notes on mainstream TV hell

October 23, 2010

Please go to John Robb’s new blog Louder Than War, this blog you are on is now closed…

Wake Up! You’re Already Dead!

Saturday night TV is flickering in the background with its avalanche of nothing, the boring bright lights of heavily edited emotional blips and desperation numbing the soul and crushing the spirit.
Comfortably numb as someone once sung.
Nothing making you feel anything. Like a blur of cathode ray heroin doping the soul.
Of course it’s harmless fun but your mind begins to wander.
Jack Kerouac once wrote that
‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”…’
Of course it’s romantic but it’s true.
As you get older you feel every minute click away and every minute has got to burn. It has to burn with creativity or getting fired up by brilliance. The kind of dark hearted executives who sit there dreaming up the tightly scripted extravaganzas hate you but want your attention.
Like most people who read this stuff we didn’t get into this culture war to end up comfortably numb. There was a tear in the fabric and everyone jumped through. But what for?
Is Saturday night TV any different from listening to music, what’s the difference between Bruce Forsyth and Crass? Is there any difference? Are we deluding ourselves? Is any one branch of showbiz and deeper or more affecting than another?
Rule one of punk was questioning everything and I’m questioning the basic fundamentals that have been a big part of my life and I don’t find them wanting.
But was all that youthful idealism in vain? Is everyone slumped in front of the TV or doped out in the pub pissed and bitter? Where once was passion and excitement has turned into broken spirit. A shuffling semi life of slumbering. Grunting disapproval at Dermot O Leary as he fakes excitement to the latest caterwauling dullards.
Is there any alternative to the machine?
Is this why we are still all out there playing or watching? Are we still seeking? Or just escaping? Is there any point?
The TV avalanche continues- titillation, manufactured emotion, ‘celebs’ you don’t give a toss about ballroom dancing- followed by X Factor hell.
Cowell’s shameless bullying of the hopeless to boost judges careers and bank balances- a swift education into everything bad about the music biz. Before X Factor the icons were the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush, Johnny Rotten, John Lennon- an endless list of great musicians who burned bright and lit the sky with their burning madness and who made you feel alive- now we get offered Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh- smug and in control and their bleating co judges, the hopeless Cheryl Cole and the pointless Minogue sister.
They clog up the TV with their scripted emotions, their crocodile tears and their manufactured rows. Music reduced to background, an auto tuned filler before the judgement from people who love money before music.
Where’s the sex, style and subversion? Where’s their fucking X Factor? Is something as magic as music and pop culture reduced to this?
Why should I care?
I just want my share.
They get 99 per cent of the music coverage on TV.
There is no time for anyone else. Pushed out to the fringes- no space to mass communicate. No space to inspire or create. That leaves us comfortably numb. Warriors sat in arm chairs, suckered by the bright lights, slumped into a semi comatose oblivion. Once we ruled the plains now we are sacks of potatoes, stoned by the entertainment machine. Bored and sleep walking to oblivion.
It’s not enough.
Let them have their circus. I need inspiration.
I need soul power.
I don’t need this mad parade.

Ari Up RIP

October 21, 2010

It’s hard to believe that Ari Up is dead.
Only 49 and at the peak of her creative powers.
The Slits frontwoman was one of those forces of nature that would fill a room like a hurricane of energy.
She came out of punk unstoppable and leaves an amazing catalogue of great records and ideas.
I interviewed her a few times and would always come away feeling energised and inspired. This went for her music as well.
The Slits (even the name took no prisoners in the cock obsessed world of old school rock n roll) are one of the key bands that came out of punk. One of the great things about the disparate movement was that it was not the usual lads club that music gets bogged down with.
In punk the way that women made music, on their own terms, in their own way was inspirational- not only to woman but to men as well. It could be argued that this was the most revolutionary thing that came out of punk and Ari Up was right in the middle of this with the Slits.
The band was formed in 1976 right at the heart of movement. They were surrounded by members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols and initially took their cues from the greats before re-inventing punk in the purest possible terms.
They were no mere liggers hitching a ride, they were making music that was more revolutionary than their peers and in many ways defined what punk really was.
I loved their punky reggae party, the way they took dub bottom end and combined it with the shrapnel guitar and prose of punk and made something utterly original and if it ironically took a male drummer called Budgie to eventually define those feminine rhythms they talked about- well it worked, it really worked.
Their records never dated, the initial Peel session where they could barely play were a revelation, I still remember being hooked on it when it was first played now. The songs were dislocated cut and paste punk pop, great tunes and in your face attitude played in a new way. The debut album was smoother but no less inventive- that classic take on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard It through the Grapevine’ with Ari’s amazing soaring, sweeping vocals- cramming invention into space- total genius- nothing remotely sounded like her…it was all classic stuff- re-writing the rule book in what could be done in music.
The Slits proved that you didn’t have to be a demure dolly bird to make music- this was a revelation in the deathly dull seventies. Ari Up changed what a woman in the public eye could be- the fact that people could wear what the fuck you liked and look out of control and still look amazing changed perceptions. There was Ari Up with her bird’s nest hair and attitude and her wardrobe from hell and she looked fantastic and her fuck you attitude empowered so many people.
They could have had it all but with fantastic attitude they burned brightly and went on their own idiosyncratic paths, Ari deeper into the dub with several side projects- each fascinating and genius. And that’s the crux of the matter, no matter how much they changed attitudes to making music the word genius is still reserved for men. Ari was a true revolutionary and genius and I took as much energy and inspiration from her as any of the blokes in punk.
The reformed Slits a couple of years ago were a revelation, they updated their sound without copying anyone and the shows were packed and thrilling, musically light years ahead and finally getting recognition with a potential Grammy (fuck that- we know how great they were!) and Ari Up still irrepressible- owning the stage and looking cool as fuck with endless dreads and crazy skanking. So full of life, sex and energy.
Inspirational, beautiful and free.
Ari Up RIP.

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.

Creation film and my days as Creation artiste!

October 12, 2010


Just seen the Creation film.
It’s a brilliant document. Full of energy and madness- like all the best rock n roll. When you watch the film you understand the true context of Oasis- not the yobs portrayed in the media but the perfect Creation band
The pure energy and madness of Creation comes from a different time and place. A time and place when a seven-inch single meant everything and rock n roll could still change the world.
I love the early days stuff in the film- Alan McGee and Bobby Gillespie as kids going to gigs in Glasgow- on the train at 14 and 15 off to their first show- Thin Lizzy and then punk rock totally changing perceptions and forging relationships.
This rush of youthful idealism, fired by punk rock and great records is a prime example of the DIY independent spirit that came out of punk rock. Before punk there is no way this maverick list of characters which now included the even younger Douglas Harte and Andrew Innes would have had a chance. The idea that a bunch of kids from the outskirts of Glasgow pre-punk could kick-start a musical avalanche would seem preposterous.
Alan McGee moved to London with Andrew Innes but in a weird way never left Glasgow- if Creation could talk it would have the strongest Scottish accent- the key players and the attitude came from that fine city and transplanted it to London. And this was their trump card. Whilst they came from the underground and loved the artful possibilities of rock n roll McGee never lost touch with his roots and understood the power of popular culture. That’s how he signed Oasis and Factory turned them down. He got it. He understood.
When it started Creation came out of the indie scene but was far too punk rock for that codified world. Mcgee is a dangerous individual and that’s what makes all this work. Some people don’t believe in the barriers and these people are the real punks. Mcgee is one of those people.
No holds barred dangerous. Genius.
My own links with Creation go back a long way. Before the label had even started Alan Mcgee was running a club called the Living Room, when I say club it was more like a tight, sweaty weekly gig in London above various pubs. The capacity was about 150 and it was here that he persuaded the Membranes to come and play. He had been putting on the Three Johns, TV Personalaities, The Nightingales- which was just about the whole underground scene then.
It was a mixture of paisley shirts and black clothes, a weird interzone of pop culture fanatics.
We had given up on London gigs at the time. That round of dead clubs on Monday nights and rubbish Rock Garden style venues didn’t suit us and were a waste of time. The Membranes were out of control. We were into intense noise and fucking with things, tearing the fabric and causing chaos. We liked feedback and discord. We didn’t give a fuck about being on a major. We certainly were not the kind of band for a ‘showcase’ or a new band night.
We preferred playing round the rest of country on the fringes of punk rock where people were into music- not these cocktail bars. The kind of people that operated in the music biz were on a different planet.
We didn’t want a career, we wanted trouble.
It was somehow inevitable that we would hook up with Alan McGee.
McGee was incessant. He would ring all the time so we came down and played and it rocked. Despite us being full of feedback and noise we were accepted by the indie freaks and psychedelic droogs that hung out at the club and I became good friends with Mcgee and used to run around London with him. He was talking about starting up a record label and we would go round to places like Pink records bedsit or Rough Trade. McGee had no idea about running record labels but he was the only person anyone new who could look after money and he had a proper job! Oddly, he almost seemed responsible but also still a dangerous individual.
The Membranes could have possibly been the first single on Creation, the track would have ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ but we could not afford to record the song and Alan could not afford to put us in the studio. We ended up on Criminal Damage records, a small Goth label in Reading, and missed our chance for a place in rock n roll history! Ha!
When we did record the track McGee still came up to Manchester that night on May 4th 1984 and hung out with us and was the first person to hear the song outside the band when he stayed over with us.
I was there for loads of those early Creation gigs and events seeing it all come together. We would stay in London with the Legend who was then part of the initial maverick creation crew- he was nicknamed the legend by McGee as a joke on the shy, gangling skinny kid who loved music as intensely as he did and was forced to be the compere of the club as ‘the legendary Jerry Thackery’.
We all had fanzines, the Legend had his own fanzine, McGee had Communication Blur, I had Rox and we would switch between bigging up genius new stuff and causing trouble with our missives.
We would play gigs with the Pastels, and I would write about the Creation singles as they came out of the first ten singles in their idiosyncratic artwork and bags. I always loved the Revolving Paint Dream as well as the Pastels. Hardly anyone else did. Creation was out of time- the singles didn’t really sell but you always felt that Mcgee would make it work- vision, self belief and determination go very well with an enthusiasm that lit people up.
Mcgee then starting raving about this new band he had found and sent me a demo by the Mary Chain and I loved it. This now sounded serious, here was a band that was operating in the noise area like we were but also made it sound like the greatest pop music.
Their soon to be released debut single, ‘Upside Down’ would be one of the great singles of the decade.
There is a bit more to the Mary Chain story as well, the Membranes played this gig at Reading University in late 1984 and there was a bit of a kick off with the promoters, we kicked over all the gear and attempted to demolish the PA it got us banned form loads of gigs and number one on the PA blacklist.
McGee was unknown to us at the gig and after the show he was buzzing ‘total sex’ he kept saying and gave our mate and Membranes fan Fat Mark a lift back to London Fat Mark was a crazy speed freak and a Doors obsessive, he kept telling McGee to put the Membranes in leathers. The next day McGee phoned up and told us to get leather trousers but we were far too skint to do that.
Weeks later the Mary Chain riot happened in London at North London Poly on March 15th 1985. The leather clad band played for 15 minutes of pure genius white noise you could surf on and some people got pissed off and there was a mini ruck- nothing compared to the riots at punk gigs but unheard of in the indie world and the band became big news catapulting them into the mainstream. Whether Alan had prodded the riot into action is unclear and probably untrue but the energy of the situation would have thrilled him, it would have thrilled anyone who grew up with punk rock and was bored of the mid eighties musical zeitgeist. McGee and the Mary Chain electrified the stale scene in a way that we had all wanted to do. Power to them they deserved it.
The Mary Chain had already come up to Manchester to stay round my house for their first ever-national press interview which I did for the long lost Zig Zag magazine. The Reid brothers, Douglas and McGee, they turned up on the train because Alan could blag these free train fares because he worked at British Rail. I met them in town and we all went to meet the wonderful Linder who was initially being asked to design the sleeve for their debut single.
The interview back at my then rented house on Burton road in Manchester was mainly the band being fantastically surly and Alan ranting away about how they were going to change the world and Creation were going to be massive- oddly it all came true. I also remember him rushing down to the off licence to get a plastic bag full of beer to get the band pissed up.
The band argued about whether you could take a piss on a train when it had stopped, they sneered at the music business and detailed the hatred for them in Glasgow- it was total attitude backed up with great music.
That night I blagged everyone into the Hacienda to go and see Lee Scratch Perry- a gig put on by radio Lancs legendary DJ Steve Barker and Alan got to know the Factory people- an oddly crucial night in the scheme of musical things.
Eventually we signed to Creation and released the Gift Of Life album which was a bit of a mess, McGee called it schizophrenic and maybe it was. I can’t decide about that record now and I couldn’t decide then! I guess what should have happened was that there should have been some discipline but the amazing thing about Creation was that it was total freedom which worked sometimes. If I had signed a band like us at the time I would have got a producer in and forced the greatness out- instead we just splurged out everything that we had with a nervous engineer doubling as producer- if only John Brierley had not retired the year before- his ears finally gone after working on the Membranes ‘Death To Trad Rock’ EP.
The album came out and got rave reviews in the music press but was far too mental for the mainstream but got us a crazed cult following.
By now Creation had moved somewhere else and we were heading for a bust up. We played a night in London at the Riverside in 1985, one of a series of cutting edge new bands put on by Cerne (the following night the Stone Roses were the first on supporting That Petrol Emotion) who would end up the manager of Franz Ferdinand.
We were top of the bill and people came down accordingly- the only problem was that Creation insisted that we drew lots on the running order- which may have been the plan in the first place but no-one told us till we got here! Of course we lost and Slaughter Joe got to headline which pissed off the crew of people who came to our gigs (incidentally I always really liked the Slaughter Joe singles) there was an emotive stand off and lots of shouting down from the stage.
We went back on at the end and played two songs- I have the tape of them somewhere and we basically resigned from Creation live on stage- McGee would have sacked us anyway! It sounds hilarious listening to it now.
The Pastels walked off Creation that night in an act of loyalty that is astonishing.
The odd thing is that despite this a few years later I became friends with McGee again. At the time of the gig we were young, idealistic, headstrong and very crazy. I was into extremes and there was bound to be a collision. We were outsiders and misfits and as the label got an identity we were isolated- that’s cool, that’s the way it’s got to be.
Creation accelerated after that and become one of the key UK indie labels. In many ways I wish it had worked out better at the time. I loved the maverick spirit of Creation and Mcgee’s hundred per cent trust in his mental rosta of bands. We were too out of control though and I would have kicked us of the label if I ran it!
The film documents this spirit and it’s a great rock n roll movie, McGee’s spirit is more exciting than most of the bands he signed and he is sorely missed on the scene.

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…

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.

Frank Sidebottom RIP

June 21, 2010

Frank Sidebottom

There can have been few funnier sites than a middle aged man with a bulbous papier mache head arguing with a small puppet version of himself before treading on a microbe version of himself. Not only hilarious but also skewed and weirdly surreal.
Frank Sidebottom was one of the last of a breed- operating outside the rules and with a mind so brilliant that its restless genius was never appreciated. He put most modern comedians to shame.
And now he is no more.
It’s hard to believe that Frank Sidebottom is dead.
He seemed too surreal, too childlike, too cartoon strip to be bothered with tedious, boring stuff like dying. But its true, Frank is no more because his creator Chris Sievey died of complications cause by cancer on June 21st.
Of course we must not mix the two of them up. There is no truth in the scurrilous rumour that Chris Sievey was Frank Sidebottom. I interviewed the pair of them on the phone for my ‘North Will Rise Again’ oral history of Manchester book and after about an hour of brilliant stuff from Chris I asked him about Frank figuring he must know something about the nasally comic genius.
The phone went click.
A few minutes later the phone rang and oddly it was Frank on the phone coincidentally ringing to sort out an interview. Where Chris was full of funny stories from the fringes of the music scene, Frank was plain weird and hilarious- like a psychotic child running amok in showbiz and through his humour tearing apart the stupidity of that showbiz world that had snubbed him for so long.
His tales of Timperley- the Manchester suburb where Ian brown and John Squire had lived in their youth- were brilliantly skewed pisstakes of the mundanity of the rainy day. I was once in a TV studio and watched him do this utterly mental but utterly brilliant musical set in Timperley with a pick up band of lunatics in cheap suits- it was like the ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ bus trip.
The bizarre tension when you confused the pair of them was something that unwitting journalists had often mentioned and I wasn’t the only one with this experience.
Sievey hated talking about Frank.
There seemed to be some sort of rivalry between the two of them. Altrincham obviously wasn’t big enough for the pair of them or maybe they were the same person.
Now we will never know.
Chris Sievey had been on the Manchester scene for years. In 1969, as a 14 year old , after playing in teenage bands he had travelled to London and wandered into Apple records busking his songs to the later day Beatles. The George Formby loving George Harrison loved the songs but nothing happened as the Beatles were in meltdown at the time.
He was referred to Tony Visconti who would have done something but was too busy producing ‘Ride A White Swan’. Not disappointed, Sievey returned to Manchester, where he set up his own indie label way before anyone else had thought about doing that indie of thing.
He released loads of cassettes of his songs with half of Manchester’s musicians passed through his ranks- including a very youthful Billy Duffy from before his Cult days and future Simply Red members.
Sievey did the publicity for Rabid records in Manchester, was produced by Martin Hannet very early on and did some artwork for John Cooper Clarke. He was already a key figure on the fringes of the scene with his wild imagination and brilliant pop mind just too far ahead of everyone else plodding along in his wake. In pop, though, there are no awards for being great or first and Sievey was eternally frustrated.
His band, the Freshies, were perfect pop punk whose sole semi hit ‘”I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”’ Got to number 54 in the charts in February 1981 and was lined up for a Top Of the Pops appearance. Sievey was denied his dream opportunity when there was BBC technician’s strike- the story of his life.
The single, is nowhere near their best song. His cassettes which I have a bunch of, were stuffed full of great songs. Classic melodic pop-punk- the kind of stuff that sells millions these days but was too pop for punk and too punk for pop in those stuffy, regimented days.
He even invented a very early computer game but no-one know what he was going on about- yet again too far ahead. His fervent pop mind was a good decade ahead of everyone else also inventing board games, songs, musical ideas, schemes and scams before eventually he invented Frank Sidebottom- his curious alter ego whose papier mache head, shabby suit and nasally twang were a perfect vehicle for a series of bizarre weird gags that were dark, strange and utterly hilarious.
Sidebottom was always around, one of those off the wall characters that fitted in perfectly on TV shows, at gigs and in recent years touring with John Cooper Clarke in one of those double bills of genius weirdness that are increasingly rare to find in world were fake comic ‘oooh I’m a bit mad’ replaces genuine genius eccentricity.
We heard about his cancer a couple of months ago which was shock and were cheered buy his never-ending gigs that continued and his Tweets that dared to take the piss out of the mean disease- joking about his papier mache head losing its hair!
Two weeks ago Frank Sidebottom popped up at Bruce Mitchell’s (Durutti Column genius drummer and real Manchester legend) 70th birthday party at the Manchester town hall- looking as fresh faced as ever with those big round eyes showing little sign of the cruel disease. To be honest Frank had remained unchanged since he burst onto the showbiz scene a quarter of centaury ago.
He even did a gig in my local pub the Salutation about a week ago. Funny as fuck to the end.
Manchester mourns another legend.

Green Day Joan Jett live

June 17, 2010

Green Day remix


What is it about American bands and stadium gigs?
So many British bands get to this level and freeze just like the England team in the glare of the headlights, terrified to lose their cool in the haze of a million flashlights. A British band thinks that studied, sullen cool is the answer whilst an American band pulls out all the stops.
And Green Day certainly pull out all the stops. they don’ t miss a trick in a two hour set that starts off with a giant drunk dancing pink bunny and incorporates, knockabout humour, musical skits, a mental dancing drummer, endless energy and wild passion into an adventurous twisting and turning battlefield of great, melodic songs.
In a blur of powerful, anthemic songs, a stunning LED backdrop, hardcore rushes, massive ballads, serious commentary and daft stunts, Green Day arrive at the sold out 30 000 plus capacity Old Trafford cricket ground on a balmy Mancunian evening in a show of strength that seems to be beyond the mainstream media sense of belief. Whilst the band seemed to be ignored by most serious pundits and don’t seem to exist in the eyes of the heavy Sunday paper music press they have become the biggest group in the world. They happily enjoy the media sins of populist songs, a punk rock heritage and a fierce sense of humour. There is no fake studied cool, just a natural sense of entertainment that comes with a fierce liberal message that connects deep into the heart of suburban culture- just the perfect place to be delivered a genuine, heart left plea for some humanity delivered in a non bombastic and thrillingly exciting way.
   The band’s stunning, almost two hour show is 21st century rock n roll perfection. Somehow they have managed to scratch the fabric of their constituent sound and made it work in a variety of styles that would be way beyond most bands. Forging on from their roots in the San Francisco punk rock scene, they have the adventure of the Clash and the Beatles- two constituent influences but have very much moved in their own no barriers direction without the associated genre fear that hampers so many bands.
    Their song writing talent and ability to communicate with a huge section of the public has made them one of the biggest bands in the world today and they are using the space they have been given very well.

    There are moments in this spellbinding show that are simply beyond belief.

  Green Day have taken the emotional highs and lows of a rock n roll concert and turned them into something else. Somehow they manage to combine slapstick humour, goofy neo teen pranks, fierce pop punk, heart breaking ballads, blinding introspection and stadium bombast and sometimes all these in one song. They are at ease with massive anthems like ‘American Idiot’ that stick it to the right wing, pro war media jocks and was still a huge hit, they can deal out a massive ballad or a  hardcore thrash or on the neo marilyn manson glam stomp of ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ a rumbling stadium glam workout. They can also clear the stage and leave Armstrong on his own with an acoustic guitar and he still holds the audience in the palm of his hand.
That they can also thread these into some some sort of narrative is their true genius. Their current album, ’21st Century Breakdown’, which forms the backbone of their set is a triumph in modern american story telling. They can do the ‘Abbey Road’style bits of songs made into one huge, long, monster song thing with ease- they can also do this and make it a mosh pit friendly 13 minutes of musical nirvana really underlines their skill.

    The band can play tough, the rhythm section is superb and Billie Joe Armstrong is one of the best songwriters operating in modern rock n roll who, despite his mass success, still has the knack to communicate with the small town neurosis and paranoia that is at the heart of his huge constituency. Armstrong is a twitching presence with a low boredom threshold, disgusted at the world-  his songs are stuffed full of punk rock polemic but they also switch from style to style with a hyperactive ease. A green day song may start off punk rock but could switch anywhere within thirty seconds- it shouldn’t work but it does.

   All this is underlined with an incredible light show on LED screens that is easily the best I have ever seen. Stark, dark and comic book brilliant it subtly underlines the proto power of the songs and helps to fill the stadium with a sound and vision taking you onto a trip into the dark heart of America.   
Somehow Green Day manage to entertain and blow your mind…

    They are more than ably supported by Joan Jett who has been given some spotlight with the upcoming Runaways film. Joan Jett who still looks effortlessly sassy, sexy and cool at 51 has been touring her greatest hits set for years but still plays the songs with such a power and passion that they could have been written yesterday. Her supreme voice that sounds like it has been tarmacced by rock n roll cuts through the huge PA and the band’s glam rock n roll stomps makes her, oddly, the last survivor of that very British strain of glam rock that was the true sound of the early seventies. The youthful Jett would hang out in the glam clubs in LA in the mid seventies soaking up the British glamtastic rock n roll that was far different from the American glam that was to follow.

    Instead of the clumsy appropriation of glam from the likes of Kiss and the LA hair bands British glam was stompingly dark albeit good time music with tribal beats and big choruses. No-one does this music any more apart from Jett, who adds a rock n roll vim and fire to the mix and has created a music that perfectly suits her no bullshit personae. A personae that has seen her lauded as one of the key mentors of the riot Grrrl scene and a cool elder stateswoman of the movement that is still strong at a grass roots level. Joan Jett wanted to play rock n roll on her own terms and succeeded. Her cover of the Arrows ‘I Love Rock Roll ‘- a ‘b’ side from the last great mid seventies glam band is still a totemic moment and one of THE great rock n roll anthems, when she does that guttural scream thing in the middle it still affects your groin in a strange and beautiful way, a way that is the key to all great rock n roll.

    Joan Jett rules and its now time for us to acknowledge this.

   Green Day, also have some history. The band may still look like teen brats but they have been around for over two decades.

  It’s been a long time since I was compering a gig at the legendary and just shut TJs venue in Newport. They were the first band on- some awkward, scruffy kids from San Francisco playing a speedball punk pop set to 20 fanatics at the bottom of some long, lost punk rock bill.    

    Green Day that night were plying their trade in that curious gap that existed just after Nirvana. Cobains band had reawakened interest in punk rock and a generation of kids were looking for a Nirvana of their own having just missed out on the visceral, raw power of the Teen Spirit band.

    Green Day had emerged from the Gilman Street scene in San Francisco- the ultra idealistic punk rock venue that started in 1986 a year before the band were formed.They were virtually the house band in the venue and part of the scene of bands who were shackling melody to the fierce power of hardcore. Gilman street was created out of the maelstrom of idealogical excitement that was at the core of UK punk rock and then American hardcore. An all ages gig, and a no drinking, no smoking, no sexism, no racism space that stood up against the conservative tied of rock n roll culture it still exists. Green Day can’t play there any more because they are signed to a major label but that’s fair enough- they don’t need this space any more taking the initial message to the stadiums of the world.

Hardcore had rewritten the American underground rules and had already spawned its own legends and its own its hardcore crews. Ignored by the mainstream and the mainstream rock critics hardcore has been the backbone of American rock for decades. Green Day, were never hardcore but were part of it’s idealistic take on punk rock and were very much part of the next shift- the Californian twist that added sweet melodies added to the hardcore rush. The initial holy trinity of hardcore Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat changed the way people thought about music and how it was made and propagated, they were the true punk rock moment in the USA. Green Day took this blueprint and mashed it with a love of the Beatles and created something else.

    They signed to local label Lookout records and toured their way up the punk rock food chain, their 1994 major label release of ‘Dookie’ saw the band hit the mainstream powered by huge international hit single, ‘basketcase’ .The twitching urgency of the song and the their live performance was a perfect assimilation of nervy teenage neuroses, and the band have somehow managed to retain that youthful excitement with a rapidly developing musical template that is documented in tonight’s show.

Sure they still play their harder punkier tunes, songs played with such feral energy that the dumb claims that they are not punk are swiftly thrown out the window. This had became very much part of the debate about green day…are they or are they not punk.
It’s an odd debate and one that hounds anything remotely related to punk rock. A couple of years ago Mr. butter ad himself, Johnny Lydon, was sneering at green day for not being punk and whilst they are quite removed from the filth and the fury of the sex pistols both bands were straddling the great pop divide. Defining what is or isn’t punk is a treacherous game played by fools and people not sure of how to define the indefinable. Punk is so many different things to different people that to call it as one specific sound style or genre is quite foolish. The argument kinda runs that Green Days success and capability of writing super catchy songs rules them out of the punk lineage but surely it would be the ultimate in selling out if Billie Joe Armstrong suddenly pretended that he could not wrote a catchy song that transcended boundaries and deliberately kept his band underground to attempt to appeal to the ultra snobby purists who have filled the movement with their own petty rules.

   The fact is green day write thrillingly catchy pop songs and deliver them with a ferocity that many punk bands seem incapable of. They are also the most influential guitar band of the last two decades with a whole bizarre cross section of young groups picking up guitars in suburban garages to the sound of Green Day- far more than pet bands like the Strokes. They hardly fit into the accepted story of How Things Are and hideous indie snobs run from them, scared of their capability to talk to a whole raft of people.

   Old Trafford is a true triumph for a band that has it all. The scope in their song writing is breath taking, the switching of genres and styles astonishing and the way they manage it all within the parameters of the punk rock code is perfect. It’s the way that somehow they filter a whole gamut of pop culture and pop music through the sieve of punk rock and make music that relates to the fractured 21st century that is stunning.

And that they also do this with a great sense of humour and a willingness to engage with their audience that terrifies the snobs. it’s a way that is not only supremely effective but decidedly natural. The set is also full of pranks and moments of supreme silliness that are hilarious and engaging, Billie Joe is like a perpetual, hyperactive, five year old with mad staring kohled up eyes and a supreme warmth that defies boring stuff like rock n roll cool and its associated studied posing. The fact that his band rock so hard that it doesn’t really matter how goofy they become also helps.
Green Day also understand the value of acknowledging your audience’s existence and they also understand that fucking with very fabric of the history of pop, quoting classic songs at ease and dropping their own endless classics in there soundtracking the moment.
They are the ultimate small town band, for all the small towns in the world ganging up on fake city cool and winning. They are also thrillingly powerful rock n roll band the band who took punk rock to the mainstream and won and whose live show is the best stadium show in the world in 2010.




3 brilliant new bands from Go North festival

June 11, 2010

So here we are stood on an an island surrounded by the river Ness just a mile out from the Inverness city centre.
The island has been sculpted into a park, with an amphitheatre in the middle of it. It’s beautiful spot in the early evening haze of the late spring light and a perfect spot for some quiet hanging out…
But there’s some people here with a very different agenda.
I’m at the Go North music conference in Inverness. Having spent the afternoon on a panel about DIY music I’ve been led up the garden path so to speak and joined the merry throng on a magical mystery tour. We have been told to met at 5.30 outside a bar in town and our guide has walked us along the river through a thick woodland, past random joggers and dog walkers to this amphitheatre.
In the the middle of the space are two battered amps and two skinny dudes who are sat by a guitar and a stripped own drum kit and a mic attached to a broken branch of a tree- within seconds of us arriving they explode into noise.
It’s really wonderful.
Bronto Skylift an amazing group.
A duo from Inverness and the Orkney Islands- they make the same kind of self expression, free jazz-skronk- punk as the classic Glasgow/ Edinburgh, late eighties/early nighties death to trad rock noisenik scene of the Dog Face Hermans, Badgewearer, Dawson, Stretchheads. It’s the same kind of filthy, kinetic explosion of energy, the same sort of frantic drumming, the same kind of rat-a-tat frenetic cowbell action, the same sort of imagination and the same sort of wilful thrill of the electric power of the form. The same type of filthy imagination as the sort of bands I was documenting in my recent Death To Trad Rock book
The coolest thing is that they are totally unaware of this tradition of bands. Bronto Skylift have arrived here all by themselves.
That rules.
They got here via their rock routes and you can hear the filth of Black Flag, the explosive energy of hardcore and the detuned heaviness of grunge in their sound as well. It was like they are the only people in the world who understood that Curt Cobain was an experiMENTAL underground musician who was closer to the likes of the Ex than the mainstream.
They are also wilfully non conformist. They are part of an organisation called Detour Scotland who put gigs on in off the wall places.
This gig in the park is no one off event- they have played under the railway bridge in Edinburgh, a one way street in Glasgow and on the England/Scotland border, they have a website full of films of cool and weird underground gigs and they are utterly amazing.
Normally at these kind of conventions one off the wall band is all you’re going to get but at Go North a whole event is stuffed full of great bands.
Wandering back into town I end up in another venue which looks like a neon strip light strip joint- an atmosphere-less space that is swiftly turned into something special by Glasgow based band The Seventeenth Century who are described as folk rock which conjures images that are none too thrilling.
Fortunately the band, who are late teens in age, are coming from somewhere else entirely. They deal in folk melodies with their perfect harmonies and their frontman is steeped in the form with his parents playing him Incredible String Band albums from birth- a pretty col soundtrack to your youth! But they sieve the folk through a tough, dislocated bass and drums power that hints at post rock dislocation whilst their brass and violin also give a nod to the dark, brooding soundscapes of the recently reformed Godspeed You Black Emperor as well as the Dirty Three- whose story telling, violin plucking air of dissolution they also hint at.
They also ooze a cool and passionate intensity as they transport themselves and the audience to somewhere entirely different. Their sound is utterly original and the band is pure genius.
We will be hearing a lot more from them.
Just round the corner there is another fusion of styles going on from Mothercoat who have flown in from Tokyo to play Go North and then the neighbouring Rock Ness festival. The Japanese four piece are, like all the best Japanese bands, twitching with a bordello thrill at the possibilities of pop. Their songs zip from neo hardcore thrashes to intense, psychedelic workouts- one song sees their frontman pitch his voice to an alien high like pinky and perky squeaks that are oddly sad and affecting as the band bounce around him with krautrock rhymes and bubble bath melodies that really trip your head out.
They then lock into a monster grove that is stunningly hypnotic, the frontman twitches, grinning, oozing the charm of someone who is in love with the instinctive,shamanic power of music. They are so damn intense that you are hooked into their amazing, imaginative world. They sound like no other music on the planet and a glimpse Into the future world of a pop culture completely fractured with fragments of genius being bolted together by the children of the next revolution.

Mick Hucknall to join The Faces!

June 7, 2010

 So there you have it.
  You decide to reform one of the key swaggering rock ‘n’ roll bands of the seventies, a band whose very name is the bench mark in slovenly rock n roll excess. A band who was fronted by one of the great, gravel voiced singers and a band who oozed a louche charisma and a band who almost matched the Stones at their pomp and at their own game.
  The trouble is your ex singer is not keen so you have to draft in a new vocalist.
  Not easy.
  It’s a problem that faces many bands over the years.    
  It comes at that point of time when you just want to rock n roll for one last time but you can’t quite get the rest of old crew to agree- especially the singer whose by now and international superstar. Getting a different singer in is the hurdle most long-term rock bands have to surmount sometime and some get away with it.
   So you cast your eye around the scene. There’s plenty of charismatic, dishevelled, gravel voiced waifs out there so what do you do?
   You phone Mick Hucknall!
   Yup, the Faces reunion has hit a stumbling block.    
   Instead of Rod Stewart who, younger readers may not be aware, was one of the totemic rock n roll singers of his time, the band have somehow asked the flame haired Manchester white soul boy into the band.
   Now this is not an anti Mick Hucknall rant.    
  There’s a lot of really good things about him- apart from the fact that he is technically a great singer- taht he coolly doesn’t blab on about. He used to run a great dub and reggae label called Blood and Fire that made sure the penniless originators of the form were paid after years of neglect. He is an encyclopaedia of music and a proven stadium filling success.    And it’s not like he not an old rocker- he was one of the Faces on the original Manchester punk scene and a big Clash fan.
   Meanwhile musically, even if Simply Red are a touch to polished for a pair of underground ears then his former band, from back in the mists of Manchester punk- the Frantic Elevators cut some fine records.    
   Nope, this blog is not anti Mick, this blog is just a bit shocked at this most unlikely of couplings, Mick Hucknall and the Faces are many things to many very different people. The Faces were the prime example of hooligan blues in the superyob seventies whilst Simply Red soundtracked a more sedate suburban grown up audience. There is very little common ground between them and the pairing will have promoters feeling nervous.
  It isn’t the first time a band have tried to patch up the line up and try to catch some of the old magic. Maybe Faces were thinking along the lines of Queen and Paul Rogers or even the rumoured Aerosmith and Billy Idol partnership that didn’t eventually happen, maybe it was the Led Zeppelin crisis when Robert Plant decided against more shows after the O2 comeback- there was all manner of crazy names in  air for the Zep job but luckily Jimmy Page saw sense unlike the Faces who it could be said have maybe strayed a little too far from their hallowed hometurf with this decision.

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