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Listing

I’m not one for end of year lists. I used to be. I used to spend hours refining ‘Best of the Year’ compilation CDs for my pals, sticking them snugly inside Christmas cards, eagerly received by the men, sniggered at by the wives. I enjoyed getting theirs in return – the contents equally considered, the sequencing just as agonised over, the sleeve art spat from equally temperamental printers. They functioned as snapshots of the year just gone, a ragbag of coulda been and shoulda been hits, now forgotten album tracks and one-off singles by artists who, for the main, have dropped off the radar.

Until the great PC crash of 2016, I’d spend a good fortnight in the run up to the festive period refining the running order of my Best of the Year double CD. Since the crash – and my steady return to vinyl – and the fact that my PC no longer has a CD drive (what’s all that about?!?) – my list making has stopped. My spidey senses no longer tingle in Springtime when a belter pops up on rotation on 6 Music. “Must add that to the Best Of,” I no longer think to myself. I’ve stopped appropriating the same volume of new stuff from the darker corners of the web too. That’s half the reason the old PC ground to a crashing, spam-filled halt. After deliberation, I buy from Bandcamp or the label or eBay or even Amazon, whenever the Cheap Records notification on my phone highlights something worth owning. And those wee download cards? Half the records I buy don’t come with them anymore. The ones that do lie unused. So my purchasing and playing habits have gradually regressed to the days of my youth. It’s records and that’s about it.

Crucially too, I listen to old stuff, if not exclusively, then certainly for the majority of time. I’m not blessed with a Rough Trade East or a Monorail or even an HMV anywhere near me, certainly not in a year when crossing county lines might land you in the jail. The one record shop anywhere near where I live is owned by an old rocker who stocks Japanese imports of Iron Maiden albums and overpriced Fleetwood Mac reissues. Tequila Sunrise by The Eagles is always playing whenever I enter and I always check in hope that that Small Faces album on display on the wall has perhaps lost a zero on its price tag, but it never has. It’ll still be there come the next Middle Ages. You won’t ever be tempted in there by racks of Waxahatchee and Moses Sumney fighting for shelf space with Taylor Swift and Fleet Foxes. Occassionally, a dip through the crates under the racks will produce a cracker that he places little value in – Scott 2 for £3, an unplayed copy of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel Mighty Real on 12″ (“Och, here, if you’re taking the XTC album (also £3), you can have the disco shit on me, you’d be doing me a favour etc etc). I’d much rather find something of value in there than splurge upwards of £25 on the latest Perfume Genius record.

With so much old stuff still to rediscover, there’s no time for the new. I read these lists on social media and, honestly, I don’t know half the acts. And the ones I’ve heard of – yer Fionas ‘n Phoebes ‘n Microphones ‘n whathaveyou, I just don’t have the time or money to invest in them. I’m sure – actually, I know – I’m missing out on a whole load of great music. But…but… it’s just that there’s still loads of stuff from the 1970s to uncover. Just as you find little time or inclination to make new friends the older you get, so too do you find less time to get into new music. It seems like a lot of effort to me. It’s not that music’s a young person’s game by any means, but the music that soundtracked the formative years is the music that makes you feel young when be-slippered middle age creeps up on you and slaps you across the top of that salt ‘n pepper hair-do. I don’t care about Porridge Radio, I’m still working my way through This Is Radio Clash and Sandinista, thank you very much.

Having said that, with apologies to the acts I’ll remember and shins I’ll kick as soon as I’ve pressed ‘publish‘, I’ve very much enjoyed releases this year from;

  • Close Lobsters
  • Blue Rose Code
  • Khruangbin
  • Working Men’s Club
  • Laura Marling
  • Fontaines DC
  • Sault
  • Slow Weather

I suppose I could make that my Top 8 of 2020 – ‘in no particular order’ – and I’d fit right in.

Slow WeatherClean Living

The Slow Weather track above is great, a gently spiralling and unfolding slow burner, a sulky Lee ‘n Nancy if picked up by one of those vending machine claws and plonked into the Scottish heartlands.

You’re an optimist,’ they sing in unison. ‘I’m a realist‘. Music box percussion tinkles and the track wanders its way to a treacle-slow coda somewhere between Super Furry Animals and somnambulism. If tectonic plates made, er, rock music, it might sound like this.

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The truth of the matter though is that I’ve also very much enjoyed rediscovering Loaded by The Velvet Underground, De La Soul’s first half dozen singles on 12″, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, The Specials’ debut, Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, I’ve Seen Everything by the Trashcan Sinatras, Another Music In A Different Kitchen by Buzzcocks, Wire’s Pink Flag, The House Of Love’s gnarled and shimmering back catalogue and a million other things I’ll always return to – my real Best of the Year.

The polls would suggest 2020 has been something of a good year for music releases. I’ll probably be able to concur sometime around 2045 – ‘a vintage year‘ – I might even proclaim, should I still be shuffling my shoes to the groove. Not for nothing is the tagline above Outdated Music For Outdated People.  

 

 

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Frankie Says…

…when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.

To be fair, Jimi Hendrix said that, and it was far too long to fit on a Frankie t-shirt in any case. It’s a neat quote though, one that easily applies to the rule makers and breakers who are hell bent on prioritising their own agendas over the good of a nation who (didn’t quite) elect them, a boys club bash, an ‘I’m all right Jack’ knees up, where the joke is very much on the ordinary people. What. A. Shower. Frankie Says Revolution!

The marketing machine that rumbled behind every Frankie Goes To Hollywood release (and t-shirt) saw to it that each of their first three singles made it to the top of the charts. Coming after The Beatles and Gerry and The Pacemakers, they were the third Merseyside act to achieve three number one singles in a row, but whereas their 60s counterparts got there via non-stop touring and ubiquitous hourly spins on Radios Luxembourg, Caroline and London, Frankie took a different route.

When sales looked like tailing off, they’d release another version; remixed and extended, strung-out and funked up across a variety of formats; 7″, 12″, picture discs, even cassette singles. The CD was just around the corner, otherwise those variations would’ve been spread across even more formats. With each subsequent new variation, the record would maintain its place at the top of the pile.

There are, believe it or not, over 30 pulsing, throbbing Hi NRG mixes of Relax! Arguably, the weekly mixes that were released to keep Relax at number 1 in 1984 weren’t actually required – as soon as it was banned by Radio 1, a goldrush of record buyers ensured it lorded over everyone for yet another week.

I should know – I was one of the millions who bought it after the ban. Frankie weren’t quite our Pistols, but they did generate similar headlines and debate.

Second single Two Tribes followed a similar path. It surfed the zeitgeist of Reagan/Gorbachev’s Cold War cat and mousing, a high octane cocktail of propaganda and paranoia – ‘the air attack warning sounds like…this is the sound.

A barrage of taut, tense guitars, juddering bass and superbly giddy vocals (“Hau hau hau!” went Holly) propelled it straight to number one and one and a half million sales, helped, no doubt by the provocative video showcased on The Tube where two lookalikes played the part of the two world leaders in the wrestling ring. You knew that already though.

The third single was the surprise package. From a band known for grimy S&M inspired disco and anti-war political baiting, The Power Of Love was a genuine, heartfelt love song. The machinations of the ZTT marketing team – ‘The Group Of The Year‘ – ensured it was released strategically, all eyes focused on capturing the lucrative Christmas Number One slot. The Power Of Love reached the top in its first week of release at the end of November, and continued to outsell all others until Band Aid gatecrashed the party. In the event, 1994’s Christmas top three finished with Band Aid way out in front, with Wham’s Last Christmas at number two and Frankie in third spot. There’s an era-defining top 3 right there.

The Power Of Love has slowly crept up to be one of my favourite Christmas tracks. It’s not overplayed. It’s not omnipresent. It’s not short, sharp nor sugary sentimental. There’s not a sleigh bell or thumping office party beat within earshot, no Phil Spectorisms in arrangement or delivery, no ca-ca-ca-catchy chorus hooks or even a lyric that mentions the ‘C’ word. Simply, the song was accompanied by a video showing the three wise men following the star, and its message of universal peace rings true at this time of year, so a Christmas song it is.

Naturally, it’s the full-length, 12″ picture disc version you need.

Frankie Goes To HollywoodThe Power Of Love (full length version)

It begins with the sound of a Radio Fab! Mike Read soundalike talking over a string-swept instrumental, speaking word for word the DJ’s outrage as he cued Frankie’s debut to be played as part of the chart rundown.

And it at number 35….it’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax….waaay! I’ve just had a look at the cover…I think it’s obscene!…this record is absolutely obscene!…I’m not gonna play this y’know….no…thank you and goodbye!

Then the nylon acoustic thrums its way in, the sound of the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon played by Love on mogadon. It’s all minors to majors, orchestral sweeps, gently thunderous timpanis and a skyscraping guitar line that sounds like Neil Young as produced by Trevor Horn. A great sea swell of orchestra carries us forward and the brass section – the horns of Gabriel himself – builds and climbs and climbs and builds then drops. And then, out of the blue, we have a half-witted Ronald Reagan, reading a version of the Lord’s prayer. Mad and inspired, whoever came up with that idea. And then…

…piano. That famous tinkle that starts the record you’ll know from the charts. Hooded Claws and vampires. Holly’s vocal, all reverb and echo, accompanied by Spanish guitars and understated piano. “I’m so in love with you, hurts the soul,” and the strings swell once more, carrying the song to its message. “Make love your goal.” Tension and release in just under 10 minutes, a slowly unravelling cinematic widescreen beauty.

 

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Star Light, Star Bright

Songs about stars are plentiful.

Star Star Light Star Bright She’s A Star It’s Written In The Stars Superstar Shine Like Stars Starry Starry Night Star Maker California Stars Co Stars Starry Eyes Baby I’m A Star  Starman Lady Stardust Ziggy Stardust The Prettiest Star Black Star Lost Star New Star Stars Are Strong Strange News From Another Star Star Sign GUIDING STAR Star Of Bethlehem Wishing On A Star Thank Your Lucky Stars Star 69 Star Me Kitten Star Sailor Star Shaped My Dark Star Little Star Near Star Pole Star One Bright Star Shooting Star Star Spangled Banner Starmoonsun Your Star Will Shine Star Fucker Morning Star Evening Star Starry Eyes In The Ocean Of The Stars

At this time of year though, one star song shines brightest of all.

Teenage FanclubGuiding Star

Guiding Star is the penultimate track on Teenage Fanclub‘s Bandwagonesque and it’s perfect for repeated plays in the run-up to Christmas. It’s ethereal, woozy and melancholic, a dreamy ballad soaked in the strings of sighing cellos – the saddest instrument of all – and brightly ringing, high in the mix jangling 12 string guitars that sound, to these December ears, a bit like sleigh bells.

The triumvirate of songwriters in Teenage Fanclub really began to show their individual strengths around the time of Bandwagonesque; Norman did the uplifting, life-affirming ones – The Concept, Alcoholiday, Raymond did the noisy ones – I Don’t Know and Gerry did the wistful, regretful, heart-tugging ones – chiefly December and Guiding Star. 

Time has shown that Gerry’s songs are the ones I probably value just that wee bit more than the others. The benefit of years and years of listening to one of our finest-ever bands still throws up unexpected new things in Gerry’s songs; previously unnoticed fret-spanning bass runs, a nod here and a wink there to a crate-dug 60s sunshine pop obscurio, a rhyming couplet that remained buried for years underneath glorious Fanclub noisepop. He’s a much underrated writer, is Gerry Love.

Guiding Star may be Gerry’s song, but it’s a real band effort in pulling it together. The others give him the spotlight, stepping forward as and when the song requires them. Here comes Norman with those caramelised, high, high, “hey!” harmonies. And here comes Raymond with his pedal board and understated avant gardisms. Those morse code guitar bleeps, firing off little tracers of olde-worlde communication out into the night sky. Stay in touch, they say, you’re my guiding staryou’re my number one.

Then there’s the fuzz guitar in the background, heavily manipulated by Raymond’s slo-mo, divebombing whammy bar, My Bloody Valentine with better manners and cleaner hair.

While all of this plays out, Gerry is singing about Jesus Christ and how he wears his hair and how he walks on air, and the vocal floats magically above the quiet storm below. And then Raymond turns it up another notch and he’s sliding straight into the feedback ‘n sustain solo that carries us to the song’s suddenly fading conclusion. Over and out. Gone.

Wise men used to follow stars. Wise men and women still follow the Teenage Fanclub. Stars of another sort.

 

 

 

 

 

Football, Gone but not forgotten

Jesus Is Just A Spanish Boy’s Name

Hearts and Celtic go head to head this weekend in last season’s delayed Scottish Cup Final, a game that both teams will want to win but one that neither probably expected to manifest.

Hearts, currently plying their trade in tier two (to coin a contemporary phrase) could do with the win, as could Celtic, for so long the dominant force in Scottish football but now a club where the manager’s jacket hangs on a decidedly shoogly-looking peg. A cup win might go some way to thwart off the vultures (and Green Brigade) who are currently gathering with furrowed brow and thunderous, entitled fury outside Celtic Park. I’m neither Celtic nor Hearts-minded (nor do I have an affiliation to the other hairy arsed Glasgow cheek of Scottish football) so while I won’t lose any sleep over who wins and who loses, I’ll maybe crack a wry smile should a maroon ribbon be tied around the cup come full time.

The real winners of Sunday’s final won’t be the happy set of supporters, or a relieved management team, or a grateful chairperson and boardroom. The real winners will be Tiny Changes, the charity formed in the wake of Frightened Rabbit‘s Scott Hutchison’s death a couple of years ago.

Named after a line in the band’s ‘Heads Roll Off’ – “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth” – the line become something of a mission statement for fans in the days and weeks following the singer’s death.

Frightened RabbitHeads Roll Off

Initially launched in the Scottish Borders where the band began, Tiny Changes provides support and early intervention to young minds struggling to cope with life across Scotland.

Clearly, in an age when mental health in young people, and men in particular, can lead to the most drastic of outcomes, it’s a very worthwhile charity.

Scott Hutchsion was a lifelong Jambo, even singing The Hearts Song at the opening of the new main stand at Tynecastle three seasons ago, and the club have honoured him in the most spectacular of ways.

As they did in the semi-final – after first petitioning the reluctant dinosaurs and decision-makers who make up the Scottish Football Association – Hearts have once again teamed up with Bands FC to produce a bespoke run of warm-up shirts that the players will wear ahead of the kick off. Featuring a Frightened Rabbits-inspired club crest against the famous maroon shirt, it’s a unique football/music crossover.

Players’ jerseys from the semi-final were auctioned off after the game and all monies  – almost £35,000  – donated to Tiny Changes. Likewise, the same will happen following the final. Some serious money – especially if Hearts run out winners – will be going to a small charity with big intentions. What a brilliant thing to happen.

Click to donate to Tiny Changes
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The Ghost Of ‘Lectricity Howls In The Bones Of Her Face

Before lead singer Jehnny Beth stepped out as an acclaimed solo artist and before she was releasing critics’ choice album To Love Is To Live, all polished electro sheen and processed gloss, she was the focal point of Savages, a perfectly-named, uncompromising four piece with a clear affinity for post-punk and tough, muscular guitars.

Savages’ debut single ‘Husbands‘ remains their high watermark. First heard, it made me want to kick in walls…and I’m a lover, not a fighter. Its concrete slab rhythm and the howling ferocity of the guitars set them apart as the most exciting thing since Pixies first surfed their thang in wonky time signatures and broken sweary Spanish.

SavagesHusbands

Watching the clip of it below reminds me of that footage of Joy Division on Something Else; four musicians locked into their own world, aloof slightly, arrogant perhaps, but flying on self-belief and attitude, locked into a groove and hanging on for dear life as they clatter downhill without the brakes on, yet in complete control. They know they’re great and after you’ve watched it, you’ll be in no doubt too.  

You can find umpteen performances of Husbands just as intense, just as essential as this across the internet. That the band play it every time as though it may be the final thing they do before the world ends tells you all you need to know. They mean it, man.

The vocals on top are the icing on a particularly scorching cake. Part antagonistic, part orgasmic, Jehnny Beth’s voice comes in ever-increasing waves; shouty one moment, breathy the next and every line full-stopped by a feral, wailing guitar before the band ease off and reign it in, only to ramp it all back up again. It’s a breathless rush, a voice clear and centre while the chaos around her reigns. How could anyone not like this?

Husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands,” she repeats over and over. She starts only mildly scary but by the end she’s fairly terrifying, the sound of Siouxsie Sioux going 15 rounds with PJ Harvey. I daresay there’s a frisson of political undertone to the record, and why not, but more than that, Husbands is just a really great, loud, fast, dynamic rock song, a Sturm und Drang of scorching electric guitars and crashing ride cymbals.

That Savages look great too – all high cheekbones and glossy, pixie-cut hair, sleek black linear clothing only matched by coal-black, wild-eyed focus -makes the whole thing the perfect package. What a shame they’ll not make more records.

Get This!, Hard-to-find, New! Now!, Sampled

Velvet. Underground.

phenomenon
[fəˈnɒmɪnən]

a remarkable person or thing.
“the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”

I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.

Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.

They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.

That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.

They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.

Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.

SaultDon’t Waste My Time

Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.

SaultWhy Why Why Why Why

SaultNo Bullshit

Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.

Sault Smile And Go

To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?

A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.

Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.

Jeez. I gotta hear it.

Them.

But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).

 

 

 

Get This!, Hard-to-find, New! Now!

Grandmaster Smash

Years ago I was doing supply in a school where they dedicated a whole Friday afternoon to the learning of new skills; baking, woodworking, knitting, glass staining and so on. The kids loved these afternoons. The dinner ladies helped with the baking, the janny helped with the woodworking and experts from the local community came in to impart their considerable knowledge in the art of growing root vegetables and making stained glass. With each new term, the kids could pick a different skill so that over the course of the school year they got to partake in four activities.

Being the supply teacher, I was right at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid and I watched, pained, as first the blogging and then the guitar groups were given to two teachers who couldn’t care less. Each subsequent activity was assigned to a nonplussed teacher until, finally the head teacher looked at me with a thin, watery smile and handed me a box of battered, rattling chess sets. “Chess Club!” she confirmed. “I doubt many will pick it, but it’s an option.” She never asked if I played chess, if I understood the rules, if I wanted to be in charge of the chess club. I just was.

I did know how to play chess, as it happened, but it was years since I’d done so. Anyway, I took the chess sets, fumbled together half a dozen complete sets out of the ten or so ancient boxes I’d been saddled with and set about turning my classroom into a (cough) Chess Club.

On the first Friday, seven kids – there’s always an odd number for these things – turned up to see what all the fuss was about. None of the kids I knew. Six of them were curious to see this new teacher in the school – a man! – and the seventh was sent to play chess because he’d already tried to stab someone’s hand with a gardening fork outside. Grrrrreat. First thing I did was draw the blinds to create an ambience that encouraged studied quietness.

After that I Googled an arty monochrome picture of Bobby Fischer eyeing up the board, typed ‘Chess Club‘ on top of it in an interesting font and displayed it on the smart board, a reminder to the players of where exactly they were. Then I rejigged the tables so that the players sat in a square around the sides of the classroom, allowing me to stand in the middle and explain the object of the game and so on, helping the kids as they took their first unsteady steps into the geek world of chess.

As they slowly began to understand the whys and wherefores of the board, I introduced music. Classical stuff sometimes, an Erik Satie piano piece or two, but mostly jazz, mainly John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson but always Miles Davis. Sometimes I’d branch out into the blues, helping some poor cornered soul get out of a chequered funk as John Lee Hooker boomed out at a genteel volume in the corner.

By week three, the ‘Chess Club‘ image of Fischer had been edited to say ‘Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club‘. By the following week, this had been shortened, in loose homage to CBGBs to ‘Chess AJABs Club‘. No-one complained. None of the school management noticed. I was having fun and so were the kids.

I taught them the one fancy move I knew, learned from my dad when I was 10 or 11, about the same age as them, where you could put your opponent in checkmate in three moves. More fool me, as after that, they all wanted to play white. One time, the garden fork boy got so enraged at being put into checkmate before Miles Davis had parped his way out of his first solo that he tossed the board and all its pieces into the air and stormed off. “There was no need for that, Mr McAllister,” said his victorious opponent in a world-weary voice that suggested she’d seen all of it before.

Over the weeks, the chess kids progressed to a reasonable standard. They played one another, they challenged and beat me, they seemed to enjoy themselves. In fact, when the time came to renew activities at the end of term, half of the kids chose to stay at the chess. And on their return in January, a couple of them told me excitedly that they’d woken up on Christmas day to a new chess set under the tree. One of them even got a ‘Best Of Jazz’ CD too. As it turned out, Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club was alright.

We’ve binged recently on The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s seven-parter that tells the story of a young girl’s rise to Grandmaster level. It’s ace.

Set against a backdrop of 50s and 60s Cold War America, it is, on every level, a triumph. Visually, it’s stunning. From the trippy, imagined chess pieces that emerge from the ceiling each night and play combinations of winning moves that the lead character Beth Harmon commits to memory, to the period-perfect set design, every episode has the appearance of being filmed through a particularly agreeable Instagram filter. The more poetic of us might even suggest that the muted tones and dull pastels of the actors’ clothes that contrast with the glossy shine of hardwood and chrome are metaphors for the opposing sides on the chessboard itself.

The cars – big, American gas guzzlers, all sleek fins and whitewalls, cruise across the background like gliding bishops picking off pawns. The houses, with their mod cons and perfect lawns, bordered by subtly territorial picket fences, are the very symbol of nuclear family success. ‘Stay out,’ they scream silently, ‘or I’ll take you out.’ It’s a world at odds with the lead character – supremely played by Anya Taylor-Joy – yet here she is.

Quincy JonesComin’ Home Baby

The hotels where the chess matches are played, especially as the series progresses and the competitions become more exclusive, are grand affairs. Jet-setting across the continents, Harmon and her mother enjoy nothing less than the good life. Expensively-wallpapered corridors and opulently furnished dining areas are accessed via long-winding and never-ending Art Deco staircases.

There’s a terrific scene set in Miami where the swingin’ Quincy Jones track above perfectly soundtracks Harmon movin’ on up to the competition floor, sashaying confidently to another crushing victory against an awkward and embarrassed male player, all the while looking like Jackie Onassis’ cool half-sister.

A horrendous childhood and a less-than-smooth passage into adulthood comes at a cost to our young prodigy. To cope with all that life has thrown at her, Harmon has developed a fondness for tranquilisers and booze. Her numerous breakdowns and spirals into addiction are soundtracked by period-era deep cuts. If she’s not kicking off a three-day bender by dancing like no-one is watching to Shocking Blue’s Venus, she’s discovering pot to the sound of Gabor Szabo.

Gabor SzaboSomewhere I Belong

The throb and thrum, the slowly spidering guitar line, the creeping paranoia and electric dischord are just the thing to simulate an out of body experience, no?

Or how about Gillian Hills’ 1965 slice of fingersnappin’ French Yé-yé mod-pop?

Gillian HillsTut Tut Tut Tut

Druggable yet fruggable, Tut Tut Tut Tut features during another particularly memorable scene, bursting through the stately piano that is woven through the soundbed of each episode, as joyously unexpected as the ever-attacking Harmon choosing to play the Sicilian Defence.

To be perfectly honest, every scene with Taylor-Joy in it is memorable. Usually, a blink of her dark almond eyes is all it takes to hook you in. She plays perfectly the ever-spiralling Harmon with a magnetism that should win her whatever awards are going these days for Netflix dramas. 

The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in stylish home cinema. As the year creeps to an undignified close, we may well have found the best thing about it. Watch it. Now!

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Peel Sessions

Turn The Heater On

You know that timeless footage of Joy Division in their rehearsal space, when they play Love Will Tear Us Apart; Ian Curtis with the Vox Phantom Teardrop worn almost at his Adam’s apple, Bernard channeling his inner Kraftwerk, Hooky, low-slung and serious and Stephen, tongue out in maximum concentration over his hi-hats? ‘Course you do.

It was filmed in TJ Davidson’s rehearsal rooms, a converted Victorian mill on Little Peter Street, the third point of a triangle that’s formed if you draw lines between the rehearsal space and Salford and Prestwich. Like the mystical, musical ley lines that so hypnotised Bill Drummond just over the Pennines in Liverpool, you might come to the conclusion that there’s something in that cosmic hippy shit after all.  Between them, Salford, Prestwich and those rehearsal rooms on Little Peter Street have been responsible for creating some of the best music we will ever hear. But you knew that already.

British singer Ian Curtis and guitarist Bernard Sumner of post punk band, Joy Division, at TJ Davidson’s rehearsal room, Little Peter Street, Manchester, August 19, 1979. photographer: Kevin Cummins

That room didn’t half look cold though. Long, bare floorboards, damp red brick walls and a worryingly bowed ceiling, it looks a less than inspiring place. It’s got a certain feel to it, of that there’s no doubt, but I’d imagine it might take many a band a good wee while to warm up to room temperature and start producing the goods in there. Maybe, now I think about it, that’s why Ian’s hand is permanently frozen in that G chord position while he wears the guitar.

The others gamely play on, heating the blood and warming the heart, despite the subject matter in the song. While a youthful Morris lays down his signature sound with all the mechanical precision of an industrial revolution stamping machine, Hooky’s bass reflects the damp sheen from the walls, a nice metaphor for the icy keyboard lines glistening over the top. Suffering for their art, Joy Division created a piece of music that will still resonate 100 years from now.

A couple of years later, when Joy Division had become New Order, the band found themselves recording a Peel Session. In tribute to their late vocalist, the band chose to play a cover of Keith Hudson‘s Turn The Heater On. While Ian Curtis was said to be a huge fan of the roots reggae track, I like to think that the others perhaps thought back to those freezing days at TJ Davidson’s and, with a nod and a wink, set about recording their own version.

New Order Turn The Heater On (Peel Session 1st June 1982)

I’d no idea until much later on that the track was a cover version.

It fits that early New Order aesthetic perfectly, coming as it does midway between the glacial thaw of Movement and the spring bloom of Power, Corruption and Lies. Sad, far-away vocals, sparse, polyrhythmic drums and a mesmeric chicka-chicka head-nodding dubby exterior, what’s, as they say, not to like? The icing on the cake is the addition of the mournful melodica, gasping and wheezing the long notes, the saddest traffic jam you’ve ever heard, burrowing its way into your brain before taking up camp long after the track has spun to its conclusion. Is that why they call it an earworm?

As it turns out, if you leave the melodica aside (something Bernard had difficulty doing in 1982), New Order’s version is fairly faithful to the original.

Keith HudsonTurn The Heater On

Recorded in 1975, Turn The Heater On is classic reggae; clipped guitars, thundering bass and squeaky organ vamps, topped of by a gently soulful vocal. I’ve a feeling too that while New Order might have been requesting that you do indeed turn the heater on, Keith Hudson may have been requesting a blast of heat from a different source. Perhaps not though.

It’s a great track, one I’m grateful to New Order for pointing me in the direction of. Played back to back with New Order’s reverential cover, they make for great late autumn/early winter listening. Turn the heater on, indeed.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Got Scott?

Aw man. Scott 4. A magic album slowly soaked in pathos and regret and towel-dried with inventive orchestration and outlandish arrangements. I’ve played it many a time, my old set of mp3s unearthed at the advent of broadband when the darkest corners of the internet begat a never-ending flow of everything one could ever need and plenty more besides.

I don’t have a copy. It’s easy enough to get of course, but I don’t want any old version, half-speed remastered or otherwise. It’s got to be an original ’69 copy, spinning in cavernous, timeless mono, its silver Philips label reflecting the handsome majesty of its creator on the gatefold sleeve. I keep looking, but those eyewatering prices don’t ever seem to drop. There is though a narrow space for it on the shelf next to those first three eponymous albums and one day it shall rest easy right there.

Scott 4 was the first album of all-original Scott Walker material. It was a commercial flop at the time, blamed partly on the fact Walker insisted it be promoted as a Scott Engel album, but more than likely it sank and was unceremoniously deleted due to the ‘pop’ climate of the time.

One-time teen idols didn’t release flamenco-tinged, brass ‘n string swept torch songs, especially not at the tail end of a decade where guitar solos, in direct proportion to the guitarists’ hair, were becoming longer and more outlandish with each release. As swinging London turned an autumnal burnt umber, Walker’s music was perfect, poignant and peerless, but it ultimately done for him.

Its influence is, naturally, immense. You’ll hear its echoes in the unexpected chord changes and deeper grooves of any Michael Head record. Marc Almond appropriated much of its tragedy, hammed it up and built a career around it. Bowie nicked his baritone. Leonard Cohen pickpocketed the wordy couplets and female harmonies. You could ask any number of your favourite artists and most of them would enthuse well into the wee small hours about the super soaraway Scott 4.

Scott WalkerThe Old Man’s Back Again

The Old Man’s Back Again is an extraordinary piece of music. In three and a half minutes, it takes on nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, wordless Gregorian chanting and a lyric about the repressive Czech government and melds it into a brooding piece of immense, orchestral art-funk.

The voice – we’ll get to that in a minute – takes centre stage, but its surrounded by the most disparate of collective parts. It’s the bassline you’ll notice first. An on-the-one groove, all frugging Fender, woody tone and rubbery stretch, it’s rumoured that the player is none other than Engel himself.

A veteran of the pre-Walker Brothers studio session scene, the young Scott proved to be no slouch across four strings and if the playing is indeed him, then he’s just gone up another 20 notches in my estimations. Rattling and rolling alongside the anonymous loose-limbed jazzer on the drums, it very much creates the sort of rhythm that forced Serge Gainsbourg to cock an ear, put down the Gauloises and get to work on what would become his Histoire de Melody Nelson album.

The case for the prosecution of Serge is further strengthened by the addition of a shimmering string section. Likely the work of Philips’ arranger du jour Ivor Raymonde, the strings – freeflowing and wild – give the whole thing a cinematic ambience, a feel that’s enhanced when those uhming and ahing backing vocals come creeping in from somewhere below Walker’s waistline.

Sensational stuff, and bang in the middle is the voice, as golden as its singer’s hair and effortlessly in tune. It’s the phrasing. And the pitch. And the tone. Walker’s range on The Old Man’s Back Again is actually fairly narrow, but the control he has over his singing as he tells a tale that could well have fallen from the page of a Tolstoy short story is quite the thing. Many will try, but on this form, no-one comes close. Or likely ever will. His vocal on Duchess is maybe even better. Go and find it..

Full fat voice, chicken-skinny legs

 

Get This!

Favourite Shirts

Many years ago (31, if y’re asking) I found myself invited to the old BBC Scotland headquarters at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow’s leafy west end. I’d spotted an advert in the Herald seeking trainee producers for BBC Radio Scotland and my application, written more in hope than expectation, made its flimsy way through the vetting process and landed on the pile marked ‘interview’. It was quite the thrill to step inside an ancient and famous place of broadcasting history, the doors and signage pointing the way to ‘Arts‘ and ‘Sports‘ and wherever, with the promise and potential of an exciting career lying just beyond.

I was asked to wait in an area of the foyer until my allotted time and so I sunk back into a deep mustard-coloured couch, fidgeted with my tie and took in the surroundings. A TV – large and state of the art for its time, but a clunky box that most teenagers would turn their 4K and flat screened noses up at nowadays – flickered on the wall above a set of lift doors, its sound low, playing whatever was currently showing on BBC Scotland. As I was trying to tame the jumbled thoughts in my head of how I could answer the questions the interviewers might throw my way before they swept their paperwork aside, pumped my arm in warm congratulations and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime, the lift doors swished open.

Out stepped newsreader Jackie Bird, poured into an above the knee dress that was vivid Kilmarnock blue. With a sheaf of papers clutched tightly to her chest, she gave me a wee smile and clacked off down the corridor, her luxurious auburn hair following spellbindingly behind her, and vanished through a door that said ‘Current Affairs‘.

Dizzy with my brush with fame, I tried to grapple with what I’d just seen…and at that very moment, the very same Jackie suddenly appeared beaming radiantly from the telly above the lift doors she had just come from. I watched, hynpotised by the very newsreader I’d actually just seen a couple of minutes beforehand, dad!, suddenly aware that someone was calling my name.

A wee lady met me, tweed skirt and Margaret Thatcher lacquered hair and we went into the interview room. I was still buzzing about Bird. A younger guy was there, wearing one of those cowboy shirt ‘n bootlace tie get ups so beloved of many Glasgow trendies at the time. His collapsed Morrissey quiff and the way he lounged back into his interviewer’s chair gave him an intimidating air of indifference. I didn’t like him and thoughts of my new favourite newsreader immediately vaporised. The wee lady – her name is long-since forgotten – asked me a variety of getting-to-know-you questions, before launching into the Big One.

Given the chance, what sort of programmes would you make for radio?

I’d thought about this beforehand and so gave a good answer.

There’s so much great music that’s come from Scotland in recent years – Rattlesnakes, Psychocandy, the Hipsway album, A Walk Across The Rooftops, Raintown – that I’d make a short programme on each album; how it was made and so on, with interviews with the musicians and the people involved in it. I think the listeners would like them.”

She nodded encouragingly, wrote some notes and thanked me for my time.

I didn’t get the job, of course, so you can imagine my ire a year or so ago when BBC Radio Scotland produced a series of classic album shows featuring most of the titles I’d suggested all those years previously. I’d like to say that perhaps my ideas were just too close in time to the albums in question, that hindsight and misty-eyed reverence has proven these albums to be the rightful classics that my 19 year old self knew they were much futher back in history, but, hey ho, there you go.

Elvis Costello had a similar brush with fame.

Sitting with photographer Chalkie Davies, Costello and The Attractions had just played I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea on Top of the Pops and were in the foyer of Television Centre, waiting for a taxi.

Suddenly,’ said Davies, ‘Angela Rippon appeared wearing a green shirt and walked right past us, we sat there with our mouths open in lust and shock. The next thing I know he’s got his little notebook out and is scribbling down lyrics.’

There’s a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night
And she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white

But you tease and you flirt
And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt

Me? I flunked the interview. Costello? He got a song out of the occasion. His newsreader-inspired lyrics formed the opening verse on Green Shirt, a standout track on Armed Forces, his fourth album and one bulging with greatness.

Elvis Costello – Green Shirt

He packs so much into a track, does Elvis. The way he phrases his words is fantastic, spitting ten to the dozen when there’s really no space left for them to fit into, eee-long-gating the others when there’s less words than music but still the need for both.

Delivered in that distinctive throaty voice that hiccups and slides through the words like egg white running down sandpaper, he reels off a song that’s part Orwellian paranoia, part knock-kneed new wave gloss, filtered through milk bottle-thick Joe 90 Gregory Pecks and rat-a-tat percussion.

Armed Forces is set for one of those triple-figured deluxe box set reissues. Don’t let me stop you if you’re the sort of hardcore fan who needs it all, but if you’re somehow new to the album, get yourself the meat ‘n two veg version instead. From the descending, confessional Accidents Will Happen via Oliver’s Army‘s Dancing Queen piano trills (check them out side by side) to the blatant late era Beatleisms of side 1 closer Party Girl, it’s a magic album. I suspect you knew that already though.