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Howson Is Now

Around 10 years ago, as part of a class topic on the human body, I introduced an unsuspecting class of 9 year-olds to the work of Peter Howson. Howson’s characters, all exaggerated muscles and bulging veins, hard-grafting hands and tortured eyes that told a thousand stories and asked as many questions were ripe for stimulus and so, over the course of a couple of art lessons, we used Howson’s paintings for reference and had a go at doing our own versions of them.

When The World Changed, Peter Howson 2020

As they drew, I told the kids what I knew of the artist. At their age, I told them, he’d lived in another Ayrshire mining community just up the road from here, so there was an instant connection with that. Many of his paintings feature masculine, working class men, buckled and bent but never beaten by the forge or factory. There was still, at the time, a working forge in the town, not far from the school, where some of the children’s fathers worked.

Look at one of his pictures for long enough, I suggested, and you begin to hear the clang and clatter of their continual industry leaping forth from the thick, swirling oils. Not only that, but the pictures worked on different levels too. Howson had grown up in a religious family and lots of his paintings were full of hidden religious symbolism. Look at how many of his pictures, I pointed out, had flashes of brilliant light in the corner. The light from the forge, perhaps, or the moonlight, or the daylight poking out from underneath a bridge…or perhaps the light from God the saviour? The artist made no secret of his beliefs and the kids instantly understood the multi-layered meanings in the paintings we were studying, marvelling that painters could be so clever and devious and secretive.

Slowly but surely they all got drawn into Howson’s world, pastelling and painting their own versions as they listened to what I could tell them. As a teacher, it’s the greatest feeling in the world when the young people in front of you just get it and run with an idea as their own. I told them more, that he’d been the official war artist in Bosnia, seeing first-hand then painting the horrors of a war that never quite made it onto the front pages of our newspapers. He’d gone through difficult periods in his life but had made it through, scarred but intact. His work, the ‘real’ versions of the pictures we were using as stimulus sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds – (gasp!) – and, d’you know that singer David Bowie that I sometimes go on about? – well, he owns some of them.

By the end of the week, I had 25 or so fantastic pieces of art of a truly excellent and age-defying standard. I decided after school to seek out Howson online to tell him how his work had inspired this wee class of working class kids from the Ayrshire backwaters, reasoning that by including ‘Ayrshire’, it might pique his interest. It turned out that Howson was a bit of an internet recluse, but after a fair bit of searching – and this was Friday night with a good hour’s commute ahead of me – I did find a gallery in Glasgow that had his name attached to it, so I sent off a speculative email – “I wonder if you could perhaps let Mr Howson know,” etc etc and fired it off, unsure if I’d ever get a reply. On the Monday morning an email was waiting for me. It was from Howson’s PA.

Peter is delighted that his work has insipired the children. He’d love to see what they’ve done. If at all possible, can you send him their work?

So, a selection of the children’s work was sent to the man who’d inspired me/them. A week or so later a reply came with a picture attached. It showed Peter Howson kneeling in his studio, a massive orangey-red work-in-progress behind him. Laid out in a semi-circle in front of him was the children’s artwork. Howson had a huge smile on his face and his hands open wide, as if to say, “Would you look at that?!” It was marvellous. A total thrill for the teacher and an even greater thrill for the kids.

Those same children will now be 19/20 years old, maybe working in the forge if it’s still there, maybe perhaps with issues and problems and religious beliefs of their own. They’ll now be more able, more mature to cope with the difficult nature of much of Howson’s work. His current work, inspired by Covid-19 is spectacular; coming thick and fast, it’s undeniably Howson – it’s in the eyes, and in the tangled Hieronymous Boschisms of the descent-into-hell scene. Bodies meld into one another, limbs and lines becoming blurred. To these eyes (I might be wrong though, I’m no Brian Sewell) there’s no clear religious symbolism this time around: where there were forges and streetlights in every corner there are now unmistakable Corona splodges, spreading ever-inwards to the people at the centre.

The series of paintings called, topically, Thursday At Eight is political, questioning, horrifying… all the things that great art needs to be. I’d love a couple of sessions in a classroom with those kids again – adults now – and we could really get to grips with the imagery, symbolism and messages (collapsing European Union stars, battered, tattered and torn Union Jacks, ‘Me Too’ slogans) that are embedded in these important works of art. Stirring stuff, eh?

Here’s The PoguesTurkish Song of the Damned.

Listen while you process the art.

 

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

Flo Motion

I’ve Seen Everything, Trashcan Sinatras‘ 1993 sophomore album (as they say over there) had the prime eight o’clock slot in last night’s #TimsTwitterListeningParty. Curated by the mushroom-heided focal point of The Charlatans, the concept, should you not know, is simple; cue up the album, pour a drink and open your Twitter feed on as many devices as you can handle (the reason for that is clear once the listening party gets underway). At the appointed kick-off time, drop the needle, press play, click the link or whatever you do to consume your music and, as the album spins forth, follow the hashtag while the band Tweet info and gossip and recount their memories of writing the tracks, all the while interacting with the fans as they go along. You’ll need multi-taskable fingers that can fire rapid text at key moments  – “that lyric!“, “that riff!” etc and simultaneously respond to comments that you find yourself tagged in. It’s a bit of a dizzy gallop to be truthful, but highly enjoyable and a great way to spend another evening in lockdown. The community spirit as it plays out is nearly as good as being at a gig. Nearly. You knew that already though.

In the afternoon leading up to the evening’s big event, the Trashcans were sending out little reminders across social media and, in the midst of it all, the news broke that Kraftwerk‘s Florian Schneider had succumbed to cancer and passed away. In no time at all, the Trashcans’ Twitter feed had posted this brilliant picture;

It shows a wall in front of a gas works, the legend ‘KRAFTWERK’ splayed across its Victorian bricks in industrial spray paint. Not just any wall, though. The gas works are in Irvine (actually, were in Irvine – they’re long-gone), original home to both the Trashcans and myself, and were boundaried by the wall (also long-gone) on Thornhouse Avenue at the Ballot Road/Bank Street end, across from the old tennis courts (they’re still there).

When I was younger I lived at those tennis courts – my pal and I jumped the fence in the morning for a quick couple of sets before jumping back over in advance of the caretaker opening up at noon. We’d play all day on our £5 season ticket, run home for tea, run back again until it closed at 8 o’clock then hide round the corner (near TCS bass player Davy’s house, as it happened) until the caretaker had locked up again, then jump the fence one more time and play until it was too dark to see the luminous furry ball until it was past you.

When Wimbledon was on, the part-time tennisers turned up in their dozens looking for a game and it wasn’t unusual to find yourself without a court for an hour or more. That’s when the gasworks’ wall became handy. There were three parts to it – the picture shows two – and there was a clear yet unspoken hierarchy to using it. The section with the wee yellow sign and the ‘ERK’ part of the graffiti was centre court and was reserved for only the best players. Even if you were the only person there, you’d think twice before using it. Gary Singleton and his fierce left-handed serve might be along at any top-spinning second. So you’d stand on the opposite side of the road, aim for one of the other two sections and serve towards it. The wee curved section below was just about the same height as a net, so you could practise serving and volleying to your heart’s content, at least until the ball skited up from the curved section or pinged off the jutting edge that separated the three sections (where the edge of the ‘W’ above disappears next to the ‘E’). If the ball hit either of those parts, you’d lost it forever to either the gas works or the hosiery that was next to it.

Back to the photo though. Who took it? And why did they take it? It’ll be at least 35 years old. Back then, photography certainly wasn’t as disposable as it is these days. Spools were bought. Development paid for. ‘Quality control’ sticker removed in shame. Someone intentionally took this picture and kept it for posterity. I don’t know if it’s Davy’s photo, but I like to think he snapped it one grey day in 1981. As I’m writing, I’m beginning to wonder if Davy maybe even graffitied the wall then took the picture, cool proof that he’d adorned the wall should it be washed off within the week. Until the day it was eventually washed away or the wall was knocked down (whatever happened first), it had seemingly always been there. Back at the time, as I clobbered tennis balls back and forth from it each July, I had no idea who or what Kraftwerk was – ironic, given that it means ‘power station’ (close enough to a gas works, I’d argue) although by the time of The Model and Tour de France, it became apparent that this was uber-hip graffiti in a town that was anything but.

KraftwerkDie Roboter

There will be people far more qualified than I that will write about Kraftwerk in the next day or two. Electronic pioneers, they’ll say, with soul at their synthetic heart. Perhaps even the most influential music makers since Lennon & McCartney – just look and listen to artists as disparate as Joy Division and Afrika Bambaataa if that sounds too far-fetched. I love love love the first side of Autobahn, its German-engineered, fan-cooled engine kicking off a wonderfully meandering road trip, and I’ve a particular penchant for the German-language versions of their better-known stuff – Die Roboter, for example. Strange, linear pop made by serious-faced boffins in matching suits, it still sounds like the future over 40 years later.

I also love how Berlin-era Bowie made no secret of the fact Kraftwerk were hugely influential to him on a trio of albums that have subsequently been hugely influential on others. Influenced by/influence on…. it’s the power that keeps the music world spinning ad infinitum. Here’s the tribute to Florian that eases you into side two of Dave’s “Heroes” album.

David BowieV-2 Schneider

 

Gone but not forgotten

On Parade

Parade was the soundtrack album to Prince‘s royally slated vanity project Under The Cherry Moon, an artily-filmed flop that aimed to evoke the golden era of 40s Hollywood; Art Deco, the French Riviera, silvery black and white tint ‘n all, but landed somewhat short of the mark. Over the course of what is a solid 8/10 album (insert the incoming sound of a million outraged Prince fans here) that flits between Mountains‘ on-the-one shuffling groove and the wonky jazz-inflected pop of Girls & Boys, the electro-funk of Kiss and the more standard perv-pop of New Position (he just about gets away with rhyming spunk with funk in the second verse) Prince runs the whole gamut of his flashy never-ending talent. He saves the very best til last though.

It’s the piano that does it. That and the sympathetically arpeggiated acoustic guitar. And the voice. The voices, actually. Three musicians, three voices, one great song. Coming at the end of Prince‘s eight album in as many years, Sometimes It Snows In April arrives quite unexpectedly, sent down from heaven to land as softly and prettily as a snowfall in April itself.

PrinceSometimes It Snows In April

Sometimes It Snows In April is sparse, downbeat and fragile, the very opposite of the machine-powered dirty funk that precedes it. It’s just Prince with Wendy & Lisa, making what would turn out to be their last appearance on a Prince album. It’s the perfect way to bow out too; tinkle some high up the board keys, breathe some airy vocals across the top and allow the boss to take the song where it needs to go.

It sounds almost played and recorded on-the-hoof. Unsurprisingly, Prince’s vocal is spectacular, flitting effortlessly through the octaves from whispered restraint to skyscraping falsetto, his phrasing floating around the melody with relaxed, close-miked ease.

The guitar is sparse because the player (Prince? Wendy?) isn’t yet exactly sure of what to play. The piano (Prince? Lisa?) is similarly bare-boned. There are no drums, no electric keys, little in the way of bass. It’s Prince in the wee small hours, his musical sidekicks at his beck and call, just out of bed and jamming it all out beside him in their nightwear, adding their reverb-drenched backing vocals at the crucial moments. By the third chorus, just as the three have found their sweet spot, they bring it all to a close. “All good things, they say, never last.” Given the girls’ tenure in Prince’s backing band it’s the perfect refrain.

At one point the song was given a full-blown, power ballad orchestral make-over, but that version remains, alongside gazillions of other delights, locked tightly in the Prince vault. Someone should dial in 1999 and I reckon the door’ll swing wide open.

Anyway. The lyric of Sometimes It Snows… relates to Christopher Tracy, the lead character in the movie – played by Prince, of course – a flamboyant, flapper-era gigolo – of course! – who gads about the south of France swindling outrageously wealthy French women. Of course. In the movie – spoiler alert – Prince’s character dies and the song soundtracks the moment in the film when his former friends and lovers are reminiscing on how great he was. If you can see past the ego and the massive heid (and who wouldn’t have a massive heid if they too were as groovy and talented and attractive as Prince?) you can’t help but think it’s just about the most perfect song Prince wrote. A bold claim, but I’ll fight you for it. Or fight U 4 it, as the man himself wouldn’t have said.

There’s been no snow this April. Just splitting sunshine, shorts on and barbecues roaring. Another indicator of the unusual times we’re living through, as unpredictable as Prince at the end of Parade but nowhere near as pretty.

Alternative Version

Culture Club/Club Culture

He wasn’t all about the dressing up, y’know. Or the heroin habit. Or the kidnapping and chaining up and false imprisonment of the male escort. Boy George made some great records too. Not necessarily the Culture Club ones that he’s best known for, although anyone who tells you they don’t like Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? is lying – that great, dubby bass outro alone is totally ripe for sampling into a blissed-out, cosmic audio adventure by someone with talent. Weatherall could’ve done wonders with it. Maybe he did….I dunno. 

Post Culture Club*, George fully embraced the burgeoning club culture of the acid house scene. Stealing a nod on The Shamen by a good couple of years, he and long-time pal Jeremy Healy produced the nudge-nudge, wink-wink Everything Starts With An E, a four-to-the-floor, hands-in-the-air dancefloor banger that was enthusiastically put together following Healy’s first visit to Ibiza.

E-Zee PosseeEverything Starts With An E

Taking the island’s anything-goes manifesto, the track featured some (frankly hideous) rock guitar shredding, a Ronald McDonald sample and some box-fresh ragga toasting from reggae artist MC Kinky which was then welded to a steady 120 beats per minute groove. At times evocative of the slinky electro groove that powers Lil’ Louis’ French Kiss, Everything Starts With An E chugs along quite happily for seven and a half minutes.

Turn-of-the-decade epoch-defining, it conjures up images of liberated care-free, hedonistic young folk; bare-chested boggle-eyed boys, jaws going like the clappers, ogling the girls and the strobed-out, sillhouetted podium dancers in far-flung foreign nightclubs. By the time it builds to the end, the loved-up, laser-lit crowd is as one, raising their hands higher and higher and higher to the eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-Eh-Eh-EH-ECSTACY-EEEH! refrain, arms stretched straight up in praise-the-Lord euphoria as the chant and the dancers peak as one. I’d been on Ibiza at the time and yeah, that’s just how I remember it, daddy-o.

Produced while the dance music scene was still relatively underground, the duo created a label, More Protein, purely to enable the track’s release. Despite George’s obvious chart potential and Healy’s background in occasional chart grazers Haysi Fantayzee, no label it seems would touch the track, the lyric proving too hot for the more sussed executives who rejected it. In the event, the single peaked at number 15 with no airplay but also none of the tabloid furore that accompanied Ebeneezer Goode a couple of years later. A product very much of its time, it remains a slightly dated artefact from a dance scene that was heading pell mell overground from the underground.

Reflecting the balanced yin-yang of the More Protein logo, if Everything Starts With An E was a Saturday night record, George’s next venture was Sunday morning’s bleary-eyed groove.

Jesus Loves You Generations Of Love (full length mix)

Generations Of Love is the sound of the Mediterranean, of beach cafes and breaking waves, late sunsets and early sunrises.

It has all the hallmarks of Ibizan influence; the filtered windchimes (?) at the start, the break beat, the sparse Italo house piano line, the ricocheting whooshes and a soulful vocal bang in the centre of the mix. George’s voice is spectacular here, a silken husk that duets with itself throughout the record, until MC Kinky pops up like a hyperactive ne’erdowell gatecrashing a redemptive meditation session.

The lyric too is multi-faith, the message one of hope over hate.

No big AIDS sensation…No twenty-eighth clause…The end of apartheid…No message of war

Generations of love have done you wrong

The Jew and the Gentile…The black and the gay…The lost and the futile…They’ve all got something to say
The African nation…The sword of Islam…The rebels in China…The Sikhs and the Tams

And there’s much more we can say
And there’s much more we can do
And there’s much more we can learn

Jesus Loves You Generations Of Love

The 7″ version might be even better. It breezes along on the same shuffling beat, but includes essential frantically-scrubbed Spanish acoustics and some lilting Paris-in-the-Spring accordion. Not something I’d ordinarily miss, but perfect on this Balearic brain soother.

*Culture Club phase 1. There was a flat as a pancake attempt at a reunion a few years ago. Filmed for posterity by the BBC, I’m fairly certain none of the principal players would want to watch again.

Get This!

It’s Dance Music Jim, But Not As We Know It

Man. Life is unfolding in slow motion just now. Days blur into nights, nights turn into TV or reading marathons, the mornings become afternoons and we’re back to chopping red peppers with the 5 o’clock government briefing playing out in the background. The sense of displacement, of unreality, isn’t helped by the nightly dissemination from the Government stooge at the middle lectern. It’s quite a skill to stand there and say nothing at all for a whole hour, to bat and deflect any difficult questions, to go against your own principles and celebrate the NHS after voting against health workers getting a pay rise then cheering the result when it was overwhelmingly rejected, but that’s what they do. It’s what their pal did the day before and it’s what some other insipid flunky with a home counties accent and a degree in talking pish is going to have to do tomorrow evening as well. And it’s all reactive – because of this, we’ll do that. It’s never proactive. The other constant is the continual anonymity of the Prime Minister. At the first opportunity of escape, he was off. Ah-tchoo, he went, and he was nowhere to be seen, what little reputation he may have had rapidly sliding into negative numbers. Distressingly, the only thing that does change daily is that ever-rising death count. The highest in Europe, they’re expecting. They can see it coming, but they don’t know what to do. Worrying times indeed.

It’s music we always return to, the instant fix in a world gone wrong and this slow pace in life has been sound-tracked by all manner of great stuff recently. With more time on my hands, and more phone in my hand, I’ve been digging deeper into corners of the world wide web I may have previously by-passed. The ever-reliable Adam over at Bagging Area has created a trio of terrific Isolation Mixes, seamlessly ambient pick ‘n mixes of stuff you may be familiar with, woven in-between previously unheard beauties. Jack Kerouac samples over Joe Strummer records, Eric Cantona versus Daniel Avery, plenty of Weatherall and David Holmes, the odd slice of Durutti Column…. not always the sort of stuff I’d feature regularly here, they’re great mixes and you could do worse than head over to Bagging Area and find them there.

The OrbBlue Room

Listening to Adam’s mixes has had me reaching back to The Orb, in particular Blue Room, their long-form 40 minute single that led to one of Top Of The Pops more esoteric moments. It‘s an astonishing piece of music; groovy, arch, out there and created purely for the benefit of exploiting chart rules. Up until 1992, CIN rules dictated that chart singles could be no longer than 25 minutes long. A change in the rules, a reaction to dance culture when singles came backed with multiple remixes, allowed singles of up to 40 minutes to chart. The Orb took this as a challenge and created the 39:57 Blue Room.

Blue Room grooves along on windswept ambience. It bubbles and bleeps, dives and soars. One minute it’s flotation tank otherworldliness, the next it’s cosmic time travelling through the galaxies. An ethereal female vocal drifts in and out. Spacey whitewashed whooshes leave vapour trails floating out into the ether. There’s an occasional half-hearted beat, a sparse drumkit recorded in a far-flung place, the Gobi desert maybe, that eventually creeps into the foreground of your conscience.

It’s around 7 and a half blissed out minutes before the beat properly kicks in, kept in time by a combination of drums and congas and coloured by the sort of looping, circular dub bass that hasn’t been heard since Screamadelica the year before. It’s dance music Jim, but not as we know it. For 40 minutes it ebbs and flows, the key elements coming and going like actors in a West End play – lead role one act, supporting cast the next – until it fades out on a mangled sample of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to JFK.

Entering the singles chart at number 12, Blue Room rose to number 8 the following week and earned itself a slot on the nation’s favourite TV pop show. A very edited version of the track was played while a bemused production team and audience watched on.

Bathed in green and blue light, the two principle members, Alex Paterson and Thrash, sat side-on to the cameras, heads down, practically silhouetted, and played out a game of futuristic chess dressed in exactly the sort of suits the government should be providing for every health worker in the land at this time. Not quite the epoch of Bowie and Ronson but for comedown clubbers everywhere, this was their moment.

 

 

 

Dylanish, Get This!, Live!

Cliff Richard Was Never Like This

I always thought he looked like he was about to topple over, the mid 60s Bob Dylan. With the stripy pipe cleaner-thin spindles he called legs carrying the weight of that fantastic dark blue suede military jacket, the Ray-Bans stuck high up that hooked nose and the wildly exploding crow’s nest ‘fro, not to mention the ideas constantly forming and reforming in that speed-addled super-brain of his, it’s amazing that the top-heavy troubadour never once fell flat on his face. On the contrary, mid 60s Bob was The Man, one step ahead of his manager and his band and his audience, barely giving consideration to anyone willing and able to catch up with him.

Dylan et al (DA Pennebaker in the top hat) at London Airport, May 6th 1966

By the time he’d hopped over from Dublin in May 1966 to commence his tour of the UK, Dylan was 4 drummers in with the previous three, including Band legend Levon Helm, jumping the good ship Bob in favour of a quieter life. Incessant nightly booing, it seemed, wasn’t what any of them had signed up for. Dylan arrived here a bona fide superstar, the voice of a new socially-conscious generation, every show sold out in advance. Aloof, arrogant and quotable in abundance, The Zim riled the stuffy British press. He didn’t play their expected game. His one press conference, at London’s Mayfair Hotel, was a testy affair. Music journalists were sat side by side with the more straight-laced journalists from London’s press establishment and so questions came from a bristling mix of the informed and the ignorant; What d’you like? What d’you loathe? There seems to be an electric element creeping into your sound…. What d’you think of England? Are you married? (Answer: I’d be a liar if I answered that, and I don’t lie.)

When the Melody Maker’s Max Jones suggested that he didn’t hear protest songs any longer, a weary Dylan shot back.

All my songs are protest songs! You name something, I’ll protest about it! All I do is protest!

Even Keith Altham, the most cutting-edge, most well-respected music writer of his time and the golden boy at the NME to boot, found himself on the wrong end of Dylan’s surreal wit. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the titles of your recent singles, like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ bear no apparent connections with the lyrics?

It has every significance,’ returned Dylan. ‘Have you ever been down in North Mexico?

Bob Dylan, press conference at the Mayfair Hotel in London in 1966.

Dylan batted everything off with an abstract absurdness that came easy to him. He treated the journalists like morons, prompting one to complain that “Cliff Richard was never like this,” firing back the funniest, most-perfect answers you might ever read.

Q: What do you own?
A: Oh, thirty Cadillacs, three yachts, an airport at San Diego, a railroad station in Miami. I was planning to bus all the Mormons.
Q: What are your medical problems?
A: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercury-esque eyes. And another thing—my toenails don’t fit.

With everything being captured for posterity by DA Pennebaker’s shoulder camera, Dylan and an unwitting press played their part well. It’s all there in the wired, messy travelogue Eat The Document if you didn’t know already. If only for the brief clip of Dylan and his band standing at the corner of George Square in Glasgow, tapping their toes to a passing pipe band right outside where the Counting House pub stands these days, seek it out.

It was this backdrop that informed the charged nature of the shows. Playing the same two sets each night, Dylan opened with a set of acoustic songs, just him, his guitar and a selection of harmonicas. They were generally very well-received, as rightly they should’ve been. Dylan was on top form, rolling out fantastic versions of some of his best-loved recent songs; She Belongs To Me with its slightly altered lyric, the eee-long-gat-ed phrasing in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, the lean, mean and near 12 minute Desolation Row, the definitive Mr Tambourine Man, its clearly enunciated words and perfect clarity sticking two fingers up the naysayers who’d sneer that Dylan couldn’t sing. It was the perfect set that would prove to be Dylan’s concession to the accepted notion of folk for the night.

After a short break he’d return, leading his band, a clobbering riot of Cuban heels and mohair suits and unkempt hair and electric guitars who’d plug in and play loud. Dylan too strapped on an electric, a Telecaster, wearing it over the shoulder the way a huntsman might take his gun out to shoot deer, a suitable metaphor given what would unfold. The second set always started with Tell Me, Momma, a gutterpunk garage band blooze that was the unholy sound of Pete Seeger and his axe and his high and mighty ways about folk music au-then-ti-ci-tee being blasted far and high over the Grand Coulee Dam. Never released as a studio version, the only official release comes via the Albert Hall 66 Official Bootleg – which was actually recorded in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester a week or so beforehand. But you knew that already.

Bob DylanTell Me, Momma (Manchester, May 17th 1966)

The start of this recording, with the band clattering across the wooden stage to take position, the muffled and hushed, expectant audience, Dylan’s off-mike harmonica trills and the boot stomp count in that leads to the slap-in-the-face pistol crack snare never, ever fails to excite.

And then, when the band comes in…oh aye! They cook up a terrific howling storm; loud, raucous and in your face. Dylan looks his audience straight in the eye, takes aim and fires.

But I know that you know that I know that you show, something’s tearing…up…your…mi-ii-ii-ind.”

If this fails to thrill you, if this fails to make you jump up and punch the air and shout, “Go Bob!” as loud as you can, then I can’t help you. No-one can. It’s his voice. He’s stoned or speeding or upping or downing or something, but Bob’s vocal is just great. Slurred yet enunciated, sloppy yet eager, he has you right there and then. Around him, out-with the eye of the storm, merry chaos ensues. A beat group?! At a folk concert?! With keyboards and electric bass and drums and everything?! Robbie Robertson, Dylan’s cooler than ice foil on the left fires of wildly sparking, cheesewire-thin electric riffs on his own arctic white Tele, played high up in the mix so as to cut through the chaotic racket. It’s incessant 12 bar blues played with fuck you punk spirit, the greatest sound around. And, at the end, applause. Real clapping and stuff. It wouldn’t last though. In Manchester, once the audience realises this set ain’t gonna be like the last one, the applause gives way to a slow handclap after only the second number, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).

Bob DylanI Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Manchester, May 17 1966)

Previously cast as an acoustic blues on his Another Side Of… album, it’s reborn in ’66 as another beat-driven garage band rocker, heavy on the Hammond, always returning to its signature amped-up guitar riff. By the second song in, half his audience have chucked him for good. Those that stayed with him though had electric ideas of their own. Listen carefully to I Don’t Believe You and you’ll hear the genesis of The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally, a story for another time.

If this is your kinda thing, hunt out Jewels & Binoculars, a 26 CD bootleg of every parp ‘n fart from Bob’s harmonicas in 1966. It’s the gemme, as they say round these parts. Until then, here’s Bob and his band entertaining a confused Dublin audience. Wonderful stuff.

 

 

 

Cover Versions, New! Now!

Cloth Lobsters

Lockdowns. Lock-ins. Low downs.

Strange times abound. You’ve probably been working from home the past week or so, perhaps sat at your makeshift workspace in a pair of two days-old underpants, your face and razor no longer on speaking terms. Yes, perhaps even you, ladies. Maybe too there’s a chalky white toothpaste trail down the front of your t-shirt, the one you also slept in last night as it happens (and what’s it to ya?), a stain that, you notice, looks like a grubby white silhouette of Africa when you look in the bathroom mirror. You’ve been checking and rechecking your phone to clarify if it’s a Tuesday afternoon or a Sunday morning or even a Thursday night, the same phone that loudly heralds your daily step count and quietly informs you of an increase in screen time…..for the third week running. The telly plays in the background, a never-ending loop of graphs in an upward trajectory, safely-distanced shots of hastily-built hospital wards and talking heads of serious scientists and gormless government officials. The Prime Minister has chucked it, isolated due to The Virus (he says), so no more babbling hyperbole of squashing sombreros, but really, we all know he’s keeping out of the road because he’s feart to answer questions he has no decent answer for.

In times like this, I, we, look to music. Recently, it’s been a mix of Buzzcockian post-punk and a reacquaintance with the Zim at the start of the day, dub reggae and a bit of ska for lunch and John Martyn until the second? third? glass is drained and bedtime has long-passed. Last night I lifted and redropped the needle on his Glistening Glyndebourne half a dozen woozy, boozy times. A future article for sure.

A recent article focused on Cloth and their label Last Night From Glasgow. As you read this, the label is in the midst of curating and compiling The Isolation Sessions, a timely, hastily hatched and socially-conscious album with a noble purpose: the small, independent venues that host weekly shows, many of them featuring LNFG artists, venues that struggle at the best of times, will share in all proceeds from its sales. Simple, yet (fingers crossed) effective. The hope is that this endeavour should help in some small way towards these venues staying alive until who knows when. By the end of April, The Isolation Sessions should be complete and ready for release. You can pre-order it here.

What sets the album apart from most other compilations is that this is an album where labelmates cover one another’s tracks. The aforementioned Cloth have a go at reworking acoustic neo-folkie Annie Booth, who returns the favour by turning in a gossamer-thin version of Sleep. The Gracious Losers, Glasgow’s sprawling, scabby-kneed take on an Arcade Fired-up E-Street Band will cover psychedelic shoegazers Domiciles. Sister John offer up a faithfully introspective recording of Stephen Solo‘s Secrets You Keep, enhanced by the combined female/male vocals. For reference, think of those fantastic Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan albums from a few years back. Yes, that great.

The best track so far – and so far is the caveat here, because only a third of the album has been made available to LNFG subscribers, is Close Lobsters‘ amazing version of Cloth’s Curiosity Door. To fully appreciate it, you must first be familiar with the original;

ClothCuriosity Door

Curiosity Door is fantastic; synthesised pealing church bells giving way to whispered vocals, sparse percussion and lean, fat-free pulsing guitar, the pinged harmonics ringing long into the empty spaces. Womblike, dreamy in a just-woken-up manner and pin drop-quiet, it’s the perfect sampler of what Cloth is about. Never heard them? Curiosity should get the better of you. Boom boom.

Close Lobsters have only gone and – wow! –  totally reinterpreted Curiosity Door as a motoric, propulsive mid 70s kosmische groover, all compasses going wild for map reference 51°14′N 6°47′E and Düsseldorf, West Germany. Listen to this!

Close LobstersCuriosity Door

Close Lobsters’ version is washed in Suicide keyboards, Michael Rother guitars and slow-burning, fractal, vapour trails that Sonic Boom would give his 1962 Vox Phantom for. The first thing you notice though is Andrew Burnett’s close-miked Scottish burr. Slightly menacing, slightly sinister, it brings to mind some of those great Pulp records where Jarvis whispers only for you, right down and deep into your ear. All summer, you’d shave your head, he goes. Given the current trend for DIY stay-at-home buzzcuts, well, how prescient!

I’ve had this on non-stop repeat for the past 24 hours and I can say with absolute confidence that it’s the best thing I’ve heard this year. When all of this is over and we get back to live music again and Last Night From Glasgow give the compilation the proper launch it deserves, I hope very much that, as great as Close Lobsters’ new album is in its own right, they’ll coax the band into playing their version of Curiosity Door very loudly indeed.

Now, have you ordered The Isolation Sessions yet?

 

 

 

Cover Versions, Peel Sessions

This Is A William Shatner Number

David Gedge introduced The Wedding Present’s breakneck run-through of Orange Juice‘s Felicity with those words, delivered in a perfectly-sighing, world-weary Yorkshire brogue. I first heard TWP version on Tommy, the album released in the wake of George Best‘s success, a stop-gap of odds and sods and radio sessions – Felicity came from a Peel Show – that would keep the growing fanbase happy and dipping into their pockets until the second album proper was ready. For reference, think Hatful Of Hollow at a hundred miles an hour. “William Shatner?” I pondered. “What on earth does Star Trek have to do with The Wedding Present?

Well, nothing, as was plainly obvious to everyone but me. Shatner’s Captain James T Kirk was the lead character in Star Trek. James Kirk also happened to be the name of the lead guitar player in the definitive line-up of Orange Juice. It was quite the epiphany when I joined the dots on that one. “Aaah,” I mused, safe in the glow of triangulation. It’s the simple things that matter.

It must’ve been great to have been in Orange Juice in 1981 and 1982. Just a hop and a step on from punk, these leaders of a brave new open-minded world channelled the sublime- Velvets/Buzzcocks/Chic with the ridiculous – Davy Crockett hats/Boy Scout shorts/open-toed sandals and white socks with no fear of ridicule. Bands these days, with their marketing strategies and social media channels and Spotify demographics might take all of this for granted, but believe me, Lewis Capaldi and Foals and Blossoms, it wasn’t always thus. Orange Juice had the reference points and the in-jokes and the fantastic haircuts. The world was theirs for the taking. By the time of You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, they’d outgrown Postcard Records but hadn’t yet fiddled around with the magic ingredients in their sound, so that first album rattled and rolled majestically. The cover of Al Greeen’s L.O.V.E.…Edwyn’s incredibly tender In A Nutshell…the Motown by way of Mount Florida Falling & Laughing…. it really was the sound of young Scotland.

Orange JuiceFelicity

Felicity made itself known towards the end of side 2. The key word for it is collapse. From the wobbly woah-woahs onwards, it’s never more than a beat away from potential disaster. The guitars, brilliantly-shimmering and sparkling are forever a half-trip and stumble from being an unlistenable out of tune mess. The timing is slightly off, the game backing vocals admirable, the frothy enthusiasm of the four players clear for all to see, but when they clatter their way into the galloping key change near the end, it’s the four to the floor disco beat that keeps it all together, striving to maintain the semblance of musicality that helps Felicity come to a still-standing stop.

Look closely and you’ll see Edwyn’s magnificent, blow-dried quiff teeter on the verge of limp collapse, wrung out and hung out to dry. Look closer still (around the 2:15) mark) and you might even spot David Gedge forming yer actual Wedding Present. And who could blame him?

And then listen again. Really listen! Listen to the slo-mo piano line at the start. Zoom in on that bouncing bass line. Pay attention to those well thought-out guitar lines. The tremelo! The triple-string riffing! The referee’s whistle that was so de-rigeur in early 80s New York dance records! Even in a light years-away Glasgow tenement, Orange Juice clearly had a collective finger on the pulse. Then there’s Edwyn’s joyous James Brown cop near the end. “Take me to the bridge now!” he shouts with dizzy abandon. It’s a proper jangling racket, Felicity. The sound of happiness, as Collins sings, but also the sound of fishermen’s stripy t-shirts and pleated waists and eyebrows forever-arched; feisty and fey, young punkish enthuisasm bottled forever. Sexy, as Gedge remarks at the end of his band’s version. Sexy.

The Wedding Present Felicity

 

Get This!

Not All Ladies Love Cool J

At the tail end of the 80s, Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon sat down with LL Cool J to interview him for a piece in US music magazine Spin. A fan of his music – she loved Cool J’s first album, Radio – the plan was to show how the artists maybe had something in common. Despite each coming from wildly differing marginalised backgrounds, Gordon, a woman from the underground punk rock scene and Cool J, a black man from the misrepresented rap scene would/should be able to empathise with each other’s experiences of prejudice in music. They had a tenuous common link in Def Jam supremo Rick Rubin who’d come out of the same scum-rocker scene that allowed Sonic Youth to grow and develop, but, really, that was about it.

Sonic Youth’s bass player quickly discovered she had very little in common with the hot to trot rapper. Indeed, it wouldn’t be out of sorts to say she didn’t really like him….and he didn’t really give two hoots in any case.

With his current album Walking With A Panther tearing up the Billboard Hot 100 and a fleet of luxury cars parked outside his brand new, furniture-free home, LL came across as very much the stereotypical big-shot rapper, a boy from the projects who had landed very much on the soles of his box-fresh sneakers, his frat-boy opinions on subjects as divisive as what made comedians funny and how to treat women drawing a clear line in the sand.

Amongst the tension, there’s a genuinely funny moment when Gordon prods Cool J into giving his opinion on contemporary rock music. As well as admitting to a love of Bon Jovi (“both their albums“), he just doesn’t get the obvious parallel between Iggy in the late 60s and his own experiences 20 years later.

 

The experience wasn’t a total flop though. Gordon went home and turned the meeting into song. Kool Thing is the howling sound of fringes flicking eyelids and torn-at-the-knees 501s, a dirty great tsunami of wonkily-tuned surf-punk guitar with a rhythm to ride on. It was the perfect output for expending post-interview pent-up frustration. To use that well-worn cliché, it rocks. Rawks, even.

Sonic YouthKool Thing

With references to Cool J (‘Kool thing, walkin’ like a panther’) and a lyric that takes exception to LL’s objectification of women, it’s fairly hard hitting. Political, pro-feminist, angry, anti-misogynist, it ramps up another level when Public Enemy’s Chuck D pops up to ‘tell ’em ’bout it. Hit ’em where it hurts.’

Hey, kool thing!” instructs the uber-cool, street-smart Gordon.

Come here, sit down. There’s something I go to ask you.

I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me?

I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls

From male white corporate oppression?

Tell ’em ’bout it indeed. Maybe Kim Gordon thought that by changing the ‘C’ in ‘Cool’ to a ‘K’, LL wouldn’t realise it was about him. She was probably right. I wonder if he’s aware of it yet. I doubt, with his Benz, his BM, his Audi and his Porsche lined up in the drive of the house he called Fantasyland that he’d be all that bothered. I may be wrong, but I don’t think LL Cool J ever replied in rap to Gordon’s dis. Unusual for a rapper, that.

Hard-to-find

Week Strong

Working Men’s Club have just about the least Googleable name in music but they’re worth swiping through all references to the Wheeltappers & Shunters of the world until you find them. They really are. Last year they found their way to Plain Or Pan, directing me towards their excellent Bad Blood track, a song subsequently pressed on a limited 7″ that tickled the top ten of yer actual singles chart. The charts might not be relevant to you or I as much these days, but you can bet the lint in your pocket that it meant a whole lot to the young northern English three piece.

With an album imminent (5th June is the date to circle on your year planner) they’ve emerged from the studio with a slightly changed and expanded line-up, but no less of the tuneage and teenage abandon that made Bad Blood and its follow-up Teeth so great.

Album track A.A.A.A. spits and snarls like those ’80s/’90s Fall collaborations with Coldcut; vocals megaphoned in from across the Pennines…sparse guitars spitting fury…vintage synths hovering and  haemorrhaging between the processed beats…the whole thing sounding like a hornets nest on fire. It’s magic.

 

Working Men’s Club were due to go out on tour with Baxter Dury and yer actual Noel Gallagher over the coming weeks, gigs that obviously won’t now happen. I suggest you pre-order their album instead and then, when the live music scene gets up and running again, you’ll know every noise and every nuance on what promises to be a debut to rival all others this year. You might even find yourself at one of their own headline shows when they hit the virus-free road in their own right.

As far as guitar-based indie rock goes, 2019 arguably went to Fontaines DC. 2020 though is Working Men’s Club’s for the taking. Click the logo below and it’ll take you straight to your music retailer of choice.

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