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."