Friday, 16 October 2015

Along For The Ride

An apologetic, yet simultaneously confident voice greets the crowd at the Academy. Like Hugh Grant in a Humphrey Bogart hat, holding a Fender. ‘Hello Brixton, we’re Ride. Thanks for coming.’

Mark Gardiner (the man in the hat - who'd have thought?) seer into a song that I’ve not heard for maybe two decades but it sounds… well, it sounds fantastic; absolutely up to date and somehow not of its time at all.  Loz, Steve, Mark and Andy are ripping through Leave Them All Behind. Possibly their finest moment. They're back together (again, who'd... etc.) and it’s a good thing that they’re back together; good for them, good for fans, good for those who were born the year they first played. I wonder what Taylor Swift would make of them. 

Ride were a good group. Notice I didn't use the word great. Somehow, the apologetic air haunts them still, although as I stand watching them this October night 26 years after first seeing them, I think maybe that adjective might start getting used. They were Creation Records’ first popstars, a band on the cusp of greatness when they got swept away on the tidal wave of Grunge then crushed swiftly by the red double decker of Britpop. 

Don't be fooled by the Starting Out (1988 - 1989) entry on Ride's Wikipedia page.  This is how it happened: 

By rights, they would have been the first band I signed. I got my first music business job working as a talent scout at East West in 1989. Within days, I was coursing through boxes of unsolicited demo cassettes that had been abandoned by my predecessors and the rest of the A&R department. Dutifully, I listened to the first few bars of each of the standard three tracks on each one and then packaged them up in pristine Jiffy bags to be returned. Such were the pre-Internet days of the record business: Tanita Tikaram, Enya and The Ginger Prince provided us with the funds to spend on the R&D and I felt we were almost offering a public service. My rejection letters were masterclasses of tact and evasion “Thank you for making the effort to send us your material… It always boils down to a personal opinion so if we’re saying no that doesn’t mean you should give up – somebody else might love it!” Or words to that effect. I’ll try and dig out a rejection letter but for now here’s a collection of all the misspellings of my name on demos sent to me, which I made into a complements slip.

Ride were, as you might expect, not discovered via an unsolicited demo cassette. I heard about them from a local Oxford music paper called Gig. I believe Ride’s future manager, Dave Newton, had something to do with Gig but anyway, it was he I spoke to at the paper. Nobody tells you how to be a talent scout so I just did the things I imagined a private detective would do: I phoned up a lot of people who I thought might know something and asked lots of questions. Without hesitation, Dave  recommended Ride and a couple of days later a tape arrived which was and remains the best-presented demo I ever came across. Ride started as they meant to go on – everything had been thought through: 

The block capitals logo, kept for their entire career, was there from that very first demo; the solid, defintive colour; the minimalism; the iconography. 

Musically too, it was amazing. Both future classics Chelsea Girl and Drive Blind were included as well as a third (and first in the running order) I'm Fine Thanks (later available on the box set, completist chums!)

I went to see them live and it was clear they had been blessed: It all. That’s what they had. A great guitarist, a charismatic, hurricane of a drummer, a stoic, monolithic bass player and a ludicrously handsome lead singer. They were young, they were intelligent and they played a cover of Tomorrow Never Knows.

I couldn’t get much interest from the rest of the A&R department but Cally (a legend who I have written about here before  and had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this week for the podcast) loved it as much as I did.  He had signed a kind of UK version of Jane’s Addiction called Underneath What who despite being signed to our multinational powerhouse, had just released their debut single Firebomb Telecom on a small label called One Big Guitar for credibility’s sake. Cally suggested we convince Ride to do the same – we wouldn’t even sign them, just put it out for goodwill and see what happened. Again, the public service nature of how some of us viewed the job is apparent. Cally told me recently that he never thought the band would happen if they signed to East West and he may have a point. But then again Geoff Travis had done the Blanco Y Negro deal with WEA and Jesus and Mary Chain were doing quite well thank you very much.

The Reed brothers as it turned out, were Ride’s favourite band.  Cally and I found this out when we travelled to Oxford to meet them. They were hugely polite and well behaved but genuinely inspiring. We suggested doing some recording with them. One thing major record labels did all the time in the 80s and 90s was offer artists ‘demo’ time. Normally budgeted at around £500 it was both a gesture of goodwill (public service!) and a way of avoiding making a foolish A&R decision by simply signing a group because you’d seen one exciting gig. Looked at another way, it was a way of avoiding making an actual decision whilst keeping your options open. 'Umming and Erring' as the perenniel  A&R joke used to go.  I did it a lot at East West because I couldn’t get my boss interested in most of the things I brought in. But that’s another blog.

The band quickly agreed to us recording them so we could put out a record. I can’t remember any other record companies sniffing around. Major labels were all looking for the next Deacan Blue or U2. Even a handful of years later, the kind of scenario where a band this good, building a fanbase locally would be able to exist without their every show being rammed full of industry chancers. But back then, when Taylor Swift wasn't even 1,  it was just me, Cally – and one other person I’d told about them, Mike Smith who was at MCA Publishing. He couldn’t get any interest from his boss either.

Cally and I paid for some demos and recorded them in Oxford at same studio where they had recorded the demos. If you look back to the pic of the demo you can see Cally's distinctive writing in pencil '16 track Oxford'. My scrawl is next to the phone numbers, where I've put Mark and Steve's names next to the numbers (I've obscured the numbers just in case). You see the slick way we worked: proper grown-up A&R man and trusty scout. We mixed it in London at a studio called Arkntide of which I have a vague recollection. There is however one crystal clear memory.  

Crucially, when it came to the final mix, the band and manager trusted myself and Cally to man the faders to get it sounding how we thought would best show off the band's brilliance. It was the first and as it turned out, only time that a band let me get my own mucky paws directly onto their work. All respect to Ride, they knew we loved them and perhaps did it out of thanks. In addition to that Cally and I got a credit for remixing it. Not in our actual names, mind but in alternative monikers based on that favourite band of Ride's you remember from earlier. They switched Jim and William Reid's names to James and Bill and lo! Cally and I were immortalised. 

What happened next happened fast. Dave sent us transparencies of the artwork, the beautiful roses artwork that I'm sure you remember if you're bothering to read this:

Cally, being an artist and sleeve designer himself helped with all this and we started setting up the release with One Big Guitar. Then suddenly...


We were nowhere. 

What had happened was inevitable. Just like a girl in the tentative early stages of a relationship, Ride stopped returning calls. Eventually, we were told. It was obvious really, and we should have known all along: the band had been seduced by Alan McGee at Creation. Who could blame them? If you were 19 and in love with Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and then their manager and record label offered you a deal, would you sit around waiting for a a pair of blokes who worked for Tanita Tikarum and Chris Rea's label? 

Ride rose swiftly after the release of the Ride EP. Cally and I wished them no ill because they were great and deep down we kind of knew that Creation was a better label for them than us. As well as this, Dave and his charges remained very loyal: we got our credit on the record and even a decade later they credited us on the OX4 box set and indeed sought us both out to give us a copy each.

And now here I am watching them on stage. They play two sets, one comprising the imperial period from Going Blank Again then they return and give us the whole of Nowhere. They've just returned from the US and they're going back again after they finish in the UK. The signs of this relentless touring are not that they seem jaded and exhausted but rather they have become the band they always threatened to become in their heyday: Loz's drumming is tighter, the harmonies are more strident, the playing simply better. They are as muscular as the block capitals behind them:

Added to this the audience are not, it must be stressed, just a bunch of old blokes like me, but a healthy mixture of male and female. This makes sense because Ride were after all, the thinking women's early 90s totty alongside the Charlatans and before Blur. 

After the gig I decide not to go backstage and shake hands with them all 26 years later. It would be lovely of course, but I suspect it being a London show that there are many folk like me who will be forming an undignified queue outside the dressing room. 

I say goodbye to the friends I came with and walk back through Brixton humming Drive Blind and Chelsea Girl. After everything, those two songs from that first demo are the songs they save for the encore.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Haven't you got enough records already?

Walking to my mum's house last week I did a double take. Outside the door of the house a couple of doors up from her was a small box

My mum, AKA Granny, lives in a narrow one way street with tiny pavements lined with pretty cottages and  full of people who sculpt and paint and have summer garden parties where lutes might get played. It's just the sort of street every grandmother deserves to live. But what about the box sitting there taking up space on the already cramped pavement?

Naturally, being a reader of this blog, you've spotted exactly what I spotted. Not the cat books leaning desperately against the door (take me home!) , nor the collection of small plastic knick knacks. No, the Apple Records logo on a 7" which in turn fronted a wodge of more records behind it.

Who could resist having a rifle though?

I don't know about you - and I really wish I did - but I love nothing more than looking through second hand records. The joy of serendipity; the thrill of finding a record I've wanted for ages, or finding something I never even knew existed, or never knew that I wanted or... Well, those of you who love pop music will hopefully know what I'm talking about. Refreshingly, there are many people in the music industry who are still like this. My friend David Laurie, for example, who, not content with running his own record label Something In Construction, has just published his first book DARE ...

Relax, I only have the one copy; this is one of David's snaps, I think.

In the introduction to this book (which is excellently researched, lavishly illustrated and a breeze to read), David freely admits that he remains incapable of walking past a record shop without going in. I very much hear him. It is a common problem amongst music fans - there are simply so many tempting records and there is actually a simple answer to the perennial rhetorical question posed first by parents then later by spouses: haven't you got enough records already? That answer, my friends, is NO.

So did I find a copy of God Save The Queen on A&M? A Beatles Love Me Do promo disc? An
unreleased John's Children 7" ? Read on and I'll let you know.

There is something tantislising about singles, isn't there? In the 60s, 70s and 80s albums were a big pocket money investment and generally only purchased by committed fans or people with jobs but the single had an entry level price; besides what else was there to spend your money on back then? Because of this, charity shops are now clogged with them, which means that in terms of finding a interesting or rare one, you have to sift through an awful lot of Doolies. You may have already seen this pic I took a couple of weeks ago for my ongoing game Charity Shop Fruit Machine:

Whole lotta Shakey going on.

These days the price is not so entry level: If you want to hear music on 7" by new bands they are made in such small quantities that you'll end up paying close to ten quid for one single. But a couple of months ago a mate of mine told me about a way of getting 7" vinyl from brand new bands delivered to your doorstep. He sent me the first batch from the Flying Vinyl singles club. Inside a doorstep of a box came five seven inches from bands I'd never heard of. Inevitably some of them were better than others but crucially they were all lovingly housed in unique picture sleeves, one of them was on purple vinyl and there was a handy booklet about the artists. I've just received the third batch:

I love cardboard.

There, I've said it - and the folks at Flying Vinyl seems to understand the importance of the tactile experience. After all, I could listen to all these bands on Soundcloud, couldn't I?  But these guys have chosen who to release (a spot of A&R) and then gone to town on the packaging. Even removing the outer shell of the posted package is a little bit exciting. Yes, yes, I know. I should get out more:

Ooo, what's in here?

Argh, mustn't tear it, the pressure, the pressure...

Phew, we're in.
The club charges you £20 every month for the singles including the postage, which isn't bad even if you only like a couple of the singles. This month is a vast improvement on the first month in my opinion: Here's a snapshot of my thoughts as I played the records:

Beach Baby
A lovely purple coloured vinyl record (each month one artist gets a coloured release - not sure how they decide this) Four piece who've got a vocalist reminiscent of Babybird's Stephen Jones and a pair of cracking tunes. I wish their logo was better but you can't have everything.
Kid Wave
Signed to Heavenly already and sounding not unlike the wave of Thames Valley bands from the early 90s. Big tunes sung by shy people. I'm not going to the Sh word which ends in oegazing. And lovely artwork too.
The Big Moon
A really great A side (Sucker) from this all girl band  - the B side isn't so good but the singer's got a very convincing voice. Either they're not interested in artwork that much or Flying Vinyl ran out of pantones for their sleeve.
Theo Verney
The least convincing of the bunch - the booklet tries to persuade me that he's 'the artist that the psych-rock genre has been long-awaiting". I hope their wait is over.  Sounds like Kasabian demos to me but maybe he's great live.
Oh So Quiet
Undeniably a terrible band name but it does at least encapsulate the gentle, mellifluous sound they make. The Argentine-born female singer has a voice which touches on Nina Pearson from the Cardigans, but that doesn't quite rectify it for me. A great sleeve though.

Regardless of the single in it, though, anything that keeps 7"s on the turntable is a good thing. Even without it, though, I don't think I'd have any trouble. I can smell the magic of a copy of Janet Kay's Silly Games a mile off. Even my eleven year old daughter is now asking to put "the small records" on because they're more fun. Yesterday she found my copy of Rockaway Beach (picture sleeve, of course) and she, her younger sister and I danced to it for its duration, as we watched it go round and round.

And as for that box in my mum's road, it turned out to be, well, a bit of new wave treasure trove, albeit with the former owner's name making its way onto the artwork a little too much. Ah well, that's 7"s single for you, they all tell a story.