Monday, 10 August 2009

They're writing a song in front of me!

"Daddy, can we listen to those two men we saw at the festival?"

Where the hell have I been? Thanks for asking. Although I'd love to say I've been lying around on a beach for three weeks (is it three weeks?) I have actually been really busy. OK, I've been lying on a beach too. But only for a week and most of that time was spent being a chauffeur to the family.

Since I was last here - it was about Blur right? - The Mercury Prize nominations have been announced (congrats to Friendly Fires!), Tynchy Stryder has got a number one hit and Michael Jackson is selling records again. Pop is back. Funny, just as I was thinking pop was over, I go on holiday to the South Coast and find that the independent record shop is living and breathing. In Broadstairs, there's even a record shop in the building where Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers. Eat that, iTunes losers!

It's sad really, you go on holiday to get away from daily life and all you do (well, I do) is make a b-line for the charity shops. Just to see if I get that Nick Hornby-esque experience of finding some priceless gems tucked away between the Bygraves and Mantovani. It rarely happens anymore, and I suspect that with the advent of eBay and Amazon Used it doesn't happen to many people. I was looking after my youngest on Thursdays before the summer break and would take her to a Salvation Army mothers' morning every week. Obviously, I'd spend a bit of time wheeling her around the hall in a red plastic car and sitting on a mat reading but without fail, the itch would overtake me and soon I'd palm her off on a mum and go next door to sift through the 20p a pop vinyl. It's the same addiction as gambling, I imagine: chasing that high that you got when you discovered the soundtrack to the Ipcress File on original mint vinyl for $10 in Texas or Sticky Fingers complete with zipper cover for a couple of quid in Cancer Research.

This busman's holiday aspect was accentuated for me last week on in Whitstable. The previous two weeks I had been manfully struggling with a deadline for a book on album covers. That's the reason why I've been so tardy with the blog. True story. The editor and myself had to write 140 word mini essays on 350 albums as well as 10 chapter introductions with themes such as Sex, Death and Ego. I'll be honest, it was a lovely job - the sort of job that - like Woody Allen in What's New Pussycat?, where he works in a striptease - I would have paid to do. Actually, forget that - the editor is probably reading this - it was a tough job. Really hard. Especially trying to find things to say about sleeves where no actual info was available; after one sentence I was dragging my heels through a dessert of waffle and bollocks.

Still, I think I managed to find out most of the interesting things to say about some of the unsung sleeve design heroes - I mean, we've all heard a surfeit about Vaughan Oliver, Storm Thorgerson and Peter Saville but there's simply not enough stuff devoted to Barney Bubbles (although Paul Gorman's new book on him is work of erudition and beauty), or great unsung in-house people like Ed Thrasher (Are You Experienced), Nick Fasciano (that Chicago logo) or Burt Goldblatt (loads of 50s and 60s jazz and also that brilliant Robert Johnson sleeve).

Stories of my own about getting involved in band's sleeves should perhaps wait for a separate blog, suffice to say, I love artwork and tried to get involved as much as possible, frequently treading on all sorts of marketing toes. It was nice when artists knew what they wanted - Stephen Duffy for example always knew exactly what worked, but some others had no idea and why should they? I'm pleased to say that Bagsy Me by the Wannadies made it into the book, not because it was a record that I put out but on the strength of Lars Sundh's fantastic artwork. Oh bollocks that reminds me I still haven't written that one.

And talking of sleeves, I visited the home of one of the other great unsung sleeve designers a few weeks ago. We were on our way to the Latitude Festival and stopped off to say hi to an old friend of mine, Cally. He long ago gave up on conventional Christian and surname and strangely this is one of the few instances where it doesn't smack of vanity or conceit. It is merely accuracy. His artwork ranges from the in-house stuff he did for Phonogram and Island for the best part of the 90s (think of Scott Walker's Boychild or that Cranberries sofa) to the more recent jobs he did for Scissor Sisters (their second album, a homage to Band on The Run with its celeb cameos) or Kaiser Chiefs or the recent Madness triumph. He specialises in using vintage fonts, handwritten liner notes,often incorporating archaic language and always seems to have an eye for what the finished thing will feel like in the hand. His house, a word which does it no justice is his finest work of art. I won't go on about it other than to say it was like visiting Caractacus Potts' workshop and Willy Wonky's factory - a dream home for anyone interested in art, music, cycling, motoring, architecture or beautiful English gardens. There are only a handful of genuine music business original and he is near the top of the heap. My enduring memory of our brief stop off is Cally picking us fruit from his ancient cherry tree on the front lawn - appropriate as he looks after the estate of Fruit Tree singer Nick Drake.

Down the road at the Latitude Festival (we're in Suffolk, by the way if you're wondering where all this is going on) I manage to get our Hymer camper van parked up next to the loudest van in the guest enclosure. "I've got a five year old and a one year old on board can we park somewhere a bit more family orientated?" I ask the friendly man in the hi-visibility tabard. It's a no-no but it soon transpires that Loud Van is actually owned by a family with a baby who just happen to have some boisterous mates. They soon disappear and I sit staring at the van interior in front of me - about a foot away - shell shocked by having just driven a massive, left hand drive van from London without any damage to it or my family. I sit and guzzle red wine whilst listening Chrissie Hynde being back on the chain gang.

Later we go and watch a band that Maddy falls head over heels for. It must be genetic. Those two men she later asked about are Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook. As they sing It's So Dirty and Slap & Tickle, I realise that much of my youth was spent listening to Squeeze. I liked them but partly out of loyalty - I never realised just how good they were because my best mates' sister was friends with them. One time, I remember coming back from school with Robert and there they were on the sofa, those two men, Chris and Glen. I was pretty excited. I mean I'd seen them around before but usually Robert and I were being aloof 13 year olds in his room listening to cassettes and talking about girls. Now here they were in front of me. I sat at the kitchen table while Robert made tea and they nodded over at me. I nodded back as cooly as I could. They went back to what they were doing. "A9" said Glen to Chris. There was a pause while Chris looked at his notes "OK, C7..." FUCK! I thought, not only are the men behind Cool For Cats and Take Me I'm Yours in front of me but THEY ARE WRITING A SONG! Maybe I'll be in it! Or maybe they'll ask me for my opinion when they finish - it sounds like they're going quite fast after all. A bit later, I'm in Robert's room when he returns from the loo. He's just bumped into his sister on the landing. "Have they finished the song yet?" I ask. He laughs as if he knew all along (he didn't! He was as excited as me - well almost) "No, they were playing battleships."

I bumped into them much later in the 90s at a studio called The Strongroom in East London. I was helping Aimee Mann make her follow up to Whatever and she had invited them to do backing vocals and play on a song called That's Just What You Are. I tried to make conversation with Glen, who had always struck me a friendly sort but, despite the South East London connection (I mentioned Robert and his sister, possibly even told him the battleships story) he blanked me. I think to him I was just the A&R man for the day and as such of no interest other than paying for the studio time. Perhaps this is harsh, maybe he was like the rest of us, having a bad day. The fact is that the rest of us haven't written a song as good as Pulling Muscles From The Shell. I sing along to every word at Latitude and now, despite the fact that she's not yet six and has never heard of Harold Robbins and was only 1 when we went to Camber Sands, so is Maddy.

You'll be happy to hear that both Squeeze's debut and Aimee Mann's album with that Difford Tilbrook song on are both in the sleeve book. Neither is their best work but both remain great sleeves.

Promise to be back sooner next time.


  1. Dear ben

    Thanks for your kind words about my book.

    You might like to check out the blog ( which is now taking on a life of it's own with lots of new info, images, interviews etc.

    In fact soon I'm going to be going into the single sleeve BB did for Is That Love and tying it into the circs surrounding the wild video clips he made for Squeeze which were rejected by A&M (along with his original sleeve for East Side Story)..



  2. Hey Paul -no problem, hope the book is going well. Site looks splendid. I had no idea that BB did work for Squeeze until the stuff about it in the book. I always felt that Squeeze's single sleeves were much better than the attendant albums which come to think of it was true for a lot of the 'new wave'...

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