Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Top tweeters

Using a sophisticated kludged methodology, it's my pleasure to give you some top grassroots tweeters from Friends of the Earth.

[Kermit flail]

I've taken a look at all the Friends of the Earth group accounts I follow, as well as individual accounts by people involved in Friends of the Earth local groups (minus those who mainly tweet about non-environmental issues).

I then correlated the most frequent tweeters and the most followed to compile the list below.

This isn't any kind of official list - and of course many of the individual accounts tweet about other interests and affiliations.

But if you're looking to connect with the most active corner of the Friends of the Earth twittersphere then follow these people. :-)

Here we go - in no particular order


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Great Escape Discoveries

A quick video capture of the best new (to me) bands and artists we saw at The Great Escape.

Unintentionally hilarious programme blurb: The saint of singer-songwriters whose charity work warms the heart like his heavenly harmonies

Smashing bloke who then sent us a demo of For Your Love (video below) as we liked it so much we wanted to play it at our wedding and cheekly asked him if he had an acoustic version. Performed un-miked with his band in the Jubilee Library and you could hear a pin drop.

And then achieved the same effect , but plugged in, later that day at Brighton's beautiful Unitarian Chapel.

Avant-garde-chasing programme blurb: A captivating vocalist who is more interested in challenging perceptions of what songwriting can or should be in modern times.

We say: along with Josh Record our highlight of 2014 - brilliant! Subtle, rhythmically fluid and unsettling tunes. Currently very much enjoying her free covers LP, especially her version of Lithium.

I give up, I really do programme blurb: lush pounding rock, ringing guitars and trebly widescreen anthemia is sure to get you dancing.

We say:

And if anything is widescreen anthemia, this is it, to be fair. 

Literal-minded programme blurb: singer/songwriter creating a great indie pop mix: witty and honest lyrics, minimal beats and some stringy-synths.

We say: 

Dictionary-brandishing programme blurb: Her songs blend symbolist harmonies and European tones into dark romanticism and shimmering poetry.

We say: highly enjoyable, although we bet she has a few Nick Cave and Tom Waits records lying around, the influences were marshaled expertly.

Honourable mention 1 - some guys called The Kaiser Chiefs

We managed to get into a secret gig with those noted riot-clairvoyants. While I'm not the biggest fan in the world on paper, it was seriously enjoyable. And like Example the previous evening, Ricky Wilson gave a rafter-swinging, crowd-parting masterclass in how to be a frontman, as the clip below illustrates.

Honourable mention 2 - The Lavelles

This video doesn't really do them justice, but these young Brighton folkies were great. I glibly referred to them on Twitter as Babybel(le) and Sebastian, but they are so much better than that gag. Keep doing what you're doing, guys, and good things will happen. :)

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Greeks invented a steam engine?

'Almost two millennia before the rest of humanity entered the industrial age, the Greek inventor Hero invented the steam engine, wind-powered machinery, and theories of light that couldn't be improved for centuries. And then he invented some really crazy stuff.'

Fascinating article from Kotaku - couldn't read it without reminiscing about long teenage hours spent playing Civilisation, either.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

At least as reactionary as it once was radical: Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron

'One of the most uncompromisingly adult science-fiction novels ever written', saith the back cover of this 1972 edition of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron.

Take a look at the front cover and you can hazard a guess what adult means here.



Er.. rainbows?

While it is steeped in the sixties counterculture, Bug Jack Barron isn't the SF goes Austin Powers fluff you might assume from the artwork. It's a vehicle for Spinrad's considerable satirical talents, a Dylan-quoting caustic assault on the complacent heart of baby boomer America. 

The problem for the modern reader is that the novel's intended effect is undermined by Spinrad's reactionary sexual politics and his unwise - to put it mildly - deployment of the N-word to the point of nausea. Controversial at the time, a half-century of cultural shift has left the taboo-breaking radical looking reactionary.

The plot of Bug Jack Barron could loosely be described as Sexy Nick Ferrari Saves America From Itself. Ordinary people call Jack Barron's video phone-in show with a problem, and he gets all Esther Rantzen on their behalf, grilling politicians and businessmen live on air. And by far the best - or at least the most accessible and least excruciating - parts of the book are the blow-by-blow accounts of the programme.

The novel recounts how a routine inquiry to Jack about the affordability of cryogenic freezing to the poor  - especially the black poor - escalates into a story that will blow open the corruption of America's youth-obsessed, acquisitive, sell-out, complacent ruling classes. And asks Jack's viewers (and the reader) - would you be any different?

Sometimes the writing supports this. Spinrad is fond of lapsing into a Burroughsian torrent of broken sentences and repetition, which serves well to power the stream-of-consciousness monologues which define the chief 'tagonists. It humanises Jack and makes the villainous cryogenics boss chillingly memorable.

At other times I had to skip whole paragraphs, especially the sex scenes. And there is a lot of teh sexing in Bug Jack Barron, oh yes. Combine the descriptive overload of Burroughs with the sexual politics of Henry Miller, and you get page after page of worship of Jack and his sexual prowess. 

Aesthetics aside, the real problem here is the subservience. The main role of women in the plot is to sleep with/validate/adore Jack Barron. Or to recognise when they are holding him back by sleeping with him. Spinrad might be merrily slaughtering sacred cows throughout the novel, but feminism is definitely the mote in its eye. Small wonder the (women) typesetters of New Worlds, the magazine in which it was originally printed, refused to work on it.

Spinrad's also fonder of the N-word than a sixteen year old white gangsta wannabe. Some of this usage is in context - when the chief villain is a racist and a (sympathetic) supporting character is a black nationalist Governor of Mississippi, for instance. And - without revealing some massive spoilers - I do think Bug Jack Barron is a deeply anti-racist book from a time when a lot of SF did nothing more than reflect dominant cultural values.

But most of the usage - which easily creeps into the hundreds - feel like a gratuitous bid for shock value which added nothing to the book then and grates even more so now. When Spinrad puts the word into the mouths of characters who don't have N-word privileges - if such a thing can even be said to exist - or simply adds it to his narrative flow, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

In short - I don't question his convictions, but I do question his sincerity. I do question his strategy.

What I find most frustrating about Bug Jack Barron is that this is a brave and intriguing piece of work, more ambitious than you'll find that often in period SF. Yet it's flaws are so overwhelming that I cannot in all conscience regard as being of more than academic interest today. It's simultaneously both a deeply adult and a deeply juvenile novel.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Soft Pink Truth: how to deal with unsavoury politics in black metal

Electronic artist Daniel Drew, AKA The Soft Pink Truth (and half of Matmos, Bjork collaborator etc) is releasing Why Do The Heathen Rage, an album of black metal covers, this summer (logo here and teaser video at the link above)

Here's Drew's take on homophobia and racism in black metal, from his label Thrill Jockey's advance publicity, which captures my feelings on the matter perfectly. Ideally, this is the line I'd like Terrorizer to take when writing about Burzum, Rob Darken and their ilk.

Disclaimer: Aesthetics and Politics are neither equivalent nor separable. Black metal fandom all too often entails a tacit endorsement or strategic looking-the-other-way with regards to the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic bulls**t politics that (still) pervade the scene, on behalf of either escapist fantasy talk, shaky invocations of art as a crypto-religious path to transcendence, or--the oldest cop out in the book--the quietist declaration that “I just like how it sounds.” 

Just as blasphemy both affirms and assaults the sacred powers it invokes and inverts, so too this record celebrates black metal and offers queer critique / mockery / profanation of its ideological morass in equal measure. 

Mixed emotions about a murky, diverse and self-differential scene are all very well, but, as Barack Obama is so fond of saying at press conferences just before legitimizing drone warfare, let’s be clear: No apologies, no excuses, and no escape clauses are hereby offered. Murderers are murderers. No safe space for fascist garbage. 

The Soft Pink Truth hereby abjures black metal homophobes, racists, and Nazis categorically and absolutely: MAY THIS CURSE BIND! Remember Magne Andreassen!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Black metal facepalm - why won't Terrorizer tell us Varg Vikernes is racist?

If you need a pocket guide to Varg Vikernes and his one-man project Burzum, you might as well start with the Wikipedia entry. But let's just say that when pop culture thinks about black metal - that murder, those church burnings - then Varg is who they're thinking of. 

In its recent Norway special issue, Terrorizer seems quite happy writing about his criminal convictions - they seem less keen on covering his political ones. And Varg is quite open - vocal even - about his racism during and after his imprisonment. I've read countless articles online that do cover and call him out on this.

So why so coy, Terrorizer, with statements like:

"The man is controversial, to say the least, and his actions and motivations constantly discussed."

"He was maintaining a high media profile and was pushing ever more controversial opinions in interviews."

Why not just come out with it and say it?

I've written previously about the sanitizing effect of covering racist metal bands within the mainstream media (and Terrorizer is mainstream media) without providing challenge and context. This is another example of the problem.

I don't expect the mag to come off the fence - although I'd really like it to - it's resolutely apolitical in its approach. But as a minimum I would expect it to be clear about when an musician does have deeply objectionable views which need to be taken into account when engaging with them. 

Whatever their supposed importance to the genre.

To be clear by comparison, I don't think every piece on Varg's peers in Darkthrone needs to bring up the 'Norwegian Aryan Black Metal' sleeve notes incident. It's a facile, adolescent piece of bourgeois-baiting in an otherwise apolitical career, but it's on a par with Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley Contingent swanning round in swastika armbands in the late 70's. 

Stupid, yes, but not to the extent of permeating their entire work.

But Varg's racist ideology is so inherent to his music that you can't write an article about 'why he matters' and fudge the issue by not mentioning it at all , and then expect to be taken seriously.

And let's round this off by talking safe space. Metal culture is supposed to be a space where everyone can congregate, however outcast they might feel, right?

But by sweeping Varg's racism under the carpet - Terrorizer comes close to tacitly condoning it, suggesting that his prejudice is more important than making extreme metal a tolerant and welcoming space for all.

The frustrating thing is that the Norway special has now me checking out other bands like Enslaved, In The Woods..., Solefald, Virus and even Immortal. There's some not bad journalism collected here. Terrorizer often knows what it's doing. 

But at least in this respect, it really doesn't. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Britpop and the Shine compilations: as broad a church as your indie disco requires

Looking back at Britpop from the vantage point of the 21st century, it feels much more like a moment than a movement. Many of the bands were the same bunch of Madchester survivors, shoegazers and post-grunge rock outfits we were listening to anyway. Just reshuffled and dealt for public consumption in a new pattern.

This eclecticism, and this continuity with the past, is what stands out for me in Britpop, despite media attempts then and now to impose this or that narrative upon it. And nothing reflects this better in my view than the Shine compilations.

Thanks be to Wikipedia, the track listings from all ten Shines, 1995-1998 can now be viewed online. Go on, have a look. Any nods or winces of recognition? Sighs at the inclusion of your then-favourite band? 

Manchester calling

The first one - the ur-Shine, if you will - supports our vision of a Britpop steeped in continuity. It was certainly not shy about joining the dots between the turn of the 90's indie-dance boom and the uptick in chart-bothering several years later. So while Blur and Oasis - the conscious and unconscious artists of Britpop - are both present from the beginning, so are New Order, James, The Inspirals, The Farm, Electronic, Charlatans and more. 

All of whom or their offshoots continued to make Britpop-aligned music throughout the period, by the by, and continue to feature in Shine after Shine.

As broad a church as your typical indie disco

What these compilations also dispel is the idea that Britpop was simply parochial in its tastes. They include a fair selection of American artists (Beck, Belly, Ben Folds Five, Fun Lovin' Criminals, Garbage, Gin Blossoms) as well as those who desperately wanted to be American (hi there, Bush!) and those who for various reasons simply wouldn't have existed without grunge (Placebo, Radiohead and, yes, Suede too)

And then there's the electronic and dance contingent (Republica, Sneaker Pimps, Underworld and the like), reminding us that even Noel Gallagher managed to collaborate with The Chemical Brothers.

To observe that not all of these tracks were much cop, or that their inclusion smacks of tokenism, misses the point. What matters here is that Britpop was as broad a church as your typical indie dancefloor. In fact you had to be willfully perverse to avoid its touch - you'll notice there's nothing by The Auteurs on the Shines.

Fourteen bands you'll have probably forgotten

Given its ancestor worship and the preponderance of established acts, it's perhaps no surprise that Britpop didn't break many bands in its own image.

Take a look at this long list of the fallen in Shine Valhalla: Blameless, Whipping Boy, Salt, Joyrider, Elcka, Ruth, Bawl, Sussed, Geneva, Symposium, Bennet, Jocasta, The Candyskins. Hurricane #1!

Which ones evoke fond memories in you, even if they have nothing to do with the music? For me, it's Bennet, who I saw supporting Number One Cup in 1997 at the Roadmender in Northampton. Happy days.

Can a compilation be worth a thousand words?

To call Shine and its offspring the definitive artefact of the Britpop years is on the face of it laughable. But the fact that they were compiled with no regard for anything other than what would make the best Halls of Residence party makes them much better at managing the continuity and contradiction of the music than your average journalistic or historical narrative.

And by mixing what will last - your Elasticas, Supergrasses and Pulps - with stand-out tracks from the second and third rank bands, Shine does illustrate that Britpop was a time of great pop singles. 

Truth in trivia, then.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

From German to Welsh in one album: James Kennedy on Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Tatay

James Kennedy writes in and about the West Midlands, and incredibly well to boot - he blogs at and you can find him on Twitter at @jameskcentral

Along with his Britpop reflections on Blur's Parklife and The Great Escape, he's contributed this alternative look at his musical education in the form of his exposure to the marvelous Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.

It’s fair to say my listening habits were pretty broad by the time I was 16. This also heightened my sense of identity, important for a callow teenager, a mix of hormones and unrequited love. 

In my mind, there was a romantic sense of being German. This was due to a dabbling, since my younger days, in the music from that part of the world, such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream albums listened to from my Dad’s record collection. Not to mention a fancying for the school’s German assistant, and also a fascination with the rather intriguing German language channels on cable TV, particularly their late night programming at a weekend. 

I’d now got my own vinyl copies of ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Radio-Activity’, and had expanded my mind to Faust’s ‘The Faust Tapes’ and some Amon Duul 2 taped off the radio. In the eternal quest for teenage identity and self-image, I was German. 

I hadn’t been aware of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci until I read a review of one of their shows in the NME or Melody Maker. “Gorky’s,” it said “are the Welsh Ween.” Now that’s really all I needed; Ween, with their puerile lyrics and childish abrasive noises will be forever indebted as the band who got me through puberty. They had their own God (Boognish) and seemingly lived off glue and strong weed and alcohol and taped the results. 

And Welshness carried for this callow English boy, a sense of freedom, with two fingers to the English way, a world of tradition merged with psychedelic sensibility, hills, valleys and sheep. A mixture of the two in the interestingly named Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci? This I had to investigate.

So off to Tempest I went, and scouted the 7” racks, which, as always, were crammed full of fascinating sleeves in plastic wallets, boasting intriguing names that even Peel would have thought too esoteric. In ‘G’ was the charmingly named “If Fingers Were Xylophones/Moon Beats Yellow” single, with a brilliantly drawn cover showing a monocled yellow moon beating a xylophone made of fingers (of course). I bought it and took it home. 

Interesting! Flutes and starry keyboards mixed with stunning horns. A good friend of mine noticed my interest in this band, and said he’d give me his cassette copy of an album of theirs he had. This was ‘Tatay’, which had been released in 1994 on the Ankst label. Again, a superb cover, a psychedelic sun bursting blue and yellow rays over a small piece of land which held a band – in front, an eyeless  brown skinned giant stood, facing the distance behind the viewer, the blue and yellow rays where his eyes should be.

This new, potentially mind-bending experience accompanied me not to a dusty cottage with friends armed with handfuls of mushrooms, or an altering experience in woodlands waiting for the LSD to kick in, but to a Walkman whilst in my room on holiday with my mum and dad. I can’t remember where we were – possibly the Lake District. They had gone for a nap and I was in my room, and I thought I’d give the tape a spin. 

The first track “Thema O Cartef” sounded like a field recording, recorded directly onto cassette, evoking memories of postcard holiday homes – soft, yellow glows, blossoming trees evoked in the strummed guitars, kid’s keyboards and harmonies. Coughs and chair scraping and shuffles of paper meant that the band sounded as if they were in the same room as the listener, a stylistic device repeated throughout the rest of the album which meant that when the psychedelic rock occurred, brain capsules would be activated for the heart of the sun, to the centre of the Ultraworld. 

Indeed, on the following track which would become my favourite track on the album “Beth Sy'n Digwydd I'r Fuwch“, a driving and repetitive acoustic rhythm turns without warning into a full-throttle psychedelic wig-out of a stomper, with, seemingly twenty fingers bashing the keyboards, effects and noise bursting out of the speakers, heroic guitars and ‘hey-hey-heys’. 

Next tracks were the title track (with the sounds of an 8-bit driving game in the background) and ‘Y Fford Oren’ (Orange Way – these titles! I thought) carried with them this rinky-dink mind-expansion on their sleeves, making me grin furiously. And of course, everything was sung in Welsh, which made it all seem all the more other-worldly. 

A lovely relaxing piece was the fifth track – ‘Gwres Prenhawn’ – stunning, repetive beauty, following by the warping Ansermaedod/Cinema – for me, the turning point of the whole album. ‘Ansermaedod’ in one ear ‘Cinema’ other – the former being a filtered and phased keyboard track with high pitched “doo-doo-doo-doo, AHHHHH” as the chorus, with ‘Cinema’ a simpler, guitar led track, with the distancing effect of being recorded on a really shonky old tape player, the tape seemingly worn out. 

Silence follows the track, and what follows sounds like a stoned argument between the band which starts off with laughter and someone saying “Microwave…”, then something falls to the floor and another band member is made out to say “Fuck’s sake. Eighteen year old scrunch up the tea bags” “Shut up John” and so on and so forth. This was marvellous. The audacity of keeping this on the tape. 

Next up, a cover of Matching Mole’s ‘O Caroline’ starting off with loud eating noises, a loud knock and a distorted Yahama keyboard beat and refrain, which transforms into strummed folk beauty. After this, the album is a less easy listen (it being a strong first half) but spreads it’s psychedelic wings further, on tributes to Kevin Ayers, free jazz improvisation “When You Hear the Captain Sing” and alternate mixes of earlier tracks - “Tatay (moog mix)” sounds as though it was recorded underwater and O Caroline II, a different song, with an unnerving, paranoid middle section, morphing for no apparent reason into a cover of “We’ll Meet Again”. 

The album climaxes, as all great psych-prog-folk albums should do, with a song cycle, the 13 minute “Anna Apera”. Piano-driven folk rock rock morphs into improv-jazz and back again, flutes and railway whistles mimicking snoring and dreams, and each part of the song cycle is narrated by mooing cows and trombones. 

As someone on rateyourmusic notes – this is freedom in music. 

Whilst always being open to experimentation, this, and The Faust Tapes and my introduction to the band that followed – gave me new and exciting things to puzzle and annoy my friends. Gorky’s played live that year at Birmingham’s Flapper and Firkin (Broadcast supported) – a great, great evening. 

And by the end of 1996, I was no longer German. Ladies and gentlemen, I was Welsh. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Britpop changed my life. Sort of, says Anonymous

“Do you fancy writing a review of a Britpop album for the blog? @magpiemoth asked one evening. I pondered and said if I had time I’d write something down but never got round to it. Then we ended up in a local pub for an after work drink that turned into several soundtracked by an ‘Indie DJ’ and conversation turned back to Britpop, indie, alternative music and me writing something.

The conversation we had led me to thinking more widely about music of the Britpop era and where it fell in terms of my life story. I was lucky musically in that my dad was obsessed with music in all forms and the lullabies of my early years were mainly courtesy of the Rolling Stones. 

An early start

My first record player was a Christmas present for my 3rd birthday – I couldn’t yet read but could lower a stylus safely so the A sides were marked with a cross to foster independent use. My first gig was Altered Images at the Manchester Apollo when I was four and for the next 10 years I was lucky enough to be taken to see everyone from Squeeze to Madonna to Fleetwood Mac (seminal moment – Stevie Nicks remains a hero of mine). 

However I was a fairly introverted child, insecure in my appearance and social skills (like so many teenage girls) and as music became more about boybands, pop and commercial dance music I wasn’t sure where I fitted in. I found other things that started to point me in the right direction - step up The Housemartins and Suzanne Vega. 

Talk about the passion

Then I discovered the band who provided my introduction into a lifelong love of indie/alternative tunes. The first time I heard REM suddenly I got ‘it’. I found lyrics that talked about things more meaningful and esoteric than anything I heard in the charts and it opened up a whole new world. I was introduced by a friend to indie and rock clubs that played music I was otherwise unaware of and into a social setting where being shy, not having Kylie as a style icon and being able to dance all night or sit in the corner if I chose to was normal and not weird. 

So how does this link to Britpop you ask? Well despite my new social whirl and increasingly large record collection I still felt a little like an outsider in the wider world. This was the mid 90s when wearing stripy tights, cut-off denims and band t-shirts got you some funny looks even in Manchester. Being an increasingly confident, assertive girl with opinions was also still not really socially acceptable. 

Affleck's Palace (Manchester's premier provider of stripy tights and band T-shirts, by T R Wolf under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

From sixth form to the stage

And then Britpop and a wider awareness of alternative music arrived and brought with it a whole host of women whose presence on Top of the Pops and mainstream media empowered me and my friends. Women like PJ Harvey who sang songs we could relate to, who led her own band, who dressed for herself. Elastica and their mini-anthems led by a woman so cool she had caused the likes of Brett and Damon to write songs of (un)requited love. Kenickie, whose wandering onto a stage straight from school made it look possible for any of us to pick up a guitar, front a band and play Reading. 

As I look back I’m not sure how conscious we were of this happening but in retrospect I am aware of a new sense of confidence I had in myself as a whole person. Women and girls found a music scene that was moving toward acknowledging we had a voice that was worth listening to. 

Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t always work that way, you only need to read Caitlin Moran’s books to see the attitude many areas of the music press still had to women at the time but it was a damn good start. 

So, despite my in-built dislike of the term Britpop and the media’s obsession with the role of Oasis in it (don’t get me started – it’s a rage only paralleled by sporks) Britpop did, sort of, change my life. And I will forever be grateful.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Jim Patterson: Trainspotting - the best mixtape of the 90's

Our twentieth anniversary of Britpop series of guest posts continues into week two with Jim Patterson looking at an album which was part of the scene in spirit and in content (and introduced Iggy Pop to a generation) - the Trainspotting Soundtrack

Self-defining as good, bad but not evil, Jim tweets at @mrjimpaterson

Britpop's success, and it's eventual downfall, was all tied up in confidence. The confidence of the underdog in their native, initially unfashionable, influences struck a chord, and grew into the confidence to seize the moment and, for a while, the mainstream. But that confidence quickly became arrogance, and led to some odd record deals, a fear of moving forward and Be Here Now.

This tipping point happened in or about 1996, when Trainspotting came out, and in many ways it represents the absolute crescendo of that confidence while still retaining the birth notes of why making British art was important. The film is bloody, bold storytelling and its soundtrack, like the best mixtapes, has oddities, bangers and weird unknowns that would go on to be your favourite song.

This was, for me, a Britpop album in feeling if not in classification, and the bands featured from the scene contribute a set of tracks that are cinematic in their ability to capture mood (Sleeper's identikit cover of 'Atomic' aside). Elastica's unsettling 2:1, Blur's euphorically growing Sing, Mile End by Pulp, providing a snapshot of the protagonists' futureless existence "I guess you have to go right down/Before you understand just how/How low a human being will go". 

There was also Damon Albarn's 'Closet Romantic', a wistful fairground whirligig of a song. And, from one remove to what was considered Britpop, Primal Scream and their song Trainspotting - a sinuous, smoke-laden hint of what was to come in next year's 'Vanishing Point' and a great walking song - essential for mixtapes.

Many of the album's highlights were from older artists - influences in attitude and music on both the Britpop bands and Trainspotting's characters. Iggy Pop, a favourite artist in the novel, appears twice. Opener 'Lust for Life', one of three breakout hits from the album, is a tumbling evil grin of a song, promising adventure, excitement and really wild things. 'Nightclubbing' is a sequel in this context, for when the initial adventure has become something you were not promised. Brian Eno provides the gorgeous, reflective Deep Blue Day - a rare safe, warm space on the soundtrack.

And 'Perfect Day' - like the film so ubiquitous. And so misunderstood (including by me). For me, it was the first solo song I'd heard by Lou Reed that wasn't 'Walk on the Wild Side' and sounded so instantly lush and simultaneously lyrically wrong that I was smitten. And a large part of the rest of the country felt the same, given its upgrade to BBC mega choir fodder just a few years later. But that first time, when it felt like a dark message cloaked in strings...

The energy that holds Trainspotting together though, is dance music. It's a film about heroin addicts, but is cut like a film about ecstasy (which Boyle has acknowledged when talking about editing the film to Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman). New Order's Temptation is the older precursor, while Bedrock's For What You Dream Of and Leftfield's A Final Hit are two sides of a night out - the first forever rising towards a euphoric peak, the latter a sleepy 4am post-club contemplation while the beat carries on in your neighbour's living room.

And then, to finish, there's Born Slippy, the amazing track only your mate knows but now will never leave your life. It seems odd looking back, give the subsequent success of Born Slippy, that it only got on the soundtrack because Boyle found the remix (technically, the version we know is 'Born Slippy NUXX) on a CD single. Trying to imagine it as an unknown quantity is almost impossible, since it now lives beyond the film as shorthand for not just 90's music, but the 90s itself. It takes a propulsive rhythm and a melody caught between melancholy and celebration and wraps them up to force us to face forward, even though we fear what we leave behind.

I listened to Trainspotting again for this blog, 18 years on from being 18, remembering what it was like when I heard (most of) these songs for the first time. I played it on Friday nights, I played it on Sunday afternoons. I walked to work with it. It stayed with me through a year of my life while I got embarrassed, got drunk, laughed a lot, made many mistakes and started to learn to live as an adult. I can't feel the same way about it now as I did then, but I still hear the echoes of those first listens, just as we still feel the echoes of this magnificent mixtape in music today.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Twisted Temple of Shaun: Patrick Meehan on Black Grape's It's Great When You're Straight Yeah

Patrick Meehan is a Renaissance Man, fluent in Northern Sami, Dravidian, Cornish and English. Today he's joining the dots between the Second Summer of Love and Britpop, making the case for Shaun Ryder being the best thing about  both.

Britpop always was a strange old beast, a label of convenience that meant different things to different people. Obviously Blur, Elastica, Suede, and Sleeper were Britpop. Then there was the Northern contingent - Pulp, Shed Seven, Oasis. But what about others - The Manics, Radiohead, the Charlatans, the Stone Roses? And what about the band who arguably produced the finest album of the Britpop era - Black Grape?

Actually, scrap that. Whether they were or weren’t "Britpop" is as irrelevant as whether the words Baggy and Madchester can be used interchangeably (they can’t by the way), but there's no debate about one thing - Black Grape didn’t produce “arguably” the finest album of the Britpop era, their debut album “It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah” WAS the finest album of the Britpop era. 

In a period where plenty of records were getting 9/10's from the reviewers, Black Grape scored a 10/10, bettering Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Parklife, Holy Bible. It was in a different class to, well, Different Class. Shaun Ryder and associates had created a stoned-out stone-cold classic. Where Primal Scream and the Stone Roses had belatedly come back several years after their Baggy-best with poorly received homages to the music of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, “It's Great...” was a party from the first blast on the Reverend's trumpet to Shaun's fade-out backward speaking on Little Bob. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. For those of you who don’t own the album get hold of a copy now. CD, vinyl, cassette, take your pick. Go on, we’ll wait. 


Ok, now study the cover in front of you. The Monday's album covers were always important. Bright and brash, like the corridor displays in a primary school, they personified the band's vibe and reflected the music - nick a bit here, drop that there, keep it all nice and colorful. The Monday’s legacy was continued on “It’s Great...” via the bright yellow image of a sunglasses-clad Carlos the Jackal on the cover. It exuded the kind of cool you normally only get in a French cop movie.

Ok, so we’ve examined the cover. Now for the music. 

First out is Reverend Black Grape. In the video for Reverend Black Grape Shaun appeared as a Preacher-man, black circular hat perched atop his head. The first half of the album has that feel; a preacher returned from lands unknown to convert the locals to his twisted Church. A pie-eyed piper leading the children into his magical cave of chemical delights. 

The track opens with bongos and a harmonica, the funkiest harmonica you’ll ever hear – this ain’t no Bob Dylan revival. Next in comes Kermit, loudly proclaiming that the Preacherman is about to take the stage. Finally Shaun Ryder steps into the limelight hollering about Reeboks, tennis, and singing a version of “Oh Come all ye Faithful” that you wouldn’t find on Songs of Praise. It’s a remarkably confident number from a band led by a man who was considered a washed-up junkie when he was last seen on TV dancing with Zippy off Rainbow. It’s a song with bollocks. 

Big, swaggering, Salfordian bollocks. 

Next up it’s “In the Name of the Father”, its Christian title giving no clues to the song itself, filled as it is with Indian sitars and ragga-talk about butt-squeezing. This is one prayer Cliff won’t be releasing at Christmas. Two tracks in and the Preacherman has got the village bouncing. 

“Tramazi Party” doesn’t see any let up in the good vibes, but Shaun’s starting to weave his malevolent magic. Having won their trust he’s now doling out the sweeties - Temazepam all round… “welcome to your nightmare”. He’s showing a different side - less Preacher, more old time Witch-Doctor - but any doubts the congregation might be feeling are assuaged by the next track, 

“Kelly’s Heroes”, which goes back to the same celebratory vibe as the first two songs.
The side closes with “Yeah Yeah Brother”. This time the mood switches. We’re in the Preacherman’s private quarters now, the public mask drops. And he’s in menacing mood. It’s the Last Supper, only Judas has been invited and this time Jesus is going to fuck him over.

The same vaguely threatening vibe starts Side Two. I’ll be honest – I haven’t a clue what he’s on about with “A Big Day in the North”. But “sticks and stones break your bones”, “love will always hurt ya”, and “bloodshot eyes scan the skies”. A bad deal going down?

The next three tracks are straight out of Goodfellas. There’s drugs, money, debt, violence. It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah. It’s still funky, it’s still got tunes, but there’s trouble. Even “Submarine” (the most upbeat of the three songs) contains a character who smokes steroids and puts people in headlocks, whilst in “Shake Your Money” Shaun urges someone to “put down your fists and hit him with a shovel”. 

And finally there’s “Little Bob”. Then that’s it. Album over.

In summary I’ll just refer back to the NME review at the time. 10/10.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

James Higgott on The Boo Radley's Giant Steps: marinaded in pastoral psychedelia and feedback:

For the twentieth anniversary of Britpop, a series of guest posts looking back at the innovators, the opportunists, the individualists who got caught up in a moment, and how they look the other side of the millennium.

James Higgott works for digital comms and projects at the Royal Marsden Hospital and tweets as @jiggott. He's also drummed for bands and projects including Cop On The Edge and Dora Brilliant.

Here he is in reflective mode, taking a look at The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps - I'd completely forgotten about that very early 90's cover.

For anyone who listened to the radio in the mid-nineties The Boo Radleys will forever be associated with the alarm-clock pop of Wake Up Boo, played repeatedly by breakfast DJs until the joke wore molecule thin. But just a few years earlier, Martin Carr et al put out an album that actually bears repeating.

Giant Steps is a massive, dense album of many influences, sounds, instruments and emotions. The charming guitars and slightly baggy rhythms of the early nineties are present, but they’ve been marinaded in psychedelia, dub, pastoral and feedback until they’re hardly recognisable. Leaves And Sand, which on the face of it is a formulaic quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD standard, deploys the producer’s full box of tricks to become something else: shrieks, effects, layers, backwards sounds, anything to make the quiet part very very quiet and the loud very very loud.

It’s not just this song where the dynamics shift. Throughout the record, the luscious, soporific rise and fall of Thinking Of Ways or Best Lose The Fear swiftly gives way to the more peppy, poppy Barney (...And Me) or Take The Time Around. In I’ve Lost The Reason they’re at it again. The kids who put this together wanted to try everything. They had a lot of ideas and were comfortable shifting from one to another and back again. Listen to the album as a whole and there’s barely a gap between any of the songs. In fact, there’s usually a sonic segue of some kind - another little idea playfully inserted.

None of this makes it your typical nineties guitar band experience. It’s not an album of sharp guitar pop with a couple of quiet tracks to showcase the band’s sentimental side. It’s an up and down album of nostalgia and melancholy, wide-eyed wonder and childhood glee, sometimes side by side, sometimes in the same song. 

If there is one constant it might be Sice Rowbottom’s delicate, fragile voice and the dark wistfulness of the lyrics he sings. He contrasts the brightest, most jangly sounding song on the album by singing, “Wishin’ I was pretty / Wish that I could twist the world round my finger”. Elsewhere, “I’m finding it hard to stay on my feet on my own / I’m thinking of ways I can get out of things just like always”. (It’s little surprise that he moved on to a career in psychology.) The lyrics evoke childhood memories and being trapped by the past (Barney (...And Me)) as well as flight from the everyday (Butterfly McQueen). Even the euphoric closing track, The White Noise Revisited, mixes sunny euphoria with lines about blades and hate welling up inside.

Giant Steps came out before Britpop even knew what it was - the naive, innocent days before Country Houses and Champagne Supernovas. It was inventive, imaginative and playful with just the right amount of self-indulgence. It might not have got them an appearance on Top of the Pops but they made the John Peel Festive 50 for two years running, and we all know which of those two things is really most important.