Wednesday, 14 October 2015

So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star

PRS for Music

This week I'm covering a slightly different topic from the usual reviews posted here. If you're a consumer of music, it's easy to overlook the work that goes on behind the scenes but for anyone starting out as a songwriter, performer or live music promoter the whole area of royalties can be confusing. Rebellious Jukebox spoke to Andy Ellis of PRS for Music about the work of his organisation in supporting new music, and what songwriters and venues should do to ensure that everyone is paid fairly when their music is used.

Let's start with the basics: Who are PRS for Music and what do they do?
PRS for Music is the umbrella title for PRS and MCPS, both of whom issue licences and collect royalties on behalf of their members; songwriters, composers and music publishers.

What's your role in the organisation?
I lead the Education & Outreach Team. We help music creators, music industry and music consumers to understand what PRSfM does, how, why and for whom. 

What do performers and songwriters need to do to ensure they get what they are entitled to?
Well, performers need to register with a separate organisation - PPL. They pay out to anyone who makes an audible contribution to a recording that is then broadcast (for example). Songwriters (and composers) would need to join PRS if their music is getting 'publically performed'. This could be getting played frequently on the radio or if they are playing lots of live shows or having their music streamed a considerable amount of times. The reason it's best to wait until there is a reasonable amount of activity happening is because there is an admin fee to join PRS and MCPS so there is little point in spending that money - £50 for a lifetime membership - unless you are likely to be receiving around that amount in royalties or more! PRS is a not-for-profit organisation and is owned by its members so we really do want members to join at the best time for them.

What do promoters and venues need to do in terms of registering and on an ongoing basis when events take place?
Quite simply, promoters or venues need to have a PRS licence in place in order to 'use' PRS music.

Does an artist need to do anything after they've performed a gig or is it the venue's responsibility?
It depends on the type of venue but I generally advise all performers who play live to submit a set list to PRS via our website. Better that we get it twice - once from the promoter and once from the performer - than not at all. If we don't know you've played, we can't pay out for those performances.

Is this actually a legal requirement and what are the consequences for the venue if they don't, for example, submit the details of a live set?
It is a condition of the licence terms but we would always rather encourage venues to submit set lists. There's no reason not to really, and it helps the performers who are playing that venue get their royalties for those shows.

If a venue has a DJ playing recorded music rather than a live act, or a DJ playing between the bands, should the songwriters still receive royalties for those songs that are played and what should the venue do in this case?
Yes, those songwriters would still be entitled to a royalty for those uses of their music. We encourage DJ's to submit set lists so that we can accurately pay out against the music they are playing. This is perhaps of particular interest to genre specialist DJ's; by submitting a set list they are able to further support their own scene by helping us to pay out accurately to those music creators. And they - the DJ - may well be one of those music creators too, so they can get a PRS royalty from playing their own tracks! 

What about streaming services such as YouTube, Spotify etc. - do artists receive royalties when someone listens to a song on one of those sites?
We do pay out royalties to songwriters and composers when their music is streamed, yes. Sites such as Spotify and YouTube are licensed by PRS.

What do PRS for Music do to support new performers and venues?
PRS funds the PRS Foundation, which is the biggest supporter of new music in the UK. The Foundation supports artists, performers, promoters, composers, bands, ensembles etc. though various schemes to encourage and develop the growth (and even export) of new UK music. We also support the PRS Members Benevolent Fund which supports composers and songwriters in times of hardship, perhaps when they are ill and unable to perform live for example. 

Are you aware of any initiatives in Birmingham in particular (where this blog and many of its readers are based) to encourage new live music?
Members of my team have visited Birmingham on several occasions over the last six months, taking part in conferences and events, and also delivering guest lectures and workshops. Looking ahead, I'm personally developing ideas for a significant multi-strand music industry and music creator event which I want to deliver in Birmingham in 2016. I can't say any more at this stage...

Most of the musicians I deal with simply enjoy the creative aspect and have no intention of giving up their day jobs. Do you think there is still a healthy percentage with this attitude compared with those who just want quick fame and fortune in the light of TV talent shows?
The vast, overwhelming majority of musicians I know or work with fall into this camp. They just love creating and performing music. If that can lead to a career, even a part-time one then great, but for most they are just happy to be involved with music.

Finally, do you have any advice for someone starting out as a performer or opening a live venue?
Leaving aside the obvious (join PRS at the right time/get a licence from the beginning) I would say that one thing both have in common is the need to focus on the audience. Build that relationship well, and both career and venue will benefit.

Thanks very much to Andy for taking the time to give these detailed answers and also to the readers who suggested questions. If you want to know more about royalties or the work of PRS for Music in general, you can contact them through their website:

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The World Is A War Film


Critics of social media often say that it can't be used as a substitute for real friendship. But there are individuals who can have a huge influence on your life without the need for face-to-face contact.  Four years ago, I encountered an oddball called Michael Barrie Wood on a forum about obscure goth and shoegaze bands. In fact I have a feeling he may have cheekily added me to the forum without first introducing himself, after reading some of my music posts elsewhere. Few people I know could be so brazen and still get away with it. I soon discovered that his knowledge of music extended well beyond my own and he introduced me to artists such as The Cultural Decay, Deception Bay, Kaa Antilope and many others. Bands so obscure that at first I thought he was making them up until I succumbed and started to purchase his recommendations.

Michael sadly departed this world at the beginning of August. More than anything else, he will be remembered as someone who wasn't afraid to speak his mind and it's fair to say that he despised many aspects of modern culture. His daily online posts were hotly anticipated as we speculated about who would be in the firing line today... the royal family, Simon Cowell or whichever airbrushed Hollywood starlet was gracing the cover of this week's "Hello". Michael came across as a kind of goth Malcolm Tucker, although few comedy scriptwriters would dare to create a character so brutally honest.

Our regular online exchanges were gradually leading me towards his own band, The Anxiety Of Love. I knew this was going to be uneasy listening and I'm glad that I conditioned myself by working through his other recommendations (and also getting a feel for his personality) rather than plunging unprepared into his work. On the face of it the musical influences are obvious, especially the relentless drum machine that shows their heritage in the early Leeds goth scene. The live recordings in particular bring to mind Suicide but what really shapes the gloom is the bass sound, reminiscent of The Cure circa "Seventeen Seconds"/"Pornography". These elements are thrown together in such a way that you might think the individual musicians were not in the same room during recording, or had even met each other. This may seem a negative accusation to throw at a band, but it was surely the intended effect. The Anxiety Of Love inhabit a world where things don't fit together nicely. There is enough pressure just to get through the day in one piece without having to worry about what anyone is doing in the next room. When Michael's distorted voice (part Throbbing Gristle, part Chrome) cuts through the darkness, confirming your deepest fears, it's almost reassuring. When you're expecting the worst, it's sometimes satisfying just to know that you were right.

When writing about music I normally focus on the lyrics but the lo-fi recording techniques here mean that the words are often difficult to decipher. The links on Bandcamp that would normally lead to the lyrics simply tell the listener to "work them out". This is typical of Michael's refusal to conform or co-operate. But even without a full transcript, you can get a sense of what's happening. Song titles such as "He Wastes Away", "Anaemia", "Pathological Grief", "These Concrete Aversions", "Things Fall Apart" suggest urban decay and society as a whole disintegrating to an extent that the individual overlooks the way their own life is also collapsing. This is the world predicted by Throbbing Gristle, particularly on their 1980 "live in the studio" epic, "Heathen Earth". Except things have turned out even worse than Genesis P-Orridge imagined. I suspect that Michael would feel honoured to be mentioned alongside TG while at the same time despairing that P-Orridge is now indulging in blissful psychedelia when there is little in the world to merit a feeling of bliss.

Nothing the band recorded could be described as "accessible" but if you've read this far without being turned off then the EPs "The Anxiety Of Hate" and "The Swarm" would be the most comfortable, or more accurately the least uncomfortable, starting point. I'm sometimes guilty of making assumptions about what my friends will or will not like and I tend to be wary of recommending certain bands to certain people. When asked about Swans, for example, I'm sure I have responded with a dismissive "You wouldn't like them." Michael would never have done this, he was determined that everyone should listen to his choice of music regardless of whether they were likely to enjoy it. So I ask that you pay tribute to this unique man by listening to The Anxiety Of Love, even if only for 10 minutes, to remind yourself that the world is not always as cosy as you would like to imagine.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Born Again In Birmingham


In my mind, there are two bands called the Nightingales, both from the Midlands and with a frontman named Robert Lloyd. The first one formed in 1979 from the remnants of the Prefects. They gained a cult following and recorded no fewer than eight John Peel sessions before Lloyd embarked on a new career with his backing band, the New Four Seasons. Then we have the 21st century Nightingales whom I see live on such a regular basis that I've come to regard them as friends, even though I've never spoken to Robert Lloyd. To be honest, I find him a tad intimidating - but then who wouldn't, with his towering frame and deadpan attitude? Admittedly their gigs can be shambolic - in an entertaining way of course - especially the infamous show at the Wagon & Horses last year with Lloyd swigging whisky to the point that he could barely stay upright, prompting me to confiscate his microphone stand before he hurt someone with it. But you always forgive friends for these minor indiscretions. When this incarnation (re-)formed in 2004 it was clearly intended to be a new project rather than to resurrect past glories, as can be seen from the setlists I've pilfered from the stage over the years. The only early song regularly played is "The Crunch".

Do you find that you never ask your drinking pals what they do at work? I'm the same with the Nightingales. I see them in small venues so often that their recorded output sits on my shelf untouched. When I think of their 21st century work it tends to blur into one long (albeit great) album. I'm expecting this one to slot in neatly with the others. Its title is a common three-word phrase as with previous releases ("For Fuck's Sake", "No Love Lost", "Insult To Injury") but there is a noticeable difference before it's even hit my turntable. Rather than the usual chaotic, colourful artwork by David Yates, I'm faced with a stark black sleeve showing what appears to be a scan of Robert Lloyd's brain. This sets the tone for something more inward looking than your standard 'Gales fare.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it soul searching but on some of the tracks Lloyd is certainly pondering his place in the world. On "Ripe Old Age" he talks of getting old and fat; on the 1950s-tinged "I Itch" he complains that he can't get comfortable, not just physically but with the reality he has to face on waking every morning. The introspection is most prominent on the self-parody "Gales Doc", where Lloyd takes the role of a journalist interviewing the band about their approach to songwriting. He mentions how the band often "go quieter and quieter two thirds of the way through the number while I mumble something over the top. Then I give them some kind of verbal or hand signal and they go loud again." How true. I've noticed them do this at least twice at every gig they've played. The journalist calls Lloyd arrogant for describing his band as "sonically more interesting" than others who just "knock off three-minute chunks". I suspect he is trying to pre-empt critics who have picked up on his boastful attitude, but it's also possible that he could be praising the variety on this album compared with previous 'Gales releases. The spoken word delivery reminds me of Half Man Half Biscuit numbers such as "Breaking News" or "Twenty Four Hour Garage People". In fact this is how I imagine Nigel Blackwell's mob would go about a Nightingales satire.

For me, the standout track is "The Man That Time Forgot", which at first seems to be the name of a film that went straight to DVD. But you begin to wonder if the man in question is Lloyd himself, and it's his own life and relationships with those around him that are falling into the void. Over a riff that Tony Iommi would envy, he finds himself in a pitched battle with drummer extraordinaire Fliss Kitson. She screams "You're talking but you're not saying anything" over every word he utters, turning it into what would have been Bikini Kill's best song. He tries to retaliate, saying he is always ready for a fight but eventually concedes "It's over, you got what you want." Kitson 1, Lloyd 0.

Anyone who has witnessed the band live will know that Kitson's drumming is probably the most ferocious you'll find on the circuit right now, but it's good to see her stepping up to the front as well. She gets a song of her own, "Stroke Of Genius", which along with the preceding "For Different Folks" manages to out-psych even Psychic TV. In fact all of the band make noticeable contributions, despite preconceptions that it's very much a vehicle for the frontman's dry sense of humour. Alan Apperley is the other member remaining from the original line-up, and alongside the aforementioned Sabbath riffing and his trademark surf guitar, he dishes up slabs of Gene Vincent and '70s glam. The whole thing is held together by bassist and producer Andreas Schmid, who has served time with Faust - a band who moved well beyond the confines of the Krautrock tag originally pinned upon them. He brings a similar approach to this album by pulling in influences from all over the shop without making it sound like a rehash of old ideas.

Incidentally, it would appear that since the recording of the album, Apperley has left the band. I'm not sure why or whether this is permanent but on the strength of recent gigs, Jim Smith (of Brum weirdos Betty & The Id) is a sterling replacement.

36 minutes seem to fly past in no time and as we approach the end, Lloyd's acerbic wit rears its head again in "Great British Exports", where he tries to list the things that made this country great. The best he can come up with is Mumford & Sons, "Midsomer Murders" and the slave trade. Is he suggesting that this record is the only great thing to come out of Britain? He's being arrogant again and in this case his swagger is justified. How many other bands can you name who split up, reform a decade later and then after a further decade release their best album?
Nightingales 10, rest of the world 0.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Indiepop Ain't Noise Pollution


Now in its second year, Birmingham Popfest is a weekend event admirably put together by Gavin Priest of indie band the Proctors. Although relatively low-key, there are a few well-known acts at the top of the bill, including some who you might not have realised were still around. Despite Birmingham's thriving music scene, many seem to think everything is centred around London so it's encouraging to see that fans have travelled from elsewhere in the country to attend.

I get to the Hare And Hounds early on the first day, expecting things to kick off at 5pm with the Tamborines. I have no idea who they are or what has happened to them but they are nowhere to be seen so I have nothing to do except have a drink until 6pm when the weekend gets started properly with Fever Dream. They sound exactly how I imagine a band of that name would sound - classic shoegaze in the style of My Bloody Valentine and true to form, the vocalist/guitarist spends most of the set hiding behind his fringe. There are some obvious melodies beneath the noise and towards the end everything goes a bit mid-80s Sonic Youth. As with most shoegazing, I have no idea what is being sung but the lyrics are probably pretty abstract anyway so I just let the waves of noise wash over me.

Fever Dream

Next up is Karen, featuring members of long-standing Bristol act the Brilliant Corners. I've assumed it will be a solo artist and I try to remember if the Corners ever had a female vocalist, but it turns out to be a band and as far as I can make out, none of the members are called Karen. I'm expecting something similar to the Corners' headline slot last year but I'm baffled at first when the opening songs bear little resemblance to the quirky songwriting of "Teenage" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me". Three songs in, when they announce that they're going to play a few break-up songs, I realise that this is something very different from their other band, and it's actually closer to the more morose aspects of the Auteurs. It is an enjoyable set, although afterwards I can remember few of the songs.


Many indie bands have generic names that are formed by simply taking two random words and sticking them together. As soon as Night Flowers have finished their set, I forget what they were called as there are so many bands with "night" or "flowers" in their name. They are the first real indiepop band of the weekend, with some nice guitar lines and twee vocals, and in case it isn't already clear where they're coming from, the singer smiles a lot and shakes a tambourine. Unfortunately the drums are a little too powerful and drown out the gentler elements. Eventually things even out as everything becomes more noisy but although I enjoyed their set I would have preferred to hear more of the prettier parts. If they can balance out the sound and come up with a more memorable name then Night Flowers do have potential.

Night Flowers

Saturday's highlight for me is the collaboration between Pete Fij (formerly of Adorable) and Terry Bickers (The House Of Love/Levitation). I hadn't realised that they'd been working together so I have no idea what to expect, whether it will be songs from their respective bands or something new. Apart from one Adorable song and a Spacemen 3 cover, the set is drawn from their album "Broken Heart Surgery". The contrast between Pete's gently strummed acoustic guitar and Terry's elaborate Durutti Column-inspired electric playing is phenomenal. The songs are moving but nothing has prepared us for the climax. Pete dedicates the final number to his father, who had died the previous week. The whole room falls silent as he delivers one of the most emotional performances I've seen. He just about makes it to the end then politely says his goodbyes and moves to the side of the stage. Once he's composed himself I have a long chat with him about such wide-ranging topics as his approach to songwriting and the recent scandals involving Dave Lee Travis and others. He's clearly a very intelligent man and I wish I had listened to the album sooner.

Pete Fij and Terry Bickers

As headliners the June Brides take to the stage I realise that despite their cult status, I'm not that familiar with their work. I have a compilation of their 1980s singles but I can't remember when I last played that. Apart from their best-known songs "No Place Called Home" and "Sick, Tired and Drunk", I recognise little of tonight's set and I actually feel slightly guilty about this. I'm coming to realise that it's insane to attempt to hear every band that fits into my usual style of listening so I manage to make the most of the June Brides' set despite my lack of acquaintance with the songs. As you would expect from the lead band at such an event, they have a recognisable jangly guitar sound but it's the addition of violin and trumpet that makes them stand out. I would like to give their songs a better listen and then maybe see them live again, but I still feel that the first night has been rounded off in style.

The June Brides

I arrive on Sunday to find that the running order has been shuffled slightly to make space for the Tamborines. But there is no sign of them. Again. I'm starting to doubt that they actually exist. The afternoon eventually gets going with an Italian (I think) going by the name of Morning Tea. At first this seems an odd name for a performer but it does suggest something very relaxing, which sums up his sound pretty well. It's reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens at times and the tales of regret over things that could have been reflect what usually goes on in my head while I'm drinking my morning tea.

Morning Tea

Next up is another solo artist, a Scotsman called Paul Tierney or Lonely Tourist as he prefers to be known. At first his guitar playing reminds me of early Billy Bragg, although his songs are not especially political. It's not until the second song that I notice his Scottish accent and I immediately think of Ballboy. (Are they still in operation? I hope so.) His accent is such that I don't know what all of the songs are about, apart from one about finding a footballer who shares his name. I should really have bought his album to find out more but I always come away from these events with too much to listen to anyway.
Lonely Tourist

I've seen some people sitting in the bar downstairs, all hair and sunglasses and leather jackets, and I know they have to be the Manhattan Love Suicides. They follow the tradition of the Primitives, Flatmates etc. and use sixties girl group-influenced vocals over buzzsaw guitars. But the vocals are sugar-coated barbed wire and the seemingly sweet songs have titles such as "Never Stop Hating You" and "She's A Bullet". The guitars could have come straight from "Psychocandy" and, dare I say it, the sound seems louder than when the Jesus And Mary Chain toured that album recently. Such is the ferocity that after three songs the bassist has lost his sunglasses and his perfectly groomed quiff has fallen into his eyes. I obviously need to give him some tips on hair products. Bands like this typically self-destruct within six months so catch them while you can.

The Manhattan Love Suicides

It's well known that I'm a big fan of Desperate Journalist, in fact they were responsible for my favourite release of last year. But when you're so enamoured with a band it's often difficult to describe them in a way that will convey what they actually sound like. Tonight they're playing on the biggest stage I've seen them on so far. It may just be due to the increase in volume but they seem much angrier than usual. It strikes me that what we have here is four very different people, which could explain why it's so hard to describe what happens when they come together. Rob Hardy's guitar sound brings to mind classic post-punk acts such as the Bunnymen, although tonight he attacks his instrument with such force that I wonder what it's done to upset him. You could usually imagine Jo Bevan fronting a pre-Britpop '90s band but tonight she too seems irate about something and her delivery borders on "riot grrrl". Caz Hellbent, as always, sits at the back channelling the spirit of Keith Moon. Bassist Simon Drowner is relatively restrained but I suspect that's because he has a lot going on inside his head. He could have stood in for Richey when the Manics toured "The Holy Bible" recently. If that description leaves you any clearer as to what the band sound like then I've obviously underestimated you. If not then your best bet is to head over to their bandcamp page and listen for yourself.

Desperate Journalist

Bob were always one of those bands who (to me at least) seemed to be better known for their t-shirts than their records. Back in the late '80s their red, white and blue logo was everywhere but I don't recall hearing their music. It's only in the last few years with a compilation of their singles becoming available that I've become familiar with their songs. So I'm surprised to find that they have such a dedicated following and that many people, including one of my friends, have come along specifically to see them. To a certain extent I get what I'm expecting, indiepop that characterises a specific era, but there is some scratchy guitar that takes me by surprise - something that could easily have been found on a Postcard release from many years prior to Bob's original incarnation. The percussionist tonight is playing what I believe is called a cajón. OK, it's just a wooden crate but it's still very effective. Songs such as "Convenience" and "Trousercide" get the crowd moving, with Bob delivering the most rousing set of the weekend.


Sunday night headliners the Primitives are usually remembered for one song. I'm sure I don't need to name it and I can't deny that it's one of the best singles of the 1980s, but there's a lot more to their back catalogue that is often overlooked. Their recent album "Spin-O-Rama" perfectly captures the post-C86 sound (I guess that would be C87?) and several songs from that record get an airing tonight. Most of all it's great to hear the other 1980s singles "Really Stupid", "Stop Killing Me" and "Thru The Flowers". Of course they also play "that song" but it's a very subdued rendition, as though they are desperate to take the focus away from it. There are criticisms from some in the room that it's just style over substance and I can see their point; the show is very much about Tracy Tracy, who is so small and sparkly that she wouldn't look out of place atop a Christmas tree. The way she twirls around and playfully reaches out to those at the front means that few people notice what the rest of the band are doing. Sure, it's a bit frivolous but it's a cheery way to end a weekend that has showcased a variety of styles.

The Primitives

I've noticed that when describing the weekend's performers I've compared most of them to other acts. This is simply because I've been going to gigs for so long that it's rare to find something that sounds truly new. But I've come to realise that this shouldn't be a problem. If you enjoy a particular sound then it's fine to embrace new acts playing in that style rather than criticise them for being unoriginal. Overall this was a very successful event and I hope Gavin can put together another varied line-up for next year. But the main lesson learned is probably that if you see a gig by the Tamborines advertised, don't count on them showing up.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Never Lose That Feeling

SWERVEDRIVER - Birmingham Academy 2

In the early 1990s, there was a relatively short-lived scene that journalists christened "shoegazing", due to the performers' habit of staring at their feet (or, more likely, their guitar pedals) rather than interacting with the crowd. I've mentioned many times on this blog that genre names can be unhelpful but shoegazing is an exception. I can easily define the sound and name the associated bands. They may not have been at the time but retrospectively, Oxford's Swervedriver are frequently mentioned alongside other acts who were part of the shoegaze culture. However, I'm not sure that this classification is entirely accurate. Although they used distortion and reverb effects, Swervedriver resided at the heavier end of the scale, and were more at home with US contemporaries such as Dinosaur Jr. Rather than hiding behind floppy fringes, they sported dreadlocks and they eschewed the ethereal lyrics of other shoegazers in favour of a road movie theme with pickup trucks and classic cars.

17 years since their last album, they are back and although the approach has matured, much of the intensity and lyrical themes remain. With the dreads gone, Adam Franklin could still be in an American film but with his cap and beard he now resembles a trucker, driving with a defined aim rather than for pure adrenalin. The songs from new album "I Wasn't Born To Lose You" take the sound that had started to develop on 1998's "99th Dream" and push it a little closer to classic shoegazing, with the chiming guitars calling to mind fellow Oxford band Ride. The songs are still about travel but there is a new-found desire to take in the scenery. We are clearly revisiting old haunts - the lyrics of "Everso" slip in a sly reference to classic single "Son of Mustang Ford" - but now the focus is on more than just getting the maximum power out of their engines. Tonight's opening number "Autodidact" talks of "a dimension of beauty mobilised within my head". I like to think that this blog follows similar lines - rediscovering loud records of the past but finding previously unnoticed subtleties beneath the volume.

The subtleties are apparent tonight because the sound is spot on. I've recently complained about the acoustics in certain local venues, but I find that smaller gigs often have better sound quality; with the crowd closer to the stage there is no pressure to crank everything up to 11. A powerful experience can still be achieved without sacrificing intricacy and as we stand by the speakers tonight, striking distinctions can be heard between each band member's contribution. Unlike many shoegaze acts, Adam's vocals are clear and the interplay between the fuzzy layers of guitar and more complex elements can be made out in a way that I would only expect when listening through headphones.

The problem with Friday night gigs is that they are often poorly attended as everyone prefers to head straight to the pub. Personally I prefer to be at a show that's not sold out, as I can get can close to the stage and even take a few photos without being crushed. But it's hard not to feel for an artist playing to a room not even half full. Swervedriver seem unfazed by this, though, as do the appreciative few who have shown up tonight. Of particular note is the chap in front of me with a lumberjack shirt over his Sonic Youth "Goo" t-shirt, flailing his long hair to old favourites such as "Rave Down" (with its gas station hell and "sharp hard hit of a car crash in a dream"), "For Seeking Heat" ("...a blur of beauty, intoxicating"), and of course "Son Of Mustang Ford" ("hallucinogen headlamps, my sane scape's disrupted in a pickup truck"). As much as the music itself, the presence of this one fan fills me with nostalgia. He doesn't want to forget the past, and why should any of us? Even if we have expanded our viewpoint beyond sheer speed, let's go out with one final blast of power. The evening closes with 1993 single "Duel", and its opening line "You've been away for so long, you can't ask why." Rather than ask why, let's just embrace this welcome return. As I leave clutching a beautiful splatter vinyl copy of "I Wasn't Born To Lose You", my one regret is that I hadn't bought the record sooner. Even before I've unwrapped it, on the strength of tonight's show I am certain it will be one of the top albums of 2015.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Boys Keep Swinging

LOUIS BARABBAS - Birmingham Tower of Song

As Louis Barabbas takes to the stage looking like he's just stepped out of "Peaky Blinders", I wonder how he came to be here. He is a man from another time and place. You could be forgiven for thinking that he's some retro hipster but it's soon clear that he is the real deal. Sure, the sound on his records with backing band the Bedlam Six - a mix of vintage swing and vaudeville cabaret - is not a million miles away from what certain other acts have done relatively recently. The Tiger Lillies are an obvious example. Add in the gypsy guitar that's prominent in his solo set tonight and older listeners might be reminded of Marc Almond's 1980s project, Marc and the Mambas. But while those artists borrowed from the past, you get the sense that Louis Barabbas was actually around during that era. By some strange freak of space-time, he seems to have influenced those acts who came before him.

Louis no doubt started out playing in a 1930s swing joint, but his glorious chaos would have been too much for the hepcats of the day. They went to those clubs to have fun and jive their cares away. They didn't want to hear about jealousy, revenge and a young child crucifying her pet cat. They would have chased him from the club with such anger that he had nowhere to run except into the 21st century, passing through 1977 to pick up a bit of punk spirit on the way.

And now he finds himself in an illicit backstreet whisky den playing to a small crowd who also feel at odds with the era in which they are living, so are more appreciative of his gritty tales. Despite the dark humour contained within, the music is upbeat and to call his performance energetic would be an understatement. The stage is too small to contain him and he expresses concern that his high kicks will knock over his drink. But that's the least of his worries. His jerky movements suggest a man who is constantly on edge, afraid that at any moment his nightmares are going to catch up with him.

There is a recurring theme of escape, particularly in the songs from the latest album, "Youth". During "The Debtor's Wife", he asks "Won’t nobody help me get out of this hole?" But ultimately we have to find our own way out, which becomes clear in standout song "Year Of The Bitch", where he talks of packing up his life and taking it to the tip. I'm sure you've often considered doing that but Louis has the courage to go through with it. And I suspect he has, judging from the song "Mother", where he confesses that "There’s a stranger in this mirror or is it just stained glass? I’ve changed my face so many times, I wish I could change the past." I feel that I must make the most of this fleeting display of genius before his past life kicks down the door and again causes him to flee.

Regular readers will know that here at Rebellious Jukebox we don't like to pigeonhole music. Louis is sympathetic to this. "Genres?" he asks, "What's that all about?" before announcing that he's going to play a soul song. By which he means that "Let Me Down Slow" is slower than the preceding numbers, but with more shouting to compensate. If he played this in a soul club then he would also be chased out. This is a one-man mission to smash the very concept of music genres. If you come away from this review none the wiser as to what he sounds like then he's obviously succeeded in his mission.

If the universe played by the rules then Louis Barabbas wouldn't exist in 2015. Thankfully, rules are there to be broken.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Papa Was A Rolling Stone


I've always found the music of Michigan songwriter Sufjan Stevens to be comforting but up until now I've never been sure why. His folk-pop albums, especially "Seven Swans", are beautiful but I've lost touch with him over the past few years as his work has gone off on a tangent. After two experimental records, Stevens has returned to his folk roots and his time in the electro-orchestral wilderness has strengthened him. "Carrie & Lowell" contains his most stripped-down sound to date with the plaintive guitar backed by a supporting cast, including Laura Viers, although their contributions can easily go unnoticed until the third or fourth listen. But in contrast to the fragility of the music, emotionally these are some of his most powerful songs and it suddenly becomes clear why I have always found such a feeling of warmth in his work.

Put simply, Sufjan Stevens reminds me of my dad and of his record collection that was a constant presence in our house during my childhood. Particular reference points are Simon and Garfunkel, or more delicate Beatles moments such as "Blackbird" or "Norwegian Wood". But most of all, these are the kind of songs that my dad would have written had he been a musician. On previous albums, Stevens has cunningly woven autobiographical elements into tales of fictional characters, and there was never a clear border between the two. Similarly my father would regale us with tales of his life, mostly untrue but the aim was to entertain rather than deceive. He clearly dreamed of being a performer and told us stories of his fictitious music career; he even convinced my sister that he had once been in the Beatles. In reality his musical ability was sadly limited, as is mine. So we have both had to settle for basing our writing and storytelling around the creativity of real performers.

Although there are moments here that are almost certainly fictional, Stevens has produced something that is rather more personal than previous efforts. The people in the title are his mother and stepfather; the album tells of the former, who left when Stevens was a child. He recounts memories of her but as his time with her was limited to the occasional holiday it's likely that many of these are pure fantasy, his idea of what a real childhood would be like. Again, I can imagine my father writing songs about the strained relationships with his own parents and siblings; the difference being that those songs would likely have been full of sarcastic humour (another trait he shared with me) while the songs on "Carrie & Lowell" display a touching sense of forgiveness. After seven albums, it seems that Stevens has finally found the confidence to be truly open with his audience.

The nakedness of the instrumentation here means that there is actually very little that I can say about it. Any attempt at a description would be similarly sparse so instead, I encourage you to listen to the album and, hopefully, purchase it. For me, there is nothing like unwrapping a physical album and reading the lyrics for the first time so I strive to avoid hearing new songs until the product is in my hands. Those of you who don't share my old-fashioned perspective might choose to listen to the full album stream that is available below. Whether you see parallels with your own upbringing or simply immerse yourself in the singer's own story, you cannot fail to be moved.

Monday, 9 March 2015

You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends


Back in 1992, the Wedding Present embarked on the ambitious venture of releasing a 7" single each month for the whole year. They were already hated by the music press and this project, deemed self-indulgent by many, did nothing to help their cause. But journalists' opinions have never mattered and the singles became very collectable. You might expect me to have been among those who collected them, but this was during the brief period when I only had a cassette player and my vinyl buying was minimal. The 24 tracks from the singles have now been compiled on a CD with all kinds of bonus material so it seems that a bit of re-evaluation is due.

In my late teens, the songs of the Wedding Present described my life more accurately than anyone apart from the Smiths. On the albums "George Best" and "Bizarro", David Gedge's words were full of anger and bitterness. His frantic guitar mirrored the speed of a typical relationship. Nought to break-up in three minutes. On the following album, the Steve Albini-produced "Seamonsters", the mood shifted from bitterness to resignation and this was reflected in the one-word song titles, in contrast to the lengthy names given to earlier tracks. "The Hit Parade" sees Gedge moving on with his life. There is more variety in the lyrics, although the general theme of relationships is continued. This was the point when my own relationship with the Wedding Present started to fall apart, and in the years that followed, Gedge's life moved on further and he began to seem like one of those friends whom you lose touch with after they get married and start a family. You feel pleased for their happiness but you no longer have anything to talk about. The late '90s albums sit in my collection like a number in an address book that I'm not even sure is up to date. Maybe I should rekindle my friendship rather than scribbling David Gedge's details out of my book.

The accusation "all the songs sound the same" was often levelled at the band, to the extent that they adopted it as a battle cry and I even had a t-shirt bearing the slogan. But these singles didn't all sound the same and looking back, it was the shock of this unfamiliarity, the variation from what I had come to trust, that disenchanted me. Older and wiser, I can see that this variety was essential or they would have stagnated. Having said that, listening to the tracks for what is probably the first time this century, I'm surprised to find that some are not as different from the earlier albums as I thought at the time. The vocal delivery is not as intense and although the guitar is toned down, much of the abrasiveness is still there. "Come Play With Me" and "Silver Shorts" in particular do sound comfortingly familiar. To a certain extent I must still be set in my ways because the peak for me comes halfway through the year with the most Wedding Present-like song. July's single, "Flying Saucer", eclipses everything on "Seamonsters" and finishes with an extended guitar workout reminiscent of the epic "Take Me" from "Bizarro". "Flying Saucer" is possibly the last classic Wedding Present song, but I've always said that about "Dalliance" from the previous album so maybe there is something of value to be found in the even later works.

Each new song was backed with a cover version and there are some inspired choices that in many cases outshine the song on the A-side. There are cult favourites from the likes of the Go-Betweens and the Close Lobsters, and a surprising take on the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" that comes closer to the magic of the original than I would ever have thought possible. The less predictable covers are film and TV themes ("UFO", "Shaft") and the standout of these, in fact probably the best of any of the 24 songs apart from "Flying Saucer", is "Falling". You would be forgiven for thinking that it is the version used in "Twin Peaks" until the vocals come in. Then the sound becomes so different from Julee Cruise's original that the effect is startling. This, combined with lyrics ("Don't let yourself be hurt this time") that could have been penned by Gedge himself, makes for a surreal experience and you wonder if you have woken up in David Lynch's nightmare world.

As with most "expanded" reissues, some of the extras are not strictly necessary. The 80-minute live set is worth hearing but do we really need 20 alternate takes and radio session tracks that barely differ from the 7" versions? The sequencing of disc 2 even means that we get two similar versions of "Silver Shorts" in succession. Obviously someone thinks this is a good marketing idea but despite my reputation as a collector, I rarely buy reissues just for different versions of songs I already have.

As if recording two songs a month wasn't keeping them busy enough, the lads also made a video for each new song and these are included, under the collective name of "Dick York's Wardrobe". These are proof, if you needed it, that indie bands should not make pop videos. They were obviously having a laugh but these are uniformly dreadful. In particular, I would advise against watching "Loveslave", as the image of the band in nappies and glittery wigs is not something that you will ever be able to erase from your mind.

When the singles came out I was such a staunch indie kid that I had sworn off all mainstream media and had no idea what was in the charts. They must have done pretty well though as there are no fewer than four "Top Of The Pops" performances included here. These are followed by a recent interview with David Gedge where he reflects on the recording sessions. I can't help but notice that he's starting to resemble Tony Blackburn and I wonder if this is what becomes of us all when we move on in life. Maybe I'll stick to anger and bitterness.

If you're not familiar with the Wedding Present at all, you should start with the albums "George Best" and "Bizarro" then work your way through the others until you get to the point where David Gedge's life seems to be taking a different path from your own. For those of you who are old friends but found your paths diverging 20 years ago, this would be a good time to reacquaint yourselves.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Noise Annoys

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN - Manchester Academy / Birmingham Institute

The choice of venue can often make the world of difference to the success of a gig, even with the performers giving it all they've got. This is painfully apparent when I compare these gigs that I saw a few months apart, with exactly the same set being played in two different locations. When the Jesus And Mary Chain announced three dates at the end of last year where they would be playing their 1985 debut in full, there was much excitement and a group of my friends immediately snapped up the maximum number of tickets for one of the shows, even before we'd worked out if there were enough of us to use all of them. With tours such as this, with only a handful of dates, it's likely that a longer tour will be scheduled soon afterwards and usually with a show closer to home, but if this means I get to see the band twice then so be it.

I'll start by reflecting on the Manchester show back in November, as I didn't write about it at the time. When a favourite band returns from a long break, particularly when playing a classic album that I was too young to hear played live the first time around, there's always the fear that it won't live up to expectations. In this case there was no need to worry. Before the full run-through of the album, we're treated to seven other songs from various points of their career - playing the encore first, as frontman Jim Reid puts it. They kick off with the jangly "April Skies", perhaps the song that most appeals to those who can't quite decide if they like the band or are put off due to their noisy reputation. Then there are a couple more almost-hits - "Head On" and "Reverence", plus the single "Some Candy Talking" from the same time as the album and the song "Psychocandy" itself, which confusingly didn't appear on the album. An unexpected and welcome inclusion is "Up Too High", an early song that was never released until it appeared on a collection of b-sides and demos in 2008. The first part of the show ends with the debut single "Upside Down", to prepare us for the discordant glory that's coming soon.

Then the volume is cranked up to 11 and even beyond, and we're reminded why "Psychocandy" was such a groundbreaking album. There are melodies here that are easily discernible alongside the wall of fuzz and some great singalong moments, including the gruesome motorbike crash of "The Living End", and "The Hardest Walk" - quite possibly the best break-up song ever. Jim is still a compelling performer, while his brother William stays in the shadows. Some have cruelly said that he's chosen to stay out of the limelight because he knows that he no longer looks as young as he used to, but he's retained his mountain of curly hair and seeing this silhouetted through the smoke, we could easily be back at one of their classic '80s shows where they never looked at the audience. William's guitar is very precise in its distortion and the trademark sharp feedback comes at exactly the right moments. Ex-Lush man Phil King adds an extra layer, not present on the original record but this only serves to make things more cohesive. This is one of the loudest gigs I've seen for a while but despite the volume there is clarity and we're left in no doubt as to what's going on behind the strobe lights.

If I have one quibble, it's the inclusion of a full drum kit. I'm very aware that the Mary Chain used "proper" drums in the final years of their original incarnation, but one of the key elements of "Psychocandy" is Bobby Gillespie's sparse drumming. Obviously Bobby has other things to be getting on with now, but I'm sure if they'd advertised then they would have found someone who couldn't play any more than two drums. I could easily get sidetracked into listing the host of great bands using this style of percussion, but let's just say that pretty much anything - doing the washing up, watching Jeremy Kyle - can be rendered life-changing by the addition of a stand-up drummer.

But I can't really complain about the absence of Bobby as the gig is still more exciting than most young bands I've seen over the past year. We leave the show feeling electrified that something 30 years old still sounds so fresh.

Three months later and I'm excited about seeing the same thing all over again, although I am a little cautious as the Institute has never been one of my favourite venues. I have attended gigs there where everything has sounded spot-on, but an equal number where the sound has left a lot to be desired. I've never been sure if this is because the shape of the room leads to poor acoustics, they've skimped on the sound system or maybe even the sound engineer himself isn't up to scratch.
Things don't seem too bad at first as the band blast through the same seven songs as at the Manchester show. The sound quality isn't perfect but at least things are reasonably clear and it's better than some gigs I've seen in this venue. But once the "encore" is over and we get to the album, things start to go wrong.
My best guess is that the soundman has never actually heard "Psychocandy" but is aware that it's full of distortion so decides that the best option is to push every one of his sliders to the top. This means that it's difficult to discern the separate elements of the music. William's shrill feedback is barely noticeable, all we get is a muddy pool of gloop. It becomes so murky that at one point I lose track of the songs. Despite the album being played in order and the fact that I can recite the tracklisting in my sleep, we're halfway into "Never Understand" before I realise which song it is.

The evening isn't a total loss and I do enjoy hearing the songs again, when I can work out what they are, but I get the feeling that if I had just seen this show and not the previous one then I would think that the band had lost their edge. Indeed, this is the opinion of a friend who is seeing them for the first time in 20 years.

I'm not sure if there are any long-term plans for this reunion, either new songs or more gigs, but I'm glad I got to see one more fantastic show from them and I'll try to forget about the second one. As with many things in life, great moments seem even better when you've got something rubbish to compare them with.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

From Russia With Love


Do you remember the year 2001? I don't. Maybe it was uneventful, or maybe I experienced an emotional trauma that has caused me to wipe the entire year from memory. After listening to this record, I suspect the latter.

I have recordings of old John Peel shows and I find it comforting to hear his voice. In the run-up to Christmas I attempted to listen to a different Festive 50 broadcast each day. A John Peel advent calendar, if you like. In the 2001 chart there was a song by Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia. I didn't know the song but the band name sounded vaguely familiar so I decided to investigate. I discovered that I have this 10" mini-album. I don't remember buying it. I don't remember hearing it. I don't remember seeing them support Pulp at a gig that was broadcast live on Radio 1, but my diary tells me that I was there.

The Oxford band deal in hazy guitar and keyboard textures with sudden bursts of noise. There are brief moments of piano and drum machine that threaten to wander into the realm of "Kid A" but then lose confidence and come creeping back. You're probably thinking that this is nothing you haven't heard a thousand times before. The key element, though, is the series of monologues delivered by Emily Gray. While there are similarities to the structures of the Slint songs reviewed last week, rather than pieces of fiction these stories of lust and betrayal are very personal. Despite the wall of fuzz that threatens to drown her out, Gray's voice is crystal clear. We are left in no doubt as to what has gone on in her life, even if she would prefer to forget.

Particularly during the stark piano moments, I'm reminded of Arab Strap. Their frontman Aidan Moffat's words also tell of ill-advised liaisons so maybe these are the same stories told from the other person's perspective. But while Moffat is crude and boastful about his conquests, Gray sees nothing to be proud of.

It's possible that each song tells of a different relationship but they end the same way, with emptiness and despair.  We've all been there. You tell yourself that it will be the last time you get into this situation. But of course, it happens again. And again. You end up angry with yourself for not taking your own advice. At times, Gray takes out this frustration by indulging in self-harm, or maybe this is a means of distracting herself from the futility of the relationship. In other songs, it seems to be the partner who is abusive. This not a comfortable listening experience.

Eventually I realise what it really is that's making me feel uneasy. Emily Gray's voice sounds familiar. There are hints of Linda Steelyard of Prolapse, who featured in the first ever post on this blog. But, no... it's someone else... maybe not even a singer. Maybe it's the person who caused me to lose the whole of 2001. I wish I could remember.

Although she is haunted by most of her experiences, Gray does look back fondly on one brief period of her life. On "Blindspot/Invisible Bend", she is desperate to become reunited with the man in question and spends months trying to track him down. She becomes excited when she thinks she has spotted him from a distance, but it turns out to be someone else. There is a lesson in this anticlimax. By all means reminisce about the past but trying to recreate the moment or reconnect with those who shared it with you will end in disappointment. There is a reason why those people are no longer in your life.

By the time we reach "Morning After Pill", everything has become clear. I sense that the pill in question is not to avoid possible pregnancy but to erase the memory of the regrettable encounter. I'm left with the feeling that my life - not just relationships but everything - has been a sequence of one-night stands. Ultimately of little consequence. The final line of the album says it all:
"Please keep in touch..."  "I couldn't see the point."

Monday, 16 February 2015

Fill your pockets with the dust and the memories...


I had another blog post lined up for this week, but after the upsetting events involving David Pajo last Thursday/Friday, I felt that I had to write something by way of a tribute. If you're not aware of the story then you'll find it on most US music news sites, I won't go into the details here. Having discussed this on other social media platforms, the consensus was that it is not our place to speculate on Pajo's emotional state, other than to wish him a speedy recovery. I will just say that it's an indicator of the power of social media that so many people leapt into action and prevented a sad story from becoming a tragic one.

Pajo has been inspirational for a generation of guitarists who didn't want to be constrained by conventional chord structures. In recent years, he has performed solo under a variety of names and also in bands including Tortoise and Billy Corgan's post-Smashing Pumpkins project, Zwan. But the high respect bestowed upon him really stems from this 1991 album by his original band, Slint. Their first album, "Tweez", was produced by Steve Albini and although there is certainly some experimentation going on, overall it sounds more like an Albini project. Slint would have been consigned to the "other US indie" record fair crates were it not for the radical change of style that occurred on their second record. Having said that, "Spiderland" was largely ignored on its release and it wasn't until five years later, when a handful of up-and-coming bands started to cite it as a reference point, that the rest of the world began to take notice.

Despite my previous post on music genres, it's inevitable that we'll get onto that topic when discussing Slint - partly because the album itself is so hard to categorise, but also because it has spawned a host of meaningless genre names invented by journalists with nothing better to do. In the late 1990s, the latest wave of experimental bands were being tagged as "post-rock" or "math-rock". Are these just the UK and US names for the same style of music? I've never been sure what math-rock actually is. Regardless of the classification, the influence of Slint was apparent.

It would have been easy for Slint to become part of the grunge movement that was developing at the same time but, while keeping much of the distorted guitar sound, they rejected the lazy delivery style of Mudhoney and their ilk, and produced something far more elaborate. In places their use of unpredictable time signatures would be better described as prog, but back in 1991 no one would dare admit that they knew the meaning of that word.

Slint's lyrics are also far removed from the anger and apathy found on other records of the time. Again harking back to classic UK bands of the early '70s, each song is a work of fiction. But the stories are incomplete and you are left to fill in the gaps for yourself. It's likely that your conclusions will be bleaker than the band originally intended. Brian McMahan's vocal delivery shows emotional detachment and is very matter-of-fact despite the grim nature of the subject matter. This only adds to the mystery. At times the words are almost whispered and are drowned out by the tortured sounds from Pajo's guitars so this is a record that really needs to be heard through headphones.

The complex nature of the album means it would be difficult for you to get an idea of the sound simply from me attempting to describe it to you, so it might be easier if I let you listen. As there are only six tracks on the album, let's look at each one in turn.

We kick off with a trip to the funfair and a visit to the fortune teller on "Breadcrumb Trail". The opening chimes sound pretty but don't be fooled; the next 40 minutes will be anything but comfortable. Rather than getting his fortune told, the narrator persuades the fortune teller to accompany him on the roller coaster. The sudden transition in the guitar sound and vocal delivery suggests it's a terrifying ride. But things calm down after the ride is over and you're left hoping that the two characters will meet up again once the funfair has closed.

"Nosferatu Man" is obviously inspired by the 1920s horror film. The lyrics are (I suspect intentionally) disjointed and difficult to follow. Rather than being a literal description of the film, the words seem to represent the desolation that seeps through the rest of the album. The dissonant guitar sound in the "chorus" (if you can call it that) adds to the feeling of uneasiness.

"Don, Aman" describes a character who feels alienation even in the company of friends - "Like swimming underwater in the darkness, like walking through an empty house, speaking to an imaginary audience." The distortion in the middle section emphasises this feeling of isolation before the final verse tells us that "he knew what he had to do." Hopefully what Don actually has in mind is not as gruesome as we are imagining.

Side 2 starts with "Washer", which is the closest the album comes to a conventional song structure. It's also the only track where the vocals show any kind of personal involvement and where it's clear, to me at least, what is happening in the lyrics. The words seem pertinent at the moment so perhaps we should move on for the sake of sensitivity...

"For Dinner..." is an instrumental track, which could be overlooked at first but it builds the tension in preparation for the album's standout song.

"Good Morning, Captain" has the sparsest arrangement on the album. The main guitar part consists of just two chords and never appears at same time as the vocals. This is the song whose lyrics I've spent the most time contemplating. They tell of the aftermath of a shipwreck and the captain of the title is apparently based on the Ancient Mariner, although I must confess I have never read Coleridge's poem in its entirety.
Halfway through the song, a child appears; I have always assumed that he is being reunited with his estranged father. It's not clear who utters the words "I'm trying to find my way home. I'm sorry. I miss you." I had originally thought it was the child, but listening to the song now it seems more likely that it's the captain, apologising for being away at sea for so long. Perhaps all would be clear if I were more familiar with the original poem. What's most puzzling is the barely audible line, "I want the police to be notified." I think I would prefer not to know what had happened in the past to prompt this. What follows is the most terrifying section of the entire album, with McMahan screaming so loudly that he allegedly made himself sick. It's a relief when the screams are eventually buried beneath the squall of Pajo's guitar.

Like the characters in the songs, you will feel alienated and detached from this album after the first listen. It takes time to become fully acquainted with these songs but your patience will be rewarded. More than 20 years on, "Spiderland" continues to be relevant and is deserving of its reputation as one of the most influential records of its time.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Bigmouth Strikes Again

I would like to set the record straight about my relationship with Steven Patrick Morrissey. This piece might come across as something of a hatchet job. If so then I apologise for any offence caused to his fans or even to the man himself - who I'm sure will be reading this. When asked which artist they associate with me, many would say Morrissey. They would say that I collect his records, which is true. They would say that I look like him, which has never been my intention. They would say that I worship the ground that he walks on, which is certainly not true. I have in fact heard myself referred to as "Morrissey Steve" to distinguish me from the many other Steves in my social circle.

I should start by saying that I am a great admirer of (most of) his recorded output. There is no question that the Smiths are one of the most important bands of my lifetime. They changed my music tastes forever when I first heard them in my teenage years. I return to their records more than any others in my collection. I can quote all of their lyrics, and often do as there is usually a line that seems pertinent to any situation in which I happen to find myself. Morrissey's solo work was never going to match the splendour of the Smiths and although I can't quote all of his recent words faultlessly, I have still collected and enjoyed his releases.

For me, his solo career peaked relatively soon after the break-up of the Smiths. Nobody could fault his 1992 album "Your Arsenal". I also have a fondness for the singles released at that time, particularly 1991's "Pregnant For The Last Time", when his music first began to show traces of rockabilly. This was largely down to the backing band he had now put together. Guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer were the most proficient musicians he had worked with since Johnny Marr. They also looked great - but more on that later.

After two more impressive albums in the late '90s, the quality of his work began to decline. I find a lot of his music from this century to be rather wishy-washy and I haven't committed many of the lyrics to memory. The latest album, "World Peace Is None Of Your Business", shows signs of a rejuvenation with the songs telling the interesting stories we would expect, in contrast to the lyrics about nothing much at all found on "Ringleader Of The Tormentors". Perhaps there is scope for a full review on these pages at a later date.

But enjoying someone's music is very different from idolising them or wanting to be like them. While talking about the availability of Morrissey dolls, someone jokingly suggested that I might have a shrine dedicated to him. There are stereotypical fans, who go to every show on a tour, fight over scraps of his shirt and do indeed have shrines - I used to know someone like this. I don't consider myself to be in this category, I certainly hope I'm not anyway. More than anything, I have never referred to the man as "Moz".

Morrissey fanatics, male and female, often attempt to copy his appearance. You might be surprised to learn that my hairstyle is not based on Morrissey's in particular. A 1950s rockabilly look does sit well with many of the bands in my collection, and a better example of someone who has influenced my style would be Alain Whyte. Look at his neatly-styled quiff in the video for "Glamorous Glue" above, then compare it with the hairstyle of the singer - I would say that a rockabilly look was never really what Morrissey was going for. One of the most bizarre questions I've ever been asked was nothing to do with hairstyles. A complete stranger, not considering that I might genuinely suffer from hearing loss, said to me, "Do you wear that hearing aid to look like Morrissey?" I can't remember my response but it probably wasn't polite.

Trivial matters of fashion aside, the main reason that friends associate me with Morrissey is probably that he is such a high-profile artist. Those who follow me on social media will know that if I had a shrine to anyone then it's more likely to be Kristin Hersh, Michael Gira or Amanda Palmer. None of these get much news coverage, so people focus on my interest in the one artist they know something about. Unfortunately his high profile is often for the wrong reasons and I don't want people to assume that I agree with some of his outrageous statements. A friend, who I hoped would know better, said that he thought that Morrissey was the person who had the most influence on my life. I was quick to point out that there are many aspects of Morrissey's character that I strive to avoid.

It's fair to say that he's now known more for being outspoken than for his music. You could argue that everyone should stand up for their principles, but in Morrissey's case the line between principles and blatant attention-seeking is becoming increasingly blurred. Let's not waste time discussing all of his controversial quotes, but just look at the top of this page for an example of one of his outbursts that would embarrass any sane member of his fanbase. This is why I don't want people to think that he has any influence over my life.

In recent years, he's become notorious for scrapping gigs and entire tours. I was saddened when the news broke about his serious illness, so obviously he can be forgiven for any cancellations due to health problems. But abandoning a gig at the last minute due to his own petty niggles with the venue or audience shows a disregard for the fans who already have tickets. I respect his decision not to eat meat and he is entitled to promote this viewpoint, but trying to enforce it upon others is another thing entirely. My vegetarian friends are realistic enough to accept that some people choose to eat meat. Come on, Moz, what makes you any different? He's currently in the news for demanding that a venue stops selling meat if his performance there is to go ahead. Tantrums like this have caused even the most fervent fans to say that he's a bit of a twit.

I deliberated for a long time before deciding to buy a ticket for his forthcoming tour. At first I was reluctant due to the high cost, the size of the venue meaning it will be difficult to get a good view, but mainly the risk of the show being cancelled. What finally settled it for me was the thought that this might be the last time that I get to see him. Not so much a morbid prediction based on his current state of health, just that he might retire from touring due to his dissatisfaction with humanity in general. Assuming the show does go ahead, I'm sure I won't regret my decision.

So, I hope that has cleared a few things up. Morrissey and I have had our ups and downs but we are still friends. Nothing more.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Floored Genius

JULIAN COPE - Birmingham Glee Club

Julian Cope, it has to be said, has committed some atrocities in the name of music. The former Teardrop Explodes frontman is an expert on obscure '60s and '70s rock, and has written several books on the topic. But sometimes these influences creep into his music, especially in recent years. This, along with his inclination for long meditative pieces, can lead to results that would have been best left in the studio bin. Brain Donor, his Kiss-inspired side project, is excruciatingly painful and I'm not entirely sure that it was meant to be ironic.

Now I have nothing against experimentation, indeed there is plenty of it in my record collection, but Cope is such an outstanding songwriter that he shouldn't need to rely on gimmicks. His live shows should always be approached with caution, but when he walks onstage with no backing band and just an acoustic guitar, as is the case tonight, you should be safe.

It soon becomes apparent what a constant presence Cope has been in my life since I bought his "Saint Julian" album back in 1987. He has been there watching over me for so long that I no longer notice. He's released seven albums just in this century and although I'm pretty certain I've bought them all, I don't think I could name them or recognise many of the songs. At least that's what I think until he launches into the opening number, "Living In The Room They Found Saddam In" - possibly one of the best songs he's penned in his solo career. I immediately remember what I was doing in 2005 when this came out. The same is true for the rest of the set; Cope has been so prolific that there is a section of his back catalogue intrinsically linked with pretty much every period of my life.

It's his early-90s releases that mean the most to me, particularly "Peggy Suicide" and "Jehovahkill", where he began to move away from the quirky pop of the earlier albums. The songs became slightly more complex without being overblown, but at the same time those records feature some beautiful stripped-down moments. The opening songs from these two albums, "Pristeen" and "Soul Desert" respectively, are similar in structure, with each one having just one very basic set of words repeated throughout. They remind me of the simpler times we lived in back then. The two songs are the highlights of tonight's set, and Cope remains more or less faithful to the simplicity of the originals, although he does attempt to turn the ending of "Soul Desert" into an all-out rocker. Well, as much as you can rock out with just an acoustic guitar anyway. He wisely brings the song to a close just as it starts to become comical.

His live sets often contain songs that are still in development or were written years ago but not recorded. There are song titles that are often mentioned on fansites but are probably apocryphal. Does a song called "I Could Strangle Pete Wylie" really exist? Cope's erstwhile Crucial Three colleague does get a mention tonight though. The title of Wylie's hit "Heart As Big As Liverpool" has been corrupted to give us a song about the perils of drinking, called "Liver As Big As Hartlepool". Another new (to me, anyway) song has a title that I won't repeat here in case there are any children reading, but Cope explains that it is intended to offend or at least confuse Americans, simply because they use the same four-letter words but in a different format.

It's not just the songs but also the anecdotes between that make for a memorable evening. He takes a self-deprecating look at his career and how the Teardrop Explodes failed to achieve their full potential, referring to himself as an "intuitive non-career mover". Sometimes it's not clear whether he's talking about his own experiences or those of an exaggerated cartoon character and even in his own mind the boundaries have become blurred; he took what he describes as a method actor approach when writing his first novel. During "Sunspots", he stops to tell us about the lyric insert that was required for the Japanese release. After a lengthy discourse about the part in the chorus that "sounds like a car going past" causing problems for the poor sod given the task of transcribing, he remembers that he still owes us the final verse and resumes the song. Few performers could get away with that.

When he returns for an encore, he tells us that the previous night, the crowd had shouted for "Robert Redford". He hasn't had time to write a song on that topic on the way to tonight's gig, so instead we have to make do with "Robert Mitchum". I suspect he tells the same story every night, but we will forgive him that little bit of artistic licence. Despite my reservations about some of his work, and some of the live sets I've seen him play, he has proved tonight that those minor blips only make up a small percentage of his career. I'm not sure what 2015 is going to bring for me but I hope he will provide me with some new songs as a soundtrack that I will still remember when I look back in 20 years' time.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

World In Motion

While I try to decide which band I'm going to write about next, here's a link for another blog that you might enjoy.

DJ Esperanto, or Jenny as we know her, is a fan of music from around the world, in many different styles but usually sung in a foreign language. She posts a vintage foreign language song on Twitter and Facebook each day and her new blog aims to archive all of those songs.

I think the term "world music" has fallen out of fashion to a certain extent but it was often used to describe the music popularised by Andy Kershaw, amongst others, on his radio show from the late 1980s onwards. Those artists seemed to be primarily from Africa and the Middle East so the name could be regarded as inappropriate. DJ Esperanto also posts tracks from European countries and as she goes beyond the confines of world music, perhaps we should term her choices "universal music".

You can follow the blog here:

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Whirlwind, Heat and Flash


I recently saw this NME article about albums that will be reaching an anniversary this year. It's a typical NME piece really, big pictures and not much going on in terms of content. It also seems rather arbitrary to celebrate a record just because it's been around for a number of years ending in 0 or 5. Does an album suddenly become more influential and meaningful after 25 years than it was after 24? However, it did make me want to dig out a few of them and maybe even recommend them to other people. Although these are classic albums, maybe some of my readers are (heaven forbid) not old enough to have heard them when they were released.

But surely I don't need to tell you about "Goo". Everyone knows this record, right? Although it's hip to claim that "Daydream Nation" is the best Sonic Youth album, 1990's "Goo" is the one that led most people of my generation to discover the band. So I listened to it again, for the first time in ages. Hmmm... I'd forgotten about that bit. And that bit. Maybe people don't know it backwards and inside out as I'd imagined. It's normally described as their major label debut and commercial crossover; even the NME piece calls it their most accessible. Sure, it was their first release on Geffen, but commercial? Seriously? Have these people listened to side 2?

Before we talk about the music, let's take a look at that iconic Raymond Pettibon artwork. This is one of the reasons that the album is so well known. Every student had this on a t-shirt or a poster at the time. Look at how much merchandise I still have now. I have since discovered the origins of the picture but when I first encountered it, I wondered if it was supposed to represent two members of the Velvet Underground. I didn't know which two, I was never even sure if the one holding the cigarette was male or female. This ambiguity certainly made my parents feel uncomfortable about me wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that I had stolen my sister's boyfriend. (Believe me, if you'd seen him then you'd realise how unlikely that is.)

For anyone who was born after 1990 and is wondering about the object on the right - it's a DVD. Just a different shape.

Now we've admired the artwork, let's put the record on. Side 1 has the songs that you've probably heard even if you don't have the album. "Dirty Boots" and especially the single, "Kool Thing" were indie dancefloor fillers at the time and would usually be played side by side with the Seattle bands who were just starting to break into the limelight. Between these sits the album's most prominent piece, "Tunic". It's not often that Kim Gordon takes the lead but when she does, the result is usually breathtaking. Here, her dreamy vocals depict Karen Carpenter looking down from heaven and speaking to her family. For many indie kids at this point, Karen was just someone in their parents' record collection and this was the first time they became aware of the genuine suffering that she went through. Athough "Tunic" is not as sonically brutal as some of the other tracks, it's certainly unsettling.

Things start to get freaky before we've even reached the end of side 1. "Mote", on the face of it, has a conventional song structure, although the processed vocals can be rather disconcerting if you're not familiar with Sonic Youth's earlier work and that of their peers. I have to admit that I had never read the lyrics until I revisited the album for this article. Lines such as "I am airless, a vacuum child" and "Words don't speak, just fall across the carpet" give a sense of feeling yourself disappear and perhaps questioning your own existence. There was a hint of this in the lyrics of "Tunic" and the theme continues throughout side 2. At the point when you think the song has ended, something happens. I'm not sure what but it will make you walk over to your turntable to check why it has suddenly started playing at the wrong speed. The band then seem to return to their No Wave roots with a repetitve bass riff that gives the feeling of being trapped underwater, and this goes on for four minutes. Anyone who calls this accessible is clearly crazy.

Flipping over to side 2, there's a brief respite with "My Friend Goo", which is rather silly and could even be deemed irritating, but make the most of the light-hearted interlude before the terror recommences. The songs continue to make us doubt what we'd taken for granted until now and there might even be a UFO abduction but by this point the lyrics have stopped making any kind of sense. Things come to a head with "Mildred Pierce". It starts with a spoken voice repeatedly intoning the title over a dominant bassline and some trademark Sonic Youth guitar but then it explodes into a death metal racket. I'm not sure if there are any actual words - Thurston Moore is credited with screams rather than vocals on this one - but I think I would prefer not to know the lyrics anyway.

If I try to list the songs on the album without looking at the sleeve, I always forget "Cinderella's Big Score", although there's no reason why it should be forgotten. It starts with more of the droning No Wave sound that will have become familiar if you've made it this far but after two minutes it does turn into a song, albeit one that sounds like it came from an earlier album such as "Evol" or "Sister". With a slight change to the arrangement, this could have been a catchy tune, maybe even a single. But why they would want to do that? Even if they're on a major label now, they don't have to prove anything.

The album closes with "Titanium Exposé", which re-assures us that everything we've experienced was a dream or something we saw on TV. But do they mean just the last 45 minutes? Or my entire life? I'm confused. This is not how I was expecting to feel after a "commercial crossover" album. I set out with the aim of recommending "Goo" as a starting point for newcomers to Sonic Youth, but now I concede that maybe "Daydream Nation" has more tunes after all. So get that one instead then move onto "Goo" - perhaps stopping to get yourself a t-shirt along the way. I've also come to realise that I have many albums that sit neglected on my shelves because I just take them for granted. But if this experience is anything to go by, I don't know them anything like as well as I imagine I do.