Friday, 27 February 2009

"Standing on a beach with a gun in my hand..."

It was the last song they played.

They'd gone on past the curfew at the O2 and my pal who was officially filming the event feared the band would have to pay a fine and end up out of pocket. Boo and hoo. Still, it was an encore that made the event worth it for the thousands of middle aged air-punchers whose pockets would only be taxed an extra hour of babysitting fee (I'd managed to once again persuade my mum to babysit, which she does for a small fee of Guilt). But driving home, tailgating through the Blackwall Tunnel, I couldn't stop thinking about that last song...

The gig we were at was the NME Awards Big Gig - a show sponsored by Shockwaves, which for many of the fellas keeping babysitters in business that night, seemed an inappropriate product given our follicular state. It wasn't all about the headline act though - The Cure may have managed to pretty much fill the 23,000 capacity venue but it was Franz Ferdinand who gave it some NME flavour - I doubt whether many of the folk there had ever heard of Crystal Castles and you know my thoughts on White Lies already - we missed them both last night by the way, as we were more usefully spending that time patrolling the cavernous Dome looking for its Box Office, queuing up, being sent to another Gate because of a 'ticket misprint' etc etc. White Lies were about to release their follow up album by the time we got in.

What a strange audience. Perhaps its a sign of the times that a youth-branded event has to use the carrot of a vintage band to get punters through the gate but it certainly resulted in a mixed crowd. There were loads of boys who looked like the daughter's boyfriend in Jack Dee's sitcom Lead Balloon - hiding behind curtains of hair and jutting their chins out they sloped around the venue looking confused. And along with their Peaches-a-likey girl mates, they were obviously all really excited in their own special way about Franz Ferdinand. Along with Les Kids there were also many drunk people who looked like they'd accidentally walked into the show from the Salsa Night going on the Mexican restaurant outside, add to this suited businessmen making jazz hands to Just Like Heaven and all those Cure Mums and Cure Dads and you've got a Dome full of weird. It's a shame that Franz Ferdinand were so ordinary.

I wrote about Franz here a few weeks ago, how I was longing to hear their new album. I must say that I've heard the album a few times now (on Spotify, natch) and it's made absolutely no impression on me. It's done what we've identified here as 'A Killers' - pleasant while it lasts before sailing directly from memory. A shame, I was looking forward to it. They were still enjoyable but it was old songs like Michael that had the snap and verve you expect from them. They should split now and quit while they're relatively ahead. Then they could reform in five years and do a Blur. I was chatting to a friend about this this morning - as with Magazine, isn't it better to quite while you're ahead or just beginning to fall from grace then reappear fresh-faced and lean when everyone's palettes are ready again? This is rapidly turning into the most reliable music business model for bands, I think. For years Terry Hall had trouble getting arrested - now he can't move for Brixton Academys, they're coming out of his ears and all because he's got the name Specials attached to his name again. You might think I'm being cynical (and of course I am) but surely reforming without the guy who wrote all the songs, came up with the whole Two Tone idea and look, and effectively was the spirit of the band ranks is a trifle opportunistic. I don't know, I like the Specials, but I can't get that excited about the Sans Dammers reunion gigs as so many people seem to doing.

Travis should have split up just after the Invisible Band album started their downward turn. Instead they've been playing on regardless to fewer and fewer fans and you can't move for copies for their last album in Fopp where it retails at £1. I can't bring myself to buy one, it seems wrong.

The Cure have never split of course. How could they? That would be like Mick Hucknell splitting up - a tantalising thought indeed. It's all about Robert Smith, isn't it? Or Fat Bob, as I seem to remember him being called in the press in the late 80s. Twenty years later and he's no fatter or thinner, his hair is the same and so, incredibly, is that squeaky, boyish singing voice. The bulk of the show last night was from their new album. I wonder if he had split the band or just retired after, say, Disintegration, whether they would be any bigger than they are now. It's true, they're having something of a renaissance now, Goth is very much back in the air, but I suspect that if they had split up 20 years ago their show would have been leaner and more enjoyable. The crowd last night swayed politely through songs from 4:13 Dream but really got hot under the collar for 10:15 Saturday Night. Myself included.

I could wax lyrical about the Cure in a similar way to how I did over Magazine the week before last. Much of my formative pop experience is connected to them (saw them by accident supporting Siouxise & The Banshees in 1979, learned guitar by playing their songs, kissed my first girlfriend in a bedroom featuring a mural of the artwork from Boys Don't Cry, used Robert Smiths name in my English O Level...) But I'm resisting the temptation because I want to talk about that last song they played.

The second part of the set was a track per album and we were blessed with a stonking Three Imaginary Boys, A Forest , Primary, In Between Days and so on. To our right, a large florid woman flailed her hands and buttocks, in front of us a fortyish couple, who smelled of air freshener, gave each other loving looks through Boys Don't Cry, even Les Kids seemed to know the words . The encore just after the 11pm curfew featured more early stuff including the quite superb Jumping On Someone Else's Train and Grinding Halt. And then they played it, they played the song. I think you will have guessed which one by now: Killing An Arab. Or not, in fact. No, the song they actually played appeared to be called Killing Another - I wasn't going mad, my film producer friend confirmed it:"Yes, they've changed its named - too sensitive."

I don't know where to start on this - I'm still in the Blackwall Tunnel, baffled and jammed. I mean, the song is a take on Albert Camus' L'Etranger where the central image is the man on the beach who shoots an Arab. It's a song dramatising a story he's read. It may as well be him singing "I have woken up and discovered I am a giant insect!" or "My name is Holden Caulfield and I'm really pissed off".

Is this the climate of fear we live in? Must we shy away from saying anything that might risk offending other races and cultures? Is this the legacy of the Satanic Verses? Rushdie's fatwa happened exactly 20 years ago this year - have we not moved on? I can't believe that in a music world where I don't seem to be able to download a version of American Boy for my daughter without getting Kanye saying Fuck half way through, where I can't get Lily Allen's single without the same word, not to speak of her favourite Sugababes track Hole In The Head featuring 4 Shits - I cannot believe that we're still in a climate where the BBC would probably still ban Relax (25 years ago this year, pop pickers).

Apparently Smith changed it initially to Kissing An Arab in 2004 then switched that to Killing Another in 2006 for a Royal Albert Hall show. I could understand if they'd been playing Dubai Media City or the Abu Dhabi HMV Forum (made that one up) then they wouldn't want to cause offence. But really. In front of a load of middle aged fans and some NME readers? Am I missing something? Please tell me if I am.

Friday, 20 February 2009

"Oh look at those clothes, now look at that face - it's so old..."

It was the rictus, dead eyed grin of the violently disappointed. And the fact that the bearers of it were wearing their now ubiquitous riot of colour and hand-made braiding and epaulets only heightened the insincerity.

For those of you who may erroneously think I was on a table adjacent to Coldplay and Elbow when the latter won Best Band at the BRITs, you are wrong. I haven't been since... 2006, I think. The year Prince blew everyone offstage. This year, I decided I'd like to watch it and indeed got to see about half of it before our toaster decided to fuse all the sockets in the house. I was making a snack while Kings of Leon were on.

The camera is cruel at awards ceremonies, lingering like a rubbernecker at a traffic accident as the losers do their best 'really happy for you' face. When I was interviewing people for that Times piece last week, I spoke to a friend of mine at EMI who attended the awards with one of his artists a few years back. Sadly, the artist didn't win the award they were nominated for and later, no doubt at one of the free-booze-laden aftershows where the real entertainment occurs, they confessed that they had had to work hard on achieving their 'not at all UPSET I HAVEN'T WON' face. Kirsten Scott Thomas who was quoted in the press in the run up to the BAFTAs complaining that it was unfair for Kate Winslet to win both Actress and Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, didn't bother with The Happy Face - she kept her ice cool, insouciance - some would say, snooty look intact when the inevitable happened and Winslet won again and mounted the stage to gush. I applaud her and anyone honest enough to concur with the title of this week's first line - We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.

I've been thinking a bit about professional jealously recently. Not just because of the BRITs or because Morrissey has another bilious album out this week, but also because it seems to me that as this recession deepens, and with it expectations on what is realistic and achievable get 'adjusted' in everyone's lives - including my own - I wonder if the spectre of a colleague doing very much better than you gets easier or harder to bear.

I found myself in meetings in various offices in West London last week, each one with a friend I have known for many years and during each one I stepped out of myself and watched the two of us talking and our body language. Is Ben showing signs of jealously that this person has a nice office and a secure job? Is he being over-deferential? Does the person he is in the meeting with behave in a different way to Ben, knowing that he is now a freelance writer in a recession rather than either a) a mate with a job and no agenda or b) a mate still working within the industry?

I'll be honest, the green-eyed monster did leap out and happy slap me a couple of times during these meetings. Incidentally, a massive aside: I saw Othello for the first time last week (I was reviewing it for thelondonpaper) and the green-eyed monster cliche originates there. Ditto the beast with two backs.

So yes, when I was sitting in Universal Records' subsidised Dean & Deluca style coffee bar, the sunlight dappling onto the lavishly presented promotional posters, I can't deny feeling a frisson of envy that several of my pals are safely ensconced here. And waiting to see a very dear friend in the London offices of CAA, the perfect air-conditioned silence in the meeting room, complete with its cinema-sized widescreen television and designer chairs, made me hanker after the sort of AirMile-rich lifestyle that these office furnishings clearly denoted.

But I didn't hate my friends in a Morrissey way - even if some of them are actually Northern. That same morning I had breakfast with my two Scared Hitless colleagues. Regular readers will know that we've been meeting every Christmas for 14 years since we first had a dabble at running our own indie label. We always have such a good time at these meetings that we've decided to have monthly breakfasts - my other two friends are now so successful, particularly the Northern one, that they don't really have time for lunches. We also decided, credit crunch style, to avoid having power breakfasts in poncy hotels but to meet in proper cafes. This time, because we all had things going on in West London, we decided to meet in Georges cafe behind Olympia. I used to come here a lot when I worked at AOL and I hadn't been there since I visited old AOL-ers when was working in the V2 office in Holland Park.

So to get there in time for breakfast I took the familiar tube route that I'd done for getting on for six years - all the way to Barons' Court then across the appalling Talgarth Road past the University of Hip Hop (I assume that's what they all study there, given the students' strict dress code) and down the fig tree-lined Gliddon Road. This journey, particularly the walk at the end brought back memories of having regular, reasonably normal employment and I had expected to feel a nostalgic yearning for more secure times. Guess what? I felt absolutely overjoyed not to be heading for that terrible black glass building. All the horror of AOL's petty bureaucracy, the passive aggressive bullying and general bad times of that part of my 'career' came flooding back and, like a patient undergoing Jungian therapy I almost broke down on Hammersmith Road and pounded the pavement with my bare fists.

And at breakfast with my two former music business colleagues I felt no jealousy - I am fortunate that they are doing well because they are friends and quite frankly in these times you need all the successful friends you can get.

In Toby Young's column in the Guardian,(always a good read) he uses the Anvil film (directed by a friend of his) to talk about just this sort of professional jealously and comes to the conclusion that as you get older you accept your friends' success much more gracefully. But he also points out that happiness in life is U shaped - you're happy when you're young and again happy when you're older but the most miserable years are your 30s and 40s when you realise the dreams you have are unrealistic and you start to face the reality that you won't perhaps be a pop star, or, I dunno, an international banker.

I'm not sure men ever give up on dreams like these - a mate of mine came up with the theory that this is why old women are generally a lot more sane than old men - because they frequently achieved fulfilment through childbirth and motherhood. Men carry on collecting coins, toy cars or - bit close to home this one - records, and harbouring dreams of becoming international playboys or Internet poker tycoons. That's why grandma is so adorable and wise, while grandpa sits growling in his chair holding a magnifying glass over the Telegraph crossword.

Which takes us back to Coldplay - do you think they really cared about losing out to Elbow? Maybe I was projecting my own suppressed jealousies onto their sweet angelic, internationally successful faces. No, I think they are young and ambitious enough to care. And there is nothing wrong with it; jealously and competitiveness is what drives ambition: no one is successful without it. From lifetime achievement BRIT winner Neil Tenant, who famously admitted putting Pet Shop Boys CDs to the front of record shop racks whenever he had the opportunity, to Paul McCartney who, despite all he has achieved, is still trying to be cool. Even someone you would think was above such pettiness, Franz Kafka, wrote in his diary about his close friend Oscar Baum, another writer in Prague at the time:
Envy of the apparent success of Baum whom I like so much. With this, the feeling of having in the middle of my body a ball of wool that quickly winds itself up, its innumerable threads pulling from the surface of my body to itself.
Yes, that ball of wool was present at the BRITs and if I'm honest, is present whenever I see other writers getting features, or indeed getting their calls returned by editors. I'm getting out that Morrissey CD right now in fact ...

Friday, 13 February 2009

"I am angry, I am ill and I'm as ugly as sin..."

I am still quivering with excitement. How can this be? I mean, it's only music, right? And I left the venue over 12 hours ago.

I've not written much about live music here and I know the prospect of me 'reviewing' gigs on my blog frankly fills you as well me with dread and ennui - or "On wee wee" as Robyn and I call it. But here's the thing, I went to see Magazine last night and it was the best show I've in seen in, well, years.

Now before you point out that I am, like so many 40 somethings, lowing myself into the Radox bath of nostalgia let me assure that it really wasn't about that. Sure, I loved Magazine when I was younger (although unlike the Buzzcocks, I never saw them live) and the reason I bought tickets for myself, my brother and my wife was largely fueled by nostalgic curiosity.

But by the time we got to the HMV Forum - Christ, when did HMV get into bed with the Forum? I have clearly not been paying enough attention. They are paying Mama Group, who own a whole load of venues (including Hammersmith Apollo where I saw the Buzzcocks - 31 years ago!) over £18million for a 50% stake - surely there is no greater indication of where the CD trade is going than a record shop getting into the live business...

Anyway, so we walked through snow to the HMV Forum and outside, as I expected, were many many men of a certain age. My brother met us there, he hadn't been to the venue for so long I'd had to describe it to him as the Town & Country Club and I suspect that many ticket holders last night were in the same boat. Odd then, that our means of entry were E tickets made on my printer at home - and it was fitting that the Dyson-sized scanner by the box office refused to work and they had to manually punch our ticket numbers in. Yes! Back to nature etc.

When I did a Front Row column about reunion gigs recently, I imagined what the Magazine crowd would look like and pictured the cover of the Curb Your Enthusiasm box set - a sea of shiny domed Larry Davids. That was exactly what it was like. Going to events like this should make me feel old but I felt young. Or younger than the rest of the crowd anyway. Maybe everyone feels like this and that's the reason why they go - they can look at everyone else and think - "ha! unlucky - look how badly they've aged and me, well, I've still got it. I am adorable compared to these chumps."

If it had been just myself and my brother we would have been dairnner front, I promise. Well, maybe. But I confess, we sat down upstairs, how very old of us. But we did this largely so Robyn could see; old punks in their late 40s and 50s seem to much bigger and rangier than younger music fans. I noticed this at a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros gig years ago and my theory at the time was that they had been given free school milk when they were kids in the 60s. Even I would have struggled to see over their shoulders, so Robyn wouldn't have had a hope.

Placed on each seat upstairs was the first indication that this reunion show was decidedly not a run of the mill affair: a beautifully presented Malcolm Garrett-designed flyer illustrating the merchandise available in the venue and online. OK, so you could argue that the £50 man is being exploited - and indeed the posters cost exactly that amount of money. But the fact is, this merchandise was incredibly well thought-out and had no whiff of tack or tat about it. Being more of a 50p man these days, I bought a mug for a fiver with "I know the meaning of life" on one side and "it doesn't help me a bit" on the other in a Malcolm Garrett font. Genius. I'm drinking coffee out of it as I write this.

I won't give you a blow by blow account of the show - you'll be able to get those from the proper grown-up reviews. I'll put a link to Pete Paphides' review in The Times when it comes through, as he made use of my Devoto anal retention plus I suggested a little tweak for his final line which he was gracious enough to accept. Incidentally, earlier this week he asked me to write a piece in tomorrow's Saturday Review about the BRITs and the British music industry - I foolishly wrote it in the voice and style I use here so it needed some serious tweakage, which he did for me and still let me take the lion's share of the credit. What a chap.

What I will say about the Magazine show is this: Howard Devoto where have you been? For someone who has apparently been working in a picture library for the last 20 years or so, there is absolutely no rust on his performance and he moves like a dancer.

Before they come onstage, the lights go down and we hear his disembodied voice - serious and yet with an ironic lilt to it as if to say "I know this is a bit of fun but let's pretend it's really sombre and see what happens" - he explains Dave Formula's phone call which snowballed the reunion.

Then out of darkness we see a youthful skinny-tied John Doyle who picks up his sticks and begins the military tattoo of The Light Pours Out Of Me. Then more light on... fuck me Barry Adamson looks amazing! Rake thin, top hat, shades! Then another spotlight on Noko who manages to be dressed entirely in red and not look like a twat. "If I was his partner and he told me he planned to dress all in red" says Robyn, "I would have said, 'honey, don't do it to yourself' but he's rocking that look!" He also manages to completely nail every John McGeoch nuance. Then Formula - the man who put it all together - mounts his podium-full of analogue keyboards, wearing a trilby at a rakish angle, by which time we've noticed the amazing Linder-designed backdrop which recreates the Real Life artwork but adds many more faces. And then finally in three quarter-length black peddle pushers, sailing shoes and an enormous Bond villain white dinner jacket comes Devoto to deafening applause: "Time flies..." Indeed it does, Howard, 28 years.

The rest of the set is a proper selection of all the songs any fan would want bar an inexplicably missing Give Me Everything. They do a smattering of B sides (Twenty Years Ago, I Love You You Big Dummy) and Devoto is balletic and graceful visually and throws in several of his trademark asides ("Here's a song about anger, duplicity and frozen desserts").They get a standing ovation and bow with arms around one another like they've just played Madison Square Garden.

I never realised I knew every word of Model Worker, Song From Under The Floorboards or even the spoken word Kafka-lite b-side The Book off by heart. But I did and I sang along and whooped and realised a million things about Magazine and myself and the world. I never realised quite how funky they were, what good musical taste (the choices of cover - Sly Stone, Captain Beefheart...) how timeless, how timely, how many female backing vocals they used (and how perfect the Ipso Facto singer was for them), how great it is to see a bald man be so cool, and just how huge Morrissey's debt to them is.

Not Joy Division, not the Smiths, not the Stone Roses - beyond Manchester: it all starts and ends here.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

"I want to be rich and I want lots of money ..."

Tell you what. An admission - for which I don't stand to gain anything other than ridicule - I haven't heard the current albums by:

The Killers
Kaiser Chiefs
Franz Ferdinand
Lilly Allen
Lady Gaga
White Lies
Anthony & The Johnsons
And this week's number one - the new Bruce Springsteen album

Now, maybe you haven't either, and perhaps you'd consider the quest to hear all new releases in the rock or indie genre a bit on the sad or obsessive side. But I take pride in having my own opinion about current releases, so I don't go around repeating accepted truths about the new Snow Patrol album being a bit dull. For now I'm going to estimate my opinion of these albums (rather like the Tax Office asks you, if you're self-employed, how much you expect to earn), I'll let you know at the end.

Normally I do try to buy new albums - as I documented a couple of weeks ago, I think I bought more music last year than ever before. But also, where I can, I take advantage of knowing some nice people in record companies who will occasionally slip me a promo copy. This year, however, I seem to have lost my mojo. Some of you reading this will be familiar with the Blagger's Shuffle - that distinctive linger by the record company's stock cupboard in the hope of someone from the press office finding the key- or these days the digital version thereof, involving an email starting with the line - "Hi ____, how are things?" before brutally cutting to the chase: "I hear the new album from ______ is really good - do you have a spare copy you could send me?"

I'm generally quite good at this, largely because I slip the odd request into what I hope is a much deeper and more profound relationship with my friends with record company jobs. But I have to admit that in the distant past when I worked at Warners and RCA, I was guilty of having relationships with people at other record companies based solely on their ability to furnish me with new releases. This was fine as I represented exactly the same thing to them. Now I have nothing to offer in return other than my scintillating company.

Now I write about music in other places apart from here, I have started getting the occasional thing in the post, which is lovely - I made a point of phoning Genesis' PR when I did that Phil Collins piece on Radio 4 and they sent me the fantastic box set. Hooray for them.

But as that above list testifies to, I've just not had the pluck to ask people for these releases. And why haven't I bought them? OK, OK, OK - I admit, I don't like buying albums I suspect I won't like on the off chance. I know I'll probably like the Lady Gaga, Lilly Allen and Franz albums so they are on my list, but I can't bring myself to buy Razorlight's latest despite wanting to hear it. Stupid? Or prudent?

And before you start accusing me of Limewire ignorance or that I could have checked out a number of these albums on Myspace streamed exclusives - can I point out that I am a father of two? I can't find the web hours to devote to trawling for online exclusives. OK, so I have just started using Spotify which, along with the Onion's updates on Twitter, is my new favourite thing.

And that's probably why I have single-handedly failed to hear these all-important new albums - like the rest of us, I'm spending all of my waking hours trying to make a living.

But here's a thought about time and money: on Monday - the day it snowed in Britain more than it's snowed for 18 years - an interesting report was published. The report concluded that our 'aggressive pursuit of personal success' is apparently now the greatest threat to British children. Now, I haven't read the report and by all accounts a lot of it is idealistic and/or stating the bleedin' obvious, but isn't it ironic that on the same day as it came out, all the schools closed due to the weather. And all those otherwise selfish parents were forced to spend time with their and children making snowmen, tobogganing and having fun. Did you notice how everyone just dropped their important things - largely courtesy of the UK transport network throwing a wobbly and refusing to take them to work - and for a day, and in some cases two days, the rat race was forgotten and snowball fighting was aggressively pursued. Incidentally did you know that it was Groundhog Day on Monday too?

Actually, if I'm totally honest, on Monday, my daughter went and made snowmen with her friends over the road and I stayed at home and aggressively pursued some people to give me writing jobs. Frankly, my time would have been better spent making snowmen with Maddy. Or having another bash at getting my hands on the Lady Gaga album.


Oh yes, here's my Musebin- style one line reviews of what I expect to think of those albums:

The Killers - a pleasure while its on only to quickly slip into the background, never to be played again. Incidentally, remember glam rock bands in the 70s like The Sweet who had one very androgynous member who looked good in tinfoil whilst the three other fellas posed like reluctant builders in drag? Hmm ...

Razorlight - I honestly really liked the debut album by this lot but the memory of the cheap-suited businessman sitting opposite me on a train to Leeds listening to the last Razorlight album on his laptop, haunts me to this day.

Kaiser Chiefs - I liked approximately 5 seconds of last year's single Never Miss A Beat- the bit about wanting crisps for tea.

Franz Ferdinand - this will be another FF album and I can't wait. Actually, I can wait can't I? And I still am.

Lilly Allen - the single is magnetic. Almost as good as Foundations by Kate Nash. One of those records that you love regardless of who it is but because it's her, it's even better. A pop star to be cherished. If only her dad her suggested signing her when I ran his label.

Lady Gaga - I suspect I will enjoy this like the aforementioned Killers album.

White Lies - the bits I have enjoyed are ones reminiscent of other bands. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Or just a sign that I am old?

Anthony & The Johnsons - Like music fans everywhere I will be concentrating hard on liking this whilst secretly hankering after a few more tunes.

The new Bruce Springsteen album - the expression 'a safe pair of hands' springs to mind.