Majestic, magnificent, mid-80’s New Order. Is there anything better?
3 ½ of New Order by Kevin Cummins
Long before the running of the Hacienda that seemed to take priority over the music and the inter-band fights that ultimately led to their sorry downfall, the band were imperial. Their 3rd album, 1985’s ‘Low-Life‘, tracing paper sleeve ‘n all, is a high point in a full-fat discography choc-full of high points. It’s the album where post-punk morphed into dance rock – stadium house for floppy fringes and German Army surplus, if you like.
Side 1 closer ‘Sunrise‘ is New Order’s collected output in miniature; the elegant minor key keyboard swells in the intro giving way to one of those Peter Hook basslines that you kinda just always took for granted – fluid and high up the frets, and dripping with liquid quicksilver from the fingers of the Viking alchemist. It’s window cleaner-whistleable and never lets up the entirety of the song.
Hooky by Kevin Cummins. Of course.
New Order – Sunrise
Barney’s guitar is forever on the verge of being out of tune, playing a demented take on a Spaghetti Western twang, fizzing and wheezing its way through the song between vocal lines, crashing to a frantically-strummed crescendo somewhere around the 6 minute mark when the ‘F’-shaped chords rattle out like Nile Rodgers fronting the Buzzcocks. Even his vocals, never his strong point, let’s be honest, hang on in there, straining at the high notes before being drowned out by his furious strumming.
It’s a beauty.
Heads down, no nonsense.
Even more of a beauty is last year’s homage to Anthony Wilson, St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson. The brainchild of Manchester poet Mike Garry who’d performed the poem, beat poet-style in Manchester’s hipper venues, it was offered to a local composer who added large elements of New Order’s ‘Your Silent Face‘ to the spoken-word track, creating a gorgeous, lush, string-laden track that runs an alliterative A-Z of all that makes Manchester great.
The Arndale…Acid House…Bez, The Buzzcocks, The Bouncing Bomb, The beautiful Busby Babes…. Curtis, Cancer, Crack…. Dance, Design, Durutti, Devoto… I could list it all, but it’s better to just listen to it and soak it all up for yourself.
St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson (Andrew Weatherall mix)
Saint Anthony himself
When it came out last August I was totally obsessed by it. Although the original version is the one I heard first, the Weatherall remix is a 9 minute monster. Motorik, relentless and repetitive, it’s the one you want to hear first.
I’m no audiophile, but when the New Order back catalogue was re-released by Warners a few years ago, there was a huge outcry over the shoddy mastering of the music. For a band steeped in technology and futuresound, the music on the discs was tinny, weak and flimsy when compared to the original vinyl. My LP is currently spinning as I type and I can attest to this. Don’t let that put you off though – if you like the 2 New Order tracks featured here and are hearing them for the first time, just imagine how terrific they sound when played on the right format. In fact, you should probably pop down to your local record shop (every town has one nowadays) and buy them.
One week into a Bowieless world. Sadly, it takes the shock of an artist suddenly passing before their true worth is wholly appreciated. Words, paragraphs, articles, whole publications have been written in the past 7 days, waxing lyrical about every facet of his ridiculously rich back catalogue. Everyone’s tripping over themselves to declare the lost genius of Reality or ‘Hours…’ or even, unbelievably, 1. Outside. All have their moments, but calm down a wee bit at the back there, eh?
I’m not alone in this re-evaluation and appraisal. Last week’s commute to work was soundtracked exclusively by Bowie. Hunky Dory. Ziggy. Aladdin Sane. Station To Station. The big hitters. I was even asked to be a guest on a local radio station, introduced as ‘a knowledgeable local music blogger’ and encouraged to give my tuppence worth on what David Bowie meant to me – great songs, of course. Great, great albums, varied and deep with a superb hit-to-miss ratio. Even the less acclaimed material, like Loving The Alien (from Tonight) and Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Heathen) would make it into the lower reaches of my Top 50 Bowie tracks (for years I’ve had a 40 Bits o’ Bowie playlist on my iPod, but if I were to expand it, those two tracks would be in there.)
He was also king of the catchprase-as-hookline, from Absolute Beginners‘ ‘Bomp Bomp Bah-Ooh‘, ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-Fashion‘s beep beep‘ and Suffragette City‘s ‘Aaah, Wham Bam Thank You Ma,am!‘ right up to to Ziggy‘s ‘Woah Yeah!‘ in the outro. He had a real good way with them. You could probably think of half a dozen more in the next 20 seconds. But anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh aye…
Reappraisal. Along with the albums listed above, I developed a new-found love of Low. Until now I always found it a bit hit ‘n miss. The highs – Sound And Vision, Be My Wife, offset by the (cough) lows of Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. They’re not really lows as such, but they’re more difficult to get into. Instrumental, for a start. Less immediate. More arty. Glacial and cold. Sometimes with Bowie you’ve just got to work at it before the true beauty emerges. That second side, all elegiac and funereal started to make much more sense last week. But it was a track on side 1 that became my ‘must play everyday’ last week.
David Bowie – Breaking Glass
Breaking Glass, the 2nd track in, was that song. Like much of the album, it‘s a cold and stark affair, with a cheesegrater-thin heavily processed guitar giving way to Bowie’s robotic funk; cracking steam powered drums, synth sweeps and rubber band bass offset by marching Teutonic vocals, half spoken, half sung, double-tracked for maximum effect. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it. In a too-quick fadeout, it’s over and done with in under two minutes, managing to capture the spirit of 70s Berlin AND invent Franz Ferdinand at the same time. Which, for me, is the real reach of the artist. Loved universally by musicians from every possible genre, they all get something from him.
Bowie on Soul Train. Bowie with Lennon. Bowie with Bing Crosby. Cross dressing and crossing borders. And the outpouring of tributes since last Monday? That brilliant video of the DJ mixing and scratching Let’s Dance into a black hole…..Madonna and Springsteen both doing Rebel Rebel in concert…..David McAlmont vamping it up with a super soaraway Starman…..Elton doing Space Oddity…..Glasgow’s Broadcast venue packed on Saturday night for a heartfelt tribute from all manner of scuzzy no-mark indie bands. Bowie touched them all. Can you name any others for whom there is a universal love and respect? I can’t.
Here‘s the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand tackling another of Low‘s highs, with a little backing vocal assistance from Girls Aloud. Really.
Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.
Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.
Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.
The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?
A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:
Michael Marra – Green Grow the Rashes
Wallace Collection – Daydream
Jacqueline Taieb – Sept Heures du Matin
The Temptations – Message From A Black Man
New Order – True Faith
Bobby Parker – Watch Your Step
Jim Ford – I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
Doris – You Never Come Closer
Ela Orleans – Dead Floor
Mac De Marco – Ode To Viceroy
Teenage Fanclub – God Knows It’s True
Iggy Pop – Nightclubbing
George Harrison – Wah Wah
Magazine –Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
Future Sound Of London – Papua New Guinea
Bob Dylan – Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
Richard Berry – Louie Louie
REM – Radio Free Europe (HibTone version)
The Cribs – We Share The Same Skies
Johnny Marr – The Messenger
McAlmont & Butler – Speed
Talking Heads – I Zimbra (12″ version)
Style Council – Speak Like A Child
Darlene Love – Johnny (Please Come Home)
And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.
See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!
As fresh as it sounds, this track coulda been recorded an hour ago by some hep band of skinny-jeans ‘n slick-backs from Brooklyn. Listen again and you could be forgiven for assuming that it was spawned a decade earlier in the windswept deserts of Africa, playing out tinny AM radios anywhere between Mali and Mozambique.
The more switched-on amongst you could be forgiven for suggesting Can in one of their relatively straightforward moments; foreign chanting, infused with the groove and with nary an eye on the clock. Squint, and it could even be Happy Mondays around their first album; chiming and repetitive, a hands-in-pockets baggy-trousered circular mooch around the scuzziest parts of town. Slow down the little counter riff that plays between the chanted lines and it’s almost the later-era Loose Fit.
Truth is, it was recorded in 1979 by Talking Heads and featured on their 3rd LP, ‘Fear Of Music‘.
Talking Heads – I Zimbra (LP Version)
It’s African in origin – a twin guitar attack – one playing the incessant, loping guitar riff that rises and falls with the tide of the song, the other playing a demented desert blues somewhere beyond the 12th fret, both fighting for ear space with poly-rhythmic Afro beats pinned down by the muscle of Tina Weymouth’s solid ‘n steady bass.
It’s snake-like, enhanced somehow, someway, by sonic architect Brian Eno. He’s credited with adding guitar to the stew, but I doubt we’ll ever really know for sure. Done in the days before his oblique strategies, perhaps he told himself to play more orange, or something like that. Either way, the combination of musicians, producers, instruments and ambience created one groovy mover.
What a shitty few weeks. The previous post below will fill you in if you’re an infrequent visitor. Thanks for taking the time to leave your comments. I read them all, even if I couldn’t face replying. Truly, thanks.
Anyway, what better way to get back on track than by digging out some slick Nigerian Afrobeat from 1977?
Fela Kuti is a real musicians’ musician. A multi-instrumentalist, equally at home on sax, keys, trumpet, drums….you name it, between 1960 and his death in 1997 he was responsible for around 60 LP releases. Perhaps only The Fall would appear to be able to top that. Much like The Fall, many of his albums are live affairs. A few are also dubious-looking compilations of indeterminate origin. Amongst the regular studio recordings, there are whole LPs of collaborations with other musicians (‘Stratavarious‘ with Ginger Baker, ‘Music Of Many Colours‘ with Roy Ayers.) All Fela’s albums are tight and taut, superbly played and full of meandering grooves underneath the politicised lyrics.
In the 70s, Fela changed his middle name. Ransome, he said, was a slave name. And Fela was nobody’s slave. He was a folk singer. The Nigerian equivalent of Woody Guthrie, singing the songs of the ordinary man. He took to singing in his own unique pidgin English as a way of ensuring Africans throughout the continent would understand his message – they all spoke in their own native tongue, but they also all understood basic English. He sang of the barbaric Nigerian Government and had a smash hit (‘Zombie‘) on the back of it. This resulted in him barely surviving with his life after a severe beating from government flunkies whilst his studio was burned to the ground. More than just a fly in the ointment, Fela galvanised his fellow countrymen into action, a real anti-establishment hero.
Fela’s music is terrific. There’s a real discipline to the playing. Much of it is simple and repetitive. The musicians could easily break out and rattle off a little lick or two, and sometimes they do. His brass section in particular (sometimes just Fela) are fond of the odd up-the-garden-path solo. But mostly to Fela, the rhythm is King. It’s a bit like Can at their grooviest – hypnotic, shamanistic, designed to subconsciously affect the limbs. Feet will tap. Hips will sway. Heads will bob. Before you know it you’ll be on your feet and wondering how you got there.
1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood LP is typical of his work at the time. The title track formed the entire first side, a relentless guitar ‘n sax-led tour de force, all polyrhythms and funk bass, lightly toasted with electric piano.
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood
Atop the non-stop one chord groove is a lyric worthy of Joe Strummer at his authority-baiting best;
Everybody run….Police they come….Army they come….confusion everywhere…..someone nearly died….Police don’t go away….Army don’t disappear….them leave sorrow, tears and blood….
Fela’s work is absolutely ripe for sampling and reinterpretation. Mr Mendel has done this excellent remix of Sorrow, Tears And Blood:
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood (Mr Mendel mix)
….and a couple of years ago, someone came up with the brilliant concept of Fe La Soul, where they took the Daisy Agers raps and placed them on top of Fela’s funkiest fills. There are whole albums of the stuff if you look in all the right places. Here‘s one of my favourites;
Fe La Soul – Itsoweezee
….and no doubt inspired by the relentless, driving grooves of Fela, during the sessions for 1980’s Remain In Light, Talking Heads recorded Fela’s Riff, a terrific piece of instrumental New York, new wave funk. I really need to do a Talking Heads feature at some point…
My formative teenage years were soundtracked by a holy trinity of 12”s – Talking Heads’ Slippery People, New Order’s Blue Monday and Simple Minds’ I Travel. Before the age of trying to get into pubs, my pals and I would spend a few hours each Saturday at Andy’s house, where his more liberal parents allowed us to play snooker in their loft and listen to music whilst hiding our grimaces from one another as we drained a couple of cans of razorblade-sharp Holsten Pils, before negotiating the loft ladder down into reality and the mazy walk home to our unsuspecting parents. They were great times.
Fast forward the best part of 30 years. Did I (shhhhh! – don’t tell anyone!) want to go to a one-off, top-secret, intimate Simple Minds gig? It was guest-list only and my name was on it. The address would be given to me on the day of the concert itself. My teenage self would’ve spontaneously combusted at the thrill of it all. Nowadays, after their years of bloated bombast and my changing musical tastes, Simple Minds mean much less to me, but of course I was desperate to go. My lips were sealed.
Now. Plenty of bands have done intimate gigs. There’s something fantastic about seeing the big acts up close and personal, even if you’re maybe really not that close. The stadium bands like Foo Fighters sometimes pop up in the smallest of places at the shortest of notice. Arena bands downsize now and again to play club gigs – I’ve seen Bob Dylan do his ‘club’ gig in the Barrowlands, close enough to see the sweat drip from the brim of his cowboy hat and onto his keyboard during Ballad Of A Thin Man. I nearly saw Prince do his after-show thing in The Garage many years ago, but a huge, house-sized American bouncer counting loudly along the line stopped a few folk in front of me and my pals, sliced the line with a chop of his arm and loudly declared, “Anyone behind this line will not get in. Repeat. Anyone behind this line will not get in.” We were behind the line. We did not get in. Repeat, we did not get in. I’ve seen Blur, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers….countless big names in King Tuts, but these weren’t intimate gigs as we know them – the venue was the venue because that’s the number of tickets these bands could sell at the time.
Simple Minds were playing in a 3rd floor tenement flat in the west end of Glasgow. A nice flat. A big flat. But still a flat, with neighbours to the side and below. It belonged to John Dingwall, hot shot music writer at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail. The guest list was comprised, said John, of 48 of the coolest people on ‘the scene’. Evidently there was some mistake. At the very best, I had somehow wangled my way onto the list of cool at number 48, but I was there. A venue-sized PA was manhandled up three flights of winding stairs and the living room transformed into what can truly be described as an intimate gig. It had all the makings of a decent New Year’s party with added volume.
The band (Jim, Charlie and Jim’s brother Mark on additional guitar) played only 5 songs, but what a thrill! They were here to promote Big Music, their new album out on the same day. The gig was being filmed for broadcast on the Record’s website. They could’ve chosen to play 5 tracks from the album and scarpered. But no. We got a bite-sized version of a stadium show instead. It was incredible.
“When we first started out, there was a club in London called Dingwall’s,” explains Jim Kerr. “We aspired to play there but we never got the chance. Now the club is gone, but we’re still here, finally playing Dingwall’s! We used to play lots of covers at first because people didn’t want to hear our own songs. So we’ll start tonight with a cover.”
And off they went, playing their way through a stripped-back version of The Doors’ Riders On The Storm, surprising myself at least, as I expected maybe a Bowie or an Iggy or a Roxy cover. Charlie on the left is firing off little lead acoustic solos. Mark on the right is keeping the rhythm. Jim centre ‘stage’ is loving it. He’s pulling off the rock star poses. Leaning into the mic. Pointing to people sitting on the floor. Playing as if he’s doing a normal gig at some enormodome stadium in the mid-west of America. He doesn’t know how to do anything different. He can make a stadium seem like a living room, but he can make a living room seem like a stadium. A true performer.
A weird thing happens during the second song. The band are playing Alive And Kicking when I get a Pavlovian rush; a knotted stomach, an intense feeling of guilt. The 14 year old me told his mum he was going to buy the new Simple Minds single with his paper money. His mum told him that he spent far too much money on records and, no, he wouldn’t be buying it. 14 year old me bought it anyway, which I’d have gotten away with if I hadn’t actually played the bloody record.
As soon as the first bars wafted from my bedroom and downstairs, my mother was up like a shot, mad that I had “wasted” even more money on vinyl. Every time after, when I pulled the record out to play, I got a rush of guilt and I always played the record at a low volume, so as not to incur the wrath of my mum. And here I am, 30 years later, feeling that same rush of guilt. It’s the knotted stomach all over again. I half expect my mother to barge into the crowded room and demand the band stops playing. It’s really weird. I actually find myself laughing nervously to no-one during the second verse. “You lift me u-up…ho!” Weird. Much later in the evening I find myself face to face with Jim and I tell him the story. I get a pat on the shoulder and a wee hug for telling him. I’ll never hear that song in the same way anymore.
Introducing the one new track played, Honest Town, Jim has genuine tears in his eyes. It’s a song about life and death, about close ones dying – Both Jim and Mark’s mum and Charlie’s dad passed away during the recording of the album. It’s the one sombre moment of the night. As soon as the last notes of the track have faded, the band are into Don’t You Forget About Me, played with all the energy and passion of the glory years Simple Minds. More memories of spinning the vinyl on my wee record player come flooding back. If anyone had told me when I bought it that 30 years later…etc etc…blah blah blah.
We get an option for the last track – “What d’you want to hear?” asks Jim. And in the split silence before the audience make their suggestions I manage to blurt out “I Travel!” It’s an acoustic gig, I have no chance of that and Jim knows it, arching an eyebrow and fixing me with an unspoken grin. “You can have a Bowie song or ‘The American’,” he replies. The wee crowd votes unanimously for The American and the Minds are off and running for the last time, playing a stripped back version of a song I never expected to hear performed.
Regardless of your thoughts on Simple Minds, they are still a great, great band. What a unique gig to have had the fortune to be at.
Here’s 3 of the post Krauty, pre-stadium Simple Minds. Still sounding as fresh as the day they were committed to wax.
The American (Original Version);
I Travel (12″ Version);
Love Song (Album Version);
I’m at the back in the orange jumper. Ooft. That wide angle really accentuates the man boobs. I’m off out for a run…
Although it was actually released at the end of January, 1994, this week sees the 20th (20th!!) anniversary reissue of Underworld‘s ‘dubnobasswithmyheadman‘ LP. Given the kind of music Plain Or Pan normally features, you might be surprised to learn that I’m really looking forward to this. Indeed, my excitement might only be surpassed if The Queen Is Dead or Blonde On Blonde were to be suddenly released as 5 CD super-deluxe box sets featuring scores of previously unheard session outtakes and retailing for a tenner. Along with those two releases, dubnobasswithmyheadman holds a place in the higher echelons of my favourite albums of all-time list.
It’s dance music, Jim, but not as we know it.
For starters, dubnobasswithmyheadman dispenses with the notion that dance music is all about the ‘now’ – it may well be the first dance album with genuine longevity. In that respect, it opened doors for Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers. But to these ears, both those act’s various LPs now seem a tad dated. Twenty years on, dubnobasswithmyheadman still thrills.
Opening track Dark & Long is exactly that:
What is ‘Dance music’ anyway? Dark & Long could almost be Joy Division.
dubnobasswithmyheadman sounds nothing like its ‘contemporaries’. There’s none of that generic hysteric female vocal that was prevalent on every release at the time. And sure, it has it’s four-to-the-floor moments, but nothing as crass as the handbag house hits of the day that cluttered up a gazillion Ministry Of Sound compilations and their ilk. There’s not a James Brown sample or a “Baby! Baby! Baby!” anywhere near it.
At times the album sounds as if it’s running on the same sort of energy that pulses through I Feel Love. Elsewhere it sounds as if someone’s turned every knob on every keyboard all the way round as far as they’ll go, drowning the listener in a bath-full of acid squelches and road drill beats.
Occasionally it sounds stoned and other-wordly. River Of Bass could almost be Can, with its repetitive guitar riff and whispered vocals.
dubnobasswithmyheadman is a true one-off – it’s percussive, it’s relentless and it ebbs and flows like all good albums do. It’s got guitars on it! Lovely chiming, echoing, layered guitars that fade in and out when the mood arises. The vocals are a one-off; half-spoken snippets of overheard conversations and cut ‘n paste phrases, mirroring the cut-up, random cover art.
“I see Elvis!”
“‘I’m just a waitress’, she said.’”
“Don’t put your hand where you wouldn’t put your face.”
Cowgirl is perhaps the most instantly-accessible track.
Nagging and creeping, like a virus worming its way under your skin it’s a full-on four-to-the-floor smash, glo-stick techno at its longest, loudest and best, a precursor for sure to the band’s big Lager! Lager!Lager! breakthrough hit a couple of years later.
You can take each track in isolation and get something from them, but the best way to listen to dubnobasswithmyheadman is to bunker down and swallow the whole in one go. In amongst the rollin’ and tumblin’ sequencers and rat-a-tat percussion there’s a fluidity to it and because of that it’s been a recurring soundtrack to my cycling, speeding me up hills that I have no inclination to go up, whisking me back home when I’d rather take the last few miles a bit easier. Now and again I’ll hear the sound of the chain snake its way through the sprocket bleeding into the mix and this just adds to it.
When it comes out this week with all manner of weird and wonderful remixes, lost tracks and souped-up remastering, it’ll help me get many extra miles in on my bike.