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.