Patti Smith

March 24, 2010

Patti smith

What a great day.

I’m sat there on stage at the Sheffield Library museum. The room is packed and hushed. The atmosphere is charged with emotion.

I’m interviewing Patti Smith who is in full flow- no subject is off limit, no emotion left untouched. You can feel the humanity and the air is charged with a sticky passion.

At one moment she wells up, the next she is hilarious, the next she speaks with a powerful wisdom that so few of her male counterparts have managed in a similar timespan. I sit there and realise that I am talking to the very core- the very epicentre of where rock n roll and poetry, emotion and art clashes- it’s powerful stuff, the dark magic that is at the heart of what makes rock n roll so great- this is the very place and she is do damn modest with it.

She goes off at great tangents and is, of course, eloquent, but also charming, modest and never shirks from the difficult material and tells it all with great grace and humour.

These in conversations are fascinating to do. Stark. Wide open. Two chairs, two mics and a room full of people adding to the kinetic electric of talking. I’ve done loads of them from Faust to Kraftwerk and back again. There’s no space for fuck ups. It’s the real live edge. The thrilling adrenaline of the stage, of living for the moment.

Patti arrives thirty seconds before we hit the stage which can make things awkward but she is so open that talking to her is a dream. I wish it could have gone on for another hour- there’s so many great stories to talk through.

Afterall poet priestess Patti Smith is one of the key figures in rock n roll.

She may never have sold millions of records but her influence is all persuasive. She inspired a legion of women (and men) to take up the cause in the mid seventies and her fingerprints are all over punk rock, post punk and onwards to the present.

When I wrote my punk oral history five years ago her name was dropped as a key influence by an unlikely roll call of people from the Slits to Echo and the Bunnymen, from the Smiths to PJ Harvey to Nick Cave and anyone else who is fired by her free spirit and the truth lies at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll.

She has lived several lives at once- there’s so much crammed in there from tragedy to triumph and it’s all in her poetry that seems to pour out of her. She embodies all that was great about the sixties- all the idealism and the hope and the dream tempered by an urban reality and New Jersey no bullshit that edits the dippyness that threatened to taint the era. She was the link between that period and the edginess of punk, the fulcrum, the point when one generation tipped into another. She led the charge, waking rock from its mid seventies slumber, opening doors and inspiring with her no holds barred artfulness just like her heroes Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan had done before.

When she sings a couple of songs after the interview her beautiful voice, that crackles with emotion and such hope, is as intact now as when we first heard it 35 years ago.

Exuding a warmth and humanity rare in these hard sell days, she is a great raconteur with her New Jersey accent telling great stories of Alan Ginsberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jimi Hendrix, the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol, her New jersey upbringing, rock n roll, family, lovers, art and poetry- an amazing shared life that she recounts without embellishment.

She looks fantastic, with that strange, delicious beauty still intact. She has seen the dark side and survived the heartache of the deaths of the two key lovers in her life- Mapplethorpe and her husband- the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and the pain is never far away.

We talk about her just released ‘Just Kids’ book- a love story- a romantic tale of two penniless artists running around the bohemian New York of the mid seventies.

It tells the story of her and Robert Mapplethorpe- her first real love. It’s the story of a skint, thrilling existence of two artists on the run- a cut and past Bonnie and Clyde creating and letting it all pour out. It speaks of Mapplethorpe the brilliant photographer and gives you a real insight into his boyish charm and daredevil talent walking on the wild side in pursuit of aesthetic freedom and art with a humility and touching humaneness.

At the event Patti tells a great story of when Mapplethorpe’s mother came to his opening and before she got there he took down all his homoerotic shots because he didn’t want to offend her!

The book and the in conversation by extension are a moving tale of people who lived by raw emotion and talent and threw everything to the wind to create great art- Patti with her poetry fused rock n roll and Robert with his brilliant images.

The book itself is one of the great rock n roll reads, you can feel the breathless excitement of mid seventies New York, you can run with their youthful idealism and smile at the naivety and beauty of living for art before you are hit by the heartbreak of when Mapplethorpe succumbs to Aids at the end of the book.

The interview covers all this ground and the room is going with it. Later on people tell me that they were crying- not upset but crying with the sheer emotion and that’s just from Patti’s talking- the way she doesn’t hide behind smoke and mirrors and deals in pure raw emotion- a free spirit in world of corporate gloss. And that’s the key, Patti is a free spirit- a rarity in these cynical times and that’s why people celebrate her.

Later on she plays a concert in the hall next door and it is spellbinding, she reads from the book and plays stripped down acoustic versions of the songs with her pure, amazing voice. The gig is mesmerising, spellbinding and powerful- 90 minutes of classic songs, freeform improvisation and again, raw emotion.

It makes you realise what rock n roll can really be and why its so damn special and why it holds a place in our hearts- that glimmer of fascination, that moment when the connection is made and people are visibly moved- that’s powerful stuff.

Really powerful stuff.

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.

Carol Clerk RIP

March 14, 2010

Carol clerk RIP

The tragic news of music journalist Carol Clerk’s death is bouncing around the net.

Another sad death in the recent roll call she won’t be forgotten.

Few writers capture the demented spirit of rock ‘n roll but Carol had the knack of translating the quicksilver ether of the music and turning it into the printed word. She also dared to tread into music scenes that are too rock for most writers and was one of the few champions of the severely underrated second wave of punk as well as being one of the few genuine characters on the music scene.

I last saw her last autumn when she came down to my spoken word and reading night in London where she read out an extract from her brilliant Hawkwind book. I hadn’t seen her for a long time and it was great to see her again.

I had no idea she was ill at the time but she was, as ever, great company and her reading was inspiring.

Her Hawkwind book, ‘the saga of Hawkwind’ for me, is easily up there with the classic rock books- thoroughly researched, brilliantly written, it was an enormous undertaking that captured the brilliant band and their myriad of changes and members with a insight that you just don’t get in most rock books. She also coloured the band in and you felt like you were there bang in the middle of their madness. The same can be said of her book on the Damned and the many articles she wrote for the music press like at the Melody Maker where she was one of the few people that were cool to work with providing a rare warmth and humanity in a strange and icy office atmosphere when I washed up there after the demise of Sounds.

And it was not only at the Melody Maker but in the journo world she was one of the people you felt an affinity with, you felt like you were on the same side.

Carol RIP.

BBC cuts/ 6music and Asian network

March 2, 2010

Lets get this right from the start, the BBC like the National Health is one of those great British institutions that make the heart beat with pride. I hate it when people like the Murdochs have  ago at the BBC with only their own  interests at heart.

Both orginisations have their critics and its difficult to keep huge, diverse operations in action but there is something about the quality of journalism at the BBC and its output that at its best is the best in the world.

But today’s decision to shut down 6music and the Asian networks is a disgrace. For far too long we have had to sit here and watch as our so called alternative medias have been chipped away one by one and if 6music was perhaps a tad too narrow in its musical brief it was a very welcome alternative to the dull, celeb obsessed trudge of mainstream media corporations.

Radio one has slowly because a celeb channel believing that people are fixated on the dull world of exclusive London clubs and footballers wives whose lives are a made up web of PR driven lies. It comes with a music policy that is increasingly cowardly in the day time whilst maintaining a fairly good evening policy of a patchwork quilt of everything else that is released (Mary Ann Hobbs show is genius)- mind you it still can’t give any space for any band that is slightly noisy even if said bands can easily sell out arenas and prove that they are pop music as well (because pop is short for popular and not short for what ‘experts’ think you should be listening to). This fear of rock has been a major blight in the mainstream for years- but that’s another story.

If 6music was a tad too expensive then it should have been cut back and not cut off. Compared to the annual Glastonbury romp when, according to the internet, 2 million was spent on the sending of a lot of people for the annual fun in the sun in a disportionate use of the music budget then the all the year round 6music was money well spent. the figures that the BBC spend floating around the net are shocking- check the bosses money and the amount that Jeremy Clarkson and Graham Norton get…

We live in a diverse country with a diverse and brilliant musical tradition and future- this was reflected by the likes of 6music and the Asian network, which we pay for. Today’s decision sees more dumbing down and more linear musical coverage in the UK. More cowtowing to Cowellworld and equivalent music theme parks full of dumb, orange skinned cabaret crooners.

The only good thing is that this decision may encourage people to withhold their license fee and put their money where they want- I would hate to see the break up of the BBC but like most people I want to see a BBC that at least reflects the interests of its licence fee payers.

Meanwhile the internet radio station that me and a consortium have been working on will now accelerate…

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