Friday, June 19, 2015

Flights of fantasy with Amara Touré

Without wishing to evoke some liberal wish fulfilment and view the past through some rose tinted revision of history there are times when you come across music, created at moments in time, that you wish and desire that you could have been there to witness it and live it. My children often express regret that they weren’t living in London in 1976 (I assure them that apart from Punk kicking off it was pretty shitty!); having lived through those years I often think of the London out of my reach in the 60s when suddenly women had legs, men had long hair and all were peacocks, before hippies came along and stunk it all up with their lentil farts.

Another time that resonates with me are those Francophone West African states like Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon just as they became independent and music exploded as optimism and creativity flourished for a short time before corruption and tyranny destroyed so much. In cities like Dakar, seaports that looked outwards to the world, music developed in clubs and bars to entertain the sailors and the new liberated generation and one of the major influences was Cuban music. Senegalese music and Cuban music were made for each other; their marriage has created some of Africa’s, and the worlds, greatest and most expressive music.

The finishing school for this generation of brilliant musicians drawn to Dakar was the Miami Club’s Le Star Band de Dakar. So many greats have passed through the ranks, from Youssou N’Dour and Papa Seck to the founding members of Orchestra Baobab. Now Analog Africa have produced an album by one of the early singers, Amara Touré.

The ten tracks on this album are the only recordings Touré made, recorded between 1973 and 1980, and what an incredible testament they are. If you were told you could either have a recording career of infinite but mediocre albums or a short sharp explosion, ten songs of joy and beauty, then only the weak of imagination would choose the former.

The music comes from the Cubano influenced period that many will know from the wonderful Orchestra Baobab albums. Sexually alluring, slinky, conjuring up images of smoky bars, cold beers and good looking people in tight clothes dancing close together. You can play this on your own in an English kitchen on a rainy night and you’ll smell the rum, hear the cicadas and feel the heat. There’s beauty in music, all music, well maybe not all of it, and this album is a thing of rare beauty.

Buy it, it’s cheaper than booking a flight to Cameroon.
Lamento Cubano

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

John Richard Lightowlers - 25/02/1948 to 8/9/2014

I’m weeping.

My mind is spinning in on itself, memories crashing into each other like bumper cars made of great times but powered by grief.

My big brother has died.

He left us on Monday. He was alone but he should have been with me. Or Amy. Or Adam. Or Abbie.

But he wasn’t. He was in hospital, alone and scared.

He was beautiful, maddening, brilliant, evasive, wonderful, frustrating, kind, generous, warm, loving. He was always there and now he isn’t. I just turned around, and he was gone.

I always thought there would be more times, more beers, curries, rows, laughs. But there aren’t any more any things. There is just us, the left behind, wondering what happened.

All my life, from the moment I was born, he has been there. There’s a picture of him, looking nervous holding a screaming child, me, and that is how it stayed. Him holding me. He was the pathfinder, the louche smoker, the first drink with. I am Stones because he was Stones, never Beatles. The so many times my defender, and I was his excuse to escape from the monotony of a boarding school he’d begged my parents not to send me to; his little, sickly, brother. When they didn’t listen he appeared and I basked in his outsider reputation and like all younger siblings I emulated him and exaggerated it.

The days before constant communication we communicated every day and as the methods of communication increased we seemed to talk less. Our twenties were wild, I walked in his footsteps but when he turned into grow up street I just kept going. I’ll never know now what he felt. Did he feel that he had to be the adult? Maybe all he wanted was to explode but life has a habit of damping the fuse and blowing out the fires. One minute you’re fighting your way through a crowded bar, calling for service, shouting, laughing, carousing and you turn away for a moment and suddenly you have responsibilities. He had no problem bearing them for me but he would never let me carry his, ever.

I love you John. After Dad died I made a point of telling you that every time we spoke. I love you. In his last days Dad said look after your big brother, he’s lost his way. But you were in the fog already.

I never stopped wanting your approval, your assurance, and now you’ve gone. They say that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.

If I had been able to choose I would have chosen you.

Love Nick x

Thursday, May 01, 2014

1979 - a game changing year.

From Vive Le Rock magazine.

By any standards 1979 was a tumultuous year, it started with the Winter of Discontent and the death of Sid Vicious and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the appearance of rap in the charts with the Sugarhill Gang’s cheerful Rappers Delight, a far cry from Fuck The Police!

1979 was a watershed. At the time we didn’t really notice, we were too busy living it, making music, getting wasted and not taking on board that Britain was about to change. Thatcher was coming and Britain was going to lose its heavy industry and its working class, social mobility was going to fly out of the window and recorded rock music was about to become, in the main, anodyne, non-threatening and crap.

On the plus side, hair gel was about to make a huge statement.

Ostensibly British punk had started in 1976, according to Malcolm McLaren’s PR people, conveniently forgetting the inroads made by Dr Feelgood and Kilburn and The High Roads or that we could buy records on import by The Ramones, Patti Smith and Richard Hell. By 1979 the feeling was that it was pretty much washed up; unfortunately nobody had informed the youth of Britain, the majority of whom didn’t live in Chelsea, Ladbroke Grove or Shepherds Bush but in faceless suburban towns, lifeless market towns and ugly provincial cities where angry, badly dressed blockheads still beat up young kids with different clothes.

 Sid Vicious died in February. It was a sad, lonely, scared death in a New York hotel after the murder of his girlfriend and his incarceration in Rykers, where he was allegedly raped and badly beaten up. He became the role model; the pin up for the new punk generation who were confused about what the origins of the music had been and, like most fashion movements, bought into the simplistic slogans like “anarchy” and spiky hair. As the music changed there was a desire by many to cling to a simplistic idea of punk, a three chord lumpen approach that was redolent of failure and smelt of anachronism.

However in the real world, not the world of our golden memory, that musical echo where we all turn to each other and say knowledgeably “music is shit these days, when we were young it was amazing”, in real life Disco ruled. Everywhere. Yeah of course bands like the Buzzcocks, Sham 69, Generation X, The Skids, The Members and The Clash floated in and out of the charts with great singles, this was the last gasp of the seven inch single, and in fact this was, along with the Tamla/soul era, the great flowering of vinyl heaven. But Chic dominated the charts in many forms – no change there then but this was the high water mark for the punk wars.

By now the major labels had got their shit together, in truth the biggest at the time, CBS, had been straight out of the gate by signing The Clash; truly turning rebellion into money. Only the band, though huge in terms of credibility and good taste, weren’t really notching up the sales. What was really needed was a punchy, blonde New York woman with a fast wit and a classic beauty; Blondie. Even Blondie, born in CBGBs and close friends to all the New York scene, had to move into the dance arena, and they set the whole scene ablaze. Say what you like about Heart of Glass, as long as it’s “tune”! Meanwhile the PR folk had been busy in their workshops, spinning horse shit into gold and renaming Punk to make it more palatable to BBC executives and readers of the tabloids, and voilà, New Wave was born to the horror of every band and artist who’d been dragging themselves through the toilet circuit.

This wasn’t cool Nouvelle Vague New Wave, we didn’t all don shades and smoke Gitanes and stroke our chins pondering the existential appeal of being spat at by some fool in a shithole in Scarborough on a rainy Tuesday night in February. Anyone who heard the phrase shrunk back in horror, and if you heard a band describing themselves as such you knew where the enemy was, you knew who were the career dreaming scum buckets. The Knack were New Wave.

But then what was punk?

By 1979 many of the bands who had been around from early on, in one form or another, had developed and were finally reaching a public hungry for change. They were redefining what was pop and redefining public taste. Duncan Reid, bass player from The Boys (one of the original acts of 76) illustrates this point when he says: “Punk was a flash in the pan which has lasted decades. At first it was a small bunch of people who dared to be different in their appearance, taste in music and attitude; it fizzled out as quickly as it began. But look at the influence since: out of all proportion to its size. All over the world from Argentina to Germany to the West Coast to New Zealand you can see, hear and feel its legacy.”

Punk had never been just thrash and yet in 1979 there were moves afoot to freeze it in aspic, but bands like the Buzzcocks who had been there from the beginning and still thrilled us with sharp, short and witty love songs. One of the founders, Howard Devoto, had left and formed Magazine who cast a shadow far larger than their footprint, being one of the first and most original post-punk bands. Everything was in flux and everything was valid. As John Ashton, the guitarist with Psychedelic Furs, one of the new and forward looking bands, says: “Punk wasn't dead; it had just hit the reset button. It was still alive and well if only in spirit.”

Just as the early bands marked the change from the noodling solos and introspective, fantasy bollocks that had prevailed in the earlier year of the 70s by playing short, sharp sets so other bands were exploring a different route. ATV, in their brief career, had been one of the most innovative and novel acts around, as were Wire. These bands experimented with different rhythm structures, angular and unlike the traditional blues based rock structures. There was no rule, that was the main maxim that carried on after the initial stylings were fading. As Paul Gray, bass player with Eddie & The Hot Rods and The Damned, points out when asked what punk had meant to him, “it depends on what day you ask - today, it would be the freedom of self expression without worrying about what anybody else might think..."Do Anything You Wanna Do", really.”

Bands like The Ruts and The Members were experimenting with reggae structures, attempting to create a music that reflected their British roots and encompassed the rhythms of the clubs and sound clashes they would go to, the search for a new beat, a different path, ran through the whole movement from 76 to 79; nobody wanted to remain in the past, whether the past was ten years or two years ago.

In a time when many can’t remember the world before YouTube it is very hard for people to get their head around how bands came to popularity. Mainly it was through reading. People read stuff in 1979, sometimes for more than five minutes. There was Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds and of course the New Musical Express and they were the only vehicle to discover the future, there was John Peel, of course, but for schoolkids with homework and early starts it was the inkies (as they were called) that carried real weight. Their combined sales were remarkable, the NME alone was selling over a quarter million every week and its influence was phenomenal. These days it may resemble a pop cheerleader glossy magazine for confused teenagers in 1979 it worked on so many levels: educational, in that it expanded the vocabulary of the readership, political and social. Even a bad review was worth having.

All of the music papers had been late to the party when Punk kicked off and they didn’t want that happening again. As a result they became like a shark, constantly moving forward for fear of dying and this was reflected in a churn of putative new scenes getting thrown up. Hugo Burnham, one time drummer with Gang of Four and now an Associate Professor at the New England Institute of Art, reflected on Punk’s ripples: “Punk was something exciting, dangerous, funny, noisy, smelly, and wonderful; I knew at the time that it would be argued about endlessly for years later...mostly by people who weren't there. Or even alive at the time. Or were wearing flares.”

NME trumpeted the post-punk movement, led by bands like The Cure, Magazine, Joy Division, who released their debut Unknown Pleasures in June, and Gang of Four (named after the Chinese political faction) whose debut arrived in September. Admittedly the US bands like Talking Heads and Devo had already being driving this road it was the British acts who took it to a darker and more political space.

Sounds, always more supportive of the meatier no-nonsense approach bigged up the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; this term was coined after Iron Maiden headlined one of their first London gigs, sharing the bill with Samson and Angel Witch. (Allegedly Spinal Tap is based on Samson.) Along with this came Oi! This was a basic version of Punk that many original punk bands were suspicious of as it was felt there were links to the far Right.

Meanwhile Melody Maker was struggling with its identity, having always been an avid supporter of traditional rock forms. For a while, and thanks to star writer Vivien Goldman (now a Professor and New York University), they had been champions for the growing reggae and soul scenes but it wasn’t enough to arrest their slide in popularity. Well written and authoritative as it was, nonetheless, it lived increasingly in the shadow of the NME which had become almost the Little Red Book for the nation’s youth. The one major lead it had over the NME was in the small ads section. Melody Maker was the place to go for everything from a new drummer to old vinyl; favourite ads were the singer wanted must have own PA variety.

August has seen the legendary Led Zeppelin play their last ever gig at Knebworth, and the Shah of Iran had done his last gig in Tehran when Ayatollah Khomeini replaced him at the top of the charts with The Day The Music (and all other kinds of fun) Died. Here in Britain everything was in dirty browns and orange, just like Life On Mars, really. Poor people lived in Chelsea and Notting Hill, even in the West End, and disco ruled; in fact music seemed a whole lot more desegregated than it does now even though open racism was rampant and ugly.

Rock Against Racism had formed in 1976 and was still going strong, even though anti-fascist protestors were still being injured and New Zealander Blair Peach was killed by the police, and for many of us they were great gigs to play and attend. There was never any huge amount of proselytising from the stage and the mixed audiences just seemed to know by instinct what was right without it having to be spelt out in black and white. These were edgy times; the Yorkshire Ripper seemed to be murdering without hindrance and the IRA, and other Republican groups, were having success in assassinating major profile targets. Ironically it took 30 years before the Metropolitan Police released the results of their enquiry into Peach’s murder, and like Stephen Lawrence and Ian Tomlinson there was cover up and obfuscation – no change there then.

Elsewhere the very shape of music was beginning to change at the source, in the recording studio. In 1977 a recording desk manufacturer called Solid State Logic introduced its first console that contained an integrated studio computer system. At first it was rare to find a studio which had one but as recording engineers used the desk their enthusiasm for it grew and other major recording studios, keen to attract business, invested in installing them. One of the major attractions, for engineers, was the ability to memorise the mixing process so if a break in the process happened the mix could be set up afresh with all settings recalled.

Along with this feature each channel on the mixing desk had its own compressor and noise gate, isolation and complete control became the dominant factor. Previously compressors or gates either had to jack-plugged in across the channel or across the whole mix, but now every instrument could be treated individually by the engineer at the desk. Before these developments engineers had to learn about microphone placement in the room, creating sound differential by trial and error. Now, increasingly, it could be all done from the desk after a junior had put a microphone in front of an amplifier. There were still many engineers who had been trained in the traditional ways so their skill and abilities coupled with the new technology led to a rise in the quality of sound.

On the downside, by 1979, the musical producer, the Jerry Wexlers or Willie Mitchells, were giving way to the engineer producers. Initially some engineers still had music credentials; Snivelling Shits bass player, and legendary producer, Steve Lillywhite was one such producer. Lillywhite was very much a part of the Punk momentum producing Siouxsie and The Banshees, XTC, Johnny Thunders and U2 amongst many, his attitude to the just do it philosophy of the movement shone through in his early work. His breakthrough really happened in 1980 with Peter Gabriel’s third, eponymously titled, album which was recorded in 1979. Given Lillywhite’s drive and Gabriel’s desire to try new things, new technology and new musical forms the album made a giant step forward in technology, even producing the original “Phil Collins drum sound” moment, thanks to the huge gated drum sound that Lillywhite created while experimenting with the new SSL desk.

“It was the start of the idea that you didn’t need to be a musician to be musically creative,” says Lillywhite, on the phone from Los Angeles. “The Fairlight had just started being used and the creative and the technical were starting to become confused.”

The Fairlight he refers to was the first digital sampling synthesiser that arrived in 1979. Producers and musicians soon discovered that it had such a wide application; you could sample a breaking glass, for instance, and play it into a track. This was the start of the sampling revolution, the end of orchestras being widely used on modern rock records and the rise of machine music. Coupled with the rise of the SSL desk and the use of the click track the traditional ways of recording bands died. The engineer became more and more an integral part of the whole process. “At first there was a job delineation between the engineer, the producer and the band”, says Lillywhite. “Then gradually it became ‘playing the desk’.”

Where before a band would set up in the studio, screens and microphones would be put in place and the drummer would count it in and the band would crash into the number with all the power and feel of a live gig now sterility started to set in. While there were groups who still maintained that way of recording, Motorhead, The Stones, the majority of bands were new, signed to labels and under the dictates of A&R appointed producers who “could make hits”. Enter the click track, the rhythm section sent into the studio to play their parts to a sterile tempo machine allowing for super separation of all the integral parts. Welcome to the world of no feel. What did they lose? They lost the drummer’s breath, they lost the space between notes and the phase between instruments and the various microphone spills, that intangible essence that was feel. The music died.

In February, the same month Sid died his sad and lonely death, Stephen Stills was the first major artist to record digitally. The future had arrived and there was a direct line to be drawn from here to downloads. Once digital technology had arrived it was the death knell of the music industry as we then knew it, not that they realised in their pomp and excess. They were dead men walking. As the Sony Walkman arrived they were dead men walking with their own personal soundtrack!

Mid 79 saw the appearance of Gary Numan, initially as Tubeway Army, with Are Friends Electric. It was his first number one, no guitars on Top Of The Pops, and this strange alien looking outfit. Commercial electronic music had arrived, his next single, Cars, went number one on both sides of the Atlantic and Numan went stratospheric. Suddenly every major label wanted their own version of a weird kid with a machine and duly signed up a whole load of dubious acts, The Flying Lizards had a hit with a quirky rework of the Berry Gordy song Money and writer and producer called Robin Scott released a song called Pop Music under the name of M; it was huge. Possibly the biggest one-hit wonder ever.

Elvis Costello was working on his angry persona over in the USA and unfortunately a sarcastic aside about Ray Charles in the Holiday Inn bar in Columbus, Ohio, got taken the wrong way by the irony free zone that was Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett and Elvis got a kicking and some pretty terrible press for supposed racism. Though there wasn’t the kind of methods for disseminating shock-horror that exists today Elvis got a whole shit load of bad press that took him sometime to placate. For those people who knew Elvis, or his work, it was all bollocks but for a rabid fearful American audience, still patting themselves on the back for their racist and homophobic take down of Disco, it was grist to the mill.

Back in the UK everything was about to change, and in a major way. Society had been moving more towards equality for all the post-war years but was still hampered by a class bound consciousness that held people back. To a degree Punk had changed this, rapidly. As Segs, bass player with The Ruts says: “Punk was an attitude. At the time many of us were brought up with a very working class, know your place, "you'll never amount to much" outlook. Then along came "Here’s 3 chords - now form a band which really translated into the fact that anyone could potentially be anything.”

Then Thatcher was elected.

It didn’t really come as a surprise to be honest. The wheels had come off and everything was shit and Thatcher romped home with a huge parliamentary majority. Her barely disguised hard right views had the beneficial effect of wiping out the National Front’s electoral base, all the fascists voted for her. Amusingly so did Gary Numan. Paul Weller spoke at the time that he would vote for her, a quote he came to regret later as he moved to the Left, becoming a major anti-Tory movement called Red Wedge.

Meanwhile in a nightclub in Covent Garden called Blitz a group of androgynous Bowie fans started dressing up and posing, they were a direct response to the continuing downbeat dress sense of the Punk hangover but they were a visible representation of the Thatcher years even though they were never conservative. It was their love of ostentation and cocktails, their music that favoured the glacial electronica of Bowie’s Berlin period and Kraftwerk that fed into their bands, Visage, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club, these were the elements that appealed to the new breed with no style of their own. Like the City boys who ruined all the neighbourhoods from Ladbroke Grove to Hoxton the outsiders came in bought their personalities. As the New Romantic headliners embraced the new politics, the likes of Duran Duran describing being in a band “a career choice”, it was left to a bunch of people from the Midlands to carry the torch for the dispossessed.

Jerry Dammers launched 2 Tone onto the planet and effectively gave British youth an alternate vision to the one being expounded by the “costumed monkeys on the pavement” – thanks Joe Strummer. Multi-racial rude boys from Coventry reinventing ska music and style, embracing a strong working class culture that had been popularised in the late 60s by the first wave of skinheads prior to the movement’s embrace of extreme right wing views. The Specials, Madness and the Beat kept the fight alive for as long as they could. It was hard over the following years as the cult of yuppie became predominant and the City of London sprayed its golden shit over the country.

The working class was destroyed, millions were thrown out of work and upward mobility was no longer on the menu. Britain sold its soul for a handful of privatised utilities shares and an artificial prosperity was created on the flood of cheap debt. Rock and roll became monetised and establishment, cocaine became king and Top of The Pops became pointless and empty.

Some still believed, like young John Moore who would go on to play with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Box Recorder. For him 76 still resonated: “Punk was the summer of 76, seeing the hardest kid in the school return from suspension having obviously undergone some London adventures in his time off, now with hair spiked, blazer held together with safety-pins, and PUNK scrawled across his back being expelled on the spot, and not giving a fuck, then setting the field on fire as a parting gesture. The Times they were a changin'.”

By 1979 though the changes brought about by Punk in the general consciousness had bedded in. There was a renewal in design, led by the likes of Jamie Read, Barney Bubbles and Malcolm Garrett; part of the new generation who had taken the do-it-for-yourself message from the musicians and run with it. Young film makers, like John T Davis and Don Letts, appeared and this driving force of creativity fed into society and as society disappeared to be replaced by the rampant id of desperate consumption these remnants continued to feed the scenes that followed. The rise of machines and the future acid house movement came about because of the freedom of expression that had flowered in those last years before the grim 80s came upon us.

These were the last days of neutrality. As our country was forced down a road of long dole queues and provincial decay everything started to fracture. Though politics had been a major factor in the music gradually more and more wannabe popstars eschewed the political for the personal. Anarchy in the UK, White Riot and Right To Work all seemed prescient rather than a comment of 76, 1979 was the calm before the poverty riots and the upheaval. Lines were to be drawn, as well as chopped out; goodbye to all that.

In December The Clash released London Calling and rock had moved into new lands.

But like every revolution in the end the money takes over and everyone turns on the TV. When Rappers’ Delight charted at the end of 79 it announced the arrival of a new form that was to become even bigger and longer lasting than Punk. But rap would never have had the crossover without Punk.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Memories of Lou.

I originally wrote this for the latest edition of Vive Le Rock and held off posting it until the latest edition was published.

“You gotta hear this”, said Mark pulling me into the listening booth. The booth was the size of a toilet cubicle with a glass fronted door and the two of us squeezed in. It was 1970, I was nearly sixteen.

The clear picked guitar line, the naked floor tom thump thump, then that voice. The snarl, sneer and so so cool delivery; “I don’t know just where I’m going”. Like a rush of drug, like the imaginations fireworks exploding, the world turned from muted suburban colours into vivid day-glo black and white with shades realisation that everything was now different.

We were too young to have been hippies, The Stones made more sense post-Altamont and a fire was sweeping but there was a distance, even in 1970. We had found the answer, Mark and I, and we devoured it like two starving dogs finding steak. We had no real idea who Warhol was, we were Camberley boys, out of place in our own time and place, but that sleeve mesmerised us. We bought the album, contemplated peeling the banana and decided to leave it pristine and untouched.

European Son, The Black Angel’s Death Song tore off the top of our heads. Throwing shapes and poses to I’m Waiting for the Man, imagining ourselves in a place we had no concept of but knowing where it was. And Nico. This beautiful, distant voice. Were these two an item?

Like the many thousands who claim to have been at the first, sparsely attended, Sex Pistols show there are as many who will claim to have bought the Velvet Underground & Nico album when it came out. I’m not one of them. But look at the list of albums released in 1967; it’s a mind-fuck. The Doors, Love, Sgt Peppers, Their Satanic Majesties, Cream; the list goes on and on. These were all gems but only one still sounds modern.

Then the journey of discovery, from White Light/White Heat, acid years, into Loaded, as we were, Sweet Jane and Train Comin’ Round The Bend. These were the years of experimentation, of everything. This was the soundtrack to the first pair of sunglasses. Then they were gone.

These were the Bowie years, when all the world was changing. Lou had made a solo album but nobody paid any mind until he returned and with Bowie’s help outshone Bowie. New York sleaze walked among us again and the boys all cabareted while the coloured girls went doo dah doo dah doo dah doo and my friends came out and the sun smiled.

By now I was living in Liverpool, and Lou came to town. We all rushed to the Empire to pay homage to the Emperor, and he wore new clothes. He wore a shit-coloured leather suit to be exact and he looked like he wanted to be back in the bosom of Manhattan. The audience hung on every note, the band looked weirdly glam, not black clothed junkie numbed horde-like figures. Be-platform shoed and strange hair but Lou had short hair and that stare. We went home and played Transformer over and over and pretended we’d loved the gig as much as we loved Lou.

Then we made punk, in his image. He hated us for it.

Many of us were too busy just being to notice Street Hassle. It was his number 8 as Lou. He’d nailed the 70s, lived them and threw them aside and then as punk melted into pop into mainstream his junkie opus made me lose my breath. His revisiting of riffs, his dragging the corpse to the dumper and his refusal to apologise for being a bastard demanded a standing ovation.

He was an artist. Like a good friend you don’t see very often, like every couple of years. Then you bump into each other, spend a while drinking, talking, laughing, and you walk away thinking “why the fuck don’t I see more of them?” His albums were like that. New York spoke to me, others didn’t. There was a reformation but I couldn’t bring myself to go; for what? Their power, his power, lay in the moment; forever in shades, forever awkward, always on my mind. Warhol left early and maybe a little of Lou went with him.

Now he’s dead and we all have our Lou Reed stories, our Velvet Underground memories and our own intimations of mortality. He moved through our landscape like a chronicler of our times, that first album continues to resonate, to influence; but when I look around at so much of the arid musical landscape that surrounds us I wonder whether those coming now really heard the songs. He wasn’t political but the world he painted was so much more real and interesting than the neutered pastel version today’s pop lovelies paint for us all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Brand New Revolution

By now nearly everybody in the world has seen Russell Brand being interviewed by Jazza Paxman and, essentially, saying everything that many of us think and feel about the current state of politics and social organisation. We all applaud and, like a sugar rush or shot of strong spirits, the emotions rush to our heads and we punch the air while sat in front of our computer, smart phone or tablet; and there lies the rub. We remain seated.

Then, like the old stereotype about a Chinese meal (I have no idea how that started as everytime I’ve been to a Chinese restaurant I’m fine for at least 8 hours), you find yourself feeling empty again. Once you start examining the reasons for this you soon start to see the flaws in the Brand new way of doing things. Not that there is anything wrong about some good old ranting about the system, I made a career of it in The Members. My problem is with the “Don’t Vote” thing.

Have you noticed just how poisoned the national discourse has become, particularly about immigrants and benefits? You know why? Because UKIP turned up at the polls, that’s why. Simple. Every time you hear some person saying voting doesn’t change anything the response should be “NOT voting changes everything in a way you don’t want”. When all these myopic, two dimensional UKIP politicians turn up on our TV screens pointing the finger at some fictitious EU immigrant threat they are there because somebody else didn’t bother voting.

They represent a scare for a Conservative Party that is so regressive and cut off from its own heartland, and in response they feel obliged to co-opt the rhetoric, which they couch in mealy mouthed platitudes, in turn our media leaps upon the story feeding the immi-frenzy that passes for politics and in turn the apparently more liberal parties feel obliged to ape and mimic these positions because a dumbed down electorate will repeat and elaborate upon the anecdotal evidence put up by a party of bigots that is UKIP. And this happened because many on the left believe that voting doesn’t change anything and didn’t turn up. UKIP doesn’t believe that, and as a result they are the ones setting the parameters for what passes for political discourse.

There are plenty of people out there, the young, the poor, the dispossessed and the desperate, who don’t vote. They are not stopped from voting, there’s no voter ID type scam in place that would cause them problems like they have in the land of the free, they just don’t bother. There’s a mixture of politicians are all liars and cheats and “I’m not really into politics” and this allows the elites to ensure their continued existence, allows for the dismantling of the welfare state and the destruction of the NHS.

If you don’t vote then your opinion really doesn’t count at all. It doesn’t matter how many online petitions you sign or how many Facebook posts you like if your voice isn’t represented in voting numbers then no one is listening. I admire 38Degrees, Change and Occupy but they don’t have any political representation so their opinion meant sod all when parliament passed the recent lobbying bill. UKIP have no MPs but their voters have scared a major political party and skewed the national conversation.

Imagine if those voters had supported immigrants and the weak. We might have a far more reasonable discussion. Almost a revolution.

Now that’s a brand new way of thinking.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fela Kuti, Revolutionary Dream.

In 1971 I was sixteen, turning seventeen in October. It was the age when music was becoming my life’s blood and starting to influence how I saw the world and related to it. My friend Mark and I would float around Camberley town centre, from coffee bar to record store talking about the value of this band and that band; we’d also crowd into the listening booths and beg the older bloke (at least twenty two) to let us hear whole sides of albums. It was Mark who dragged me into the booth and said “You gotta hear this!” and played me Heroin by the Velvet Underground; I dragged him in to hear Dirt by The Stooges. Record shop guy sort of tolerated us and then one day said “You two need to hear this”. It was Why Black Man Dey Suffer by Fela Kuti.

I never really listened to music the same again.

Over the years this early openness to what was out there musically has brought so much joy to my life. Disco, reggae, soul; the list is endless. For ages I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, or at least a member of a small gang who used strange words like Fela, Franco, Sunny Ade or Joujouka. It didn’t make me a purist, it just made me open. Then it got called World Music and somehow in two simple words this magical music was put into a box marked “Liberal Middle Class Muesli Eaters”.

For me Fela is revolutionary music, by a man who walked the walk, talked the talk and took all the beatings handed out to him by an oppressive state. A man who articulated the problems that Africa faced from rapacious multi-nationals and corrupt governments many years before NGOs and pressure groups caught up with him was a giant. He was educated, sophisticated and informed; he chose to sing in pidgin English because it was a language that was pan-African, it enabled his message to travel beyond the borders of Nigeria and brought the issues he sang about, and highlighted, into the consciousness of the wider populations. He was a lot more scary than The Clash.

Now Knitting Factory Records are re-releasing several of Fela’s most important albums and they’ve led off with a pretty good compilation. Actually it’s a fucking great compilation but if you’re a Fela fan you’re always going to gripe that this song should be there, and that song, oh, yeah, and that one. I guess one of the problems is that so many of his songs clock in a big time so in an effort to introduce as many songs as possible you either edit or find the shorter ones.

That said this compilation has such towering greats as Everything Scatter and Expensive Shit, the breathtaking Sorrow Tears and Blood and the angry, and politically exact, Colonial Mentality.

For a true illustration of the power of music you cannot do better than anything by Fela. Right now we are living in difficult times, we have a government pressing down on the poorest in society, we have a middle class with a shrinking share of the national wealth and we have the youth of our country being priced out of education and work. Now, more than any other time, we need artists to step up to the plate and make common cause. I appreciate that pop music never changes much, but it changes the general environment, the water we swim in. When we are fed a diet of One Direction and Emelie Sande, when even the “challenging” bands are wary of speaking out about politics then we must delve into Fela Kuti. We must throw ourselves into his music like fishes desperate to breathe.

Everything Scatter

Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans (I.T.T.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Malian magic, Ben Zabo and absent friends.

First off I want to assert that this is a great album; play it in the car, play it in the kitchen, play it loud, late on a Friday night after too much beer and rum or just collapse into a comfortable chair and listen to it as it washes over you like the soft waters of the Niger river. Mali exerts a level of influence over Western music that is too often ignored. People remain ignorant of the fact that, like humanity, rock n' roll came out of Africa as well, from it's origins with the griots playing the kora to the transported slaves voicing their despair and subjugation using the same chording and structures to compose the Blues and from there to young white boys playing electric guitars and wanting to emulate the big boss men like John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton.

Today Mali still delivers and this album is another in a long line of artists that illustrate how this riven country still punches above its weight artistically. Ben Zabo, whose band is named after him, started his career as an engineer at Studio Bogolan in Bamako working on albums by the likes of Tamikrest and the legendary Lobi Traoré. Like any young studio engineer he had his own music inside him and now it's out there.

Channelling Afro-beat through the prism of contemporary Malian music, insistent rhythms, clattering percussion and rivulets of icy, bright guitar laid over with the smooth harmonies of Western Africa Zabo delivers a cascade of sensation. Ironically his guitar work conjures up images of Amadou Bagayoko, from Amadou and Mariam, but the sleevenotes for this album studiously avoids any mention of the biggest selling African act of all time. On Sènsènbo the guitar, marimba and bassline sinuously intertwine in a way that brings to mind some of the work on Welcome To Mali; that's not to say that there's any plagiarism going on here, merely that acknowledgement of the road that has been opened up by the likes of Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen is absent.

That small niggle aside Ben Zabo is carving his own path. Working with Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts, Dirtmusic) Zabo has crafted a polished début that has all the quality and skill required from a master musician, one that in a world unafraid of language and subtitles would propel this majestically to the upper reaches of the charts. Personally I would rather hear this on repeat than listen to Jessie J, Ed Sheeran or anything on The Voice. We live in a globalised economy; it would be wonderful if music could be a part of that too.

That's what I think.