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.
As is the way at this time of year, lists, polls and Best Of countdowns prevail. Happily stuck in the past, the truth of it is I’m not a listener of much in the way of new music. Idles seem to dominate many of the lists I’ve seen, and I want to like them, but I can’t get past the singer’s ‘angry ranting man in a bus shelter’ voice. I’ve liked much of the new stuff I’ve heard via 6 Music and some of the more switched-on blogs I visit, but not so much that I’ve gone out to buy the album on the back of it.
If you held a knife to my throat though, I might admit to a liking for albums by Parquet Courts and Arctic Monkeys, both acts who are neither new nor up and coming. I listened a lot to the Gwenno album when it was released and I should’ve taken a chance on the Gulp album when I saw it at half price last week, but as far as new music goes, I think that’s about it. Under his Radiophonic Tuckshop moniker, Glasgow’s Joe Kane made a brilliant psyche-infused album from the spare room in his Dennistoun flat – released on the excellent Last Night From Glasgow label – so if I were to suggest anything you might like, it’d be Joe’s lo-fi McCartney by way of Asda-priced synth pop that I’d direct you to. Contentiously, it’s currently a tenner on Amazon which, should you buy it via them, is surely another nail in the HMV coffin.
2018 saw the readership of Plain Or Pan continue to grow slowly but steadily in a niche market kinda style, so if I may, I’d like to point you and any new readers to the most-read posts of the year. You may have read these at the time or you may have missed them. Either way, here they are again;
An article on the wonder of The Specials‘ b-sides.
Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip is like a rocksteady Slade; a 14 hole high bovver-booted ‘n braces metaphorical boot to the haw maws, all squeaky organ and call and response football terracing vocals. If it fails in its mission to have you skanking awkwardly from the waist down you should take yourself immediately to your nearest A&E and ask for a shot of something even more uplifting, should such a thing exist. And if you do find anything more uplifting than this terrific record, say now.
Symarip – Skinhead Moonstomp
Released on Trojan in 1970, Skinhead Moonstomp was nothing more than a cult classic, a grinding, two chord call to arms to take to the dancefloor with all like-minded brethren of the subculture. It would be the 2 Tone craze at the end of the decade that brought the record to wider attention when on its re-release the record crept inside the Top 60. It was even packaged in a suedehead-friendly picture sleeve.
Skinhead Moonstomp‘s popularity continues to this day, belying the lowly chart position and being ever-present on ska and reggae playlists. If you ever find yourself at a ska night, you can be certain you’ll hear it before the night is out. You might also hear Derrick Morgan‘s Moon Hop played immediately before it.
Derrick Morgan – Moon Hop
As is the way with many reggae hits, Skinhead Moonstomp is based around an older record. If you were being kind you might suggest Symarip recorded their version in strict homage to the original. If you were being cynical you might suggest they unearthed a hidden gem of the genre and released ‘their’ record to an uneducated public. The Specials Too Much Too Young is simply a sped-up take on Lloyd Terrell’s Birth Control, after all. You knew that already though.
The Specials – Skinhead Moonstomp
As is also the way with great reggae records, Symarip’s version provided the gateway for the next generation. Those self-same Specials on that self-same Too Much Too Young EP stuck a live medley on the b-side that was based around their take on Skinhead Moonstomp. I’d wager the more sussed and streetsmart Specials’ fans quickly tracked down those two tracks that The Specials had been listening to. Me? I was too busy getting my burgundy Sta-Prest and Y cardigan from Irvine market to consider anyone but The Specials had written such a stomping, marginally violent track. Imagine the baffled confusion of discovering many years later that Madness didn’t in fact write One Step Beyond and then the thrill of discovering Prince Buster on the back of it.
They’re not a ‘group’ in the traditional sense; there’s no lead singer, no egotistical frontperson, no focal point and certainly no lead guitarist, yet despite this, (because of this?) Massive Attack are one of our most important groups.
From Bristol, they’re a multicultural melting pot of accents, ideas and vision. Robert Del Naja, better known as 3D has his roots in Italy’s Naples. Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall is a Bristolian, born to West Indian parents. Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles brought his talents as a soundsystem DJ. Tricky, known to his mum as Adrian Thaws, has his own parallel career as as a solo performer. Combine their backgrounds and musical tastes and you have a pigeonholer’s nightmare; they blend elements of hip hop, dub and soul, post-punk, ragga and cinematic score to ceate their own unique music.
Massive Attack – Sly
Sly in name and sly in nature, Sly was created from an uncredited Sly Stone sample (Africa Talks To You, on There’s A Riot Goin’ On). In keeping with Massive Attack’s multicultured and open policy approach to music-making, it features a magical vocal from Nicolette Suwoton, a Scottish-Nigerian living in London. Nicolette sings elsewhere on the Protection album, but, for me, this just shades her other efforts.
Often sample-led, though not in the obvious way, Massive Attack’s music tends to be low on BPM, high on wide open space and spoken word verses and wrapped in rich production. Some of the low-end bass sounds on their first couple of albums are astonishing. By the time of 3rd album Mezzanine, they were sampling Siouxsie Sioux and had added a creeeping sense of impending doom to some of their material. Stick some earphones in and go for a walk with Mezzanine playing. You’ll find yourself in your own movie. Try it with the Velvets and Wire-sampling Risingson (and see if you can spot the less-than-obvious samples)…
Massive Attack – Risingson
Always moving forwards, always seeking new ideas, the key to their success is in no small way due to their choice of vocal collaborators. With no lead singer, they’ve worked with a succession of inspirational vocalists. Soul belter Shara Nelson takes the lead on a few debut album tracks, most memorably on Unfinished Sympathy, their first biggy, the band’s signature tune and arguably their best track. Tracey Thorn adds down-at-the-mouth bedist disco queen vocals to Protection, the title track of their second album. Liz Fraser pops up in Teardrop, an astonishing record that eschews her usual Cocteau Twin’s gibberish for a straightforward native-tongued love song. Love, love is a verb, love is a doing word. I don’t know who wrote that lyric, but it’s perfect; poetic yet straightforward, straightforward yet poetic. For what it’s worth, I’ve read somewhere that it’s Madonna’s favourite record.
For what it’s also worth, here’s my (current) favourite Massive Attack tune. In the spirit of Plain Or Pan it’s a less-than-obvious choice. Euro Zero Zero found itself on the CD single of Teardrop. It’s a remix of Eurochild from the Protection LP and features each member of the group taking a verse each. Tricky nicks some of the lyrics from The Specials’ Blank Expression for his part. It’s terrific.
Massive Attack – Euro Zero Zero
‘Genre’ menas nothing to Massive Attack. If the voice fits, they use it. Look elsewhere throughgout their rich and varied discography and you’ll find the undisputed vocal talents of reggae legend Horace Andy, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Sinead O’Connor, Damon Albarn…..it’s an endless list, really. They’ve also allowed their music to be remixed by Underworld, Paul Oakenfold, Primal Scream, Tim Simenon, Mad Professor, Brian Eno, U.N.K.L.E., Manic Street Preachers and Blur. An embarrassement of riches and a huge ‘fuck you’ to people like me who prefer their music neatly categorised. If your interest in Massive Attack waned after the second or third album, you’re missing out on a whole load of brilliant music. If you’ve kept up with Massive Attack, you will, as the saying goes ’round here, know that already.
Is 3D really Banksy? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest he may well be. As well as being happy to show off his skills at producing very stylised stencilled art, there’s the theory that a new Banksy pops up wherever Massive Attack are on tour. Only 3D can answer that question. And I kinda hope he never does.
Here‘s the evergreeen, forever-rolling Perfecto remix of the Billy Cobham-sampling Safe From Harm. It’s a cracker.
The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The Colossus of Rhodes. The Lighthouse of Alexandria. The Seven Wonders of the World. You’d think that by now, the 21st Century, someone somewhere might fancy updating that list. I think I missed the appeal when they were asking folk to write in with their suggestions for the 8th wonder, but if it’s not too late, I’m putting forward the Glasgow Barrowlands for inclusion.
To be more specific, I’m putting forward the Barrowlands when it’s packed-to-the-gunnels full and the band on stage is on fire. I’ve been to the Barras plenty of times. It’s always good. Often, it’s great. Other times, it’s really great. Last night, the second night of The Specials double header, it was electric; right there and then the best place to be on the entire planet. It was packed-to-the-gunnels full. The band was on fire. You didn’t want it to end. A greatest hits and more was played out to a mongrel swill of a crowd; from old suedeheads in too-tight Fred Perrys and braces, spit-shiny Docs and straining-at-the-waist Levis, to ageing mohican’d punks and punkettes, to 40-something numpties in pork pie hats, the weekend rude boys who really should know better, the same guys who take their tops off and still chant “We are the mods!” at Who gigs, to the young team in misguided Liam Gallagher feathercuts and Superdry mod parkas. Punks, teds, natty dreads, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads, as Do The Dog says, all united on the famous sprung dancefloor that, to paraphrase that Scandinavian football commentator from way back when The Specials first mattered, took one hell of a beating.
It’s life-affirming when you realise at the age of 43 you still want to get involved at a gig, that you’re not content standing at the side debating the merits of the setlist with yourself, but you’d rather go for it, jump right in and get into it. I lost a stone and a half in the first 20 minutes alone. My polo shirt stank of other people’s beer on the way home. As I type, I’m looking at my battered desert boots, who look like they’ve been in the trenches at the Somme. The opening four numbers came at you like a breathless, skanking Ramones – Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! I can’t be certain what was played, or in what order (it might’ve been Do The Dog and Concrete Jungle and Rat Race and Gangsters). One into another, a storm of ricocheting pistol cracks from the snare and Roddy Radiation’s spaghetti western twang, glued together by the Hall hangdog vocal. Then the brass section came on. Then the strings. And the band cherry-picked their way through a back catalogue rich in dubby textures and exotica flourishes. Pinch yourself for a minute. That’s The Specials! Playing International Jet Set! I took a particular shine to the three pouting string players, bobbing their heads from side to side in perfect unison whenever the dub swelled and the need for strings reduced.
Picture courtesy of Cameron Mackenzie. Cheers!
This clearly isn’t some half-arsed in-it-for-the-money Stones tour. This is a band playing better than ever to an audience somewhat largely made up of people too young to have seen them first time around (I was 10 when I bought Do Nothing for 99p with my £1 pocket money). The Specials are on fire right now and demand your attention. We were lucky enough to get an extra, unplanned encore, a Terry-free Guns Of Navarone, played by a band who’d wandered on after the outro music had begun and some of the audience had filtered off towards the exits and Central Station. Nae luck, non-believers.
There’s no youth culture anymore. Cast your eye over the appearance of any youngster and you wouldn’t know if they were into Pink or Pink Floyd. Last night showed why tribal music matters. If you do one thing this year, go and see The Specials.