The healthy song-writing one-upmanship in The Beatles meant that after Paul McCartney had presented the others with the music hall-by-way-of-Fats Domino Lady Madonna and had it committed forever to tape, John Lennon sat himself at the piano to compose a worthy response.
The result was Hey Bulldog, a driving barrelhouse blues rocker, with ascending, augmented chords in the chorus and some epoch-defining stinging lead guitar throughout.
The Beatles – Hey Bulldog
It’s truly fab four in execution; Lennon pounding away at the ivories, his sandpaper-roughed and double-tracked vocals just on the right side of raw, McCartney playing melodic lead bass, a whole tune within the tune, and harmonising the key lines from start to finish, Ringo going tribal for the song’s intro then jangling heavy rhythmic tambourine to keep the beat from thereon in and George, quiet George, brilliantly colouring the whole thing with some rasping fretboard fireworks, minimum fuss but maximum fury.
For years I’d believed the solo to be played by McCartney – in tone and technique it’s very him – but research points to George and his Gibson SG, so the cap is duly doffed. There’s a tiny wee lick he throws away towards the end of that stinging solo upon which Badfinger, Jellyfish and countless others have based entire careers. If you know, you know.
With the Lady Madonna session wrapping up quicker than expected, and Abbey Road’s Studio 3 still booked for use, the plan was to use the time to film The Beatles working in the studio so that the footage could be used in a promotional film to promote Lady Madonna around the world. Such is the speed of things in Beatleworld though, that by the time the cameras were rolling, The Beatles were already beating and barking Lennon’s brand new tune into shape. The footage that duly accompanied the Lady Madonna promo is actually film of them recording a handful of the ten takes it took to nail down Hey Bulldog.
The Beatles – Hey Bulldog – isolated McCartney bassline
Amazingly, incredibly, written on the spot and played no more than ten times – how many times did YOU go away and learn your part before daring to step into a recording studio? – Paul’s muted palmed and woody thunk is the constituent part that drives the whole track. 98% flatwound Rickenbacker snap and 2% forgivable slop, McCartney’s bass playing in this phase of The Beatles is never anything less than peerless, inspired and beautiful. You knew that already though.
In the pantheon of indispensable Beatles lists, it’s only in recent years that Hey Bulldog has crawled its way on there, finally recognised as one of the band’s great tracks.
A sampler’s nightmare – pinch a portion of Beatles and you’d better have a good lawyer at the ready, it’s for that very reason you rarely encounter a Beatles sample. Yes, you can point to The Sounds Of Science on Paul’s Boutique, cut ‘n pasted together in the last century, way back when waters were murkier, but since then, there’s not been much. Cypress Hill took McCartney’s cooing opening bars to Your Mother Should Know and looped them into hip hop heaven on a track (a remix perhaps) that I can no longer locate. Jay Z’s official/unofficial Grey Album dismantled the White Album with varying degrees of brilliance, and that’s about it.
The Roots – switched on that they are – appropriated the Hey Bulldog riff into their own Thoughts At Work, a track that appeared only on original vinyl copies of Phrenology then, following a hard rap (ba-dum tish) at the door from suited and booted legal heavies, never again.
The Roots – Thoughts At Work (orig. vinyl-only release)
Welded to a beat created from the oft-sampled Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache, it’s a sweary blast that’ll make you want to drive the Fiat Punto slowly down the High Street, Detroit leaning with the windows down, like the hep cat you secretly always wished you could be. A pretender, a nearly-was, much like the track that rides on the coat tails of the sample it stole.
I came to Hamilton Bohannon‘s Dance Your Ass Off back to front. I had no idea, back in 1987 when I first flipped That Petrol Emotion‘s Swamp to the other side (the double A side, no less) that the track was a cover. I had never heard of Hamilton Bohannon. I had no idea Dance Your Ass Off began life, not as a hard-riffing indie rock thumpalong, but as a string-swept, four-to-the-floor disco funk number.
Hamilton Bohannon – Dance Your Ass Off
In hindsight, it was obvious. In an era when Stone Roses were still a leather-clad goth band and the phrase ‘there’s always been a dance element to our music’ had yet to be uttered by plooky, bucket-hatted chancers with no end of shame-faced brass neckery, That Petrol Emotion were cross-pollinating the best of dance with loud guitars and danceable rhythms and creating their own niche in a post-Smiths, pre-Roses landscape.
Listening to them 30 or so years later, That Petrol Emotion still stand up. Not of their time, but out of time. As it turned out, there always was a dance element to That Petrol Emotion’s music, not least when they turned up to play a gig in Glasgow’s Sub Club, mecca of dance music for discerning clubbers throughout the west of Scotland and beyond.
When you learn that Hamilton Bohannon was a born-again, God-fearin’ devout Christian, Dance Your Ass Off comes as something of a surprise. Many of Bohannon’s tracks were syrupy, slow-paced love ballads to the higher order, so that he decided to kick loose with swampy, chicken scratchin’ guitar and bad ass bass nailed to bubbling, fluid on-the-one funk should be celebrated with carefree, arms aloft in the air abandon.
‘Make a lotta noise!‘ he instructs. ‘And dance all night!‘ That’s easy to do when the rhythm laid out in front of you is so single-minded in its mission to get you to move. Double-time handclaps drop in and out, see-sawing strings saw their way through the middle while the drummer – possibly Bohannon himself – holds the beat steady for a full eight minutes.
There’s some crowd pleasin’ call and response as the strings waver their way ever-closer to Mayfield territory, all Blaxploitation shimmer and underlying menace, but the groove never abates. With the thick soup of guitar, bass and drums at its core, Dance Your Ass Off comes across like The Meters transplanted to Studio 54. And there ain’t nuthin’ wrong wit dat.
That Petrol Emotion – Dance Your Ass Off
That Petrol Emotion were first and foremost a guitar band but they understood the appeal of a steady rhythm section and some wildly interlocking riffage. Swamp on the a-side would make that explicitly clear to any doubters. Their take on Dance Your Ass Off is a testosterone-fuelled, muscled-up triumph.
With sights firmly set on the indie dance floor, it locks into its groove and rocks hard in half the time of Bohannon’s original. The guitars, all feral Telecaster twang and snap, fall somewhere between hard jangle and post punk rage, concrete thick yet flab-free and linear. A gnarly, growly bassline replaces the uber funk of the original.
The little scratching noise you hear in the background under Steve Mack’s enthusiastic north-west American yelp is that of Faith No More making notes to crib the punk/funk bassline for their own end. We care a lot, indeed. It’s a groovy cover, all things considered.
Broadway Jungle by Toots and The Maytals is exactly the sort of incessant, insistent ska for this mid summer’s day. Clanging in on a bar of wonky barroom piano and a clatter of dustbin lid drums, it quickly starts on the front foot, gets on the good foot and never lets up for two and a half yelping, head nodding and chin jutting minutes. It’s the sort of tassled loafers ‘n suedehead knees-up that could bring a grinning smile to a jaggy-elbowed cadaver. If y’don’t like this, y’don’t like music, etc etc
Toots and The Maytals – Broadway Jungle
Information on this particular Toots recording from 1964 is scant, but here’s the scoop: the young Toots Hibbert recorded his early stuff with Studio One, Coxsone Dodd’s hit-making factory in Kingston.
A never-ending production line of classic ska, dub and reggae tumbled forth; alongside Studio One big hitters such as The Skatalites’ Guns Of Navarone, Horace Andy’s Skylarking and Bob Marley’s early ska-inflected tunes, Toots and his band released Six And Seven Books Of Moses, Pressure Drop, Monkey Man and Do The Reggay – the track that gave their genre of music an international name.
An inevitable fall-out arose over royalties, leading to Toots and his Maytals leaving the label to sign for arch rival Prince Buster. Things got confusing. Promoters, in the pocket of Studio One, ceased to bill the band as Toots and The Maytals. Prince Buster, in an attempt to starve Studio One of contract-fulfilling royalities, subcontracted the release to Island, who, unaware of the ongoing beef between Studio One and Prince Buster, released Toots’ Broadway Jungle under the moniker of brand-new group The Flames.
To stay one quickstep away from the lawyers and money-chasers, further re-releases saw the record released on Prince Buster’s own label, the name of the song changed to Dog War.
To further muddy the trail, the band name changed too. At one point, music fans could go to gigs and watch The Vikings play Jamaica Ska, confusingly aware that they were actually watching Toots and The Maytals play Broadway Jungle. D’you follow?!
Regardless of the name of the band or the title of the song, Toots’ (or The Vikings’. Or The Flames’) Broadway Jungle (or Dog War. Or Jamaica Ska) is nothing short of essential listening. It’s a tune about breaking free from the jungle – a metaphor perhaps for their Studio One contract – and hitting the bright lights of the big time, a prescient thought given that the Maytals’ most succesful years were still to come.
Political, danceable, joyful and as rhythmic as a steam train going full pelt, Broadway Jungle should be available on prescription. It’ll cure all ailments. Take as often as necessary and repeat.
The Euros start at the end of this week. That they’re occuring a year later than planned means nothing to my nation. My son is 14 and he’s ridiculously excited at the thought of seeing Scotland on the big stage for the first time. A former work colleague on Facebook last week was equally effervescent. “This’ll be the first time I’ve seen Scotland at a championship!” he frothed through heavily bearded face and a craft beer held by tattooed hands. Jeez! Has it really been that long?! ‘Young’ Chris must be 27 or so by now, and given that it’s 23 years since Scotland last crashed out of the World Cup Finals in France, then, yes, it really has been that long.
When I was my son’s age, Scotland was always at the World Cup. We had a glorious run of epic failures between ’74 and ’90 when we’d get an unlikely result against the big nations, get thumped by an unfancied smaller nation and miss out on progression because of goal difference. It was always the way.
Back in 1996, the Euros were in England. Just as now, England and Scotland found themselves pitted against one another. That particular big match swung on the famous penalty miss. England, somehow one-nil up through Alan Shearer were being out-played, out-fought and out-thought by Craig Brown’s superstar-free team. With just over 10 minutes to go, the Scots laid siege yet again on David Seaman’s goal, and, played through on goal, Gordon Durie was chopped to the ground.
Captain Gary McAllister took responsibility and a nation watched aghast as his blasted effort was punched to safety by the swashbuckling Seaman, all VO5 swish and Magnum moustache (a save that crackpot spoon bender Uri Geller claimed to have orchestrated through channelled energy and mumbo jumbo.) To rub salt into the wounds, England then ran the length of Wembley and topped off a decent passage of football with a Gascoigne wonder goal. Bastards.
Going into the final game against Switzerland at Villa Park, Scotland was still in with a chance of progressing. We had to hope England could stick 4 past the Dutch – a team that had drawn 0-0 with Scotland – while we went about our job of beating the Swiss. Four points and a decent goal difference would see us through. It’s the hope that kills you, they say…
Two nights before the game I received a call from my brother’s pal.
“We’ve a spare ticket for Villa Park….”
“I’ll take it!”
“...d’you want it?”
“I’ll take it!!”
“…’cos the thing is, our bus is full, so you’d need to make your own way to Birmingham. We’ll meet you outside the ground when you get there. Big Alan…d’you know Big Alan? He’ll be wearing a massive tartan hat and a Jimmy wig. You won’t miss him.”
Ah shite. After phoning around, I found a space on a bus that was travelling at sunrise from Paisley. It was full of headcases and hardened away-day drinkers. “Drink up, pal, there ye go…” The journey was long, with one guy rat-a-tatting on a snare drum for hours on end and at least five piss stops before we’d crossed the border. Eventually the driver pulled into a layby on the outskirts of Birmingham. “Lads, the polis’ll be on the bus a mile from here. I’m stopping so’s ye can get rid o’ yer empties and anything else you might not want them to find when they get oan. So drink up and empty oot.”
A mile up the road, two police officers wearing those tall, rounded, English police helmets – an unexpected sight, though I’m not sure why that should have been a surprise – came on board. One affable, one looking for bother, a busload of hardened, steaming Scotsmen smiling glaikitly back. “Alroight lads. There’s no booze on board this boose is there?” Naw, ociffer, naw, there isnae, came a handful of muttered replies as bad cop rummaged without success in seat pockets and luggage compartments. “Enjoi thu match, lads!” said good cop before they turned and left. You could’ve punctured the paranoia with a kilt pin.
We arrive at Villa Park. The bus parks alongside 30 or so other supporters’ buses at the Aston Leisure Centre and we pile out, blinking into the afternoon sunshine. I’m looking for Big Alan in his big bunnet and Jimmy hat, but my new-found pals, having been here the week prior when we played the Netherlands, have other ideas. The Aston Working Men’s Club is just over the road. A tiny wee building with a bar. Somehow, I’m at the front of my new gang as we enter the door. A wee old guy looks us up and down. The state of us!
“Oim sorry, lads, this is a members’-only cloob….”
He looks beyond me and my new pals at the thirty or so supporters buses alighting on his doorstep.
“…but you can join today for a pound.”
The place was quickly rammed. The snare drum rattled. The singing got louder. The cheap pints went down quickly and often. Kick off fast approached. It dawned on me that I still had no ticket. I mean, I knew all along that I had no ticket, but I knew one was waiting for me. Either my brother’s pal had it, or Big Alan did. But I had no idea where to find Big Alan. I didn’t even know Big Alan. Mobile phone? This was 1996, mate. The bar started emptying as supporters drained their pints and turrned their attentions to the game. I wandered outside, stoating about amongst hordes of Jimmy hat-wearing Scotsmen, all merrily pissed up and heading to the game, in the unlkely hope that the mysterious Big Alan might make himself known to me. I happened upon a chipshop and found myself suddenly starving. I think I was too drunk to order, but I left with food.
“Gie’s a chip!” I hear outside, and my tea is swooped upon by half a dozen blootered Scotsmen. From out of the depths of tartan hell, up pops my brother’s pal, waving something in my face. “You’ll be wantin’ yer ticket, ya fud?” The magnetism of alcohol and its ability to bring disparate folk together is a strange, brilliant thing. Let’s go!
The game was magic. My overall abiding memory was not of McCoist’s winner – a curling, outside of the foot peach right into the top corner in front of us in the Holte End – or the hairs-on-the-neck-still sight of the crowd going nuts in that same Holte End on the TV replays as McCoist runs towards Craig Brown and the Scotland dugout (I saw it played again the other day and it places me right back into that moment in time), or Scott Booth’s half chance near the end of the second half, or the excited buzz around the stands as England unbelievably went the required 4 goals up against the Dutch, or the deflated inevitability when Seaman allowed a half-shot to squirm through his legs, giving the Dutch the goal they needed and putting Scotland out, on goal difference, again.
Nope, my overrall abiding memory is one of being absolutely ten pints-bursting but not wanting to go in case I missed anything. McCoist’s goal just before half time was a relief…but the end product following a mad sprint and hellish queue at the gents’ at half time was even greater.
England’s campaign that year was soundtracked by Three Lions, a jaunty comedy double act-fronted Britpop bash that reflected on England’s failure to win anything for years. Thirty years of hurt, pal? Best make that fifty-five and counting… It was nothing compared to the unofficial Scottish ‘song’ though.
Swept up in the euphoria that comes when your country is playing at a tournament, Primal Scream joined forces with Leithite Irvine Welsh in a West Coast meets East Coast stand-off that was confrontational, self-deprecating and about as far removed from the ethos of a football song as a is humanly possible. The record may have come stickered with one of those Paul Cannell Screamadelica suns, but don’t let that fool you. The Big Man And The Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown was produced by Adrian Sherwood and foreshadowed the dubbed-out elecronica of Eko Dek.
Primal Scream, Irvine Welsh and On-U Sound Present – The Big Man And The Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown (Full Strength Fortified Dub)
Welsh is in full-on baiting mode, sticking the metaphorical size tens into Rangers fans, the metaphorical nut on the arrogance and entitlement of the English media and their football team and holding a mirror up to Scottish fans on tour.
I was sitting outside Wembley in ’79 Jock cunts in London, massive carry-out Talking to a guy in an ice cream van So drunk for weeks that we’d gone waaaay past the point of wanting tickets It’d be horrendous now if someone was to hand you a fucking ticket You’d have to leave all this bevvy outside the ground, by they polis dumpbins? No fucking way 10 minutes into the fucking game you’d be climbing up the fucking walls to get out
Behind him, the band play big slamming guitars and a repeating sample chants ‘who are ye‘, Denise Johnson wafting in and out of the electronic stew with soulful backing vocals. Three Lions it definitely ain’t.
For what it’s worth, I think Steve Clarke will mastermind Scotland’s first-ever qualification out of the group stages. Beyond that is anyone’s guess… we have a dream, and all that. It’s taken time, but he’s fostered that hard-to-beat, no-team-is-invincible mindset that saw him take my team Kilmarnock to the lofty heights of 3rd in the league and European football. For one week we were top of the actual league too…when the news filtered across the terracing that Cetic had dropped points to Livingston, the crowd, drunk on what might be and Steve Clarke-fuelled self-belief broke into a spontaneous and lively rendition of ‘we’re gonnae win the league‘. Quite ridiculuous…and quite thrilling.
There will be, sadly, hopefully, the chance to replicate that chant at the end of this season. Killie, in a Clarke-free freefall since his departure to the national team, found themselves dumped out of the top league a couple of weeks ago. The less said about that, the better, but with luck we’ll be chanting that ridiculous chant again come the middle of May next year. Killie’s loss was clearly Scotland’s gain. I love that man and I’m sure, once we’ve gatecrashed that other exclusive members’-only club by reaching the knock-out stages, I’ll love him even more in the coming weeks.
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 Cultures – Trod 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 Juice – Moscow 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?
If I crane my neck out of the window over my right shoulder where I am currently writing, I can just about see the windmills at Whitelee Wind Farm, a massive 215-turbine development that is capable of powering over a third of a million homes and is very likely the reason these words make it beyond my fingertips and out into the great beyond. The wind farm is situated on Eaglesham Moor, a windswept, sparse and barren moorland that lies on the fringes of East Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire, just to the south of Glasgow. Before the motorway was extended close-by, it was often the route used by commuters who worked in East Kilbride and Motherwell. Using it in winter time was usually fraught with danger; single-lanes, sudden snowfalls, low-lying clouds of darkness. It was an imposing, unwelcoming part of the world.
Almost 80 years ago (May 1941), Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s right hand man and orchestrator of much of the Nazi’s unforgiveable crimes against humanity, crashed his plane into the ground on Eaglesham Moor. Quite what he was doing flying solo over Scotland has never been satisfactorily explained, but common consensus would suggest that he was flying to meet the Duke of Hamilton – a well-connected figure – in an attempt to call an end to the Second World War. When his plane began running low on fuel, he began to bail out first his ammunition and then himself by parachuting before the inevitable happened. A bang was heard as the explosives ignited, closely followed by the stuttering sound of his plane’s engine as it crashed nose-first into the peaty Scottish soil.
The locals of Eaglesham village, realising it was a German Messerschmitt that had come down, raced to get a closer look. First on-site was a pitchfork-wielding farmer, and it was he who Hess surrendered to. He was taken to the Home Guard in the nearby town of Busby, but it wouldn’t be until the following day, when military personnel began descending on the locality, that the pilot’s identity became apparent. Within a week, Hess was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was given the Prisoner of War number 31G-350125.
As you of course know, Joy Division‘s debut release, the An Ideal For Living EP featured dubious Nazi imagery. Alongside the band’s iffy name written in Germanic font, the sleeve shows a Hitler Youth drummer boy. Call it misguided, call it punk, but when the time came for the EP to be rereleased, it’s interesting to note that the drummer had been replaced by an arty shot of some scaffolding and the band’s name – still contentious of course – was printed in a much more agreeable font. The accusations of Nazi sympathy didn’t end though.
The opening track Warsaw – the band’s original name, after the city in Poland that the Germans laid siege on at the start of the war – began with a punkish shout of numbers, but not the enthusiastic and standard 1, 2, 3, 4! that countless bands have used to herald their giddy arrival. Warsaw begins with an enthusiastic “3-5-0-1-2-5-Go!“, not quite the number of the beast, but not far from it. Joy Division laid out their statement of intent by counting off with Rudolph Hess’s Prisoner of War number. And for good measure, they repeated the 31G prefix over and over in the chorus.
Joy Division – Warsaw
Now, the mid ’70s was a time of Warlord and Victor comics, of Commando books and Sven Hassel novels, of best man’s fall in the playground. It was an era when you could ask your grandparents what they had done in the war and they still had the grey matter and compos mentis to tell you. Many cities bore the scars of bombed-out, shell-shocked destruction. Kids played on the rubble where former factories stood. For many in ’70s UK, the memories of the war were clearer and easier to recall than what they’d eaten for yesterday’s breakfast.
That Joy Division had something of an obsession with WWII was not that unusual. In fact, it was pretty normal. To put it into perspective, less time had elapsed between the Second World War ending and Joy Division releasing An Ideal For Living than the time between New Order’s Ceremony and their return-to-form of sorts album, Music Complete. Just let that sink in.
The track that brought Joy Divison to the world is an angry blast of prime punk; insistent, exciting and real, with a great wheezing, descending riff between the choruses and the verses. Even this early on, Stephen Morris’s drums have a slight tang of electronic treatment, rattling and reverberating between Ian Curtis’s punkish shout and Peter Hook’s solid slab of bass, as far removed from his signature sound as you could possibly get.
By all accounts, Joy Division were quite the thrill in the live setting, and, as self-producers, they captured just that on Warsaw and the rest of the EP. It’s essential listening and still thrilling even after all these years. You knew that already though.
It’s a payola scandal! A great rock ‘n roll swindle! Under incessant pressure and non-stop pushing of ‘product’, Plain Or Pan has succumbed to the bung and the bribe. With a pocketful of untraceable fivers and the number for a burner phone that I’ve been assured will offer up the earthiest of earthly delights, I bring you The NoMen. They have me in their collective pocket and, to be honest, there are far worse places you could find yourself. Their latest album, A Bad Reputation Is A Good Place To Start might sound like the sort of title The Cramps would’ve given to any number of their 2-minute punkish twangers, but the 20 tracks contained therein sound in equal parts wonky, obtuse, singular and entirely heartfelt and dedicated. I daresay there’s a Lux influence in there somewhere, but there’s so much more besides.
The NoMen have been around for almost twenty years and remain something of a mystery. Despite radio specials in France, Germany and Canada, they have appeared live only twice, much preferring instead to bunker down in the studio and produce album after album of self-mad, self-made, lo-fi psychedelia. To date they have released at least 8 or 12 or 17 albums. It’s hard to tell, and harder to keep up with. The Pain Of Jazz. If Not Why, Then When?Straight To Dave.Dawn Of The NoMen. Just some of the unique and uncategorisable albums in their back catalogue that might warrant your attention.
Self-proclaimed children of Ed Wood and Joe Meek, their blend of fuzz-soaked, analogue boppery skirts around the same sort of margins as artists as individual and diverse as Psychic TV, Ween and Buffy Sainte Marie.
On the latest LP, a collaboration no less between NoMen and ex Swell Maps’ Phones Sportsman, the tracks that first pricked my ears included the campfire lullaby of HuMan (Evolution In A Nutshell), worth the price of admission for the extended coda alone, and Karma Pyjamas, a track that falls short of two minutes but manages to fuse the day-glo imagination of Super Furry Animals with Robert Kirby’s string arrangements for Nick Drake underneath a sneering vocal that wouldn’t sound out of place in a high camp ’70s horror film.
Elsewhere in this pot pourri of controlled madness, you’ll come across drawling Cope-ish, Mark E Smith-like vocals, subsonic fuzz bass and all manner of jerky, quirky incidental parts.
You’re never far from a Radiophonic Workshop-influenced proto-electro whoosh or a Dalek-voiced Cabaret Voltaireism or a janglin’, reverb-soaked 12 string guitar, and often, you’ll hear all three of these disparate influences before the band has alighted on the first chorus. The NoMen dig anything from the outer musical margins that might have been released between ’65 and ’75; the more obscure, the more discordant, the path less-travelled, all the better. Eno, Ono, you know….
…and their brilliantly bizarre tribute to Floran Schneider has to be seen to be believed.
You should investigate by visiting their Bandcamp page tout de suite. Now, where did I leave that number for the burner phone?`
Born out of the blues boom of the early ’60s, the Thames Estuary scene was a fertile breeding ground for the stars of the decade and beyond. Away from the distractions of London city centre, it proved the ideal training ground for the very musicians who’d help make the city swing in the coming months and years; Jagger and Richards were welded at the snake-hips as a result of a shared love of Chess Records. Alexis Korner’s blues nights in the Ealing Jazz Club brought together like-minded afficianados in the shape of Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and both Clapton and Page would take stints as lead guitarist in The Yardbirds, a role also filled by Jeff Beck. Amongst it all was John Mayall, his Bluesbreakers band a constantly-revolving who’s who of the movers and shakers of ’60s guitar-based music; Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor… you name them, they likely appeared on stage or on record with John Mayall in one way or other. It was a small scene, they say, but a highly influential one which helped shape the popular music of the day. You knew all that already though.
Fast forward to Lanarkshire in the mid ’80s. A short train ride away from the attraction and distraction of Glasgow city centre, a scene – let’s call it the Bellshill Boom – developed around the singular vision and concept of Duglas Stewart. Born out of a love of post-punk, sunshine pop and anything with a decent haircut (although…check below for conflicting proof), this scene was, in its own way, just as influential as that satellite scene around London 20 or so years previously. Taking their cues and clothes from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jonathan Richman and the melancholic ache of Burt Bacharach, Stewart’s band BMX Bandits led the way, the real sound of the suburbs, a Bluesbreakers for the Bellshill beat brigade.
Like a foppish, pointy-fingered John Mayall, Duglas curated a group of musicians that created a new sound of young Scotland – twee, perhaps, arch, certainly, and totally at odds with the Caledonian bombast currently being force-fed via commercial radio, but with an element of fun running through it like the lettering on a stick of Blackpool rock.
That the individual Bandits were free to come and go, to form other bands, to play on other people’s records only added to the looseness of it all, but every one of those players has, at one point or other, said just how formative being in the BMX Bandits was.
Once a Bandit, always a Bandit, as Duglas has said. He’s watched on, headmaster-like, as his charges have gone on to form (deep breath) Teenage Fanclub, The Soup Dragons, The Pearlfishers, The Vaselines…and all of the side-projects there-of; Hi-Fi Sean, The Primary Five, Future Pilot AKA, Superstar, Green Peppers, Linden etc etc. If Pete Frame were to produce a Rock Family Tree for the Bellshill scene, it’d be longer and more detailed than the Bayeaux Tapestry.
BMX Bandits are the very epitome of cult. As a favour to Alan McGee they took a youthful Oasis on tour with them, a mismatched yin-yang of non-macho and monobrowed mayhem if there ever was one. Kurt Cobain sported their t-shirts and was quoted as saying that if he could be in any other band, it’d be BMX Bandits. Duglas may well be the Scottish equivalent of Daniel Johnston, another of Kurt’s favourites and, like Duglas, a writer of simple, tear-soaked heart-jerkers, unpretentious and innocent.
In some quarters BMX Bandits were considered a kind of joke band, but to those in the know, their songs, in equal parts life-affirming and heart-breaking, are perfect little vignettes of proper Scottish soul, a considered mix of the fragility of sandpit-era Brian Wilson with a wide-eyed wonder at the world around them. Their 1991 album Star Wars is set for reissue on May 4th (obviously) via Last Night From Glasgow. Having received an early copy last week, I’ve been on something of a Bandits binge for the past few days; Come Clean, The Sailor’s Song, later songs like That Summer Feeling and Little Hands. All essential listening. The track though that’s really stopped me in my, er, tracks is Serious Drugs.
BMX Bandits – Serious Drugs
Serious Drugs was released as a single in 1993 and appeared on the Life Goes On album. Both single and album failed to bother the charts. Nothing unusual in the world of the BMX Bandits, but in the case of Serious Drugs, it’s Serious Shrugs – the great lost number 1 hit that never was.
Voiced not by Duglas but by Joe McAlinden, Serious Drugs is a fantastic record, the sound perhaps of Teenage Fanclub respectfully tackling My Sweet Lord.
It’s there in that E minor to A major chord change. It’s there in the “ooh-la, ooh-la-la-la” Come Up And See Me backing vocals. And it’s definitely there in that super-charged slide guitar part after the first bridge when Joe and Norman come over, just for a moment, all John ‘n Paul. The melding together of McAlinden’s and Blake’s voices is sublime, Joe high and keening, Norman low and honeyed. Serious love, indeed. And that spangled, high in the mix Big Star acoustic guitar…the compressed drums…the frugging bassline… Serious Drugs wears its influences proudly but politely in a way that someone like Noel Gallagher could never grasp.
By the time the saxophone solo has oozed and eased its way to the forefront and is leading the band to their rasping fadeout, you’re already thinking about playing it all again. Serious Drugs is seriously great. I suspect you knew that already too.
One of the high points of lockdown (pts 1 and 2) has been the consumption of new music. I’m a particular fan of Bandcamp Friday, when on the first Friday of the month, Bandcamp waives their usual artist fee and, with no string-pulling middle man, the artists benefit by an extra 15%. If a record costs you twenty quid, the artist gets every penny of your twenty quid; good business for both sides in the transaction.
I took a bit of a punt on Hifi Sean‘s ‘Ft.‘ compilation – only half of those twenty notes, as it goes – and I’m glad I did. Hifi Sean is Sean Dickson, one-time vocalist with the Soup Dragons and Ft. is a double album of Sean-produced electronica where a whole gamut of disparate guest vocalists pop up to add their recognisable voices and/or playing to the music. With collaborations involving Crystal Waters, Norman Blake and David McAlmont, an elastic-band bass-popping Bootsy Collins, Alan Vega and Soft Cell’s Dave Ball amongst others, it’s quite the pick ‘n mix. But the standout in what is undoubtedly a bountiful bunch is the Yoko Ono-voiced In Love With Life.
It’s astonishing. Ambient, textured and glossy, it’s a beautiful mesh of Pet Shop Boys’ minor key minimalism and the sort of dragged-out dark beats that Underworld might choose to close an album with.
Yoko Ono – In Love With Life
A good marker for the sort of music Sean has been creating in recent years, it’s as far removed from both his old band and Yoko’s more artistic endeavours as you could possibly get. Synthetic and computerised, sterile yet soulful, it’s a juxtaposition of spoken word against synth washes and echoing snares that triggers some sort of deeply conscientious nostalgia for simpler times and clearer values. Seriously, it does.
Yoko’s vocals are lovely, taking centre stage when they need to before dropping out to let the music wring your heart dry. It’s like an audible yoga trip or something; cleansing and spiritual and, despite the subject matter, life-affirming in many ways.
I hate thinking that our civilisation and the culture that we’ve created in 5000…10,000 years, we’re trying to destroy it.
It saddens me because
I am in really in love with life
and with people
That’s it. That’s the message. We’re destroying everything that’s sacred…and standing back watching as we do so.
Yoko’s words are almost haiku in economy. She writes simplistically yet she says it with a real, undeniable gentle love, an extension of the words she first wrote in Grapefruit in the mid ’60s when she said, ‘Listen to the sound of the earth turning.‘
I assumed the Yoko vocal to be a sample but part of me would love to believe that Sean and Yoko (Sean and Yoko!) sat down together in some small studio or other and recorded it together, he at the faders while she recited her simple poetry atop the glistening beats. It’s all rather cryptic, though, as Sean told me.
“Myself and Yoko decided we would not reveal how we made this track, as the mystery of it adds to the magic of it all.
All I can say is that it was based on a poem Yoko wrote and we both worked together to make it work with the music. I wrote the track around the concept of the poem, with Yoko deciding where she wanted to place the words.
She loved the finished track and in 2016 featured it as part of the Ono Lennon ‘Give Peace A Chance’ campaign.”
So there y’go.
There’s also a remix/revision (track 7, below) on Ft.’s sister album Excursions. It’s currently a tenner on Bandcamp too, and if you wait until Friday to order, Hifi Sean will receive all of what you pay. You really should buy it.
In Love With Life in both its forms is terrific. Hippy, peace-loving and pleasantly at odds with the mess of the world around us, it’s the Balearic end-of-set closer that never was. I reckon you’ll play it forever.
*You can buy Ft. at Hifi Sean’s Bandcamp page here.
Fela Kuti was, to borrow from That Petrol Emotion, an agitator, an educator, an organiser. A music and sociopolitical trailblazer, he was equal parts multi-instrumentalist and political activist. The founder of Afrobeat, he combined on-the-one funk with rippling, rattling one chord jazz and more often than not included a lyric that savaged the powers in charge; look for 1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood, which calls out police brutality as the perfect example.
1975’s Expensive Shit is the story of being framed, set to a groove that falls somewhere between the freeflowing Blue Note jazz of Gil Evans and James Brown’s mid 70s excursions in funk. Wandering, electric piano fights for earspace with chattering, polyrhythmic drums and clickety-clacking off-beat percussion. Underpinned by body popping bass and fanfaring trumpets, Fela’s saxophone noodles across the top with just as much regard for boundaries as its player’s attitude to authority.
Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit
Just as you begin to think you’re in the middle of a tight-but-loose instrumental – those muted trumpets really know how to elongate their presence – along comes Fela and his backing singers, singing a song, half-Nigerian, half-English, of being set up by the police.
Finding himself in posssesion of a joint that had been planted on him by corrupt police officers, Kuti swallowed it. The police took him into custody, knowing that nature’s way would eventually incriminate their innocent target. Always one step ahead of the authorities though, Fela managed to swap stool samples with a sympathetic inmate and was released without charge.
On 1976’s Zombie, Kuti waged a war on the militaristic Nigerian government of the era. He likened the military to zombies, dead-eyed government stooges, incessantly carrying out sinister orders from above.
Fela Kuti – Zombie
Propelled by a fluid and skittering Tony Allen drum groove and the assembled brass of Africa 70, Kuti’s band, Zombie begins on a fade-in, suggesting the band have been working up the groove for a quite some time before we get to hear it. It’s not until it reaches Kaa the snake levels of hypnotism that Kuti’s call-and-response vocals come in.
Attention! (Zombie!) Double up! (Zombie!) Fall In! (Zombie!) Fall out! (Zombie!) Fall down! (Zombie!) Get ready! (Zombie!)
Nigerians loved it, to the point where they’d mimick the soldiers who lined the streets. “Zombies!” they’d shout, arms straight out ahead and limp at the wrist in mocking pose. So incensed was the government at Kuti, they systematically attacked and destroyed Kalakuta Republic, the studio-based commune he’d set up with his family and band. On the government’s say-so, 1000 soldiers raided the community. They beat Kuti to within an inch of his life, raped the women and threw Kuti’s elderly mother from a first floor window. She would die of her injuries.
As an inflammatory reaction to the charge that he was kidnapping women and keeping them hostage against their will, on the first anniversary of the Kalakuta violence he simultaneously married 27 of the women in his community; dancers, vocalists, musicians. Not long after, he was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during Zombie. Later that same year at the Berlin Jazz Festival, his band would quit following rumours that he planned to use their fee to fund his presidential campaign. A colourful figure to say the least.
Fela Kuti fought a long fight with authority, calling out injustice, corruption, brutality and downright wrongness at every possible turm. He continued to be a real thorn in the side of those in charge for another 20 years, before his death in 1997. His back catalogue and life story is worth some of your time.