Friday, 12 June 2009

What kind of music are you into?


There you go.

What are you going to say now?

Not a very interesting answer is it? Possibly the most boring and predictable I could give you.

But let me tell you how I got there.

It's the hardest question in the world isn't it? I mean, we've all got great taste haven't we? Yet, to boil down our taste to a balsam that encapsulates our very being is, well, unfair, right? I can never answer that question. Partly because it opens up a whole six pack of worms that cover my career, my life choices etc etc. It's like asking me: Hey, Ben, would you mind baring your soul and brains so we can take the piss? Which of course is why I write this every week. So I can get the satisfaction of revealing the bits I want to without giving the entire game away.

But, if pushed, my answer to that question is thus: I like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) by the Clash and This Year's Model by Elvis Costello. Despite the fact that I decided that these were my favourites 30 years ago, when I'd probably heard about 20 albums at most - and most of those were by Geoff Love or ELO - I still stand by that single and that album as being my favourites. I mean, they never let me down. I can be in any sort of mood, any situation and a snatch of White Man or the title track from Model will set me right. So at the risk of completely giving the game away, I confess to liking skinny tie new wave or more specifically, records made in 1978. I'm writing something for Loops about 1978 at the moment so the subject is banging around my brain but also I've been thinking a lot about how tastes change but somehow always remain the same.

You may have noticed over the last year or so's blogs, that I have been making references to listening to English Whimsy. English Whimsy was my original name for the sort of music that covers eccentric pop oddities that have something peculiarly English about them - examples from my new wave fave category are The Soft Boys or Ian Dury's first album or the pastoral side of XTC, but the genre slips backwards into Eno, Barrett, Drake, Ayers, Wyatt, Martyn, and Harper and forward into Goldfrapp and Tuung, although it ceases to have as much fascination for me once it takes on that 21st century self awareness.

But despite branding it English Whimsy, I soon realised that what I was actually beginning to like was Prog. So added to this list soon came Genesis, King Crimson and Yes and before I knew it I was turning into the sort of person I hated at school - the guys in the Sixth Form common room who had the Breakfast In America poster on the wall, or Tyler in my class who laughed at my Buzzcocks fixation and carefully wrote out the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven on his rough book to show me how much better they were than "your punk shit".

But I couldn't help myself and soon I found myself doing a column on BBC Radio 4 about how great Phil Collins is, contemplating buying Thick As A Brick and Aqualung and exploring the solo works of Robert Fripp.

But as I listened to You Burn Me Up Like A Cigarette from Fripp's all-over-the-shop solo album Exposure, it dawned on me that I was going full circle - here was the loop I'd been looking for, the link between the Whimsy or Prog and the Skinny Tie rock that I love: it's the genre that never spoke its name or was possibly too bookish and shy to do so: Prog Punk!

This is of course what Magazine really were. So it struck me that I must listen immediately to early Ultravox! (when they still had the ! in the name) ... This week I wrote a piece for the Guardian music blog about Ultravox!'s label, Island Records, attempting to inject a tiny bit of sanity into the otherwise mouth-foamingly reverential coverage of Island's alleged 50th anniversary. Of course, I love classic Island more than anyone at the moment - much of what I have been listening to during my Whimsy obsession is from Island's undisputed golden period (although I still can't quite get behind Dr Strangely Strange). But what I don't mention in the piece is Island's singular flailing uselessness in the face of punk. I mean, Eddie And The Hot Rods is just not enough is it? Perhaps it was just not musical enough for them and, I suppose, they were proven right: not much from the punk years has endured in the same way as the reggae, ska, rock and folk that Island pioneered.

But at least they had a go at Ultravox!, whose Island debut contains songs with promising punk titles like Satday Night In The City Of The Dead, Wide Boys and My Sex. You can imagine the record company looking forward to hearing these tracks and finally having something that X-Ray Spex fans might want to buy. I can taste the fear of the A&R man at the time, who knew that promisingly titled punk wave rocker I Want To Be A Machine was actually an acoustic ballad which opens on the line "I found the bones of all your ghosts, locked in the wishing well..." And rather than being a chest-beating S&M thrash, My Sex, turned out to an ambient piano-led synth piece. Boy, did he have some prog on his face.

But listening to this album and the slightly punkier follow-up Ha!-Ha!-Ha! they sound way less dated that the Midge Ure's Oh Vienna new romantics - I cannot recommend Ultravox!'s Prog Punk classics highly enough,- give them a go on Spotify then snap them up for under £4 on Amazon.

So once I'd recognised the hidden genre of PP I realised that if my taste has evolved from the 13 year old who bought those Clash singles, it has gone in this direction. So a snapshot of PP classics from my favourite 70s period like Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets and Magazine's Correct Use Of Soap, Buzzcocks' Different Kind of Tension, the Cure's Seventeen Seconds and the first three albums from my perennial favourites Wire. But it also incorporates my favourite album of the last 20 years... Yes you guessed it, it's by Radiohead. But it's not OK Computer, it's The Bends.

It's hard to describe the indifference surrounding Radiohead when The Bends first came out. Sure, they had a fanbase, but even their PR company Hall Or Nothing used to show off about them being a 'best kept secret' - sort of like a hairdresser listing the number of bald customers he styles. I remember sitting on a train going to see some gig with a very well known indie tastemaker - he had a promo cassette (cassette!) of The Bends - "You like this lot, don't you?" he asked casually, "I can take it or leave to be honest" he added. I told him I loved My Iron Lung and had been played some mixes by John Leckie's management when they came in for a meeting. In fact they had wanted to play me John's work on Elastica but I had heard a handful of the new Radiohead tunes at a gig at the Highbury Islington Garage, the week before, and I still had a song called The Bends in my head. They obliged and played me an unmixed version of the track. It was electrifying - I'm not just saying that, even in the context of a workaday A&R meeting with some producer managers I found myself bristling with excitement.

So when the tastemaker offered me the unwanted promo cassette I grabbed it. For the next couple of months it the only thing on in the car. At first I found it heavy going - so much detail, layers of complex guitar, lyrics that seemed like a JG Ballad novel. But after two listens the song Black Star leapt out, then soon afterwards the rest of the album opened up like a flower. I became evangelical perhaps too much as no one took me seriously. In a world that was obsessed with Blur and snappy, cynical, handsome indie kids it just didn't fit. This was Sleeper's time and I of course was enjoying riding that wave. But I remember bumping into Radiohead's manager's at an EMI Music Publishing street party in Denmark St. They had a new band called Supergrass who looked like they were going to be the year's big thing. I congratulated them. Then told them that the band of theirs I thought were the best was Radiohead and how much I was loving The Bends - they looked slightly bemused ; who was this weirdo? Hadn't he heard the I Should CoCo advance cassette?

Of course Supergrass shared a label with Radiohead - they were signed by the same guy and I'm a big fan of theirs too. But I can't somehow see EMI releasing box set versions of their first three albums as they have just done with Radiohead. It was odd opening the Bends box, given that my old CD is as close to being worn out as CDs ever get. I thought I had most of the singles from the period but the accompanying CD of B sides is revelatory in that it threw up a load of tracks I never heard at the time but which, if not as good as anything from the actual album, are pretty splendid. And it's great finally to have everything together in one box. I'm sad enough to have wondered when EMI were finally going to package up the b sides, partly because I lost my favourite ones. I brought round my Fake Plastic Trees CD to Stephen Duffy's flat in Albert Street to play him the fantastic India Rubber and How Can You Be Sure? in 1995. I never got it back. I don't blame Stephen, you understand, it probably slipped fell under a sofa, and we were having such intense Britpop fun at the time that I only noticed it was missing several years later.

But as usual am I digressing into a sea of bollocks. Prog Punk then, is not the scratchy post punk that the newly-founded indie labels of the late 70s specialised in and which Simon Reynold's about writes so well about in Rip It Up. PP is actually rather well played. Radiohead's Just, for example, has several completely different sounding and incredibly well delivered guitar solos one after the other. But, like original proggers King Crimson, it doesn't resist the urge to rock. Something I find the later period Radiohead doing quite a lot. Of course, I know I'm in minority in thinking that The Bends is better than OK Computer, but as ever, as with my choice of favourite Bond film (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, of course - it's got the best music!) I am prepared to defend the underdog.

And what an underdog. Like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) and This Year's Model, it always gets me no matter where I hear it and in what mood. It used to be my 'favourite album of the 90s' but looking back over the last 15 years since it came out, I should probably add another decade to that accolade. I certainly can't think of another album I've played more by a band who are still a going concern. And discovering this week that Thom Yorke is playing Latitude is exciting news - particularly in the knowledge that I might spy him in the audience for Magazine. Taking copious Prog Punk notes, I hope.


  1. Ben

    As always, a mighty fine waffle! I do believe that I met you pre-OK Computer, and you were indeed raving about The Bends over and above anything more copiously Britpop, Sleeper included. I'm glad to see your views haven't changed over time.

    Got a couple of nits to pick all the same: while "White Man" has yet to be beaten by any act of any stripe, I hesitate to call it "skinny tie new wave." Costello yes, The Clash most certainly not. And as someone who was mad for early era Ultravox, I never saw them as much of a punk act - prg or otherwise - as being a hold-over from the art-rock era, a natural era, a natural extension from Roxy, Bowie and to some extent Be-Bop Deluxe. It was no coincidence that Eno produced their debut album long before Island discovered U2.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post a lot - a lot more than some of them expense-account horrors that remind what a scummy business music can be. This one reinforced that we're all in it ultimately for the music.



  2. Good points and well made, Tony.

    Of course the Clash aren't skinny tie, but there's an indefinable thing about punk/new wave records made around 1978 that I think links them - it may be my own nostalgia of course, but don't you think that traces of reggae and ska infiltrate a lot of the skinny tie releases from that period - whether it's obvious cases like Watching The Detectives or Sunday Papers by Joe Jackson or even My Sharona - it's the bass player's head jerking that I'm thinking of - something which, it's true, despite the Clash being progenators of reggafication, Paul Simenon was far too cool to get involved with.

    As for Ultravox! again you're probably right but I think like all new artists in that period they were sold as a punk thing and by Ha!Ha!Ha! they clearly believed they were part of the scene - even jumping on the sweary bandwagon with Rokwrok!

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