Alternative Version, Get This!

Runners And Ryders

Happy MondaysBummed was something of a slow burner. Released in November ’88, it was arguably a full 12 months before its clattering industrial funk had travelled its own lolloping path from the margins to the mainstream. I picked up on it in the great summer of 1989, my pal and I each buying it from the old Fopp at the top of Renfield Street. Keen to have a proper look at our new records on the train on the way home, we opened up our respective bags, slid the inner sleeve from the pink-faced portrait of Shaun Ryder and very, very quickly returned the pouting, pube-free porno nude back inside again. Who expected that?!? It made for a ton of pink-faced nervous laughing and some strange stares that didn’t stop until long after after Paisley. Even still, by Christmas ’89, with Manchester in the area and an epoch-defining Top of the Pops episode featuring both Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the bag, it was the follow-up – The Madchester EP, with lead track Hallelujah – that finally elevated the Mondays from cult act to the band that your mum knew. Loads of folk worked backwards from there, Bummed was that Christmas’s most asked-for LP and suddenly, Happy Mondays were everywhere.

Slower coaches who were still to get in on the act did so a few months later when Step On was released, its rinky-dink Italo house intro a call to arms for the loose of limb and slack of jaw in every provincial indie disco in the land. An almost thrown-away track – it was originally recorded as part of a tribute album for Elektra, the band’s American label, and their version of an old, forgotten John Kongos’ track came to define everything about the Happy Mondays of the era. Suddenly, they were no longer the preserve of Factory Records disciples and switched-on fans of left of centre non-chart music. You were as likely to hear your postman whistling Step On‘s intro as you were to see your local fruit ‘n veg assistant hold up a honeydew or a galia and gurn the words that will surely one day appear on Shaun Ryder’s tombstone.

By this point, the band was already well into the recording of their next LP. With a third new producer in as many albums, Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches eschewed the shouty funk of John Cale and the dark embryonic haze of Martin Hannett and, using Step On‘s success as a jumping off point, was buffed to a glossy sheen by dance producers Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold. A true marker of where the band now was success-wise, the album was written and recorded at Capitol Studios in L.A. The daily mayhem and freakscene that followed and surrounded the band fed into the music and the lyrics; a lack of E meant the band switched their allegiances to opium; half a dozen or more dealers would be at the studio every day; the lead singer got so into it and so out of it that he took to wearing a ski mask – “it’s the only thing keeping my head together,”- his fried eyes and half-masked hooked nose freaking out the locals in the sizzling Californian heat.

To paraphrase a line in an interview Ryder gave in his Black Grape days, Happy Mondays didn’t get into the music business and discover drugs, they discovered drugs and got into the music business. Being big business in L.A. meant access to better pharmaceuticals and freakier people. The Mondays soaked it all up and spat it back out on a record where influences and subject matter as disparate as Donovan, Bruce Forsyth and intrusive airport searches co-existed within the grooves.

‘I’m here to harass you, I want your pills and your grass you,

You don’t look first class you

Let me look up your ass you

I smell dope, I smell dope, I smell dope, I’m smelling dope.’

(Happy Mondays Holiday)

Despite the distractions, Ryder remained totally focussed during the sessions. The band had rented an apartment in one of L.A.’s more notorious neighbourhoods, sharing ammenities with petty criminals, porn stars and, bizarrely, Mick Hucknall. Mondays’ drummer Gaz Whelan played tennis with his fellow corkscrew-haired Mancunian everyday while the others sat around the pool eyeing up their neighbours and feeding the experience back into song. Ryder kept a notebook close by, scribbling lyrics whenever they came to him, writing and re-writing with an unchracteristic determination and drive. He’d take rough cuts home from the studio and work the lyrics into finished songs while the others partied.

The end result was an album that, from the sleeve on in was day-glo and bright, a beacon of off-it’s-head light in a landscape of floppy fringes, Fenders and fuzzboxes. Scratch a little below the surface though and you’ll soon dig up the dark matter. It’s maybe not my favourite Happy Mondays record, but it’s one of the most interesting.

All compass points lead to the big tracks – Step On, the asthmatic wheeze of God’s Cop, Kinky Afro‘s Labelle-lifting confessional, but let’s shine a light on Loose Fit.

Happy MondaysLoose Fit

The runt of the litter, Loose Fit was the final single from the album, limping its way to number 17 almost a year after the album was released. By this point in time, Happy Mondays’ stock had fallen to an all-time low. They’d been quoted as saying some unforgiveable homophobic rubbish in the NME, they were happy to pose in a jacuzzi with Penthouse girls for The Sun and were in the middle of unleashing unhappy hell on an unsuspecting Jamaican island where they’d decamped to record what would be their final album. To all intents and purposes, their horse (and Ryder) had bolted.

Out of time and context though, Loose Fit has proven itself to be the ace up Shaun Ryder’s Gio-Goi sleeve. Wafting in on a riff that’s as airy and wide as the 25″ flares it celebrates, its mid-paced groove still delivers. Don’t need no skintights in my wardrobe today, fold them all up and put them all away. As far as songs about fashion go, only ‘she wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo‘ is better. You knew that already though.

Notice that slow exhale of breathe at the beginning as Ryder wakes up from his opiate slumber and stretches himself yawning into the verse; voice whispered, eyes hooded, goofy stoned immaculate. Backed by the ever-present Rowetta, they make for an unlikely double act, yet it works.

Happy MondaysLoose Fix

It turns out that exhale of breathe was something else entirely. The less than subtly-titled Loose Fix version tells you all you need to know. Light up, lean in, far out. There’s a guitar line that predates Flowered Up’s Weekender by a good year, some processed beats that Gillespie and co would cop for their own experiment in dance a few months later and a production that keeps the whole thing riding the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-decade indie dance.

Sounds good to me, as someone once sang.

demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Fraser Chorus

Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)

Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.

It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.

Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.

This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.

The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.

Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.

Cocteau TwinsIceblink Luck

Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.

Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.

Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”

FeltPrimitive Painters

The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.

Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.

Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.

Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth FraserAll Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun

It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.

Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.

They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

The Untied State Of America

The revolution will not be televised
solely on ABC and BBC and CBS and CNN 
via twenty-four hour news channels repeating graphic images 
Repeating graphic images
Repeating graphic images
The revolution will be reported by bloggers and vloggers and looters and muggers
Twitters, Tweeters, fast-food eaters
hashtaggers and carpetbaggers, 
The good, the bad and the ugly
all giving their own perspective on the state of America as, overseen by a bully, a rapist, a racist, a disgrace, 
it swallows itself whole, 
a blinkered and bloated, unantidoted nation, where institutionalised hatred of non-whites is at its scraggy, entitled core and the police are given free reign to murder whoever they choose, live on camera. 


The revolution will not be finger lickin’ good
The revolution will be the real thing
Relying on the appliance of science
To get you all the news that’s fit to print
Because you’re worth it.

Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday in police custody near the convenience story.(Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)

The roots of racism run deep and long, particularly in American history and while there’s a general pretence that we’ve all moved on somewhat, that we’re nowadays more progressive, more liberal and tolerant, it’s not hard to debunk that particular myth. They say you’re never more than 6 feet from a rat, and in the same way, you’re never more than 6 seconds away from finding a racist on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it’s out and out Tommy Robinson-style hideousness, sometimes it comes wrapped in that old ‘don’t white lives matter too?’ blanket, but it’s all there. Racists walk among us; the man on the street. The cop in Minneapolis – the Minnea Polis, you might say. Even (especially) the inflammatory Twitterer hiding out in the White House. Society’s cancer that refuses to die.

The George Floyd story is, depressingly, nothing new. The reaction has been seen before too. But not like this. Perhaps it’s the pent up release of a country in lockdown, hiding from one epidemic while another rages at its own door, brought to a head by a President who’ll use the situation to rally around the WASPish right as he clings to a job he’s not fit for doing. I don’t know. I’ll never properly ‘know‘. That matters neither here nor there though – I do know right from wrong. We are not all equal, but we should be. That’s obvious, right?

Gil Scott-Heron’s most-famous track, from whence that attempt at politico-prose at the top was inspired was recorded in 1970, just Gil and his firm, quietly assured voice, accompanied by some groovy percussion. The very definition of beat poetry.

Gil Scott-HeronThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Small Talk At 125th & Lenox)

It’s an ‘answer track’ to The Last PoetsWhen The Revolution Comes, street-tough, proto-rap that leaves its cards face-up on the table – “When the revolution comes, guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays.” It was written more than half a century ago, yet seems perfectly prescient for addressing America’s white elephant, so to speak, that refuses to leave the room.

The Last Poets‘ – When The Revolution Comes

A few years after recording his response, Scott-Heron re-recorded The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with added funk and jazz musicians. Its roll-call of cultural reference points and underlying message of activism over pacifism now a relaxed, meandering soundtrack, no less hard hitting but presented in soft-focus polaroid as opposed to stark monochrome. It’s a great soundtrack by which to get political. Agitate, educate, organise.

Gil Scott-HeronThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Get This!, New! Now!

2020 Vision

Trashcan Sinatras fans are used to playing the patient game, so when a few weeks ago their I’ve Seen Everything album featured on one of Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties, the group found themselves back at the forefront of the collective conscience of a fanbase who remain fiercely loyal and proud. That same fanbase went into something of a restrained lockdown meltdown when, a couple of weeks later, close-cropped, half-chopped words atop pixelated dots began appearing across the group’s social media feeds. What does it all mean? everyone speculated. Some eagle-eyed fans pointed out the relationship between some of the jumbled letters that captioned an image with one of the lines on an eye test chart and before you knew it, the rumour was that I’ve Seen Everything was set for imminent and long-overdue release on vinyl. An original version will easily relieve you of a three-figure sum, should you be fortunate enough to uncover one in the first place, so, what with the Trashcans themselves selecting the album for the spotlight-shining Tim’s Listening Party and everything, it made for perfectly logical reasoning that this was what was coming our way.

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Except, as you, I and everyone else affiliated to the hardest working band in slow business will atest, the words ‘logical’ and ‘Trashcan Sinatras’ rarely appear in the same sentence. What we got was not the reissue of an album that surely deserves just that, but instead a brand! new! track!, recorded, as is the group’s way these days, by pinging electronic files back and forth across the Atlantic until steady patience cooks the mix and it rises to perfection. D’you know how Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder recorded the metaphorical and groovy Ebony & Ivory without ever being in the same room? Well, that.

Trashcan Sinatras The Closer You Move Away From Me (Buy it here)

Beginning with a gentle electronic keyboard buzz that springs to mind an effect-treated take on that feedbacking, AC30-conduited open A string that introduces The Beatles’ I Feel Fine, The Closer You Move Away From Me is a slow-burning, knowing and yearning mini masterpiece.

Like the keyboard swell that carries the melody, it comes to you in waves. It’s not instant in the way Obscurity Knocks gatecrashed itself into your hippocampus 30 years ago. Nor does it have that sheen of undeniable hit hit hit! quality (if only) of a Hayfever or a Twisted & Bent or an All The Dark Horses.

It’s one of those records that requires one or two slightly apprehensive, fingers-crossed listens before, by the third rotation you begin to notice the slightly trippy guitars, lifted straight offa the grooves of Bette Davis’ Eyes…the lyric, a rumination on the big ideas of life and living…the spoken word section (has there ever been a bad record with a spoken word section?) …the perfect marriage of melancholy and melody…and by the time you’re tangled in the backwards guitars that weave their way through the fading outro you finally come to the acceptance that, yes!, this is one of the Trashcans’ finest moments indeed. It’s well worth your time.

The video that’s currently being shared by the more discerning social media surfer in your friends list is the perfect accompaniment. Here are the five principal members – the classic line-up, they herald in the publicity material – stuck in five living rooms somewhere between the west coasts of America and Scotland, backdropped by bay windows and bodacious bookshelves. It’s so goddam NOW!, the perfect summation of life in the first half of 2020. There’ll be artists that follow of course, and probably with greater impact, but read this here and now – out of circumstance rather than concept, the Trashcans did it first.

As I watched it for the first time, a sudden face-slapping realisation smacked me right across these lockdown-fattened jowls –  with lines such as ‘the more intricate the build, the deeper the foundations‘ and ‘the harder the realisation, the deeper the love that stays‘ playing out over wistful monochrome images of five life-long friends playing together yet apart, The Closer You Move Away From Me is principally the group’s own love song to one another.

It’s there in the way they peer hopefully out of their windows, hoping perhaps that a fellow Trashcan will come skipping up the street at any moment, new tune in hand in need of a melody to unfold. It’s there too in the watery pictures of yore that float up to the surface, punctuating the monochrome with faded coloured memories of the past; pictures of the TCS in a different era, when the group looked to the future with excited hope rather than looking back with the melancholic regret of a life in music that should’ve gained them far more kudos and success. I don’t for a minute think the Trashcans regret anything – that’s just not them, but the visuals of a young group floating between the crows feet and worry lines and grey hair and nae hair that define the group currently make for a good yin-yang of the Trashcan Sinatras.

For a group that has survived everything thrown at it by an eventually-disinterested record label, studio-seizers in grey suits, serious ill health and the impracticalities of being a band whilst recording transatlantic-style, it’s hard to deny them the luxury of a song where they themselves may be the subject matter (see also Weightlifting‘s It’s A Miracle).

That The Closer You Move Away From Me exists at all in both song and video is fairly incredible if you stop to consider it. It may be some time until an album creeps out – I’m told that, such are the high standards set by themselves, half an album was thrown out with the bathwater at the start of the year – but I know, you know, those in the know know that whenever that may be, it’ll be well-worth waiting for.

You can buy The Closer You Move Away From Me here.

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!

This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around

Notwithstanding a title that could easily apply to the mess the UK government is currently making of things, Life During Wartime is the greatest-ever Talking Heads track, and here’s why.

Their first two albums – ‘77‘ and ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food‘, good as they are, were mere amuse-bouches for what would follow. On those albums, Talking Heads developed an out of step sound far removed from the shouty three chord ramalama of the bands of the day. They flirted with wired, claustrophobic paranoia, the vocals delivered with one-eye-over-the-shoulder nervous energy, the music transmitted via guitar strings as tight and tense as a head-to-head on Hart To Hart. Hints of the funk bubbled underneath, suppressed perhaps, or maybe subdued due to a lack of confidence. By 1979’s Fear Of Music though – that’s three albums in three years, Radiohead! – they’d hit their stride.

Fear Of Music was a conscious decision by the band to make an album that ran deeper than the standard two or three singles plus filler model that was prevalent at the time. With an eye for Duchamp and an ear for disco, they set up in a New York loft, transmitted their sonic ideas via extra-long cables out of the windows and into a mobile studio parked outside, and went about creating a record that was equal parts cerebral and celebratory.

With Eno again at the controls and a supporting cast including The Slits’ Ari Up and some wild guitar Frippery from the former King Crimson soundscaper, the band stretched out to great effect. Polyrhythmic African beats and twin chattering desert guitars carry I Zimbra to the fringes marked ‘far out’. Police sirens, scratchy no-wave guitars and body-popping bass propel Cities to great, new uncharted territories. The breathy relief of ‘Air’, all bing-bonging keys and guitar riffs and tones that surely made the young Johnny Marr reach for his six string and crib some notes is as wired and weirdly funky as Funkadelic, and deliberately so, you’d have to think.

It’s the penultimate track on side 1 that hits the sweet spot between art and dance. Just two chords from beginning to end (Am and E, should you fancy riffing along with it) Life During Wartime begins on a funky gutteral groove, a combination of on-the-one grinding guitar, bass, keys and drums. No countdown, just Bam! and we’re into it. It’s magic.

Talking HeadsLife During Wartime

There’s hardly time for the band to develop the theme before Byrne announces himself on vocals. His flaky, jittery performance is less singing, more acting, the way Christopher Walken, say, might deliver the plot-defining lines of a particularly tense thriller, Mad Max as scripted by Stephen King.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go

Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway,
A place where nobody knows

The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in a ghetto,
I’ve lived all over this town
This ain’t no party! This ain’t no disco!
This ain’t no fooling around!
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now!

Talking HeadsLife During Wartime (alternative version)

The alternate version that was considered then rejected for the album is worth hearing too. There’s more emphasis on the guitar, with little staccato morsecode signals that are quickly drowned out by a freeform, freeflowing freakout that may well be the work of Fripp himself. Whoever is playing it is certainly going hell for leather with a guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Lodger album or Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets, even if the player does run out of steam roughly three quarters of the way through the track. As interesting as it is, the released version remains definitive; urgent, insistent, incessant and never anything less than vital when it comes on.

While Byrne’s lyrics suggest an uneasy tension, part Baader-Meinhof reportage and part first-hand experience of NYC’s Alphabet City, the band compenasate with the groove. The subject matter might be uncomfortable, they say, but you’ll feel better after shuffling that skinny white boy ass of yours across whichever sticky dancefloor is nearest. It ain’t the Mudd Club or CBGB’s, it’s not even the Attic anymore, but as far as advice goes, it sure works.

Talking HeadsLife During Wartime (live Central Park, NYC 1980)

In the live setting, the track morphed even further into the funk. You’ll find it of course, in perhaps definitive form, on the ubiquitous and well-played Stop Making Sense, but it also appears (as above) on the second record of the double The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, arguably a more accurate representation of the band at two points in time.

On the second record, the extended ten-piece version of Talking Heads, including soul singers and multiple multi-instrumentalists and living and breathing actual funk merchants in the shape of Bernie Worrell delivered a sped-up version of Life During Wartime that positively grooves with a cross-pollination of punk’s edge and funk’s sheen. No concept, no arty angle, just a band playing their stuff on stage. Close your eyes though and you can see those ten musicians moving as one to the infectious stew they themselves are cooking up. It is a party, and it is a disco. They’re definitely not fooling around though.

 

 

 

 

Cover Versions, Get This!, New! Now!

Chant Number 1

I don’t need this pressure on indeed. Isolation remains very much a part of Scottish life. Johnson was wittering on at some point over the past week – I can’t remember exactly when as it’s been a wee while since anyone’s seen him, and when he is there, we tend to tune out until he veers sharply and unexpectedly from that rigid scrolling script to venture dangerously off-piste. Usually then he’s worth listening to, if only for the made up rubbish he upchucks then contradicts before anyone’s had a chance to tell him. Here he was, having a go at oor ain Nicola Sturgeon for daring to defy his relaxed approach to the Great British Lockdown, saying that Scotland was out of step with the rest of the UK. It was quickly pointed out that with Wales and Northern Ireland still to fully embrace this brave new world of the Prime Minister’s, it was in fact his own country that was out of step with everyone else. Telt, as they say.

Leaving political point scoring aside and eschewing BawJaw’s bumbling, stuttering, fuckwittery in continually putting profit over people, our own leader has made it clear; isolation continues for as long as it needs to be in place, and if that means another few weeks without an overpriced coffee or a long queue at the recycle centre, then so be it.

It’s good that we have the music. During these locked down and locked in, working from home times, I’ve been getting to grips with new albums I might never fully have invested the time in. Much of this new music has come courtesy of Last Night From Glasgow, the co-operative, not-for-profit label that aims to give the artists as great a share of the takings as possible whilst still investing in new bands and new projects. The music is a catch-all eclectica of scuffed at the knees indie, leftfield electronica, beat groups, studio projects and just about everything else you can think of. If you’re a member you’ll receive new releases well in advance of the launch date and in the years B.C. (before Corona) you’d get to attend the album launch party too.

Their forthcoming Isolation Sessions project may well go on to be the jewel in a particularly sparkling crown. Pre-sales have already led to thousands of pounds being pumped back into struggling local venues and it’s on course to be quite the release of 2020. Conceived, written and recorded between March and April, it sees all the acts on the label tackle a song by one of their labelmates. Recently, I raved about Close Lobsters’ fantastic version of Cloth’s Curiosity Door, fragile etherea reimagined as a propulsive head nodder straight outta 1970s West Germany. In the time since, more and more tracks have appeared; recorded, wrapped and ready for imminent release.

In conjunction with the record, esteemed photo journalist Friar Brian Sweeney, coincidentally the label’s creative director, has rather beautifully documented these strange times. Closely observing social distancing rules, the photographer has zig-zagged his way up and down the country to take candid shots of the movers and shakers and members that combine to make one of the very best record labels around. Reproduced in silvery black and white, the images perfectly capture the uncertainty and new-found relaxed approach to personal appearance that this period in time has allowed. Right down to the untied shoes (who cares?) and four days-old shorts (who cares?) and a hairdo that’s long overdue a visit from some scissors (I mean, who cares?), he’s bottled my three chins (compresion, I’m assured) and me, ladies, for eternity.

Jowly author/Plain Or Pan by Friar Brian Sweeney

The visuals are terrific, the perfect atmospheric accompaniment to what’ll be going on and in the grooves. Broken Chanter, the nom de plume of Kid Canaveral’s David MacGregor released his self-titled debut album via Olive Grove towards the end of last year. Melodic, ambitious, grand (in every sense of the adjective) and (in a very good way) weird enough to maintain interest to this very day, it includes Don’t Move To Denmark, a cry of loss and longing that implores a recent love to not move abroad but not to stick around on his behalf either.

Broken ChanterDon’t Move To Denmark

David MacGregor/Broken Chanter by Friar Brian Sweeney

Autobiographical? Quite possibly. MacGregor certainly means every word he sings. Mixing trad with tech, scratchy acoustic guitars and plucked ‘n sawed strings are carried along by ricocheting percussion and a welcome hint of underlying laptop electronica. One of the album’s finest moments, it’s a good introduction to his rich musical world. If it’s piqued your interest you could do worse than get a hold of his album via the link in the third paragraph above.

Lesley McLaren/Lola In Slacks by Friar Brian Sweeney

On the Isolation Sessions, Glasgow’s Lola In Slacks, newcomers to the label but not to the local music scene, transform Broken Chanter’s already wonderful original into a shimmering cinematic beauty, a skyscraping track of restrained majesty that recalls the understated yet uplifting sound of Natalie Merchant and Stevie Nicks having a go at recreating the soundtrack to Twin Peaks at 45rpm. Somewhere in a parallel universe, this version spins eternally.

Lola In SlacksDon’t Move To Denmark

Brushed drums shuffle the groove, twanging and reverberating hollow-bodied electric guitars lift the whole thing up and out into the clouds where it floats forever… it’s casually fantastic and currently playing for the 95th time since the weekend, another triumph on an album that seems certain to be packed full of them .

Don’t move to Denmark or stay on my behalf, it goes. The brass on my neck made you laugh. Why, that’s almost Johnson-esque in its prescience. Given the Scandinavian country’s tight handle on Covid, and education, society, lifestyle and just about everything else, why wouldn’t you want to move there just now?

Isolation Sessions can be bought at the LNFG shop here. Get down on it.

Get This!

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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.