Sunday, 19 August 2012

We Shall Not Be Moved

So yesterday the band I wrote about in the previous blog just over a month ago (I know, I know, apologies) were sentenced. Two years in a penal colony. Absurd. As Nadia Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov commented, "What happened now is a clear sign that Russia is moving towards becoming more like China or North Korea".

I'm not going to write up the backstory as I'm sure by now everyone reading this will know about Pussy Riot. There were lots of comments on Facebook and Twitter (but curiously not on my actual blog),  about my suggestion of getting a record deal for them to raise awareness but now I'm sure that would have made little difference to the outcome - after all, if you've got the world's biggest stars like Madonna and Paul McCartney publicly showing support and TV news featuring it repeatedly as a lead story then how much more awareness is a hit record going to make? What I haven't read anywhere is how the verdict was timed nicely to occur just after Russia's Olympics result. Is it coincidence that it was left to the post Olympic back-slapping period when Russians and the world might be distracted by the country's triumphant fourth position? The good news is that nobody was distracted.

I watched the Olympics 2012 opening and closing ceremonies but failed to get swept away by the sport. Yes, I know I am perhaps the only person in London and possibly the rest of the world who behaved like this. Those of you who have read this blog over the years will no that I never write about sport and there is a reason for this. Whilst I enjoy cycling, swimming and the occasional kick about in a park, when it comes to watching sports I am missing a gene: I just can't do it.

For those of you who love watching sport - and judging from the Olympics that's pretty much everyone - it's hard to explain how I feel. One analogy might be a deaf person watching others enjoying music: I understand that it's a sheer rush of enjoyment and excitement but I am still left cold. I sat down with my children to watch the 100 metres sprint that Usain Bolt won and I'm glad I did because I could register their own excitement at  history being made. But I got this at no more that an academic level. Perhaps my inability to engage with sport is comparable to those people who struggle with humour. For example, the literal mindedness of people on the autistic spectrum or with Asperger's means that they struggle with 'getting' jokes. That's me; I am sportistic. Unfortunately, I don't have any of the compensatory
 levels of high intelligence and sensitivity in other areas that autistic people do.

It occurs to me that there are some unfortunate people who are like this when it comes to music. They hear it and watch others getting swept away by it and yet it leaves them cold. Even music lovers can relate to this because there is always some music which simply does not do it for them. One man's Revolver is another man's No Parlez. One Tweet I read during the closing Olympic ceremony was that it appeared to be a music concert organised by someone who didn't like music. Now whilst I won't have anything said about The Who at the moment (I am currently going through a massive rediscovery of their brilliance, including finally finishing Tony Fletcher's massive and brilliant Moon biography),  I do think that compared to the opening ceremony that this is true: it was a cavalcade of former BRITs winners. At times it felt like I had tuned into one of those I Love The 80s shows. All that was missing was a C-List celeb not born at the time, talking about how much they love the Eurythmics.

There were scant live performances in the opening ceremony but what there was represented a vision  - and the choices of song formed part of a tapestry. Danny Boyle's vision was like Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry: charged with challenging images and juxtapositions (NHS beds, Pretty Vacant in front of the Queen, the industrial revolution vs ecology), the closing ceremony resembled nothing more than a tapestry your auntie might stitch on a Sunday afternoon. No surprise that artistic director Kim Gavin has previous with the BRITS, Take That and many Cowell-related shows. Whilst clearly someone who knows the power of celebrity and glamour, musically it was something that could have been phoned in by someone who buys two CDs a year.

If there are people who like me are tone deaf to sport, or indeed some who are simply unmoved by music itself, then there are of course those who are unmoved by others' suffering. It's just a shame that  it is frequently those people, like Vladimir Putin, who take the reigns of power and refuse to let them go. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Sign Pussy Riot!

On Friday, the three members of Pussy Riot who have been in prison since March were detained for another six months by the Russian Authorities. They face seven years in jail. Puts the Bill Grundy episode into perspective doesn't it?

A quick primer for those of you who know about Pussy Riot: they are a Russian punk collective who stage flash performances in Moscow wearing dayglo dresses, tights and balaclavas. Their music, they claim, is inspired by the Oi movement bands like 4-Skins, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects. Ouch, I hear you say and I don't blame you - although I get the feeling the latter are due for a reappraisal after Punk Britannia and a forthcoming documentary about them made by the team who made Oil City Confidential. 

But actually, Pussy Riot's music is more interesting than an Oi rehash. Here's a song, which has more in common with early 90s Riot Grrl bands like Huggy Bear. It is genuinely exciting stuff.

However, the music is not the most important thing about Pussy Riot. The band (or collective; it's difficult to make a distinction but perhaps a useful model would be 70's Crass) have a distinct political agenda. They are all former Humanities students who came together to protest in the wake of the December elections in Russia. They like a lot of Russians massively disillusioned with a corrupt and broken system.  Back in March they staged a protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the church near the Kremlin where Putin and various other dignitaries go for their services. They performed a song called Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Expel Putin which was filmed and quickly put on Youtube. As usual. it was shot and edited by their own team of video makers to maximise the impact of their performances. Here it is

What happened next completely validates their protest. Three members of the band, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were arrested on charges on hooliganism the day before Putin was re-elected. Despite an outcry - particularly because two of the women are mothers of young children - the Head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, showed no forgiveness: "the devil laughed at us" he said, of the band's cathedral performance. That's the sort of review Lemmy would kill for. Since then there have been benefits performed by Beastie Boy AdRock, UK punk bands and other artists all over the world. There is also a Free Pussy Riot campaign now to get the girls released which accepts donations.
But then as I said earlier, last Friday (20 July) the three girls were detained for another 6 months by the Russian authorities despite Amnesty International campaigning for their release since April this year.
So what now? I don't blog about politics as you know, but it seems to me that Pussy Riot are exciting for all the reasons that made punk originally so appealing: they have something to protest about and they are doing it in a stylish way. What's more, they're not protesting about being bored or having no furture; they are directly and bravely addressing what is wrong with their society. So to recap:  the music is exciting, the goodwill is there and the band look great. From the point of view of a manager, promoter or record company this is surely gold dust. Let's get them a record deal! OK, the downside is that three of them are behind locked doors but surely the remaining members of the band could go on tour and use the money and publicity to further the cause. There are bands out there currently trading on a name with less original members for no cause worthier than their own wallets.
Plus - and here's the big one -  of the three girls currently detained, one of them looks like a total star - see if you can spot her:

There are already fanboy sites and Youtube video homages to Nadia Tolokno. 

I am not in touch with many remaining A&R people out there and anyway, my recollection of political awareness in A&R departments, is that most were more familiar with Roman Abromovich than Vladimir Putin, but Pussy Riot to me seems like a no brainer. Although now of course I have combined the dreaded words No and Brainer (applied by my last MD to such dead certs as The Twang and the Wombats) and thus have tempted the fate of the unrecouped advance.

Anyway, something needs to be done. What I propose to anyone out there with the budget and the marketing department is that all the Pussy Riot master tapes so far need to be collected, appraised and the best tracks should be mixed, compiled and mastered into a short, aggressive album - with English translation of all the lyrics in the package.  It needs to be made available online in all formats including vinyl and there needs to be a single, possibly with additional production and by a producer du jour - that of course, would be Paul Epworth. Just a flourish of syncopation and a light dusting of electronic squeak should work.

If Pussy Riot were to have a hit - and let's face it, the marketing is already done  - their cause would quadruple in awareness overnight and the pressure on Putin and his chums would put the oligarchs in an even more awkward position.

And punk rock would finally triumph. Come on!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

What am I going to do with my record collection?

This week there was a conference in Oxford, led by Bill Clinton, addressing the likelihood of what we do as a planet when we start running out of stuff. 

The usual conclusions were made by the Resource 2012 Forum,  but one issue they didn't tackle to my knowledge is what we do with the all the stuff we already own. Shoes, shirts, books, powertools... the endless accumulation of things that as a 'consumer society' we have been convinced we really, really need. And of course as far as I am concerned, the key problem faced by gentleman of a certain age: all that vinyl; all those CDs. The record collection. 

Last weekend I spent a hugely enjoyable time with two old friends in Norfolk. Both are still working in the music business so when the inevitable subject arose of what to do with a lifetime's collection of albums, singles, CDs , box sets and other spoils of quite liking music, there were different suggestions:

"Spotify, mate," said Andy,"you don't want to bother with the physical product."
Michael and I both looked at him in horror. 
"But.. but... what about the artwork? The liner notes?"

The problem with really REALLY liking music is that it is a holistic experience. It's about the memories of going to the shop to buy the album, the smell of the vinyl, the shrinkrwrap coming off a new CD, the first flick through the booklet to discover fresh pictures and information. I realise I'm sounding like a serial killer here but hey, increasingly, it does feel like I'm going to have to keep my music collection in a dark, concealed celler. 

I hate the expression guilty pleasure but that's precisely what it is sometimes. I know I already have Quadrophenia but that doesn't stop me wanting to find a copy of the original on vinyl with those amazing Ethan Russell photographs (incidentally, if you didn't see the Quadrophenia documentary it is well worth looking at even for the most part time Who fan). I know it's not the greatest album in the world but I still want a copy of the Damned's Music For Pleasure on vinyl because Barney Bubbles' artwork is so fantastic. I already own the Impressions' Young Mod's Forgotten Story on CD but I still have an eBay watch out on an original vinyl version. 

Of course, you know I'm a huge lover of artwork because of the book from a couple of years ago The Art of The LP. And my new novel (which is out now, reading fans!)  features an updated version of Wire's Pink Flag sleeve from which it takes its name. 

But it's not just about artwork. I like to have liner notes, information so I can really immerse myself in the album. Often this can be disappointing like when the record company employs someone who can't spell or in some cases, even write. I shall be doing a separate blog about this so beware.

So what do I do with all these trophies after I've hunted and gathered them? Shelves. Space. Walls. Cupboards. I'm a reasonable person and I like to think I do things in sensible proportions but this is what it's come to:

Perhaps that's a familiar sight to some of you. All I know is that as my daughters get bigger and want space for their own stuff (and the Barbie army is beginning to compete with my Rock/Pop section in volume) something has to give.

What are the solutions? Andy would suggest ripping the remaining undigitised CDs, then selling the whole lot. I have been shedding some of the dusty unloved stuff I've hung on to for years but it doesn't seem to have made much difference. Perhaps he's right. Burn everything, sign up to Spotify and enjoy the cat swinging space. My mate Steve next door did this. He loves music probably more than I do but has not bought a CD for over two years without any perceptible side effects. Crucially though, he's not one for packaging. He has a fantastic vinyl collection (some of which I used for the above book) but from the spines you'd never know - collectively they look like an old carpet as a result of cat clawing: original Stones, Beatles and classic jazz all mauled by an overenthusiastic feline. Ouch. I'd be shelling out for extensive therapy but he's fine as long as the vinyl still plays. My problem was discovering music at the same time as artwork became exciting - punk 7"s pic sleeves and coloured vinyl - all that late seventies packaging thing. I'm a sucker for Malcolm Garrett as much as Pete Shelley. Packaging and music have always gone hand in hand. Witness my constant involvement with the artwork of the acts I signed. The marketing departments hated me.

Another option would be to get a second home. Ha! Ludicrous and though it sounds in such harsh economic conditions, there are people with second homes and some of them are still my friends. Their solution is to ship their extra 'stuff' out to these places. Not a bad solution particularly when it's books and DVDs that you don't feel so attached to emotionally and which can be enjoyed by those people who visit and rent the property. 

But of course, I don't have a second home so that one's out. Other solutions could be a boot sale, donate to charity or even use Music Magpie. The latter, a seductively simple online selling site, don't give you a great deal for CDs but they do take pretty much anything that has a bar code. Interestingly, the only things I haven't managed to force on them were Madonna and John Lennon whose barcodes gave me the chirpy response: "We're sorry we don't like this album. Try something else!" Christ, if it's not looking good for those two then what hope for No Parlez? Actually, the last time I sold to Music Magpie (in every sense of the word 'last') they claimed that two albums out of the batch of 20 or so had not arrived. Interestingly, those two albums had the highest value and would have netted me about £10. Eventually I found one of their staff on the phone and was given some high number of packages received excuse. They caved in the end but it was a hollow victory, frankly.

I really would like some suggestions though. I love my record collection - a sentence which I am fully aware sounds more and more old fashioned as every year passes. Where will it go? I have less and less time to listen to it and like all of us, find myself experiencing most things digitally while I sit typing this or on the iPhone while I ponder condiment choices in Sainsburys. And yet the joy of flicking through the new Dr Feelgood box set or reading about the history of Yellow Submarine in the CD booklet is still a pleasure I look forward to. 

Of course, switching to Spotify would certainly meet the approval of the gathered intellects at Resource 2012. Music is, after all, merely a vibration of air molecules that requires no storage other than the instruments on which to play it. You don't need forest-consuming booklets and oil-guzzling discs to enjoy it. Being an ace guitarist, Bill Clinton would know that. But I bet he still has a shelf full of 70s classics back home in Westchester County.

Monday, 2 July 2012

What have the Stone Roses ever done for us?

In amongst the Saturday chores last weekend, I became increasingly aware of a chorus of Tweets from gentlemen of a certain age. The Heaton Park 'massive'. Mincing about down South it really felt like I was the only man of my generation who hadn't dug out a pair of voluminous Joe Bloggs trousers and headed for Euston. Yes, The Stones Roses reformation shows. Word on the Tweet seems to be that the shows were amazing with the caveat that Ian Brown had trouble keeping in tune. So no change there then.

The great thing about the Stone Roses was always that they inspired extreme opinion. That's a rare thing in pop culture today; there seems little to genuinely provoke and perhaps fewer people who care  - witness this week's demise of The Word. I'm the demographic for The Word and a subscriber - I even wrote for  it for a coupe of issues. The Stone Rose graced the June cover of The Word and in that feature Andrew Collins described his involvement in their story and what great times he had. In the Guardian the weekend before last, John Harris did the same thing from the negative perspective. See what I mean about polarising opinion?

The Stone Roses came at a point in pop when a lot of key writers and broadcasters were just starting out and this was their first taste of the glamour of the entertainment business. Like punk 13 years before, Baggy, Madchester, Indie dance - basically the movement inspired by Fools Gold - was a decisive break from the past. Up until The Stone Roses - credible music had been either Indie C86 underachievement or polished, gleaming and professional like Prefab Sprout, Lloyd Cole, The Smiths or Heaven 17. Here was a band who had a front man akin to Johnny Rotten: his appeal was not in his vocal chords but in his attitude. And this of course opened it all up again for the like of Happy Mondays, Charlatans, and later the whole Britpop movement.

In the official programme to the Heaton Park show, Damien Hirst claims The Stone Roses are more important than Picasso. Again, with the extremities; although, of course we should expect this from Hirst. I really like the Stone Roses album but the gigs I saw at the time made little impression on me - I just remember the terrible singing and the horrible football terrace crowds. Everyone I know who remembers them, gets dewy eyed about the wonderful male bonding and camaraderie. I think I was just there for the music and I missed the point.  But all that aside, here are five things I'd like to thank them for:

1) The first album.

I won't bang on about it because everyone is sick to death of hearing what an absolute classic it is. Suffice to say it still hangs together is eminently hummable and like all classics manages to be of its time as well as transcend it.

2) The singer

They brought a return of the handsome lead singer concept. Since the mid 80s, Indie had been whacked about the head by the ugly stick. By 1988 the best we could hope for was Miles from the Wonderstuff or David Gedge, but more often than not we got Black Francis or the blokes from Pop Will Eat Itself. Now, for the first time since the Smiths, the singer in a credible indie band could be a pin-up without NME readers becoming suspicious. The way was paved for Blur and Oasis.

3) John Leckie

A seasoned pro - as well as an absolutely lovely bloke - Leckie had done some engineering for Pink Floyd, Lennon and then made some classic punk albums including debuts from Magazine and XTC. But by 1989 he was no longer a go-to name. The Stone Roses changed all that and he subsequently never looked, back going on to produce Radiohead's The Bends and Muse.

4) Goodbye Rattle & Hum

Anyone who can remember 1988 must have been there. It was full of terrible post Joshua Tree raggle taggle faux Celtic rock bollocks. Bands like Deacon Blue, singers like Tanita Tikarum; it was The Waterboys wishing they were fishermen and everyone throwing in a bit of world music to show how in touch with their roots they were. The Stone Roses had no truck with being right on. Right on!

5) It's OK to Disco!

It's been said before and much better but Fools Gold - (don't be mistaken into thinking that the debut had anything to do with it) opened the door for music fans who were either shy of saying they liked a bit of a dance, rock fans with no previous inclination or hip hop fans who hated wimpy indie kids. It brought them all together in a great big melting pot and offered them fags, drugs and a good time.

So fingers crossed for the new Stone Roses material. Or maybe once again, I'm missing the point. Perhaps the best thing about them for most people just happened: in a field with your mates, all singing Waterfall better than Ian Brown can.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Crossing Aung San Suu Kyi with The Adverts

Finally caught up with Punk Britannia this week. People were telling how good the John Cooper Clarke documentary was but I’d not recorded it. I tried to watch it while we were in France but the iPlayer said Non. A shame, but I’m sure they’ll show it again. 

Last night I watched the final part of the main documentary (prudently Sky+d before we left) and Cooper Clarke’s name was mentioned in some footage of a 1978 Radio One playlist meeting. “Boring!” said a boomy male voice, which sounded like Dave Lee Travis’. Oh, the irony. How many other vinyl hopefuls that afternoon would go on to have a BBC documentary made about their life 35 years later? Certainly not Captain and Tennille. 

Everyone was smoking furiously in the meeting. Even the scary looking woman chairing it, who looked liked a cross between Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Myra Hindley. You could imagine her sat in front of the guillotine, knitting. To her right sat the Hairy Cornflake himself, resplendent with a cigar in a fug of smug. Further irony: it turns out that Lee Travis had been a World Service beacon of hope for Burmese national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest.. And he was one of the lucky ones invited to meet her during her visit to the UK this week. It  would be easy to make a flippant comment here about how bad life must be to perceive DLT in this way, but hey, maybe if you are a political prisoner with every appeal being ignored by your government despite having a Nobel Peace Prize, the last thing you need for entertainment is John Peel playing The Fall. I don’t know if he was doing Snooker on The Radio on the World Service back then but whatever broadcast ideas the bearded breakfast bore had come up with, they clearly floated Aung San’s boat.

Most of the three Punk Britannia documentaries had footage I’d seen many times before and anecdotes I was very familiar with. This is not a criticism of the show but of my own punk new wave obsessiveness. Grundy, Winter of Discontent rubbish bags in Leicester Square, Jubilee riverboat arrests, Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?  All the punk wave tick boxes were ticked. But I was still glued to the screen.

John Lydon is now the opposite of what he was in 1977, all too willing to laugh and joke and talk about his ‘art’. It was great to see Bruce Gilbert and Colin Newman talking about how radio completely ignored Wire despite the press being all over them. And what an amazing anecdote from Gang Of Four whose At Home He’s a Tourist was scheduled for Top of the Pops as long as they changed the line ‘And the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket.’ The BBC (yes, them again!) didn’t want a ‘disgusting’ word like rubbers on a family show. The band suggested changing it to ‘packets’ but the producers said it would have the same meaning. In the end the band jettisoned the show and another group whose single had stalled at the same chart position for two weeks were given a slot in their place. Sultans of Swing subsequently started climbing back up the charts and Dire Straits’ career was made.

Punk was great for career failure. The other documentary from the season I caught up with this week was We Who Wait, the TV Smith documentary. Again, you can imagine the Radio One playlist meetings after The Adverts had had their heyday. Lee Travis would have been less inclined to allow democracy than the Burmese authorities. But the documentary managed to be completely life affirming. TV - or Tim - Smith came up from Devon with his girlfriend Gaye and they reinvented themselves as punks. Gaye went on to become the female punk icon a year before Debbie Harry and the band signed to the punk label Stiff and toured with punk icons The Damned. (Best tour poster of all time incidentally) Within months they were on Top of The Pops and in the charts. Their debut album Crossing The Red Sea with The Adverts is now acknowledged as a classic. Actually, I’d argue that it’s quite flawed having gone back and listened to it again this week. Despite what luminaries like Jon Savage say, half of it is great tunes, all of it great words but somehow it doesn’t hang together as a whole.

After that it was pretty much downhill all the way for TV Smith. The band went through a Spinal Tap sized list of drummers, made a decent follow up that was given the worst sleeve of all time by RCA, split up, all the subsequent bands he formed failed and he spent the 80s on the dole. However all through this Gaye stuck by him, despite having given up music right after the Adverts split. She is interviewed throughout the documentary and comes across as the perfect partner: intelligent, supportive, full of humour and empathy. No wonder Smith managed to stick it out. Like the song and title of the documentary, he waited and when Atilla The Stockbroker (I know, I know) suggested he just go out and play on his own, sans band his career transformed. He now runs everything himself, plays all over the world to an ever growing crowd of devotees and appears completely artistically satisfied. Living proof that following your dream can eventually come good. 

No doubt Aung San Suu Kyi would have something to say about that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

... and we'd like you to dance.

We were away hiding in France during all the Jubilee 'celebrations'. I'm not particularly against the royal family; they're just there in everyone's life, like football or EastEnders: ubiquitous and - in me at least - inspiring neither devotion nor opprobrium. But I'm glad I missed the TV coverage of it, because I think I probably would have lost a few hours of my life stuck in front of the television. Just listening to The Word podcast describing Madness playing Our House on the roof of Buckingham Palace or Elton looking looking twitchy as Charles made his speech sounded like the sort of thing which I get glued to then hate myself in the morning.

It was a McCartney-tailored event of course. Since Live Aid, he's the jewel in anyone's gala line-up. But looking at the pictures - and yes, OK, I forced myself to watch some of it on Youtube, he is finally looking like the truth: the cherubic pretty boy of the Fabs is finally succumbing to the ageing process.

He is of course 70 years old today. I haven't looked through the papers but no doubt there are vast numbers of people spewing words about it. Actually, I have looked at the Guardian and they've done a nifty image galley of 70 images with corresponding features.  My point - relax, my short point about this is that Paul McCartney has always appeared much younger than he was. Despite the fact that he's the author of not one but two of the most famous songs about ageing, Macca has always seemed ageless. Over the weekend I indulged in the reissued CD of  his debut, which comes accompanied by a booklet of Linda's shots from their early 1970s bucolic family life. The idea of Paul being permanently that age (28) brimming with freedom and confidence at having escaped the Beatles is hard to shake. It's only when you are confronted with close-ups of the dessicated showman with the union jack guitar and braces standing next to the Queen, that the horrible truth becomes apparent. Time has caught up. He now looks, like so many ageing male performers, like an old lady. Soon perhaps, he may join this site.

And to make matters worse, as my mum - with what can only be described as a gleeful twinkle - pointed out, "Cliff Richard is still looking so young." That must have been harsh on Macca during the Jubilee bash. A million years old, Cliff looked full and fresh faced. Paul, still playing Hamburg while Cliff was in the charts, seemed very much like a spinster at the wedding.

Of course, this does not affect the music, which goes on and on. I'd never really listened properly to McCartney before and it's a lovely thing. Junk, particularly, along with its sister Singalong Junk are effortless whistle-along classics. I hold no truck with those that lament Macca's loss of the acerbic, witty realist Lennon. Paul wrote my favourite Fabs tunes and even when noodling away (as he is on much of McCartney) still can't stop himself being a safe pair of hands. I don't find myself slapping on Walls & Bridges very often and you really have to be in the mood for Plastic Ono Band. Paul generally puts you in the mood. Even, it has to be said, when he's playing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

So happy birthday, Paul. Even though you're long past 64, we still need you and life indeed must go on.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Wilko Does It Right

Less than a week after Shelly & co.  I'm back standing in front of a stage waiting for another legend/old fella (delete to choice) to come on. Back when I was listening to the Buzzcocks in 1977, Dr Feelgood seemed like a band who'd been around for ages and were not for me. Wilko Johnson had already left them by the time I first heard my mate Robert's sister playing She's A Wind Up.

Later at Manchester University, me and Michael - who I am out with tonight - used to go regularly and see the then-named Wilko Johnson Band at Band On The Wall  in Swan Street. If I'm honest, the thing I used to love most about going was watching Wilco's bass player Norman Watt Roy, who, ike everyone, I knew from Ian Dury and The Blockheads, his bass playing and look was (and still is) so distinctive - fingers like frenzied spiders, shirt soaked with sweet from the opening number. We've all heard Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick but did you know Norman played the bass part to The Clash's Magnificent Seven when he and Blockheads/Clash keyboard player Mickey Gallagher were jamming in the studio waiting for Simenon and Jones and Strummer to arrive? These days he'd get a writing credit.

Now 25 years later, Watt Roy is introduced by Wilko at the Rough Trade East shop as "The man I nicked from Dury's band". Wilko is here to launch his book Looking Back At Me and has been charmingly plugging it by gurning his way though some vintage anecdotes. He generously reveals how we can copy his guitar style: instead of bar chords, use three fingers over the top three strings then bar off the bottom strings with your thumb; next lift the thumb and fingers to dampen the strings in percussive style while you chug away with your right hand. Simple, right? He blames this rudimentary style on the fact that he was left handed trying to play a right-handed guitar, "it was year's before Hendrix, so playing it upside down wasn't cool, man..." Of course this is ludicrously modesty because the moment he demonstrates the method the room is filled with his such magical Telecaster choppery that it immediately seems pointless bothering trying to emulate it.

The audience is comprised of men even older than those who were at the Buzzcocks show. Here's proof:

See what I mean? A audience of Big Figures. We lap it up though, and are treated subsequent to the anecdotes, to half an hour of choice Wilko: She Does It Right, Roxette, Back In The Night... I love Dr Feelgood now in a way that I don't think I could have when I was at Manchester. I think you have to have got a bit of listening under your belt to appreciate the simplicity and stupidity of it. And EMI have done the decent thing and put together a handsome box set which I've been gorging on for the last couple of weeks. It's the sort of thing that makes me wish I still worked in the industry.

As the band play on I weave my way to the side of the stage where I can see Norman better. Like Wilko, he doesn't have a great deal of hair now but his distinctive Indian look and magnificent sweating fingers are still the same. During the inevitable bass solo, a thought occurs to me that we are now so far out into the waters of middle aged man that any woman here must surely have arrived by mistake - this is the sort of bluesy old muso territory they loathe. Or is that just my wife? I share the thought with Michael and he agrees.

Later as we leave (passing a dapper Charles Shaar Murray at the door) we bump into my friends Sophie and Imogen who immediately trounce my theory. They are beautiful twins who have come - on their joint birthday - to see Wilko play. It seems then that for both men and women, Wilko does it right.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Punk Rock Tardis

Old. Old friends. Old music. Old people. Last time I was at Brixton Academy was to see Everything Everything on some NME tour. It was full of fresh smelling youngsters listening to acts like Magnetic Man whose main schtick was to announce repeatedly that his name was Magnetic Man. This is different.

For starters the smell is different. It's not fresh. It reminds me of the smell in my grandparents bedroom on some summer mornings when I used to stay there in school holidays. Already the Proustian olifactorial work is being done by the crowd. Because this is more than a gig for most of us. It's a time travelling experience taking us back to the days of being thin, having hair and the days when we smelt like those Magnetic Man fans. Not for nothing is it called Back to Front. It's a Punk Tardis.

Buzzcocks, for those of you who have occasionally read this, was my first ever gig. Actually, how presumptuous of me to say 'occasionally' reading this, when I have only been 'occasionally' writing it. A couple of weeks ago I decided to start writing it again as so many people I meet ask why I stopped. I'll talk about that another time. So back to Buzzcocks. As I said, it was my first gig - I still have the poster I tore off the wall and it's framed in my study.

I was about to turn 13 and it was 1978. At Brixton last night, Kris Needs (still looking the same after 4 million years) in the role of compere, asked the crowd "Does anyone here remember 1977?" For everyone here, aside from the handful of youngsters, (mainly the progeny of the audience) this was a rhetorical question.

The opening act was the current line-up of Buzzcocks. This seemed to me largely to be The Steve Diggle band: thrashy, hastily arranged punk pop with with modish air pointing from Diggle and occasionally flashes of shy melodic genius from Shelley. The latter were constantly undermined by Diggle's mugging to the audience while Shelley hogged his limelight. Or perhaps I was reading too much into it.  A friend said later how he thought Shelley looked embarrassed at his antics. Either way, this didn't bode well for the rest of the evening.

But when the 1977 line of the band came emerged 5 minutes later, something remarkable happened. For starters, from where I was standing, John Mayer and Steve Garvey looked fantastic. Garvey was an idol for me, I remember now; by far the most handsome member of the band and with the benefit of having seen a thousand bands since I last saw him on stage (at the Rainbow in 1979 with Joy Division supporting) I realise now that he has a natural shape throwing swagger. Mayer looks old but in a stately Charlie Watts way. He plays magnificently. I remember finding out that he had opened up a Mini dealership but that may have been a rumour. I certainly don't think he's been playing professionally for years, which is a shame because he has such a distinct style - lots of toms without being showy.

The songs come fast. It would be pointless listing them. Highlights are two questions: Why Can't I Touch It? and What Do I Get? It's lovely to hear the whole of Brixton Academy do the Woah-ohs, which appear in the backing vocals to that classic run of singles which started with What Do I Get? and continued to Everybody's Happy Nowadays. You can't help but sing along.

Despite all this glory, Diggle still manages to buffoon it up. During Moving Away From The Pulsebeat he spoils Mayer's glorious drum solo by dancing ironically in front of the kit. He Bonos his way through Autonomy as if he's singing a song with an important political message. And still he windmills and points at the crowd in his pink shirt and white trousers (the rest of the band wear Buzzcocks black with Shelley making the extra Malcolm Garrett effort with a rectangular red shape emblazoned on his shirt). Even the merchandise stall is not immune from Diggle's ego which has elbowed its way into selling shirts with his name on.

They get an encore and play Every Fallen in Love and Orgasm Addict of course. How could they top that? Well, Devoto comes on and asks us whether we have our hearing aids turned up. He performs in the effortlessly stylish way he did during his Magazine shows and it becomes apparent to me that a star was what the Shelley/Diggle Buzzcocks were missing. This was their unique offering and perhaps also the reason they never lasted creatively beyond those three classic albums. Devoto's turn is brief but great. It turns the band into a classic timeless act. And Diggle, relegated to bass, get limited opportunity to twat about.

Outside in the still warm air, gentlemen of a definite age say goodbye. We meet friends we didn't know were coming and it all feels like an old school reunion: hairline and waistline taken note of, favourite songs clocked. This time, 34 years later, I don't tear a poster down off the wall while waiting for my mum to come and pick me up. Instead I go back to the car with my wife and brother and try and get home for mum who is babysitting. My daughter is starting her Year 4 topic The 70s next week and has decided to dress up  as a punk.