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Give me music and give me noise....

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Nik Cohn: feel the noise

Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti /Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti ...
... reading Nik Cohn's amazing Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop From The Beginning is often a bit like listening to Little Richard's nonsense masterpiece. It's exhilarating, bone-shakingly basic, and genuinely funny. Hey! You KNOOOOOOW what I liiiiike ...

Yes, Cohn's book is really good. It pulls off the unlikely trick of reproducing some of the thrill of good music - especially rock 'n' roll - in the writing itself. I don't quite know how. It's possibly something to do with his unusual stripped-back style: plain language, brisk almost dismissive summaries ("and that's all there is to say ..."), yet all matched to an underlying intelligence and knowingness about "pop" and what makes music really work (he often refers to "noise" for example). Here's a typical sample (on Eddie Cochran):

"Eddie Cochran was pure rock. Other people were other kinds of rock, country or highschool, hard, soft, good or bad or indifferent. Eddie Cochran was just rock. Nothing else. That's it and that's all ... He looked like another sub-Elvis, smooth flesh and duck-ass hair and a fast tricksy grin, the full uniform."

After this Cohn gives a short summary of why songs like Summertime Blues and C'mon Everybody work as quintessential late-50s pop-R'n'R (it's a lot to do with the use of by then classic archetypes: blue jeans, moody youthful good looks, teen rebellion, being American). Cohn clearly appreciates it all but also stands slightly apart - the key phrase is "the full uniform". By '59 Cochran is a package, just like Elvis quickly became, but no less potent for all that.

Anyway (to adopt Cohn's manner), that's just how Cohn does it - using apparently dashed off writing that's better-crafted than it lets on and all the while having a pretty firm grasp of the essentials of the main musical developments from 20s jazz, big band balladeering, crooning, R'n'B, rock and roll, and the whole shebang of the 60s beat, rock, freak-rock and proto-hard rock scenes.

Most of the lineage and influencing stuff is well known and almost over-familiar now (Chuck Berry on the Beatles, Muddy Waters on the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan on the Beatles, the Beatles on everybody else), but it's worth remembering that Cohn wrote the book way back in 1968 (!) so was pretty much a pioneer. I don't always agree with his musical judgements - he dislikes Dylan ("he bores me stiff"), mentions but says almost nothing about the Velvet Underground or Captain Beefheart - but Cohn's many insights into what makes exciting pop music work and his overall lightness of touch are the reason the book is worth reading.

But, enough with all this appraising and pontificating! Here are a few extracts from the great man himself. Here he is on seeing the Rolling Stones arriving at the Odeon cinema in Liverpool in early 1965:

"... I heard a noise like thunder. I went outside and looked around but couldn't see anything ... Finally, after maybe a full five minutes, a car came around the corner, a big flash limousine, and it was followed by police cars, by police on foot and police on motorbikes, and they were followed by several hundred teenage girls. And these girls made a continuous high-pitched keening sound and their shoes banged down against the stone. They ran like hell, their hair down in their eyes, and they stretched their arms out pleadingly as they went. They were desperate. The limousine came up on the street towards me and stopped directly outside the Odeon stage door. The police formed cordons. Then the car opened and the Rolling Stones got out, all five of them and Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager, and they weren't real. They had hair down past their shoulders and they wore clothes of every colour imaginable and they looked mean, they looked just impossibly evil. In this grey street they shone like sun gods."

And on Screaming Jay Hawkins:

"He began his act by emerging from a coffin and he carried a smoking skull called Henry, he shot flames from his fingertips, he screamed and bloodcurdled. At the end, he flooded the stage with thick white smoke and, when it cleared, he was gone. 'I used to lose half my audience right at the start, when I came screaming out of my coffin. They used to run screaming down the aisles and half kill themselves scrambling out of the exits. I couldn't stop them. In the end, I had to hire some boys to sit up in the gallery with a supply of shrivelled-up elastic bands and when the audience started running my boys would drop the elastic bands onto their heads and whisper "Worms".'

And on how Sinatra-esque crooning got pushed aside by brash blues showmanship married to good looks, overt sexuality and teen-flavoured angst:

"Anarchy moved in. For thirty years you couldn't possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely-spoken and phoney to your toenails - suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased or almost anything on earth and still clean up."

Ha! Anarchy indeed. And of course whole generations of people (my father included) would go to their graves cursing the Beatles for "ruining jazz" or dismissing all rock and roll as "rubbish", when it precisely tapped into their beloved jazz or blues (and even torch song balladeering) to channel a new excitement and energy into modern music. Can you dig it, Daddy-o?

"The lyrics were mostly non-existent, simple slogans one step away from gibberish", says Cohn of the new pop of the 50s, while pointing out that this was deliberate, cutting older generations off from the security of the words, leaving them with the raw beat and the blaring noise. The message was: cope with it or retreat back to your '78s, your sheet music and your Fox Trot at the Hammersmith Palais. (This is not to dismiss decades of music and mass culture attaching to the big band and "palais" dance hall scene, by the way. It might have been pretty staid by later standards, but I appreciate that it still gave millions of people their first thrill of sexualised encounters while the band jived away up on the plush-curtained stage. Sex and music. Who knew they went together, eh ...?)

But Cohn gets to the heart of it. It's sex, but it's more than that. It's drive, clothes, rebellion, "flash", cars, "girls", loneliness, danger. And it's very much noise. Cohn quotes Jerry Lee Lewis as saying "You are either hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you out of his mouth", which seems fair enough to me.

For Cohn the most exciting performer he'd seen by the time (aged 23) he wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom was Little Richard. I can dig this. Forget your precious Beatles and Stones, your revered Hendrix, The Who or The Kinks. Because ... tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti ...

Monday, 21 December 2015

If this brain was destroyed, Podcast #124 (Nov 2015)

When neuroscientists meet at international conferences to deliver their papers, swap notes and have affairs (right side of the brain cheating on the left), they meet in the bar to chat and cool their heels. Sooner or later music comes up and then, suddenly serious, someone will say "Niluccio's brain must be preserved for future generations." "Why?", a junior attendee will inevitably ask. "Because", the rather irritated neurologist with the big Sennheiser phones will say, "we can't afford to lose all that musical knowledge. It must be PRESERVED. At ALL COSTS." Then Sennheiser man will always look upwards, eyes slightly unfocused, a deeply troubled look on his face. "Just think", he will say. "What will be lost if this brain was destroyed ...".

1: Fun Every Friday, Intro 
2: The Rories, Hercules 
3: Joe Biden 
4: Syp, ? (Running Horse, Nottingham 27/11/15) 
5: Paresis, What is love 
6: Venkman, Tony no like 
7: Lungbutter, The Martians aren’t coming 
8: Tod Auf Kredit, Radio unbekannt 
9: Fist Of Fury, Guilty of innocents 
10: The Carbon Manual, Ice sleep (rough mix) 
11: Is/Is, Sideways 
12: xDELOREANx, We must go back to the future 
13: Johnny Osbourne/L.Thompson, Back off (version) 
14: Natural Snow Buildings, Moscow signal 
15: Bad Boyfriends, Don’t talk to her, she’s just the maid 
16: Jarby McCoy, La vérité enfin 
17: MC Lord Of The Flies, The compound eye (Tsetse Redux mix) 
18: If this brain was destroyed 
19: Meatwave, ? (JT Soar, Nottingham 28/11/15) 
20: Andy G Cohen, Don’t you think it’s time? 
21: Callate, Jabba el terrible hut! 
22: R Stevie Moore, Rockets by two 
23: Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, Glory dawn 
24: Chemos, Raw frat 
25: Sue White, The oggy man 
26: Mind Spiders, Make make make make 
27: Whodiniz, Hiroko kingdom

Thursday, 17 December 2015

My 20 best gigs of 2015

The other day I heard Kylie Minogue on the radio saying she "literally couldn't imagine a world without music". Emphasis on literally. Well, she apparently hasn't got a very good imagination - I can easily imagine a world devoid of music (especially hers!).

But hang on, I think I know what she must mean. She means she can't imagine life without gigs at the Old Blue Last or Power Lunches (RIP). Rip-roaring affairs at JT Soar or the Windmill. Hey, the diminutive Aussie has got a point. It's these occasions that give our barren lives a little meaning. They lift us, if only temporarily, out of the void, endowing us with a renewed sense of purpose, inner strength. Don't they?

You know I'm right! And though it's still many gig-going days away from the end of the year and I might still squeeze a couple more in, here they are, my 20 best gigs of 2015. They were all literally excellent, and I didn't see Ms Minogue at a single one ...

Shark Dentist: Windmill, London, 10 March
Decent noise-rock stuff from Shark Dentist. If memory serves, one of the band was wearing a Psychocandy t-shirt, another a Stooges t-shirt. Hey, take yer pick! Also, they introduced one of their songs by saying "It's been a while since I was in Brixton. The last time it was on fire." Gulp.

Freschard, Stanley Brinks & others: The Pod, Coventry, 2 April
Not the most scintillating gig I've ever attended, but included in this 'ere top 20 because of the ultra-mellow vibe that - as ever - Freschard and partner-in-lassitude Stanley Brinks created. This was at an arts cafe that does musical therapy and indeed F & SB (plus local guitarist Andy Whitehead) roped in a couple of others who seemed to be there for therapeutic reasons. Then again, aren't we all?

Don't Worry: Power Lunches, London, 21 May
Emo-ish noise-rock - not music I hear a great deal of usually, yet seemingly when I do I can dig it. Here and there they struck a beautiful plaintive note, and married this up to some nice lyrics: "Depressed together/We can be depressed together". Yes indeed.

The Worms: Power Lunches, London, 25 May
Good punk/garage-y sounds from The Worms, who clearly have one or two (ahem) earworm-y tunes up their non-existent Lumbricidae sleeves. They're no-nonsense bash-out-another-tune types who can get quite shouty in a pleasing, tempered-aggression sort of way. All rather enjoyable. Meanwhile this gig also included Das Boots The Chemists. Good name, decent band: ramshackle, shouty punk-pop.

Sauna Youth: Old Baths, Hackney Wick, London, 5 June
By far the biggest gig I went to in 2015. This was in a large, zero-atmosphere room (a sports hall?) and - uh-ho - there must have been 200 people there. It should have been rubbish, but instead it was ... pretty damn good. These sweat-beaded youngsters do a revved-up punk-ish groove with excellent female lead vocals. Nicely intense.

Getting sweaty with the masses: Sauna Youth

Prinzhorn Dance School: Tin Music, Coventry, 13 June
I could be wrong but I suspect PDS have been picking up some admiring press along the way - but hey, don't let that put you off. These are a seriously groovy outfit. Nagging basslines, pulsing guitar, hints of early New Order, coolly emotional vocals. Intense, compelling stuff. Excellent throughout at this gig.

No Form: Audacious Art Experiment, Sheffield, 20 June
A pretty immense rock-cacophony from No Form, whose reverb'd-to-death wall of noise sounded like several large buildings collapsing (or was it my brain caving in?). Shades of prime Birthday Party or Arc/Weld-era Neil Young, NF certainly aren't messing about. Also very enjoyable at this gig: Long Limbs, with their very infectious Bunnymen-ish 60s beat sounds.

Vertical Slump: Power Lunches, London, 26 June
Driving, synth-based, hardcore-y sounds, reminiscent of ... oh, I dunno, have a guess yourself. Controlled power, emotional charge - I suppose we're talking Flipper or that kind o' ting. I landed at this gig after a swanky architects' party in central London. It was like arriving at a different planet.

Vertical Slump at the now-defunct Power Lunches

Hideki Hashimoto, Yuichi Asai, Yumiko Yoshimoto & Toru Shimada: Flying Teapot, Tokyo, 30 July
Despite some pretty stiff competition, this was my most sparsely-attended gig of the year - myself and my gig companion plus another three audience members (if you include the barman-promoter guy). As ever, the crowds don't know nothin'. This was challenging-yet-involving improv jazz, with long contemplative sections and pleasing bursts of discordance. The band granted us deep and sincere bows as we left the venue. Can we make this the norm at all gigs from now on please?

Self Deconstruction: Pit Bar, Tokyo, 31 July
Very enjoyable grindcore shenanigans from Self Deconstruction. Lots of long Japanese hair flying all over the place and a guitarist dressed in some kind of crazed Alice In Wonderland/geisha outfit. Also pretty good at this gig: The Fangs with their pop-hardcore, especially the energetic, floor-sliding singer wearing an SNFU t-shirt ("Open your mouth and say ... SNFU").  Meanwhile, I noticed a woman in the audience who had a nice tattoo of a watch next to ... her watch. Those Japanese, eh?

Self Deconstruction smashing things up in Tokyo

Super Lungs: Old Blue Last, London, 20 September
Groovesome beat-ish sounds in a Strange Boys stylee, Super Lungs had me tapping my cowboy boot-shod foot from the off. Some of the guitar lines from a bloke with very big sideburns were particularly nice. Understated yet captivating stuff. The Sunday night audience at this free gig started out low (four, me included) only to swell to ... er, about 14. The rest of London was obviously doing something vital, like watching rugby on television or whatever.

Bellies: JT Soar, Nottingham, 2 October
Complex guitar-drums gymnastics from a duo who often seem to be playing four songs at once. Polyrhythms, super-nimble guitar lines and shrieked vocals - this was really interesting music. I most liked a couple of songs toward the end of their set where they interlaced some nagging rhythms and semi-sung vocals. Groovy.

Estonian National Opera: Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, 15 October
One of my occasional forays into opera, this was Tosca from the first row in the stalls! Yep, after years of seeing productions in supposedly great opera houses (Milan, New York, Covent Garden etc) here was one that didn't bore or bemuse me. Because, I'd venture to say, opera from 50 rows back is basically a waste of time. Here, I was able to watch the musicians in the pit and enjoy the corny goings on with Baron Scarpia, Floria Tosca et al. Oh, and some really nice arias to savour.

Black Tambourines: Old Blue Last, London, 23 October
Energetic punky beat stuff from these surfin' dudes from Cornwall. A tall bassist-singer went in for some surprising hip shimmies, and a bowl-haircut'd guitarist was prone to getting twitchy and semi-frenzied - hey now! They play pretty fast (kinda Thee Vicars-ish) and with enough intensity and variation to keep it interesting.

Shimmy shimmy shake: The Black Tambourines 

The Red Cords: Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham, 25 October
Supporting the aforementioned Black Tambourines, at this gig the lighter colour outfit won out! Yes, The Red Cords had urgent, rollicking drum rhythms, a slightly new wave crispness to their beat-inflected arrangements and an understated get-on-with-it manner. They kinda rock.

Rat The Magnificent: Windmill, 26 October
Perhaps not exactly magnificent, RTM were nevertheless a powerful entity. They went in for that grinding juggernaut-of-sound neo-rock that bands like Poino or A Clean Kitchen Is A Happy Kitchen churn out. Motorik monstrousness! Maybe best sampled in smaller quantities than eight or nine consecutive songs - still, naggingly memorable stuff.

Syp: Running Horse, Nottingham, 27 November
Sludgey grind-noise from Syp who did all the usual growling and monster-riffing (distinctly "classic rock" in places) but somehow sounded more adventurous with it. I particularly liked the drumming, powerful but also inventive, with splashes and rolls where I didn't exactly expect them. Lots of other distinctive things as well: a guitarist who sat down throughout, a bassist with a massive flop of top knot-secured hair, and a vocalist with his coat on (pictured).

Syp's growler in chief feeling the cold in Nottingham

Han-earl Park, Dominic Lash, Mark Sanders, Caroline Pugh: Lamp Tavern, Birmingham, 1 December
Screeching and scraping in an improv stylee, this quartet assailed the ears with a pleasing melee of noise, some of it vaguely intelligible. Caroline Pugh jabbered away in what sounded like snatches of Greek, while the guitarist Han-earl Park did impossibly intricate yet percussive stuff on his guitar fret. Mad but entertaining. It was in the backroom of a gloomy back-street boozer. When I tentatively asked the elderly landlord "Where's the jazz tonight?", he said "I wouldn't call it jazz. More like a fookin' racket." He was right!

Han-earl Park and others making a fookin' racket

Chastity: Hare And Hounds, Birmingham, 2 December
Not my usual fare - quite a "widescreen" feel to this band's thrash-pop stuff, but oddly interesting. The lanky vocalist - part-Russell Brand, part that bloke out of The Rent Boys - was the main reason. His off-stage wanderings among the dozen or so people in attendance (another of my not-exactly-packed-to-the-rafters 2015 gigs) were always fun to watch. I'm not saying I was ravished by Chastity, but ... er, they're worth another date.

Shit Present: JT Soar, Nottingham, 6 December
Enjoyable melodo-grunge from Shit Present. Mostly mid-tempo songs powered along by some pretty ferocious drumming (snare drum especially). Shades of Martha, Stagecoach, that kind of thing. The singer said the band has only written seven songs - I wasn't counting, but they must have played them all. For me the gig was also enlivened by the sight of a bloke in the audience (looking something like a young Johnny Depp) wearing a nifty combo of a Basque Beret and a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. Hey!