Archive for the ‘Six Of The Best’ Category

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Six Of The Best – Duglas T Stewart (BMX Bandits)

March 8, 2017

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 26 in a series:

If I could be in any band,” enthused Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “I’d be in BMX Bandits.” Not The Beatles. Not Black Sabbath. Not Led Zeppelin. But BMX Bandits, the cult band from Bellshill in Lanarkshire. This was no small claim. Back in 1992 when Nirvana was omnipresent, Kurt Cobain was in turmoil with himself. Months previously, his band had released Nevermind, the epoch-defining multi-million seller crammed full of Beatles-meets-Sabbath by way of Zeppelin radio-friendly slacker anthems, an album that would in time make Nirvana as definitive as some of those very acts.

With a record company keen to milk the band for all they were worth, Cobain withdrew. Commercialism wasn’t a game he was keen to play. His two fellow band mates, the drummer in particular, were much more comfortable with their sudden and quite unexpected lofty status, but not Kurt. He sought solace in the music he wished he was able to put out; lo-fi, fragile, arty, tinged with pathos and a punk sensibility, but most of all, played and recorded for fun. Fun, it seems, was in inverse proportion to Nirvana’s record sales. It’s not hard to see why the poster boy for 90’s disaffected youth held a flame for BMX Bandits. His favourite band, led by the enigmatic Duglas T Stewart has all those things in spades.

Kurt in his ‘Fat Elvis’ phase

We’re just one of those bands,” summarises Duglas T Stewart, Bandit-in-chief for 30+ years and curator of one of our most-loved musical collectives, “that’s historically been lucky enough to have had, throughout all the line-up changes, great musicians. Norman Blake….Stu Kidd….Jim McCulloch….Francis MacDonald….Eugene Kelly…. Regardless of who they go off and play with, they’ll always remain a part of this band. Being in BMX Bandits is a bit like a stay at the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!

Norman ‘left’in 1992, but has contributed to every album since, up until the new one (‘BMX Bandits Forever’, released May 26th). Both he and Eugene have said that the happiest times they’ve had making music was when they were in BMX Bandits. It’s a chance to step out of the limelight for a wee while, take side stage rather than centrestage. I think that’s what maybe appealed to Kurt when he said what he said.”

To celebrate the release of BMX Bandits Forever, Duglas and co-vocalist Chloe Philip will lead their renegade 7-piece band in a couple of rare live outings. They’ll play the small-but-perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine on the 18th March and following the album’s release, they’ll celebrate with a launch gig on May 27th at St Luke’s in Glasgow.

The Irvine date is particularly appealing, given that it’s 25 years since BMX Bandits last played the town. On that occassion, they played atop a flat-bed truck stage outside the famous Ship Inn, coincidentally next door to the HAC.

Back then, Duglas and co. were just one of the many bands who found time to veer left at Glasgow and fit in a date on the Ayrshire coast. In recent years, it’s sadly, frustratingly, been less of a thing.

I’ve really vivid memories of that Irvine show,” recalls Duglas. “You tend to remember the more unusual shows. Eugenius were on the same bill. Gordon and Eugene were both ex-Bandits, so lots of our pals were there. There was no holding back with the audience. Sometimes at a Glasgow or Edinburgh show, the crowd can be a wee bit too cool for school. But the Irvine audience just went for it.

It was a great time to be BMX Bandits. We’d just released ‘Life Goes On’, our first album for Creation and our stock was high. Alan McGee kept saying, ‘You’re gonnae be a hit! You’ll be in the charts!’ I’ve friends who’ve been lucky enough to have had singles, or in the case of Eugene who had Nirvana covering his songs and Joe (McAlinden) who did very nicely on the back of Rod Stewart recording one of his, friends who’ve made a lot of money from songwriting. I’m genuinely happy for them – we’ve all come from the same musical background, so in a funny way, their success is also my success.

‘Serious Drugs’ was the big BMX Bandits hit that never was. It was melodic, but it was still noisy, with loud guitars to the fore, yet totally non-macho. It flew in the face of what was hip at the time. Paul Weller has said since it’s the best single ever released on Creation and Radio 1 went so far as to A-List it, guaranteeing it so many plays a day. Unfortunately for us, its release coincided with Radio 1’s Anti-Drugs Week. A song called Serious Drugs, even if its message is very anti-drugs, could never be played over the week, so it had kinda flopped before it even had the chance to be a massive hit. Ironically, The Shamen chose to release ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ the very same week, a song that very clearly promotes drug use…..and Radio 1 found nothing wrong with it.

 

The view from the stage, BMX Bandits live in Irvine, July 1992

That Irvine gig 25 years ago was, if memory serves me correctly, a really great gig. On a patch of land overlooking the harbour, 1000+ folk (the picture above doesn’t do it justice, believe me!) momentarily turned our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet. The Harbour Arts Centre holds just a fraction of that audience, and amazingly, there are still a handful of tickets left for their upcoming show. Will BMX Bandits once again turn our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet? You better believe it!

Ahead of the upcoming shows and album release, Duglas took time out from rehearsing – “We don’t rehearse too much, actually. I tend to find you can over-rehearse and by the day of the show, you’ve lost something. You don’t want it too smooth. It’s better being a wee bit rough around the edges” – to talk about his favourite tracks. When he sent these through to me, they came with the caveat that he’d likely pick a different set of songs next week. “Had you asked me last week, Jonathan Richman would definitely have been in there, but these tracks are the ones that’ve stuck with me for years.”

Paul WilliamsSomeday Man

Paul Williams is incredibly well-known in the States, but in the UK, there’s next to zero knowledge of him. His songs have been a big, big part of my life. He wrote the songs for The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an album that’s had as much influence on me as any rock album. He wrote ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ for The Carpenters….The Rainbow Connection….the soundtrack to Bugsy Malone. I’ve only ever watched that film I think twice, but I know all the songs. He won an Oscar for ‘Evergreen’, the theme song for ‘A Star Is Born’, sung by Barbra Streisand. He even collaborated on the last Daft Punk album. Everything he’s been involved in has real heart.

Paul WilliamsSomeday Man

Someday Man is mind-blowing. You might know it from The Monkees’ version, but the original has a real gravitas and depth. It’s got that Wrecking Crew kinda feel. The changes of tempo! The not knowing where it’ll go next! The overall feeling you get when you listen to it is one of poignancy and hope.

Beach BoysThe Night Was So Young

This is my favourite track from my favourite Beach Boys’ album (1977’s Beach Boys Love You). It’s an album held in high esteem. Alex Chilton said it was his favourite Beach Boys’ album too. And Brian Wilson told me it was his!

Beach BoysThe Night Was So Young

Brian wanted people to feel loved when listening to his music. Music was everything – it was sanctuary. As someone who was incredibly messed up, in the early years by his father, in the later years by bad management, Brian wrote this for himself. It’s a beautiful track. It embraces you. You can sit late at night listening to it, alone, but you’re not totally alone. ‘The Night Was So Young’ comforts you. It’s an aural cuddle.

The Shangri-LasGive Him A Great Big Kiss

The Shangri Las are my favourite-ever girl group. There’s two distinct sides to them; the celebration songs and the melodramatic heartbreakers. They said more in their songs than film makers with a big budget can do in 2 hours. These songs are movies without pictures, over and done with in 2 and a half minutes.

The Shangri-LasGive Him A Great Big Kiss

The use of reverb and sound effects, the spoken-word sections, the delivery… it could fall into pastiche, but Mary Weiss makes it real. I love the call-and-response vocals. ‘What colour are his eyes? I dunno – he’s always wearin’ shades.’ The best bit though? ‘Dirty fingernails – Oh what a prize!’ Hahaha! How dreamy! Shangri Las’ records are full of excitement, joy, humour and musical twists. There’s been no-one ever quite like them since.

Robert Mellin & Gian-Piero ReverberiThe Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe

This piece of music is responsible for some of my earliest musical memories, of music affecting me deeply. How could sad, beautiful music make me feel good? I’ve spoken to Jarvis Cocker and he’s told me he feels the same way whenever he hears it.

In the early days of primary school, they’d show The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe during the school holidays. As it was a French-language programme, the BBC re-dubbed it and decided to replace the original score/theme tune with Robert Mellin and Gian-Piero Reverberi’s piece – a vast improvement on the original. I can’t remember much of the actual show, but the music, and the emotions it created, has stayed with me. It’s sad and sentimental. It’s uncontrollable. It’s the key to what I’ve always tried to do with my own music. 

Bill Wells featuring Lorna GilfedderMy Family

At less than a year old, this is my most contemporary choice. Bill lives, eats, drinks, breathes and, yes, dreams music. He’s an extraordinary talent. He’s collaborated with a whole host of interesting artists; Yo La Tengo, Future Pilot AKA, Norman Blake…. a whole bunch of people. His Aidan Moffat collaboration was on a completely different level of brilliance. Really terrific.

Bill’s a jazz guy, and not conservative by any means. Despite its appearance as wild and free, jazz is actually quite conservative and lead by certain rules. Bill’s an outsider who went against the grain of jazz. He finds sad beauty in music. He has the saddest chords. Unusual rhythmic ideas. He has a knack of spotting the right people to work with.

If arranged differently, this track could be a massive hit for a contemporary soul diva. As it is, it’s a very understated piece, with the least earnest, not over-emoted in the slightest vocal you’ll hear on a contemporary piece of music. The singing is understated in a Peggy Lee/Frank Sinatra kinda way, and the track is all the better for it. Bill is easily one of the giants in music today.

JigsawWho Do You Think You Are

This has been done a couple of times, of course, by Candlewick Green and Saint Etienne, but the original is the best. It’s the kinda song I want to write! It’s like an actual jigsaw puzzle, where all the individual parts come together into one great picture of sound.

When you first hear it, you’re thinking, ‘That’s a great verse!’, ‘That’s a great chorus!’, ‘Woah! That’s NOT the chorus – it’s only the pre-chorus! HERE’S the chorus! Wow! This is terrific!’

It all comes together in a fantastic rush of melodies and counter melodies, call and response vocals, keyboards replicating backing vocals, melody versus melody. Everything fits together beautifully. And look at them! They didn’t want to look like the cool guys, they just wanted to have great music. Not fashionable, but always great. Just like the BMX Bandits.

Great choices, eh? Very Duglas, but perhaps pleasantly surprising at the same time. As I said to Duglas during our conversation, hunting down some of these records is going to cost me a fortune. I’ll be keeping a spare tenner though, for the upcoming show in Irvine. Maybe I’ll see you down the front.

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Six Of The Best – Mike Joyce

February 15, 2017

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 25 in a series:

mike-joyce

Mike Joyce is best-known for his time as the drummer in The Smiths. In six short years he provided the uncluttered back beat upon which Johnny Marr’s ringing melodies rang and Morrissey’s unique vocals hiccuped and hollered and swooped and swooned. Between 1982 and 1987 he was part of The Only Band That Mattered, helping to produce a perfect discography that, in this house at least, has been pored over, scrutinised and played back-to-front, upside down and inside-out. I know all The Smiths’ stuff to trainspotter levels of obsession. And I’m far from alone.

Mike’s old band are possibly even more revered nowadays than they were during that brief spell 30 or so years ago. They burned briefly but brightly, blazing a trail for ‘indie’ music and all that followed in its wake. Other bands may have had bigger chart success, or benefited from being on a major label, or had the suss and swagger to look to the future and plan a long-term career, but by the time The Smiths had bowed out with Strangeways, Here We Come, the musical world as I and many others knew it had changed for ever. That they’re still a ‘thing’, that people still walk around in Smiths t-shirts, that RIGHT NOW you could walk into a supermarket and pick up a copy of The Queen Is Dead is testament to their legacy. They’re still, for a growing gang of disciples, The Only Band That Mattered.

smiths-live

Along with Andy Rourke, Mike created a rhythm section that gave Johnny and Morrissey the space to shine. There’s not one Smiths’ recording where Mike succumbs to any scattergun windmilling Moonisms. He has his moments – there’s the metallic clatter of ‘What She Said’, of course, and there’s a particularly frantic take of ‘London‘ from a Peel Session that can be found online fairly easily, and on the Rank live album, Mike’s drums add a mighty muscle to a band at their peak of live performance. On This Charming Man, Mike and Andy provided a four-to-the-floor Motown backbeat upon which Johnny’s sparkling guitars dazzle, and on some of the early Smiths recordings, Mike’s technical shortcomings are made up for in sheer punk-like enthusiastic energy. Mainly though, Mike’s playing was sympathetic, understated and the perfect framework for his twin foils out front. He was exactly the sort of drummer The Smiths needed. “If Elvis had had Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke in his band,”  Johnny Marr once claimed, “he would have been an even bigger name.”

Like all great bands, in the intervening years there’s been a well-publicised and damaging court case, guest appearances on his former singer’s solo material and a smattering of live performance with his old sparring partner on the bass guitar. Since then, Mike’s played, recorded and toured with a fantastic selection of bands and artists; Sinead O’Connor, Buzzcocks, Julian Cope, Public Image Ltd, PP Arnold and Pete Wylie to name but a few. If I stuck my iPod on shuffle there’s a good chance it would throw up a Mike-related track.

Mike’s also carved out a career for himself as a DJ for hire, either as a stand-in on BBC 6 Music whenever a regular presenter goes on holiday, or on his East Village internet radio show, or in his monthly residency in The Drawing Room in the Didsbury area of Manchester. On March 4th, he’ll be spinning the wheels of steel at The Record Factory on Glasgow’s Byres Road as part of a night that features up-and-coming new bands. If you’re local you should probably go.

It is The Smiths though that everyone really wants to know about. Mike knows it too, and it’s clear after just 20 seconds of conversation with him that Mike is the biggest Smiths fan of all. You can see that in many of the promo shots taken at the time – Mike is rarely snapped without wearing some Smiths t-shirt or other. He talks passionately and fondly about the music, referring to everything the band did as ‘we‘ rather than ‘I‘ . He’s no different to any other Smiths obsessive the world over, except for the four words that appear on the back of every single Smiths record. Mike Joyce – The Drums. It’s undeniable. He was the drummer in The Smiths, The Only Band That Mattered.

I asked Mike about his time in The Smiths and we focused on the six tracks he’s most proud of having played on. Potentially, a Sophie’s Choice Six Of The Best, but here we are…

smiths-84

Right. I’ve given this serious thought and, y’know, it’s an absolutely ridiculous task. I have 3 kids….it’s like asking me to pick my favourite one. I just can’t narrow it down to six. Can I have seven instead?

I’m gonna do this in reverse order. Drum roll, please!

At 6, it’s I Don’t Owe You Anything. I remember playing this at one of our really early gigs, 1983 in Dingwalls. It was a sweltering hot summer’s night. As we played it I began to cry. This had never happened before, or since, but something in Johnny’s playing and Morrissey’s singing- it just sounded so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘Everything’s coming together.’

The SmithsI Don’t Owe You Anything

Before The Smiths I’d been into punk; The Pistols, Angelic Upstarts, Generation X, early Adam & the Ants, Buzzcocks, of course, so to be playing a song like this or ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ took me right out of my comfort zone. Up until then I had three speeds I played at – fast, faster and fastest, so on this song I learned to really properly play. It was great watching people’s reactions to it. It wasn’t normal for a band like us to play music like this. At gigs, people would clap after songs, sometimes because they were obliged to, or just out of courtesy, but that night in Dingwalls, for the first time people were saying ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This. ?’

smiths-87

At 5. Death Of A Disco Dancer. The ‘Strangeways’ album was our Sgt Pepper, written in the studio and jam-inspired. When we first played ‘…Disco Dancer’ as a group, it got heavier and heavier. (At this point, not for the last time during our conversation, Mike ‘sings’ the outro down the phone to me.) There was a great spontaneity and communication between us that only comes from playing together. It’s all on ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’.

The SmithsDeath Of A Disco Dancer

smiths-86-qid

4. I Know It’s Over. It was unusual for Morrissey to show us any lyrics beforehand. When we heard Smiths’ tracks being played back in the studio, we usually heard them just as you would have heard them for the first time. Morrissey’s vocal performance on I Know It’s Over is perfect. An emotional delivery, he really bared his soul on it.

The SmithsI Know It’s Over

As a lot of singers prefer, the lights were turned off when it came time to record Morrissey’s vocals.  When he was finished, Morrissey came back into the control room. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. There were lots of tears, big swallows, “I’ll be alright in a minute!” kinda stuff. Then lots of hugging. We were our own biggest fans. To create a track like this out of thin air, there’s nothing better. Being in that control room when Morrissey laid down his vocal was like, I dunno, being in the control room when Elvis did his vocals. Seriously! It was that big!

meat-is-murder-lyrics

At 3, it has to be Meat Is Murder. As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian. Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it.

The SmithsMeat Is Murder

I really appreciated his conviction with this song. Its emotive. Sincere. Incisive. There’s a moral responsibility for anyone in the public eye to stand up and say it like it is, but it doesn’t happen very often. Meat Is Murder is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

smiths-mike-moz

Next up, How Soon Is Now?

(increduously) Because……….?!? Just fucking listen to it!!

The SmithsHow Soon Is Now?

It’s got such a distinct style. I mean, what style even is it? Listen to any band – UB40 or Jamiroquai or Spandau Ballet or Anti Nowhere League or The Exploited. They all have a sound. They rarely vary from it. They might stick a slow one on the album or whatever, but it’s still their sound that you’ll hear.

When we recorded ‘How Soon Is Now?’ we’d had a few spliffs. We took the bulbs out of the lights and replaced them with red ones. It felt like a darkroom. It felt trippy. It felt like it had never been done before. And the song, woah! We stuck it on the B-side. Geoff Travis said to Johnny, “Stop writing A-sides!”

Playing it live gave us such a buzz. It was a big, big track. I knew that nightly, the crowd were getting right off on it.

smiths-wool-hall

Right. I have one choice left but I have two tracks that must be included here. First equal is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. About 8 years ago, we had friends round, Tina and I. We’ve got a CD jukebox in the house and Tina convinced me to put Strangeways… on it. It’s not really the done thing, putting your own music in your jukebox, but anyway, there it was. During dinner the jukebox was playing on random and Last Night… came on. “Is this The Smiths?” asked my friend. We were all listening to it and the atmosphere changed. It was probably the first time I’d actually sat down and listened to it since we’d recorded it. “That’s pretty good!” seemed to be the general concensus.

The SmithsLast Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

Johnny really was the Brian Jones of the band, not just because of the haircut, or the fact he had a teardrop guitar in the early days, but because he could pick up anything and get a tune out of it. There was a zither that sat on the windowsill of the studio during the Strangeways… sessions. He picked it up one time and played a tune on it, just like that. (That tune was I Won’t Share You, but you knew that already).

We couldn’t afford real strings on the recording so we used an emulator synth. Watching Johnny play the string parts on it was like watching a genius at work. He didn’t seem to learn it anywhere. The music just appeared. He heard things other people couldn’t hear and put it down. No trial and error. He always got it first time. The layering and production on Last Night… is fantastic. There’s some really odd, wonky piano. It’s all out of time. Johnny broke the rules and created a masterpiece.

smiths-hig-promo

And finally, back to the start. I couldn’t discuss my favourite Smiths tracks without mentioning Hand In Glove. This was where it all began. The life-changer. It’s my favourite Smiths track. Certainly the most powerful. Until we’d recorded we’d never properly heard ourselves. I’d only ever heard us from behind the kit in our rehearsal room; over the top of my drums I’d get a bit of Johnny’s guitar, some of Andy’s bass – I was always locked into Johnny ‘cos Andy played tunes within the tunes – and Morrissey’s vocals. I could hear him most of all, but I had no idea what we really sounded like.

The Smiths  – Hand In Glove

When I first heard this back, with the sound balance and the extra guitars, it was truly shocking. I really mean that. I knew we sounded good, but this record was absolutely massive! The importance of it, the effect it had, it was the beginning of everything…..

the-smiths

So there you have it. Mike Joyce’s Six Of The Best. Or should that be Mike’s Magnificent Seven? He’s an engaging chap, is Mike. For someone who rarely does interviews these days – “I’m always being asked to give a quote on the date of some Smiths’ anniversary or other, but really, it’s not me,” he’s full of chat about his time with the band. And for me, from one Smiths fan to another, I’m very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

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Six Of The Best – Nile Marr

April 7, 2016

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 24 in a series:

Man Made2

Nile Marr is the guitar player and vocalist in Man Made, one of the UK’s more interesting and most-likely to up-and-coming guitar bands. Arty, skewed and wonky riffs drive insistent, nagging songs about life and living in 2016. Theirs is a considered noise, with a real sense that although the guitars might occasionally veer left of centre, the melody is king. You’re never too far from a ‘woo-oooh‘ or a hookline or a repeating chorus. I think you’d like them.

Man MadeCarsick Cars

Man Made are currently on tour, promoting the imminent release of ‘TV Broke My Brain‘, their eagerly anticipated debut LP.

The record is like the menu….here’s what we do. But live, that’s where the connection is. These songs have been recorded and re-recorded so many times. Every time we play live, the songs take new twists and turns so we book a studio and go back to re-do them. The album is absolutely us at our best….but come and see us live and you’ll get the real thing.

The tour takes in many of the unfashionable corners of the UK (folk with a decent knowledge of lower league football will recognise most of the destinations) before it winds up in Irvine’s tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre on the last Tuesday of April. The HAC is a terrific place to catch a band. It’s whites-of-the-eyes small, the ‘stage’ is a space on the floor where local am-dram groups usually do their thang and, despite this, has hosted some of the best-known acts in the country. You should probably go…

man made 1

*A wee aside. When I was younger, I remember my dad getting a pair of Adidas Kick and being really annoyed about it as he made mine instantly unwearable, even though I had to wear them as I had no other option. I spent my teens denying my parents’ record collection and being constantly red faced by the fact they’d been a working, gigging folk duo who had somehow famously shared the stage with Billy Connolly. In later years their Bob Dylan LPs would find their way into my record collection (they found them and took them back), and nowadays I’m quite proud of the Billy Connolly connection, but everybody needs to go through the ’embarrassing parents’ stage first, do they not?

Not Nile though. Nile, as you are no doubt aware, has supreme indie rock genes. He learned to play guitar with the help of his dad Johnny, was constantly exposed to decent music as a child, was encouraged to discuss what was being played and grew up with the total support of his cooler-than-cool parents. He lived first in Manchester then moved to Portland when his dad got the call asking him to work with Modest Mouse.

Well, I still see him doing uncool stuff now and again, but can you imagine your dad joining your favourite band?!? I loved Modest Mouse. My dad said that he’d been asked to join them but wasn’t too aware of them. I was like, ‘Are you serious? You’ve gotta go!’. Growing up in the Pacific North West, in Portland, was fantastic. I was transplanted to a whole different music scene populated by musical heavyweights.

I call my time in Portland my ‘Sponge Years’ – y’know that stage in your life when you’re trying to work out your identity and who you are, soaking up all those influences and deciding which ones fit you the best? Portland and its music scene really made me who I am today. 

I developed my work ethic from bands like Fugazi and Modest Mouse. They were based an entire continent away from the music capitals and spent their whole existence booking their own shows, getting in their van and driving thousands of miles, sleeping on floors, taking things into their own hands. Keeping it D.I.Y. and lo-fi is what Man Made is all about.”

Nile goes about his business in Man Made with admirable stubbornness. They follow the Fugazi touring model. They’re vegan. They don’t drink. Theirs is a totally immersed-in-the-band way of life. “It would be nice now and again to maybe spend a night in a Travelodge or wherever, but doing that probably takes us away from places we’d otherwise play. It’s pretty great being on tour.

His one concession to glitz is his famous gold jacket. “It belonged to a fashion student friend of mine, and she was going to cut it up. I wore it to the support show I was playing that night, just myself and my acoustic guitar, and every single person that came into the venue noticed me before anything else. People now identify with it. I played a show recently in my ‘civilian clothes’ but it didn’t feel right. I need to dress up for the stage. I always said I’d wear the gold jacket until I’d made my point. I’ve retired it now. I have something else…

 

Growing up in such interesting circumstances has certainly helped shape Nile’s musical influences. “I’ve seen photos of myself when I was very young, interacting with vinyl, holding it, looking at the sleeve or whatever, but the 1st record I truly owned was Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’. I played it constantly. There’s such a richness of story telling there. My dad’s music and the records he played certainly gave me a framework of musical references. But I also like the fact I turn my Dad on to certain things – Modest Mouse, for example – and he’d never played a Fender Mustang guitar until he’d seen mine…. (Johnny playing Nile’s Mustangs led him on to the Jaguar, now of course his guitar of choice.)

Most of my favourite bands are from the USA. It’s a really difficult choice to pick just 6 records, but if forced to, these are the six that I identify with the most…

As Nile runs through a very considered list, it strikes me that while I’m familiar with all the bands on here, there are only 2 tracks I’ve actually heard. “Well, you’re in for a right treat this afternoon,” he replies. And so are you…

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Modest MouseDramamine

For the first song on your first album, you’re putting yourself out there with a real statement of intent – “This is us and this is where we come from.” I miss being in America; the culture, the people, the scenery when you’re on those long drives. Hearing someone sing about that part of the world makes me feel like I’m there.

Interestingly, the album in question is called ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About‘. But you probably knew that already.

Broken Social SceneAnthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl

Broken Social Scene mean so much to me. Talk about records that change your life?!? Wow! I’d never heard anything like Broken Social Scene. Musically and melodically I’m just trying my best to do what they do. Making art in your head and have it come out the way you intended it to – everything I ever wanted to do melodically is in this song. One day…one day, I’ll write a song as good as this.

Bikini KillIn Accordance To Natural Law

This song is 30 seconds long but it’s one of the best songs ever. You can say everything you need to say, do everything you need to do in 30 seconds. Anything shorter is just silly. What’s amazing is that this is a fully-formed song. It’s so bad badass – girls are way harder than the boys. They do this stuff waaaaaay better than boys ever could. The first time I heard this song, it made me cry. I just couldn’t believe what I’d heard.

B52s52 Girls

This is on their first album, the one with the yellow cover. ’52 Girls’ is punk rock, but weird punk rock. Art rock. That’s what I want to do. I’m not an angry punk. I like weird. As a guitar record, this is fantastic.

FugaziSlo Crostic

This is an instrumental. It’s all about the guitars. It came out of a live jam. It says so much musically about where I want to go; the weaving guitars, politically how they conduct themselves, no alcohol. There can be a real pressure to conform to that lad-sh, drinking culture. The band who don’t drink but are better than anyone else who does. Fugazi are the kings!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs10 x 10

Nick Zinner is the best example of a modern guitar player. There’s no flash.There are no cliches. No rock poses. He’s the most unrockist guitar player around, yet Yeah Yeah Yeahs totally rock. The whole EP this track is from (Is Is) is so guitar heavy. They’re a real important band.

So there you have it – 6 tracks of modern American punk that shaped Nile Marr into the musician he is today. Listen to Man Made’s album (out at the end of April to avoid the Record Store Day “consumer-fest“around its originally-planned release), and you’ll spot all these references plus, with the occasional chiming guitar and lightly fuzzed two string riff, the odd tip of the hat to the old man.

man made tour poster

You can catch Man Made (and check out Nile’s new stage wear) on April 26th when they wind up their tour with the only west of Scotland date at the excellent Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine. Tickets can be purchased here. I’ll see you down the front.

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We Are 9

December 30, 2015

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.

i am nine

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?

pop9

A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:

  1. Michael MarraGreen Grow the Rashes
  2. Wallace CollectionDaydream
  3. Jacqueline TaiebSept Heures du Matin
  4. The TemptationsMessage From A Black Man
  5. New OrderTrue Faith
  6. Bobby ParkerWatch Your Step
  7. Jim FordI’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
  8. DorisYou Never Come Closer
  9. Ela OrleansDead Floor
  10. Mac De MarcoOde To Viceroy
  11. Teenage FanclubGod Knows It’s True
  12. Iggy PopNightclubbing
  13. George HarrisonWah Wah
  14. MagazineThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
  15. Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea
  16. Bob DylanSad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
  17. Richard BerryLouie Louie
  18. REMRadio Free Europe (HibTone version)
  19. The CribsWe Share The Same Skies
  20. Johnny MarrThe Messenger
  21. McAlmont & ButlerSpeed
  22. Talking HeadsI Zimbra (12″ version)
  23. Style CouncilSpeak Like A Child
  24. Darlene LoveJohnny (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!

 

 

 

 

 

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Six Of The Best – James Grant

November 3, 2015

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 23 in a series:

james grant

It’s all the fault of James Grant that by 1987 I had beige chinos, a battered Levi’s denim jacket (later to be autographed/ruined by four fifths of the Inspiral Carpets outside Level 8 at Strathclyde University) and a mile-high quiff that was impossible to control. It didn’t matter whether I used half a gallon of goo every morning or battered it into shape with builders’-strength Brylcreem, by 2 in the afternoon it was wild and wayward and wavering in my eyes. Most folk at the time assumed it was in tribute to Morrissey, a reasonable assumption given that The Smiths were Kings of our world, but an assumption that was off the mark. If you’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that I was always far more of a Johnny fan than a Morrissey fan, and while I had a similarly collapsing coiffure (“…the rain that flattens my hair, oh these are the things that kill me…“), it was always modelled on the wee skinny frontman from Love & Money. Somehow, much to my annoyance, his never moved an inch. Which begs an obvious question….

Haha! I didn’t use a lot of ‘product’. Maybe some Boots gel that everyone used in those days. With a wee touch of hairspray. Stick that on it and the quiff would stay like that for a week. I think I once mentioned on TV that I used Ellenet hairspray and the next day the record company took a call from them. I have what you call ‘a good head of hair’, so I never really used much. There was certainly no magic trick or anything!

So. In the days before the internet there was Ellenet. If only I’d known…

James is a super-talented musician. Since his teens he’s been writing songs of substance that would put a writer with twice his experience to shame. In Love & Money he could effortlessly switch from neo Young Americans blue-eyed soul to sophisto-pop to Chic-esque rinky dink guitar riffing, and he couldn’t wait to fire off a flash guitar solo as slick as whatever it was that held his beautiful hair in place.

As a band we were lucky. In the early 80s, Glasgow was the epicenter of the music world. Edwyn and Clare Grogan were our standard bearers, bringing Glasgow pop to the world. Every gig we played, there were record company folk standing there waving cheque books at us. It was ridiculous but totally fantastic – everything we’d ever wanted was coming true. Love & Money signed a publishing deal and recording deal with Phonogram. They were responsible for putting out Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’ – what’s the statistic? One in every 3 homes owns a copy on CD? Well, they had money to burn, and without being mercenary about it, if they weren’t spending it on us, they’d be spending it on someone else.

We ended up in New York recording studios, in LA, making videos in Tokyo. It was all quite ridiculous. Here I was, brought up in Bridgeton and Castlemilk, swanning about in some far-off place, being indulged with millions of pounds being spent on us.

My dad didn’t believe what I did for a living. He was a bin man. He’d worked as a store man in the Tennent’s Brewery. He’d fought the fascists in the Second World War. ‘You’re a whit?!?’ he’d ask. ‘A song writer?!? In a group?!?’ To him, only folk like David Bowie made records and appeared on telly. ‘Where were you this weekend?’ he’d quiz. ‘London, aye? Whereabouts? Bayswater? I know Bayswater quite well. Where did you stay?’ He genuinely didn’t believe I was doing the stuff I was doing. When (first single) ‘Candybar Express’ came out, we went on Razzamataz (Kids TV Programme) and I sat down with him to watch it. He looked from the telly to me and back again and I think then the penny dropped.

love and money promo pic

Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor took production duties on Candybar Express, a track that was promoted to within its life of an actual Top 40 chart placing. Subsequent singles always seemed to fall just as short, but while it was disappointing not to have chart success, they were given the opportunity to record the follow-up with Gary Katz, famed for his production duties with Steely Dan. Can you imagine any band today being afforded such a major label luxury? If you haven’t cracked the Top 3 with your first single (is there still a Top 3? Are there still charts?) you’re considered an ‘epic fail’, or whatever the parlance of the day is. Love & Money would go on to record 3 more LPs, to diminishing commercial success, but to much critical acclaim.

Third LP ‘Dogs In The Traffic‘ is my personal favourite, a view shared by The Scotsman who voted it the 30th best Scottish Rock and Pop Album Of All Time, just between the random pairing of Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In, Souled Out and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman (and 12 places higher than Love & Money alumni The Bathers’ Kelvingrove Baby). Opener Winter could almost be George Michael’s A Different Corner before it morphs into a multi-layered tasteful guitar wig-out. Johnny’s Not Here has a coda that could be straight off of the Sign O’ The Times LP.

Love & MoneyJohnny’s Not Here

Elsewhere, muted trumpets fight for ear space with keyboard stabs, weeping pedal steel, the odd brass section and the occasional orchestral sweep. All this is incidental of course, as James’ guitar and vocals are central to a production worthy of a Dulux endorsment. Bluesy one moment, and finger picked with all the deftness of Bert Jansch the next, his instrument is the perfect foil for his voice, a voice that resonates with all the depth of a life lived in song. Mature and introspective, throwaway pop this is not. It also happens to be James’ favourite L&M LP too.

Artistically, it’s my best body of work. I find it difficult to listen to. You might gather from the lyrics that I wasn’t in a happy place when I wrote it, it took a lot out of me, but it’s gained a longevity that I’m really proud of.”

James Grant is the real deal. If you don’t believe me, seek out any of his subsequent 5 solo albums and you’ll find out for yourself.

These days, James isn’t a touring artist in the traditional sense – he rarely puts together 15/20 date tours or leaves home for a month on the road. He’s more selective where and when he plays and as a result, is one of the hottest tickets in town. Ahead of this Friday’s (6th November) sold-out show in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre, James took time out to give us his Six Of The Best.

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SladeCum On Feel The Noize

This was the first record I ever bought. 25p in Woolies, Castlemilk. I was really excited by the record. I loved Slade, and Cum On Feel The Noize is a brilliant record. I met Noddy (with Lemmy, believe it or not) after one of our shows at The Marquee. Lemmy suggested we enter the stage from a giant inflatable vagina, wearing buffalo horns. A while later, Noddy was a guest on Round Table. Our track ‘My Love Lives In A Dead House’ was one of the records played. “That!” declared Noddy. “Is a Number One record!” Noddy had come through for me!

Led ZeppelinWhole Lotta Love

Led Zeppelin were a big influence on me. I bought a second-hand, scratched copy of Led Zeppelin II from Hi-Fi Exchange. From the opening riff I just thought, “This is it! This is for me!” It was a quasi-religious experience. And Zeppelin were so famous. It was all about the music. Getting into Led Zeppelin was like joining an exclusive club. I wanted to know about music. Led Zep told me.

Talking Heads I Zimbra

This was also hugely influential. It’s all about the groove. The record just used phonetics and created something new. It’s a very intellectual record. Made by David Byrne, of course. An intellectual man. Hearing I Zimbra for the first time was a musical epiphany.

(By coincidence, this very track was featured here last week.)

David BowieStarman

I watched with my school pals when he sang this on that famous Top Of The Pops episode. Is he a boy or a girl? Or an alien from Planet Zorg?!? We just didn’t know. He was just so appealing. Beautiful, alluring, mysterious. Bowie is enormously talented. Even his demos have it. The demo of Lady Stardust when it’s just him at the piano singing it, extraordinary really.

Roxy MusicLove Is The Drug

This is luxurious debauchery. It’s so sophisticated yet easy and it gets me every time. The bass is played with a pick. That’s not how an American band would have done it. Very English. Rather, very European to be more precise. Which, I suppose, was Bryan Ferry’s shtick.

Bob DylanVisions Of Johanna

This is one of my favourite songs of all time. Some of the lines in it! The imagery! ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’ What does that even mean? Yet, if you listen to Dylan, you know exactly what that means. Songs poured out of Dylan. He couldn’t help himself. As a rule, music lyrics should NEVER be compared with poetry…..but this is as close as it gets. Visions Of Johanna bridges that gap.

james grant

And there you have it – a perfectly balanced set of tracks very much in the Plain Or Pan mould. I expect you may own more than half of these yourself, but they’d make a terrific little compilation for someone less informed.

It’s also become apparent over the course of this series that David Bowie is the clear leader in the ‘most frequently selected artist’ category. And there ain’t nowt wrong with that.

You can keep up to date with all of James’ goings-on via Twitter @jamthrawn or on his excellent (chords for songs! interactive community!) official web page here.

Me? I’m off down the front on Friday night, big can of Ellenet doon ma jukes.

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Ballroom Blitzed

October 18, 2015

Johnny Marr @ The Grand Hall Oct 2015 03(c) Stuart Westwood

There was a defining moment last Thursday night when Johnny Marr was up in space somewhere, out among the stars and playing his melodies gifted from the Gods, showering the faithful at his feet with little arpeggiated notes of joy. It all happened midway through his celebratory, revelatory gig in Kilmarnock’s Grand Hall, and midway through a pulsing take on Electronic‘s evergreen Getting Away With It. Recast as an electro throb (“This is a disco song from Manchester“) with jagged, edgy guitars, it was accompanied by a pair of stark blue flashing strobes, marching in time to the guttural punch of the bass. As the song reached its peak, somewhere a flick of the switch turned the venue from rave central into a spangled, sparkled music box. The light changed from stark blue to glitter ball white as the music shifted from electro pulse to pure Marr; the chiming, echoing notes cannoning off the turn of the century walls and out into the ether. Surrounded by a swirl of mirrored light careering from a pair of over-sized disco balls and out on the edge of the 6 ft high stage, lost in his own music, it did indeed look like Johnny Marr was on the edge of the universe.

IMG_6534(c) Stuart Westwood

My day with Johnny was a day like no other. I’d interviewed him 2 weeks previously, giving me something of an ‘in’ when it came the time to meet him. I should backtrack slightly here. I’m part of the team who promoted the gig, so I was involved in the set-up of it. This meant me and my giddy head would be around the venue for the day leading up to the show itself. At the end of our interview, Johnny had promised to sign my guitar, and I’d carefully left it by the mixing desk, within eyesight at all times.

He was due to soundcheck at 4pm, and by half 2 I was starving. He wasn’t in the venue as he’d gone off for a jog around the provincial town of Kilmarnock, but I didn’t want to chance nipping out to a shop for a quick sandwich in case my moment would arrive. After the show, I reasoned, it would be pandemonium with people clamouring for his attention – before the show was my best bet at face-to-face conversation. I was having a conversation with his tour manager (about aeroplanes, of all things), when I was first aware of his presence. Some folk will tell you that the room changes when a famous person enters. In typical Johnny fashion, he made his announcement via his guitar. With my back to the stage, a quick blast of distorted blues gave way to the recognisable riff of The Headmaster Ritual. I tried to act non-plussed in front of the tour manager, but my eyes gave it away. He stopped our conversation and wandered off, leaving Johnny playing to an empty Grand Hall, save myself and a disinterested sound engineer by the mixing desk.

IMG_6476(c) this author

Stone me! It’s Johnny Marr! With cool hair. In a none-more-punk mohair sweater and a pair of jeans my 14 year old daughter might struggle to get into. He’s tiny! Put-him-in-your-pocket tiny! Like a little Lego version of the real thing, he bent down by his pedal board and made a few adjustments, now and again clanging a chord for good measure. Calling his technical team over he explained what he wanted. “When I play with this pedal (Clang! Tchk Tchk Tchk Tchk Tchk… ) I want those little blue lasers. When I use the reverb (Clang! Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun…) I want the subtle wash.” The whole show, it struck me there and then, is as choreographed as a Legs ‘n Co dance routine. Albeit a post-punk riot of Marr originals and Smiths’ classics, but a scripted, well-rehearsed version of spontaneity nonetheless.

Once happy with the instructions given to his lighting guys he bounces off the stage, keenly aware of my presence. “Johnny!” I call out, and he comes over. “We spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago.

Craig?!? Great article, brother! How’s your little lad? Still playing his guitar? Did you bring yours then?” and before I’m fully aware of the situation I’m actually in, he’s leading me across to the mixing desk where he’s spied my guitar case. “Go on then! Let’s see it!” and he takes it out of the case, ignoring the Smiths vinyl I’ve stashed there for signing. “I like it….a ’78 you said? Californian? Great – a proper punk guitar!” He turns it over in his hands, casting his eye over the details. “No binding on the neck. I like that. See that knot in the wood there? Love it. Not too heavy….d’you know the green one I played on the Meat Is Murder LP? (of course I know it!) It weighed a ton. This is a nice guitar. You’ve got a good one there.” And then he puts it on. I’m about to pee my pants in excitement.

IMG_6466(c) this author

What’s your favourite Smiths tracks?” He plays a few Marr-esque open chord runs up and down the neck. This! Can’t! Be! Happening! Then he notices my Queen Is Dead LP, lying expectantly for the caress of a Sharpie. “Have you worked out Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others yet?” And he plays it. Effortlessly and perfectly. He lets me video him playing it too. This is all too much. Of course, I only go and spoil it.

So,” I say confidently. “Do you use your 3rd finger or your pinky for this part…” and, as he hands me my own guitar, the one I’ve played constantly for 25 or so years, I proceed to tie my fat fingers in knots whilst playing not only the wrong notes but the wrong fucking strings. Some Girls.. is a tune I play regularly, and while I’m not super fluid with it, I’ve never once played it as badly as I do at this very moment. Put it down to big match nerves, but I’ve really let myself down here.

IMG_6470(c) this author

Anyway, our conversation continues for a while. We get pictures, he signs my guitar, he signs my Smiths vinyl, we hug, he says thanks again for writing a great article, (brother) and then he’s off to join his band for the soundcheck proper, where I watch from the balcony as they play their version of Depeche Mode’s I Feel You a couple of times and run through a ramshackle version of The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz.

Ever since we announced the Kilmarnock gig, people keep telling me it’s the place where the Ballroom Blitz happened.” (The man at the back said ‘everyone attack‘ was apparently shouted as a fight broke out during a Sweet gig in the Grand Hall in the early 70’s, something that has now passed into local legend.) “It’s not on the set-list, but if it turns out OK in the soundcheck, we might do it in the encore.” As it turns out, they don’t, though Johnny does ad-lib a few lines towards the end of Boys Get Straight.

The gig itself? It’s super great, of course. A heady mixture of Messenger and Playland tracks, interspersed with choice selections from The Smiths’ superlative back catalogue. Second song in is is Panic and the room goes berserk. Johnny is a whippet thin rod of electricity, darting from one side of the stage to the other. Pogoing here. Windmilling there. In profile. In sillhouette. In denim jacket. In spotty shirt. Take your eyes off him at your peril. The Headmaster Ritual gets another outing. There’s a fantastic breakneck galloping Bigmouth Strikes Again. There Is A Light is mass communion. You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby, surely the best Smiths track to never be a single, kicks off the encore, where he’s joined by his son Nile (from support band Man Made – they’re worth a-watchin’) on a surprisingly good take on The Primitives’ Crash.

  IMG_6527(c) this author

By the last song of the night, Johnny has us in the palms of his teeny tiny talented hands. How Soon Is Now? is a wobbling, juddering juggernaut, Marr wringing sustained notes of feedback from his famous green Jag. I decide to throw caution to the wind and, relying solely on the AAA pass I’m proudly wearing (remember Wayne’s World?) I’m off into the photographers’ pit, empty by law of the management since the 4th song and hoping for a decent snap of the occasion. As Johnny starts his de-tuning freak-out, I rush in. “Johnneeeey!” I scream, and he looks my way – purely coincidental, but still – and stands right above me, posing for me, as my phone fires as many photos as it can handle. He looks down from the top of the mountain at one point and gives me a wink (!) and then he’s off back to the mike, my photos in the bag. It’s all quite thrilling.

IMG_6509(c) this author

There’s more conversation (“neat capo trick, by the way, I tried it out. I’m gonna use that on something!“) and pictures after the show, a show he genuinely loved doing. It’s after midnight by the time we pack up and I head home carrying a signed guitar, a couple of signed Smiths records, Johnny’s set list, his road tested and slightly chipped signature-bearing plectrum….and the red and white roses that dangled from his belt loop for the entirety of the gig. Quite what I’ll do with them, I don’t know. They’re sitting in front of me as I type, a faded and falling apart memento of a day that will never fade from my memory. It’ll be quite a while before they’ve scraped me down from the ceiling, believe me.

 

IMG_6532(c) this author

 

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Six Of The Best – Johnny Marr

October 7, 2015

Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…

Number 22 in a series:

Johnny Marr_JUN14_Colour_Portrait_II_PHOTO CREDIT_Jon Shard

Johnny Marr is the wunderkid guitar player who, one day in 1982 knocked on the door of 384 King’s Road in the Stretford area of Manchester and encourgaged the bequiffed answerer to be the wordsmith that would sing atop his unique tunes. Together, they formed a partnership that would over a few short years become the most unique British guitar group of all time. To many of a certain age they were our Beatles, our Pistols, our band. There was no-one like them before and there’s been no-one like them since. From the first time I heard them (unusual for such a seismic event, I can’t actually remember when this was), The Smiths became my favourite band and, as a ham-fisted, fat-fingered guitar player with lofty ambitions, Johnny Marr became my instant hero.

With a guitar in his hands, Johnny is a magician. In The Smiths, brightly ringing, sparkling arpeggios fell from his fingers as regularly and as rhythmically as the Mancunian rain. Over the course of one memorable weekend the barely 21 year-old Johnny wrote three of the tunes that would define not only his band but an entire era; William, It Was Really Nothing, How Soon Is Now? and Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want were all committed to tape in order to have something new to present to producer Stephen Street come the Monday morning. Three time-tested classics. One weekend. 21 years of age. Unbelievable.

smiths 85

As a Smith, Johnny wrote an obscene number of brilliant, inventive tunes. Lazy writers would go on about his ‘chiming‘, ‘jangly’ guitar sound, but there was far more to his arsenal than that. There was always, even in the Smiths’ most tender moments, a bite to his guitar. He could fingerpick. He could play inventive chord patterns. He could fingerpick and play an inventive chord pattern underneath it at the same time, with 10 fingers sounding like 25. ‘Like Lieber and Stoller piano lines playing alongside the guitar‘, to misquote him from those early days. Then there were the open tunings, the Nashville tunings, the hitting of the strings with knives to get the desired effect. He reinvented the wheel.

Johnny agreed to an interview ahead of his forthcoming October tour, a tour that takes in the west coast forgotten backwater of Kilmarnock (a show I’m involved in putting on) and telephoned me from his car, “somewhere on the outskirts of Manchester, just out of rehearsals. It’s good to get the band back together and blow the dust off the songs. I’m energised and enthused and I can’t wait for the tour to start.“

johnny marr freckfest

I explain to Johnny that our interview will be in two parts. The first part will focus on his recent work, his upcoming tour and his in-the-pipeline autobiography. The second part will focus on his Six Of The Best, albeit a 6otB with a difference. But more of that later.

Tell me about the last couple of years, then. It seems to me that it’s been quite full-on and intensive – two albums (The Messenger and Playland) written, recorded and released in two years and toured around the world and back again. This is the sort of behaviour I’d expect from a band with it all to prove, not from someone who’s made his mark in the world and who, by now, should be sitting back admiring his body of work from the comfort of an easy chair.

I’ll take that as a compliment. I really enjoy my work. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. It’s actually been 10 years of non-stop action! I joined Modest Mouse in 2005, just in time to record the ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’ album. That album really took off in the US and we toured there for a few years. It was pretty great, playing in a band again. Then, as fate would have it, Modest Mouse decided to take a break from touring and at the same time, The Cribs asked me to join as a guitar player. Without so much as a pause, it was back to being full-on and intense all over again. But I like that. I’m not into taking a year off.

Over my time in The Cribs I collected lots of ideas for songs. My travels informed what I was writing about, and as I wrote I had a specific sound in my head for a group that could play them. It was important to me that the band I put together should operate like the best bands; we should live in the same city and we should all be friends. I’m lucky that my best mates also happen to be the bass player, the guitar player and the drummer in my band.

Johnny Marr_Yellow Wall_II_JUN14_Landscape_PHOTO CREDIT_ Jon Shard

The Messenger was released in 2013 and was really well-received. This gave me the encouragement to keep going, and I got on a bit of a roll. The songs that ended up on Playland the following year were very much a narrative for city life. I’ve always seen the two albums as a pair. Playland was my ‘difficult second album’, but I think I pulled it off. It sounds vital and NOW!

I point out that, from The Smiths via Electronic and The The to Modest Mouse and The Cribs, Johnny Marr has had a lot of ‘difficult second albums’.

Ha! Yeah! That’s true. ‘Meat Is Murder’ was a pretty good 2nd album, wasn’t it? I’ve always been a fan of them – I loved Talking Heads and The Only Ones second LPs. You don’t always have the luxury of having a long time to write your follow-up album. Usually, they’re written on the hop. Both Talking Heads and The Only Ones were made under the conditions conducive to getting the job done.

And now, following the wham-bam knockout of the two LPs, you have a tour that will see the Messenger/Playland era come to a close and immortalised for posterity in your first live album, the aptly-named Adrenalin Baby (recorded earlier this year in Manchester and due November.)

johnny marr adrenaline live

Yeah. The live album. I’m really proud of it. It’s a really good document of the time. I’ve kept it to one CD (although it’ll be a double LP) as it’s short ‘n sweet and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s a good representation of the live set. Hopefully, people who come to the shows will enjoy it as a reminder of what the shows were like, and those who never made the shows will get an idea of what the live set is all about. I wanted it to sit alongside my favourite live LPs, albums like Bowie’s ‘Stage’ and Iggy’s ‘TV Eye’.

I remark that my favourite live album is The Ramones’ ‘It’s Alive’. Oh yeah! The energy on that is amazing. D’you know, I stole my copy! I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, so I ‘borrowed’ it from the local newsagent and never gave it back. It’s a brilliant album, isn’t it? Like all the best live albums it has volume and energy. Hopefully, people will get that from Adrenalin Baby.

Adrenalin Baby is a good potted history of Johnny’s best bits – half a dozen or so tracks from The Messenger/Playland eras, a cherry picking of the Smiths tracks he plays live, Electronic’s perennially melancholic Getting Away With It and a garage band ramalama run through of I Fought The Law. It’s Alive indeed.

Looking at the tracklisting of the album and scrutinising the playlists from the recent tours, it’s clear that Johnny holds his back catalogue dear to his heart. This is where my idea for this Six Of The Best came from – if Johnny were to put 6 of his own tracks into a time capsule to be dug up in 100 years time, which tracks would he choose? What are the tracks that Johnny Marr is defined by?

You want me to pick my own tracks? Cool! I’ve never been asked that before. Usually, everyone wants to talk to me about The Stooges. You want me to pick my own records? Alright then. Let me think about that.

Johnny Marr_JUN14_Colour_Landscape_PHOTO CREDIT_Jon Shard

And think about that he does. Johnny then very methodically gives me a chronological list of what he deems to be his best bits. An impossible task, most folk would agree (and a final choice that many would also disagree on), but, for the record, here are the tracks that Johnny Marr is most proud of having been involved in.

The SmithsHow Soon Is Now?

Y’know? The Smiths really blew me away. I’m defined by them and I can quite happily live with that. The combination of guitar sounds on How Soon Is Now? is amazing. The layering. The patience required to put it all together….it hadn’t been done before and it hasn’t been done since. I’m very proud of How Soon Is Now?

ElectronicGet The Message

The band was borne out of The Smiths and New Order, but sounded like neither. We were very unique. Bernard and myself had a real spark. Get The Message is a great example of what we do best. Those early days in Electronic were great fun. I remember the first tour, drinking pints of champagne after an insane Barrowlands show.

The TheSlow Emotion Replay

I can only play harmonica one way (!), and it’s all there on Slow Emotion Replay. The guitar part – it’s what people think I sound like. You and I know differently, of course.

Modest MouseDashboard

This is the track that kind of kicked off the 1st phase of my ‘new’ career. When we wrote the album, all my guitar parts were worked out in advance. I spent ages with my effects pedals making mad Captain Beefheart sounds until I discovered what I was looking for. I’m extremely proud of the guitar sound on the whole record. Everything you can hear in the left-hand speaker is me, doing my best Beefheart impression.

The CribsWe Share The Same Skies

I’ve chosen this for the same reasons as Slow Emotion Replay. The guitar playing – classic me, isn’t it?!?

Johnny MarrThe Messenger

This song is a good representation of how I like to sing. I was never known as a singer, but I’m comfortable doing it. The Messenger is kinda post-punk in feel, jagged and spiky but the vocals are warm and textured. I like that juxtaposition.

johnny marr fender

Never one to look back, Johnny is always looking forward to the next thing. After “10, 15 years of offers”, now is the right time for him to commit his memories to print in the form of an autobiography.

There’s a genuine interest in my life from enough people to warrant this. I was always unsure about doing this, but then I saw the satisfaction – no pun intended! – that Andrew Oldham got from penning his two memoirs. And Nile (Rodgers) writing his – well, that’s me been given the seal of approval to do my own.

We have a wee chat about music autobiographies in general and enthuse about Keith Richard’s book, specifically the section where he talks about discovering open G tuning and how that opened up a whole new world of guitar playing.

We also chat about our kids, how it must be great, I say, to look out and see your son (Nile’s band Man Made are the support on the October tour) on stage, following in your footsteps. And then, the gent that he is, Johnny passes on some advice for my own son (he’s only 8) who’s beginning his first tentative steps on the six string. Getting guitar tips from Johnny Marr – does it get any better than that? I even have the cheek to pass on a capo trick I’ve discovered for myself – not quite the whole new world that Keith Richards discovered in open G, but enough of a trick for Johnny to prick his ears and say, “Right, run that past me again! Ah! Got it! I’m gonna try that next time I play ‘There Is A Light..’”

Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but what a great way to finish an interview!

Johnny Marr is on tour this month. Check all the usual places for ticket details.

West of Scotland fans might like to get themselves to Kilmarnock for his only date in the area on Thursday 15th October. See you down the front.

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