British Sea Power/’Man Of Aran’

April 30, 2010

British Sea Power play soundtrack to ‘Man Of Aran’

This is seriously powerful, emotive stuff.

I’m sat in the cavernous main cinema of Sheffield’s Showroom complex for the final event in the city’s fantastic music/film/arts Sensoria festival. Live on stage, in front of the screen, with their backs to the audience are one of the best and most inventive modern British bands- British Sea Power.

They are playing their live sound track to ‘Man Of Aran’ the 1934 semi fictional, semi documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty. The film is a stark black and white depiction of the tough lives of the Aran islanders whose stubborn self-sufficiency and toughness, set against the backdrop of the fierce Atlantic Ocean makes for powerful viewing.

It’s a perfect combination- a salty sea stained film about the tough life on a lump of rock in the Atlantic (most recently the setting for Craggy Island in Father Ted) and a band that have made their name in the past decade with three great, highly original albums that stand alone in the oceanic waves of indie banality. A series of albums that seem eccentric in the context of modern indie rock that is mostly not only not independent of distribution but also thought.

British Sea Power have carved their own idiosyncratic path with a music that is somehow harking back to a long lost age when people were interested in more than football and cars. There are references to non rock n roll topics like bird spotting and a love of nature- total genius in a rock world where conversation rarely rises above the ‘what goes on the road stays on the road’ grunting.

The band have a brilliant attention to detail that even sees their merch droog dressed in the same sort of hardy fifties Ealing tweeds as the rest of them who retain the Spartan whiff of the bohemia about them.

Their music has a powerful cinematic sweep that oozes with the power of nature- you can smell the salty air crashing on the rocks when you blast out a BSP album which makes this project perfect for them.

Originally from Kendal and now based in Brighton they have also played a series of highly original gigs in off the wall locations, like the Boste Social Club in Kendal and the Isles of Scilly or on a ferry- gigs that make tonight appearance in Sheffield playing the self composed soundtrack seem like a normal event for the band.

‘Man of Aran’ itself is a semi fictional account of the tough lives of the islanders on Aran- a clump of rocks off the west coast of Ireland battered, due to several geographical quirks, by some of the biggest waves in the Atlantic. The islanders live off the sea, which at any minute threatens to engulf them. They grow potatoes in the bone hard rock using seaweed as a soil substitute and wrestle with giant basking sharks to get the oil for their lamps whilst risking their lives catching fish for their meals- their tiny boats looking like match sticks against the might ocean and their faces rough hewn  like the bone hard granite of their islands. Even if the film is somewhat fictionalised it opens a window onto a long lost, tough, yet honourable life- a warrior existence on the edge of the world and one that has been long lost in a cosseted modern world where people get fish from a tin instead of risking life and limb in the sea.

British Sea Power were sent the film by a fan and film buff and when asked to write a soundtrack for an art project chose the perfect film for their powerful music that smells of sea salt and brine. The band, who have always intertwined the powerful, primal forces of nature and an almost pagan imagery into their music and stage sets, have created the perfect soundtrack that makes your emotions swell like the mighty Atlantic that is the fluid spine of the film. Their sense of theatrical- with branches of trees and stuffed animals as part of their normal touring stage set and a music that oozes with the power of mother nature are perfect for this sort of exercise.

What they have composed for the film is a genius match for the forces of nature in the film and the tug and flow of the wild Atlantic that pours over the island. The music and the visuals perfectly combine to affect you in a powerful emotional way. I leave the cinema with my legs shaking like an Aran islander getting out of one of the tiny boats, feeling drained by the thrilling, emotive music provided by one of the best current British bands at the height of their powers and a 70 year old film that is still powerfully affecting.

Adam Ant and the Glitterband

April 18, 2010

This a story of musical legends, glam rock genius, pop brilliance, a virtuoso pop star attempting a long awaited comeback and a disgraced singer who has tainted a great back catalogue and a curious and strange evening in Manchester.

We are watching the Glitterband onstage in at Satans Hollow.  It’s a strange and interesting night that twists and turns as we await the arrival of Adam Ant whose meant to be getting on stage for a couple of songs at the end of the evening.

Adam has been putting in sporadic appearances on London stages in the last few weeks. He jumped on stage with Gary Numan for a version of ‘Cars’, there was a swift appearance with Zodiac Mindwarp and then last week he appeared at the Glitterband gig in London where he played a bunch of classic old Ant songs like ‘Red Scab’ and ‘Physical’ with his own new band. At the gig Adam looked and sounded amazing and the fact that he was playing the freaky old stuff made it even better.

The clips on youtube wetted appetites and the Glitterband audience is pumped up with old bondage punks, super freaky Goths and Antfans waiting for the return of the dandy highwayman to unplug the jukebox with his sex music for one more time.

Adam Ant is the great-lost pop star. Mistakenly labelled a pantomime pop personae and dismissed by ‘serious’ critics but for those that know he is a pop genius. Those first two albums, ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ and ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ are amazing works. ‘Dirk’ was the ultimate in zigzagging art school rock- it was tough and weird but also fantastic pop- Adam was always one of the great singers and brought his weird songs to life with a deft melodic touch. The early Ants were the heaviest and weirdest punk band of them all and for a year or so were the carriers of the original sex, style, subversion spirit of the Sex shop punk rock revolution before turning into the unlikeliest of pop stars in the early eighties. Their fans were the antfans- the freakiest, heavy duty, looking crew in the country who were a blur of studs, feathers, warpaint and Mohicans before anyone else even knew what these were. They massed from all over the country or from the London punk squats and when the Ants broke through the disconsolate Antfans split to follow the Southern Death Cult and watched shocked as Adam suddenly attracted screaming teenyboppers- there is  a great description of this tour in the amazing Vague fanzine from back in the early eighties.

Adam Ant broke though with ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ which was an amazing work- an avant-garde pop kaleidoscope. The album resulted from when Adam asked the late Malcolm Mclaren in to help with the band after the release of ‘Dirk’ he watched aghast whilst Mclaren stole the Ant-band to form Bow Wow Wow.

A desolate Adam phoned Marco and put together the new Ants and adding Malcolm’s ideas created a 3D pop soundtrack that gatecrashed the charts making most people forget just amazingly off the wall this music was.

Pop music in the early eighties was not like this.

Pop music in any decade was not like this.

Arguably even more off the wall than their debut the album was huge in the early eighties. Adam was good looking and dressed up making sure that the serious critics would always brush over his innate genius because good looking fuckers are never taken seriously in the pop cannon- re-listen to ‘Kings’ now and you will be blown away but its vision and its attractive, cinematic strangeness.

It’s because of these fantastic records that we are here- half believing that Adam may turn up and dust the venue with pop magic. We also half believe that he probably won’t turn up atall and privately hope he knows what he’s doing after his well documented battles with his bipolar condition—no-one wants him to make himself unwell.

All night everyone keeps asking me the same question ‘Is Adam coming?’ and I can’t answer because I don’t know.

Adam is not here yet and the first band on- Bad Taste Barbies mash of glam disco, transvestite clobber and over the top camp is both hilarious and quite brilliant , they are followed by Kid Vooodoo’s thrilling swamp punk blues.

The Glitterband hit the stage and sound great- they are a hotch potch of good players and ex members including John Springate on bass/vocals, Pete Phipps on drums and Eddy Spence on keyboards.  There are currently and confusingly two Glitterbands out on the circuit- the other one is key Glitter member John Rossall’s Glitterband and this one- both camps of course are not happy with each other and there is dark talk of court orders. Both line-ups, though, sound great.

It’s not like they have got enough problems trying to survive with the shadow of Gary Glitter- who took the glitter to the gutter- hanging over both of them. The disgraced former pop buffoon’s sad descent into paedophilia has tainted a great back catalogue of some brilliant singles and also tainted the Glitterband whose separate career had it’s own signpost hits in the mid seventies.

Gary Glitter was not the whole story though and his depressing and dark behaviour should never be allowed to obscure producer Mike Leander’s genius in coming up with the Glitter sound.

Born in 1941 the late Leander (who died in 1996) has one of the great unheralded careers in British pop music working at Decca and Bell records. Bell itself is a label whose very name conjures up the great days of early seventies glam whilst Leander’s own fingerprints are all over some of the classic lineage of British sixties and seventies pop like  Marianne Faithfull, Billy Fury, Marc Bolan, Joe Cocker, The Small Faces, Van Morrison, Alan Price, Peter Frampton, Keith Richards, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, Jimmy Page, Roy Orbison, Brian Jones,and Gene Pitney.

Leander’s skills as a producer/arranger saw him called in to work with Ben E. King and The Drifters as well as being the only person to work on the Beatles orchestration apart from George Martin when he arranged the strings on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ‘album.

He was also executive producer of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar ‘and in the late 1960s wrote scores for several films.

It’s an incredible track record.

One night he was in the studio working on some David Essex sessions when the upcoming singer called in sick leaving ten hours of dead studio time. Leander got on the drum kit and started bashing out a Burundi style drumbeat getting the engineer to tape the twenty minutes of drumming. Building on the tracks with other instruments he had ‘Rock n Roll Part one and two’ in the bag. He drafted in Paul Raven who he had worked with back in the sixties recording a few singles, before Raven hooked up Jesus Christ Superstar,

re-christening him Gary Glitter who became the faintly bizarre glam superstar of the early seventies coasting to success on the back of Leander’s genius. The fact that the records now make uncomfortable listening due to Glitter’s pedophilia is sad.

Leander also later worked with the Glitter band and that distinctive drum sound is in full force tonight decorating all their best songs. The Glitterband still also have that great drone sound that the producer patented back in the early seventies and are a great fun night out romp disguising the great dark glam rock that is the beating heart of their muse.

Tonight they even have Angie Bowie singing three songs with them, her croaking Berlin cabaret voice spins the set off in an unexpected direction and as a curio from the days when pop was really mental she is fascinating to watch.

But the real special guest everyone is waiting for is still not here. Apparently he’s on a train and he’s running late. The Glitterband end their set and Adam is still not here and everyone waits on but twenty minutes after the end of the set it’s announced that he’s not coming.

No-one is angry. Most people hope that Adam is ok and understand the potential stress of playing these gigs could be having on him.

Adam is meant to be playing London at the end of April- hope he can do it- there is potential for a great romantic comeback here…

Malcolm Mclaren and punk rock

April 9, 2010

The death of Malcolm Mclaren is of course shocking. Its hard to believe anyone so vibrant so alive could have passed away. It also puts punk rock into sharp focus again and pushes it further and deeper into the history books- a strange feeling for something that was so of its moment.

Mclaren- arguably the last of old school showbiz managers whilst also inventing the new breed, was one, if not the prime architect of the punk movement, he was also an uncomfortable bedfellow in the punk rock lineage. Many people just didn’t seem to know where to place him in the history of the form not realising that without him all the fun and games would never have happened.

True, he often overstated his case but in a weird way understated his own genius. To understand this genius you only have to look at the clothes and the ideas that were pouring out of the Let It Rock/Sex Shop/Seditionaries clothes shop in the pre punk seventies to realise that what Malcolm and his then partner in crime Vivienne Westwood did was create provocative works of art more than clothes- provocative works of art that challenged everything from the way you thought to the way you walked. They were pushing the boundaries of taste to extremes. Wearing their stuff was asking for it and asking for it in the mid seventies was heavy.

Their clothes were a mixture of fetish wear, firebrand rock n roll originals, situationist pranking, quirky madness and pervy danger as well as a dash of sick and downright nasty- they also looked brilliant and attracted a small coterie of freaks who would coalesce as the original core of the punk movement.     The idea that clothes could be both sexy and unsettling was genius and when the Sex Pistols were added as a  soundtrack it changed people’s lives and eventually the whole of the UK. In 2010 punk is everywhere- what was once weird is now a mundane T shirt, what was once freakish is another celebrity headline, what was once underground is now, for better or worse, mainstream.

The situationist skree and the brilliant pervy imagination of Mclaren are right at the heart of punk rock. Mclaren’s whole life was a work of art and the best art creates trouble. It’s not comfortable. It’s not about sagging into the sofa feeling mildly satisfied- it challenges you to wake up! wake up! before you really are already dead!

The Sex Pistols were the eventual vehicle for his dangerous ideas of sex, style and subversion- luckily they also happened to be one of the greatest rock n roll bands the UK has ever produced- with a one off frontman who was far smarter than he needed to be and whose vulnerability and intelligence added a huge dimension to the battle plan.

In 1976/77 the Sex Pistols changed everything- don’t let the history re-writers tell you otherwise. Mclaren made Britain sexy and exciting when before it had had been wall to wall denim. His genius was that he realised that music was about so much more than just the music.

The power of rock n roll, of course, will forever stop you in your tracks but what Mclaren brought to the table was all the OTHER STUFF.

Recently I wrote a blog on the Guardian about stand up drummers and the anonymous weirds were out in full force on the comments section moaning about journalists only liking the image and not the music and insisting on drummers being sat down- believing that sitting down behind a drum kit is a sign of authenticity. The nameless commenteers, too, have their own idea of image and HOW THINGS SHOULD BE. That’s what fucked up the mid seventies- the idea that ‘real’ meant grimacing, long guitar solos and blokes playing blues with too much technique and no regard for the form. Middle aged men talk about music in terms of how people play with no regard for the soul power and the passion and the ideas- they missed the point entirely. They don’t get the thrill of the other stuff, they don’t even get the thrill of the music- being to busy getting autistic over the musicianship. Boring.

Mclaren instinctively knew this was wrong. He felt it first and he returned rock n roll to its firebrand, dangerous, sexed up roots. When you first saw a picture of the Sex Pistols as the sexy young assassins in 1976 you were hooked- their hair, clothes, shoes, facial expressions, even the way they stood told you what they sounded like before you could even hear them- how perfect is that?

And when you heard them…wow!

Of course Mclaren was a useless conventional manager, most of the Pistols ‘career’was haphazard and on the hoof but no-one else could have pulled that trick off, no other manager would have surfed the chaos like Mclaren did, all the time creating ideas- in thrall to the love of ideas. He was a machine gun of thrilling ideas- ideas that were more thrilling than a great chorus- ideas that have their own timeless melody. Ideas that fired up a small section of a generation who have gone on to change stuff.

His brilliant mind and his dangerous thinking woke the UK up and changed lives. You just need to look at the clothes from Sex shop, look at Jamie Reid’s (art school situationist chum of Mclaren)  artwork, listen to the primal power of the Pistols and understand his catalytic power- his pulling together of maverick minds to create revolutionary moments. That’s a skill in itself- a magnetic charisma that makes things happen.

And it just didn’t stop here- I love the story of Adam Ant paying Malcolm a grand to manage him- he was given a check list of records to listen to that were as insanely esoteric as you would expect- after one rehearsal Adam was sacked from his own band who were turned into Bow Wow Wow by  Mclaren who used the band for another catherine wheel of madcap and unsettling ideas and Adam? God knows what became of him!

Mclaren also introduced a generation of kids to hip hop when he went to New York and soaked up the street culture there for 1983’s ‘Duck Rock’, he nearly ran for mayor of London, turned himself into an entertainer  with his own hit records and was a brilliant raconteur with a fistful of deadly stories. Of course he could be rude, unpleasant and abrasive- thank fuck for that- the nice people are boring.

Mclaren made Britain sexy, he woke us up from our mid seventies slumbers, he brought situationism to the high street, created a pool of ideas that turned into one of the greatest youth movements of all time.

Vive le Rock.

The revolution is not over yet.

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