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Saturday, 31 December 2011

My 20 best gigs of 2011

I kicked off this modest little music blog a year ago with a post about my top 20 gigs of 2010. A year later, older, wiser, slightly deafer, here’s my top 20 gigs for 2011. Reading these blurbs you’ll wish you’d been there as well. But hey, there are plenty of gigs coming up in 2012, so get down the front and start rocking your head from side to side in a coolly discerning fashion.

Gout - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 15 January
The most memorable of the grindcore-type bands I saw in 2011, mainly because of the singer’s totally weird throat-voicings. Between songs this matey, Midlands-accented (?) chap would introduce the forthcoming song in a normal voice but then switch on his “special” guttural dalek voice to give you the song’s name (generally something like “Corpses of genocidal war”). The music didn’t deviate far from the genre’s usual rapid drumming-fast guitar runs template, but the tunes were short and somehow quite witty.

Calories - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 24 February
More witty Midlanders! Drole young brummie types who knock out some pretty powerful math rock-type stuff which, unlike some of this genre, doesn’t veer off into dull prog-rock areas. As I recall, they’ve got several really engaging tunes, with a lot of emotional heft (and all that). The sort of band that are - perhaps for the time being only - going to be near the bottom of the bill but (as is often the case) will actually be a hell of a lot better than the later acts.

The Love Triangle - Firefly, Worcester, 25 February
The most “punky” of the bands here, these are one of those (now almost rare) neo-punk bands that play hard and fast with a kind of hardcore intensity yet still manage to sound tuneful and almost melodic. I think it’s a harder trick to pull off than it looks. The key, I reckon, is the attitude and the energy. Great stuff.  

Talk Normal - Death By Audio, Brooklyn, New York City, 5 March
An intense performance by a drummer/guitarist-vocalist combo. They had angularity, fierce and complex drum patterns, and some kind of dark uncompromising quality. They were playing on a biggish, raised stage, which is normally an atmosphere killer for me, but here they transcended that and played a tough, inventive set.

Way Through - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 16 June
Quite experimental, with “difficult” song structures and - if I remember correctly - some shouty bits and generally loud discordant passages. They were a band that to me didn’t exactly sound like the “finished article” (whatever that is), but were better than a lot of the more polished outfits simply for trying. I also seem to recall that they did that thing where they said they weren’t sure what to play or - professedly - how to play it. Here it was somehow of a piece with their effort to try new things and not just an affectation.

Let's Wrestle - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham, 23 July
As I said in a post in July, this band (of “Cocky cockneys” according to one reviewer!) seem to be refreshed - and improved - since acquiring a new bass player. Their brand of post-Dinosaur Jr slacker rock is, I reckon, working very nicely at the moment. Unusually for me, I’ve also obtained their recent “Nursing Home” CD (unusual in the sense that I don’t generally consume music this way) and this kind of backs up what I think. That they’re an excellent band.

The Big Naturals - Hare And Hounds, Birmingham, 20 August
Almost didn’t stay for this outfit, who came on late-ish when I was getting fidgety. They perhaps played for too long (as do many bands), but they had some brilliant and way-heavy drumming rhythms and squalls of guitar/vocals. One of those force-of-nature bands. Not for the faint-hearted.

Thee Exciters - Ryan’s Bar, Stoke Newington, London, 28 August
A strange gig. Thee Exciters started as if they were tired meat-and-potatoes Stooges merchants and ending up being … quite exciting Stooges merchants! Their success had a lot to do with a rather irrepressible front-man in a leopard-skin leotard who wasn’t afraid to strike a delightful Iggy/Jagger-esque pose. Flaunt it!

Darren Hayman - Outside World, Shoreditch, London, 3 September
The best of the recent gigs I’ve seen from Hayman, this was in a tiny art gallery (actually a small converted front room) in Shoreditch with excruciatingly little space for the tiny audience. My habit is to be up close to the performers at gigs - here I was too close. Anyway, his wry songs about cosmonauts and animals in space were surprisingly moving. Also, I recall he did a very beautiful, sad song about the Essex witch trials of 1645.

Nordenfelt (and numerous other bands) - Chameleon, Nottingham, 10 September
An unusual gig. All acts performed just two songs - all Bowie covers. The best band, I thought, was the somewhat manic Nordenfelt, with a singer who really attacked Fashion (“Beep beep!”) and, if anything, made it sound better than before. So I’m judging Nordenfelt on all of two tunes - but that’s enough for me. Also, I’d like to see more of these gigs that break from the ages-old convention of band-goes-on-stage-plays-eight-songs-to-be-replaced-by-other-band-that-plays-eight-songs … Tiresome.

Poino - Windmill, Brixton, London, 19 September
At times like the Birthday Party, Poino’s excellent noise-rock juggernaut was especially good this time (well, I’d seen them once before). They have a darkly serious and pretty heavy sound. Not easy to describe, but good. This gig also featured the excellent audience heckle “Roast potatoes for everybody”, which made even Poino’s super-intense singer crack a smile.

Diaphram Failure - Windmill, Brixton, London, 13 October
Really inventive and highly entertaining - what more do you want! They go in for warped rhythms - a touch of Beefheart, some groovy blues rock, spicing it up with bugle-type horn squirts, a toy hammer, various shakers, and an Augustus Pablo-style reverb-heavy harmonica. All the while they have their semi-demented singer bloke who keeps lighting sparklers and other things (!?) with matches, while doing a lot of a (probably quite structured) poetic rambling. The lyrics themselves were way better than those of most bands.    

Marco Pasini - Sala Maddalena, Monza, 22 October
This was a piano recital of Franz Liszt music, unbelievably fast and complex. It was, frankly, hard to take in, it was happening with such speed and intensity, but it was still pretty spellbinding. Marco - a man of about 40 - looked quite haggard at the end of the performance. I could understand why.

A Fat White Family - Windmill, Brixton, London, 3 November
A happy discovery, these came over all ragged and half-assed at first but actually cohered into an excellent loping blues-rock outfit. They do good overlapping vocals and use shakers very effectively. They’ve also got some good one-liners - “Wheelchair music for wheelchair cowboys!”  They also seem to have some pretty savvy mates, because their gig videos are actually far better than any I’ve seen from numerous other bands, including the big-name ones.

Heroes Of The Mexican Independence Movement - Chameleon, Nottingham, 6 November
Another good gig at the Chameleon, which, for my money, is probably the best small-gig venue in the Midlands at the moment. HOTMIM had a surfeit of dry humour but also played some lovely twee-rock tunes. Pretending to be amateurish, they were actually nothing of the kind. Maybe the best “twee” band I saw in 2011.

Atomic Suplex - Prince Albert, Brixton, London, 11 November
Kind of postmodern rock jokers - or are they? - once seen Atomic Suplex are always remembered because of the singer’s customised military motorcycle-type helmet which has a special mic attached. Their deliberately chaotic big-beat rock stylings occasionally seem to be getting out of control (a satirising of all things cod-rock is part of their thing), but they still sound good in a blues explosion kind of way. This gig was particularly entertaining because of the way the bass player said things (apparently in all seriousness) like “I’m going to be sick … right now … on stage”, and the way the skinny woman guitarist pushed the chunky little singer clean off the stage in a piece of inspired joke wrestling.

Flame-Proof Moth - Tulse Hill Tavern, London, 12 November
Formerly The Boycott Coca-Cola Experience, F-PM is a delicious John Cooper Clarke acid-ball of sarcasm and cold contempt. His songs include stuff about pornography on the sides of buses and Werner Herzog (“Werner! Your tea’s getting cold”), but they also have a crafty and deep seriousness: “Your decadent sins will reap discipline”. Too right!

Babies - Windmill, Brixton, London, 16 November
One of countless bands from the USA that seem to make tuneful indie rock sound better than most British bands can. Not sure why (or even if that’s true). Youngish and nondescript at first, they quickly made it clear that they could do Pavement-esque melodic rock fairly effortlessly. Here and there the songs sounded genuinely excellent. Would like to hear more from them.

Errol Linton - Windmill, Brixton, London, 30 November
A very groovy harmonica-blues set, with elements of skiffle and even ska and reggae lilts here and there. Errol has a warm blues crooner’s voice and a very engaging manner. The washboard player - who I originally thought was some random drunk heckler bloke - got into a rather difficult-to-comprehend conversation with me before going on stage to bash out some excellent washboard rhythms. Riddim!

Doctor Mirabilis - Windmill, Brixton, London, 14 December
Another funny guy! This Irish singer-guitarist does very drole tunes with a nice loping rhythm to some of them (very reminiscent of Turner Cody I thought). He has a good line in anti-stardom humour - “This is my hit. It was number 74 in the West of Ireland charts for two weeks running”. Humour apart, he’s a really good Dylan/Cody-type writer. Very poetic.

So, these are my 20 best gigs from this god-forsaken year of our lord, two thousand and eleven. It’s actually been another excellent year for live music - but aren’t they all? I once again resolve to see more jazz (which yet again I’ve sadly neglected) and any bands doing something different, but if 2012 is as good as 2011 I won’t be complaining.

Or not too much …

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Stage antics: 10 complaints

People don’t mention it much, but a big part of musicians coming across well when they’re playing live is how they act on stage. Things like how much they talk, etc. Here are my top 10 annoying stage behaviours:

1: Talking too much
I've blogged on this before so will keep this mercifully brief (always a good idea), but quite a few musicians do this, some chronically so. Being on stage is apparently interpreted by some performers as a licence to drone on about whatever’s on their (not very well-stocked) minds. The atmosphere (if there was one) is nearly always destroyed by the stage ramblers. Please! Shut up and play your music. (On the other hand, it’s got to be said that a few people are really funny/interesting between songs and can get away with it. Not many though).

2: Explaining songs before playing them
Slightly different from the above. It can admittedly be OK, even good - making a song more meaningful when you know about its history or something - but quite often this is boring, unnecessary and effectively destroys any artistry with over-explanation.

3: Attacking the audience
Kind of obvious, but more complicated than it looks I reckon. On the one hand the audience-baiting behaviour of punk could definitely be enlivening. I’ve got this nice tape of the Sex Pistols playing in Stoke-on-Trent in 1976, with Johnny Rotten saying “Ooooh, they don’t like us!” Also, one of my most exciting gigs was a Selfish Cunt one about five or six years ago, where the singer kicked beer glasses against the wall (broken glass showered the audience: not nice) and strutted - bare-skinny-chested - into the crowd, spitting at them and barging them out of the way (I got some rather large Mr Cunt gobbets on my suit jacket). SC were particularly good in that period so I kind of made allowances (maybe wrongly). Meanwhile, I’ve been to gigs where the band have complained about the lack of people there (“this is a fucking joke”, said one singer at a low-turnout gig in Leicester on one occasion). Er, is that really something you should complain about on stage?

4: Having no interest in the well-being of the audience
At the risk of contradicting myself (surely not!), it’s offensive when a band is uninterested in whether people are getting hurt by stage-divers and moshing (I’ve blogged about this before). C’mon bands! You’re the ones they’re moshing to, so don’t pretend it’s got nothing to do with you if people are getting trampled on.

5: Over-thanking the audience and other bands
Yeah, too much civility is deadening. Boring. Yes, they may be your best mates/touring buddies, they may have been good/OK/bearable, but do we really need you telling us how “brilliant” they were (or are going to be)? Meanwhile, repeatedly thanking those at the gig for “coming out tonight” or (worse) being “a great audience”, is … dull. Almost 1970s showbiz. Please, treat us with more … er, distance.

6: Banging on about their merchandise
Speaks for itself if you ask me. I've complained more than once on this blog about the bands that keep plugging their merch stalls. I don’t want your crappy t-shirts etc …

7: Re-tuning instruments for lengthy periods
Yeah, you’re such musical perfectionists you’ve got to tune that guitar for five excruciating minutes while we just stand there waiting. Some musicians seem to have forgotten they’re not in a studio, they’re at a small venue in south London playing to 25 people (nothing wrong with that BTW). Get over your over-precise selves. (Over!). They normally don’t sound any better after all that anyway …

8: Acting famous
Bit hard to define, but you see this with musicians who self-indulgently say things like “Here’s one you might know” (usually I don’t), who overdo the lighting and “stage craft”, and, well, sound self-important in general (most especially playing bloated, “dramatic” music). A leather-trousered band in New York from earlier this year were the epitome of this to me. Big stage, dry ice etc. Come back Thin Lizzy/The Mission, all is forgiven.  

9: Telling the audience to be quiet
Bloody cheek! This is quite common at the hush-everybody-we’re-playing-mature-new-folk gigs. I really like a lot of this music, but I hate being told to be quiet. (In general. But especially at gigs). One singer once compounded the offence by saying “Quiet please. You’re not in Italy now”. What the fuck?

10: Playing boring music!
Aha! The worst of all, and I can forgive all or most of the above if they play really interesting stuff.

Ah, the hyper-critical, ungrateful audience: me. What a fickle bastard. Meanwhile, my fellow audience members get on my nerves as well. So badly behaved! I’ll have a rant about that another time …

Saturday, 26 November 2011

DJs of the world unite

DJing, a new-old thing for me, brings you into contact with quite a few people.

No, there's no avoiding them. People. The venue promoter, the bar staff, the landlord, the bands, members of the paying (and non-paying) public: they're all there. Blimey, what a palaver. There you are, just trying to demonstrate to everyone what suberb taste you have in music, when the hassles begin ....

Have you got this record or that? (Stock answer: "No"). Can we get some drinks for the band? (No, I'm not the barman). The promoter's leaning on you to play music that "people will like". Beered-up punters are bawling incomprehensible questions just at the moment a tune is about to end and you need to start the next one. 

Gawd almighty. Best exchange so far: young woman, very "refreshed", repeatedly asking if I had any Bob Marley. "No, but I've got some reggae. I could play some of that." "But have you got any Bob Marley?" "Er, no, but I've got some reggae. Bob Marley's reggae. I could play some reggae." "Have you got Redemption Song?" "Er no, but ..." (repeat to fade).

OK, it's not all bad. Some people are genuinely interested in something you've just played (often people in the bands I've noticed). So yes, it's nice to get some positive feedback and be able to tell them what the music is (anything by James Chance/The Contortions seems to get a good reaction at the moment).

A few years back a friend was doing a bit of DJing (on a boat on the Thames actually) when one of the band members who was setting up to play started complaining very loudly about the music (a - rather excellent - dub tune). He was demanding it was turned down or off. I (very gallantly) rushed onto the stage to defend the honour of my DJ friend. DJs of the world unite, I say .... 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Marc lives!

Toilet venues: flush 'em away

Is it goodbye to the Bull & Gate in north London?, asks Michael Hann, referring to the "legendary" gig venue in Kentish Town in north-west London. I certainly hope so.

No, OK, music venues are generally a good thing. Especially if they're small, cheap and programme in adventurous music. But the B&G ceased to be anything like this years ago.

Hann admits to "a sense of sadness about the slow withering of back-room venues" that have been putting on bands "for as long as [he] can remember", but actually I think he's wrong about the decline - there are more not less small venues in London in these last 10-15 years - and unnecessarily sentimental about the places where bands play. Who really cares? They can strum their instruments in a house basement, an art gallery, an industrial unit or a shop in the street for all I care. (In fact some of the best gigs I've attended have been in exactly these locations).
Taken to extremes, this fixation with music venues leads to the laughable sanctification of places like the Cavern, or the Roxy, or [insert a venue of your own here, every town has at least one of these]. To be fair, despite the blog's subtitle alluding to the fact that Coldplay once played at the B&G (ooooh!), Hann's article isn't doing what the Evening Standard does with its trashy reference to the fact that "Nirvana, Blur, Coldplay and Manic Street Preachers" may or may not have trod the hallowed boards of the B&G in their pre-limo days.

And Hann's also - very broadly - right when he talks about how the old dinosaurs of the London pub venue scene - the B&G, the Dublin Castle, the Enterprise, the Barfly (and you could add the Monarch) - long ago stopped being interesting. But I think he also oversimplifies when he talks about the "eastward" shift. He misses some decent east London venues, doesn't mention how Camden's Lock Tavern is doing good things currently, and totally ignores Brixton's Windmill and Notting Hill's Arts Club, both mainstays of the small-venue music "scene" in London for more than a decade. 

But I come back to my main point (yeah, you probably feared I would ...), it's not about the places, it's, er, about the people. The most interesting bands will always find places to play. And this won't be in venues with "crystalline" sound systems or "legendary" reputations.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Punx is not dead

I saw a "Punx is not dead" graffito in Corso Garibaldi (a shopping zone for affluent Milanese) in Milan yesterday. It’s nice because of the faulty English (like a sign on a toilet door in a Turkish cafĂ© I heard about which read “Today is broken”).

As a ubiquitous tag on street walls apparently all over the world (well all the bits I’ve visited), the slogan’s the most visible trace of a 35-year-old subculture. Presumably third-generation teenage punks are spray-painting the phrase as a deliberate homage to the Exploited/GBH-era, studded-jacket punkers who first fought their (unsuccessful) battle to stop punk from dying. Or is it just some half-understood message about “keeping the faith” over punk? Punk as fundamentalism.

Seen as an Iain Sinclair-like piece of psychogeography, the “Punx” slogan is fascinating. What other music-based movement of the last 50 years continues to generate this level of visible devotion from a small band of acolytes?

In reality punk was surely dead as soon as it started to appear in the Sunday newspapers (Wire’s A Field Day For The Sundays). It probably began to die after the Grundy affair and gave up the ghost with the Silver Jubilee in mid-1977. But the fierce/foolhardy loyalty of the mohican’d Discharge crowd, punk’s first fundamentalists, has succeeded in establishing a sort of cult of survivalism around punk.

Simon Reynolds recently noted the conservative strand within House music – House traditionalists have long been keen to tell you (partly to PR their club nights) which year was the supposed high watermark for Deep House or whatever. Same goes for punk, which of course brought this upon itself with its stripped-down, back-to-basics rock template (at least according to the crudest interpretation).

Oddly enough, now that so much time has passed, I’ve come to almost enjoy seeing the “Punk’s not dead” daubs. They’re a kind of pleasingly ever-present reminder of a music – and much else – which has, one way and another, engendered massive creativity and produced a fantastic body of work.

Meanwhile, with a growing number of the original figures in the first wave of punk now actually deceased (Joe Strummer, Malcolm McClaren, Tony Wilson, Poly Styrene, John McGeogh, three Ramones and Ari Up, to name but a few), there’s also a new irony to claiming that punk’s not dead. The impulse behind it – in the best sense – may not be, but many of its prime-movers most definitely are.

I suspect that for some diehards – young and old – “Punk’s not dead” will continue to be a clarion call to man the barricades. To keep launching ever more decrepit zombie versions of “real” punk into the world. (I’ve seen some of these bands recently. It’s not nice meeting a zombie face to face).

But I also like to think that the punk’s not dead declaration might also come from digital hardcore musicians or purveyors of modern electro-dub sounds. No, the graffiti kids are right after all. Punx is not dead. Long live punk.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

This t-shirt is Crass, not Clash

Reading a recent Guardian feature about the My Band T-Shirt site got me to thinkin'... is it so bad that middle-aged people try to recapture their youth by wearing a Ramones or a Clash t-shirt? No, course not. Wear anything you like, I say.

I personally gave up on band t-shirts about 15 years ago. The last I wore was a Beastie Boys one - a rather fetching baby-blue colour, basketball logo on the front.

You could get into a whole discussion about visible identifiers of musical preferences - from lapel badges (still got my "two fingers up to you" SLF one), the steam-pressed lettering that people put on their Harringtons in the late 70s (remember that?), band names on school rough books, etc. Even walking back to the bus stop from the record library has been known to involve complicated judgements about which record to leave visible on the outside as you carry them ("hmm, shall I put the Gene Loves Jezebel one there, or The Marine Girls?")

Back to t-shirts. When it comes down to it, I'm a non-wearer. Of any t-shirts. To me they look like a child's item of clothing. Hey, if you want to look like a three-year-old why not wear some baggy shorts and dinky, colourful trainers? (ah, too late, thousands of 45-year-old men are already at it ....). So I tend to think that emblazoning a band name on the front of this ensemble hardly redeems it.

Also, how imaginative/creative is it, anyway, to don a top with someone else's band written on the front? Kind of clone-like. (It must be awkward, by the way, to bump into someone at a bar or gig who's wearing a t-shirt that exactly mirrors yours. "What kind of music are you into ...?").

No, band t-shirts are a little too like replica football shirts. Essentially, overpriced tat drained of imagination.

It also goes without saying that t-shirts are a convenient way to fleece the punters while getting them to act as a walking advertisement for the band-as-brand. Hey, it's a win-win. That's why I always liked the (mildly) subversive gesture of John Lydon's, with his "I hate" addition to a Pink Floyd t-shirt (better still was the "I hate" Rich Kids one he did). Similarly, I think putting rips and whatnot into t-shirts, a la punk, at least showed some spirit.

Meanwhile I think the outrage of veteran punks over rich celebrities wearing Crass t-shirts is petty and misplaced. If Angelina Jolie wants to be papped in a Crass top, so what? If David Beckham thinks it's cool to strut his stuff in a diamante-studded Crass t-shirt, then let him. Penny Rimbaud doesn't like it, but at least he's sensible enough to denounce Beckham in a half-serious, half-humorous way. There's nothing sacrosanct about Crass products ("we are all products" etc) and, while I like their music and much of their political stance, Crass fans - and former band members - ought to adhere to the Anarchism-influenced principle that people should be free to wear whatever they want. 

In fact, as it happens, I can't help thinking that Beckham's luxury Crass shirt is a bizarre but brilliantly decadent move. If you're going to go around in a band t-shirt, at least do it with a little flair.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Party people: don't do it!

There’s a long and rather tedious history of political parties using pop tunes that get them into trouble with their creators.

Why oh why do they do it? Not why do they use music without apparently checking first, but … more importantly, why Primal Scream’s dire Rocks? Or why The Cure’s yucky Lovecats?

A failure of taste? Of imagination? Probably both. Using Bobby and the boys’ Rolling Stones number for Theresa May’s walk-off tune is not just bizarre (drugs, prostitution, er, freak shows … “Strip joints full of hunchbacks”) but musically witless. What was the point of this tune in the first place? Ersatz Stones for a mid-90s indie crowd. A blowsy howler of a song. In a moment of madness I actually bought a copy of the Give Out But Don’t Give Up CD. One of my least-inspired musical acquisitions.

Meanwhile, Lovecats. What can you say? The blockheaded “humour” of the Conservatives using a cat tune after the “catflap” row yesterday is one thing. But this one?  Bloody hell. Robert Smith at his most indigestibly saccharine, an over-insistent double bass and an irritating plinky-plonky piano. Supposedly a fun pop tune for the Goth kids, it was for me the moment when The Cure drifted off toward less interesting waters and never came back. I found The Head On The Door album pleasant but not exactly essential listening. After that … there was no after that really. 

So, OK, I’m not exactly thinking the Tories could have used The Cure’s Cold or Primal Scream’s Kill All Hippies, but … er, well they probably could have done actually. It would at least have shown a little imagination.

But in the end why bother anyway? Who are the politicos trying to fool? Throwing out a bit of mid-80s pop or mid-90s retread-rock doesn’t make them look au courant, or even knowingly retro. They’re not down with the kids (young ones or middle-aged ones) and I suspect they’re “connecting” with virtually no-one. To me it all looks and sounds tired. Slightly desperate. Stick to Elgar or The Beatles I say.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jim's at the controls

“It’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the music that you play.” So said the music manager to me at a London venue the other week. He was talking about the DJing.

Fair enough. Tech fetishists do seem to risk missing the point - the music itself. The DJ equipment world is full of middle-aged salesmen fast-talking their way through promo videos for flashy new kit being sold at trade fairs. It’s the dials, responsivity, weight in the bag, the impression it makes. And, at the other end of the supply chain, there’s a busy little subculture of consumers who are showing off their new purchases on home-made YouTube vids (quite entertaining these, a peek into the cave-like bedrooms of self-absorbed teenagers from places like Thunder Bay, Iowa).

It’s a slightly weird, obsessive world (though I quite like this about it), and apparently almost totally male. In the past week I’ve watched dozens of videos - trade, manufacturer’s instruction flicks, people actually unboxing their new toys - and I’ve read a lot of forum threads and other online ephemera. I can recall only one female DJ making an appearance (and that was an almost self-parodying “feminine” post about DJing with two iPods, laid out on a white and pink page).

No, the DJ kit world is a man’s, man's world. It’s all about speed and size. Check out that hard disk. Flex those specs.

But I don’t dislike it (well, not much) and I must admit that the equipment is, to the extent that I understand it, amazingly impressive. And this is where I part company slightly with the view that “it’s all about the music”. Yes, I’d much rather hear something good on simple equipment (The Fall or Fela Kuti on a bog-standard DJ deck that just plays CDs) than something dull on a £2,000 Pioneer rig. But sound quality matters, and in addition DJing is inventive and enhancing as well. Even if you’re not beat-matching, sound wave analysing, and looping and scratching your way through complex musical sets, you can still be putting together interesting transitions and mucking about with pitch bending or throwing in a few effects.

Meanwhile, it seems that the indie music tradition (from where I hail, if I hail from anywhere) is sniffy about “real” DJs, and similarly the world inhabited by Norman Cook-like pro jocks is one where people who “just put music on at gigs” are little more than a joke. It’s a shame there isn’t more crossover. Cross-fade!

I always liked that story (from Dave Haslam's Superstar DJs book) about how Jimmy Savile claims to have single-handledly invented DJing in Britain when he rigged up some kind of ultra-primitive speaker to make his dance band records sound louder when he played them at lunchtimes in the upstairs room of a pub (in Barnsley?) in the 1940s. Great. I bet he wishes he’d been using an Allen & Heath Xone:DX loaded with Serato Itch though. 

Monday, 5 September 2011

Is it because I is a reggae fan?

For a few years I’ve been doing a regular little compilation CD for a select group of friends (ie a small pool of people I foist them on). I love every one immodestly. They’re full of banging tunes from the likes of Bovaflux, Sung Eun Kim, Friends Of the Jitney, the De Ndirande Pitch Crooners, Tyvek and many more from some lesser-known artists.

What’s on ‘em? Er, they’re varied. Quite a few obscure artists (to most people), a few well-known ones. Twee sounds, lovely grindcore (one of my mum’s particular favourites), 20-30s blues, punk and garage, ska, some dub, a dash of jazz, a few oddities, tunes from Africa, India etc. It’s not O2 arena-filling stuff but it’s not meant to be. No-one’s going to like every single track (unless you share all of your DNA with me …), but there’s something there for every mixed-up kid from the wrong side of town …

Except, what’s this! There’s reggae on there. I’m getting a steady grumble about this. It’s like I’ve included an excessive amount of Stock Aitken Waterman, or too much Red Hot Chili Peppers. But reggae’s the problem. Two or three tracks out of 80 minutes and this gets singled out.

I reckon I could produce a CD with 78 minutes of feedback squeals (Neil Young’s Arc given a distorto remix) and two minutes of Studio One and I’d get someone complaining about the reggae. White noise versus black music - no contest.

Oh mon, what's dis ting? If I was a proper white rasta I’d be sucking my teeth and blaming Babylon. As it is, I’ll just plough on with my musical miscellany, ignoring the reggae refusniks. (The dub deniers!) And I’ll leave the last word to my dread bredren Melinda Hughes. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Grunge: too much flannel

I’ve said before I’m not entirely convinced by Simon Reynolds’ Retromania thesis - no novel music is being made because everyone’s too busy consuming the past stuff on YouTube etc - but I quite liked his recent Slate article on the icky celebrations around grunge. Twenty years since Nevermind, eh? Can you believe it? Momentous album, high point in music, downhill since then.

Nah. OK album, overrated music scene, masses of great music since then, some of it much better than Mr Cobain’s meisterwerk.

Anyway, two quick observations.

One, that Reynolds’ analysis of the heritage-isation of grunge and what that might represent for some people - high-water mark for “rock”, golden age of “authenticity” etc - seems fair (not sure about the internet theorising stuff though, but er, never mind … ).

Two, that actually I don’t recognise Reynolds’ claim that there was comparatively little coverage of Cobain’s death at the time. I thought there was a lot. John Peel going on about how upset he was about it (surprising to me, a regular listener, as I didn’t remember him even mentioning Cobain before), the radio, news programmes, people in bars etc. I was bemused. What was all the fuss about …?

Actually - shocking confession coming - I hardly knew anything about the band at the time. Not for the first time, I’d basically missed out on an outfit that had more or less leapt from a small-band scene to superstar status, condemned to go on endless world tours to horrible over-sized venues reeking of hot dogs and the putrid stench of hype. (Ahem). 

Oh dear, I don’t want to write off the music altogether. I quite like it actually. And plenty of contemporary grunge-inspired bands are really good. So there, tuck your tatty flannel shirt in and stop complaining.  

Meanwhile, at round the same time that Nirvana were releasing that “paradigm-changing” LP, I was I listening to a fair bit of another supposedly "hip" American underground-to-overground artist - Beck. And you know what - Beck was a lot better than Nirvana.

PS: I could be wrong, but isn't this tune itself a parody of the trademark Kurt style and the whole MTV-goes-grunge phenomenon ...?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hang the blessed DJ

DJs at gigs are a sorry bunch.

After going to approximately 1,682 gigs in the last 10 years (I said approximately), I reckon I've heard about 14 interestingly DJ-ed ones. Not many, in other words.

The big problem? Predictability. You're at a garage rock-type gig, the DJ plays Jay Reatard, The Sonics and The Monks. How interesting is that? Or you're at a grindcore thing and ... well, no need to labour the point (like them).

It's the Henry Ford approach to music programming. Any style, as long as it's totally uniform.
It's not just this type of predictability either. It's also the bone-crushing obviousness of the selections themselves. If I hear The Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog one more time at a gig I'm gonna set my rottweiler on the DJ.

There are exceptions. About two years ago at an (otherwise rather so-so) gig in Camden the DJ displayed a modicum of flair and imagination by sticking on some groovily ancient-sounding ballads, circa 1935. At another in Stepney a set by the heavy gloom rock band Tenebrous Liar was followed by a batch of excellent reggae tunes, an intelligent counterpoint rather than a dunderheaded echo.

And what's worse than the dull stuff we get served week after week? Er, those times when they don't even bother getting anyone on the decks but just stick on a compilation CD. C'mon! Even Top Shop has a DJ.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

I predict a music post

There’s been a predictable flurry of people tweeting jokey I Predict A Riot-type stuff for days now and … I’ve had to rush back from my holiday to put a stop to it.

Stop THAT right now! It’s criminally over-obvious and there’s absolutely no justification for it whatsoever. If this descends into widespread use of references to White Riot, London’s Burning or I Fought The Law then I’ll have to call in the army …

Actually, though, after the somewhat jaw-dropping adoption of The Clash’s London Calling as the official Olympics tune, it does seem horribly inevitable that the alternative, riot-strewn answer to “brand London” could well be London’s Burning (Clash song, not mediocre TV series).

For my money London’s Burning is a typically over-rated Clash effort, marred by Strummer’s horrible garbled vocals and made boring by Jones’ stabs of guitar (plus yucky guitar solo) and the MOR chorus carousing. It has an OK sudden ending though: a final “London’s burning!”, with accompanying drum roll.

A few years ago I was at a Selfish Cunt gig when an unannounced woman appeared on stage: an apparition with creepy make-up, a strange hair/hat configuration and an odd flowing dress. In icily exact actor’s tones she recited a sort of poem that consisted of her saying “London’s burning … London’s burning … It’s fucking burning, I tell you ...” for around two minutes. In the backgound a trumpet played something mournful and despondent. Then silence.

It was about 100 times more alarming and disorientating than Strummer’s duff effort or Ricky Wilson’s sub-Blur bore. To me it was far more evocative of how it feels to be in close proximity to a riot. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

I wanna be … denounced to the police

The ridiculous-yet-sinister news that the City of Westminster police have been advising people to "report" those they suspect are "anarchists" provides an excuse to post the Sex Pistols' evergreen Anarchy In The UK.

My handling of the faintly threatening all-black 7" of this at a friend's house as a young teen was the (admittedly banal) equivalent of dealing in Samizdat literature. Forbidden goods!

I reckon the tune itself, if you actually listen hard, is not that great (unless you like lumbering rockorama juggernauts...), but - as so often with the SPs - the wit, snarl and bite of Lydon's lyrics and voice take it to an altogether different level. Enough has already been written about Lydon's millennarian caterwauling (Marcus, Savage et al), but it's still depressing to compare the register and ambition of this period to the walking parody that Lydon seems content to be these days (butter, tumble driers, weak self-referential "Johnny Rotten jokes"; panto can't be far off ...).

Few bands sound like the Sex Pistols in their pomp (I was wondering about the Dirtbombs recently, but it doesn’t really hold...). It's the attitude, not the music.

Latest news is that the Met has retracted the “shop an anarcho” call, which must be a relief for the poor plods patrolling the streets of Piccadilly. How would they have been able to differentiate between the "tourist punks" with their anarchy t-shirts and the real thing, the Proudhon acolytes, with their desire to see the overthrow of capitalism or even an end to all power structures?

Such is the confusion of modern life. Even back in 1976 Lydon could play with the myriad threats and their tags: “Is this the MPLA? / Or is this the UDA? / Or is this the IRA? / I thought it was the UK”.

I don’t know whether the police were monitoring McLaren, Glitterbest and the rest during those days (it wouldn’t be surprising if they were), but you can bet they or the intelligence services were watching fellow punksters Crass (Derek Shayler apparently saw files showing that both bands were being monitored by MI5). So much easier if the anarchists in your midst advertise that fact by er, singing about it …

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Moan, moan, moan ...

It's been noted that my postings on this humble little blog do sometimes have a slightly, er, less-than-positive cast. Grumbles do appear. OK, I complain, kvetch and bellyache about stuff, including even the music (which I tend to disparage more than praise).

Hmm. Fair cop? Kind of. But I figure there's already a sickening surfeit of sites and PR-led music journalism massaging the egos of the mediocre. When I like things it's generally fairly clear I do (even if it's usually in the context of comparing a decent thing to something I reckon is hyped and overrated).

Enough with the self-justification, though. Let's get on with the show!

As I was saying in my first-ever post (my best gigs of 2010 run-down) there's a superabundance of great music being made, played and talked about. I might moan about the PR, about shoddy journalism, or about the door policy and audience behaviour at gigs (OK, I do do this ...), but hey, I'm still digging it man. So here's a quick half-term report, ie 10 things I've enjoyed so far in 2011:

1: Let's Wrestle - apparently newly-invigorated with a different bass player. They're kickin' out the Mascis-style jams very effectively.

2: Netlabels Mutant Bass, Kill Mommy Records, and Sociopath Recordings. High-quality output from these great sites. Netlabels: surely the future.

3: Programming at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next to the Barbican in London. On ongoing mix of interesting performances (eg Schumann, modern electronic music), sometimes with a member of staff giving you some potted history.

4: JD Smith's gigs this year at the Windmill in Brixton (and elsewhere), including his "The Real JD Sessions”. I like the ghost blues/rock/country mix at these gigs - though not many other people seem to, judging by the tiny audiences.

JD Smith
5: Eleven volumes of music that inspired the Cramps. Have been listening to this little blood-soaked treasure-trove of rockabilly, R'n'B, 50/60s exotica and other Lux & Ivy-approved stuff for the last few weeks.

6: These five good gigs (among many others): (1) Talk Normal at Death By Audio in Brooklyn on 5 March; (2) Way Through at the Old Blue Last in east London on 16 June; (3) Gout at the same venue on 15 January; (4) Calories (again same venue) on 24 February; (5) The Love Triangle at the Firefly in Worcester on 25 February.

7: Some Hindi music (is it?) on cassette that I picked up from a charity shop. Very lively!

8: The Guardian's week-long series of profiles of music genres. Highly tendentious (yes I complained - ! - about "Indie" in particular), but a good read nevertheless.

9: Hearing a bloke at the next table to me in Shoreditch one lunchtime say to his eating companion: "He keeps on dropping moody dubstep and it ain't working".

10: DJ Brother Jimmy The Truth’s The Garage Sale show on University of Virginia radio. I'm continuing to enjoy the music selection and the laid-back style, but why doesn’t he upload the podcasts more frequently?

Ten good things and it’s only July. I’m being positively Panglossian. 2011, a vintage year already. Make mine a shandy.  

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Stamp out the stampers

"Excuse me, have you been stamped yet?" Dumpf.

The inky stamp on the hand ritual as you go into gigs is one of those below-the-radar annoyances that's been slowly eating away at me. (Yes, so much to be aggravated by, so little time).

But why the insistence? "It's OK, I'm not going out again", I say, imploringly, as they grab for my wrist. No escape. "No, you've got to have one". Why? No reason given, or "You might want to go out later anyway". Well, I like to think as a I slither into my middle age that I'm grown up enough to make my own decisions about these things. Rubbish! They're at the door, they know best.

Scrubbing away these cancerous blotches of ink the next morning in the shower is the price you have to pay. You've been tagged like the gig sheep they expect you to be. A few years ago I went through a phase where I tried to get them to at least stamp my forearm so that I could cover it up with my sleeve (not relishing the sight of a black blob on my hand all night). Bad move. The stamper just clumsily tattooed my shirt sleeve instead (great aim!) with some black ink that never came off. Yes, thanks for that.

The pettifogging attitude grates. Bureaucrats on a bar stool. Hey, lighten up, it's a gig not a housing benefit office. Every time they force me to submit to the dreaded stamp, it's like a little death. As Patrik Fitzgerald might have said, it's a rubber stamp on my heart.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Truly destestable summer festival

"Yes, yes, yes, summer festival / Truly detestable summer festival". Ah, Edwyn Collins' acerbic and not-at-all-warm-hearted put-down of the modern capitalist cult of "festival-going". It's close to the mark if you ask me.

Based on my extensive knowledge of festivals (OK, I've been to a few, including Glastonbury a grand total of one time) here are my 10 reasons why Collins' anti-fest manifesto is manifestly ... er, right about why they need to be ripped up and (not) started again:

1: Too many people
2: Involve mass drinking
3: Occur (mostly) outdoors
4: Treated as "gatherings" more than places to experience music
5: Generic and characterless
6: Difficult to get into and out of
7: Have too many performers
8: Expense, of entrance fees or sub-standard drinks/food
9: Mini-police states, with stewards and "security" everywhere
10: Sponsored and branded to death

Blimey, that's taking it a bit far, isn't it? Just chill out and enjoy the sun, Mr Niluccio....

No, Edwyn was right y'all. They're a blot on the musical landscape. If Bob Marley is reggae for people who don't like reggae (about right), I tend to think that music festivals are events for people who don't like music. Not much, anyway. If they did, why would they put themselves through all that just to watch some dull would-be stadium rock band throwing some shapes on a giant overlit stage in the middle of a featureless field surrounded by parked cars?

And with that I'll take my curmudgeonly way off home, crunching over the discarded plastic drinks containers as I go....

Saturday, 25 June 2011

I don't like music

Comment from  a work colleague about this blog yesterday: "It's made me not like music".

Ri-gh-t. Not quite the intention of my earnest blog-scribbling on the noise/annoyance/bliss-out/beauteous/R'n'R interface.

He was joking. I think.

Not liking music. Kind of like being dead, to my mind. Is it even possible to not like music? Er, yes, it seems so. My own dear mother appears to have no discernible interest in music (there was a vague Roger Whitaker phase in the late 70s, but I think that was imposed on her by the rest of the family). To her, music is ... yes, just a noise, a potential annoyance to be dealt with/turned down/silenced. I remain a sore trial to her ....

Personal anecdote: one ex-girlfriend's flat boasted a music collection consisting of about seven CDs. I cautiously asked about them: "Are these just a few you brought along from your old place for the time being?" "No, that's all of them. Why, is that strange?" It would be facetious and unfair to talk about musical incompatibility as grounds for separation. (Or would it?) But when I'm being reduced to playing a "Best Of Ska" CD (which was anything but ...) during the late-night south London hours, doubts do intrude ...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Keeping it unreal

I've always thought "authenticity" in music made no sense.

And here is my totally authentic account of why I'm right, of why I'm no faker ... and I'll be saying it all in a fully convincing voice that's absolutely my own. And, not only that, because I'm "street", am genuinely working class and never went to art college, everything I say is more valid than what you say, you middle class poseur.


Amongst a certain age group (mine!) you get people complaining about "manufactured" bands at every tedious pub-bore juncture.  "It's all image now", they bleat, hankering after a time of "real" groups, "real" musicianship.

Top of the pile, for the "reality" krew, tend to be rock bands, ideally ones with blue collar cred. Bruce Springsteen, Motorhead, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Guns 'N' Roses, maybe U2 and Queens Of The Stone Age. That kinda ting. Also Status Quo, wearers of denim, that tried and tested signal of roadhouse authenticity (later flannel shirts or simply heavily-worn band t-shirts).

During punk, bands that weren't punk enough were "plastic". It was The Stranglers (real) v XTC (phoney), The Ruts v The Boomtown Rats. As Jon Savage observed, there was always a depressing "social realist" tendency in punk which meant that Joe Strummer's strained vocal emoting was "authentically" punk while the more mannered delivery of (say) Adam & The Ants was not.

Roll forward a few years and the people that disparaged bands like Altered Images or The Human League for being "fake" (in reality code for "they're not using guitars", or "I think they're gay") were struggling against the sparkly sight of New Romantics and the sacreligious sounds of Roland synths.

After that, hip hop, house and things like (ahem) Stock, Aitken & Waterman must have seemed just like further proof of the continuing descent into an inauthentic, plastic-flamed hell. Nothing's ever been good enough for them since ...

It's all fake though! I don't buy the authenticity thing at all. Musical acts aren't called that for nothing (what, you thought Seasick Steve was a genuine guy, a real hobo?) So, OK, Woody Guthrie might have been a real-life "Okie" who sang dust bowl ballads about other Okie refugees, but there are plenty of great musicians who didn't have such a validating exposure to harsh reality. I blame the blues. There's a Louis Armstrong record where he intones the fruity preamble "Listen boy, I gotta right to sing the blues".  Blues surely provides the template for the authenticity/music formula. If you were poor and black and came from Mississippi then ... well, then maybe you had a "right" to play blues music. But what about if you were white and British and actually a bit middle class (Mick Jagger)?

The other day the Guardian (of all papers) used "middle class" as a pejorative in relation to "Indie" music. Reverse snobbery is all the rage in music these days. Grime is accorded a respect that seems to have a lot to do with the fact that it's made by mostly working class black people, rather than whether it's any good.

I personally don't care whether you're from Mississippi or Middlesex, and I don't mind whether you're a poor, 75-year-old black man playing a steel-string guitar or a white trustafarian twenty-something programming glitchy beats using a Mac. Like Mr Scruff, I just want you to keep it unreal man. And I really mean that.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bring me my indie guitar of burning gold

Why bother blogging about the meaningless of "Indie"?

I almost didn't  But the Guardian's 22-page feature has been rankling. Slightly.

Twenty-two pages on what, exactly? Lots of interesting people, yes. Mark Perry, Iggy Pop, Steve Albini, Mark E Smith, James Murphy. But the article's all over the place. The Byrds, the New York Dolls, Pete Murphy, Depeche Mode, Madchester, the Artic Monkeys, the Libertines etc. Why not just throw in everyone who is not Meatloaf and REO Speedwagon and have done with it?

More than anything else, the entire article doesn't seem to have much feel for music. It reads more like the product of a brainstorm (which I'm sure it is). If "indie" means anything in musical terms (which I doubt it does), wouldn't you want to discuss bands like Felt, Half Man Half Biscuit, Monochrome Set, The Wedding Present, Jackdoor With Crowbar, Big Flame, the Cocteau Twins, the Pastels, Hefner, Stump, Microdisney and many others?

Here and there the article almost makes sense. The significance of labels like Stiff, Factory, Rough Trade, Mute and SST is where I think it threatens to become coherent. (A potted history of independent labels would in fact have been far more illuminating than seizing on things like John Peel's Festive Fifty and The Strokes and labelling them all "indie"). But even with record labels the Guardian doesn't mention how the much-vaunted independence of labels such as Factory Records began to collapse when the independent distributors like the Cartel and Pinnacle ceded control to the majors (eg Polygram distributing Factory from the late 80s, I seem to recall).

Also, if you were being serious about the significance of DIY music culture wouldn't you want to say something about the importance of self-produced CD-Rs in the last 10 years, or stress the significance of the internet in allowing music-makers to bypass the record industry altogether? Instead the Guardian's entry on what it calls the "noughties phenomenon of blog-rock" is cursory, and references to Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes show how the standard model of "making it big" dominates the mood of the entire piece (other egs: "Creation conquers pop", Belle And Sebastian prove the power of the fanbase", "Franz Ferdinand take post-punk into the top 10").

It's a dog's dinner alright, and that includes some rather revolting old sprouts thrown in with the gravy and potatoes. A couple of (probably superfluous) examples before I throw it all up (and then eat all down again. Yum). The Reading festival of 1989 is singled out as an important moment when "indie kids" were presented with a big event featuring New Order, Spacemen 3 and the Sugarcubes. Jeez. I was unfortunate enough to be at this Mean Fiddler-promoted abomination and if this was in any way "indie" then so is Madonna or U2.

Finally, the feature's entry on the NME's C86 cassette deserves a mention. There may be some truth in the Guardian's contention that the publicity around this meant that hereafter "indie" became much more associated with white guitar-based music. Fine. But why not discuss what this music was rather than dismissing it (extremely unfairly) as "wheyfaced, middle-class, white people making underpowered guitar music"? Rockist? The Guardian?

Discussing "blog rock" (WTF is this, anyway?) the paper says "By the end of the decade" it had become "so fuzzy as to be virtually meaningless". Rather like "Indie", if you ask me. Except it had never meant anything in the first place.