The Charlatans

October 17, 2010

The Charlatans
Manchester Apollo

Can it really be twenty years since I got the train down to Northwich to interview this young waif sat on his manager’s office desk?
Can it really be twenty years since the deceptively young singer with the pudding bowl hair, Jagger lips, big flares and an electric storm of nervous energy sat there and talked about obscure underground bands with a terrifying conviction?
Can it really be twenty years since the Madchester thingy went into overdrive?
It was Tim Burgess’s first ever press interview and his no holds barred enthusiasm and lust for life were compelling. His band, the Charlatans, had been around for a bit, they had even supported the Stone Roses in 1988 but that was with a different singer. Tim had been taken to one of those gigs at the Manchester International and was talked into leaving his band the Electric Crayons.
Now with Tim at the helm things had clicked fast. He had only been in the band a few weeks and they had recorded the hottest demo in town, got a deal and were about to release their first single.
The Charlatans were swiftly welcomed by the Madchester boom-one of those great moments when people actually get the people that they want and the avalanche of talent rushed through the cracks.
Not since punk had there been so many young bands in a rush. The Roses and the Mondays had changed everything. These were thrilling times.
The next two decades saw the Charlatans as unlikely survivors- death, bankruptcy, fuck ups and even bouts of heavy illness in the band can’t crush this spirit and when Tim walks onto the stage with that winning smile and his hands aloft it’s a quite powerful moment.
This is not one of those fake showbiz smiles that dominates the modern agenda. This is an impassioned smile of old school love, the bonding with crowd and the belief in the redemption of great rock ‘n’ roll. There is an instant connection with a fan base that has come from all over the North West to fill the Manchester Apollo. I seem to spend the night bumping into wild-eyed maniacs from Barrow who are in love with the band and want to tell me about it!
The band are on the road supporting their eleventh album, ‘Who We Touch’- another great set of Hammond driven songs that somehow manage to combine their trademark sound with those deft little flavours that can only come from owning an eclectic record collocation.
One minute your swooning on their scooter boy- punk- soul melodies and then you have that niggling feeling that there is something off kilter and post punk going on in there. Could this be the only band in the world that somehow mash up the Rolling Stones with Curtis Mayfield and Section 25 and then release it all in an album sleeve designed by Gee Voucher from Crass whilst, fuck me, there’s the great Penny Rimbaud from Crass doing one of his great growling, Ginsberg infused poems over the track and yet despite this they still somehow sound like the Charlatans?
Live they have the place rocking from the start. The band are at the top of the game. I’ve seen them play many times over the years and this is one of the highlights. The set list is perfect, the new songs sound great and the atmosphere is buzzing. The Charlatans are not in the twilight of their career they are on a new peak. They merge the traditional with the underground and tonight are a celebration of British music. It’s hit after hit and then the really cool tracks off the new album that slot easily into the set.
From ‘One To Another’ to ‘Cant Get Out Of bed’ to the fantastic ‘Weirdo’ the Charlatans prove why they are one of the most loved bands on the scene whose tunes you still hear every night as you walk across town.
Martin Blunt’s bass playing lives up to his surname and his soul power riffs with that little bit of JJ Burnell tuffness about them are the fierce spine that melts the dance floor. Pete Salisbury, the Verve man, is doing a great job holding the fort whilst Jon Brookes gets over his Brian tumour, Tony Rogers’ keyboards are what gives the band its distinctive sound and Mark Collins’ Keef Richards on the dole guitar slouching is rock n roll cool.
But its Burgess that dominates- dressed like some kinda anarcho punk, waif scarecrow with his skinny pipe cleaner black jeans hitched up over his 14 hole doc marten boots and white vest- he looks like the skinny kid he one was who used to follow Crass around- he has not aged atall and his loopy dancing and genuine pleased to actually be here mask his iron will and indomitable spirit that has driven the band and its fair to say its audience through the last twenty years of ups and downs.
Burgess makes the connection that so few singers can, his endless love of music that sees him talking up Factory Floor, the Horrors, northern Soul, Stockholm Monsters, the aforementioned Section 25 and Crass into one sentence is astounding. He is a big part of the heartbeat of not only the band but whatever is left of the Madchester explosion that still shows no sign of diminishing. The fact that the band can still sell out the Apollo this deep into their career is astounding, most music scenes would have shrivelled up this deep into their trajectory with most of the bands struggling.
Burgess does another funny little jig on the edges of his Doc Marten soles, grins again and ruffles his jet black mop- the eternal pop kid surfing on the high octane of a great band at the peak of its powers.
The Charlatans are that rare thing, a true peoples’ band. And as Burgess stands there with his hands aloft feeling the waves of elation and emotion that fill the ancient hall of the Manchester Apollo as the enormous ‘Sproston Green’ grooves towards it climax it’s a powerful moment.
It’s this spirit that will see Jon Brookes back playing with the band within months of his brain tumour and has seen the band surmount all manner of odds that, frankly, no other band has ever had to deal with. It’s this spirit of adventure that sees Burgess stalking the frontline of music, bigging up the great Electricity In Our Homes or Factory Floor whilst still digging the Stones and it’s this spirit that makes the Charlatans fairly unique.
An indomitable spirit and great rock n roll.
Perfect combination.


Penny Rimbaud…new book review…

October 9, 2010

‘This Crippled Flesh..A book of Philosophy And Filth’
Penny Rimbaud
Bracket Press

Brilliant book from key Crass man…

There’s a lot of Crass around at the moment.
Steve Ignorant is out touring- celebrating the Crass catalogue, Crass themselves are getting mentioned in despatches- Penny is on the new Charlatans album, Hoxton hardcore band Flats are name checking Crass, there was Jeffery Lewis’s folk covers of the Crass songs and even the Guardian is getting hip to the fact that Crass were so much more than just a racket but perhaps one of the most articulate and idealistic bands that ever existed and whose message makes more sense now in these slash and burn times of ConDem cuts than ever before. As a portal of inspiration the bands music- which has never dated and is packed full of ideas and energy for young groups to pick apart and amazing artwork are ticking time bombs of inspiration for young groups and an object lesson in the fact that perhaps the counter culture or whatever you want to call it can actually work.
Crass are finally getting understood as a key influence and now there is this- proving that Crass go forward all the time, a new book from Penny Rimbaud.
For me Crass are one of the vital bands from the punk punk period. No-one ever took the counterculture this far- they lived the utopian dream and tried to take everyone with them. Their music has aged well- it sounds inventive, witty and really fucking, pissed off when you listen to it now. Their imagination is astonishing and their message is even more relevant in these fucked up times.
Penny’s already written a few books including his autobiography, ‘Shiboleth’ which a great account of his life and times. He is one of those people who has never compromised and ‘Shiboleth’ details this.
‘This Crippled Flesh’ is a very different piece of work. For a start it deconstructs language but in a way that doesn’t lose you. It plays word games. It’s funny, dark, extreme and quite dangerous but also surreal and very English- a Lewis Carroll trip shoved through a punk blender.
The imagination is thrilling and three pages in your on a powerful trip that zig zags your imagination.
This time Penny has gone a wild trip, the book is like a typed out version of the free jazz that he loves so much but it retains a strong narrative which is a tough call.
Too many of these kind of books just wander off but Penny draws you in and takes you on the ride with him. There are brutally honest passages that bare his soul and explore his own psyche in a radical literature. It can be unrelenting but never loses its sense of humour.
I love the imaginative way that the book is laid out- with the blocks of writing going round in circles or vertically or horizontally flipping around- a real counter culture motif.
Up there with his beloved beats Rimbaud has written a book that makes you buzz with excitement and ideas. It’s an incendiary read and makes you feel totally alive- like Crass then but in book form.
Or as Penny himself says in the introduction with that sly wit that most people miss when it comes to Crass.
‘Following a series of extended dialogues with Romanian-born philosopher E.M. Cioran, it dawned on me that within every great writer there abides a wanker. It was this chain of thought which eventually led me to write This Crippled Flesh. In the context of these illuminations, I am in no doubt that I have created a great novel.”

You can buy it from here…

https://www.southern.net/eu-shop/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&products_id=7026


The Levellers/Beautiful Days

August 23, 2010

In music there are endless stories.
Here’s a good one.
Band forms twenty years ago, plays loads of free gigs and is a big hit on the free festival circuit. Their passion and their honesty, great songs and a punk rock attitude mixed with tradition an English folk really works. They are political and sing song-stories that make a powerful connection with their audience. They go onto break through and have number ones albums and loads of hits.
You might not know this story but that’s because somehow its been mislaid by the busy media who seem to have been busily ignoring the Levellers for years because they don’t fit into THE AGENDA.
The Levellers, because they are part of a culture, have just continued and are still really popular. No matter how hard people try to shoe horn fashion into music there is still no replacement for a good raw band who deal in the high art of adrenalin and ideas.
In the past ten years the Levellers have also thrown their own festival- a celebration of the band and the culture surrounds them called ‘Beautiful Days’. This is a place where they can explore their love of the English folk heritage and punk rock, a place where eclectic music packs out the stages and freaks can re-enact Morris dancing as the devilish fertility dance that it really is, where Roy Harper is an icon and Joe Strummer smiles down from rock n roll heaven at what would have been his favorite festival.
This is the most English of festivals and I don’t mean the England of X factor, Simon Cowell, greed, selfishness, shitty high streets and celeb culture- this is a deeper and truer Englishness, the green and ghostly land with its own history and its own story. A folk tradition that stretches though the centuries and on through punk rock- the last great English folk music.
I’ve just introduced the Levellers to 15 000 headline slot. The atmosphere is electric and celebratory.
Very special.
The Levellers have been around for two decades and instead of slobbering into middle age they have become fiercer and more focused. The band packs a power that belies their punk rock roots and an Englishness that harks back to the true sound of English folk music.
Their festival reflects this. A maverick and fascinating mixture of bands that sees the Subhumans sharing the stage with bearded men with strange looking instruments playing pastoral music to even the Wurzels who are a riot.
The whole event is a quick course in a lost history of English music and merrie making. For far too long we have felt uncomfortable with our folk tradition, losing our connection with it during the industrial revolution. Whilst we are happy to celebrate folk musics from the rest of the world we seem to be uncomfortable with our own- dismissing it with an ironic, knowing smirk. Beautiful Days festival turns this presumption on its head with folk scene heroes rubbing shoulders with venerable campaigners from the punk rock wars or indie heroes like James whose own early work had that pastoral feel.
This is key to understanding the Levellers and their festival- punk rock was the last great English folk music, the last English civil war of ribald action before everyone slumped onto the settee engrossed by the feeble middle aged spread of X Factor complete with its corporate bullying of hopefuls.
Punk rock was the final splurge of songs for the people by the people, a burst of story telling in a grand old tradition that few of the punks even recognized at the time. It’s natural, unfettered and instinctive, this is what English music was about at it’s heart- ribald, inventive and tied to the land with great darkly funny stories of our lives on these wet islands.
The Levellers themselves combined these two forms into a potent whole. Jon Sevink’s violin is the signature, his fiddle playing really does cut through air and give these songs their flavour, whilst the rest of the band have mashed the sassiness of punk into this potent tradition, Their music is by turn political and celebratory- this the right stuff as potent in its tradition as the Pogues are in there’s. Mark Chadwick is a great frontman in the Joe Strummer tradition; the mob orator regaling tales from the heart of England in is scuffed voice.
I look out at the front rows whilst the band is tearing it up and it’s a glorious site- youthful faces beaming with pleasure, singing every word. It’s very special and I ponder why the mainstream media give the band short shrift. For here is band that put on great live show, brimming with passion and intensity. They are inventive and transcend their cross-cultural mashing with their own sound; they are highly influential and popular and yet are roundly ignored.
There is no way they would be allowed to win a Mercury award or be patted on the back at one of the music biz come addled awards affairs and this is a cultural tragedy of our feeble, dim witted times.
We still produce a lot of these great bands, bands that really connect with their audience but we ignore them. Why?
Also at the festival I’m running an interview stage where I speak to Penny Rimbaud from Crass, Billy Bragg, the Labour MP Kerry Mcarthy, Howard Marks, Don Letts and Mark Chadwick from the The Levellers.
The chats are enlightening and fascinating; they are linked by a common thread of passion for music and for the power of music to create political change. Each interviewee has had their lives radically changed by music and they pass that energy on.
There is a powerful idealism at play in the talks with calls for community and care. This is the best side of music culture, the core of the idea of counter culture and the spirit of which was raised by the hippies and spurred on by punk but is part of a deeper and more caring British liberal tradition. A tradition that is the exact opposite of the Daily Mail and their hate mongering slavering.
Penny Rimbaud is so impassioned and powerful that there are tears in the big audience, Don Letts can’t sit still and is still electrified by the possibilities of music. Later on he plays a killer set of dub and reggae, still one of the best DJs out there. The next day on Billy Bragg powerfully explains his Jail Guitar Doors project – the crux of which is getting guitars to prisoners to help empower them and in some way hopefully prevent the re offending- three of them play on the stage later and sound great.
Kerry Mcarthy breaks the cliche of Mps- she is impassioned and funny and straight talks as she tells of her passion for music, veganism and her life as an MP attempting to find solutions to problems without playing tit for tat politics. We have a laugh at David Cameron’s phoney love of the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ a song written specifically about Cameron and his school mates. Howard Marks attempts to talk music but swerves back to drug culture, which is so much part and parcel of music that you can’t ignore its powerful presence.
This is what is great about Beautiful Days it’s a powerful, impassioned community, it spits back at the modern cliché that no one cares anymore and that there is no politics in music these days. As host band, The Levellers somehow embody this spirit, a spirit that is older than rock n roll and one that we must never lose and perhaps that is why their set is an emotionally charged romp through all that is earth celebrating in rock n roll.


Blackpool…punk rock and the premiership…

May 23, 2010

‘…With big Maloney boots on their hassling me,
Seaside’s lonely banter- a frightening scene
The sheer thrill of violence on a warm August night
Much rather run than get stuck with this fight,

Hey! When the sun goes down! I’m in a seaside town!

With a bunch of single tickets the trains pulling out,
Goodbye pier, tower and autumn lights,
The pungent smell of adrenalin,
Seaside mafia met in town tonight…’

(the Membranes ‘Tatty Seaside Town..’ 1988)

It’s a glorious sight.
Everywhere I look I see tangerine wizards, elves, tango men; Tangerine wigs and tangerine shirts, it’s an endless sea of tangerine going through the emotional ups and downs of a crazy afternoon in the sun as Blackpool are 3-2 up in the play off final against Cardiff City. Emotions are running high and there is an air of surrealism about this very Blackpool moment.
It’s about 40 degrees, stupid hot on one of those rare British days when the heat goes off.
I’ve never seen so many Blackpool fans in one place at one time. There’s four minutes of injury time left and the tension is unbearable. Everyone is looking at their watches and praying for the unbelievable.
It’s been an amazing game. Only the most confident, crazed, the blind faithful or genius manager Sir Ian Holloway had believed we could get anything out of this. Favourites to go down and the smallest club in the division Blackpool just shouldn’t be here. Instead they are winning. they won’t give up and they play expansive attacking football- is this for real!
The club comes to Wembley armed with a proud history and little else. The ghosts of Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen flicker like the great black and white footage of the legendary 1953 cup final. There was the 30 odd years at the top flight from the thirties to the sixties- the glory days back in the days of black and white TV. There was a time when Blackpool was the team to watch- the best players, the flashest style.
Most of my adult life, though, has seen the club in the doldrums. By the time I started support the seasiders in 1971 we were on the last pinnacle- promotion to division one and winning the Anglo Italian cup. In the seventies we used to go to every match- our knuckles frozen white at Bloomfield Road, often outnumbered by the away fans who came in their thousands for the weekend out up the Pool.
In those days we were regular promotion contenders, often missing out by the closest of calls, a thousand of a goal on goal difference or a bad run at the end of the season. We had Mickey Walsh’s famous goal of the season against Sunderland in 1975- I was there and it was my first TV appearance running onto the pitch at the end of the match.
We had a good solid team and some great personality managers like Bob Stokoe and Alan Brown. Brown was sacked in the late seventies by the chairman for calling him a back stabbing rat and the club, who had been second at Christmas, managed to get relegated by a freak set of results at the end of the season- the next thirty odd years would be about decline and desperation.
Growing up in Blackpool was the same. It had been the golden town of the first half the century- a fantasy escape for millions of workers and the second showbiz town after London in the UK.
Frank Sinatra sang there several times, George Formby- the biggest star in the UK was based there and The Beatles played Blackpool 14 times. Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar on stage in Blackpool, Jethro Tull, Roy Harper and an endless list of great showbiz and pop figures came from the town until we arrived on the scene.
The town, like the football club, in the mid seventies was beginning its long decline, the package resorts stuffed Blackpool and the decay was slowly and almost unnoticeably taking hold. There was a brief revival in music with punk and post punk scene in the town, Section 25 were making waves and we followed on with the Membranes and there were punk legends the Fits and One Way System. A brief flurry of activity before the inevitable decay.
I grew up in seaside suburbia – dawn chorus, local shops, shuffling grannies, cafes with milky tea and too many sugars, strange gift shops with pointless plastic souvenirs, stray holiday makers, rusting trams, a beach full of sewage and lots of rain and a small resilient community of chemically fixated youth.
As the never ending salty wind whistled down the Lane, and the shops shut early- punk rock and John Peel were our lifelines- giving us a glimpse into another exotic world of like minded teenagers with high octane creative impulses dotted around the rest of small town England.
This was our backdrop- Blackpool in the early eighties was a town dedicated to everyone else apart from those who lived there who wanted to do something different. Despite all this we loved the town and its chintzy lights and amazing garish ballrooms. We understood the exotic beauty and the faded grandeur. It was our backdrop and part of our DNA- didn’t every town have a pleasure beach?
This faded grandeur was fading fast and the football club was following suit to disrepair and slumped to near bottom of the 4th division, the famous tangerines of Mathews final 1953 were sliding out of the league.
Many of us moved out of the town. I went to Manchester but I never gave up on Blackpool, people would often say your from Manchester but I always corrected them, I loved coming from the tatty seaside town and even if it was imposable to conduct this kind of life from their my veins would still bleed tangerine.
There were many of us ex pats there on Saturday afternoon at Wembley willing the Pool on. We had been brought up to be losers, the civil service for the best of us, the town offered us nothing but ghosts of a recent past. Somehow we were still in love with its very English weirdness and we loved the stark beauty of the Victoriana, the quaint eccentricity of the tower (they should have built it taller than the Eiffel tower though) I loved the confusion in peoples faces when I told them were I was from- ‘no one is from Blackpool’ they would say. People would run the town down all the time, the media would endlessly review it sneering at the place whist bigging up Brighton which somehow won city status whilst Blackpool was laughed at for daring to get city status at the same time, despite being a bigger place and a far more poplar resort. Blackpool was in danger of becoming a ghost town there was the casino farce, the endless recessions, the crumbling town centre…and then…
And then oddly the football team started to stir, there was the irregular and unlikely promotions- the grafting character managers came back- Billy Ayre became a Blackpool legend when with virtually nothing in the bank he started to turn the corner, Steve McMahon was solid and steady, Simon Grayson pointed us in the right direction before offing to Leeds a year ago. It looked like we had peaked and the Oystens made them inspired choice of bringing in Ian Holloway- the extrovert, hilarious man of the people with a madcap sense of humour a fistful of great quotes and an inspirational manner and fierce football brain. In one year he had turned the relegation favourites into a club that was here and now four minutes from the Premiership.
Holloway was the type of extrovert, colourful manager that suited the club and the town. This was the real Blackpool. The Blackpool of showmen and big ideas, the Blackpool whose motto was progress, the Blackpool of the world’s first electric street light and tramway, the Blackpool that invented itself in the 19th century as Europe’s number one resort, the Blackpool of free flowing, attacking football and the Blackpool of Matthews and Mortensen and seven English internationals in one match of the fifties. This was the Blackpool of the years before we had been born- the one that we lived in the shadow of.
Holloway embodied that spirit and infused the club with it. The team were suddenly non-stop attacking marauders who never gave up- this was the true spirit of the town…
The town was already looking better. Money had been spent on the prom- it now winds its way along like an art deco, concrete snake, there was loads of grass on the prom breaking up the concrete, there was talk of the council buying the Winter Gardens. Lots of great ideas and passion- a great comeback from the town that is still embedded deep in the northern psyche.
And here we were at Wembley. Minutes to go the premiership just there…as the minutes ticked away the sweat, the adrenalin and nerves were shredded till that glorious final whistle…
No-one really believed it- something had to go wrong. We had spent a long time growing up as losers and suddenly we were winners. The tangerine army went berserk. The town turned a corner and Blackpool were in the premiership.
The elation is hard to describe. Grown men were in tears.
Suddenly Blackpool was a town of winners.
Progress!


The Stranglers

March 22, 2010

The Stranglers

‘I’m moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me, And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground’ spits Baz Warne singing Hugh Cornwell’s claustrophobic and quite brilliant lyrics to the 33 year old Strangler classic, ‘Hanging Around’.

The atmosphere is electric, the band are in their third encore and the place is going old school mental. The Stranglers are back in Manchester for the spring 2010 sold out tour- a celebration of this band that is more of a strange cult than a mere group. there is talk of this being the band’s last tour- afterall Jet Black is now 71- but he’s pounding the drums harder than the new bands and the Stranglers don’t stop- they may talk about it but the band is as they sang on their last album, ‘Relentless’.

I travel a lot and everywhere I go I get the Stranglers conversation.

That hushed intense talk of esoteric lyric matter, suicidal career decisions, karate chopping bass ruffs and awesome songs that for several years made the band the best selling band to come out of the punk scene in the UK.

For me, like many a bit too smart, intense misfits The Stranglers have been an important part of our lives and their covert, strange, weird and wonderful world has become a fascinating enclave in rock music.

They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars ever.  Easily the sleaziest, most off the wall band in the whole punk rock canyon. If you were taking magic mushrooms and getting off on punk rock and living in Blackpool like I was then, they were as near as damn perfect. The music was a brutal slab of angry, snarling punk rock psychedelia served up as three minute slices of pure pop magic- every song constructed from great riffs with unexpected melodic flourishes and an intro and outro that was another great riff. Most bands manage one good riff in a song if they are lucky! the Stranglers outros had riffs in them that most bands would kill for!

Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.

They talked and sang about aliens, karate, motorbikes, Yukio Mishima, Leon Trotsky, heroin, Nostradamus, rats, ravens and alienation.

This was no average band.

History has remembered The Clash and pushed the rest of the punk bands away; retro features now re-write the history of the punk era around the Westway wonders. But as much as anyone who grew up with punk loves The Clash, it is a crime to see The Stranglers pushed aside. Their influence has been enormous and overlooked.

Maybe The Stranglers didn’t help themselves. They always antagonised the press and flew in the face of the curse of fashion. they were called sexist and they played up to the accusation winding up the press when in fact they were no more or less sexist than most of the bands from the punk era.

Their utter originality and influence has been largely  ignored by the media but acknowledged by a rabidly loyal fanbase and a generation of musicians who were in thrall to this creative unit who had wilfully defied fashion to carve out their own distinctive niche with a moody, belligerent bass and keyboard driven pop that was a great mixture of melodic, snarling rock n roll and sometime beautifully baroque.

There has never been a band quite like The Stranglers.

Denied credit by the media and rock snobs they relished in their outsider status and quirky line up of a black belt karate kicking bass god, a 40 year old ex ice cream selling drummer and a moustache bearing psychedelic, warlord keyboard player working with the suitably eccentric, laconic, lanky Cornwell- whose rich vocals are still one of the best signature voices in British rock n roll and were, with the Sex Pistols, the most commercially viable of all the initial punk new wave bands.

In the late seventies they sound tracked the times better than everyone else. I loved the Clash and the Pistols like anyone else did at the time but the band’s bass driven punk Floyd weirdness, aggression and sheer melodic nous hit a raw nerve like no other band.

Their inventiveness, originality and their surly attitude was perfect for my magic mushroom stained punk upbringing. The way the band were obviously not fashionable and existed with their own set of rules was perfect as well. The way that you could get into arguments with punk purist snobs just by owning their records made them even better!

The Stranglers were ahead of everybody musically.    Their whole composite sound was perfect- four lead instruments with Jet Black’s neo jazz pounding drums, Hugh Cornwell’s idiosyncratic guitar work that hinted at Beefheart before switching to scratching, scarping Telecaster scouring and Dave Greenfield’s amazing bubbling keyboards that were such a signature sound. Meanwhile JJ Burnell invented that bass sound- dredging the bass up to lead instrument with tough sounding, gnarled bass epics that a generation learned to play bass from. You can hear echoes of his bass sound in any band that cranks the bass up- from the Fall to a whole host of hardcore, indie or rock bands who reworked the bass into its rightful lead place.  Saying that no-one has ever got the bass as good as the sixth dan four string master though! And his hunched on stage shapes with the bass- where he becomes one with the instrument-  has been copped by so many other musicians- step up Peter Hook (a Stranglers acolyte incidentally).

The band released a series of massive hit singles and tough sounding leering albums in the late seventies that were stuffed full of songs that could also have been singles. Their melodic suss has been unrecognised by many taking the likes of Pete Waterman to call them the most melodic British band apart from the Beatles!

Their attitude was hilarious- grumpy old men who could stand their ground, they were charismatic, deadly and took on everybody and won.

And they looked cool as fuck dressed in black, like rock n roll ninja assassins come to cause trouble in the prissy corridors of pop.

They made the angriest punk albums with their debut, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, detailing the sewer life of their underground, steaming London of the late seventies and its follow up, ‘No More Heroes’, perfectly capturing the juvenile outrage of punk. In 1978 they swerved into a sort of avante garde and invented post punk a full year before Joy Division on their stark and bass heavy ‘Black and White’ (which features the best bass sound ever!). They then came on all weird-punk-prog-pop with ‘The Raven’ before going really bizarre on their aliens come to earth piece of weirdness ‘Meninblack’ before swerving back to crystalline Strangler tough pop on ‘La Folie’.

They then grew up and got more polished or maybe I grew up and got less polished! I’m not sure- the later albums still had flashes of genius but didn’t quite take over our weird world like their earlier works. In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left and they became a great live band, one of the best before finally getting Baz Warne joining in the 21st century to pull of really unlikely comeback with ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Suite XVI’

Which brings us neatly to tonight’s sold out, packed show at Academy 1 in Manchester. Routinely ignored by the mass media which is still in thrall to the far smaller and less influential (although still great) bands like The Fall- the Stranglers take comfort from their fiercely partisan fan base that supports the band like some strange black clad religion.

The atmosphere is intense and the gig is joyous. At 71 Jet Black is still the powerhouse drummer and the set list is peppered with the weird, wonderful and plain genius anthems from their long career.

The line up has now settled with JJ singing again and his tough gnarled voice is a welcome piece of genuine aggression on ‘Go Buddy Go’ another song they have not visited for a long time. His co- vocalist Baz Warne takes all the Hugh vocals and sings them perfectly.

In 2010 you don’t think of Baz as a replacement. You think of him as a Strangler.

The fact that they can play complex long pieces like the bizarre ‘Genetix’ with Dave Greenfield’s great weird vocal and the utter genius, classic ‘Down In The Sewer’ again after 15 years is thrilling.

‘Down In the Sewer’ for me is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, the Stranglers’ very own anthem and a distillation of everything great about the band. A swooping, dramatic and darkly funny song, it has a twanging Ventures guitar break and a stub toed bass riff to end all stub toed bass ruffs. In the songs seething middle section Baz Warne and JJ resurrect the Stranglers famous rat walk on the stage and you were there back at the heart of Stranglerdom- that sense of outsider outrage and great twisting music, a disdain for everything and amazing songs. The stage is drenched in red and green lights and the seven minute epic burst at its climax- a pure Stranglers moment.

There were new songs in the set like recent single, ‘Retro Rockets’, and a cavalier assault of great songs from a never ending, relentless career that shows no sign of slowing down. Baz Warne rejuvenated the band and the fact that he looks like Strangler and can deliver the vocals with the same kind of menace as the great Hugh Cornwall stand the band in great stead. JJ is as charismatic as ever- doing the karate kicks and picking out those killer bass lines.

The band were easily as good as in their pomp. It’s criminal to ignore them any longer. It’s time to acknowledge the group’s massive influence and to stop pretending they don’t exist because it’s not convenient.

Many bands have their importance overstated –continually.  I’m sick of seeing my youth re-written. I’m bored off the linear narrative of rock n roll that tells us that the Clash made everyone want to be in bands. I grew up in those strange times and I know what people felt- I’ve met them all!  I’veproduced countless records where the band wanted the JJ sound. I’m bored of the lies that get told.

The Stranglers may not have been nice to media people at the time but their music made a massive difference. They were the sound of the real UK of small towns, they captured the frustration of the times with the high IQ smarts of disillusioned graduates with a darkly funny sense of humour that half of them were. They reflected the ugliness back at everyone and they made some great records while they were at it.

The fact that can still triumph in packed, big halls all these years later is living proof of the band’s genius and way that the public will not always be fooled by what they read.


Istanbul

February 23, 2010

Like some kind of giant organism Istanbul spreads over the hills by the sides of the Bosphurus seething with life. The streets are a full on hussle of energy with endless shops selling everything you can think of tumbling towards the sea. Driven by one of the most youthful populations in Europe this is a city that’s reinventing itself daily with a huge influx of deeply traditional Turkish peasants mixing it with the super modern open-minded Istanbul locals in a vast melting pot.

This is one huge super city with 16 million people and counting. All human life is here somehow co-existing in a crazed gamut of ideas both modern and ancient. This is a city where skyscrapers stand next to 1500 year old buildings, a city that straddles two continents where the locals talk of the ‘European side’ or the ‘Asian side’. In what other city can the 5 O’clock in the morning call to prayer blast out as the bars are just emptying, what other city can a devout religious love of god stand shoulder to shoulder with an expressive nightclub culture and a huge band scene. If in 2009 Berlin is the coolest city in Europe, Istanbul is catching up. And fast.

I’m on the European side in a packed club. Onstage the band are soundtracking this stunning city with its fusion of ideas and innovation. Baba Zula are mashing deep dub grooves with Turkish melodies played on the triangular Saz. There are two belly dancers and a whole gamut of melodies that make the group sound like they have one foot deep into a fascinating melodic history of their home country but also an experimental nous that matches prime new York noise twisters.

Istanbul is full of life.  In its astonishing sprawl with a fast forward of 21st century human culture from deeply devout Muslims to hip youth, the Hijab and the mini skirt walk side by side and all points of view seem to tumble down the endless streets. Some of the woman have the Hijab decorated in all colours- twisting the meaning of the head covering into new directions.

Istanbul comes with a diverse mish mash of styles from gypsy musicians to hi tech electronics played by an endless sprawl of local musicians. The music can be deeply traditional or bang up to the minute, there is a big rock scene, a fierce rap scene and clubs and bars that play all styles from elctronica to indie, the bars shut late and the Turks have a real lust for life.

Being the former capital of a massive empire, Istanbul-formally Constantinople- was built on top of some long lost smaller towns that in turn were built on top of other towns that date back 8000  years making this one of oldest inhabited areas in the world in the 4th century by Constantine who converted the empire to Christianity before moving his capital from Rome to the east.  After the fall of Rome Constantinople rose even further as the capital of the rich Byzantine Empire before falling to the Ottomans in 1453 in one of the key conquests in European history. This brief summation of its history give you a sense of the innate grandeur of the place- a city that may no longer be capital but still retains the faded grandeur of an imperial past that was a magnet for an endless musical influences that comes from being at the heart of a sprawling empire. The musics roots vary Islamic roots to the Byzantine’s deeply devout court music and religious devotional chanting whose melodies still infiltrate the modern folk bands to the strange new melodies that the Turks and the Ottomans brought to the city from their far away homelands.

Through its various rulers Constantinople old town which was centred on what is nowknown as Sultanahmet famous for the old 6th century church of Agai Sophia and the remarkable neighbouring Blue Mosque was famous for its opulent court life, amazing buildings and passion for knowledge and learning. For centuries this city was the peak of human civilisation and only fell behind in the last couple of centuries of the Ottomans before they faded out in the early 20th century and were replaced by a  republic instigated by Turkish national hero Ataturk.

This leading position meant that it was a magnetic point of focus for all kinds of cultures. With Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman music all being the key providers of those melodies that define Turkish music to this day. The city lies at a crossroads of culture the meeting point between Russia, Middle East, Europe and this crossroads is a busy junction of cultures and music mixing up and creating new flavours which like the local food are an amazing and never ending series of taste laden surprises. The music was further enhanced by the multi national communities that have lived in the city from the Jews to the Gypsys and Armenians to Poles and Greeks.

In the past ten years there has been a rush of new bands and ideas as a whole new modern Turkish music has arrived but it would a mistake to think that this was the while story. In the late sixties and early seventies Turkey had a great psychedelic guitar scene that has recently been rediscovered. Fusing the drones of psychedelic rock with the drones of the countries traditional folk sounds which they rediscovered made for an intriguing and highly effective mix.

The gypsy musics of wedding bands and local dances has become very popular and is a strong part of the musical landscape and this is a city where you can hang out in all night bars grooving to bleeps or check out the Whirling Dervishes- the deeply spiritual dancing troupes who dance in circles to the mesmerising, hypnotic music played by the small folk orchestra behind them. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Later that day in the maze of streets and bohemian bars and cafes behind Taksim Square there is a folk club on the fourth floor of a run down looking building. On stage is Selmer Selek and his band playing this amazing gypsy folk music driven by a wild clarinet- the band are in their mid fifties and sit in their suits looking oddly detached from the mayhem that is going on around them. The packed club is belly dancing in various states of drunkenness as the band’s clattering percussion and mystic melodic power fire the room. This is typical of the gypsy music that is very much part of the Turkish musical panorama.

Contrast this with the Turkish hip hop scene that has its roots in the Turkish immigrant community in Germany where the 3 million strong Turks voiced their frustration with their outsider position in the nation with raps exporting them back into Turkey with a powerful impact.

The westernised Turkish rock and indie groups still mange to twist their music with homegrown sounds giving them a highly distinctive air that makes this city one of the fast upcoming European musical powerhouses.

As I sit in the lobby of the Hotel des Londres near Istiklal Street in Beyoglu. Hanging out with Baba Zula enjoying the faded grandeur of the best hotel lobby in Europe with its dusty chandeliers, huge ornate mirrors and talkative African grey parrots in cages we marvel at this cities sheer energy and capacity to surprise. Looking out through the lobby window and over the never ending rooftops of the city both of us sigh at the fierce energy and grandeur of one of the best cities in the world.


The Slits…live review

October 13, 2009

The Slits

Manchester Deaf Institute

Oct 12th 2009

In these strict times it’s great to see a band cutting gloriously loose and the Slits are loose. Not in an un-together way- their musicianship is amazing- bass goddess Tessa is awesome- big, loping, dub bass lines played with a fingered precision she has got to be one of the best bass players out there and the new members of the crew are equally fab. Guitarist Michelle Hill’s clipped scratching six string is so precise and the drumming has the classic Slits time changes nailed. Where the Slits rule over any other band, though, is their joyous, celebratory looseness- a deliberate capturing of the moment that most bands seem too dogmatic, too stiff and too scared to pull off.

This mostly comes from Ari Up, who is a dynamic force of nature. With her endless dreads and gold hot pants she cuts a powerful figure and her instinctive feel is fantastically opposite to the earnest plod of male bands with their whole dullard approach to music. Ari Up is so alive that the room brims with her glowing energy. The Slits make you feel super alive with their punk reagge party. If Ari Up feels like walking onstage and singing along with the music getting played over the PA she will. If she feels like inviting a drunk from the crowd  on stage to dance with her ‘pom pom; she will, if the Slits songs need a sudden time change from punk to dub to free jazz then they will have one. The band teeters on chaos but a deliberate chaos like the free jazz genius of the fifties. This is not a messy mess but a brilliantly instinctive sound tracking of he moment that pulls you in, a joyous celebration of life and sex that is always utterly compulsive.

Formed in the heart of punk in 1976 the Slits were friends of the Clash and the Pistols, they cut one classic album, ‘Cut’ that has the unique trick of never dating. They fused punk and reggae into one big party and made ‘femi rhythms’ naturally opposed to the plodding 4/4′s of bloke rock. Ari Up was a tangled haired, in your face teenage tearaway and the band were brilliantly going in ten directions at once. Their second album ‘Return Of the Giant Slits’ was esoteric freak jazz with dub undertones that confused nearly everybody but still sounds amazing to this day.

The reformation of the band was great news, it’s really cool to see Tessa up there playing the bass again and if her and Ari are the only original members it doesn’t really matter. The Slits were revolutionary they rewrote the rulebook then providing an extraordinary template for all the best woman to plunder in the last thirty years (and a big inspiration to a lot of bloke rockers who were felling it).

If in 1977 they were too free and wild for most people they almost sound like a pop band in 2009. With added keyboard player Hollie (daughter of Pistols drummer Paul Cook) there is a great dynamic onstage with her and Ari Up trading off vocals that are so imaginative and clever that it leaves you gasping.  Hollie has a natural charisma that is powerful enough not to be washed away by Ari’s tidal wave of presence and her vocals are perfect for the Slits experience.

The Slits stuff more melody and great ideas into their songs than most bands manage in a lifetime, their off kilter rhythms are dance detonators and the whole punky reaggae vibe has the hall bouncing. Fusing the best of both forms of rebel music the Slits have created a unique and brilliant hybrid that sets them apart from everyone else.

Of course they played ‘Heard It through The Grapevine’ and it it’s still an amazing version- for me better than the original with its time changes and hyper singing. ‘Typical Girls’ is devilish and the new songs from their upcoming third album are as original and brilliant as anything in their career

The Slits are a stunning live experience and the just released third album should hopefully see them breakthrough into a musical landscape that is potentially far more welcoming than when they were first running free around the circuit in the late seventies. That is if the cowards that run the radio dare to play something as thrilling and as alive as this.

In the meantime go and see the Slits live.


A Day In The Life Of A Music Journalist

September 23, 2009

This is a recent column I did for Drowned In Sound website which caused loads of controversy with some of their more pious readers…

Wake up early.

8 o’clock.

Electric rock n roll is going through my head.

Decide not to have a wank so I wont lose my edge and walk to the other room in the flat and start typing. Got a mish mash of columns and articles to tap out. Got a headfull of ideas, a  zig zagging machine gun of stuff- gotta get it typed up before it disappears into the ether.

Plenty of work got done last night when I got back in from watching couple of great local bands, one, Dirty North play a mash up of ska, hip hop and razor sharp lyrics like Antic Monkeys are rattling my cage. They were supported by Mike Garry a fantastic poet whose Mancunian street poems will make him the poet laureate of Manchester within months. When I’m writing about stuff like this words come easy and I still operate under the age-old rule of never write the first paragraph till last. Never sweat over that first sentence- just get on with it, a few words in and the word spew comes and you can be sat in a daze with words pouring out till someone phones. Or you feel hungry. Oh shit I feel hungry. I then do about 15 minutes of yoga to keep these trusty old limbs springy and then I eat. I eat like a horse! Writing is hungry work.

I return to the laptop and continue writing and then editing. Gotta get these words down before the phone starts ringing or the Internet starts buzzing. When you are one they are many and you have to organise your life! DIY is the greatest idea but it means often booking band tours for my band Goldblade on your own, sorting out deals and doing loads of meetings as well as writing and extra curricular stuff like helping Blackpool council with projects to make the town look, well, different than the clichéd idea of it.

I rattle out a couple of columns with the music now cranked up to full. I love rock n roll and I’m putting another dime in the jukebox baby. Also loving these dubstep collections you can find on the net and loving the occasional new demo but also wanna hear some good time adrenalin punk rock, Black Flag’s Damaged’…mmm…lets put that on again- the infernal energy and righteous racket matches the mood perfectly, will relatively  chill out with the dubstep later.

Midday go for a meeting with some heads who want to start a record label with me, it goes well, then have to record some T V stuff, not long after that I have to rehearse Goldblade for a couple of festivals at the weekend. Then late afternoon I will get down the gym and pump some iron- it’s a couple of hours to switch off and do something truly D.U.M.B Dumb. Fantastic. Leave the gym with that insane endorphin rush and sit on a chair in the sun and catch up on a lot of phone calls on my mobile. Cycle home and cook my vegan soul power tea, do some more writing and then thunder off into town and check out some music and then hang out a bit before going home and trying to get through more emails before popping out to do a radio interview on 5 live. Then home and to bed.

Tomorrow, though, I will be proper busy!


Post Punk

September 18, 2009

Last week I was doing a talk at a conference at Leeds University about Post Punk.

It was an interesting event and made more interesting by the fact that post punk has become a thing, a scene, and a definable set of rules to be picked over years later by academics.

I guess it was Simon Reynolds excellent book that started this. It was great that he pushed the spotlight onto the insane activity that poured out of the breach created by punk rock- the DIY labels, fanzines and bands that were re-writing music on their own terms.

The only problem is that it has made a scene that had no rules and no boundaries become very linear. Post punk has become fashionable in the past few years but it has become narrowed down to the Gang Of Four and The Fall and maybe A Certain Ratio when someone feels a little but funky. I don’t remember it that way. I remember a blurring of boundaries after punk with a simultaneous leap into the future and a re-affirmation of the past as the shackles of the punk rock Year Zero were thrown away. And whilst the aforementioned bands were key bands of the period there was also great music getting made by Killing Joke and Bauhaus and other bands who have been lumped in with the Goth scene.

It may not fit into the newly neat narrative but the so called Goth scene was equally innovative with both Killing Joke and Bauhaus incorporating dub into glam and tribal musics and creating whole new soundscapes.

The early Adam And the Ants were also making some strange and unsettling music and I’ve often wondered if these bands were a bit too strange and in some cases a bit too pretty with a touch or eye liner (or in the case of Killing Joke – dark and ugly with manic face paint) to be taken seriously by the lumpy academic brigade.

It’s a curious fact of rock history that the journalists will always put the bands that look like them on the pedestal and write the other ones out of history. At the time most people I knew seemed to be thrilled by both types of bands and few saw it as separate scenes- the battle lines were drawn up later and the so called Goth bands were annoyingly written out of history even though their influence has been far bigger.

Personally I don’t care that much I have all the records but I often wonder when I look out at the students learning about this fantastic musical time when there were no rules and hope that they are not being short changed by the revised histories of those times.


excerpt from book about The Membranes

June 16, 2009

MAD

BEAUTIFUL

FOOLS 

 

 

INTRO 1

 

“These people are scum,” whined the dwarf in the filth encrusted Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts ‘T’ Shirt as the white heat noise maelstrom exploded out of the creaking rattling speakers, “I’m off to find the plug, that will sort them out.”

   The Membranes glorious sonic cruise thundered on, surfing on the intensCarbohydrate Of Lovenking up the pure beautiful sound; A holy spectral cursing thing, surfing on a searing life affirming rush.

   A shower of ripped paper, some of it on fire, shot up from the sweat soaked front  row thrashers. There was a determined craziness in the room.

  Bits of paint and plaster fell off the seedy ceiling and the drinkers downstairs looked terrified as lumps of the roof fell onto their tables. All of a sudden a demented blurred shape in a home made painted leather spun out of control, brushed aside the Japanese film crew and lifted up a rusting metal crowbar from the percussion’ set and started pounding the floor wack! wack! wack!, with the rumbling backbeat.

   The rest of the crazies shifted a gear. Fat Mark was in the room. It was going to be a long and wild night.

   This was special danger- The Death To Trad Rock Squad had arrived and no one was taking any prisoners.
INTRO 2

 

A mixture of Maloney boots, home hewn hair, paint spattered togs, lust for lifestyle tips and mealy mouthed quips. A rolling blunder review, a well-worn blur of a thousand records, a blur of fast moving nights out. A twenty- four hour, music boho- zone lifestyle; nothing is scared but everything is brilliant- seeking a certain out-there-ness.

   Alive.

 

February 27th 

m way fever 

   Tearing up the asphalt somewhere deep in the night, burning rubber on the M6 the rain spattered main Brit. artery that nails London and the norf together. Feet pumped up high and pushing against the windscreen I’m talking ten to the dozen buzzing off a huge adrenaline rush keeping the driver awake and spouting shit.

 “…this is the only way, faster louder harder, we’ve got top keep cranking it up it feels right,…it’s the only sound that we understand….can we get these amps to play any louder, can we get any more energy from anywhere, we’ve got to burn burn burn…you know the usual stuff…”

   And so it goes into the night, the sweat shod van windows and the stinking occupants collapsed asleep in the back. the pumpkin moon slips out form the almost permanent clouds and we wind down into keels services.

“I love these services, they look great…the way they are so bleak, the way that there is no one here at this time of night, they are so spooky they are like space stations,…look at these people whoa re they…they can’t all be in bands…” gibbber gibber gibber. It’s five hours into the long haul back from Brighton. The art school wimps in the seaside town had been shredded by the music machine and the quick raid was over, there was enough clear profit to pay for the European tour the hand to mouth existence had its latest instalment and the night was slowly melting into dawn.

“You know we could sneak out every night and play somewhere miles away. it’s like being guerrilla unit,” loks up sees Coofy fast asleep under his mouldy brown quilt beer dribbling out of his mouth, smirks and adds, “ or a gorilla unit, ha! ha! ha!…”

 

MARCH 1st:  

QUEENSTON ROAD: LIFE WITH THE LIONS- AT HOME WITH THE R’n’R UNIT…

 

There’s paint everywhere. Pots of paint, poster paint, mangled brushes,  spray cans of car paint, turps jars, cloudy water jars… all heaped up everywhere, a topsy turvey art junkyard. Stencils cut from the ripped up lino from the back kitchen floor are cut into weird pumpkin shapes and are sprawled all over the sitting room floor.

 A puppy, an excitable young collie dog rummages through the artwork looking for food.Not noticing the clouds of smoke and singed smell until he was roughly pulled away, his furry black arse is burnt into the shape of the gas fire rings where he’d been leaning an hour before.

Practise sprays of the stencil stain the concrete floor by the side door of the house before zooming up on the wall, up the drainpipe and over the ground floor windows, and then over guitar cases, on the back of an old ‘T’ shirt and on the trousers of a comotose, fat sloth singer of a fellow underground unit who collapsed asleep on the settee a few weeks ago and has hardly stirred since.

A multi- fucking- colour  spray out. Cans are littered everywhere, the air is thick with fumes, the weak rays of early March sun are suspended in the chemical haze, the backdoor is creaked open and a few figures are sat on a surprisingly warm early March afternoon. The talk is low volume, the tape recorder is cranked hard, a mixture of rehearsal tapes, garbled punk rock and a mish- mash of thirty years crazed and dangerous music is busting out of the wired up speakers- distorting and crashing out down the street.

 

    A  mashed up cassette, with its innards pulled out, is stretched from the door to the hedge opposite- flutters in the breeze, plastic toys peer out of the back widow and from the trees, their dead eyes chewing up the bizarre scenery. Props left over from a video shoot for Yank cvranked guitar popstrers, Dinosaur Jnr. stand awkwardly in the centre of the manky lawn. A six foot plastic yellow fisherman stares his face an education, a weather beatebn plastic snarl and a totem pole sags slightly under its own weight.

 The garden, which prompted a former  owner to burst into tears the year before, is a sprawl of plants allowed to grow wild, amok in a crazed suburb- busting anarchy. Wild plant seeds thrown into the ground a couple of years back had taken root, the rockery had been moved and a garden pond is going mouldy in the far corner- battling for oxygen from beneath the leaf sludge mould. There are several battered, painted up TV’s- their electrical innards pulled out and slogans sprayed over their screens. There is a shed with ‘Stockport Uber Alles’ sprayed on by a chemical fried poet in the late hours of last summer, and an explosion of honey suckle on the back door.

  Just before everything gets too rural, a heap of guitars give the rock’n’roll game away. There is some serious spraying going on. The Membranes are between dates, they have been playing up and down Britain for most of the year and are taking stock before a world tour will take them right through to the autumn.  some of the band are here sprawled around the house and the rest are coming by bus and foot, the clans are gathering. Plans are to be made, there’s a world to deafen, the pop monster is gettin’ mighty hungry.


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