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Six Of The Best – Mike Joyce

February 15, 2017

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 25 in a series:

mike-joyce

Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.

Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.

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Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,”  Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”

Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.

Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.

It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.

I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…

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Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?

I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!

At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’

The SmithsI Don’t Owe You Anything

Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’

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At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.

The SmithsDeath Of A Disco Dancer

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4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.

The SmithsI Know It’s Over

As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals.  When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!

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At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it.

The SmithsMeat Is Murder

I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

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Next up, How Soon Is Now?

(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!

The SmithsHow Soon Is Now?

It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.

When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”

Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.

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Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.

The SmithsLast Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).

We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.

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And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.

The Smiths  – Hand In Glove

When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..

the-smiths

So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wire Brush

February 7, 2017

Of all the bands that followed in the slipstream created by the Sex Pistols’ sonic boom, one of the most interesting is Wire.


Where the Pistols raged with a stomping glam rock fury and The Clash spat socio-political lyrics ten to the dozen, Wire were simpler. There’s no meat on their records, nothing that doesn’t need to be there. They’re packed full of lean, mean, short, sharp shocks. Rhythm and counter-rhythm live easily beside one another. Chunky, concrete block riffs drop in and out to allow vocals, backing vocals and chanted slogans the space to breath. Solos are kept to an absolute bare minimum.

There’s no need for showboating when you’re in Wire. The showboating comes from the fact you’re in Wire to begin with.

No songs outstay their welcome, either. Much of the material on debut album ‘Pink Flag‘ is over before it’s barely begun. ‘Field Day For The Sundays‘ lasts barely half a minute before it’s gone. ‘Three Girl Rhumba‘ pushes the boat out to 1 min 20 seconds. At 2 mins 37 secs, debut single ‘Mannequin‘ is a prog-bothering epic in comparison.

WireMannequin

WireDot Dash

Had I first heard ‘Pink Flag‘ on LP rather than CD, I’d’ve been up and out my chair like Sur Alex chasing a flag-happy linesman to check there was nothing wrong with my record. And, just for the, er, record, no ma’am, there ain’t nothing wrong with the record. It’s a fantastic example of art/punk. Songs start. Then stop. New ones start again. Then stop abruptly. Tracks run into one another, all delivered in accents last heard when Gripper Stebson was terrorising Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill. “Is this still the same song?” “I dunno!” you’ll answer yourself. By the time you’ve worked it out, the band are onto their next song.

WirePink Flag

WireLow Down

‘From A to B, again avoiding C, D and E. Cos E is where you play the bloooooze.’

There’s yer Wire manifesto right there. Two chords and the truth. Discipline. That’s what Low Down is. How many other bands could’ve resisted sticking a one note feedbacking ‘whuuuuuooooo‘ in the middle of it? Not Wire. Instead, they stick a great, echoing chord over it for a few bars. Keen ears will spot that it’s not a million miles away from that big clanging one in the breakdown of Primal Scream’s Loaded. Brutal and minimalist. Over and out.

How many other bands can claim a debut album that boasts 21 songs? By the time reissues were an accepted part and parcel of the music industry, the track listing on ‘Pink Flag‘had multiplied to an eye-watering, ear-saturating 38 tracks, including non-album singles and Peel Sessions.

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Famously, Elastica stole great chunks of their most well-known tracks – I Am The Fly and Three Girl Rhumba – which I’ve written about before, here. A quick listen to Wire will make you appreciate where many other 90s and 00s bands were coming from. I’m sure the Holy Bible-era Manics were not unfamiliar with Wire’s uncompromising sound. Franz Ferdinand and The Cribs too. Graham Coxon scuffed the edges of Blur’s most abrasive tracks, not to mention much of his own solo recordings, with steroidal Wire-like riffage. Even the Lord God of Indie Guitar, Johnny Marr, has heard their angular twang and thought, “I’m borrowing some of that.” A quick listen to his more recent solo stuff will qualify that, not so much in sound but in lip curled, Fender-toting, noo wave attitoode.

The anglophile Peter Buck dug Wire so much he persuaded REM to cover Pink Flag‘s Strange on breakthrough album Document. It’s a great version too.

REMStrange

Contrast and compare…

WireStrange

Pink Flag by Wire. Everyone should have this album. It may be forty years old this year, but it’s never too late to get on board.

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Art Attack

January 30, 2017

Simon & Garfunkel were odd-looking; wee Paul with his monkish fringe and studied seriousness, tall Art with his receding white-fro, coming across like a beatnik boffin who’d be more at home in a Village coffee house than the science lab you could be forgiven for thinking he’d strayed from.

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Don’t be fooled by the looks though, as Simon & Garfunkel were dynamite together, the masters of melody and close-knit harmonies. Their music seemed to arrive fully-formed; new yet familiar, with intricately picked ringing melodies cascading freely from Simon’s guitar while Garfunkel’s lead vocal floated on top. The first time I heard them (probably a warm and crackly Mrs Robinson on my dad’s record player), I knew the tune inside out before it had ended. By the second listen, it seemed as though their music had always been there.

As a duo, their music found fans in millions around the globe and for a wee while at least, they outsold all contemporaries. It seemed that every household in the country owned a Simon & Garfunkel album. Friends’ parents, neighbours, aunts and uncles all owned them. My dad’s pal who we called ‘Uncle’ even though he was no blood relation at all (we’ve all got an ‘uncle’ like that, haven’t we?) tucked away his Simon & Garfunkel records next to his Abba and Elton John albums. His collection, like many from that era, was hardly out there or edgy, but it wasn’t insipid easy listening either. As with the other artists named above, Simon & Garfunkel’s music is timeless. It’s both class and classic.

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Formed from a friendship that stretched back years to their Queens, New York childhood, by the time they’d hit their first real success with 1964’s Sound Of Silence single and its parent album, Wednesday Morning, 3. A.M., they’d perfected their act, from the folk-via-Everlys ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, recorded as Tom & Jerry – Art was Tom, Paul was Jerry – before going their separate ways to try their luck as solo artists, before once again hooking up as the more straight-forward Simon & Garfunkel.

Throughout the 60s, their records were on constant rotation, especially in the States where Americans finally had something of their own that could rival the imported popular acts of the day. Nothing like the beat groups from the UK, they steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, gathering popularity with each record they released. In an act that almost split the duo, at the record company’s insistence, the cream of session musicians – the Wrecking Crew – were brought in to embellish their music. Songs that had been recorded as a close-miked two piece now drowned under the weight of reverb and drums and strings and – no! – electric guitars. Despite this jiggery pokery, the records sounded terrific, and their ever-increasing sales and chart positions seemed to justify the enhanced approach.

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By the end of the decade though, small Paul and tall Art hated one another. Years of being in the same room, sharing the same stage, management, record label, even apartment at one point all came to a head. Offered the chance of a part in the movie adaptation of Catch 22, Garfunkel grabbed it firmly with both hands and left on the next available plane for Mexico. Simon, with little to do but write alone, turned in one of the finest songs in his back catalogue.

The Only Living Boy In New York is a straightforward tale of the events.

Tom, it starts, get your plane right on time. I know your part’ll go fine. Fly down to Mexico. Da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am, The only living boy in New York.

I’ve got nothing to do today but smile…..I know you’ve been eager to fly now………let your honesty shine like it shines on me…

You don’t need to read too much between the lines to see the giant-sized cracks in their relationship.

Simon & GarfunkelThe Only Living Boy In New York

It’s a brilliant song, simply strummed and softly sung. Enhanced by overdubbed and underplayed keys, a Fender bass line that Brian Wilson would be proud of and a subtle cacophony of Hal Blaine tumbling toms, The Only Living Boy In New York is Simon & Garfunkel in miniature. By the time the aah-aah-aahing backing vocals come in, it’s almost all too much. Almost, but not quite. If you play it once, you’ll want to replay it 4 or 5 times before commencing the rest of your day. But you knew that already.

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Fast forward a couple of decades and another joined-at-the-hipper-than-hip couple released their own version. Everything But The Girl‘s Tracey and Ben turn in a performance that, while faithful to the original, sounds a bit flat and, for want of a better word, mumsy. It features enough of their own identity – her furrowed brow and downcast, melancholic vocals and his richly-produced guitar and naked-and-out-there singing voice – to make it a reasonable EBTH cut, but as you are no doubt aware, there are far better tracks in their back catalogue.

Everything But The GirlThe Only Living Boy In New York

Sadly, there’s no space here to include Carter USM‘s punningly-named Only Living Boy In New Cross. A terrible band with (admittedly) a great line in puntastic song titles. If two grown men wearing baggy shorts and backwards baseball caps while shouting over rudimentary drum machines in daan sarf accents is your cup of tea, head on over to YouTube. Or 1991.

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Iggy Stardust

January 19, 2017

It’s well-documented that David Bowie was something of a non-stop workaholic. That long golden run he went on, from Hunky Dory in 1971 to Lodger in ’79 – 10 amazing albums in 9 short years, all killer and no filler (’74’s Diamond Dogs might faintly be described as the runt of the litter, though it yielded Rebel Rebel as well as the album’s title track, so scratch that, naysayers) remains unparallelled, unlikely to ever be equalled, let alone beaten.

What’s all the more remarkable is that while he was on this winning streak, David was sustaining himself on little more than milk, red peppers and the finest Class As that came his way. Not only that, but when he wasn’t changing musical direction and band members and haircut and trousers every nine months, or sticking out the odd non-album track to keep the fans happy between releases (between releases! d’ye hear that, Radiohead?!?), he was still finding the time to help out other artists.

bowie-iggy-lou

An on-the-brink-of-break-up Mott The Hoople famously kickstarted their attack on the charts with their version of Bowie’s All the Young Dudes. Last time I checked, Mott were still playing the odd Hall Of Fame gig here and there, thanks in no small way to yer man Dave.

A not-quite-post-Velvet Underground but fed up Lou Reed went spinning into orbit on the back of Satellite Of Love and its parent album, Transformer. Satellite… had been written, much like Bowie’s Space Oddity, on the back of the public’s fascination with space. Reed had high hopes for the song, reckoning it was perfect hit single material. Satellite… was considered, then disregarded for inclusion on the Velvets’ Loaded album, so when Bowie entered his orbit showing an interest in his music, Lou was keen for his song to be taken seriously second time around. Both the single and album were produced and enhanced by Bowie, his uncredited vocals on Satellite… worth the price of admission alone.

Iggy Pop, careering out of control on a spiral of illicit substances and ever-decreasing sales (Stooges were hardly big-hitters to begin with) found himself on the receiving end of a post-Ziggy kiss of life when Bowie, fresh from minting his second stone-cold classic in as many years, helped produce, or rather re-produce, Raw Power, Stooges’ third album.

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Iggy himself had taken the producer’s chair, creating a chaotic mess of almost unsalvageable pre-punk rock. Of the 24 individual tracks available to him at the mixing desk, he chose to put the entire album onto just three  – the band on one, the vocals on another and James Williamson’s lead guitar on the third. When Columbia heard it, they refused to release it until it was cleaned up somewhat and made more presentable.

Cue Bowie. The man with the golden touch. Using all manner of up-to-the-minute recording technology, he twisted and turned Iggy’s 3 track raw Raw Power into something slightly more commercial and releasable. Perhaps not the radio-friendly unit-shifter that Columbia had in mind. Not that many folk bought it anyway, but those that did – cliche klaxon alert!!! – ended up forming bands of their own. But you knew that already. Listen to the album and you’ll hear the embryonic howls of The Jesus And Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and a million other six string stranglers. The teenage Johnny Marr was fixated by the feral guitar playing on it. His bequiffed foil was in love with Search & Destroy‘s glorious abandon and poetic lyrics; streetwalkin’ cheetahs, handfuls of napalm ‘n all.

I’m the world’s forgotten boy,” drawls the Ig at one point, poetry indeed to the ears of the bedroom bard of Salford’s Kings Road. No Stooges, no Smiths. No Iggy Pop, no indie pop. Imagine that.

Iggy & The StoogesSearch & Destroy

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In the mid-90s, ahead of a Stooges reissue campaign, Iggy himself was given the opportunity to remix Bowie’s remix – are you still following? – and used his time to unravel all of Bowie’s work, replacing every guttural grunt and primordial proclamation that had been wiped from the first release. He turned the faders up, up and away into the red until the guitars became ear-splitting, spitting shards of broken glass from both speakers.

Iggy & The StoogesShake Appeal

For much of the record, it’s a painful sonic assault on the ears, even during the two ‘ballads’, one on each side, where the guitars somehow still manage to creep into dog-bothering levels of pain.

Shake Appeal, above, surfs above the racket like the noisiest garage band in the world having their first go at a Motown track, all Jagger-pouting handclaps and barking yelps, Iggy’s skinny backside (what waist size was he? 24″? A chunky 26?)  bending and jerking like  a pipe cleaner in time to the fuzz bass, the Four Tops if they were fighters, not lovers. It’s a sloppy, angry, petulant, white riot of a record. Quite fantastic, of course. Beautiful music wrapped in a beautiful sleeve. What’s not to like?

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*Bonus Track!

Iggy Pop Wild America (Long Video Version)

Here‘s Iggy’s on take on it all.

Most likely to succeed. 9th Grade.

10th Grade, formed Iguanas! High school rawk bayund!

An audio autobiography, if y’like.

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Touched By The Hand Of Bob

January 10, 2017

For a while at the tail end of the 90s/beginning of the 00s, Bob Dylan went through a wee phase of revisiting his religious period. Not in the full-on way he had done with the ‘Christian Trilogy’ of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love 20 years previously, a trio of albums packed full of religious imagery, the odd gospel arrangement and a complete and utter declaration of faith. Bob likes  to wrongfoot his audience, so in a career that had thus far packed in blues and folk, electric guitars and drugs, motorcycle crashes and stream-of-conscience novels, Mick Ronson and panstick make-up, turning to the power of the Lord was as good a move as any.

 

dylan-camden

After several years in the wilderness (the leather gloves and top hat combo while wandering around Camden like some sort of Dickensian pied piper for all and sundry being the zenith of that particular phase), he kick-started his return to relevance with his Never-Ending Tour, a tour that still zig-zags across the planet to this very day. As a way of hitting the ground running, he’d often start these shows with a giddy run-through of an old Christian foot stomper. Short and sharp, they often wrong-footed the audience (again) who maybe expected a Maggie’s Farm or Dignity as the opener. They also served as a sort of second sound-check; as any sound engineer will tell you, the sound in a room changes dramatically once the audience are in. That wee two minute skip through at the start provided the engineer one last chance, as Depeche Mode might say, to get the balance right.

One such nugget he often kicked off with was his frantically scrubbed take on the Stanley Brothers ‘Somebody Touched Me‘.
Bob Dylan  – Somebody Touched Me (live, Portsmouth, England, Sept. 24th 2000)

Tight and taut, the song gives Bob maximum mic time. His band stretch their backing vocals for all they’re worth with ragged yet righteous harmonies. There’s a couple of wee breaks in between the verses for the band to break loose like Led Zeppelin III gone country, while the engineer, fingers hovering over faders and switches, fine-tuned the mix.  By the time of the second last verse in the version above, Bob is audibly breathless, high on the music and running at full pelt just to keep up with the backing band.

Having witnessed Bob in concert around this time, I can practically see his wee tip of the hat to the audience and the twinkle in his eye as he shouts ‘Thangyew!’ at the end, with an audible smile in his voice, ready to lead his band into the heavyweight double whammy of To Ramona and Visions Of Johanna, two guaranteed crowd pleasers.

dylan-oscarBob in 2001, his Oscar perched atop the amp on the right.

That wee Oscar went everywhere with him for a while.

Lazy writers will often go on about Bob’s songs being indecipherable until, like, the last verse, or they’ll snort that they didn’t even know he’d played Mr Tambourine Man until they got talking to a knowledgeable Bobcat on the train home afterwards. Rubbish!

He may play games with the arrangements and phrasing, but his voice is as clear as it ever was. He e-nun-ci-ates perfectly. Anyone who tells you his songs are unrecognisable in concert is a moron, plain and simple.

He’s due back on these shores in a few months time. Whether I go or not remains to be seen; the last couple of times I’ve been to see him I felt he was a wee bit mechanical in places and going through the motions. Much of the night, it could’ve been any pick-up barroom band that was being let loose on one of the greatest canons in popular music, Bob stuck stage left and standing behind his keyboard like a Thunderbirds puppet hanging from invisible strings, but there were still flashes of undeniable brilliance to suggest he still has it. It’s those wee flashes that keep us hoping he’ll pull another cracker out the bag, as he did at the Barrowlands in 2004, my favourite Bob show of all.

There’s also, morbidly, a faint chance that the next time may be the last time he plays. And you wouldn’t want to miss that. Just like the tour though, I hope ol’ Bob is never-ending.

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Imperfect 10

January 6, 2017

Amazingly, thrillingly, unbelievably, Plain Or Pan is, just this week, 10 years old. Somehow, some way, that’s a decade of writing about music and featuring, on the whole, bands that lasted far less than that timescale. It was always in my mind that if I ever made it this far, I’d stop, but now that I’m here, I’m having second thoughts. I might not write with the same frequency I once did, but I like to think that whenever I put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper, the words that tumble forth are meaningful to someone, somewhere. Judging by the stats on the sidebar there (don’t read too much into them though, I think Google screwed up that algorithm many moons ago) and judging by the continued popularity of some of the posts I’ve written (my Ian Rankin piece is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever published – every day, at least 20 people from some place on Earth click on it and read it – over 150 folk a week – amazing, eh?!) I have what’s called in the business staying power. I have followers (get me!) who read what I write as soon as it’s published, but I’m also high up the lists of many a Google search – the holy grail if you’re into stats, numbers and self-congratulatory schmaltz. So I think I’m gonnae keep going.

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You can draw parallels between the writing here and any number of the bands I feature; at first, I wrote short, sharp bulletins, a bit wobbbly in places, but they fizzed with youthful energy – they’re your first couple of singles. Next, I stumbled into longer-form writing, showing enough promise even if I could have done with a decent editor – that’ll be your debut album. Gradually, I’ve moved from my comfort zone (indie music, primarily that of a Scottish bent) to embrace other musical fashions – that’ll be your tricky second album – and I’ve sort of meandered along since. To date, I’ve been going as twice as long as The Smiths, and just about as long as The Beatles. To continue for as long as the Stones, or even Teenage Fanclub would take some doing, but you never know. Make of that what you will.

Writing here has afforded me the opportunity of being commissioned (!) to conduct an interview with Sandie Shaw (the only thing I’ve ever written that paid any money, not that I do it for that). It’s allowed me to ‘meet’ some of my musical heroes, albeit via the wonders of modern technology. It’s the reason I was trending on Twitter briefly after Victoria Wood passed away (I’d written a piece outing Morrissey, if you will, for his liberal borrowing of her lyrics). It’s the reason I was called a ‘middle class Pimms drinker‘ by an upset Stone Roses fan. It’s the reason Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo follows me on Twitter. It’s also the reason I have Johnny Marr‘s number on speed dial, even if I can’t bring myself to actually call him up the way old friends do. I’ll let him call me again instead…

In the 10 years since starting Plain Or Pan, it’s been disappointing that there’s not been a musical revolution of sorts. Sure, we’ve had Radiohead giving albums away for free and we’ve had the death of the CD and the rebirth of the record. Even that Supergrass carrier bag would now cost 5p, but the music!?! It’s bland. Soulless. Beige. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’ve turned into my dad. When I were a lad (and me dad were a lad), a musical revolution was just around the corner; the 50s had Jerry Lee and Buddy and Elvis, the 60s had The Beatles and the Stones, the 70s had disco and punk, the 80s had 2 Tone and new romanticism and indie music, the 90s had the good (Oasis, initially), the bad (Britpop, generally) and the downright ugly (the rise of laddism), and since then…. what? Not that I’d’ve been writing about it anyway. That strapline above doesn’t say ‘Outdated Music For Outdated People‘ for nothing, y’know. But we’re crying out for something new. And by new, I don’t mean beardy guys in jeans so unfeasibly skinny there’s no chance of their testicles working when the time arises. Here’s hoping the KLF shake things up a bit this year with a good slab of counter-culture stadium house. Its grim up North, indeed.

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I was going to finish this piece off by featuring 10 tracks, one per year, that defined Plain Or Pan, but given that the popularity of the blog has on occassion led to the unwelcome sight of the DMCA sniffing around like dogs on heat, I’m going to resist the urge. Instead, here’s The Housemartins and their faithful, garage-band gospel take on ‘I’ll Be Your Shelter‘. The 4th-best band in Hull featured on the 5th best blog in Scotland. Or something like that.

Let me hear the choir!

The HousemartinsI’ll Be Your Shelter

…and in true Plain Or Pan style, here’s Luther Ingram’s 1967 original.

Luther IngramI’ll Be Your Shelter

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*You wouldn’t believe the amount of time I spent trying to source a picture of The Housemartins wearing braces, just so I could use the tagline ‘Marx & Suspenders‘. When I’d exhausted that particular avenue, my next port of call was for a picture of Paul Heaton eating his Christmas dessert, just so I could use the tagline ‘Heaton Trifles‘. Again, no luck. Why don’t these photos exist?

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Unknown Treasures

December 12, 2016

One of the good things about being off work is that while you do things around the house at a Doctor’s orders sloth-like pace – cooking inventive new meals, the occasional trip to the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve the hoover every couple of days, a bit of ironing maybe, emptying the dishwasher, rearranging the record collection – you can listen to what you fancy at neighbour-bothering volume knowing that 1) the neighbours are at work so won’t be bothered and 2) the house is empty, save yourself.

The past week or so I’ve massively rediscovered Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. It was played that often in my late teens it became embedded in the music section of my brain, hard-wired to be heard without the necessity of having to actually play it again. Long before Steve Jobs had thought of the iPod, I had my own non-tangible music file that could be recalled at will and played wherever I happened to want to hear it. Sandwiched between the back catalogues of The Beatles and The Smiths and an occassional Dylan and Bowie, it keeps esteemed company. Super Furry Gruff Rhys has said similar things about The Velvet Underground And Nico, so I know I’m not alone. It’s been a while since Unknown Pleasures was actually played though, and played at volume at that, so the past few days have been soundtracked once again by its cold, uninviting touch.

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I came to the album in a very round about way. Like many, I’d wager, I discovered New Order before I’d even heard of Joy Division. It’s an age thing – while Joy Division were initially thrilling those teenagers who were outside looking inside (that’s a wee label reference for any geeks out there) with their other-worldly post-punk, I was doing the Nutty Dance and ah-ha-eh-ha-ing my best Adam Ant impressions, but once I started reading about New Order and discovered they’d been a different band in a previous life, I was curious enough to look for a Joy Division record in Irvine Library.

Simultaneously, just as I was having my moment of enlightenment, Paul Young’s No Parlez album happened to be something of a popular record in my peer group at the time. Go on! Judge us all you want…

On Paul Young’s album he did a version of Love Will Tear Us Apart, all rubberband fretless bass and other such 80s wankery. Being a trainspotter-in-training,  I noticed the writing credits on the label and put two and two together. So, if it hadn’t been for the unlikely bedfellows of New Order and Paul Young, I may never have got to Joy Division until much later in life.

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When I first heard Unknown Pleasures, it sounded other-worldly, claustrophobic and not entirely pleasant. But I stuck with it. Nowadays it’s synonymous with the record sleeve imagery and Kevin Cummins’ iconic, epoch-defining monochrome shots in the snow, graphics that mirror the cold intensity of the music created and played by these serious young men. It’s the drums that get me. While the guitar, a howl of electrified cheesewire, bites in all the right places and Hooky’s trademark bass meanders up and down the frets with determined focus, the drums sound both futuristic and olde worlde.

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The rudimentary synth pads hiss like a steam-powered Victorian workhouse, military in precision, rhythmic, never losing the pace. It wouldn’t be long until Depeche Mode and Yazoo took the blueprint and ran with it in their own chart-chasing directions, but Joy Division were the originators. Or maybe that was Kraftwerk…

Eerie whirring sounds (on Insight) were the sounds of the actual lift inside Strawberry Studios, where the album was created. At one point, the density of I Remember Nothing is punctuated by a shattering glass. That used to make me jump, even after I’d heard it 10 or 15 times. The album still sounds quite like nothing else. Imitators have managed to spit out Tesco Value versions of the real thing ever since, but Unknown Pleasures is peerless.

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Every listen transports you back to the dark days of the end of the 70s. Now, to be clear, my end of the 70s was a brilliant time; Scotland had a decent football team, I was discovering pop music, I lived near a big field where we could play in safety, I was never off my bike, all my pals lived in the same street as me….being young at the time was magic. But Joy Division, a decade or so older than me captured the bleakness of their times perfectly. Set against a backdrop of social division, mass unemployment, strikes, Thatcher, the music becomes the only possible soundtrack. It’s much more sophisticated than Lydon’s “nO fUTuRe!” gobby snarl. Nothing wrong with Johnny’s war cry, but Joy Division did it far more artily. And I like my music on occasion to be arty and self-indulgent. Stick with it and it offers up greater rewards. A BBC4 documentary last year on the band had fast-cut, black and white film footage of inner city Manchester soundtracked by Shadowplay. And it was perfect.

Joy DivisionShadowplay

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The first copy I had of Unknown Pleasures was on a hissy C90 version I’d taped from that LP I borrowed from Irvine Library. For all its scrapes and scratches (every time I hear Day Of The Lords, I expect my CD or needle to skip half-way through, and it always throws me when it doesn’t), that record had real life in it. If you held it up to the light, it changed colour from black to a deep maroon. I borrowed it more than once, to play loudly – it sounded far better than the tape I’d recorded – but sometimes just to look at and impress any pals who may have shown half an interest. It never occurred to me that I could buy my own, pristine copy. It was enough for me to have a badly recorded version on tape. Certainly an original Factory release, Irvine Library’s copy would command a high fee well into triple figures if it was still around and up for sale. Makes you (or me, at any rate) wonder what other treasure – unknown treasures? – loitered unassumingly in their racks.

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