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Skooshy Wee Number

It’s oft suggested that our other national drink here in Scotland is Irn-Bru, the mysteriously-flavoured bright orange beverage brewed by Barr’s. I’d like to argue the case for Red Kola though.

The crimson ‘sparkling fruit juice’ was concocted years ago by Curries of Auchinleck in deepest East Ayrshire. With a similarly closely-guarded secret recipe, and marketed as ‘Special Cola’, Red Kola has in recent times, I suspect, also undergone a slight recipe redesign. Unlike the hoo-ha created when Barr’s bowed to the combined pressures of the sugar tax and healthy eating campaigns by lowering the sugar in Irn-Bru (reducing both its flavour (bad thing) and waiting times in dentists across most of Scotland (good thing)), Red Kola’s subtle shift in taste seemed to bypass even the most sugar-fuelled soft drinkers. And unlike the Facebook racketeers and profiteers who advertise ‘original’ glass bottles of Irn-Bru at prices not too dissimilar to what you’d pay for a decent Jura malt, no one (as yet) has found a stockpile of Curries ‘Special Kola’ at the back of the cupboard just waiting to be ‘Pepsi Challenged’ against a just-off-the-shelf plastic-bottled Red Kola from the Spar. Trust me though, as the bottle I’m currently guzzling – for research purposes of course – proves, as with Irn-Bru, it’s still the same drink….just different.

Red Kola has been championed in song by another of East Ayrshire’s best-kept secrets, Nyah Fearties. Brothers Stephen and Davy Wiseman have a rare way with an arrangement; take an acoustic guitar and batter it furiously until it sounds like it’s being assaulted by a Brillo Pad then weld it on top of a backbeat held together with clanging pipes, hob nailed stomps and a wing and a prayer and play at 100 miles an hour until out of breath. The regularly likened-to Pogues might’ve had flowing Streams Of Whiskey but the ‘Fearties noisily and beautifully romanticised Red Kola.

Nyah FeartiesRed Kola

(Oor) guts are dyed wi’ Rid Kola.

That’s a line the equal of Burns, that is.

Nyah Fearties debut album, A Tasty Heidfu‘, was re-released after 30-odd years to little fanfare at the tail end of 2018. A clattering, caterwauling sound clash it is, like our national drink(s) an acquired taste. It’s also something that gets under your skin and flows through your veins, the very nectar of life itself. You should head here toute de suite and give them your hard-earned.

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Pop Larkin’

Horace Andy‘s Skylarking is, hands down, the finest song written about horseplay and high jinx. An old 17th century term, a skylarker was someone who preferred low-level carrying on and procrastination to the actual completion of a work-related task. Yer commonly-used verb ‘to lark about’ comes from it, dontcha know. Had the song been written by a Scotsman it may well have been called Cairryin’ Oan or Fannyin’ Aboot, but then it’s unlikely the recorded item would have been the quietly lilting, sqeaky-organed, roots reggae track that it is. That one and two and three and four rhythm could bring even the most diligent of workers to a wasteful half hour on the company’s time.

Horace AndySkylarking

 

Horace Andy outside Rough Trade Records London 1985

From Kingston, Jamaica, Andy carved out a solo career to varying degrees of success. Skylarking harks back to 1972. Released on the ubiquitous Studio One label, it found the singer in fine form. The album is an ever-present in those ‘Greatest Reggae Albums You Should Hear’ lists and, yes, you really should try to have a listen.

For many, certainly this writer and no doubt some of you reading, Horace Andy first came to prominence via the work of Massive Attack, his distinctive, reedy vocals enhancing both Blue Line‘s One Love and Angel from Mezzanine, to name but two.

Confusingly, an album also called Skylarking was released in 1996. Building on his popularity and new-found fame as a member of the extended Massive Attack family, Virgin released a catch-all compilation of hits, misses and everything in-between. If you buy one album called Skylarking though, you’re best tracking down that superb debut from ’72.

Right. (stretches…..yawns…..eases himself out of his chair….) Where did I put that report for work?

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Lung Buster

A couple or so years ago I found myself wading through the flotsam and jetsam of virtual music that lies like a nasty trip hazard on the Plain Or Pan doormat. All manner of Scandinavian thrash, whispering, sensitive acoustic troubadours, bedroom techno wizards, anarcho ska punk and identikit Oasis-lite tribute acts, heavy on attitude but not so much on actual songs were there, just waiting to trip me up. It’s great getting free music sent, but it’s even better when the music sent is exactly the kinda music you’d buy. One of the acts who escaped the recycle bin that day was WH Lung, a rather mysterious Manchester-based group of musicians who came out of the traps sounding like one of those mid 70s German bands that yer hip reviewers get themselves all in a lather over. Their track Inspiration ticked a lot of boxes and found its way onto here as a result.

WH LungInspiration

Played a gazillion times then filed away for future reference, I promptly lost sight of WH Lung and forgot all about them. Such is the way of things.

As if by magic, an email arrived last week heralding the return (for me) of the band. Headed ‘London Oslo Hackney‘, their press release was keen to point out the slow, considered, gestation period for their forthcoming album. Unlike other acts who receive a bit of favourable early press and rush-release their music as a result, WH Lung has taken the longer route, allowing the music to simmer and stew and flavour and ferment for the past 24 months. A tweak here, a re-touch there. The finished results are staggering.

Lead-off single (and free download, freeloaders!) Simpatico People continues the propulsive, linear, motoric groove that made such an impression back then.

10 minutes of whooshing synths and clean chiming guitars zooms past, the sound of Public Service Broadcasting going 15 rounds with LCD Soundsystem. When the vocals arrive, David Byrne and Reflektor-era Arcade Fire pops into the mix. This is proper joyous, hands-in-the-air celebratory music. The band may be out and about in the more intimate venues of the British Isles come May, but really, this is Saturday night on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury music.

The album that follows is just as forward-thinking, just as widescreen and just as good. When it escapes into the ether on 5th April, Incidental Music should by rights be a shoe-in as one of the albums of the year. Keyboard washes and sequenced synths conjure up Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order. Guitars chime heavenwards. Tracks bleed into one another and the whole thing ebbs and flows and twists and turns. It’d make great cycling music. When the better weather comes in it’ll be soundtracking my gasping wheeze along the cycle-friendly routes of Ayrshire, that’s for sure. The beat is omni-present and relentless, perfect for pushing yourself to the limits. Extremely disciplined, there are no flash solos, no flourishes across the keys. It’s a heads-down and boogie album, no nonsense stuff from a band who are locked into one another’s groove. Classic stuff, in other words.

WH Lung are out and about in May;

11th May—Liverpool, The Shipping Forecast
13th May—Glasgow, The Garage (Attic Bar)
14th May—Nottingham, The Bodega
15th May—Brighton, Green Door Store
16th May—Bristol, The Louisiana
17th May—Southampton, Heartbreakers

The debut album – Incidental Music – follows on 5th April.

For what it’s worth, I reckon you’d like it a lot.

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Valentino’s Day

I’ve been re-reading Luke Haines’ very entertaining Bad Vibes: Britpop, And My Part In Its Downfall – a memoir? an autobiography? a study of a time and place? – and despite having read it at least twice since it was published a decade or so ago, it’s still fantastic reading.

Haines was the driving force behind The Auteurs, a band forever on the fringe of things but never quite the epicentre of musical movement. In filmspeak, the auteur is someone who stamps their identity across a project and demands complete control. Given that he led The Auteurs with a controlling hand and twisted, narcissistic mind, Haines named his band well. Equal parts spiteful and insightful, the book charts the rise and fall of the band from their early days vying for top dog status with Suede (the very early days, then) to the famous Select magazine cover that first coined the term ‘Britpop’ (coined being the operative word), multiple awards ceremonies, Japanese sex cults, the end of The Auteurs, the one man and a dog shows in the American mid-west and his reinvigoration with the music he made as Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhof.

Lumped in with the Britpop lot on account of a lazy music press’s perceived meaning behind The Auteurs’ track American Guitars, Haines’ uncompromising nature and unhealthy obsession with rival bands keeps you reading. He feigns indifference but really, read between the lines and you can see that Haines craves success. He detests fellow Londoners and fellow ‘promising new act’ Suede in their relentless and Panzer-like march on the charts, taking the huff when they are seated centre-stage before winning the Mercury Prize and referring to Brett Anderson and his ‘bumboy androgyny that’s more Grange Hill than Bowie.’ Every other page is littered with such bitchy comments. It’s unpleasant, but boy, it’s a great read!

Obsessed with midweek chart placings, column inches and magazine covers, Haines realises he’s losing at a game that, much to his own disgust, he so desperately wants to win, but only on his own terms. Haines hates the music industry; from the leech-like managers and their draconian contracts to the hippies who run the record label, he barely has a good word to say about anyone. His own band can’t even escape his disdain. Old school friends and drummers are one and the same and they come and go once it’s apparent they’re not up to the task. Bass player Alice comes in for occasional sniffy criticism, despite being Haines’ girlfriend.

His seething vitriol is saved for the band’s ‘unique selling point’; the cello player. Throughout the book that unfortunate musician is only ever referred to as ‘The Cellist’. Haines despises *him/her and their perceived desperation for grabbing a slice of the fame pie – and at a time when no-mark, one-word acts like Powder, SMASH and Marion were making the most of their 15 seconds in the spotlight, you can almost sympathise with the poor string player, but yet we never learn their name.

At one point, Haines gleefully employs a second guitarist, an Adidas tracksuited cast-off from perennial bottom-of-the-billers Spitfire and he purrs at how much the cellist hates the oikish mockneyisms of the interloper. The cellist is unique to the sound of Haines’ band though, so they are an ever-present, much maligned presence for most of the book.

*(Don’t want to ruin the narrative, but he’s James Banbury, below)

And what of the ‘sound’? The Auteurs’ first album, New Wave, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. A heady swirl of posh-boy vocals, mournful cello and melodies from old Monkees records, it didn’t win and didn’t really benefit from any exposure following the Mercury nomination but taken on its own terms New Wave is a fine record. I’ve always liked Showgirl, a track that for some reason reminded me of a long-lost George Harrison single. There’s a great bit of dead air immediately after the first line is sung, put there by Haines purely to mess with radio play.

The Auteurs – Showgirl

And I’ve always really liked second album lead single Lenny Valentino, with its choppy rhythm and saw-saw-sawing cello, a Home Counties Pixies in an era of cor blimey guv Mod-lite nonsense.

The AuteursLenny Valentino

He’s a real snob, is Haines. He absolutely hates anywhere north of Watford. Actually, he has no time for anyone or anyplace anywhere. He’ll have you believe he’s so far ahead of the curve it’s next week already. When will the record-buying public realise? may well have been the subtitle to the book. Pretentious, portentous and prodigious in his own mind at least, Luke Haines has little time for anyone save himself. It’s a ridiculous way to carry yourself and perhaps goes some way to explaining Haines’ relatively short career as a chart-bothering artist. As far as music books go though, it’s up there with the very best. Read it or read it again.

Extra Bit

Those Black Box Recorder and Baader Meinhoff records are really good. Totally at odds with what was fashionable at the time, they are in their own way ahead of the curve. Don’t tell Haines that though. A future post for sure.

Hard-to-find

Strop Of The Pops

The mixed bag of unsolicited – but very welcome – mp3s that currently clutter my inbox contain a couple of bona fide right here right now, on the pulse indie rock ‘records’, the kinda tracks that in a pre-internet era I might’ve spent aeons tracking down. Last week, the Working Men’s Club single was the track to rock my (in)box. This week it’s the sound of The Stroppies.

A confession: The Stroppies’ label sent me a press bio and a link to current single Cellophane Car about 3 weeks ago. One look at the band’s name and I thought, nah, I’m not having that. Who names their band The Stroppies? It’s the twee-est, most cutesy-cute, indie-ish name going, is it not? I remember reading an interview with Michael Stipe where he said that you had to imagine your band’s name in lights above the door of the biggest venue you knew. Only then could you consider what you might be called.

Anyway. A track popped up on 6 Music last week on the commute to work and frustratingly the station ID listed it as ‘Deep Blue Day’ by Brian Eno, when it clearly wasn’t. Fast forward to yesterday and it was played again. The Stroppies. Cellophane Car. The Stroppies?!? Where do I know that name from? And then earlier tonight, Marc Riley opened his show with them. They’re a hot thing, these Stroppies. Riding the crest of some zeitgeist or other. Daft name though, but great tunes.

Cellophane Car has all the right reference points you could wish for; an underlying Felt-like feyness, jangling 12 strings, a forever-on-the-verge of being out of tune one chord Velvets riff, wobbly Antipodean male/female vocals last heard on any number of Go-Betweens records and an arch, eyebrow aloft nod to Jonathan Richman. You can practically sing Roadrunner over the top of it.

Nowt wrong with that, of course. On Cellophane Car, the band are stretched to their very limits. There are no flash solos or tumbling toms in the middle eight. The music is lean, pared back and designed to run and run. Where most bands would finish on a crashing oomph or a squeal of feedback, The Stroppies lure you in with a false ending before the parping Farfisa and swirling keys lead the track on an extended slightlydelic coda.

The best guitar music, from, oh, I dunno, Orange Juice to Jellyfish is made when bands step out of their comfort zones. At any minute things might unravel. Band members eyeball one another between swift glances at the frets, shonky nods are aimed in the direction of the beat keeper at the back. Those Stroppies are forever on the verge of unravel.

Coming hot on the heels of fellow hot-hitting Australian Courtney Barnett, The Stroppies have an album – Whoosh – due for release in March, after which they’ll be zig-zagging their way around the less-than-glorious venues of our cities in July; you’ll find them in Glasgow, York and Brighton amongst others. You should probably go.

Follow The Stroppies on all the usual forums (apart from Twitter, it would seem) or visit here for tour dates, music and more.

 

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No’ Equals

The new 6 Music schedule has taken a fair bit of bashing since the turn of the year. I used to enjoy my morning commute to the languid sighs of Shaun Keaveny and was mildly irked when he was shunted to an afternoon slot that I rarely have the chance to listen to, but I must admit to a growing fondness for Lauren Laverne’s replacement show. She has a great morning radio voice and while initially her playlist was a bit beige – a never-ending conveyor belt of close-miked singer-songwriters and glossy electro-infused indie from the moment I started the car until I pulled up at work, the past couple of weeks has seen some more interesting stuff creep in.

She played a track on Friday morning though that made my heart sink to depths last felt around the second week in January. The Specials’ new LP was the Album of the Day and Lauren played their version of The Equals’ Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys, a terrific early 70s stomper and lyrically, right up The Specials’ street.

By comparison, The Specials’ version was too polite, too lite and sounded like a graduate from the Glen Ponder school of insignificant incidental music. It’s always a nail-biting time when old bands fanfare a return with a slightly altered line-up and brand new album and most of the time you’re left feeling nothing other than disappointed (see also The Clash or REM) and on this evidence, I fear one of our most important bands has taken a bit of a tumble. A mere blip, I hope.

That Equals’ version though kicks like a mule, an aggressive and confrontational record that’s equal (arf) parts Slade and Led Zeppelin fed through a Brixton blender and left to run like a feral delinquent. The ‘solo’ alone is almost avant garde in execution. . Listen up now people….

The Equals Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys

Recorded in 1970, its fist-pumping socio-political message was at odds with the band’s previous hits – you’ll be familiar with Baby Come Back – and is miles away from guitarist Eddy Grant’s future hits – and is all the better for it.

Dressed like Sly & The Family Stone and employing a set of vintage guitars that would have Orange Juice frothing with jealousy, Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys sets the tone for the sound of the seventies; a toughed-up, roughed-up riffing groove, egged on by the hardest kicking of kick drums.

Those Specials really should have paid more attention.

Hard-to-find

Milltown Brothers (And Sister)

Try googling Working Men’s Club. Go on. I’ll wait for you.

Chances are you didn’t land on the band of the same name, which is bad planning on their part because had you alighted on the northern English act you’d have been pleasantly surprised by what you’d hear. I imagine other acts will have equally Google-unfriendly names, but then I can’t name any as I haven’t found them yet(!) Thankfully, the good folk at Melodic Records in Manchester saw fit to point the band in my direction.

From the Calder Valley area, a belt of old industrial mill towns located somewhere between the white and red roses of Leeds and Manchester, Working Men’s Club are named after the clubs they once sneaked into as underage drinkers. Pleasingly, they’ve eschewed the normal Oasis-by-numbers rentarock that many young bands fall into.

Theirs is a twisted take on the angular scratches of post punk; a bit of Wire here, a stroppy Fall vocal there, a Gang Of Four thunk in the chorus…..bitter old cynics will easily trace the lineage from there to the Manics at their angriest or The Futureheads at their most obtuse, but taken at face value, Working Men’s Club are worth further investigation. My favourite album of last year came from Parquet Courts and a track like Bad Blood could sit happily in the grooves within that record.

 

Regular touring partners with the excellent Orielles, the next few months will see Working Men’s Club play a handful of shows across the Manchester area as guests of both Pip Blom and The Limananas, as well as striking out for headline shows of their own.

I’m keen to see if they make it further north and across the border into this fine and pleasant land. If and when they make it to Glasgow there’s a good chance I’ll be first in the queue for tickets and *down the front come showtime. I fully expect too that someone with a finger on the pulse of what’s a-happenin’ – a Marc Riley, perhaps – will afford them the opportunity of a session, so if they don’t fancy their chances of (cough) foreign travel in this era of pre-Brexit uncertainty, there’s a good chance I’ll get to hear them live, if not see them live.

*at the side, bobbing my head slightly whilst taking mental notes and hoping I don’t miss the last train home.