Friday, 9 October 2009

Jay Sean - a transatlantic success story nobody's talking about

While everyone (well, not quite everyone) over here has been considering burning questions like; "Is Lady GaGa is packing heavy ordnance?", "Has the arse finally dropped out of the Lene Lovich knock-off industry?" or "Is it time to stop making gags about the newly-reconfigured Sugabugas being the Trigger's Broom of pop?", a UK-born singer with a fistful of hit singles and two hit albums to his name has quietly climbed to the top of the US singles chart, breaking the Black Eyed Peas six-month stranglehold on the number one spot. Not that anyone's making much of a fuss, like.

Jay Sean's Down is a cracking little slice of state-of-the-art pop/r&b with an irresistible hook and a cameo from Yung Money Weezy in full-on Lollipop autotune gurgle mode. It'll be number one over here in no time. Some kid will perform it on the next season of American Idol, and millions of other kids will go screaming nuts. That's how pop music works nowadays, for better or worse. But, yet again, its success once more raises the question: how the fuck is it that a UK artist with actual, bonafide hits can, after getting tucked up by his/her UK label, go to the US, put their career in the hands of the Americans and subsequently clean up? It makes absolutely no sense. It's not as if it's anything especially exotic we're talking about here.

Jay Sean first popped up on my radar in 2003, when he was the featured vocalist on Rishi Rich's excellent Dance With You. For a little while afterwards, it seemed as if Rishi's wired-for-desi take on r&b production signalled the first wave of an emerging voice in British black music, fusing dancehall, r&b, Bengali/Punjabi pop and hip-hop in a way that seemed purpose-built to cross over to mainstream audiences who'd grown up with these sounds all around them. Even Timbaland appeared to be taking notes. Most likely to surf that wave seemed to be acts like Kray Twinz, certified dimepieces like Veronica Mehta, or your boy Jay Sean. Jay went on to have a succession of hit singles with the kind of smooth, likeable, if not particularly startling, pop-tinged r&b that's never struggled to find an audience in the UK. Massive crossover stardom seemed to evade him somehow, and after Virgin Records continued to put his second album on the back burner (after his first had gone Top 20 over here and sold two million in India alone), he did a bunk. The subsequent self-released sophomore joint was a bigger hit than his major label debut, and gave him five consecutive Top 20 hit singles. So why is it that, at a time when it's almost literally staring into the abyss, the UK music industry can't make a superstar out of a homegrown artist who quite clearly can sell records? Or at least as many records as Florence And The Machine?

I used to wander around Rusholme, Manchester during the 80s and see posters for concerts by acts like Alaap and Heera; massive stars in the Asian community over here, yet completely unknown elsewhere in the UK. Perhaps the crossover potential was always going to be limited for acts whose sound was so heavily dependent on South Asian instruments or tunings that sounded odd to Western ears. Nevertheless, at this time it wasn't unusual for bhangra acts to sell upwards of 30,000 cassettes a week - you'd think it might have occurred to someone somewhere in the industry that this could be something worth paying attention to. Nope. Even when an act did cross over, like Apachi Indian, it was widely perceived as a novelty, and it seemed nobody over here ever thought it worth the effort to engage with the Asian community and its music the way Chris Blackwell did with reggae.

Anyway, with the emergence of people like Bally Sagoo, a sort of post-bhangra sound began to emerge and, as the next generation of Anglo-Asian or British-born Asian kids came through, you began to hear music that wasn't really Westernised as such, but in fact reflected the community it came from in much the same way as jungle did, or - perhaps more relevant to the topic - acts like Soul II Soul did in their early days. But, although you can hear the end result of this blasting out of a tricked-out Beemer somewhere in just about any major city in the UK, it's still massively under-represented in the pop charts. Clearly, the scores of desi kids who eat this stuff up are buying it from the little shopfronts and market stalls in their manors - one of the few places where something resembling old-fashioned record shops still flourish, perhaps - but while UK labels look at that market and either don't know how to get into it, or just can't be bothered, Cash Money seems to have seen the growth of urban-desi culture in the States, looked at Jay Sean's impressive numbers, put two-and-two together and thought, let's get it.

Still, let's be honest, though - good as it is, there's little to differentiate Down from any number of releases by the likes of Ne-Yo, Trey Songz, Chris Brown, J. Holiday, Lloyd and them. The strings don't sound as if they've come from an R.D Burman soundtrack or anything like that, and there's barely anything idiomatically desi about the song or its production. But all the same, here we have a UK act abandoned by majors, as ever too preoccupied with the latest half-witted micro-trend from the Shamden/Poxton/Boreditch axis of Barleyism (do any of them actually want to sell records, do you think?), who has effectively managed to sell coals to Newcastle. Given the desi propensity for supporting their own, he might even manage to avoid the one-hit wonder tag that Mark Morrison and Craig David ended up with when they tried to pull off the same trick. At least the next time a so-called urban act is dropped by a major, they can look not just to Est'elle, but to Jay Sean too, and know that all hope is not yet lost.

Monday, 14 September 2009

World to Kanye West: Shut The Eff Up (Hoe)

I honestly don't understand what gets into some people at awards ceremonies. Booze and drugs will only excuse so much. However, Kanye West appears to need neither to help cement his unique position in the pop firmament as someone you can always rely upon for a display of showboating 'MEMEME' gracelessness. Judging from the responses to his latest episode, it seems that even the people who like him (such as myself, most of the time) think he's a dick.

So why the fuss? Well, last night at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York he took it upon himself to interrupt an acceptance speech by 17-y-o pop-country singer Taylor Swift, as the lass picked up the first major award of her career. As can be seen from the clip above, the reason for this latest blast of righteous anger was that 'Beyonce's video was one of the greatest of all time!' The folks at MTV seemed to think the Single Ladies vid was the best of the year, at least, since Mrs. Carter-Knowles picked up the requisite gong for it later that evening, at which point she gave a first-rate display of Southern Gal manners and invited the crestfallen Ms. Swift back out to say her bit and enjoy her big moment, this time without interruption.

Of course, Kanye has previous for this kind of carry-on. And much as I may enjoy the work of Kanye West The Artist, with the exception of the solipsistic, indulgent, emo-rap dog's breakfast that was 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West The Celebrity is a complete embarrassment. One wonders also, in these security-conscious times, how it is that events like this can seemingly be derailed by unscheduled interruptions of this nature. And while corporate behemoths like the Viacom-owned MTV frequently bend over backwards to contrive an atmosphere of reckless edginess as set-dressing for what are often tedious events, you can't help thinking that it might be time that Kanye West was a little more closely supervised whenever he's on the red carpet. After all, imagine if someone were to take a public dump all over his next moment of glory, or perhaps even chin him for muscling in on someone else's. That wouldn't be very nice, would it? I said, 'would it!?' Answers on a postcard, please.

UPDATE: It appears that Viacom has asserted its intellectual property rights as regards the above clips, which is fair enough. So instead, let's have a quick look through the Twitter-shaped window at the glorious new dawn that is 'post-racial' America, shall we?

Rather makes me wish I hadn't gone so hard on Kanye now.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Triumph of Speech Debelle, or War On The Bullshit

As a general rule I prefer my rap music raw and bloody. If it was a steak, and the waiter asked me how I'd like it, I'd probably say: cut its horns off and wipe its arse. For me, the worst crime a rapper can commit is to be boring, which is the main problem I have with a good 95% of the tedium that passes for so-called 'conscious hip-hop'. I never tire of reminding people who moan about how bloated and corporate rap has become that the cover of the debut album by the greatest rapper ever to walk the earth features him posing in a garish leather Dapper Dan Gucci suit, weighed down by half a ton of tom and waving a huge wad of cash. Turn over the sleeve and he's pictured rubbing shoulders with some of the most fearsome gangsters and drug-dealers to be found in the whole of the five boroughs during the 1980s. This was how Rakim wanted to present himself to the world in 1987. Yet his lyrics remain some of the most densely complex, nuanced, innovative and, yes, conscious examples of the emcee's art you'll ever hear, and amongst the true high-water marks of the form.

Rap has always been full of contradictions, and its those contradictions that continue to draw me to it almost thirty years after I bought my first Kurtis Blow record. But I still find myself infuriated by the enduring and widespread refusal to accept rap on anything like its own terms. After Sylvia Robinson strongarmed Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (or more accurately, Melle Mel) into recording The Message, there began to emerge a school of thought which asserted that rap ought to possess an explicit political agenda if it was to have any real worth. These kind of criticisms have been levelled at black music for donkeys years - look at the reverence in which Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield are still held compared to Barry White or Isaac Hayes, for example. All four were great artists, but the main difference is that the former pair would occasionally sing and write about social issues, whilst the latter generally chose relationships as their preferred subject matter. The end result of which was that Barry White became the basis for a running gag on Ally McBeal, the passing of Isaac Hayes was widely reported as 'South Park's Chef Dies', and neither are ever likely to be taken as seriously as Curtis or Marvin are.

Last night, Speech Debelle won the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize for her debut album, Speech Therapy. Almost immediately, Twatter was overwhelmed by comments from people perhaps too young to remember Hazel O'Connor or 400 Blows, all convinced that the likes of La Roux, Florence and the Machine or Friendly Fires had been robbed. Damning it with a mixture of faint praise and jaw-droppingly cretinous reductionism, the Daily Telegraph's Neil McCormick described it on his Twitter feed as "the committee choice, [a] liberal hard life coffee table hip hop album no one could argue against." Elsewhere amongst the 'can't see further than the end of my nose' crowd, she was dismissed as 'this year's Ms Dynamite', as if to say, 'what's so innovative and original about this, then?' This conveniently sidesteps the idea that acts like La Roux or Friendly Fires might actually be riding a sort of voguish wave of familiar faux-80s nostalgia rather than acting as standard-bearers for any sort of originality, yet there seems to be a constant clamour for rap to be more 'innovative'. This is essentially a demand that the music be less like rap and more like something else, and it's often based on a fairly narrow familiarity with the music itself. But this insistence on measuring rap against the artistic yardsticks of other musical forms misses a major point about black music; that sometimes it's just about having a voice - any sort of voice - and being heard. 'Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat', anyone? After all, there's nothing more unique than your own voice, and that in itself can be much more of a political statement than all the earnest 'message' rhymes and revolutionary rhetoric in the world.

Such unvarnished sincerity is one of the strengths of Speech Therapy - it doesn't sound forced or unnatural. It isn't the sound of someone speaking in a voice that's not really theirs, nor does it try especially hard to draw attention to itself. In fact, it often sounds as if you're eavesdropping on a young woman having a conversation with herself (perhaps because she's all too familiar with not being listened to?). When I first heard it, I began to imagine Speech Debelle riding around South London on the top deck of a bus, little white buds in her ears, absent-mindedly working up lyrics while she listened to Young Marble Giants, one of those mid-70s John Betjeman albums or the soundtrack to Kes on her iPod, rather than 2Pac or Lil' Wayne. There's a welcoming contrast between the music's carefree, loose-limbed effortlessness and the rather more earthbound nature of the words that sit on top of it. A couple of listens in, and I was beginning to be reminded of Devin The Dude, whose daydreamy, introspective self-deprecation usually concerns itself with running out of weed, being stuck driving a clapped-out car or trying to explain to the kid of the single mother you're dating why it is you drink, swear and grab your dick so much on stage. Speech's preoccupations are a little grimmer - homelessness (Searching), absent fathers (Daddy's Little Girl), self-doubt (Finish This Album) - and the kind of Too Short-inspired slackness that often characterises Devin's material is nowhere to be heard. Instead, Speech manages to strike that delicate balance between documenting the humdrum banality of familiar trials and tribulations, and submitting herself to the kind of harsh, hypertension-inducing self-examination that's a hallmark of giants of the game like Beanie Sigel or Scarface. It is, as they say, a beautiful thing.

For me, rap will always be at its love-it-or-shove-it best when, for better or worse, it's being itself, and let's be clear about this, Speech Therapy is a rap record. Even though it couldn't be more different on a superficial level, it still sits comfortably alongside DJ Quik and Kurupt's superb BlaQKout as one of the very few albums of 2009 that I'm happy to give up an hour of my time for. I couldn't give a tuppenny fuck for the opinions of people who prefer to cheerlead for artfully-styled, Trustafarian, stage-school 'kookiness' or 'oh, is it 1981 again already?' art-rock that pretends it's never heard of XTC. I have nothing but contempt for anyone peddling the witless, moronic canard that Speech Debelle's moment of glory is somehow a sop to 'political correctness'. Judging by many of the responses to her triumph, there are still a lot of people out there who haven't got to grips with the notion that it mightn't be a bad idea to say fuck-all when you don't actually know what you're on about. Not only that, but it's rude to interrupt when somebody else is talking. Right now, Speech Debelle is talking, so shut your yap and listen.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Friday, 26 June 2009

'And when the groove is dead and gone...'

So, where were you when you heard Michael Jackson had died?

It was about 11pm, and my girlfriend had turned in for the night. I'd just told her about the report on TMZ that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack and been rushed to hospital. It had been a strange day, one that had already brought news of several deaths; iconoclastic music journalist Steven Wells, actress/70s icon Farrah Fawcett and psych legend Sky Saxon. Not necessarily major figures in the grander scheme of things, but all people who'd made enough of a mark on my life to prompt a Facebook status update saying, 'can the great and the good please stop dying now?' The thought that such a day might end with the sudden and unexpected death of one of the 20th century's landmark artists didn't seem worthy of consideration. I was all set to chill out for a while, watching Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World on the Discovery Channel, when the phone rang. It was my girlfriend's mother. 'Paul, turn on the news. Michael Jackson is dead.' I woke my girlfriend up and, for the next hour or so, we both sat on the sofa, stunned and in almost complete silence, as we watched the 24-hour rolling news channels struggling to fill their airtime as they waited for the inevitable confirmation.

The first time I saw Michael Jackson was on The Andy Williams Show in 1970, and it was absolutely spine-tingling. I couldn't believe that this kid, hardly older than me, was able to sing and dance so expressively and soulfully - as much as any adult, if not more so. And the song. Man, what a song. Almost 40 years later, I struggle to think of too many songs as full of joy and life-affirming energy as 'I Want You Back'. Even in my pre-adolescence, I still had a sense that I'd just had my first sight of a major talent and, as the 70s progressed, this was borne out by a succession of glorious singles, both from the Jackson 5 and Michael himself. When the Osmonds - like the Jacksons, another family group who got their first break courtesy of Andy Williams - hit their peak in the early 70s, the Jackson 5 became the cool kids' alternative, the teen-girl pin-ups it was OK to like. Even as their first wave of success began to plateau and the pop hits became less frequent, they were still coming with gems like 'Dancing Machine' or 'Mirrors Of My Mind', and a disco-era move from Motown to CBS (leaving Jermaine behind) seemed to galvanise them once more as they ended the 70s on a high. However, at the end of the 70s, Michael was about to leave his brothers, and everyone else, far behind.

I bought one of the 20 million copies of 'Off The Wall' in late '79, some five or six months after it had first came out. Punk was still a significant musical force, and a few of my friends sneered at me, wisecracking about how they didn't know I was into disco now. 'Fuck that, it's just a good record', I said. And it still is; for me, arguably his best. This was where he became an adult as an artist, where all those idiosyncratic ad-libs - the little whoops, squeals and hiccups - that had peppered his vocals on songs like 'Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) or 'Show You The Way To Go' had developed into an arsenal that was to mark him out as one of the great vocal stylists of the era, as unique and original as James Brown or Elvis. 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' was a thrilling two-chord jam that can still smash dancefloors to this day, and the combination of the songs, Quincy Jones' flawless production, and that voice, was the absolute zenith of turn-of-the-decade r&b. And then he fucking topped it. Christ, did he top it...

One of the things I remember most about 'Thriller', apart from the rapid-fire succession of dazzling hit singles, the groundbreaking videos, and its almost supernatural perfection, was that it marked the point where Michael Jackson ceased to be the best r&b singer out there, and became instead 'the biggest rock star (my italics) in the world'. It was as if, by virtue of breaking the MTV colour bar and getting Eddie Van Halen to play on 'Beat It', he was now deemed sufficiently important to sit at the big people's table. Never mind that he'd just released one of the richest, most vibrant albums of the decade, in any genre; he was now worthy of 'serious' analysis. The cultural and racial implications of his success, questions about whether visuals were becoming more important than music, and the whole MJ phenomenon, right down to those crummy LA Gear trainers, all went under the microscope. I don't think that's ever happened to a black artist, either before or since - at least, not to anything like the same extent. There used to be a lot written about how Ray Charles' innovative album 'Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music' did a phenomenal amount to dissolve racial barriers during the early days of the civil rights movement in the US, and it occurs to me that 'Thriller' did something similar - about 42 million times over. All those kids, particularly white kids, who wanted to look, dress and dance like - ah, fuck it, who wanted to be Michael Jackson. I think we might have forgotten just what a big deal that was.

It still amazes me that CBS execs actually rejected MJ's follow-up to 'Thriller'. Here was a man who'd effectively just put the next few generations of their families through school, and they were sending him back to the lab with a note saying, 'must do better'. Whether 'Bad' actually was better than what he first delivered, we don't know (although I suspect we'll find out before much longer). All the same, its release was An Event, and it lived up to its billing, even if it didn't surpass 'Thriller' in sales terms; five US number ones, a Scorsese-directed video for the title track, and the whole thing backed up by a wildly successful world tour that cemented his status as the biggest pop superstar in the world. 'Dangerous' actually managed to outstrip it; Quincy was gone, but as a parting shot, he'd put in a word for Teddy Riley, whose production nudged Jackson in a more explicit r&b direction than the one he'd taken for much of 'Bad'. It's a decent album, and it sold well - better than its predecessor - but just as it was peaking, the stories of Jackson's well-documented eccentricities and increasingly bizarre lifestyle began to take on a much uglier tone.

I suppose it's inevitable that a lot of the comment following his death will focus on the persistent allegations of sexual abuse that dogged his career for much of the 90s and beyond, leading up to the trial in which he was acquitted of all charges brought against him. There were already enduring rumours - which turned out to be true - that he was living beyond what must have been considerable means, and even after beating the rap in 2005, he still seemed to be facing certain artistic and financial ruin. But I think that, at some point, you have to try and separate the art from the artist. There's no end of testimony which suggests, for example, that Miles Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Pablo Picasso were all fairly unpleasant human beings, to say the least. But does such knowledge diminish the greatness of their art? Indeed, should we allow it to? Is it because we now demand so much more of artists, beyond just their work, that we end up learning things about them that we'd really rather not know? I don't want to seem as if I'm ignoring the less savoury aspects of Michael Jackson's lifestyle, but I can't help thinking what a shame it would be for someone as clearly troubled as he was, who'd been brutalised by his father as a child, and who'd lived virtually his entire life in the public eye to be remembered first for his transgressions, rather than for a body of work that, at its best, is at least the equal of anything in the realm of modern popular music. Y'know, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I can understand why some people would feel differently, but equally, I can't help looking for whatever good there might be in the circumstances, if indeed any remains. Given that there's certain to be a plethora of books examining the darker side of Jackson's life, I see no possibility of an end to the debate for quite some time.

After he was acquitted in 2005, me and a few friends played a game of 'Fantasy A&R', wherein we talked about what we'd do if we were given the job of revitalising Michael Jackson's career. I suggested that he hooked up with the Neptunes and made a straight-up modern r&b record that would put him back on every dancefloor and radio station in the world, or perhaps followed Outkast's lead and struck out in an altogether more adventurous direction to see if he could turn pop music on its head the way he'd done in the 80s. Someone else came up with an absolute, can't-fail, shoo-in - an album of Beatles covers, something which, if he'd reined in his latter-day tendency towards lachrymose schmaltz, would surely have sold shitloads. Even though I struggled to see any way back for him after the trial, regardless of its outcome, I still hung onto the possibility that he might yet have had a career-saving comeback in him. The planned season of shows at the O2 could possibly have kickstarted a revival in his fortunes, but, equally likely, it could have pointed to a bleak vision of a possible future where an increasingly-isolated Jackson ran down the clock of his twilight years as a living jukebox amidst the buffets, slots and tables of some high-end Vegas resort like Caesar's or the MGM Grand, redeemed financially, but artistically a spent force. We'll never know.

Still, there's always the music...

The Jackson 5: Never Can Say Goodbye

The Jackson 5: It's Great To Be Here

Michael Jackson: Almost There

The Jackson 5: Mirrors Of My Mind

The Jacksons: Living Together (Ron Hardy Tribute Edit)

Michael Jackson: Rock With You

Michael Jackson: I Just Can't Stop Loving You

Michael Jackson: Remember The Time

Goodbye, Michael.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Thursday, 30 April 2009

MP3 of the Week - The Human Beinz: "Nobody But Me (Pilooski Edit)"

I really ought to have made this an mp3 of the week ages ago.

Remixes (and more recently, re-edits) of classic tunes are very often little more than exercises in gilding the lily. Of course, there are a few instances where such overhauls aren't completely superfluous, even if they never come close to supplanting the original, but it's still pretty rare to find a remix which enhances the source material to such an extent that the end product is better.

Pilooski's re-edit of 'Nobody But Me', the Human Beinz' 1967 cover of the old Isley Brothers tune, is a few years old now. Released on a white label in 2006 as part of the D.I.R.T.Y Sound System's essential 'Dark and Lovely' edits series, its limited availability makes it a fiendishly tough catch nowadays, even on the 'Dirty Edits Vol. 1' compilation (which wasn't much easier to get hold of either). For me, though, it's the best single of the noughties by miles, and one of the best remixes I've ever heard - it doesn't compromise the integrity of the original one bit, and actually manages to improve on it. Pilooski twists, warps and stretches the song into a snarling, swaggering, relentless beast of a tune, wrenching it from its freakbeat roots (check the YouTube clip above) and turning it into something closer to Neu!'s 'Hallogallo' on crystal meth - all juddering, motorik pulse and dubbed-out space-rock noise. I'm a fairly clean-living soul these days, yet whenever I listen to this, I'm overwhelmed with the urge to take drugs. Lots of them. In fact, on one occasion when I played it out in public, a young woman came over to the decks and, with a somewhat horrified expression on her face, said; "Can you please take off this fucking awful drug music?" The sort of ringing endorsement that's worth aspiring to.

As far as I'm concerned, this is a proper rock'n'roll record, and precisely the kind of thing modern rock bands should be using as a jump-off point. Those who refuse, or can't hack it, or who'd simply rather carry on pretending they're Joy Division, should have their instruments forcibly taken away from them and they should be made to work in some other field of endeavour, preferably one where being suffocatingly average is the minimum requirement, and is less likely to produce a blight on the cultural landscape.

The Human Beinz: Nobody But Me (Pilooski Edit) (Dark and Lovely Vol.3, 2006)

Friday, 24 April 2009

MP3 of the Week - Olivia Byington: "Lobo do Mar"

It's back! BACK!! BAAA*sniiiiiippp*

Despite my good intentions, this has turned out to be as regular a feature as a Jamie Carragher hat-trick, but I intend to rectify this over the next few weeks. So let's bring it back with something which is both absurdly obscure and a bit of a cracker, eh?

I've written about Brazilian music and (relatively speaking) my recently-developed enthusiasm for it on here before. Incidentally, I checked my Divshare account the other day, and discovered that those DJ Nuts links have had tons of downloads, so either someone's sharing them elsewhere (without even the courtesy of a comment, I might add), or this blog gets more traffic than I thought. Anyway, I digress. When you're as long in the tooth as I am, it's easy to get a bit jaded and start thinking you've heard all the good swag you're ever going to hear. Not true. I found this tune on the excellent Donna Slut mp3 blog, and found the album it's from on Loronix (check the blogroll). It features a lot of the things I like about Brazilian music - slightly melancholy, hippyish vibe, lots of interesting musical flourishes, and in the case of this tune, an overall feel not far removed from that of some lost prog-rock gem from somewhere in Northern Europe. The flute's very Tull, and it reminds me a little bit of female-fronted prog outfits like Earth and Fire or Atlantis. I know not much more than the sum total of fuck-all about Olivia Byington, other than that she used to sing with Brazilian proggers A Barca do Sol, and went on to have a long and distinguished solo career in her home country, where she still performs today. I wouldn't expect anyone to take much interest in the joy I find in discovering music that was being made half a world away, back when I thought Generation X were a big deal, but I can assure you that joy is substantial. Furthermore, I can offer no great insight into the cultural context of this song, and of course I don't understand a bloody word she's singing, but it sounds great on a day like today, when the sun's high in the sky and things (or some of them) seem exactly the way they ought to be. Enjoy.

Olivia Byington: Lobo do Mar ('Corra o Risco', 1978)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Never Forget.

I was born in Liverpool, and I'm a Liverpool fan. Although Fonthill Road, Kirkdale, where we lived when I was a nipper, is more or less equidistant from Anfield and Goodison Park, ours was nonetheless a Red family. Growing up, my main passion was for music, so I was pretty much the armchair supporter of the family compared to my younger brothers, both of whom went to the match on a more regular basis. Despite that, I was still enough of a fan to cry like a baby when Charlie George scored Arsenal's second goal in the 1971 FA Cup Final, denying a great Shankly team their first chance of domestic silverware since 1965.

I remember exactly where I was on the afternoon of April 15th, 1989. I was sat in the Queens in Winsford, having a bevvy with a few mates when, not long after kick-off time, a Man United fan we knew wandered into the lounge from the bar next door. He looked over at us, shaking his head and muttering, "Fuckin' scousers..."

"What are you on about?", one of us asked.

"It's all gone off at Hillsborough. Your lot are on the pitch, players are back in the dressing room. Fuckin' typical. Don't know how to behave yourselves, you lot, do yer? It's on the telly next door - go and have a look."

My heart sank. At first, I thought we were in for another repeat performance of Heysel, where a dilapidated stadium, non-existent crowd control and several hundred Liverpool fans spoiling for a fight resulted in the death of thirty-nine people, mainly Juventus fans. We took our pints into the bar, where the BBC had temporarily abandoned their scheduled Saturday afternoon programme to go live to Hillsborough. By this time, it had become apparent that this wasn't another incident of two rival firms going up against one another, but something much more awful. The pictures showed scenes of absolute chaos. Someone in the bar called out as he spotted a lad we all knew helping a few others carry someone (who was clearly in a bad way) away from the Leppings Lane end towards the centre of the pitch. People were wandering round near the goal, dazed and in obvious distress. Others were using advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers. The commentary spoke of unconfirmed reports that people had actually died. The mood in the pub changed, and it stayed changed. Winsford was a Cheshire overspill town, full of Scouse families who'd moved there during the 60s, and the local LFCSC branch used to take a coach from the Queens to all the home games. Nobody was quite sure how many of the regulars had made their way over to Sheffield that day.

Although I knew his face from around town, I never knew Vinny Fitzsimmons personally. My youngest brother Billy did, though. Vinny played in goal for his Sunday league team, and Billy used to describe him as "one of the best reflex keepers I've ever seen". Vinny went to Hillsborough that afternoon with his young son. Although his lad came home, Vinny never did. I'll never forget picking up the phone the following afternoon, and hearing my brother in tears, as he told me that he'd just had it confirmed that Vinny was amongst those who'd died. Personally, I find "me too" attempts at muscling in on the grief of others to be pretty tasteless on the whole, but when you see someone you love in pain, how can you help but be affected by it? I began to think, not only about the (at that point) ninety-four others who'd died along with my brother's dear friend, but also about all the other people whose lives would never be the same again. A few months later, I was at a family party back in Liverpool, and got talking to a cousin I hadn't seen for a few years. The subject turned to Hillsborough, and she told me that a friend of hers, Gary Church, was amongst those who never came home from Hillsborough. Years after that, when I was down in London, I met an Evertonian who, despite his allegiances, is the model of a sound lad, and someone who's since become a firm friend. I remember him telling me of how he went to three funerals in the same week, for three friends who left their homes on the morning of April 15th 1989, expecting to enjoy a game of football and be back home talking about it in the pub that evening.

In the twenty years since Hillsborough, a widely-held view of Scousers has emerged. Many frequently refer to Liverpool as "self-pity city", or call us whingers, or sneer at what they see as a "victim mentality". I can't be bothered dignifying those views, particularly when they come from other football fans; after all, there but for the grace of God. But something I've seen and heard a lot over the last few days (and indeed the last couple of decades) is people musing upon why the anniversary of the Heysel disaster never seems to be marked with the same reverence. Now, this is just my personal opinion, but I imagine it to be because, collectively, Liverpool fans are ashamed of their involvement in that tragic episode. And rightly or wrongly, people tend not to dwell upon things they're ashamed of. Sad, but there it is. Personally, I think that waiting fifteen years before an official commemoration of the tragedy is something to be ashamed of as well, and, although the significant public display of contrition at 2005's Champions League game between Liverpool and Juve at Anfield was both appropriate and profoundly moving, I'm not going to pretend that I can't understand the feelings of those bianconeri who thought such a gesture was too long coming. But regardless of all that, there are other reasons why Hillsborough resonates in a way that perhaps Heysel doesn't. It's because, above all else, Hillsborough represented a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the South Yorkshire Police, an institution which supposedly exists to protect people as well as to uphold law and order. Yet there are scores of reports from the scene which claim that, once it became apparent there was something seriously wrong in the Leppings Lane end, the police did nothing to help, and in some cases even prevented people from escaping the crush or helping the injured, dead and dying. This was further compounded by an attempt to cover up the culpablity of the police, and, with the aid of certain sections of the media, shift all blame for the disaster onto the fans. After all, we all saw what they did at Heysel, didn't we..?

Kelvin Mackenzie is very high up on a very short list of people whom I truly despise. As editor of The Slum at the time of Hillsborough, he was directly responsible for an unforgivable smear on both the Liverpool fans who were at the game, as well as the victims and their families. Suffice to say that the content of this smear, which was widely repeated, were subsequently revealed to have been outright lies. Across Merseyside, a widespread boycott of The Slum soon followed in the wake of their April 19th front page story, which remains to this day. Kelvin Mackenzie has since been revealed as a craven liar on numerous occasions, but for him to withdraw, as he did in 2006, the half-hearted apology he made in front of a Commons Select Committee in 1993 with the words, "I was not sorry then, and I'm not sorry now", reveals a lack of basic human decency that most of us would consider reprehensible in anyone. It beggars belief that someone like him, who would use a position of influence to mock and abuse the dead and the suffering, continues to have any credibility at all within his profession, much less that others still consider him worthy of being given a platform to espouse his view of the world on otherwise credible programmes such as the BBC's Question Time. My contempt for him knows no bounds, and I'm certain I'm not alone. Fuck him.

But enough of that. Today is about the 96 people who died just because they wanted to watch a game of football. It's about their families and their friends. But it's also about those who went to the game that day, but who came home different people, whose lives were irreparably damaged, who couldn't come to terms with why they survived when others weren't so fortunate, and who carried the guilt with them for years afterwards. It's about those people who did the right thing and tried to help in whatever way they could, however small. It's about those rival fans who set aside their allegiances to offer sympathy, tributes and support, knowing that it could so easily have been, say, 96 Celtic, Forest, Everton or Arsenal fans who lost their lives that spring afternoon. It's about those who strive to overturn the shameful cover-up, who struggle to reopen the inquiry, who continue to ask the many questions that still remain unanswered about Hillsborough. It's about those who seek the real truth about what happened on April 15th 1989. Remember them all; not just today, but every day.

Justice For The 96. YNWA.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Beautiful Scarlett

As I imagine to be the case with any number of heterosexual males, I find Scarlett Johansson rather easy on the eye, and I have no problem admitting this. She may not be as consistently impressive an actress as Cate Blanchett, or blessed with Tilda Swinton's remarkable ability to make you forget sometimes that you're watching a shit film (check her Archangel Gabriel in the otherwise awful Constantine if you don't agree). But she was great in Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There and Lost In Translation, and did a likeable screwball turn in The Nanny Diaries, a film which, although entertaining enough, wasn't quite as clever as it thought it was. All that said, she seems to have appeared in a few too many movies lately where her performances have been kind of flat. The Island is a case in point. I don't want to be too hard on her for that one - after all, it wasn't so much just another crappy, dystopian, sci-fi/action thriller as it was just another crappy Michael Bay movie. All the same, there were moments in that particular flick when, seemingly called upon to convey something like panic, confusion or some kind of realisation that the world her character inhabited was something altogether more terrifying, her expression was more like, "Now, did I remember to turn off the bathroom light? I'm sure I did..." No matter. Like I say, 'crappy Michael Bay movie'.

No, the real subject of this post is 'Scarlett Johansson - chantoozie'. About a year ago, she released an album of Tom Waits covers called Anywhere I Lay My Head, produced by Dave Sitek (token white dude in the best black rock band in the world). I'm not sure how it sold - Wikipedia claims it's done less than 25k worldwide (which is pretty fucking rotten), but it's Wikipedia, so whatever. I do know that the level of critical opprobrium heaped upon it was wildly out of proportion to what is by no means a bad album ('butchery' and 'trainwreck' were amongst the choicest descriptions). It isn't anything earth-shattering, but, as a Tom Waits fan, I liked it, and was surprised at just how much better it was than I expected. I certainly couldn't imagine people queuing up to take a Forrest Gump all over it with quite the same enthusiasm, had it been by some Pitchfuck-endorsed Hope Sandoval wannabe rather than a Hollywood actress. Sadly, its reception, broadly speaking, does tend to typify the "how dare she..?" attitude, not only of people who considered the record to be yet another vanity project by a piece of Hollywood eye-candy with ideas above her station, but also of those rock snobs and music geeks who seem unable to comprehend that a "gurl" might be familiar enough with the work of Tom Waits to do an album's worth of his songs. I mean, how could that be possible..?

And that's another interesting thing about the record. You might expect there to be a few of The Hits on there, mightn't you? I did. Yet there's no 'Innocent When You Dream', no 'Kentucky Avenue', no 'Jockey Full of Bourbon', and certainly no 'Downtown Train'. The tracklisting looks like the kind of thing a serious Waits fan would come up with, albeit one perhaps a little less familiar with his 70s output. So what does it sound like? Well, it sounds like This Mortal Coil to me, which is no bad thing at all (Ivo Watts-Russell had some involvement, I understand), and there are moments when Sitek's production sounds to me as if he might have had in mind a more modern take on the kind of kitchen-sink-and-all sonic overload that Phil Spector almost drowned Leonard Cohen in on Death Of A Ladies Man, with Nyquil and absinthe taking the place of Quaaludes and pharmaceutical chang. Scarlett's voice isn't the most astonishing thing you'll ever hear, and sometimes it gets a little swamped by the densely-textured arrangements, but I get the impression she prefers being just another component of the whole thing, as opposed to her acting work, when she's usually further up front. Even though it's her name on the cover, the enterprise itself isn't dependent on her being a virtuoso singer in order for it to work. Entertainment Weekly declared it 'the worst album of 2008'; an editorial decision I suspect was arrived at before they'd even cracked the cellophane on the CD, and one which confirms, for me any road, that it's a periodical far better suited to analysis of things like the finer details of Lindsay Lohan's love-life, rather than of music.

It isn't that Scarlett's a bad singer either, because she isn't. Her recording of Gershwin's 'Summertime', from a 2006 compilation 'Unexpected Dreams: Songs From The Stars' is proof she's more than capable of carrying a tune, even if the enduring impression is of someone who was unlikely ever to have much of a career in musical theatre. In fact, I put her original take on a couple of summer-themed mixtapes I did for friends last year as a hidden track. When they found out who it was, a couple of them were pleasantly surprised. Along with 'No One Knows I'm Gone' from Anywhere I Lay My Head, I've posted it below, so you can hear for yourself. As a little extra, I've also posted one of my summer mixtape secret weapons; a remix of 'Summertime' I did in an afternoon last year. It isn't something I've circulated all that widely, but if you happen to like it, then you're more than welcome to share it wherever.

Scarlett Johansson: No One Knows I'm Gone - Anywhere I Lay My Head (2008)

Scarlett Johansson: Summertime - 'Unexpected Dreams: Songs From The Stars' (2006)

Scarlett Johansson: Summertime (Mighty Love Remix) - unreleased

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Groovin' With Jesus

Being something of a lapsed Catholic, the thing I most associate with Easter these days is the shops actually being shut of a Sunday. Since this has left me with a little more time on my hands than I anticipated, I've thrown together another mix for download. I originally intended for it to follow a vaguely seasonal theme, but I soon got bored with that, so it's all pretty random stuff. I wasn't going to make a habit of doing these, but a very old friend of mine has recently started a regular podcast thingum (to which I suggest you subscribe), so I thought this would be an excuse to follow his splendid example. Sort of.

Dig in, and Happy Easter.

Intro - Mighty Love: Spam Piccolo
Humble Pie: Groovin' With Jesus
Redbone: Judgement Day
Queens of the Stone Age: I'm Designer (Adrian Sherwood & Primal Scream Remix)
Bob Dylan: Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine
Lee Perry: Cow Thief Skank
Roxy Music: The Bogus Man
George Harrison: Beware of Darkness
The Beach Boys: The Trader
David Ruffin: Heaven Help Us All
Elvis Presley: Mystery Train
The Steve Miller Band: Superbyrd
The Adverts: My Place
Ila Van: Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man
Joe Cuba: Bang Bang
Gene Page: All Our Dreams Are Coming True
Gabor Szabo: Love Theme From 'Spartacus'

'Groovin' With Jesus' (Easter '09)

PS: If you're reading this on Farceberk, click on 'View Original Post' - you should be able to work out the rest for yourself.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Reflections of a Haçienda O.G.

I was scanning some old photographs the other day, and came across my long-lost membership card for the Haçienda (reproduced above for your amusement). This one is the second year membership, from 1983 to 1984. I think they finally stopped issuing membership cards in 1985. The original 82/83 membership, which I also had, was a credit card job in a yellow, black and silver-grey colourway, possibly with some pale blue in there as well - I can't exactly remember. Anyway, although I hung on to it long after it had expired, it eventually broke in half, and went permanently missing years ago. Since it wasn't a photo ID card, it lacks the 80s quiff-action comedy potential of the one above in any event. Just as well, as I suspect my barnet would have looked much worse otherwise. Around then I used to have a combination of a grown-out wedge/flick and what notorious Liverpool FC fanzine The End once famously described as the 'ten-bob haircut'. In my case, this meant a standard-issue short-back-and-sides, with the top and fringe remaining untouched. Pictorial evidence of this still exists, but if you think I'm posting it here...

Needless to say, all this has led to my reminiscing about the many nights I spent at the Haçienda in the pre-Madchester years. The received wisdom seems to be that, prior to the arrival in Manchester of ecstasy and the corresponding rise of acid house, it used to be perpetually empty, but that's not entirely true; far from it, in fact. Certainly, it was often possible to tip up at the Haç at peak time on a Saturday night and walk straight in, to find just a handful of people dotted around the place. Given how vast and cavernous it was, this had the effect of making it all look a bit miserable. Arriving to find it so sparsely attended would usually be followed by a swift decision to hit the bricks, heading a little way back up Whitworth Street to the Venue (later rechristened the State, and once the location of the legendary Northern Soul club The Twisted Wheel) or maybe the Man Alive further out towards Rusholme. Nevertheless, when the Haçienda was rammed and rockin', there was nowhere else I'd have rather been.

Inspired by New York clubs like Danceteria (whose DJ Mark Kamins was an early resident), Area and the Limelight, the Haçienda was generating controversy even before it opened its doors. Initially, it adopted a strict 'members and guests only' policy, which wasn't all that unusual. But what really boiled the piss of a lot of people at the time was the cost of membership. Unlike other Manchester clubs, such as the labyrinthine Pips ('Fennel St, behind the Cathedral') where annual membership was something like £1.50, the Haçienda charged £5.15 (rising to £5.51 the following year). Now bear in mind this was 1982, when the riots in Brixton, St. Pauls, Toxteth and Moss Side were still fresh in the memory. At the very point when Thatcherism was beginning to bite, the idea that people should have to pay such an extortionate amount, simply to be able to gain admission to a nightclub, was considered outrageous. Leading the charge was the vinegary, irreverent and often hilarious Manchester zine City Fun, which never shrank from any opportunity to take a pop at Factory, accusing its capo Tony Wilson of being the model of a hippy capitalist (amongst many other things). City Fun's position was widely echoed elsewhere, in places like the then still massively-influential NME, where a bit of an editorial schism had begun to develop. The first stirrings of Club Culture, much of which was taking place in the South, were already being documented in magazines like i-D, The Face, Blitz and the short-lived New Sounds New Styles. To place, as these mags did, the emphasis on nightclubs over live bands, cutting-edge street style over post-punk austerity, and electronic music over guitar/bass/drums, was considered a craven betrayal of the punk ethos by some, and the 'members only' approach was seen as a return to a kind of Studio 54-style elitism at odds with punk's inclusiveness. Others believed (erroneously, in my opinion) that the NME was trying to buy into this, even though they often mercilessly took the piss out of scenesters like Steve Strange, Robert Elms and Chris Sullivan. But at the other end of the country, the response to the launch of the Haçienda was one of the first indications that a cultural, as well as socio-political, North-South divide was beginning to emerge.

At this time, I lived in Winsford, Cheshire, which had grown from its origins as a salt-mining town to become home for an large overspill of displaced Scousers and Mancs whose families had moved there during the 1960s, when their employers had received generous tax breaks from Harold Wilson's government to move their operations into the cowshit-scented Cheshire countryside. In comparison with its hayseed neighbours, many of which were like Deliverance with buses instead of canoes, Winsford was actually a pretty clued-up place, and quite a few of us were reading about what was going on in London and trying to do something similar ourselves, throwing impromptu parties at local youth centres and social clubs. We had a lot of fun, as it goes. Still, now and again, some of us would regularly traipse down to London, usually to Colin Faver's monthly Final Solution nights at Heaven. Being young and largely liberal-minded, but nevertheless straight, we weren't the least bit intimidated by gay clubs (the gloriously debauched Jody's on Liverpool's Stanley Street was another favourite hangout around then), but the big attraction of the Monday nights at Heaven was the music you'd hear there; early rap, electro-funk, Canadian disco, loads of Patrick Cowley and Bobby O records, and the kind of sleek, dubbed-out proto-garage that labels like Prelude and West End were dealing in. You weren't hearing too much of this in Northern clubs at the time, certainly not in many straight clubs. But once the Haçienda opened, that was it for Heaven, and for London generally - there was now an infinitely better option, virtually on our own doorsteps.

I can't recall exactly when I went for the first time, although it might have been to see Simple Minds, when I remember it being rammed. It wasn't long after it first opened, either way. And famous as it later became for its historic influence on the club scene, I saw some great gigs there as well. It was at the Haçienda that I first saw the Smiths, who were supported by James (who'd just released their first single on Factory), on a night which wasn't as well-attended as history might lead you to believe. The night Troublefunk played there was one of the ten best gigs I've ever been to; an absolute riotous sweatbox of an evening. Shortly after the release of their second album, I saw Run DMC perform to an audience of about 200, most of whom were nascent goths, there in anticipation of a night doing the 'shake the funky moisture off your hands' dance to stuff like Theatre of Hate's 'Liberator'. Run, D and Jay wandered around the club after their set, all in matching skimmers and burgundy Def Jam bomber jackets. I remember asking D if their 'Hard Times' was a cover of the Kurtis Blow song, and he seemed shocked that I even knew of the original. I saw Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five demolish the place just a couple of weeks after seeing them at the Venue in Victoria (which is now Pacha, I think), and I caught Whodini there a couple of times as well. On one occasion, UTFO were their opening act, and they had a couple of dancers with them, one of whom I later learnt was future rap mogul Jermaine Dupri. In fact, the first time I saw Whodini, Run DMC were supposed to be the support, but they pulled at the last minute. That particular evening was co-promoted by the great Greg Wilson, an occasional Haçienda resident DJ and something of a pioneer on the scene. At one point in the show, he was invited on stage by Whodini's DJ Grandmaster Dee to demonstrate his skills on the decks. Much to the amusement of Dee, Jalil and Ecstacy, it quickly became apparent that they weren't quite as advanced as they are now. British DJs didn't really understand what cutting and scratching were back then, and although he took it in good humour, Greg did look all at sea.

Some more random memories, then. Falling asleep during a performance by Roman Holliday; being legged round the club when one of the bouncers clocked me recording Orange Juice's set on my then incredibly hi-tech, if somewhat difficult to conceal, Panasonic Walkman recorder; spending the whole of the Gun Club's set gazing longingly up at Patricia Morrison when she was the apex of Goth glamour, which is all the more remarkable if you recall what a compelling live performer Jeffrey Lee Pierce could be; walking out on a dog-awful performance by what had been billed as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but which was actually only half the original line-up, with a handful of random makeweights and someone they tried to pass off as Flash without realising there were smart-alecs like me in the audience, who knew that Flash's trademark was three turntables, rather than the imposter's two. Another great moment was the evening that a then barely-known Frankie Goes To Hollywood did a PA, which basically involved them miming to 'Relax', which had only just been released. The thing I remember most about it was the ramp which had been set up to the right of the stage, the purpose of which became apparent when a huge motorbike with Holly Johnson on the back of it came roaring onto the dancefloor and up the ramp onto the stage. Now that's how you make an entrance.

Unfortunately, I missed the famous 'Live from the Haçienda' edition of The Tube, which featured Madonna's first-ever UK television appearance. This was because, rather than make tickets available to club regulars first as promised, they instead dished them out to random scallies on Market Street and Piccadilly, or in the Arndale Centre, so by the time my girlfriend got down to the club to grab a couple for us, they'd all gone. A week or so later, I got talking to PC of legendary Hulme jazz-dance troupe the Jazz Defectors. The JDs were Saturday night regulars back when the Haçienda clientele was about 75% black, and were the best dancers in Manchester. Their ballet-influenced, free-form style was miles ahead of anything their London equivalents were doing, and I admired them immensely. I asked him why they hadn't been on the show, as advertised. He told me they got bumped by the producers at Madonna's request, although she'd offered to let them dance behind her as part of her performance. They told her to fuck off.

Everyone knows about the acid-house era DJs, but many of the earlier original DJs were great, too. Hewan Clarke, particularly, was a lovely guy, a big, friendly bear of a man, never too busy to tell you what that last amazing record he played was, and most of the stuff he played was amazing. John Tracy, who was from across the Pennines in Sheffield, used to do the Saturday nights after Hewan moved on, and he was every bit the antithesis of the 'moody DJ' stereotype as Hewan was. One particular evening, he played five tracks in one night from Luther Vandross' classic 'Busy Body' album, which had been in the country less than a week. I bombed up to the DJ booth and asked him why he was playing so much Luther, and he replied, "It's just a fucking brilliant album, mate. Best thing I've heard in years - I wish I could play the whole thing!" Even then, people would still come to the Haçienda expecting to hear non-stop New Order and Joy Division, and would be put out to find the DJs playing cutting-edge hip-hop, slick modern soul and just about anything else with a groove. Original vocalist with A Certain Ratio Simon Topping had left the band to live in Brooklyn and study percussion, but when he returned to Manchester, he brought a shitpile of latin jazz, salsa, boogaloo and Brazilian records back with him. For a period on Saturday nights, he'd do these little half-hour sets where he'd play all this stuff - 'the Latin Break' was how they billed it - and his spots soon became the cue for the amateurs to step back and let the serious dancers do their thing. It was during one of these sessions that I first heard Carmen McRae's cover of Stevie's 'Don't You Worry Bout A Thing', which rapidly became a Haçienda classic and was later covered by ACR on the b-side of their 'I Need Someone Tonite' 12".

However, my favourite DJ memory was when I actually got to play there myself in 1990. I'd been asked by a friend to join a tour by Jimmy Somerville in support of the AIDS awareness organisation ACT UP. They were trying to keep costs down, so in lieu of a support act, I was asked if I'd bring along a couple of cases of records in return for food and lodgings. As soon as I was told the first gig of the tour was at the Haçienda, I was in. I have countless great memories of that tour, but none have stuck with me in quite the same way as when I found myself gazing down from the famous DJ booth at the very same dancefloor I'd spent so many nights on. It was a bit like what I imagine playing in the FA Cup Final must be like. It was made all the more sweet by the numerous Haçienda staffers who came up to me later and told me I'd played some great stuff. Coming from people who were used to hearing Graeme Park, Mike Pickering, Jon da Silva and Laurent Garnier play week-in, week-out, it was some compliment. I wish I'd taped it.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Lazyitis shall not prevail.

These are hardly the kind of times in which one can afford the luxury of being unproductive, and it's an accepted truth that, in order to be a writer, one needs to write. I mean, no shit, Sherlock? That said, part of the reason there aren't new entries on here every other day is because, for whatever reason, I hold on to this notion that, if you don't have anything to say, then you should probably keep it buttoned. I've resisted the urge to turn this blog into one long brainfart, as blogs can sometimes be, but it occurs to me that updating it as infrequently as I do is a bit like only doing the hoovering once a month, because, well, who else is going to notice? Not really the right attitude, is it? So, here's something that's been rolling around my head over the last week or so.

How did Channel 4 manage to fuck up Red Riding?

After reading David Peace's excellent The Damned Utd a couple of years back, I had to investigate his earlier novels, if only to discover whether or not his tale of Brian Clough's ill-starred 44-day reign at Elland Road was just an inspired one-off. It wasn't. The Red Riding Quartet, a series of densely-plotted, nerve-shredding nightmares set in South Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983, may be the best and most original examples of British crime fiction I've ever come across. Not that I'm especially widely-read in that area these days; I no longer eat up quite so much of the stuff since Mark Timlin stopped writing (if indeed he has stopped - anyone know?), but I feel fairly certain there can't be too much out there that's the equal of Peace's writing in terms of its relentless, horrifying intensity. It's a lazy comparison to make, but the Red Riding books do have a lot in common with James Ellroy's LA Quartet, certainly in terms of subject matter. Corrupt police forces, appalling miscarriages of justice, venal, self-serving public figures, unimaginable levels of violence and sexual depravity, hardly anything resembling a sympathetic character, and no happy endings. Much like Ellroy's books, they take some getting to grips with at first; the style and structure is a little unusual, but once you're used to the rhythm of the writing, you're not getting off until the last stop. By the time I'd finished Nineteen Eighty Three, I found myself wondering what incredible television the stories might make in the hands of someone with sufficient ambition and reach to take a proper run at it. Enter Channel 4...

One of the most widespread criticisms of Season 5 of The Wire was that it all seemed a little too rushed. Even a hopeless Wire junkie like myself will admit to having a bit of sympathy for this point of view; the show's characteristic measured pacing seemed to have been sacrificed in service of a need to pack in as much as possible, and new characters like Gutierrez, Haynes and Templeton were one-dimensional and underwritten in comparison with, say, the Sobotkas in Season 2. Since HBO would only give David Simon and Ed Burns enough money for ten episodes, rather than the twelve or thirteen of the earlier seasons, the relative dip in form of the final season is perhaps more understandable. I was reminded of all this when I watched Channel 4's adaptation of the Red Riding Quartet a few weeks back. Now, I have never worked in television at all, so I've neither experience nor understanding of whatever issues are involved in the production and financing of an ambitious, non-mainstream TV drama like Red Riding. But I do tend to think that, if you're going to tackle something on that kind of scale, you should at least set out with the intention of doing justice to the source material. I'm sure that the producers had every intention of doing just that, but, presumably at some point between the idea and the execution, something seemed to have gone missing. I'd imagine that adapting something as heavy on multiple narrators and complex internal dialogue as these particular stories wouldn't be an easy job in any case. But even taking into account the sort of scaling-down of plot that's unavoidable if you're to make the whole thing a decent fit for TV, there were far too many short cuts taken for Red Riding to come off, much less make enough dramatic sense for an audience that mightn't be familiar with the books. Often, the plot didn't seem compressed as much as pounded flat. To be fair, the cast was excellent on the whole; certainly, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Sean Bean, Saskia Reeves, David Morrissey and Peter Mullan all did as good a job as they could with what was in front of them, which wasn't bad by any stretch; just much, much less that I'd hoped it'd be. Moreover, more than one person of my acquaintance has observed that it all appeared a little too concerned with snagging a few BAFTAs than with snagging an audience. Personally, I began to have misgivings after I read that one of the books had been binned off completely, meaning the story arc had taken a 25% knock before anyone had seen a single frame. But still, I wasn't not going to watch it.

Given the sanctimonious relish with which those hateful puritans at The Daily Mail regularly lay into anything they perceive as representing an erosion of decent, wholesome Middle England values, I can well believe that the Channel 4 brass might have been a little uneasy about committing to a full-bore depiction of the Red Riding Quartet's manifold horrors, post-watershed or not. After all, they've done a bang-up job of fashioning a rod for their own backs on that front over the last few years. Still, I wish to God someone over there had taken a metaphorical glance in the direction of Derry Street (and Wapping, for that matter) and said, "You know what, you lot can go and fuck yourselves", because I can't help thinking Red Riding might have been infinitely better if someone had. Of course, not everyone is going to have the stomach for the levels of hideousness at the awful heart of David Peace's South Yorkshire, and that's fair enough - there's no shortage of brutal scenes in all three films anyway - but you have to wonder what point there is in half-measures when you're trying to tell a story that takes in police and local government corruption on a massive scale, pornography, child abduction and murder, paedophile rings, the failure of the justice system and the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror. You're never going to make it look like Midsomer Murders in a thousand lifetimes. That so many of these elements came across as underdeveloped, skimmed over or hastily tossed off seemed to betray a lack of nerve as much as a lack of budget, and the whole thing ended up going off at half-cock. Never did you get a tangible sense of the all-encompassing evil that Peace had so unflinchingly catalogued in his books. On the screen, you see a bunch of people who are, at best, comprehensively bent, and who are certainly involved in some pretty nasty business. In the books, you read about the same characters and (many of) the same goings-on, and you think, "These people are fucking monsters..."

Red Riding ought to have been utterly terrifying, but the sense of disappointment I felt over its failure to measure up to the books was far greater. Other than a few moments in the second film (by far the best), where the superb Paddy Considine nails his character's rising panic as he begins to see the level of corruption he's dealing with and realises he can no longer trust anybody, it never came close to hitting as hard as it should have, and ultimately it all felt like a wasted opportunity. The days of British TV drama with the depth and weight of Edge Of Darkness or Our Friends In The North, things which were capable of leaving a lasting, powerful impression on the viewer as well as telling you something about the kind of country Britain has become (and winning a sackful of awards in the process, it should be pointed out), now appear more distant than ever. You really do get what you pay for, it seems.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Winter into Spring.

It's a nice day in London today and, while out in the back garden earlier, I noticed some early-flowering cherry blossom on the trees just the other side of the garden wall, which usually means another winter has finally come to an end.

Since I haven't posted any music for a while, I quickly put together a mix in a couple of hours this afternoon. It's all fairly laid-back, mellow swag (are we still allowed to use terms like 'laid-back' and 'mellow'?) which I hope will make it good iPod food for those early-spring walks, commutes or whatever.

(Incidentally, if you're reading this on my Facebook page rather than the blog itself, and you can't see the download link, then just click on "view original post" at the bottom and you should be good to go.)

Instructions for use; download, skin up (optional), uncork/crack open a bottle, sit back, listen and (hopefully) enjoy.


Steve Tibbetts: The Big Wind (excerpt)
Bobbie Gentry: Hurry Tuesday Child
Darondo: Didn't I
Gal Costa: Borzeguim
Milton Nascimento & Lo Borges: Cravo e Canela
Walter Murphy: Afternoon of a Faun
Del Richardson: Jigsaw
Karen Carpenter: It's Really You (Cole's Funk Down Mix)
John Martyn: Go Easy
The Ju-Par Orchestra: Is Anyone Listening?
Jeff Beck: The Pump
Theo Parrish: The Motor City
Kenny Rankin: In The Name Of Love
Alan White: Ooooh Baby
Joni Mitchell: Help Me
The Hollies: Draggin' My Heels
Ned Doheny: A Love Of Your Own
Isaac Hayes: I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You
David Crosby: I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here

Winter Into Spring (March 09)

Sunday, 1 March 2009

This Facebook '25 albums' thing.

Proof that social networking sites are occasionally good for something other than simply wasting time. I've been mulling over this for about a week now, and found it quite inspiring. The brief is something like this;

Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were, musically shaped your world. Not necessarily your favourite albums of all time, but the ones that shaped your life.

Now, since I don't do brevity, I'm going to post this in stages, and more or less chronologically. So, here goes...

The Beatles: Please Please Me

Or; Why I Listen To Music. My earliest, clearest memory is of my ma taking me into town to the NEMS record shop in Whitechapel (which Brian Epstein owned) and buying me this album for my fourth birthday, so the die was cast for me at a very early age. This was early 60s Liverpool, and everybody loved the Beatles, so it was a no-brainer. I know every last note of this record. I wore the grooves grey and spent hours poring over the sleevenotes and the credits, all of which seemed a bit gnomic and beyond my understanding (even though I learnt to read early as a kid), as well as the strange-looking and now iconic photo on the cover. To this day, whenever I hear that "Ah-one-two-three-FAH!" that sets off "I Saw Her Standing There", I get all "recherche du temps perdu".

Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swinging Lovers

This one just reminds me of my ma. She adored Sinatra like no other singer, and had a bunch of his records, but this one and the Days of Wine and Roses album were probably her favourites. As a kid, I'd often sit around the house listening to it with her during the school holidays or at weekends, without ever realising that that peerless voice and those lush Nelson Riddle arrangements were subconsciously helping develop my ear for the kind of music I wouldn't even discover until I was much older. Strangely enough, of all the great songs on this album, the one I love most is widely considered to be one of the fillers, "We'll Be Together Again";

No tears, no fears,
remember there's always tomorrow.
So what if we have to part,
we'll be together again.
Your kiss, your smile,
are memories I'll treasure forever
So try thinking with your heart,
we'll be together again.
Times when I know you'll be lonesome,
times when I know you'll be sad.
Don't let temptation surround you,
don't let the blues make you bad.
Someday, someway,
we both have a lifetime before us.
For parting is not good-bye,
we'll be together again.

But you really need to hear Frank sing it.

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The first record that I truly felt was mine in more than just the obvious proprietorial sense. It's difficult to explain the impact that Bowie had on British teenagers in the early 70s. Like the Isleys said, if you were there, you'd know, but suffice it to say that, for an entire generation of us, Bowie was The Man. He had a minimum eleven-year hot streak of albums, most of which were stone-cold game changers. Everybody wanted to know what he was going to do next, and you could literally see the effect he was having, not only on music, but on youth culture too, such as it was then. Often these effects wouldn't become apparent until years later, but everyone knew who was in the driving seat. I remember reading the famous Rolling Stone double-header interview between Bowie and William Burroughs around this time, or maybe a little later, wherein he broke down the concepts behind "Ziggy Stardust", as well as acknowledging the extent to which Burroughs had influenced the album and his work as a whole. Having this, as well as a whole load of other stuff, laid out in such a way was mind-blowing. Up until then, I'd thought "Ziggy" was just a collection of cool, somewhat otherworldly pop songs, but after reading about cut-ups and black hole jumpers, I began to listen harder and more closely, not just to Bowie, but to everything else as well. The way the album closes out, with Rock 'n' Roll Suicide building to a spectacular, dramatic crescendo before dying on a huge, resonant D major, is up there with A Day In The Life as the best ending to a rock record ever. When it's over, you feel like you've been somewhere you'd never even have imagined existed otherwise.

Django Reinhardt & Sidney Bechet: Deux Geants du Jazz / The Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire

The first of a few double shots. These two were the "bonding with my dad" records. He was a jazz fan, mainly dixieland, swing and big-band stuff. His cut-off point was when Duke Ellington started to get "weird", as he put it, so he wasn't into be-bop or beyond. Because I never knew there was a difference at that point, I'd go to the local library and bring home records by Charlie Parker, Roland Kirk or Miles Davis, play them to him and ask him what he thought. Invariably, the response would be, "where's the melody?", so there was still this gulf between what he considered jazz, and the stuff I was trying to find my way through off my own bat in my adolescent eagerness to absorb music which was beyond my realm, and which, perhaps subconsciously, I thought might bring me closer to him. I was trying to be a guitar player at this point, and my dad's idea of a great guitar player was Django. He had this compilation of Django and Sidney Bechet stuff, which we'd listen to a lot. My dad liked clarinetists, people like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw or Sid Phillips. Bechet played the soprano, which isn't a wildly dissimilar instrument from the clarinet, and my dad enjoyed the style in which he played. I suppose he was trying to give me a bit of an education in where someone like Roland Kirk was coming from (even though he didn't like Kirk's music), as well as pointing me in a direction which might help my nascent aspirations as a guitarist. When I got my first electric, he hipped me to Charlie Christian and Barney Kessel too, but that's another story. The first time I heard Phone Tap by The Firm, with its sample of Petite Fleur (a song which was pretty much Bechet's theme tune), I had another of those Proustian rushes. It's a little strange to hear a piece of classic 90s coked-out East Coast (bi-coastal?) gangsta rap and be reminded, in however small a way, of your dad, but there it is.

So, anyway, I'd seen this BBC2 In Concert broadcast featuring the Mahavishnu Orchestra in about 1972, around the time Birds of Fire came out, and had been knocked out by it. I remembered seeing John McLaughlin's name on some of those Miles albums I'd lent out from the library, and I was like, OK, well this must be jazz, too. My dad hated it. Noise, he called it - no melody, just an over-amplified racket. This was when I began to dig my heels in and argue back, giving him my under-developed two-bob ideas and opinions about what I thought was jazz (or what was jazz, too). We were still having these arguments years later, when I was about 19 or 20 and bringing home records like Blue Train and Relativity Suite, or stuff by Keith Jarrett or AEC. But if I hadn't had my ear for jazz shaped and developed through the music my dad shared with me (conservative though his tastes may have been), I might never have found any of those artists in the first place. So, thanks, dad. Something else I owe you.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music/For Your Pleasure

The first band I ever saw live. In fact, the first band that I instinctively knew would be great before I'd even heard a note of their music. Richard Williams' piece in Melody Maker (the first major feature on them in the music press) had already got me hooked, and by the time I heard Virginia Plain (which wasn't even on the album), it was a done deal. Great as they were, Roxy Music were always kind of in Bowie's slipstream a little, especially after Eno left, and I don't think it was entirely coincidental that Bowie and Eno began working together just as Roxy was beginning to turn into more of a conventional rock band, and later into The Bryan Ferry Show. I like all their 70s material to some degree, but the first two were particularly extraordinary; records which left you with a sense that here was something you really hadn't heard before. Or, if you had, then not in this order. I'm sure me and my friends weren't the only ones who sought out the music of the Velvets through Roxy citing them as an influence. There used to be a tape recording of the 13-y-o me singing "In Every Dream Home A Heartache", the lyrics to which I couldn't have possibly fully comprehended, while a friend of mine played the keyboard part on a Bontempi organ. It was fucking awful, and is (I hope to God) long gone. The first two Roxy albums are anything but.

More later...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Enter the scene, DJ Supreme...

No, it's not a post about Hijack.

DJ Mr. Supreme a/k/a DJ Supreme La Rock has been a big wheel on the Northwest Pacific DJ/record digging scene for a good while now. I wish I'd been able to find a picture of him showing off his legendarily deep collection, said to number between 60,000 - 75,000 pieces's worth of A-list swag, but record nerds worldwide will be able to tell from the ringwear that it's an original copy of the rarer-than-hen's-teeth "East Of Underground" that he's flossing in the accompanying photo.

Anyway, Supreme's CV is pretty impressive; globetrotting club DJ, founder of Conception Records, one-half of the Sharpshooters, co-creator (along with his Seattle homeboy Jake One) of the much sought-after Conmen series of mixtapes, and perhaps most impressive of all, contributor to the soundtrack for The Wire. He was also the presenter of the Soul, Style and Truth internet radio show on the now-defunct Groovetech site. He's made available an mp3 of one of those shows, along with permission to share it far and wide if anyone's so inclined (and I am). I've no idea of the date, and I only recognise a handful of the tunes, but it's all top-quality 80s dancefloor soul/boogie/gospel. Dig out your Bally slip-ons, yer Farahs and yer Gabicci v-necks and get your Kashif on.

DJ Mr. Supreme: Soul, Style & Truth radio show (boogie edition)