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All God’s Children

It’s funny how Jon the Postman went in the blink of an eye from delivering letters to delivering spontaneous punk karaoke between support acts in the venues of mid ’70s Manchester while Subway Sect‘s Vic Godard, in roughly the same time-frame, went from dispatching soul-inflected sermons from the trenches of punk’s frontline – fourth on the bill on the White Riot tour – to become an actual card-carrying postman.

Subway Sect were something of an exception to the rules of punk. Punk’s ideal of ‘anything goes for anyone’ might’ve been the manifesto, heartily grabbed by any number of outsiders, insiders, movers and shakers who employed a rudimentary grasp of three chords and an enthusiastic approach to music making that far belied any noticeable ability, but by 1977, the scene had become cartoonish and bloated, lowest common denominator ‘punk’ by numbers that was anything but.

Not for nothing was one of Subway Sect’s few (read ‘two’) singles called Ambition. You might not know it, but you’ll know it. A clattering, Farfisa-led racket (together, though, in tune, and that’s vital), it introduced itself with a none-more-punk opening declaration; ‘You can take it or leave it as far as we’re concerned because we’re not concerned with you.’

Subway SectAmbition

Subway Sect had ambitions far beyond punk’s nihilistic stance…and were far more punk precisely because of it. They ploughed their own particularly rich furrow, with rattling guitars, shonky vocals and an unpretentious honesty that shone through in everything they did.

One quick glance at the band would tell you this. The hair is of the period; sticky-uppy, home-cut and suitably non-salon, but there’s not a well-placed rip on any item of clothing, let alone any phoney machismo or its accompanying element of threat. The one concession to ‘punk’ is Vic’s tiny, ironic snarl at the corner of his curled lip, possibly caused when his guitar strap broke just as the photographer clicked. They mean it, maaan, but not like everybody else.

Subway Sect photographed by Sheila Rock, December ’76. Paul Simonon painted the backdrop.

Subway Sect had far more in common with Buzzcocks; fey, feminine even, their declarations of love and regret wrapped in old school jumpers and older suit trousers with wonky zips, sung keenly with an off-key Edwyn-ish warble that rippled as far afield as Glasgow, where the antennae attached to young Alan Horne’s schemes and dreams twitched and twanged with mutual understanding. No Subway Sect, no Postcard Records might seem a bit far fetched, but I don’t think so.

Subway SectCommon Thief

Common Thief finds Subway Sect cast adrift on some rough and ready talc-dusted northern soul dancefloor. There are handclaps, call-and-response vocals and a plethora of requisite ‘hey-hey-heys’ that no doubt resonated on some level with Kevin Rowland. Or perhaps Common Thief was influenced by Dexys, rather than being an influence on Dexys. The internet is unusually bereft of anything beyond scant information regarding it, but not to worry. The guitars, alternating with a suitably fat piano line for the title of ‘lead instrument’ are midway between cheesegrater thin and Philly soul slick – not a zillion miles away from the afore-inferred Orange Juice at all.

Vic’s vocal – falsetto in the verses and bridges, unpretentious and crooning in the chorus – enfolds itself around the words like the curling smoke from a torch singer’s Gitanes as they climb inside and occupy the melody, an approach that’s clearly as far removed from the phlegm-coated primitive howl of punk as possible. Ambition indeed. Get down on it.

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Reunion City Blues

I blame Daft Punk. They self-delete and before the dust has properly settled, ABBA are busy raking Thomas and Guy-Manuel’s desktop dustbins for a hip new techy idea to steal and a weird costume to squeeze self-consciously into. The news that ABBA have reformed (of sorts – they haven’t really, have they? Have they?) fills me with the fear. They’re just about the last of those big heritage acts with all original members still alive and if they had any semblance of dignity remaining, they wouldn’t do it. Judging by the press photo though, it may already be too late. Bjorn again? Even poor Benny knows it.

In this house, ABBA was synonymous with growing up in the ’70s. At family get-togethers and especially at New Year, they were inescapable. ABBA is the sound of droopy moustaches, of child-friendly glasses of wine diluted with water, of asthma brought on by feather pillows and playing with dogs (and child-friendly glasses of wine diluted with water), of folk song singalongs, of Hammer House of Horror on the wrong side of midnight, of itchy jumpers, too-wide trousers and no telly in the daytime. The music of ABBA is as much a part of my DNA as my inherited grey hair and family jowls.

I first became aware of them as they played on my uncle’s proper old stereo equipment, a turntable that nowadays would likely cost you a good few months’ salary and quite possibly your marriage.

Turned up so loud that the rush of audiophile air from the floor-standing speakers rippled the skin on the back of my hand, the music of ABBA was at once foreign and icy strange yet flawless and instantly familiar. The Arrival album rinsed the room with thumping string-swept disco and ringing twelve string guitars. There were sections where the music dropped out, giving space for the girls’ locked-in harmonies to hang suspended in time before being swallowed up by the masterful ’70s production, singable instrumental hooklines at every turn and melodies on top of melodies on top of even more tumbling melodies; songs so adult in performance and presentation it would take me years to fully comprehend their depth and ambition.

There was undeniable European glamour in ABBA, and this was before I’d even clapped eyes on the visionary Agnetha, airbrushed into a shapely jumpsuit or other, her gap-toothed, soft-focused faraway half-smile and blow-dried Charlie’s Angels hair awakening something in me and zapping electrically-charged hormones around my insides like the dodgems at the moor on Marymass Saturday.

You don’t need a copy of ABBA Gold to know that every ABBA track stands up for two reasons; the timeless production and the hook-laden arrangements. They always got a great natural drum sound, did ABBA. It’s the sound of expensive, pine-clad Scandinavian studios and the best sessioneer (Ola Brunkert) that ABBA’s considerable fortunes could buy. If I was making music today, I’d be looking to ape the sound and feel of ABBA’s drums on every track I recorded.

Those detached, ice-dusted vocals and the endless earworms they continue to create will always be centre-stage, but the supporting instrumentation is never anything less than inspired. The bass line and electric guitar pay-off on The Name Of The Game…the studied, sparse monotony of The Day Before You Game…that piano trill and bass pulse that sets Money Money Money on edge (and not to mention Anni-Frid’s guttural ‘I bet he wouldn’t fancy me‘ line)… Knowing Me, Knowing You, a-haaa. Even TV comedy can’t ruin that one, not when the track has a brilliantly placed guitar and drum colouring the sound, tension and release, just below the titular hook. Listen out for it. Once heard, never forgotten. Every ABBA track, every single one of them, is memorable in one way or another.

They have better songs than Eagle, perhaps, but released on 1977’s ABBA: The Album, it’s the band’s sound in miniature.

ABBAEagle

First off, it’s stately and steady, far slower than it has any right to be. In most hands, the restrained pace of Eagle would be a problem and would have turned to curdled milk long before the end. This was 1977 remember – most bands would’ve been tempted even subconsciously to crank up the speed a little, get it moving to the finish line. Not ABBA. In their hands, it’s a glacial paced and elegant minor key masterpiece, quietly gliding, windswept and widescreen, as self-assured and soaring as its subject matter. The way the vocal ends on a new chord leaves it hanging, the aural equivalent of the eagle itself banking off into the distance.

The girls sing in unison. They sound sad, somehow. They always do. ABBA do melancholy like no other. Low in the verses, high in the choruses, backed by a symphony of synths and multi-tracked counter-vocals that provide the catchy parts, Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s voices melt into one. They sing the fuck out of Eagle. As I listen now, I can see Agnetha’s lined forehead, her crescent-mooned eyebrows and faraway eyes lost in song, her lipgloss catching some TV studio light or other as the camera pans across and around her.

“Hiiiyee-uh high! What a feeling to fly…” That wee vocal half-pause they fling in around three minutes and then again near the end is the particular masterstroke on Eagle. Every part of it has been painstakingly mapped out beforehand. Nothing is left to chance on an ABBA record. And not just the chorus and key lines, but the preludes, the bridges, the ‘ad-libs’ in the outro… and the guitar parts, the keyboard motifs, the bass lines. Perfect. Even their logo, with its mirrored backwards ‘B’ has been subject to committee and discussion. And it’s all there on Eagle. I’m sure Phil Oakey had that hook playing on a loop somewhere underneath that lopsided fringe of his when the Human League were writing Don’t You Want Me.

In more recent years, ABBA has become the soundtrack to hen parties and Christmas nights out and drunken office shenanigans, their music reduced to karaoke and tribute acts and pop party music. Then there was the awful musical, a vehicle that dared to knit together bad cover versions with a flimsy storyline. Rotten stuff.

And now this. Whatever this is. A holographic, pseudo-live performance that will undoubtedly leave you little change from a few hundred quid and will sell out before tickets are properly on sale? I mean. come on! Stop! And new songs? Two of them. I had no intention of listening to them until YouTube spat one out at me…

…and it was all there; the understated, piano-led start, the ‘Do I have it in me?‘ hookline, the strings providing the counter-melody, a skyscraping chorus (I’m not sold on the drum sound though) and a none-more mid ’70s soft rock guitar, the sound of The Carpenters produced by Barry Gibb, all gift-wrapped for authenticity in that overpowering feeling of melancholy that they can seemingly do in their sleep. Damn you, ABBA. Why did you go and do this?

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Homespun

Last year’s lockdown may have meant a temporary end to live music, but it enabled Trashcan Sinatras‘ songwriting bass player Davy Hughes to team up with his artist wife Maree to create a four track audio-visual EP, as pleasing on the ears as it is to the eyes. Part crowd-sourced and part-funded by Creative Scotland, the Homespun EP has just been released. It’s quirky, atmospheric and filmic, with multi-layered stop-frame animation videos featuring butterflies and birds, dragonflies and all of nature’s delights providing the visual wallpaper for the glossy sheen of music that plays in the background, or foreground (depending on where you sit on the audio or visual learner see-saw).

Part ambient filmscore for some imagined film and part pulsing melodic electro, at least two of the four tracks feature moonlighting Trashcans as well as Eddi Reader, her voice instantly recognisable despite the musical accompaniment sounding quite unlike the instrumentation that normally plays behind her.

Opener I Don’t Know What’s Going On (I Only Know It’s All Gone Wrong Again) is the greatest track Public Service Broadcasting hasn’t yet recorded. Carried by a plummy-voiced sample that repeats the title throughout, it glides on linear synth pulses and post-punk guitars, keyboard swells and tingaling percussion. The accompanying video features much of Maree’s signature art; felt people, leaves and flowers, fluttering creatures in flight… an audible and auditory trip.

It’s the middle two tracks that I reckon will appeal most to fans of the Trashcan Sinatras.

Sea Made is the missing link between Talk Talk and the Blue Nile that you never knew you were looking for. Ambient and gyroscopic, it eases itself in gently, wafted along by tinkling keys and the sampled autumnal breeze from Irvine harbour. Frank’s voice is sleepy and mellow, the perfect foil to Eddi’s octave-surfing harmonies. With a multi-coloured video featuring sea creatures, scooners and some backwards spelling, it’s quite the package.

Can You Hear Me? is all understated minimal techno; vibrating electro bass, sparse percussion, programmed and processed beats, on top of which the Trashcans’ Frank sleepwalks his way through a beauty of a duet with his ghostly-voiced sister, half hidden in the shadowy background.

Do.

You.

See Me?

Can.

You.

Hear Me?

Huge, wobbly, tremeloed guitars add dollops of colour to the proceedings, little arpeggios and long notes that burn off out into the ether bringing to mind the more ethereal moments in the Trashcans’ forever-underrated back catalogue. It’s a quiet, slow-building beauty that, after half a dozen plays, unravels and reveals itself to be a work of melodic, atmospheric genius. It’s music for space travel, Jim, but not as we know it.

Closer Made Up Story features a slightly sinister video, with reflected impish creatures giving the effect of multiple Rorschach inkblots that give way to a cut-out girl who seems to fall forever until the track’s end. Vocal-less, Made Up Story features a repeating bass riff and an airy high-up-the-keys hook that bring to mind any number of those old early ’90s electronic records. Papua New Guinea, Yeke Yeke, Chime… you get the idea, but unwinding, slowed down to flotation tank levels of urgency. 

As an EP and as a visual medium, Homespun urges you to slow down, take a breath, reset. It’s pretty great.

You can support the arts and buy the EP at the Homespun Bandcamp page here. All profits will go to Irvine-based music charity Freckfest.

 

 

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Brains and LeBron

I know zilch about basketball. I know the players are eighteen feet tall in their bare feet. I know they can shoot hoops cleanly from half a mile away without either the use of the backboard or the ball ruffling the interior sides of the net as it registers three points to the shooter. I know Michael Jordan – number 23, I believe – got very rich off of a particular brand of Nike sneaker training shoe and that, aside from watching the Beastie Boys play two-on-one, the Harlem Globetrotters are by far the most dazzling team to watch. I also know that when they list the scores – eg Lakers 124 v 118 Celtics, the match in question was played at the home of the team listed second, which is just daft. So yes, I know zilch about basketball. I’m much more of a football guy. And that’s Scottish football, not yer American variation. Ask me anything about a provincial team’s perennial benchwarmers or just how shoogly the manager’s jacket is at any of the lower league teams come Easter time, and I’m yer man. But basketball, or to be exact, the regular actions of one of its more prominent players, was the stimulus for one of the modern era’s greatest tracks.

Anderson .PaakKing James

For a short second, those of us in the west of Scotland and select other provinces could be forgiven for doing a double take at the title of the track in the spotlight. Here and elsewhere, King James has very different historical connotations, all of them involving battles on white horses and all of them bigoted, religion-fuelled and best-kept in the knuckle-dragging past.

The King James in .Paak’s track (and while we’re on the subject of daftness, what’s that rogue dot all about?) refers to LA Lakers’ LeBron James – also, coincidentally, number 23 – and his ceaseless championing of America’s black community, his outspoken anger at trigger-happy policing and the tireless charity work he carries out to help the oppressed, the marginalised and the disenfranchised.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

James follows in the footsteps of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. A football player (US variety) with the San Francisco 49ers, he began in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem – a protest – what’s so great about America, eh? – at the regular and ongoing social injustice and police brutality of African-Americans. Kaepernick wouldn’t play in the game for much longer. His actions polarised America. Donald Trump battered in as only thick bigots can by declaring that NFL owners should fire any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem. At the end of that season, Kapernick was released, free to join any club who wanted his services. He has never played again.

In solidarity, and to highlight Kaepernick’s unjust treatement from his sport’s paymasters, LeBron James began taking the knee before Lakers’ games, a powerful action that, on the back of the George Floyd killing last year, eventually led to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Released in 2019, Anderson .Paak’s track perfectly foreshadows the BLM movement. It refers to both Kaepernick and James throughout. Its subject matter is the sort of contemporary politics that Marvin Gaye might’ve gone for had he recorded What’s Going On half a century later.

Anderson .Paak keeps the wooly bunnet and bearded handsomness but updates and reboots the Gaye protest, going less for smooth, airy soul and more for a glitchy, jerky, bump ‘n grind modern variation.

Bubbling on-the-one bass and a repeating sax motif that calls to mind the sort of breathy, freeflowing jazz that Maceo Parker was adding to Prince records when he was last untouchable carry the track, as skittering, breakbeating drums rattle the rhythm to its conclusion. Surfing somewhere inbetween is a subtle electro tick tock and a harmonising female backing vocal that adds sass and gloss, but never gets in the way of .Paak’s incredible lead vocal, part gravel, part grease, but always great. His phrasing…his control…his delivery… it’s fantastic.

A lot of the other material on the track’s parent album (Ventura) has, so far, left me kinda cold, but King James is a play-once and repeat-often modern-day stone cold classic. Worth investigating, I’d say.

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Social Media

I confess to knowing not much about Broken Social Scene. A living, breathing, fluid line-up that can be anything from a 6 to a 19-piece would suggest that they’re more of a collective than a band, with members coming and going, dropping in/dropping out, releasing and touring their own solo material then rejoining again. You might know the quirky, always excellent Feist. Or Canadian crooners Stars and their brand of melodic crooning. Both acts have found themselves part of the ‘Scene at some point or other.

When they started, Broken Social Scene strived to make swirling, ambient, mainly instrumental indie rock; experimental, peerless and lo-fi in execution but high-fi in ambition. For reference, think of a slightly turned-down, slightly more polite Yo La Tengo. By their second album, You Forgot It In People, they’d started to employ vocals and a more straightforward approach to song-writing. The fuzzed-up ethereal electric guitars and close-mic’d acoustics are still there, but so too are brass sections, keys, banjos even, along with grand ambitions on a widescreen scale. A chance conversation with Nile Marr turned me on to the album  – “I think you’d really like it,” he said presciently – and, in something of a recurring theme, I fell for a ‘new’ album that was a couple of months shy of turning twenty years old.

Like all the best albums, it’s an album that takes a handful of plays before it fully reveals itself. You’re never far from a slowly unravelling melody or a wonky Beatlish backwards bit or the sort of slow-burning, vapour-trailed outro that fellow Canadian Neil Young might accede to should he be forced to consider his other 15 band members. “You gotta turn the Les Paul down a notch, Neil. And make way for the strings ‘n trumpets now and again!” Slow burning, yes, but soft rocking too. Broken Social Scene don’t blow the doors in, they politely chap until they’re living in your head.

There are a few standouts, not least the hynotic, repetitive, melting earworm that is Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl

Broken Social SceneAnthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl

Atop a slowly building backing of back porch banjo, random thumps and long-bowed violin, singer Emily Haines has been pitch-shifted up a notch, giving her vocal the effect of a sing-songy young girl, perfect for the song’s subject matter.

Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that…

Now you’re all gone, got your make up on and you’re not comin’ back.

Bleaching your teeth, smiling flash, talking trash, under your breath, under my window

It’s a scene that’s easy to picture. It’s teen angst and country girl heartbreak set to music. It would make for the perfect soundtrack to a suitable scene in a low-budget indie film, Scarlett Johansson or Charlize Theron or whoever the teenage equivalent is these days swinging on the porch, faded jeans and checked shirt covered in oil from helping her single father fix the pick-up truck, staring into a middle distance of dancing, swaying cornfields and puffy white clouded blue skies.

The contstant, never-ending repetition of the last line – Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me – combined with the swirling, sawing almost Venus In Furs drone and the steady plonkety-plonk of the banjo is, by the end of the track, totally headswimmingly hypnotic. Circular and head-spinning, you don’t want it to end, but when it does, on a dizzy refrain of the first line and an incredibly eked out violin note, you stop. Take a breath. And play it again. It’s a great wee song from a great wee album. I think you’d like it…

 

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S’all Gone A Bit Pete Tong

Dr Bucks’ Letter is late-ish era Fall at their best. Taken from The Unutterable, it’s an incessant, kerb-crawling jackbooted stomp of a track; claustrophobic, indulgent and relentless, the sound of The Fall doing half-speed dub techno. The disciplined beat and fuzzed-up riff underpin a crackle of electro static and a cackle of spoken word, random keyboard outbursts that sound like guard dogs in heat and a clanging Holger Czukay bassline that fights for ear space in-between a returning signature riff. It’s not quite a kitchen sink production, but it’s getting there.

The FallDr Bucks’ Letter

The cherry on the top is Mark E Smith’s spoken word vocal, the lyric referencing an unfortunate fall-out with a friend – ‘of my own making, I walk a dark corridor of my heart, hoping one day a door will be ajar at least so we can recompense our hard-won friendship.’

He may have been viewed as a grizzly, alcohol-soaked hard-heart, but Smith could write flowing sentimentality like no other, even if, perhaps to keep his image somewhat intact, he delivers it in a voice that borders on menacing. There’s the complexity of MES right there.

As the track reaches it’s conclusion, Smith bizarrely – yet thrillingly – reads aloud an abridged version of a magazine interview with superstar DJ Pete Tong, cackling to himself/at Tong’s superficial lifestyle and the vacuousness of it all.

There aren’t many folk who’d have the nerve to lift text from such disparate places – a Virgin Rail customer magazine, as it goes, but there y’go – proof, if any were needed, that Mark E Smith wasn’t yer average writer.

Dr Bucks’ Letter is a Fall track that works for all sorts of reasons. The references in the magazine article to Palm Pilots and CDs and cassettes (no vinyl, Pete?) has the track firmly dated as 2000, a portent of a new millennium with another new Fall line-up in the making and at least a further 83 albums before the fall of The Fall with MES’s untimely death in 2018.

It’s worn far better than some of its lyrical influences, has Dr Bucks’ Letter. Indeed, it never sounds anything other than ‘now’, a decent snapshot of a band who’d perhaps lost their way a wee bit at the time.

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Bobtogenarian

The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll…the voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture…the guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse…who emerged to find Jesus…who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s… Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob! Dylan!

These are the frenz-inducing spoken words of Dylan’s stage manager Al Santos, mic’d up and out of sight, that signify Bob’s imminent arrival on stage. They’ve been spoken for the last twenty years on the never-ending tour and will no doubt continue again, just as soon as live events become a thing once more. The words came lock, stock and barrel from a review by reporter Jeff Miers in the Buffalo News, a review that so resonated with Bob that it immediately became his adopted clarion call.

Hear these words and as sure as night follows day, ol’ Bob will come rattlin’ and rollin’ out of the traps with a lively opener. It might be a crowd pleaser – Maggie’s Farm was a favourite for a while, it might be a deliberately obtuse audience wrong-footer, or it might even be a country-punk take on an old God-fearin’ standard. No matter the first song though – it’s all about giving the sound desk one last chance at mixing to the room – it signifies the beginning of a set that, much like its creator, will be long and winding with diamonds and pearls and the odd miss-firing clunker along the way.

Bob Dylan has always been there. He was there when I first started noticing these things called ‘records’, my dad’s copy (now mine) of Bringing It All Back Home sticking out between the Trini Lopez and Buddy Holly albums, the cover alluring and just beyond the comprehension of my young years. My mum worked at Irvine Library and came in one night with a video of Don’t Look Back, the on-the-road documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. It more than resonated – some of the songs on my dad’s record were in the film – and as I watched and rewatched, I was wholly sucked into the world of Bob. It was the hair and the permashades, the houndstooth and polka dots, the Beatle boots and the stripey trousers that did it – a popstar as outlandish as Adam Ant but with an impenetrable depth and downright rudeness that set him apart from any popstar I’d ever taken a shine to.

In the film, Dylan sped from venue to venue being confrontational and contrary, aloof and arrogant, sneering and sarcastic…unlikeable in lots of ways, although he could be wickedly funny at someone else’s expense, (and that’s always something that anyone who tries to fit in with the gang will lap up) but then the film would cut to him singing She Belongs To Me or It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and he’d be instantly forgiven, his voice; the annun-ci-a-tion,the phhhhrasssing, the barely whispered quiet parts to the rasping roof raisers delivering the songs with an intimacy I’d never heard before…and still haven’t heard since.

I went through a particularly heavy Bob phase in the mid ’90s. I’d marvel, (I still do), standing at that same spot on St Vincent St in Glasgow, just outside what is currently the Counting House pub, where, in 1966, Bob and The Band stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of locals watching a pipe band march past. The Americans are easy to spot; eyes hidden by shades and hair like free-growing birds’ nests while their pasty-faced Glaswegian counterparts still sport the slicked back Brylcreem ‘do of their youth.  “See the guy in the middle, twirling the thing! Do they do that in the middle o’ winter?‘ asks Bob of the swinging kilts off camera. Jump ahead to 3.17 and you’ll find it.

The back catalogue, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, would spin for days, weeks and months on end. By the turn of the decade, I had a mini disc player loaded up with hours and hours of Bob and it would shuffle endlessly, leaping from Woody Guthrie folk blues and raggle-taggle gypsy ballads to Mick Ronson-riffing alternate versions and bootleg recordings of Bob around the world.

By the turn of the next decade I’d seen Bob more than a handful of times, always the same, always different, from through the drizzle at Stirling Castle as my pal pointed out, ‘that’s Bob Dylan playing Mr Tambourine Man up there,’ and the bleachers in the SECC where a spiritual, transcendental Boots Of Spanish Leather fought its way to the ears across the draughty divide, to the intimacy of the Barrowlands the very next night, not only my favourite Bob show but one that’s acknowledged as one of his very best, close enough to see him smile as his audience wrestled with Girl Of The North Country and Just Like A Woman, close enough to watch the drips of sweat fall from the brim of his hat and onto his keys as he punched out a jerky but faithful version of Ballad Of A Thin Man, close enough to witness a rare bout of audience interaction at the very end of Like A Rolling Stone. There’s something happening here indeed, etc etc.

Bob DylanLike A Rolling Stone (Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom, 24.6.04)

Somewhere in time, as my Bob fascination became a quiet obsession, Dylan turned the ripe old age of 60. Sixty! Man! I remember thinking, “That’s ancient!” That I’m currently eight and a half years from 60 myself is both shocking and sobering. And it’s got me thinking, why haven’t I created a Blonde On Blonde-type masterpiece? When do I get my Jesus phase? Will I ever near-kill myself on a motorbike? Who will call me Judas and boo me when I turn up at my place of work? Will anyone rake my bins for evidence of the life I supposedly lead? At what point do I embark on my own never-ending tour? And now, ol’ Bob Dylan is 80. Eighty! And I’m thinking, where are the book deals, the Nobel Prizes, the honorary rectorships, the Oscars? He’s packed an awful lot into those first eight decades of life.

The numbskulls will point out that he can’t sing (wrong!), that his songs are unrecognisable in concert (wrong again!), or that ‘Bob Dylan? Is he not dead?’ (wrong! wrong! wrong!) but those that know, know. He’s one of the greatest and will be forever. Here’s to the next eighty years.

 

 

Cover Versions, Get This!, Hard-to-find

Cultured

Two Sevens Clash by Culture is, to me, ubiquitous with the John Peel show. I’m probably distorting fact with reality through the wonky prism of time, but I’m sure he played it regularly throughout the mid ’80s. Entry-level reggae, if you like, for roots ‘n radicals explorers wanting to dig deeper than Bob Marley, Two Sevens Clash is everything that’s great about the genre; it’s cavernous, it features a head-nodding groove and it’s sweet ‘n soulful. You knew that already though.

Before they went by the one word moniker, Culture were known as The Cultures and cut Trod On. Released in 1977, Trod On foreshadows the constituent parts that made Two Sevens Clash such a great record at the end of the same year.

The CulturesTrod On

It features a steady Eddie one-and-two-and-three-and-four rhythm, all concrete bass and chicka-chicka offbeat guitar, a toasting singer (Ranking Trevor) backed by some lovely falsetto vocals (that’ll be The Revolutionarys, you’d have to think) and a horn refrain that carries the whole track from beginning to end. With its ricocheting rim shots and vapour trailing vocal-ocal-ocals, the extended version above nicely skirts the outer limits of dub. It’s a great wee record.

As happenstance and kismet would have it, Trod On‘s earthy groove found its way east to 185 West Princes Street, Glasgow. Or to be more precise, it found its way east to the ears of Orange Juice, resident happening band at Postcard Records, the label that championed the sound of young Scotland and whose maverick supremo Alan Horne resided in the 2nd floor flat at that very address. 

Orange Juice had barely learned to walk when they stumbled upon (trod on?) Trod On. In need of a flip side to accompany the frantic knee tremble of their debut single Falling And Laughing, the band set about deconstructing The Cultures’ mid-paced groover and appropriated the horn refrain to their own ends.

Orange JuiceMoscow Olympics

Like all early Orange Juice tracks, when the band was still learning how to play together, and doing so in full view of the listener, Moscow Olympics fairly gallops along on a rickety bed of enthusiasm and wide-eyed self belief.

Amazingly/inspiringly, it sounds no different to the dozens of rehearsal room tapes that were recorded down the years in the bands I played in; ghetto blaster facing the wall and ‘record’ depressed in the hope it might magnetise some of the magic swirling in the air (sometimes it even did) but if you are able to focus between the the gaps in the scratchy ‘production’ and the faraway racket of drums (played somewhere near Sauchiehall Street while the other three apparently thrash it out over on Argyle Street), you’ll hear that Davy McClymont’s bass line on this recording is fantastic, a proper tune within a tune. The horn-aping guitar line is supremely confident too, never out of time or tune, and with nary a bum note to be heard.

The boys are on fine form, with drummer Daly and svengali Horne (Alan Wild, indeed) enthusiastically barking, yelping and football-chanting ‘Moscow!‘ at all appropriate points. It might only be the b-side of their first single, but despite the knees-out-the-new-school-trousers approach, the shambolic seeds of something special are being sown right before your very eyes and ears. It’s there in the interweaving guitar interplay and disco hi-hats; cheeky and Chic-y.

Being Orange Juice of course; arch, wry and post-punk rule breakers, they stuck two versions of the track on the b-side. Just for good measure. Because they could. And why not?

Orange JuiceMoscow

My dad’s old SLR camera, with its Moscow Olympics logo, used to fascinate me.

 

 

Get This!

I Can’t Get Enough Of This

Zoom!, the opening track on Love Kraft, Super Furry Animals‘ 7th album begins with a SPLASH! – the sound of guitar player Huw Bunford diving into a Catalonian swimming pool in a hopeful attempt to shake off the stifling sticky midday heat.

Super Furry AnimalsZoom!

At once you’re baptised, immersed in a new rich Super Furry sound that comes steeped in an MOR AOR FM sheen; the heady sound and heavy vibes of ’70s California, of the Holland-era Beach Boys and the coke-flecked Fleetwood Mac, arranged perhaps by David Axelrod. The Super Furries’ kitchen sink approach to their writing finds interweaving melodies and harmonies coasting atop a backing of tinkling, descending keys, a sprinkle of ascending spectral chants, skittering drum breaks and crisp, electric guitars – the sort of guitars where you can hear the fingers scrape across the fretboards as the chords and riffs change shape.

Midway through, the metaphorical clouds darken and those wordless, classical chants come to the fore, bringing with them an uneasy, end-of-the-world feeling that at times recalls The Smiths’ Death Of A Disco Dancer, itself a heavy, lengthy, descending journey into the mind.

‘I can’t get enough of this,’ goes Gruff Rhys. ‘Kiss me with apocalypse.’ The lyric throughout is suitably obscure and wide-ranging. Over the course of 7 headswimming minutes, it takes in Lord Lucan and Shergar, the Virgin Mary crying blood, driving to the Kwik Save in a Ford Mustang and a dalmation whose spots have fallen off. Proof, if it were needed, that the Super Furry Animals can pack more musical and lyrical ideas into one verse than a lot of bands can manage in a lifetime.

The second track, Atomik Lust, continues in the same lush vein. Lighter, more pop, it introduces itself on a bed of electrically enhanced backwards stuff, kept in check by rhythmically jangling sleigh bells and western saloon piano. By the second verse, honeyed Bacharach horns slide into earshot, subtle strings provide the counter melodies and the whole thing grooves smoothly into outer space. It’s fantastic.

Super Furry AnimalsAtomik Lust

A Super Furry change of pace finds it moving into sludge rock in the middle and again toward the end, a super-melodic track worthy of inclusion on, say, Pacific Ocean Blue, sandwiched between a squall of Spectorish drums and squealing guitars. It’s not all smooth LA vibes round here, they say without saying.

Love Kraft is a happy product of circumstance. Following the demise of Creation, the band found themselves signed to major label Columbia. Happy with their charges, the label funded recording in Spain and mixing in Brazil. Beastie Boys and Beck producer Mario Caldato was brought in to produce, and using the label’s funds, embellished the record with strings and brass and musical decoration that the band could only have dreamed off in the years previous. The result is an album that Gryuff Rhys himself says is the band’s pinnacle to date.

If you’ve never fully investigated Super Furry Animals, you might try their debut Fuzzy Logic and it’s follow-up Radiator, but I suggest you fast forward to album number 7 and work your way outwards from there. These days, bands never really split up. They take an extended hiatus, release solo albums and side projects, produce other bands perhaps, but eventually they always find one another again. Lets hope Super Furry Animals, one of our greatest, most-inventive, unique and special bands do likewise before much more time has elapsed.

Get This!, New! Now!

My Best Ideas Are Borrowed But They’re Never Half-Baked

Yard Act may well be the most important new band of this year. Judging by all that can be found online, it’s quite possible that they’ve written just four songs, but all appear on their super-limited, super sold out debut EP, Dark Days.

D’you know those two choppy minor chords that play behind the chorus on Roxy Music’s arty, decadent and oh so European Love Is the Drug? Yard Act have nicked them, welded them to Joey Santiago’s fire-spitting Uriah hit the crapper guitars from Pixies’ Dead and, by adding a sullen, gobby vocal, half Mark E Smith and half John Cooper Clarke, have gone about creating the most thrilling of title tracks on an EP that’s bursting with originality, vim and the odd sweary word. I think you’d like them very much.

It’s a never-ending cycle of abuse, I have the blues and I can’t shake them loose, goes the singer, spitting piss and vinegar through a megaphone for good measure, choppy basslines and a no-frills drummer holding it all in place. The vocals, all northern rap and Yorkshire tang are what sets it apart. There’s no singing in the traditional sense, until the choruses, when the monotone dark days title is repeated by the rest of the band. It’s a fat-free track, bereft of any superfluous nonsense. There are no obvious overdubs, no gimmicky production, just bass, drums, one guitar and the vocals on top, all in clear separation. Repetition is discipline said Mark E Smith and on this track…this EP…Yard Act have proven themselves to be the most disciplined of all.

Peanuts is two songs welded together in a spoken-word sandwich; the noise-clash first half, all discordant, cheesegrater Telecasters and drawling vocals that sound as if they’re being orated through a mouthful of Juicy Fruit, before giving way to the spoken word second half with a weeping Disney ambience in the background. Great punchline too, before the band kicks in for the last wee bit. I can guarantee, you haven’t heard a track like this ever.

Fixer Upper takes Jarvis Cocker’s take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse sentiments to the next level. I can’t believe I’m a two home owner, proclaims our protagonist, it’s a fixer upper though. The Polish builders’ll take care of it, cash in hand like. You can be sure of that. Great wee bit of percussion at the end too.

The Trappers Pelts grooves along on a bed of fuzz bass and hip-hop drums, not a million miles away from those Pixies again, twisted electric guitar sound effects and a vocal about, what, exactly? Entrepreneurship in the 21st century? The gig economy? You’re really all so desperate. Desperate! Despera-tuh! (Subtle influence clue there). HMRC, pay as you feel! I’ve no idea what it’s about, but in a head-nodding-to-the-groove kinda way, it sounds fantastic.

You might listen to all four tracks as they play on the Bandcamp app above, but can I suggest you watch the session below. All the visual clues point to the band’s peerless influences; a set dressed like The Smiths’ This Charming Man video, a Curtis/McCulloch grey mac, a singer that’s humourous, intelligent and charismatic, leading a band where each player knows his part…Yard Act are, like all the best bands, the sum of their influences and something inexplicably more. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.

Check the band’s Bandcamp page for merch, music and suchlike.