Alternative Version, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Live!

15

Plain Or Pan turns 15 this week. Since publishing the first post back in January 2007, the (ahem) power of the blog has seen to it that I’ve been commissioned to interview Sandie Shaw, rewrite articles for the national press (by ‘rewrite’ I mean take out the irreverent turns of phrase and my non-fact checked opinion) and write an actual book (The Perfect Reminder) very much in the style of Plain Or Pan. I’ve charmed half of The Smiths, pissed off an angry Boy George and remain on email-friendly terms with a handful of minor movers and shakers in the world of music. My clever and generous sister even compiled a ‘Best Of Plain Or Pan’ into a physical, one-of-a-kind coffee table-sized book for a big birthday a couple of years ago. If I never wrote another word, my legacy, it seems, is long and reaching.

Writing is a funny thing – some people hate the thought of it and would wilt at the thought of putting together 1000 or so well-constructed words on the bands and records that soundtrack their life. Me? I find it relaxing. Some choose yoga. Some go running. I write. I’d write every day if I could find the time. In the old days, I used to try and write at least two articles a week. I’d time their publication for teatime – peak reading time according to Google analytics – and I’d obsess over blog traffic and stats and suchlike. These days, I aim to write one new thing a week. It’s far more manageable and still frequent enough that the blog aggregators and number crunchers know that Plain Or Pan is very much alive, unlike plenty of other blogs who’ve tailed off to the point of extinction. Writing a blog’ll soon be so retro as to be trendsetting once more. And when that happens, POP, along with a handful of those other well-written blogs on the sidebar there, will be right at the forefront.

15 years. Not bad going.

15 Step by Radiohead sounds like an entire ‘50s typing pool simultaneously clattering out the compete works of Shakespeare in a roomful of Royal typewriters. It’s jerky, juddering and in 5/4 time. Imagine a skeletal and arty take down of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and, even if you’ve never heard 15 Step before, you’ll know how the rhythm goes.

Radiohead15 Step

Radiohead are possibly the most-discussed band on the internet. Theories abound over 15 Step. It’s so-called, some say, because there are 15 steps from intro to vocal; a Radiohead working title that stuck.

Others maintain it relates to death – throughout the song there are lyrical references to ‘the end’ and dying. Pistol-toting duelists in the Wild West would turn back-to-back then take 15 steps before turning and firing. There are, they say, 15 steps leading to the gallows and the ‘sheer drop’ that follows. I always thought there were 13 steps to the gallows (and 13 loops of the rope on the noose) but don’t let that get in the way of a good theory.

It relates, others say, to the Bjork-starring movie Dancer In The Dark. There’s a train of thought that every track on parent album In Rainbows relates in one way or other to a movie. Google the theories if you must. The only thing so far uncovered is a mind-blowing theory correlating the listening of In Rainbows to the synchronised viewing of The Wizard Of Oz. I dare say someone’s tried it though.

Radiohead15 Step (Live from The Basement)

But back to 15 Step. It may be rhythm-heavy and death-obsessed, but it’s also groovy as fuck, the perfect Radiohead marriage of technology and trad. Guitars play in weird time signatures (that’ll be that 5/4 thing again); all tumbling arpeggios and crunching riffs. Colin Greenwood’s bass line is pure Can; hypnotic, snaking and jazz-inflected. There’s a brilliant wee breakdown midway through that holds it all together as the players around him go off into their own orbits. There are sci-fi whooshes, sampled schoolchildren shouting “Hey!” now and again and enough head-nodding noodling parts to sate even the most chin-stroking of ‘Head fans.

Like all great Radiohead tracks, it’s not an immediate hit. It has become an inescapable ear worm only over time. More than a few plays down the years and it is, like the entire album it is featured on, one of Radiohead’s very best. But you knew that already.

Get This!, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y

Weirder Bremen

My Bloody Valentine damn-near bankrupted Creation to make an album only a fraction as exciting, as intense, as self-indulgent as Faust‘s Krautrock, a track so good they named an entire genre after it. Julian Cope, in his worth-stealing Krautrocksampler book, called the track ‘a continuation of (Faust’s) whole trip‘. He’s right, of course. A dozen minutes of head music; expansive, noisy and pretty, pretty essential. Kosmische!

Faust – Krautrock

It lurches in on a slur of stretched 3″ studio tape…or perhaps a divebombing whammy bar…and layered fuzz guitars, overlapped and saturated to white noise levels of intensity, fall into a snaking groove pattern, panned from left speaker to right and back again, an instant head trip.

Der-der-derder-der-duuh…Der-der-derder-der-duhh. From underneath the blanket of restrained, compressed noise creeps a tambourine, its steady rattling jangle enhancing the drumless, beatless rhythm that’s unfolding in front of your ears.

Here comes the bass…woody and electric, looped and repetitive, recorded in an era long before Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall and even loopers themselves were a thing. Disciplined, repetitive and worming its way into your consciousness, it’s now the lead instrument, a counter-rhythm to the relentless guitar noizzze that came before. Dum-deh-dehdeh-deh-dum…Dum-deh-dehdeh-de-dum.

But wait…is that a vocal? Is it? A sort-of chanted, Tibetan monk-influenced calling from some far-off metaphorical mountaintop? Remember when John Lennon had this idea – and he had it first, by a good eight years – for Tomorrow Never Knows? This is what I think he had in mind, if indeed a vocal is even here at all. I mean, I think there is. I’m sure of it. I think I am.

And now there’re drums. It’s Keith Moon tripping up and falling down the stairs, landing the right way up and falling straight into the beat; propulsive, steady, not in your face but driving the whole thing ever-forwards.

That guitar ambience that kicked it all off? You’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you? It’s still there, of course, aural background wallpaper, the splashes of colour in an otherwise steady and unshowy room. But as soon as you remember the guitars, there they are, suddenly at the fore again; fizzing static bursts of beamed-in-from-the-outer-edges art rock and long, howling notes bent out of shape by distorted wah-wah and studio trickery. Just as your mind alters to the staggered groove – are we at the end of a bar or midway through? – a keyboard floats in, keeping time with its Farfisa parp. Or is it actually a manic Velvet’s violin, noise-as-art aesthetic, screeching/keeping time like John Cage on Black Angel’s Death Song, trying painfully to be heard above the apocalyptic din? Maybe it’s both. Who knows? Who cares?

Shh! Listen! That quiet, respectful popping noise you hear near the end is the sound of Stereolab crying into their Rice Krispies, totally defeated. We’ll never be as good as this, they admit, though they’ll continue to give it a good try.

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

Kitchen Sink Drama

Famously, The La’s hated their debut album. Where the record-buying public heard it for what it was – a great collection of well-constructed chiming, rattling and rolling songs, Lee Mavers rubbished it as a mismatch of tracks recorded at various sessions with a variety of producers over a couple of years; a guide vocal here, an unfinished guitar part there, a work in-never-ending process. Given a sprinkling of magic dust by Steve Lillywhite and released against the band’s wishes, it lacked, shouted Mavers, spontaneity, cohesion and the requisite ’60s dust. Chas Smash, once of Madness and at the time The La’s A&R guy told me recently of the band’s American tour to promote the record when Lee, faced with the wibbling and gurning jocks on ButtKiss FM – “I love your shit, man!” – would slap a beat-up C90 in front of the presenter and declare loudly and proudly, “Dis… (slap!) is da fookin’ album, la. Play dis one instead!” The record company people, with the promotional weight and might of Polygram behind them, would hold their heads in their hands in despair as, station after station, Mavers would repeat his trick until eventually, the stations stopped playing any La’s at all.

Likewise the Beta Band. They certainly weren’t the first band to disown their debut album, but they were equally as vocal as The La’s. “It’s definitely the worst record we’ve ever made,” announced Steve Mason when it was released in 1999, “and it’s probably one of the worst records that’ll come out this year. It’s fucking awful.”

Coming a year after the celebrated ‘Three EPs‘ compilation, the band took the magpie ‘n kitchen sink approach that they’d developed over those three singles and threw everything, literally and metaphorically, into the self-titled debut album proper.

They wanted to make it a double album, with each of its four sides recorded in a different continent; Asia, South America, and so on. Economics had the final say unsurprisingly, and so much of the record was put together in a shed that belonged to the grandfather of the band’s keyboard player/sampler/DJ John Maclean. An ambient companion piece was eventually shelved, trimming the intended double album to a single ten track record.

It was a difficult record to pigeonhole, and thank goodness for that. In an era when bands were defined by the trainers they wore or the records they never namechecked, The Beta Band was almost unclassifiable. It bulges and bursts with ideas; wonky Scottish raps, carnival drums, filling-loosening dub reggae bass, frazzled and meandering psychedelic guitar lines… sometimes within the one track.

Beta BandBroken Up Adingdong

Goat Fell and Glen Rosa on the Isle of Arran given a psychedelic makeover

Broken Up Adingdong is almost every idea considered for the album realised in miniature. Beginning on a rhythm of pattering handclaps and what might be someone playing makeshift drums with the palms of their hands on the back of an acoustic guitar, it motors along on a steady, skifflish two chord shuffle that falls somewhere between the scrubbed to the knuckles approach of The Woodentops and the measured discipline of Can or the Velvet Underground.

Tumbling waterfalls of acoustic guitar – similar to the occasional riff that permeates The Patty Patty Sound‘s ‘Monolith‘ – chime their way in and out of the tune, panning from left to right and back again (try it with headphones on for full effect) and as it builds to a crescendo of overlapping vocals, repetitive chants and frantic, double-time claps, it gives way to a collage of beats.

Calypso drums dance and weave in and out. Loosely tightened drums thunder with Bonhamesque brute force. Hairspray hi-hats hiss their way across the top, disco without the glitterball, as some sort of Donna Summerish string sweeps in and then out again just as abruptly. One of those old-fashioned bicycle horns hee-haws its squeaky guffaw between the tapestry of pots ‘n pans percussion and the whole thing rattles and rolls to a stuttering close, as dignified as the Eastenders theme tune tumbling down ten flights of tenement stairs. It’s messy, hypnotic and groovy as fuck.

Time has been kind to the Beta Band and The Beta Band. It’s certainly not the clunker the band suggested it was, and not for a minute do I believe Steve Mason when he said as much. Twenty years on, I suggest you revisit that debut album as soon as you can.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

S’all Gone A Bit Pete Tong

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

The FallDr Bucks’ Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone but not forgotten, Kraut-y

Flo Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

KraftwerkDie Roboter

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

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

David BowieV-2 Schneider

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Rock Goes To Collage

The Beta Band will forever be defined by Dry The Rain, the first track on their first EP that most-famously soundtracks one of the most memorable scenes in High Fidelity. That EP, Champion Versions, introduced the band’s music at a time when dumbed-down indie rock was ubiquitous, predictable and in need of a good kick square in the haw maws. The big bang of Brit Pop had long-since fizzled to a watery fart and the Big Two led the lethargic charge towards mediocrity and meaningless. Oasis was a bloated beast, cocksure with misplaced arrogance merely by being super-popular. Their music, once a glorious melding of rabid snarl and Mersey melodies – the Sex Beatles, if y’will, was now bloated, irrelevant and plain old rubbish. Blur was midway to nowhere, somewhere between slumbering, opiate-enhanced recording sessions and making cheese whilst living in actual very big houses in the country. Others limped on to ever decreasing returns; Supergrass, Gene and Elastica, for example, who’d eventually disappear down the same black hole that had claimed Marion, Menswear and Mansun before them (although some would find their way back out now and again for one last hurrah. Watch Supergrass go in 2020.)

In 1997, music was ripe for interesting change. Radiohead led the way and The Beta Band followed close behind. Dry The Rain may well be the band’s signature tune, but it’s their second EP, The Patty Patty Sound, that does it for me. Across the four tracks that constitute The Patty Patty Sound you’ll find enough weird ‘n wonky, dubbed out, clubbed up soundscapes to sate your more out-there moods. With knowing nods towards aural sculptors Can, the greats of dub reggae, the rhythms of the Stone Roses and the folky introspection of John Martyn, it’s quite something. Given its time and place, the EP really was the in-sound from way out.

It’s the opener that does it for me.

Beta BandInner Meet Me

Inner Meet Me is a solid piece of sampled and looped acoustic beat music, a cut ‘n paste sonic collage of odds ‘n sods ‘n found sounds designed to astonish and astound. It begins simply enough, with some electric bleepery and studio static before a repeating vocal plays just behind the sound of a lone pigeon cooing its way into the mix. As you might know, The Beta Band was originally going to be called The Pigeons, and after a year or so, founding member Gordon Anderson left the band soon after they relocated to London and began recording as Lone Pigeon. In a nod to their early roots, the pigeon sample is something of a band in-joke.

When it really gets going, Inner Meet Me positively swings. Acoustic guitars are played throughout with the same sort of focused gusto normally reserved for the poor soul whose job it is is to work a Brillo pad into burnt-on mince in a two day old pot. As the chord changes, the song moves into gear. The drums kick in, accompanied by percussive shakers and what sounds like a decent set of Le Creuset pots and pans being clattered on the off-beat. As you settle into it, arcade machine electro bloops and whooshes colour the mix, a reminder that Beta Band are forward-thinking retro revisionists. No-one else was doing this kinda thing in 1998 and 20-odd years later, I still think it/they sound brand new.

The EP continues with two epic sound collages – the self-descriptive House Song that, once it’s going, kicks like a mule, carried by a really great bassline and sounding like DIY lo-fi indie house, and The Monolith, a near-16 minute folktronica jam that incorporates backwards samples from their own Dry The Rain, African chanting, chiming, cascading, waterfalling guitars and plenty of birdsong. It’s not Be Here Now, that’s for sure.

Beta Band She’s The One

Closer She’s The One is closest in sound and spirit to the opener. A scrubbed acoustic jam replete with random bursts of noise and a twangin’ Jews’ harp, it’s indie hoedown relocated from a creaky porch in the deep south to a cramped St Andrews student flat. It’s all about the layers and the rhythms. Vocals and vocals, multitracked to the max create a circular, hypnotic groove, ever propulsive, ever moving forward.

Their next EP, Los Amigos Del Beta Banditos featured more of the same, a document of a peerless band ahead of their time, out of their minds and out of this world. It’s The Patty Patty Sound though that marks The Beta Band as more than just the ‘Dry the Rain‘ band.

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Whole Lotta Rossi

Chugga chugga chugga goes the 12 bar space age (bachelor pad) blues. In the same way a pot of your granny’s soup comes to be more than the sum of its secretive parts, the far-out music bubbles and squelches and fizzes and farts in all the right places, all gnarly, knotted wood Fender fuzz bass and pigshit-thick hairshakin’ drums. The lost half-sister of the Super Furry’s Guacamole, Stereolab‘s Heavy Denim is a heads down, no nonsense, rumbling, tumbling, Moog boogie….. and utterly fantastic.

StereloabHeavy Denim

Surfing the crest of this noo wave nonsense is an ever-spiralling Marxist call to arms, a 25 year-old lyric that could’ve been written very much for these times….

We’re not here to get bored
We are here to disrupt
To disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt
To have the time of our lives

….but by the time you get to the kiss-off line you’ll very much realise that Stereolab, uber cool Anglo-French upstarts with a fascination for library music and the more outre elements of Brian Wilson’s back catalogue have ripped off Status Quo’s Caroline, lock, stock and double denimed barrel. Which makes the whole thing even more fantastic, of course.

It’s there in the 12 bar boogie…..and the gear change as the chord drops midway through the verse….and the ‘Come on sweet Caroline/Have the time of our lives‘ high melodic chorus. Status Quo’s Caroline runs through Heavy Denim like the lettering on a stick of Blackpool rock and Stereolab are guilty as charged, m’lud.

Originally released on the b-side of 1994’s Wow And Flutter EP – a ridiculously elusive 10″ to track down, and one that would have you parting with serious cash should you find a copy – Heavy Denim – surely another head-nod to the originators – has since appeared on the Oscillons From The Anti-Sun compilation, bang in the middle of disc 3 and as under-the-radar as the band might’ve hoped for. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. And everyone knows that the early Quo is where it’s at – not the really early hippy shit Quo, but the heads down, no nonsense mid 70’s three chord boogie Quo.

Francis Rossi! Parfitt Estate! If you’re reading, I’d be contacting a lawyer tout de suite.

I jest, Stereloab. When the world went lad rock and Beatles-bore crazy, you turned your attentions to the kosmische sounds of mid 70’s East Germany, and for that I owe you. Through your music I discovered the other-worldly meanderings of Can and Neu! I was made aware of the high majesty of the High Llamas and I marvelled as you rocked The Word playing a single that had already been deleted by the time I’d ping-ponged my way down to Our Price the very next day. Pretentious and obtuse, you plough a distinctly groovy furrow. Long may you run (and continue to lift from the unlikeliest of sources.)

 

Get This!, Kraut-y, New! Now!

Symmetry Gates

It’s not quite Hallowe’en yet, Brexit has been given some sort of stay of execution and the tapers have yet to be lit at arm’s length on yer roman candles and squibs and firecrackers, yet magazine feature editors employed by the more switched-on music publications will already be compiling their Best Of 2019 lists. While it’s far too early for me to think of such things, a prime contender will surely be Incidental Music by camera-shy Mancunians W.H. Lung.

I’ve written about the band a couple of times before, from their debut offering being whizzed in the direction of Plain Or Pan via email, to the debut album released without fanfare or fuss in April. Back then I was taken by its clattering juxtaposition of LCD Soundsystem mid-paced grooviness and clean, chiming Public Service Broadcasting guitars. These days, it still sounds fantastic…even better, to be truthful. Best heard as a whole, Incidental Music ebbs and flows and dives and soars in the way all great albums do. That it was hatched in Manchester will only cement its status as a future classic. It sits perfectly well in a lineage that includes Unknown Pleasures, Power, Corruption And Lies and Bummed, a trio of electronically-treated albums that rocked at the core. If it fails to make the upper echelons of those much pored-over lists come Christmas time, I’ll eat my original copy of PC&L in protest. You can hold me to that.

In the unassuming way that W.H. Lung do, I arrived home from work today to an email from the band. Would I make a feature of their new track, they wanted to know. Before I had my jacket off, the familiar whooshing, metallic guitars and linear groove were spilling their tiny, tinny guts from my phone. Music on a phone sounds totally rubbish, as you know already, so it was soon booming from the speakers wired up to my PC; a fantastic, skyscraping and soaring metallic clatter totally in keeping with the album material but, more importantly for Lung-watchers, a new track.

Snippets of lyrics sung by a falsetto voice with a social conscience unravelled and revealed themselves over repeated plays in the troughs between the peaks in the propulsive soundtrack. “A body curled around a lamp-post like a cigarette in light rain….Daddy, why is there a man asleep there? Should I wake him?” And was that something too about Alan Turing, WWII code cracker and thorn in the government’s side? Turns out it was.

As singer Joseph E explains, “There’s a statue of Alan Turing in a small park just off canal street in Manchester city centre. The statue has always struck me as odd, the face is quite childishly done and Turing seems to be offering his fruit to passers-by. People often sit with him and take pictures. The park is also regularly attended by the homeless community of Manchester, as visible a presence on the streets now as the statues of the great and famous.”

In a nod to the city’s homelessness problem, the band will donate all profits from the sale of the single to Mustard Tree and Booth Centre, two local charities dedicated to the issue of homelessness in the city.

If you like the track above, use it as your gateway to the wonder of W.H. Lung. Buy the track and help the homeless. Buy the album and help the band. Go and see them on tour in November. And look out for Incidental Music topping those Best Of The Year polls come Christmas time. Amazingly, you read it here first.

 

Tour Dates:
22/11 – Riverside, Newcastle
23/11 – Moles, Bath
24/11 – Patterns, Brighton
25/11 – Rich Mix, London
26/11 – Academy 3, Manchester

Get This!, Kraut-y

Electra Glide In Blue

Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something  – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.

At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.

Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.

KraftwerkAutobahn (single eversion)

Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown PleasuresShe’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.

That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.

Get This!, Kraut-y

Travel Agents

I met Charlie Burchill once. Tiny and comically round, he looked like a pantomime pirate who was missing his beard; the tight black jeans, pointy boots and dazzling white blousy shirt that probably cost more than my monthly mortgage repayment brought to mind Captain Pugwash on shore leave. While my 5ft 8″ towered over him I was instantly enlightened as to why that white Gretsch Falcon he was fond of playing in those Simple Minds videos always looked ridiculously over-sized on him.

I’m being a wee bit cruel though; Charlie was very smiley, extremely chatty and, in the same way that he and Jim Kerr had moments earlier been gushing over the Roxy and Bowie 7″s that filled the Wurlitzer we happened to be leaning against, he listened enthusiastically to my stories of how Simple Minds had played a major part in my formative years.

I came to Simple Minds around the time of Glittering Prize and Promised You A Miracle – the New Gold Dream album is an incredibly-produced LP – stick it on at some point and lose yourself in the textures – and while it was Don’t You Forget About Me that brought them to the attention of my mum and the rest of the world, it was I Travel that melted my mind to the possibilities of music.

By the time I’d first heard I Travel, the band had just played Live Aid and were chronologically closer to Belfast Child, Mandela Day, Biko and the posturing, political pap that disenfranchised an entire generation of fans who’d been by the band’s side since the days of the Mars Bar in Glasgow, the knowing Chelsea Girl single and the Empires And Dance album. The New Gold Dream album though had me scampering backwards to see what else the band had done, and it was on a scratched copy of Empires And Dance from Irvine library that I first encountered I Travel. Listening to it as I type, I’m still waiting on a skip that doesn’t happen. Europe has a lang….oblem. It’s funny how music lodges in your head like that, eh?

I Travel was the first track on that album and signalled a brave new direction for the band. Its clattering, steam-powered industrial funk is propulsive, futuristic (still) and highly infectious. It’s the sound of industrial Victorian Glasgow breaking free of its chains, the sound of the shipyard welders’ blow torches set to scorch, the sound of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as played by art punks from the south side of Glasgow.

Simple Minds I Travel (extended)

I have two copies of I Travel. There’s the original, 12″ version, bought on a rare outing to the Virgin Megastore on Union Street, back in the days when folk still smoked behind the counter and you darenae go up the stairs to the second floor on account of all the scary-looking punks and their brothel creepers blocking the way. I also have a reissued 7″ found whilst rummaging through a box of Gene Pitney and Sonia 7″s in a Lake District charity shop. I was scared to leave it there, unsure of what fate would befall it should I put it back. The 12″ is a well-played piece of vinyl. It was often the soundtrack to drunken teenage stupidity, stuck on at filling-loosening volume as soon as someone’s parents had reversed out the drive for a week in Wales. It’s a great record.

How did they write it? It’s not a guitar tune in the traditional sense. You won’t find the chords on your favourite tab site. Wee Charlie adds occasional textures here and there, and there’s a fantastic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Nile Rodgers-esque flourish midway through, but the song’s genesis must lie somewhere between Derek Forbes’ groovy never-ending bass, the sequenced synths and that head-nodding, rattling rhythm. Imagine being there while the band jammed it, working all its nuances out?! Played live, it’s a cracker;

With the benefit of acquired musical knowledge, it’s clear that Simple Minds had been listening to the right sort of European records. Kerr’s baritone echoes the more esoteric moments from Bowie’s Berlin phase and he sings of culture; decadence and pleasure towns, tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks, galleries. He might even be singing of Glasgow – the lyric certainly ticks all of that subject matter.

Strip everything else away – the 8 note keyboard motif, Burchill’s splashes of colour and Jim Kerr’s vocal and you have a record that sounds like its made by machines with soul. A bit like Kraftwerk, I suppose. In fact, if it popped up vocal-free on 6 Music tomorrow, you could be forgiven for assuming its retro-futurism was the latest Underworld release.

Expertly glued together by John Leckie, I Travel hints at a group of musicians growing into themselves. Hindsight shows that Simple Minds went on something of an imperial run around this time. Imagine if I’d never looked back and instead fell for the stadium shows and the hey hey hey heys. There’s an axis-turning thought.