Thursday, October 13, 2011

Incisive interviewing?

Being somewhat Radio 4 available these days I tend to have it on all the time in the background, absorbing the bon mots and nuggets of information as they drop like sparkly raindrops from the jewelled lips of the erudite presenters. I’ve even become an aficionado of Woman’s Hour.

You may snigger and ridicule but there has been many a time that I have learnt a lot from this programme but I do prefer Libby Purves to Jane Garvey. I think it must be down to their interview style. Ms Purves tends to be conspiratorial and inclusive in her tone whereas Ms Garvey tends to the confrontational and hectoring, though I’m sure she’s lovely really; she wasn’t this morning though.

Katherine Jenkins was on, she of the fabulous lungs and shitty repertoire. Now as far as I’m concerned everyone is allowed to make a living singing whatever they want. My old man used to be a big fan of Ms Jenkins and the like, though in her case it might have been the figure hugging couture that swung it. The lovely Welsh songstress was on to publicise her latest album of anodyne quasi operatic silliness, which was fine. She has a wonderfully busy life, being all lovely and that, running around all over the place and being Welsh.

Unfortunately three years ago she gave an interview to Piers Morgan where she, with great honesty, admitted to having experimented with drugs. As always celebrities have to garner this honesty with “my drug shame” or “I’m warning other young people” or “this is my biggest regret” rather than accept that a huge percentage of us experiment with drugs at various times of our lives. In 2011 this really shouldn’t be the subject of ridiculous over-reaction it so often is, and it certainly shouldn’t be a fucking topic dredged up by some lame arsed BBC researcher or presenter to hit someone over the head with.

Until we start to address drugs in a far more adult way and stand up to the hysteria generated by the filth that passes for media in our country (Britain) we are never going to achieve anything. As so many have said the war on drugs has been won; by drugs. That said we are seeing a drop in the number of people addicted to heroin and crack™. You know why? Because it has taken this long for people to wake up to the fact that junkies are tedious boring whiners who don’t wash enough, steal your shit and can always be relied upon to let you down.

Junkies are also waking up to the fact that it’s a full time job for Christsakes and being as most of them are lazy arsed wasters they really don’t want to be dealing with full time jobs! Ergo the drop in their numbers.

But come on people. Most of us have smoked a spliff or dropped a pill or snorted lines off the top of a toilet in our local pub, or off the pinball table in my case. It really isn’t cause for tabloid horror. Katherine Jenkins was honest about her youthful indiscretions, it hasn’t done her any harm and she’s made a shed load of money and is extremely hot. We must move the discussion because, on the whole, drugs can be a lot of fun.

The youth know this and older people do as well. The ridiculous demands of a media whose practitioners have, in the main, indulged themselves, and still do, do us no favours at all; all it does in reinforce the prejudices of the ignorant, maintains the pointless status quo, with the levels of slaughter in Mexico one of the by-products, and helps enhance the image that the media is full of shit and has no idea what it is talking about.

And as for you Jane Garvey you should be ashamed of yourself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Manu - Global Citizen.

Today the legendary Manu Chao will be playing a free concert in Phoenix, Arizona to publicise the state's anti-immigrant policies; policies that have given Phoenix the soubriquet "Capital of Prejudice". As the citizens of the USA merrily make a bonfire of their hard won rights and liberties, in much the same way as we have been doing in the UK, it behoves us all to pause for a moment and think about it. Currently a Federal judge is the only person preventing the implementation of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and the imposition of police powers more akin to Syria or East Germany (when it existed).

The Western capitalist system is crashing, the exploitation of the developing world is coming home to roost and the extreme right is on the rise, particularly in the southern states of the USA. Good people need to speak out.

If I was anywhere close I'd be there, eating great food, dancing to brilliant music and partying hard for the good cause this represents.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bambara Mystic Soul

I have a very good friend. His musical taste is impeccable. In fact on many occasions he has introduced me to some blistering rock music that has never crossed my radar. Often we make compilation CDs for each other, laughing at our nerdom and flaunting legality. So last time I thought “here’s a man with taste, he’s going to love this African music”. Weirdly when he thanked me for the compilations he loved the reggae, the disco, the soul but he added “I couldn’t really get my head around the African tracks”. I was stunned. Mind you even my partner murmurs similar thoughts sometimes.

I cannot understand this. Not at all.

For me music, like the human race, originates in Africa. Well the music I like does anyway.

These days I look at a label like Analog Africa in the same way I look at Stax or early Motown, or Young Turks and 4AD. You can trust them. What you hear is always good, and if it doesn’t stroke your palate in the way that thrills it still resonates as interesting music; it makes sense.

Now AA have brought out a new compilation. As usual the boss man Sami Ben Redjeb has scrambled through piles of dusty tapes and archives to find more gems from the 70s, that’s the way he rolls. Then he polishes them up and brings out to all of us. The one thing, though, that continues to perplex me is this; why was the music in this area of the world during the 70s so vital and exhilarating? Was it to do with the early days of independence, before cynicism and sadness kicked in with the corruption that took hold with many of those early political elites?

Whatever it was I wish some of the British bands today could drink deeply from its cup of knowledge.

If you’re wondering where Burkina Faso is, it’s here in a pretty dry part of the world. Yet this corner of the world has brought forth some rich interdependent music where Afro-funk, Afrobeat, Islamic tradition and European sound has been mixed up and represented to us. Wherever you look the music speaks and with the appearance of those crazy Cubans during the Cold War a whole other musical flavour got added to the mix. Mmmmmmmm.

The compilation features Amadou Ballaké heavily, which is understandable given his ubiquitous talents. He appears with l’Orchestre Super Volta and Les 5 Consuls on tracks like Johnny and Baden Djougou, these tracks possess a sense of place to them, the spidery, mesmeric twisting figures with a vocal style that conjours up images of a dry, hot horizon. One of my personal favourites is Mamo Lagbema’s Love, Music and Dance. It has this urgency to it, echoes of the kind of music Kool and the Gang were doing around Spirit of the Boogie or The Chambers Brothers.

Compaore Issouf is another favourite. A scorching groove, almost Farfisa figures and this semi-falsetto voice. This wouldn’t have been out of place in some club playing rare groove.

Overall this album nails it. Makes it. I love it but then I’m biased.

Maybe I’ll try running this past my mate one last time.

This track isn't on the album but shit it's good.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Lost My Way

For someone who once made a living being creative the loss of the creative drive can be likened to the loss of vision or some other sense. Where once lyrics or phrases fell into the consciousness like falling leaves in autumn the mind now resembles the blasted, barren landscape of winter. No birds singing except for the crass snarl of the crow, almost mocking me across this waste land; everything seems pared back to the barest essentials. There is no fat of the land and we live in drought and fear.

I have spent so many nights trying to work out how I arrived in this place. All the obvious reasons seem just that; obvious. Made redundant in 2008 after a decade of the warm embrace of office life, of the to and fro of humour and the ebb and flow of friendships the idea that going back to a singular life did not seem so daunting. But those ten years had caused a shift. Writing had been for specific subjects, the safe cocoon of salary that meant never really calculating hard decisions; these had all been good in some ways but had led to an atrophying of the artist’s feral sense of survival.

I have always walked on the sunlit side of most streets, or at least tried to. As life gathered it dust around me, like a real life Peanuts Pigpen, your light steps become heavier somehow, but the things that are supposed to drag our feet, children and marriage, have brought me nothing but a lightening of the spirit. It is the loss of creativity that weighs heaviest. It erodes away gradually as the weariness of non-recognition starts to grind. In many respects I was lucky, luckier than many, but the late realisation that these companies and corporations that hold and control your copyrights were not prepared to do anything to actually exploit them to your advantage came to late for that burst of desire, of need to express myself through words and music. I found myself emoting into a void.

The release of writing about something tangible was initially wonderful. But like most pleasures in life after a while it dulls the senses and one moves from the joy of the new into the comfort of the mundane. Music played all the time but after a time one couldn’t really differentiate between the good and the merely OK and music became almost wallpaper, after being my all in all. Then nothing.

At first I assumed that finding some form of paid employment would not be too difficult, after all I’d made so many contacts at the magazine, all the PR companies wanted my attention, offered me lunch, invited me places. I’d forgotten this was the music business, I don’t mean that pejoratively, but we live in an ephemeral world where friendships are based upon gain and advancement. Too often the naïve think they are really making some actually bond with another person only to discover that this all evaporates in the heat of departure from the metaphorical stage. You are as popular as your last gig, song, by-line or review. That’s just the way it is (as Bruce Hornsby said).

But the silence and the humiliation of dealing with a benefits system designed to belittle and ignore scrapes another level of thought from your mind; the level that filters vocabulary into lines or sentences. There are moments when you think that the political class is talking about you when they redirect the public’s fear and loathing from this week’s scapegoat to the disabled and sick. The righteous political anger that fed a young band’s output turns inwards and thickens the spirit. All you can do is wait for it to pass.

Finally things start to lighten but what damage has been done? People look at you differently and somehow I feel different. I’ve been asked so many times in the last couple of years to become involved in things of a creative nature but the spirit has been weak. Now the time to start fighting back has arrived. To become involved politically, to find the words of songs and pluck them from the air and to rediscover music, to write again with the freedom of expression that you only have when you have nothing. People died and some of me went with them.

It’s time to rebuild.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The son also rises.

I can still remember the moment when I first heard Seun Kuti's father, Fela Kuti, for the first time. The track was I.T.T. on the Black President album. It was something of an epiphany comparable with hearing the Velvets, Big Youth or The Ramones for the first time. The very soul of the music exuded protest and anger, before Africa became the cause du jour it woke so many of us to the realities of modern Africa; not the poverty but the corruption, the terror and the nepotism the pervaded so much of African society, and still does.

Ironically, at the time, I.T.T. was the original bastard multi-national, they even won compensation for damage done to their factories in Germany that were bombed by the allies because they were building Focke-Wulf planes for Hitler. They are American. When Fela was recording I.T.T. the company was co-opting African leaders through bribery and corruption, leading the charge of the modern day economic colonialists. Times have not changed though Africa rises and now Seun steps into his father's shoes.

From Africa With Fury: Rise sees Seun Kuti linking up with his father's smooth-cool outfit Egypt 80 and the result is so refreshing that it makes most music around us seem monochrome and flat. Moving at a speedier rate than his old man did, with his laid back Afrobeat horn grooving machine laying down the law, Seun kicks off the dust from the shoes he's stepped into and heads off into our brains at a modern speed. Egypt 80 lock in behind him, horn arrangements flowing and Seun spitting the political lyrics, decrying the filth that crawls over his country, from the generals to the Western businessmen, from the oil companies poisoning their land to the local politicians who let them.

Tracks like African Soldier and Mr Big Thief gives us the setting for this new anger, Slave Masters and Rise speak of the new economic exploitation that exists in the Third World today. As Kuti says: "Nobody wants to stand up for anything, everybody wants to toe the line."

Produced by Eno and John Reynolds (who has worked with Sinéad O'Connor and Natacha Atlas) the album sounds great. Punchy and fine.

Go out and buy it OK.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Look back in disinterest.

Francesca Cassavetti
Just read a piece by one time NME writer Johnny Dee. In it he muses on the declining circulation of music papers and whether or not the internet is the main cause of this drop in readership. After all, as he rightly points out, the average music fan can find all the information they need from various sources on line: gossip, music, reviews, downloads and pictures are all readily available. What isn't available is any discernment, any filtration or any comparisons or introductions to other artists.

Anyone who has grown up with popular music has their own golden age, except for people who are in their musical moment now, most of these memories will be located somewhere around the mid-teens to mid-twenties when for the majority of us music played its most central role in our lives. As we age, and take on different roles in life, father, mother, worker, adult, music remains a constant for many but the hunger to source new sounds and artists recedes. Modern children though have grown up in households (well the ones with music loving parents anyway) where the range of music available will probably span several scenes and genres. My kids grew up with everything from the 60s to now, a major focus on punk, reggae and world music as well as soul, pop and heavy funk.

They hear the stories of music scenes that were found rather than foisted upon them, where word-of-mouth played a bigger role than a tweet or a Facebook posted track; the eternal quest for the "next big thing" (©NME) was not yet upon us - that arrived around 1984 with the rise of the Thatcherite pop era. They heard the records of their parents' youth, The Stones, The Beatles, The Clash, The Stooges; music that sounded different because it was different. It was being made without a map, it was recorded on tape so its sonic presence was different, indefinably different but the difference is there. The artists themselves genuinely offered a different way of living, of seeing the world, because in the UK and the USA at that time society's rules were still governed by a bourgeoisie that had no concept of an individual lifestyle. If you doubt this then check out Julian Temple's film The Filth and The Fury. You will be amazed by some of the talking heads in the film, figures who seem like they're from the 50s rather than the late 70s.

Now we live in a world where the individual's desires and needs are paramount. Not wishing to sound like some relentlessly nostalgic duffer I can't say this is a bad thing. As my teenage son has pointed out many times "these are the best days to be living" in terms of all round comfort and safety. But that said we are increasingly divorced from each other because of the technology that brings us together. Via the computer the youth can access horror, pornography, music and each other without leaving their bedrooms. So how can today's musicians be shocking save for the tired old tedious rubbish of bad boy behaviour. Our musicians have no history; very few reference influences other than bands who were also a mélange of influences. I can't remember who said it but it went something like this: "Talking Heads were influenced by art, by literature, by architecture, they were influenced by James Brown, by George Clinton, Chuck Berry and The Ramones but (Insert name of any band here) are influenced by Talking Heads."

Eric Burdon once said that no-one could be considered a real musician unless they were avid music collectors. Maybe mp3s have changed that, maybe not. To paraphrase Mick Jones' famous quote "Like iPod like brain". If the only music you're open to is like the music you make then you fall into some time loop; that seems to be where we are now. Pop music has always been with us. All of us imagine some golden age where the charts were full of challenging music but the reality is far duller. For every Pistols, Ramones, Suicide, Blur there was a corresponding Gilbert O'Sullivan, Rod Stewart, Bucks Fizz or Renee & Renata. Memory is the great sieve, we shake the dust of the past through it and we're left with the nuggets. But I digress.

Greedy publishing companies increase the cost of their magazines relentlessly as circulations fall they want their profits to rise. Editors come and go as they fail to stem this haemorrhage of readers; there are no Canutes out there. Where once just carrying a copy of the NME, or Melody Maker or Sounds, would define you as a person now we have websites on smartphones - not exactly the same thing.

Yes we have a huge market for festivals and major shows; some argue that this is merely a reflection of society's sense of dislocation, the need to gather together again to connect with like-minded people. Because these huge audiences aren't reflected at the gig going coalface. The Barfly, Fibbers, the smaller Academy venues, they're all struggling to survive because there is no excitement in the live music lower divisions. When a band like, say, The Vaccines appear there's no real time to develop. Because they generate a ripple from the off this soon becomes a tsunami thanks to the web, people become blasé quite quickly and even though the band are snapped up the pressure to deliver something, anything is immediate. No more is it enough to build support, hone a bunch of songs for the first album and deliver something just as real. We need the profits NOW, we need the junkie rush NOW we need something new.

Add to this the post-slacker, post-punk, post-humour attitude, the "everything I have to say is in the songs" kind of view then you get a really boring read. When we are young we need heroes, we need someone to hold in high esteem, someone who makes more sense of the world than our stupid parents who have never lived, never loved and don't understand anything. We used to get that from writers like Charles Shaar Murray, Adrian Thrills, Paul Morley or David Quantick. They moved on, like the bands, and no-one filled their shoes.

A young miner once said something about my band, in the kindest way, towards the end of our career that I think is completely appropriate to say today about our music papers:

"You used to be good - but now you're wank."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

At the end of my Teather.

So, deciding I'd take part in this grand pantomime we call democratic politics in Great (sic) Britain I decided to write to my local MP, Ms Sarah Teather.

Now though I didn't vote for her, so my conscience is clear, I did vote as I really do believe in the democratic process. I also have a laughable naivety in that I sort of imagine that when a political party goes "we pledge to oppose tuition fess, no seriously, we really do. Hey why are you laughing at me over there? No, really, we really hate tuition fees" I sort of imagine that they'd want to keep their word.

Particularly when they are a minority party who's percentage of the vote was inflated by students flocking to their cause; but hey, that's just me.

So working on the principle, as expounded by Hilary Clinton, that if you vote, regardless of who you vote for, you are entitled to full representation and to have your opinions valued and your problems helped, I contacted Ms Teather regarding the rather impressive volte face her party, the Liberal Democrats, has recently made in the policy of university tuition fees. I wasn't particularly surprised or impressed with her response.

Now one of the major points with their standing-on-our-heads routine that I can't get my head around is how a debt of £27,000 is fairer than a debt of £9,000. When you factor in the extra debt of around £10,000 for the maintenance load that brings it up to 37 versus 19 (thousands that is, wake up at the back). So under this much fairer than that dreadful system that the last government had a young student skipping through life with nary a care in the world will happily leave university with the much fairer debt of a FUCKING HUGE SUM OF £37,000, which should please them no end rather than the crushing, unfair debt of £19,000. So can we start from there?

One of the reasons these new extortionate fees have been introduced, apart from wanting to dissuade scum from bettering themselves obviously, was to scythe through university funding. Lest we forget this bunch of posh boy no-hopers keep reminding us that none of this is ideological it's because in bailing out their chums in the city the country suddenly found itself well broke innit. So deep cuts have to be made in funding for education and universities will have to be funded by fee paying students. OK? Well.......

According to Ms Teather:
 "Under the new system every graduate will pay back less per month than is currently the case. Furthermore, the poorest 25% will pay less overall than under the current system and only the top earning 40% of students will pay back what they borrowed in full"
Great. So 60% of people will never be able to pay back their debts. For their entire working life they'll have this huge millstone around their neck, impacting on their credit rating, ability to get a mortgage or just a normal loan. Add to this the fact that the universities won't be getting their money. Who has to pay these fees then? The tax payers? What is the point of loading all this stress onto young folks if, at the end of it all, the tab will be getting picked up by the rest of us?

Now currently they reckon that 36% of young people go to university so by my reckoning that means that 14.4% of young people will be paying for our university system under these plans. Well that's really going to ensure that everything turns out fine.

So next time a LibDem politician climbs onto a soap box near you and makes any promises bear in mind that these promises are all negotiable; that is negotiable if you're a scum sucking Tory apologist desperate for a seat at the top table. I hope they enjoy their moment in the sun because I think, come the next election, they will go the way of the dodo.

Next week I'll be discussing how the LibDems helped take away some school money from kids and then created a system whereby these kids will now have to go begging to their schools for any help.

I sign of with another quote from the egalitarian Ms Teather:
"Please be assured that I am committed to the establishment of a fair and progressive system for funding higher education, which enables more people to access higher education"
Oh really?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Angola Fresh.

Whenever I listen to one of Analog Africa’s astonishing compilations I am reminded of the scene in the Third Man where Harry Lime draws a historical (though inaccurate) comparison between the creativity engendered by upheaval and conflict to that of a peaceful environment:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This springs to mind far more with their most recent release Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1968-1976.

The people of Angola have lived with conflict, from their war of independence through the years of a brutal civil war, for the last fifty years. Their country, potentially one of the richest in Africa, has been a pawn in the Cold War and a victim of political violence that claimed the lives of millions including one of the artists that appears on this compilation, David Zé.

Though these particular recordings were made in an eight year period, the last seven years of colonial rule and the first year of civil war, they show the artistic fertility that lay there in a society struggling to claim its right to self-government. The performers, like their Czech brethren during the last days of Communism, became vehicles for spreading the word and being a touchstone for defining the essence of being Angolan. As you listen to this album you marvel at the dexterity, imagination and beauty contained within it.

From Mamukueno’s opening, Rei do Palhetinho, that lilts and swoops in its story of wine drinking and the shimmering glory of Os Kiezos’ Congolese influenced Comboio you feast upon a music that lived in a world of influence, influences that came not only from the Blues but from the rhumbas of Havana and Kinshasa, from the psychedelic guitar playing that was making inroads in the West and from the meringue rhythms and Latin percussion; it was a mix that makes the sound of the Sixties pop bands seem pale and insipid, in fact most of the current acts peddling their retread R&B or indielandfillrocknroll fall by the wayside.

Like their modern day equivalents, Buraka Son Sistema, the music is sucked in, absorbed and made better.

This album, which you should buy by the way, continues Analog Africa’s run of home runs. Each one smacks the competition out of the park. That they mostly sprung from societies that were in a state of flux, or upheaval, says much for the resilience of Africans and their strength of spirit. This album came out in November but like a classic novel or a beautiful painting it will never age; it doesn’t have to be bought at the moment of release, it wears no meat dress.

I haven’t gone through each act on this compilation because it just sounds like a train spotter reporting on their day at the station, but I will leave you with something about David Zé.

In May 1977, while London was in the grip of punk, factions within the MPLA mounted a coup against the leader Aghostino Neto. The MPLA was at the time a Marxist-Leninist party and, as tends to be the case, was subject to all the factionalism and conspiracies that come with that territory (see anything about the Spanish Civil War). The attempt was led by the 8th Brigade of FAPLA (Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola); it failed, thanks to the intervention of Cuban troops, and the aftermath was bloody. Neto used the coup as an excuse to do some house clearing. In fact tens of thousands of Angolans were rounded up, summarily tried, executed and buried in mass graves. David Zé, at the time a serving soldier in FAPLA was one of them. Like Stalin and so many other shitty tyrants the world over Neto had no regard for the damage he did and the swathe he cut through Angola’s future.

This song by Zé isn’t on this compilation but in it he sings “on the day I die, do not cry for me, do not think of me”. Now maybe people can.