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Give me music and give me noise....

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The listings page: where it's always 1985

Bands "returning" is bad enough (Duran Duran, Big Audio Dynamite), but outfits returning to play "classic albums" (Suede) is really pushing it. What next can we scrape out of the rusty promo barrel? What about: bands returning to play classic albums ... er, in their "original stage costumes"? Or: bands returning-classic-albums-original-costumes ... in a lovingly-recreated 1985, "where no-one has got mobile phones and AIDS is a new deadly disease"? Yeah, quite good that.

Nostalgia sells. Fine. And I suppose if Time Out has to partially fund its (genuinely useful) London gigs listings with tacky ads from Big Country, The Stranglers and Haircut One Hundred (I kid you not, all these and more in this week's TO), then I guess it's a price worth paying.

In fact there's even a kind of enjoyable dissonance in seeing once-fresh bands trading on former glories sitting alongside the sometimes excellent but (in PR terms) virtually invisible bands tucked away in the listings proper.

Who knows, perhaps if you were in a first-band-on-at-a-free-gig-in-Islington-on-a-Sunday-night you might quite like the fact that your group was discreetly sharing a listings page with a "legendary" one like The Stranglers. ("Hey, we've got some of their stuff from Black And White. Brilliant" etc).

A friend of mine was once in a small band in the 1980s that supported Rip, Rig And Panic in front of a 500-plus audience (about 10 times bigger than their previous biggest gig). It was their (one and only) brush with fame. He liked it, in a kind of dazed way. If you're next to the Haircut One Hundred advertisement it must feel something like that. Who says the reheated supergroups don't do their bit for fresh talent?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Grrrrr! Riot! Riot!

Yeah, that got your attention. The so-called Riot Grrrl scene received a lovely little smack on its cherubic red lips in yesterday's Guardian:

Their mere existence retooled feminism and punk for new generations of music-obsessed girls, showing young women they could start bands and put their lives, frustrations and inspirations into song - and that you didn't have to be a virtuoso for it to be powerful.

Er, maybe. Or is it that there's a bit of a lip-glossing of the past going on? Lipstick feminism adopts fun music scene from 20 years ago.

If girls and young women have been inspired to believe in themselves as a result of seeing or hearing (or even reading about) Huggy Bear or Bikini Kill, then great. In a live setting powerful music plus a strong stage presence can definitely do this: most famously the Sex Pistols' first Lesser Free Trade Hall gig, or Gary Lucas seeing Captain Beefheart in New York in 1971 (“It was the best music I’d ever heard performed by the most exciting and colourful group I’d ever witnessed, period”).

But .... the Riot Grrrl thing looks over-manufactured to me. Shouting a few "Girl revolution!"-type slogans (with plenty of Twitter-esque exclamation marks) over choppy guitars and fast-ish drumming is fine. Not necessarily brilliant though. Inspiring? Maybe.

Like a lot of writing about so-called "scenes", I reckon there's too much marketing in the mix. Yeah, we've got books to sell, theses to write (I read a PhD-based book by a US feminist a few years ago that kept citing the Riot Grrrl bands as major players in US feminism; I would have failed that PhD).

I'm not denying the individual impact of this stuff. That's what music - good, bad, and X Factor-y - is all about. But spare us the big claims and overly-neat packaging (especially if you're flogging a book).

But hey, Riot Grrrl may have spawned the vacuous "Girl Power" of the Spice Girls variety (you're never truly responsible for your children, are you?) but at least we've had some good shouty stuff from (say) Bis and (the excellent) Wet Dog. My personal faves were perhaps the (now-defunct?) Brighton band The Blue Minkies. Check out their You Make Me Blush single. It's a RIOT!!

Friday, 21 January 2011

This gig's sold out

My aversion to commerce in all its ugly buy-this-otherwise-you’ll-feel-subtley-inadequate/uncool/emotionally-empty manifestations means that I have the odd conflicted moment concerning gig-going. Yep, conflicted.

Hearing a band member announce “We’ve got t-shirts and CDs for sale at the back” is … tolerable. Just. (Though couldn’t we be trusted to find the merch table ourselves if we’re the buy-stuff-at-gigs type?). But hearing performers shamelessly hawking their goods two or three times during a set is overkill. It’s like being in a retail outlet rather than a music venue (the two come together in “in-stores”, a dog-eared promotional device so crushingly obvious I almost don’t resent them).

But bands just don’t seem to hear how crass their sales pitches sound. Every time they plug their MySpace or next gig - never mind their crappy t-shirts - they come across like the sales-orientated dullards that … well, that they probably aren’t, judging by the quality of their music (sometimes). But it invariably brings the music down a notch or two. Pace Warhol, since when was selling artistic?

Again, MySpace. What band in existence thinks an audience needs to be told about a MySpace site to go and find it? (Such a high estimation of their audience’s initiative). If I was a member of one of the smaller bands on the “indie” circuit I think I’d leave treating people like consumerist drones to the cash-monster bands that play the 1,200-person auditoria and the festivals. Then again, that’s where some of them are heading so perhaps they’re gearing up early…

OK, it’s bit of a conundrum for a band. They’ve got a few dozen people in front of them (if they’re lucky!) who might well buy their new CD single there and then. Why not tell them? Hmm. Some bands try to be cunning. The Bobby McGees used to have a nice comedy line about how they had “Some CDs for sale at the back …. [comedy pause] … a Sheena Easton one, that’s 50 pence, an Arctic Monkeys one, you can have that for nothing …”. 

In the end, I say: no sale! The excellent New York-based indie-folk singer Turner Cody has this about right. One time I went to see him in Brooklyn and had been asked by a London friend to go over to him and ask if he had any CDs that I could buy on behalf of said friend. He did: just. He rummaged around in his coat and found two, which I bought, much to his bafflement. He seemed convinced that I’d travelled 5,500 kilometres to see him in a small bar to buy some CDs in person. Another time I saw Cody at a different New York venue where the MC would hustle up some crowd commerce by asking performers on the house mic what they had for sale. “Hey Turner, ya got any CDs tonight?” “Er, no, not tonight.” “Nothing at all?” “Not tonight.”

Monday, 17 January 2011

Dirty dancing: do the crusher!

I’m a big fan of twee (Twee As Fuck, as they say) and so I’m probably spectacularly unqualified to comment on the “moshpit tendency” in music, but that never stopped me before …

Euugh. This about sums up my reaction to blokeish careering around in front of a stage. As a spectacle it’s appalling (a bit like football terraces in the seventies and early eighties, just with extra drumbeats). Exhibitionism, homoerotic machismo, onlookers being challenged and deliberately brought into the maelstrom. Great fun!

Some of the smaller gigs can’t cope with it at all. Non-participants have nowhere to go and get pressed against the walls desperately trying to save their drinks. Even if the moshing is more or less non-injurious, you end up with a yawning hole as the top-dogs patrol their space and the atmosphere switches toward self-protection. The music’s just a half-forgotten backdrop by this stage. 

Or maybe I’m missing the pure euphoric joy of it all and I need to get in touch with my inner rugger player. Taken to an orchestrated extreme it assumes a crazed, kamikaze beauty: check out this orgy of slam-dancing, stage-diving and testosterone-fuelled rampaging (including, if my eyes don’t fail me, someone wearing a PiL t-shirt, those well-known exponents of extreme physicality). 

Going even further, some of the YouTube videos of gigantic moshpits resemble the crowds of Muslim pilgrims doing the Hajj - swirling masses of people looking more like concentric circles of shifting minerals than people on the move. Strangely beautiful. From a distance.

Back in the 80s I confess I may have indulged in a little Death Cult-related “chicken dancing”, but this was gentle goth stuff. No physical contact! When the barrel-chested, topless lads moved in I … er, moved out.

The excellent Armitage Shanks sum up the rancid machismo underlying all this with their timeless classic “Shirts off”. Do you want some fucking shirts off or fucking what?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Damaged goods: and now here's Nils Blythe with the business news

Only just heard it (thanks AH for mentioning it) but the Gang Of Four's Andy Gill and Jon King's appearance on the Today programme yesterday prompts a thought (rare for me). What are musicians doing on progs like this? Who benefits? What's the point?

Yeah, OK, it's all promotion and if I were PR-ing the GO4's new album (god forbid) I'd also probably be sending the Today prog's planning editor some press release blurb about the availability of "this massively influentially post-punk-funk band" who can talk about "whether music is politically engaged these days?" Yes, it's a dirty business, but someone's gotta do it...

But who benefits? The band get their three mins’ of exposure to 750,000 quarter-interested listeners (in between slabs of a comfortingly querulous Humphrys or Naughtie); a current affairs audience gets to hear 10 seconds of (say) Damaged Goods; a few extra albums get sold. Job done.

So, ordinary PR, yes, but that's what's wrong with it as well. It's got commercial ordinariness stamped all over it ("Listen up, goods for sale under not-very-convincing cover of topical chat"). Fair enough: doing PR myself I know it's often an unglamorous hard slog at the media coalface (you should see my raw, blistered hands some days) and the "obvious" is often what succeeds (ie the media will say "can we just have them talking about politics and pop?")

But: it's falling between two stools. The chat is underwhelming and the music under-appreciated and barely played. If you must PR it, I prefer the PR-with-a-twist approach of that time New Order's Stephen Morris was on the Today programme talking about being 50. Art, media and sales meet and manage not to kill each other. Sort of.

As it goes I think the Today programme is generally terrible on music (I'm still smarting at the memory of that trite, over-obvious tribute by Mark Coles to "Peely" the day after John Peel's death). In my day-job ... PR ... I was once in the Today programme green room (ie about four chairs around a polystyrene coffee cup-strewn table in a corridor) when Mark Ellen was there to do three minutes on Led Zeppelin at the O2 arena. It was exactly what that sounds like: heritage rock act gets few minutes of the knowing/amusing patter treatment to entertain highbrow-ish current affairs audience. Yep, take it or leave it.

OveralI, I may not like it, but I guess I'll continue to take it. Hey, there's still something pleasurable about hearing a little blast of Black Dog or I Love A Man In A Uniform straight after the business news. It's just a pity it sounds so much like business as usual.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Punk is dead, long live Penny Rimbaud

There was a good appreciation of Crass' The Feeding Of The 5,000 in The Wire magazine the other month where the writer made the interesting point that unlike (say) the Sex Pistols, Crass' scratchy hostility has, over the years, proven reistant to co-option into the cosy rock pantheon. So, while Rotten's crew are now immortalised as "classic" rock and commentators will unhesitatingly trace a line from Hendrix through the Sex Pistols to Nirvana and the White Stripes, Crass still sound unpleasant and untameable.

I get the point. And it's true that their trebly guitars and shouty faux-punk vocals are deliberately abrasive. But, well, nothing's truly beyond the pale in music. (Is it?)

Compared, for example, to the guttural growl of contemporary grindcore, Crass sound relatively conventional to me. Recognisable tunes, lyrics, and all that. Jeffrey Lewis' excellent 12 Crass Songs LP makes this point perfectly, with its cheery indie-folk reworkings of Big A, Little A, Banned From The Roxy and those other timeless anarchist ditties.

About five years ago I caught a nice spoken-word/poetry set from Crass' drummer Penny Rimbaud. Nothing "hostile" about this - still less rock 'n' roll. Instead, it was a hushed affair with the audience hanging on to his little poems and political rants as if they were at a Waterstones author reading. Mind you, he's still happily raging against the machine (Blair, the Iraq war etc). Give me Penny over iconic rock "rebels" like Kurt or Johnny any day.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Disharmony in my head

Enough already with the earworm. I must admit I'm getting tired of the use of "Earworm" to describe a tune that's stuck in someone's head. Like many of these phrases I seem to have missed the moment when it started getting used (by everyone) but now it's become decidedly tiresome. A bit like a tune you can't ...

There's some pretty silly stuff around (marketing-led?) about how it's a form of "torture" to be plagued by a lyric or melody in your head (it doesn't seem too bad to me) - though Ian McMillan's account of spending much of the last 30 years with Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" rattling around his brain is admittedly quite alarming.

I'd like to call for an immediate moratorium on using this phrase. Please change the record. At least say Ohrwurm if you must use it. Somehow though, I think we're in for a few more years of heavy rotation with this.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

HMV: bye bye

Should we care if HMV is closing down shops?

Hmm. Lemme think a minute. Well, on the one hand I can give a pat personal answer. Roughly, I couldn't care less. I haven't crossed the threshold of one of these garishly kitted-out emporia of merch in years. Crank that Killers tune up on the shop system, Dan!

But, OK, you could - if you so wished - walk into a HMV store in (say) Hereford and (probably!) walk out smugly clutching your Waaves or David Cronenberg's Wife CD. And this, I have to admit, is not entirely a bad thing. I speak as a non-purchaser of music, but as someone who ... er, likes it.

Then again, how much does HMV really do to support music? If all we're talking about is the pile-'em-high flogging of CDs, t-shirts and other musical merchandise, then I'd say we hardly need a big high street supermarket-style shop to do it when we've got the internet to sell stuff (mind you, the Jersey VAT loophole arrangement exploited by online retailers looks suspiciously squalid). If, though, a record shop is offering something the internet can't, then their higher prices and tawdry commercialism might be forgivable. Surely they should long ago have cottoned onto this and established a solid reputation for regularly hosting in-store gigs from half-decent bands - not glorified PAs from star acts. (Yeah, I was at that insultingly short Adam Ant lunchtime drop-in at the Coventry store in 1981. It was rubbish).

Now they've had a poor Christmas sales-wise HMV's chief exec is talking about doing more in this area but I've got my doubts. My own scanning of available gigs in London in the last few years suggests that the mighty HMV business empire could hardly ever muster an in-store in the capital worth the name (I recall a goodish one by Hefner in the early 2000s, but not much else). Whereas a tiny outfit like the Pure Groove record store managed to put on (often excellent) events every other week for a couple of years (why have they apparently discontinued them by the way?)

I should declare an interest. In the mid-1980s I worked for three years at HMV and did my fair share of loading Go West and Bryan Adams LPs onto the display racks. My old boss once told me that the philosophy of HMV was "to make it like a supermarket". Well, I never did like listening to his master's voice and I managed to get out of there with my love of music still intact. Just about. HMV: bye bye.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

I am Governor Jerry Brown

Seems amazing to me that Jerry Brown can come back as governor of California after a mere 28 years since he last did the job. Now that's what I call a political blast from the past.

A young Jerry Brown on the cover of the DK's classic single

Jerry Brown is of course already immortalised even before replacing Arnie thanks to the Dead Kennedys' excellent California Uber Alles. I always used to wonder at the extremity of Jello Biafra's attack on Brown. It was lumpy and heavyhanded - "Zen fascists will control you ... You will jog for the master race ... You'd look nice as a drawstring lamp" - but could hear that it was undeniably powerful. Yep, c.1979, musical references to Orwellian nightmares were all the rage. But you gotta admit, it works even though it's cartoonish. Plenty of conviction in Jello's weirdo-warbling singing, great martial drumming, sinister bass and guitar, and ... well, an all-round interesting arrangement.

Looking back it seems that Brown's 1975-83 governorships were pretty progressive (opposition to the death penalty, green policies, appointment of openly gay judges) so Biafra's hostility looks a bit baffling. OK, Biafra was a lot closer to it all than me, but I get the feeling he was maybe just enjoying whipping up a bit of anger amongst the Californian punks.

Meanwhile I see that, bizarrely enough, Brown had a high-profile relationship with Linda Ronstadt at the time of California Uber Alles, so one can only assume that the DK's real target was this sell-out politician who was going out with a MOR country singer. It all makes sense now.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Zushi on Lomax

Pretty good little review of the legendary Alan Lomax in the New Statesman by Yo Zushi. (I say review of Lomax b/c it doesnt say much about the book it's reviewing, a biography by John Szwed).

Certainly I read The Land Where The Blues Began with wide-eyed fervour, probably a bit the way Lomax himself was when he went rocking up at the next beaten-down shack in Mississippi to bribe some old timer with whiskey to sing for him. Hey, great times!

Unlike Mr Lomax I can't say I ever saw Leadbelly or Fred McDowell doing their stuff, but I did catch Yo Zushi himself about three years ago doing an indie-folkie thing. Kinda good, I thought. When's he playing again though? Can't see much on his MySpace.

Bomb that hippie scum

Unnaccountably perhaps (!) when I first saw this Shoreditch grafitto I misread it as "Bomb that hippie scum", which I took to be an expression of sympathy for much-maligned hippies. Instead, it's a tired anti-yuppy thing .... blah. Anyway, I liked the idea of it being an ironic attack on (ie praise for) hippies.

Because of punk's dumb-ass (but tongue-in-cheek?) never trust a hippie sloganeering, it seems to me that it's still basically uncool to venerate hippiedom (I was always impressed that Mark Perry ignored this petty sectarianism even during punk's heyday).

My namesake from The Young Ones obviously also had something to do with it in the UK, but it still seems ridiculous that the prejudice has stuck. I mean, give me Neil Young's more-or-less sincere heart of gold over Joe Strummer's fake white riot any day.

Meanwhile, there's no pejorative in "punk"! Far from it. So, for eg, on his (excellent) The Garage Sale radio show in Virginia, Brother Jimmy The Truth has got the "How punk is that?" slot - meaning "How fucking good is that?", which I think is pretty typical. Even 35 years of corporate co-option hasn't managed to destroy punk's (undeserved?) aura of cool-ness. It's indestructable!

It just ain't fair. Bring back the hippies, I say. And leave the yuppies alone. And you know what? I mean it man ....

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Bumping into calypso

Have been bumping into calypso quite a bit recently, including in Sam Selvon's excellent novel about Trinadadian immigrants in London in the '50s and '60s.  Great slang in this - "I was coasting a lime by the Circus", "a nice piece of skin waiting under the big clock" - and a really touching account of fresh-off-the-boat hustlers trying to get by in a freezing-cold and not exactly welcoming London, with the British "diplomacy" (ie behind-your-back racism) making things tough, but not as tough as their own womanising and hedonism.

Not sure if the book actually picks up on the rhythms of calypso, but the music's definitely good for 'storytelling' so I wouldn't be surprised. I can see why Stanley Brinks is keen on calypso. With him it can even turn into a pretty amazing communal thing where a rock crowd is totally won over by it. Looking sharp man!