Monday, November 16, 2009

Rachid Taha and the Dilemma of Seating

Taha's new album, Bonjour, has divided the critics. Actually, to be honest, it has divided me from most (if not all) of the other critics. But more of the new album in the next post. This is all about the live event.

Rachid Taha live is a subject that, generally speaking, most people are in agreement on. Live he is in his element; it's just that pretty much every time this spiritual heir to Joe Strummer appears on a London stage it's in the hallowed halls of seated venues. You could argue that the trade off lies in the quality of the sound against the space to seriously get down to his luscious groove, and the presence of seats didn't seem to impede the dancing feet of the hundreds of beautiful women who can usually be found at this bad boy's concerts.

Unfortunately I missed the opening set from co-headliner Vieux Farka Touré and walked into the cavernous Royal Festival Hall one verse into Taha's opening number, Ila Liqa, taken from Bonjour. Now band wisdom usually advises opening a show with a crowd pleaser, a well known number, that gets the audience behind you from the off. Taha doesn't seem to need this on the evidence of my own eyes; as I walked into the hall it seemed that the entire venue was already on its feet with people cramming down in front of the stage. With a drop of the shoulder and a tip of the hat the band slipped into Shuf and the crowd went nuts.

As always at Rachid's gigs there's a weird cross-section of London; from stately looking mature Levantines to fabulous beauties dancing like professionals, to bohemian grannies to wild freakin' raver dudes, they are all represented. They would probably be at a Clash gig were they ever to have reformed. That said Rachid is a rock act and he ought to be at the Empire or Brixton Academy, he should be playing somewhere where the sweat drips down the walls and the sound distorts and speaker stacks wobble disconcertingly as a packed pit bounces dangerously. The fact that he can pretty much conjure up this experience in the polite Royal Festival Hall says something about the power of his performance.

Aided and abetted by long term band mates Hakim Hamadouche, Guillaume Rossel, Rachid Belgacem, and Yves Aouizerate with Didier Thery on bass Taha tore the place up. Having seen him whenever I can, whenever he's in London, and being accused of being a too forgiving a fan I can honestly say that Stephan Bertin is the best guitarist I've seen appearing with him. His wild lead playing, behind Belgacem and Rossel's solid percussive groove, reminded me of Material in early-80s New York. It was no surprise to see the young long hair up on the balcony throwing himself around in almost rock-acid house ecstasy as these kings of future punk said how it was to be.

Through Je t'aime Mon Amour into Bent Sahara into a blistering Barra Barra (Black Hawk Down indeed), take a breather for Ecoute-Moi Camarade and on to Ya Rayah the crowd soared and dipped and the ladies went woooooo. I did too. The love flowed. Over the years there has occasionally been an almost Shane MacGowan moment with Taha at times; was he so fucked up that he'd collapse, or just mumble incoherently, would he be able to perform at all? But these days he seems to be happy with the moment and whether he was refreshed or not he was completely in the moment, centre stage and dominating. Slipping between English, French and Arabic depending on his mood or excitement. By the time he brought Vieux Farka Touré back out for Rock the Casbah and a stunning closer Garab, where Farka Touré played blistering guitar over one of rock's tightest rhythm sections, you thought the roof was going to come off.

This isn't world music, this is, like his compatriot Manu Chao, the natural heir to the original punk rock movement when young musicians sought wider roots to the rock music they wanted to play. The purer world music fraternity often dismiss Rachid's version of Rock El Casbah as "turgid" but I think they're mistaken. If reports are correct - read here - then Taha may well have more right to play Casbah than he's given credit for. All I know is that every time he plays he delivers. I have seen many bands over the years but Rachid Taha is in an elite group of maybe four or five in that he continues to offer us a different view.

Thanks for keeping the flame alive.

(The poster of this got the date wrong but check the young guy on the balcony!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mark's great talent

Mark and I wrote together a lot. From the start we kind of clicked and his huge musical ability somehow allowewd him to understand my incoherent descriptions of what I heard or meant. He played, wrote and programmed everything so quickly that, for me and many others, working with others always seemed so fucking slow!

This song sums up something. I miss him.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Mark Alexander Smith - one of the greats.

I just found out today that one of my dearest friends, Mark Smith, died yesterday. I cannot begin to say how much this has hurt me and left me feeling bereft and adrift.

I've known Mark for more than twenty five years and in that time we've written songs, produced, played, drank and caroused. For much of it I was the one who did the drinking and carousing being as Mark was never one to drink or whatever. His big vice was cigarettes and coffee and many of his friends worried that these would not be good for him. As yet we don't know if we were right.

Mark was one of the best of us. There will be many times in life when you hear that expression and it will be said as a cliché or as a platitude; in this case it was a true evaluation of the man. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever met or had the honour to play with. He was best known for his prowess on the bass guitar but once you'd spent sometime in a studio with Mark you soon realised that his knowledge of composition, his skill with keyboards and arranging would add a lustre to any run of the mill project. Perhaps the greatest compliment was that if anyone could polish a turd, as the musical saying goes, Mark could.

In his personal life he was self-effacing. Always quick witted and humourous he had an ability to calm any tense situation, smooth over difficulties in recording studios making other singers and players feel that they were really happening, even when they weren't. As a friend he could always be relied upon to offer moral support, good advice and some sensible interjection; he was the first person I told when my wife told me we were having a child. We were in Stockholm at the time working with a dreadful band but it was always good times.

The last time I spoke to Mark was this weekend; after many years of not playing or creating any music I had been persuaded to put something together. I called Mark and asked him if he would be up for trying something a bit different, but still diamond. We had songs we'd written years back that still sound fresh; other friends who were class acts were all up for it, particularly if Mark was involved. Mark was enthusiastic about the idea, and I knew, thanks to him, it stood much more chance of being special. Now I'll never know.

Mark Smith was a very common name for a very uncommon person.

I loved him and I miss him more than I can express.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rocksteady, hats off to the men!

This album is a soundtrack for a film by Swiss film maker Stascha Bader that looked at the short lived precursor to roots reggae, rocksteady. In some ways it can be compared to Wim Wenders Bueana Vista Social Club in that it revolves around a reunion of major figures from that period. Meeting up in Tuff Gong Studios the veterans re-recorded some of the major songs of the period; sadly some of the artists are no longer rocking so stars of equal stature and ability stepped in to fill the gaps, for example the legendary U Roy fills the gap left by Scotty on a new version of Stop That Train.

Unfortunately I missed the film so I only have the YouTube clip to go on, and this album. As a stand alone piece of music it works; all the favourites are here - You Don't Love Me, The Tide Is High, Rivers of Babylon - which may pose a problem for the real reggae fan being as they will probably have the originals already, in all their raw glory. That said there's space in the world for beautifully realised versions, well recorded and solidly performed. Music buffs will appreciate the high recording quality that has been brought to the project.

Probably lovers of Cuban music found the Buena Vista versions lacking in a certain essence that their scratchy earlier versions possessed but speaking as someone who was never that acquainted with the originals they worked fine for me. This record should have the same effect on people who haven't spent many nights nodding into the bass bins of their youth. In fact some versions stand out; Derrick Morgan's Conquering Ruler and Hopeton Lewis' Take It Easy go down like cold stout on a hot Kingston afternoon and the playing throughout is smooth, as you'd expect with the god-like Ernest Ranglin MDing the project.

If you already have these tracks on various compilations you might not be bothered getting the album, unless you're a completeist, but if you want to know where it all came from and you don't know where to start this is a good place.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Love the gun you’re with.

Kalshnik Love (geddit??) is the new album from Medhi Haddab’s latest creation Speed Caravan. Haddab was one of the members of DuOud, shortlisted for the Radio 3 World Music Award two years running (2002, 2003 fact fans) which is no mean feat given the competition. He brings a freshness and power to the oud that drags it out of the pigeonhole marked “Indigenous instrument” and slams into BIG ROCK SOUND box. Yeah.

That said his conspirators on this album are no mean sheiks themselves. Pasco Teillet, Hermione Frank and Simo Bouamar pile on the pressure and add the flavours that make this album a contemporary rock thing that I’m sure will be dissed by many in the strokey-chin fraternity of the world music critic forum because it doesn’t adhere to the laid out plan. That’s because it’s a modern rock album, or just a modern album. Like Rachid makes. Funnily enough he’s on here.

That’s not to say that this is all good. There are a couple of tracks that sort of wander about a bit, not really doing much as if to say “well we needed to fill the space up…..a bit” but that’s OK (ever bought a Police album? Shit, they were mainly filler.). They do a couple of covers that hit the mark; their version of The Cure’s Killing an Arab brings an urgency and meaning to an already great song. Rachid Taha appears in the background calling out that he’s the Arab in Camus’ original story, The Outsider, which the song is based upon. It’s angry and direct.

Then there’s the Galvanize cover. The Chemical Brothers’ original was a thing of beauty and now the Speedies make it a scary monster of a track with a blistering chat over from the venerable Spex MC from the late lamented Asian Dub Foundation alongside some background mumbles from an old mate of mine, Paul Kendall. Add voices from Micro Brise le Silence and there’s a storm of spinning, fighting, twisting rhythm that drives the song at speed down Magic Street. Yeah.

Sidestepper’s remix of Daddy Lo throws Colombian groove into an already heady brew to full effect.

It’s a Friday night album. Stick it on before you go out to get in the mood or when you get back and you want to keep the party going. It is the sound of modern rock music; where reggae gave a different base (bass) to punk then modern bands should look to rai to lead them out of the blues rock cul de sac, particularly if they’re French.

The oud has never sounded better.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Still fighting the Civil War

Joe Wilson is a Republican from South Carolina. This bland statement gives an air of respectability to this man and his political views that they don't deserve. It's a bit like saying Nick Griffin of the BNP is a conservative politician; he's not, he's a fascist.

Joe Wilson is a racist pig.

The brilliant New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written an excellent piece about the current rabid Republican opposition to President Obama - read it here - and how it is straying from open political opposition to ideas and policies into the realm of straightforward racism. White greasy Southerners who still cling on to discredited ideas about racial supremacy raise the spectre of a black man in charge in the same way that their fathers in the 60s raised the spectre of a supposedly sexually rapacious black man wanting to have his way with all the white ladies. The vocabulary may be different but the thoughts are the same.

In 2000 Joe Wilson led the campaign to keep the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina's state Capitol. This is a bit like the Germans wanting to keep the swastika flying over the Bundestag; actually it's not a bit like at all, it's exactly like.

Anyway Joe here's a flag for you to print off and stick on your sleeve. Feel free to make full use of it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Fab, gear, whatever....

Now there's no getting away from the fact that The Beatles were a world changing phenomenon. Before they arrived it was camp young men emoting for their predatory gay managers or earnest beardies playing the Blues in a studied and, lets be honest, very polite way. Four Scousers come along, roughly hewn from rock n roll.

They were rude, opinionated and brash; no change in Liverpool there then. Despite being packaged into suits and ties they retained that bored and vicious streak that made them a global brand. Their talent and exploration of the possibility of anything gave other fearless individuals the gap in the tired British edifice to plunge through. After a while though they became safe. Sure Sgt Pepper's was a turning point, but things would have changed without it. It was released in 1967, Brian Wilson had released Pet Sounds in '66; you could argue that of the two albums Pet Sounds was the more challenging. Add to this Captain Beefheart releasing Safe As Milk in 1967, now this is far more challenging - without a doubt. No songs there about Martha and Mr Kite.

Don't get me wrong. The Beatles were a huge brand but look where we are now. They've become an Xbox game; nice.

Alongside The Beatles came The Stones, The Who and The Kinks. Bands that visibly posed a threat. No attempt to package these guys for a cosy pop career. They oozed a surly charm and were openly contemptuous of the status quo. Sure they made great singles, but their very presence made a lot more sense to the angry and excluded. They were pop, but pop like The Clash or The Ramones were pop. They were our pop. They didn't sing songs about Yesterday and racoons. They were nasty.

So now there are endless programmes on about The Beatles as the BBC conspires with EMI to help sell their records and everyone gets misty eyed about the Sixties again and we have to watch endless documentaries interpreting history through the eyes of Beatles fans. It's so predictable. Programmes made by researchers in their twenties who Google some basic phrases and declare it to be gospel. Lazy and tawdry, with little or no value when it comes to assessing the past.

Last night I caught Pop Britannia; purportedly all about "The Sixties" but so wrong. There is this inability to see that period as anything other than a homogeneous mass of clear eyed pop puppets making cheery music. They lump the likes of The Stones, Who and Kinks alongside the likes of The Troggs and Herman and The Hermits as if they all co-existed in some big house of fun with the same intellectual value to everything they did. It would be the same as putting JLS and Radiohead or Girls Aloud and The Vivian Girls in the same category. Some were on a journey of discovery, others were being manipulated and controlled by old school management.

There were differences; important differences. The bands who seemed to pose a threat were harried, hustled and busted on a regular basis. Others were allowed to become "The Voice of a Generation" on a regular basis. If you were a kid in the Sixties your parents would buy you Herman records and complain when you played The Stones. That pretty much sums it up.

I never really liked The Beatles anyway.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The song remains the same?

Where does songwriting go to when you lose the muse? The rhyming couplet, the clever play on words or just simply the unforgettable line that will trigger memories; sometimes they just dry up. Like an Australian drought, what was once a raging river is now a dry riverbed with tumbleweed blowing in the wind.

I spent a decade and a half of my life writing songs. They poured out of me like water from a rock struck by Moses (I think it was Moses), on occasion I have banged out two or three songs in a day. They were good as well. OK, so you’ll have to take my word for that, but they were. The only problem was, in my case, I never quite got my head around the fact that people who want other people to write songs for them don’t want great tunes that deal with child abuse and the threat of war. They want anodyne la-la-la stuff. Now I’m not saying that my songs were all about heavy topics, when I wrote love songs usually Smokey Robinson was sitting on my shoulder – I hasten to add that I’m not comparing myself to Smokey, merely explaining the process.

This point is the crux of my dilemma. How do you define songwriters? There are obviously two main kinds of writers, and not just good or bad. There are the writers like Holland Dozier Holland or Linda Perry, they can construct great melodies, strong structures and catchy tunes; the music they make is memorable. Then there are the writers in bands or the singer-songwriters, those whose expression is defined by the entity in which they exist as an artist. You could call these the poet writers. People like Neil Young, Pete Townsend, Lily Allen or Tom Waits.

The poet writers move through the times they live in, they supply snapshots of reality seen through the prism of their perception. They reinterpret the truth but they never lie. The music they make exists in the construct of their own making but often, such is their skill, the songs they write have such universal application that others can sing them and though the cover might not carry the same weight and power that the writer imbues in their version it still has resonance. Then there are those album tracks that you can’t imagine anyone else ever singing. The Pixies’ Monkey Gone To Heaven, Small Change by Tom Waits or Baba O’Reilly by The Who for example; and anything by Bob Dylan in his early years.

That’s not to say that the poet writer always gets it right. Neil Young, possibly one of the strongest and most forthright of performers, has varied wildly over the years, but the road he treads tends to be the right one. His latest effort, Fork In The Road, is a great example of monomania tending to overshadow a good idea. A whole album about a car? Without the thrill of a Rocket 88 or a paean to a Cadillac wrapped up in snappy lines and twisting couplets it becomes a tad samey! But a man who wrote Ohio and Living With War has to be given some leeway.

I bring Neil Young into this because at his recent appearance at Glastonbury he bestrode the stage like a colossus. He has the look of some weird, wild mountain man who has seen too much and lived to tell the tale but he can invest early songs like Down By The River or Hurricane with as much authority and meaning as they had when he wrote them. Like a shark he continuously moves forward, believing in the maxim that for an artist to develop they must change, continuously. That’s why some bands or performers fall by the wayside. In the time they sprung to the fore they invested the world with meaning but times change and if writers don’t notice that change, or reflect it, then they fall away and become irrelevant (cf. prog rock vs punk).

The tragedy is that, in Young’s words, no modern artist stepped up to denounce Blair and Bush’s Iraq campaign, there was a lot of blogging and furrowing of brows but the voices of the musicians were silent. Modern artists seemed petrified at the idea of rocking the boat and damaging their careers; they seem ill-equipped to comment and the public appears to have little desire to hear anything outside of their comfort zone. It is as if music has ceased to be any force for change and just become the soundtrack to dinner parties and train journeys.

In the past the professional writers, like Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, have felt able to comment on the world around them. Maybe because the demand from the street was such that the creators of pop music couldn’t avoid the subject songs like Cloud 9 and Ball of Confusion came to be written. Maybe. It’s far more likely that Norman and Barrett were aware of the society they lived in, as was Berry Gordy.

Motown eventually lost the plot when Gordy moved to the West Coast, becoming home to saccharine soul.

But even as the great writers of Motown reflected on the world around them the biggest section of writers by far were asked to deliver songs that basically helped you through the day. In effect gave us aural wallpaper for the soul. Kylie singing Cathy Dennis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head might not bring down governments but it does raise the happiness quotient around us for three minutes or so. But songs like that seldom come along; songs that determine the moment.

If you are older, like I am, often you’ll think of songs that shaped moments of your youth. For me songs like Shame Shame Shame by Shirley & Company defined a particular drink and drug fuelled rampage through strange Liverpool club culture in the 70s. A time, for me, of such unbridled fun and excess that I find it hard to understand that this song isn’t stamped on everyone’s consciousness who were late teens or early twenties in 1975. It got to number 6 and she never had another hit. That was one of mine; most of us have one.

The fact is most songs that are written for artists who can’t write their own material tends to have little value. It gets churned out, shovelled onto the field of dreams like slurry and decreases the perceived value of music. There’s so much demand for mediocre music to drive forward X Factor, major record labels and commercial radio stations that any concept of quality control has gone. Like the short, intense rush of sugary sweets or crack cocaine record label executives demand songs that flash and burn in an instant, the hook of the moment that comes and goes like a bad lover leaving nothing but regret and the slight sense of squalidness.

There are still moments of brilliance but given the quantity of material needed it should come as no surprise that so much is meaningless and only serves to denigrate music’s value.

So go out there and watch the small bands that have something to say, cheer for the singers who choose difficult material and stop rolling you eyes when some young front person steps up to the mic to announce a song about how crap society is. We need those idealists and dreamers.

Either that or hand the keys of the world to Tony Blair and Simon Cowell.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Silence is the price.

The excellent CMU Daily drew my attention to a recent survey that was carried out for tech firm Telindus by Opinion Matters/ on the subject of online copyright. According to CMU the actual question asked of over 2,000 people was: Do you agree with this statement "I think musicians should derive royalties from their albums, singles and music videos that are downloaded online"? Turns out that 60% of the people asked don't think that musicians should get royalties, that these creative people should not earn a penny for their efforts once they appear online.

When I read this I thought "Nah" or "This can't be true, surely?"; but it is the case. That means that the majority of the corpulent, complacent, over-fed and spoilt British public think that they are perfectly entitled to gorge themselves on the creative juices of our singers, writers and players without any thought for how these said artists might survive. I can understand how people might think that the likes of Girls Aloud or JLS lead some strange Reality TV life where money isn't needed and Simon Cowell buys them everything they need but the truth is far from that.

The music is written for them by people who have, in many cases, spent years trying to get a break. Often, like footballers, their earning window is short. In most cases the majority fall by the wayside after a very short spell (I must confess an interest here!) and the one or two songs they wrote, that achieved any recognition, go on earning them a modest stipend for years. A lot of musicians just disappear leaving nothing but a ripple in the gutter where the sucker went down.

Now CMU, in their mailout, posit the thought that the fault for this may lie with the copyright organisations in that they fail to explain to the poor ignorant masses that people who make music need to eat, buy clothes and shoes and maybe have families and support them. Heaven forbid that music makers should be allowed those kind of luxuries. The Great British Public (©Daily Mail) have essentially conflated everyone else apart freom them and the bloke they drink with down the pub as lying, thieving, scrounging bastards; and we have the press to thank for that. Not the easy target blame them for everything press but the over simplifying, blinkered vision wrap it up neatly in concepts that miss the point and fail to explain difficult ideas properly press.

The way to explain the idea that musicians should earn from their work and toil would be to catch a certain number of file sharing, copyright thieving individuals and make them carry on working their jobs as usual but for nothing. No wages, no benefits, nothing; and publicise that. Then after three months they should be re-interviewed again on the concept of music makers earning nothing for their efforts and compare it to the experiences of said scrotes. So, do you still think music should be free, you twat.

The truth is if musicians can't make any kind of a living from their recorded output then there is no difference between the real creatives and your Uncle Billy who always monopolises the piano at family gatherings entertaining everyone with dreadful renditions of the worst songs from the repertoire of Celine Dion. There is no reason why they should bother recording at all, and then all that will be available for the so-called music fans would be advertising jingles and incidental music from bad American TV drama. Mind you judging from the seeming general level of intelligence of the public that wouldn't pose much of a problem.

For the rest of us music is much, much more than the background noise for a dinner party. It's the soundtrack to a summer, the trigger for memories and as important as a fistful of beer and a couple of spliffs on a great night out. It's not just the wallpaper, it's the walls and foundations. Music is as important as water, food and air and if it disappeared we'd feel it. Suddenly Mungo Jerry wouldn't soundtrack a memory of being 17 and in love on a brilliant summer's day, because, going by the ideas of the sample interviewed for the survey, it wouldn't exist. Whatever you might think of Lady Gaga this year you can bet she'll soundtrack the loss of virginity, the first time getting drunk, the first time falling in love or the first heartbreak. We can't write our own soundtracks, they just happen around us. Musicians make them and if we don't pay the piper there'll be no tune.

If you can't see the value in that then you're a person lacking in imagination and emotion and you're probably in the 60% of people in that survey; you wanker.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Check this out part 3: Apparently

James at Big Dada sent over a new track by the Anti-Pop Consortium. Now being the shallow ass fool I can sometimes be I didn't check it out immediately for various reasons like:
1. I'm a shallow ass fool.
2. The name made me subliminally think of the Anti-Nowhere League - who were fucking rubbish.

So once I'd thought about it and once I realised that James, and Big Dada/Ninja Tune, would never have anything to do with music as crappy as the ANL I gave it a listen, and then another and kept on playing it. Then I went to their myspace and listened to everything they have there as well.

It was like a huge lungful of fresh air, like standing at the top of a mountain on the sunniest day of the year with a gentle breeze blowing the cleanest air into your body, like being a kid in the extra maths class when the penny finally drops on some weird theorem or such. There's a long line of consciousness, from James Baldwin through the Last Poets, to Gil Scott-Heron to Boogie Down Productions and KRS 1 into Public Enemy. If you are tired of pumped up steroid fuelled fools telling us all about their gun/car/penis/hoes/bitches* (*delete where appropriate) and for once would like to hear something that posits another route to realising potential, another way of viewing things, then check them out. Anti-Pop Consortium offer a different paradigm. You can free download here.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Put the needle on the record....

Photo: Phil Breeden
Last Friday night I was asked to DJ at the wonderful Luminaire. Situated on London's exotic Kilburn High Road it's a small venue of great repute set amongst a sea of style and sophistication. (I'm working on the principal that most people reading this have never actually been to Kilburn!)

Anyway the occasion was the first London gig by a old band from the days of punk called Punishment of Luxury. I took some comfort in the fact that they too looked nothing like their pictures of the early days. Whereas I have avoided drawing attention to the difference between the young god-like figure I used to cut and the distinguished elder statesman of punk that I have become Punilux made, I feel, something of a faux pas in projecting their early band photos onto their backdrop as they played. This was an unfortunate then and now scenario and I think we all know that when the then was 30 years back the now does not tend to come out as well!

That said they were a wonderful bunch of guys and, musicwise, were tight, proficient and could certainly teach many bands I have seen recently a thing or two about set pacing, performance and communication. Needless to say they went down a storm with an adoring audience who were loving and warm and knew all the words. All power to them.

There was also a young Ealing band called Depot on the bill and I strongly recommend anyone to check them out. Drawing on the reggae/ska period of the late 70s, like The Members or The Ruts, they gave real pleasure. Their material was punchy and to the point and the band were tight, composed and excellent. Normally I'd pick out an individual to praise in such situations but in this case that would be unfair as every member of the four piece brought an intrinsic element to the whole. The keyboard player kicks in occasionally with a trumpet and this adds a slash of colour to the flow of their sound that is ear grabbing and immediate. I haven't enjoyed a new band as much since I heard Arctic Monkeys for the first time. Plus they'd just finished their A levels that day.

They were telling me that they had to play a second set and were worried that they didn't have enough material. Unfortunately I had to leave half way through the second set but not before I had been blown away by their dub stylings and their ability to improvise around their incredibly tight rhythm section. I hadn't seen anything like it since the last Members gig when we'd smoked enough weed to keep Kingston going for a week and stepped outta Babylon. I strongly recommend them to anyone.

As for me I was great. Playing a mainly punk/reggae set with a bit of NYC in 1980 thrown into the mix I was pleased to see how well all that stuff goes down. It still sounds fresh and vital and, to be honest, I don't think there's anything to touch a bit of roots reggae. Rockers time now!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Britain's Got No Idea of Priority

So some woman who can sing a bit but isn't very attractive in the terms of TV world crashes and burns because the pressure on her was enormous, the scrutiny of the press and media centred on the premise that she was as ugly as sin but really a lovely person and how amazing is that, she'd pretty much been led to believe that she was a shoe in for the number one spot and then it all evaporated - in front of many million people. Then she had what is often called, ironically, "an episode".

OK, so she has been all over TV and such for the past few weeks as the media handlers for Britain's Got Talent got their machine into overdrive and thrust this person into our homes whether we wanted to know about their cheesy talent show or not BUT that does not mean that in the midst of a huge financial crisis, a political system in freefall and a overall sense that our political leaders really need to get a fucking grip, from both major parties, and get our financial system reformed and our political system overhauled that I want to see the Prime Minister of my country spending time commenting about a bloody television freak show and telling me he's been spending time chatting to shallow media hacks when he should be dealing with all the other rubbish going on in our lives.

My god, a plane full of our neighbours went down in the Atlantic with no survivors but the lead story is bloody Susan Boyle. Where the hell is our sense of priorities in these times? Britain's Got Talent is cheap entertainment, it's a freak show, it's bread and circuses, an excuse for ITV to make programming that involves little thought or imagination. Like I said, it's a freak show.

If you want to be a singer great, go out and fight for it, play some gigs, write some songs but don't for a minute think that the couple of appearance on a television show is going to make you successful in any meaningful way. A couple of years of cruise ship appearances or, in the best scenario, a career in musicals. It's not going to make you wealthy; if anything it's going to destroy the rest of your life. When the cameras have gone and the hacks stop doorstepping and people stop shouting at you in the street because there's a new TV non-personality being pushed the hunger doesn't go away, it grows and eats at you. You want those fleeting moments of fame back. You don't want to go back to what you were, but you don't know what else to do because everything that happened to you was controlled by other people. The songs were supplied to you, you were told where to be and when and, unlike real bands or musicians, there is no personal hinterland of support. It's bad enough being for real when the label turfs you out and doesn't return your calls but there's talent to fall back on.

Karaoke singers don't have that option.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back from what seems like a long break.

So I've not been around for a bit, thanks to a fall in my own hallway that resulted in a broken shoulder, damaged ribs and a trip to the hospital. They even had to give me morphine before they could move me, which under usual circumstances would have been great but in this instance hardly made a dent in the pain quotient. Seemed like a big waste of fine opiates if you ask me.

Anyway I didn't much feel like typing for a while, particularly as it was my right arm that was out of action and typing one handed with the left is a long and laborious process. So instead I have had a chance to catch up on some of the music that I've been sent in the meantime and one of the stand outs of this batch comes, unsuprisingly, from that finest of labels, Analog Africa.

Legends of Benin is the fifth release from this label, rapidly establishing itself as the delicatessen of dance music, and stands shoulder to shoulder with their previous releases that include the towering gem that is African Scream Contest - Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s. Once again compiled by label boss Samy Ben Redjeb this labour of love in not just an exercise in finding the very finest cuts for our delectation but it's also a great example of doing the right thing. Ben Redjeb has tracked down the composers, or their families in the case of those no longer alive, to license their work directly so that any money made goes to the makers of the music.

This kind of behaviour is so very rare, unfortunately, in the consumption of music from messy markets. Even though I'm not particularly a fan of UB40 they are held in very high esteem by many Jamaican musicians because they did the same thing ewhen compiling their massive selling Labour of Love albums. It was very unusual for Jamaican writers to get paid once the song had left their heads and UB40 put a lot of money back into the hands of the creators. I would love it if Ben Redjeb is able to do the same thing as this album is one of the most satisfying and delicious collections I've heard in a long time.

The compilation focuses on four towering figures from the Benin music scene, Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes, Antoine Dougbé, El Rego et Ses Commandos and Honoré Avolonto, who recorded these tracks between 1969 and 1981. They range from the birth of Afro-Soul-Funk, in the form of Feeling You Got by El Rego, through Benin's take on Afrobeat by Honoré Avolonto that shakes to the very foundations and challenges the great Fela to a booty shaking dance off. Then you have the subtle rhythmic layers laid down by Gnonnas Pedro, that kicks the album off in a startling and original fashion. From the off your dragged into the midst of a musical spell that seems to make most of the material coming out of my radio seem redundant and vapid. Then there is the long hidden joy that is Antoine Dougbé who incorporates Vodoun rhythms into the pot along with Congolese rhumba to create a dark and snakey melange that rocks.

Now I know loads of you may be reading this and going "here we go again, some sad world music nerd claiming that everything recorded on a box in Africa is genius" but, believe me, I am not one of those. Too much music is stolen from around the world and sold back to us as works of rare suffering and beauty, and it isn't. But this is the real deal. I've played it to friends who won't watch films with subtitles for Chrissakes and they love it. Music should weave, make tapestries in the air and take you out of yourself to a place of sex and magic. It's what it's supposed to do, even folk music.

The people who made this music lived real lives, and some still do. Music shows sides of their character that doesn't find expression through being president of the Benin boxing federation or running a brothel (in the case of El Rego) or being the Devil's Prime Minister in the case of Antoine Dougbé (funny that, I thought that was Tony Blair's job!). That might seem like a lazy statement to make but when you hear this album punching out of the speakers you know that you are in the presence of masters.

We don't have many of them left these days.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Check this out: Part 2

In 2007 Union Square released, The Very Best of Ethiopiques, which distilled the 23 volumes of the original series that had been released in France down to a two disc compilation. It was probably the most remarkable music released in the UK that year, without a doubt. As revelations go this one was astonishing. It catalogued music that had been made in the dying days of Haile Sellasie I and the early days of the brutally repressive military junta; once again proving that creativity often seems to flourish in the harshest of conditions.

One of the stars of this compilation was the virtuoso vibes player Mulatu Astatké.

This is a man with a broad, deep history behind him; trained in London, New York and Boston, played with Duke Ellington and the man who fused the music of Ethiopia with Western jazz without anyone noticing the join. He's also worked with the wonderful Jim Jarmusch on Broken Flowers. So we're talking urbane, cultured, witty and well fucking cool.

As a result of Karen P's Broad Casting sessions, promoted at Cargo, London, back in April 2008, Astatké hooked up with The Heliocentrics, an other-worldly group of Sun Ra type British out there musical headcases who ooze beats and snakey charm music. The two sides of the pie had only a day to rehearse after which they took to the stage and destroyed all before them Thankfully it was recorded for the Red Bull Music Academy Radio and you can still hear it here.

As both parties had enjoyed the whole thing so much they went into the studio and cut this new album, Inspiration Information (available on Strut Records), in six days. DO YOU HEAR THAT COLDPLAY AND U2, YOU SAD TALENTLESS FUCKS!! In six days. No shit.

And it's heavenly.

There really isn't any point in me giving you a track by track breakdown. That would be akin to describing a small part of a Rothko painting or a sentence of Shakespeare. It doesn't work like that. Just buy the record, put it on and bathe in the smooth flow of fine melody as it flows through your body like "good" radiation. However if you somehow feel that this all smacks of muesli fusion then you can always go back to your Lady Gaga records. If you really need a couple of tracks recommending, to check out first, then buy Dewel or Live From Tigre Lounge.

God help us.

In today's CMU Daily (an excellent free mail out) I read this:

JOHNNY CASH REMIXED A new compilation of remixed Johnny Cash songs is to be released. The album, imaginatively titled 'Johnny Cash Remixed', has been co-executive produced by Snoop Dogg, Mathew Knowles and John Carter Cash. Snoop himself appears on the LP, on a version of Cash's 'I Walk The Line'.

Here's what John Carter Cash says about the project: "My father made his stead defying the expected and accepted way of things. He set the standard at the same time. He would have loved this remix record. While it stays true to the original recordings, the CD touches on undiscovered ground. My father was about staying true to tradition while creating ground breaking music".

It's enough to make you weep tears of black blood. If you need to wonder what justification I have for saying such a thing then you just don't understand the sanctity of the original. I'm sure Mr Cash would be thrilled.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's just like the 80s only fatter and older.

So, in the words of the Blues men, I woke up this morning and turned on the national morning news programme on the BBC to be greeted with the sight of three fat Yorkshire men sitting on the comfy sofa extolling the virtues of that 80s horror show, Spandau Ballet. These slightly over-the-hill Yorkshire boys turned out top be members of a Spands tribute band, Highly Strung. Now what was so laughable about all this was that the original band saw themselves as svelte peacocks who represented the peak of 80s desirability and here were their loyal impersonators looking like the lovers of the chip with a singular lack of style. In short a pretty fair representation of what the 80s stood for and the media world of today; and the way the band looks now.

I have to declare a prejudice here; I hated Spandau Ballet. I despised Gary Kemp's protestations of true working class credentials and his modern soul boy posings. I had nothing but disdain for their embrace of Thatcherite culture, and the singer Tony Hadley's embrace of Tory politics, and their belief that playing in a band was a "career choice" rather than a calling. Their music was the ideal soundtrack for the 80s in that it was vacuous, insipid and fussy. Tony Hadley held his microphone like some panty-waisted Holiday Inn bar entertainer who provides the backing track for fat sweaty businessmen as they pawed young women and dribbled saliva and gravy down their pampered double chins.

I'm not alone in this. Michael Hann wrote a great piece in The Guardian pretty much pointing out the same thing as I am doing; it was the comments that people made after the article that make for the best reading as nutters of various shades queue up to agree or froth at the mouth.

After the band broke up Gary Kemp achieved a degree of rehabilitation with his vocal support of the protest movement trying to organise opposition to Thatcher's divisive social strategies but it was an uphill struggle. The rot had set in and the youth had followed the lead from the likes of the Spands and Duran and eschewed political thought and embraced the vapid "cocktail culture". They took at face value the phoney sophistication and frilly shirted power dressing pushed out by this non-musical musical movement and gave us Blair, son of Thatcher. Soon we'll have Groovy Dave, son of Blair, and like John the Baptist we have Spandau Ballet reforming.

Why? I hear you ask. This is a group of people who fought a vicious and nasty case through the courts as the three dim ones from the band tried to lay claim to writing royalties they had had no hand in creating, except for having been in the same room when Gary showed them how it went. Hadley, Norman and Keeble laid claim to something, years after the event, that was never their's in the first place and like the financial culture that was spawned from the 80s they wanted something for nothing. Their case crashed and burned and in the end Gary Kemp owned their souls, or at least, in John Keeble's case, the drum kit. It is said that when the sad trio went out gigging as The Other Three from That New Romantic Band™ they were obliged to ask Gary if they could use the equipment because, as they had no money to pay his court costs, he owned it all.

Now we are expected to believe that all these differences have been buried and this cheesy band of brothers are all mates and that the music they make will be relevant and exciting. No it won't. It never was. It was never soul music, it was never vital and, most of the time, it was never of any value whatsoever. So I guess it's going to fit in perfectly with the onset of the New 80s.

Welcome to hell.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Punk rock and beer.

Last weekend I went to see an old friend playing guitar with The Vibrators. The gig was at a small pub venue in Camden called the Fiddler's Elbow. It was one of the best nights out I've had in ages, probably since Luche Libre at least.

I'd had a call earlier in the evening from a good friend who's family were out of town for one reason or another and he wondered if I had plans. Now this person was one of that rare breed of young Americans in the late 70s who through college radio helped break punk in the States and opened a whole new generation to the fact that music could be instant and brash, and didn't have to have songs that went on endlessly. In fact it turned out that he'd been at a show my band had played in Paulo Alto and years later we met because our young kids went to the same school. Very punk.

So Cesca and I dragged him off to Camden where he had the pleasure of being weirdly hassled by a deaf guy in the bar and got quite drunk. The Vibrators were great.

Now we all know that these aren't young men we're talking about here. Like me they've been around the block several times and carry a lot more weight and grey hair than we used to, but they can still make music that fires you up, doesn't hang around being boring and as a band they can still throw shapes that put the present crop of panty waisted fringe boys to shame. In particular the Finnish bass player, Pete, throws his bass around with great beauty and fervour. It was real.

The next day my friend called me up, feeling somewhat groggy and said "that was one of the best fucking nights I've had in ages".

Age will not wither us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The future of music: Part 2123

Got Cable TV through from the ever wonderful Leah Stafford at Sainted PR. I wish, I thought, as I downloaded this thing I'd never heard of; like I need yet another new band yadda yadda yadda. And then.

Well I reckon it's the freshest, finest and most original thing I've heard since the last time, which was some time ago. Apparently they're signed to the Sufjan Stevens co-owned label, Asthmatic Kitty, and seem to plough a suitably "we are the new obscurists" furrow with their references to their sound being like "that mysterious black object that the creepy family is staring at on the cover of Led Zeppelin's Presence album" and their About Fol Chen on MySpace being all convoluted and strange, but hey, they're young and fabulous so who gives a fuck. It's from their forthcoming, imaginatively named album Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made.

Apparently they have a singer called Melissa Thorne, her voice on this lead off track is like having the most drop dead gorgeous sexual person approach you in a Las Vegas cocktail lounge after you've ordered the best Martini ever and suggesting, through droopy eyelids and bored lips, that maybe you'd like to go back to her motel and have the most dirty sex you'll ever have a chance of having; of course it never happens, but it sounds as good as that would be. With an impreceptible pinch of Janet Jackson and that deadpan drum machine that Prince invented, but used here in as classy a way. Apparently Angus Andrew from Liars is guesting on vocals as well, but I didn't notice.

I was in a Vegas cocktail lounge, finishing my drink.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cachaito, he's gone. And Lux has gone with him.

On July 26th 2001, I went to a see cachaito play at Ocean in Hackney. Ocean was a great venue, but unfortunately it was right in the middle of Hackney so getting there, parking or hanging out often posed a problem. I took an old mate of mine who hadn't heard of the legendary Buena Vista bass player, let alone heard his recently released solo album. As it turned out it was one of the best gigs I've ever been to (another being Steppenwolf in 72, I know, I know but you had to have been there); the band were wondrous, apart from the cool-as-fuck presence of the man himself, I mean look at the picture above, there was this fantastic flute player, a tall, gangly Algerian guy who threw these lithe and deadly cool moves and a couple of percussion players who weren't the usual look-at-me -I'm-the-crazy-drummer.

The crowd was a ripe cross section of East London. There were the usual knitted muesli brigade and there were local bloods in big hats as well as old punks and dreads. To a man and woman we were all blown away and won over. There were raised eyebrows from the jazzier purists when Cachaito threw some decks action into the mix but to the rest of the audience this was like lighting the blue touchpaper. The place went up.

The album that the majority of the set came from was one of the most original and refreshing albums released that year, his eponymously named album still sells and I recommend you all rush out and buy it.

Anyway, he's upped and died and the world is once again short of one of the best. It's amazing isn't it, Cliff and Dubya are still walking the planet, Dick Cheney draws breath and Cachaito and Lux Interior have left the room.

There's very little I can say that would paint a real picture of the unique Lux Interior from The Cramps. They ploughed a pretty straight furrow but their furrow was a thing of rare and sibilant beauty. To see the man in full flow, pants down and microphone stuffed into his mouth while the lovely Mrs Interior, Poison Ivy, ground out the crunchy riffs was really a thing of rare beauty. Here they are in the delicate Bikini Girls With Machine Guns, which I have in shaped vinyl. (Sorry about the ads on the clip but it was the best quality I could fine.)

New stuff, old stuff?

So the wonderful Natasha at Toast sends me news of KIG's new release Head, Shoulders, Knees n' Toes. Soon to be gracing the charts via a release on AATW. Now y'know this will do the business, releases on AATW usually do. I'd never heard of the band but Funky House as a genre has been on the radar for a while. In fact ever since my friend, and relation, Fab Four Freddie C told me that he'd tired of his burgeoning grime career due to the number of dim young men carrying guns and that Funky House was the future. I nodded sagely and pulled my woolly cardigan closer.

On the strength of this track I reckon he may be right. You see, when someone says "House" I imagine the loping deep bass of Chicago and Detroit with a smattering of Italo-house piano stabs but KIG has Britain through it like a stick of rock. With an edge of soca beats and a touch of dancehall this couldn't have been made anywhere else but London. That said I went and checked out the original version of this track, the track and video had been put together by the band themselves and once a head of steam builds up an outfit like AATW/Island step in, remix and re-release. Now that is all well and good but often some elusive edge of greatness gets lost in the corporate mix. Here's the original.

Now here's a link to the new version - click here - it might just be me but I reckon the original wins by a nose. What do you reckon? In the overall scheme of things it doesn't really matter, I know, and I hope KIG go on to do all the things they deserve to do. This track is cracking and as a genre this music is urban UK, well urban London at least; and let's be honest shall we, outside of London doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ron Asheton: RIP

Rolling Stone has carried the story that one of the world's most original guitarists has died. Ron Asheton was the man who made The Stooges sound so good. From his gonzoid guitar came the throttled filthy sound that defined Detroit and drove the punk movement of a decade later. If you don't have any Stooges albums in your record collection then you are very, very stupid.

I saw him at a Meltdown a while back and he stood there, dressed in the uniform of some straight American tourist and pulled out of his guitar the most incredibly distorted thrash that I have ever had the great pleasure to witness. No other guitar player ever came close to his sound though they all lived in hope that they might one day achieve such wonder.

Without Ron there would have been no Iggy. Ron, you were the daddy of them all. Bless you.

Shooting yourself in the foot: Part 1

Those poor people who work for Zavvi received their Christmas present from “The Man” with a grim sense of stoicism. As soon as the weird shop chain that no-one ever admitted shopping in went to the wall (Woolworths), taking with it the distribution arm of eUK, the writing was on the wall for Tricky Dicky Branson’s offloaded albatross. With the demise of eUK Zavvi had nobody running their websites, handling fulfilment and sales; an absolute fatal blow in the new world of online sales. We’re not talking about digital sales here either, this is people wanting physical product.

With outfits like and Amazon powering ahead with the online sales, both download and physical, the high street chains need every weapon in their arsenal to keep ahead of the game. Zavvi lost the plot somehow and have paid the price. The saddest thing about this is that there are now several hundred people who know and love music out on their ear with no prospect of ever finding a job in the industry again.

Real record shops, like Rough Trade, continue to thrive. In fact Rough Trade posted sales gains for the year way above the industry norm and against the run of the market. Why? I hear you ask. Well….they are a proper record shop. People like going into these places and browsing, actually touching the product and marvelling at the walls plastered in posters both new and historical. They like standing around talking all nerdy about music, while listening to whatever it is that the wonderfully fine people who work there play all day long.

In my local Rough Trade, Talbot Road off Portobello, you often see generations of the same family buying music. This is no exaggeration. Not only is the love of music palpable in the atmosphere but there are sales people who can advise and direct you; they breathe music, they are often in bands or they DJ. It might all be a bit Hi-Fidelity but, y’know, I liked the Jack Black character in that film. I’ve seen people in that shop walk out smiling after buying 250 quids worth of music, knowing that ever album they have bought is a doozie. Solid gold easy action. You are not going to get that kind of bliss hanging around a fucking laptop looking at the iTunes store or hoping to find someone in Tescoburys who may have half an idea if the new Killers album is as good as Hot Fuss or even Sam’s Town.

Which brings me to the point of my ramblings; who is to blame for the state we’re in? Well who do you think?

Yep. Our old friends the major record labels.

As the boy band girl band explosion of pop started to generate the last drops of money to be drained from the pockets of the pop hungry masses the labels looked for outlets that guaranteed big units. At the same time the major supermarket chains were looking for new loss leaders that would be one more reason for the consumers to come through their doors; a little Northern Line with you pot noodle? Initially the labels were printing money. The grocers took delivery of the product at the required price, at first. As they proceeded to mop up the life blood for the small independent record stores, that is the sale of chart albums and pop frippery, the number of outlets for new music or off the radar material dried up as the indies lost business and started closing down.

There were a lot of shouted warnings from the likes of ERA, the retailers’ body. The majors didn’t care, they were coining it in. As usual the men (they are always men) in suits (they are always in suits) could not hear the calls, the warnings, the sound of the future drying up. Just like they never understood what was coming down the digital road at them. The people who run the music industry are, by and large, ignorant, stupid and greedy people. They have as much empathy with the makers of music as the Lord of the Manor does with the peasants tilling his fields.

Blinded to the realities of fashion and the market these ugly men got so involved with the grocers that they became no more to the grocers than another hill farmer. That is someone to be exploited, ripped off and abused. So there was no surprise then when the grocers turned around and said “we don’t want to pay these prices anymore”. The ugly men were surprised, but then they are ignorant bastards and never read the papers. They didn’t realise that this is what our rapacious grocers to – to everyone.

Meanwhile the independent shops, the brave purveyors of love for music, the frontline in musical movements, the spreaders of the word and the builders of careers, well they had all gone to the wall. On top of that the shifting flimsy market for pop had discovered that they could download it for free from The Internet or somefink. The major labels put no value on music, they saw it as just another commodity in the slash and burn days of the Noughties. So why should the public think any different.

Hell, they’ve seen it on telly. All these popstars are millionaires; they win X factor Celebrity On Ice and then that lovely Mr Cowell makes them really rich and their life is wonderful. Isn’t that right Gareth?

Now the majors want to get it all back. Though too many stable doors have come off their hinges and they have no real idea what to do, they want it back. But there aren’t any small shops left and now we’re losing the chains. Even the people in the chains were lovers of the art, they could tell you the difference between Bon Iver and Bon Scott, point you towards new good stuff and generally tolerate spotty teenage boys, and sometimes girls, hanging around the shop looking for inspiration.

That is what drove us forward. That is what made the music sing. That is what it was all about. And the people who should have known this? Well they are still being paid stupid money, they are still whining that it’s not their fault and they still don’t understand.

Musicians need to be paid to make music. If they are smart enough to make their own records and you like them then go and buy their music. Go and buy it from a shop like Rough Trade, or Rounder Records, or Ray’s Jazz at Foyles; buy it from someone who might sneer at your choice and suggest that you “check this out”. Buy it from the beating heart of the music industry, and, if possible, buy it on an independent label. Or it will all disappear.

It’s a love thing.