is still SY’s peak because unlike anywhere else outside this period they manage to FORGET themselves and rock as effusively as Big Black or LL. This is the point where they unlearn all this bloody history – yes I know they do “Hotwire My Heart” but they transcend the dusty murk of the printed list autist in the gloomy used backroom forests. Forget? Well, perhaps OVERCOME their BETTER SELVES and rock as unthinkingly and happily as they ever managed. Sister is where SY agree with the present and don’t have to improv*** their way out of a self-constructionist maze. And it’s on Sister that they connect most deeply with libidinisation and (via Kim, one of several non-missing links between Suzi Quatro and Debbie Googe) begin to grasp the idea of noise feminisation.

***speaking of which, improv - not so much accessing the unconscious but a LANGUAGE evolved by musicians who know that the old language won’t help them express what they’re trying to reach and grasp and it is about co-dependence and cruciality of process over result (hi Ben!) i.e. an attempt to build a new, happily interdependent society.*****

*****and isn’t Derek B the key model for “forgetting” the past? When DB played he wasn’t accessing anybody’s (un)consciousness but telling us a story, the current part of it, using a language which (see also Ayler, Ornette etc. etc. but why are we even still having this argument in 2009 since we KNOW that none of them came out of thin air?) developed out of a near quarter-century of flyshit reading in dance bands, pit orchestras, an apprenticeship which involved Eric Morecambe, Diana Ross, Hughie Green and Gracie Fields (AND Count Basie!) – i.e. Derek KNEW his past and wanted to escape it; speak to T Oxley or anyone else still around and they’ll all say the same thing; why the hell would anyone want to go back to the old way when this new way works just fine?******

******and doesn’t THIS get STRAIGHT to the gut of the matter – SY do the Carpenters but Richard Carpenter actually wanted to be Zappa and yes if you listen to the Carpenters properly it DOES come through but then the Carpenters didn’t have this record collector baggage behind them, even though they devoted half of their biggest album to a medley of oldies centred around a song calling for the oldies to come back – well, yes, but Karen’s tremble on “Yesterday Once More” tells you inherently that that past ain’t never gonna come back…

…and likewise SY may have supported Neil Young but NY exceeds SY because…well, why because? Not just because SY could never do a Harvest Moon to match their multiple Arc Welds (because they’ve not LIVED the life) but because – well, because as with all those other sixties troops who’ve kept marching on – Walker, Cale, Cohen, Dylan – NOBODY TOLD THEM TO STOP PUSHING THE ENVELOPE and since they invented the bloody thing to begin with they persist with the pushing, unburdened by any history, especially the ones with which they grew up and don’t get hagiographised to the post-’63 point of nullification.*******.

*******and isn’t that new Dylan album damn great? Sounds like a Tom Waits newly escaped from Mexico City ; hard times call for burritos of drawled pleasure. Partly because he’s EARNED it (god forbid, not in the Alan Sugar non-sense) but because it enables me to draw a line stretching directly out from Self Portrait and New Morning and remind everyone that, um, other stars were flicking in his and hence our universe…

1988 – when everything starts to float, become abodied, the time of Isn’t Anything, 69, the Hannettised Bummed, when “rock” really exceeds itself (just as, in NY’s Eldorado, it could expand itself eternally) and so Daydream Nation is special to me in too many ways to enlist here but the enchanted disengagement you can hear beginning to happen when they cut the tonal dummy loose a third of the way into “Total Trash” and for the first and maybe last time in their time they stumble upon…something that hasn’t been done before and can’t be adequately ascribed to historical precedent - AMM yes, DB on Oxley’s “Stone Garden” yep and I’m not going to be naïve enough to think that Lee n’ Thurston don’t know their inexhaustible baptisms but somehow on DN they endeavour to make rock stand outside itself, the nagging Pincher Martin tooth now forming a full broadland, and yet try to stand on it and you’ll swim.

****but then there is 1989, and thus 1986 again just when you weren’t expecting it; the Ciccone Youth stuff is habitually written off as an expensive novelty but The Whitey Album is frequently my fave SY disc since it sees them actively engaging with the Pop Present. The corking clangs of “Into The Groove(y)” certainly fit into an M25ed up ’86 alongside Janet and Tackhead and Sputnik and Test Dept and Cameo and somehow by drawing upon the old AMM/Rowe/Cardew trope of improvising as loudly as possible to drown out “Good Vibrations” or “Lightning Strikes” – and what greater demonstration that AMM secretly LOVED pop? – and sketching through No Wave right through to ’86 (well, ’85 but then Sean and “Me”) Madge they confirm an argument I’d been having in my head for the best part of 15 years in terms of how none of this divisionism is provable and that intents and sonics can co-exist in symbiotic (but not parasitical) ways. And the rest of TWA is great, esp. Kim craving oblivion in the record booth (as though taking Robert Palmer at his words), ringing up J Mascis – a mess, and not a Statement (even though the don’t know who Neu! were = UNCOOL thing is mildly bothersome), and all the better and happier for it.

Then come the guest stars (but Chuck D n’ Kim on Goo, COME ON!), the awkward re-tetherings, the oddly reassuring chart stars phase (Bruno Brookes grimacing his way through “Bull In The Heather” at #24 in the Fun (Nineteen Ninety) Forty) and then…well, what? Shelves and shelves of mouldy basement records on the inner of Washing Machine (yes? AND? This is 1994, guys n’ gals, DJ Shadow’s in the outside lane signalling to overtake – yes I know but, you know, this was 1994…), the inevitable descent into Wiredom and Proper Renowned Boundary Breaking Musicians Status (though A Thousand Leaves was a mildly elevating late surge) and then Esteemed Curators Of Our Hallmark Legacy and things like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse and Sitting Up Straight (At The Back Of Jim O'Rourke's Bus) and however many other records they’ve put out this last decade demoted them in my priorities to Charlatans/Costello/solid 95th album status, finally throttled by the past they’d built up (for?) themselves and in some ways throttling the potential futures of others.