Saturday, 21 November 2015

Devo, The Adicts, Benjamin Clementine and Motörhead.

If you read this with any regularity you may have noticed, perhaps with some disdain, that you are here far more regularly than I am. I apologise. The whole point of a blog is to be regular. 'Regularly and in small doses' writer Tony Fletcher once advised me about blogging and it looks like I have completely ignored him.

If I have an excuse it's not because I've been spending time with the telly. Although I was of course glued to it last night watching the Mercurys. Benjamin Clementine, eh? 

Benjamin Clementine graciously invited the other eleven nominees up onto the stage with him after the announcement that he'd won. It was a genuinely moving moment, topped only when he almost broke down honouring those affected by the atrocities in Paris.
The attraction of the Mercury Prize is that it is about what is happening NOW. There is little thought for posterity in the judges'  voting which is a good thing; they always go for what feels right precisely at the time of voting. This accounts for Gomez beating Massive Attack or The Verve, Roni Size trouncing Radiohead and of course famously M People triumphing over the combined muscle of Blur, Pulp, The Prodigy and Paul Weller. If anything - and I have to confess to preferring Clementine's cheekbones over his voice -  this year's winner pipped the others to the post because of his Parisian backstory. PJ Harvey's win in 2001 was partly because of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea's connection to a grieving New York.

I was due to go to Paris the weekend the atrocities happened. My brother had  never been to Paris and is a massive fan of Motörhead who happened to be playing at the Zenith that weekend in the 19th Arrondissement. 

Motörhead went on to cancel the show despite the venue initially claiming all shows there would go ahead.

I'd booked the tickets, Eurostar and hotel months before and we'd both been looking forward to seeing Lemmy barking out Ace Of Spades as well as doing a quick once around the beautiful city. As I travelled down to London to stay with him on Friday night, the news bulletins started coming in and by the time I arrived at his in Cricklewood, it was clear that even if we did get there, our weekend in Paris would be a very different one to the one we'd planned. 

I'd booked the tickets, Eurostar and hotel months before and we'd both been looking forward to seeing Lemmy barking out Ace Of Spades as well as doing a quick once around the beautiful city. As I travelled down to London to stay with him on Friday night, the news bulletins started coming in and by the time I arrived at his in Cricklewood, it was clear that even if we did get there, our weekend in Paris would be a very different one to the one we'd planned. 

In the end, after a day spent watching the driving London rain whilst checking Twitter, Facebook and BBC updates (and watching Spectre - more international terrorism, thanks), we gave up and I travelled back home. I felt the luckiest man to be alive and shortly to be able to see my family. The target could just as easily have been the show we were due to attend. 

Going to a gig is such a magical, freeing thing to be able to do and to know that something like that can happen in a the capital city of a country whose entire ethos is based on liberty is truly tragic. My sympathies are with anyone affected by the events.

To briefly sink to bathos: that's another reason why the blog never happened. 

Other reasons are that I've been travelling. I went to L.A. for the first time in 20 years to conduct interviews for a book I'm putting together on DevoFor those of you who aren't sure what I'm talking about, just click on that link and watch the clip for their film (produced by themselves incredibly in 1976) and you'll get a sense of just what a remarkably odd, influential and yet always melodic group they were. 

I struggled picking a photo of the band that encapsulates them because they changed their look with every album release.  However this one (despite being a mirror image of the actual picture I think) does it better than most as it features not only their legendary Energy Dome hats, but also their collective facial expression, self designed clothes and also, remarkably, self designed fabric behind them. Sweating the small stuff, that's what it's all about.

I'm not going to band on about Devo now though, because I suspect I'll be bringing the subject up again in the course of the next few months. Suffice to say, that both founder members Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were incredibly gracious with their time and also brilliant fun. Plus, visiting Mark in his office/studio was a bonus because it looks like this:
This roman amphitheatre style office on Sunset Boulevard was originally built in 1967 by a plastic surgeon. Mark painted it green ostensibly to offset the gold tinted windows but really I suspect because it makes it entirely Him.

While I was there I also had the opportunity to do a little shopping. Blimey, there are a lot of second hand record shops in L.A. I think I went to all of them.

I took this shot outside Gimme Gimme just after emerging with my mate Jason (who shares my vinyl addiction and knows every record shop in LA) laden with albums including Sly And The Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On ($1!) and Mandrill's first album ($15). I was jealous of this passer-by, partly because she'd found a trolley to match her top but also because I needed something to cart my booty around in.

On the flight back I had an odd serendipitous experience: The overhead lockers on VS23  were all stuffed full of hand luggage and I was trying to add mine to it at the eleventh hour. Sat next to my window seat was a middle-aged man who looked all toothy and charming  - a bit like the actor Phil Davies. 

He stood and offered to move his coat and make room. 
"haven’t got anything fragile in there have you?” he asked about the Amoeba Records bag I was shoving in on top.
“Actually, yes, I’ve got a couple of vinyl records ..”
His eyes lit up, “Really? What you got?”

As I finished loading the locker and sat down next to him I prepared myself for his deflated reaction to the ancient obscurity in the bag.
“Well, I was in Amoeba earlier today and I found an original copy of a record by Patrick Fitzgerald”
Patrick Fitzgerald!” 

I don’t usually write the word ‘exclaimed’ but there is no better verb to  describe how he repeated the name. Fellow passengers’ heads turned. He continued, “what, the punk troubadour? Safety Pin Stuck In Heart? Genius!”

If you want to hear what my fellow passenger got so excited about here it is

The Virgin check-in person had not only sat me next to the only person on the flight to have heard of Patrick Fitzgerald but quite possibly the only person in L.A. to have hear of him. 
“What a treat to sit next to fan of punk wave,” I replied , “Pleased to meet you, I’m Ben, “ I said offering my hand.
He took it and gave a toothy grin, “Kid.”

It turned out that I was sitting next to the drummer from Clockwork Orange-clad punk chancers, The Adicts.

Kid is the fella sitting on the far right. He's actually much cooler looking than this pic gives him credit for.
He proceeded to tell me some amazing stories about his early life, growing up in a family where dad was the entertainment promoter for military bases where the itinerant family lived. Kid - or Michael as he was then known - would often wake up in the morning and discover members of The Kinks or whoever had played the previous evening, sleeping sitting room. 

I must confess to having been almost entirely ignorant of the band's work other than their Alex Droog-look, but listening to the stuff on Spotify the songs are witty and pretty powerful, kind of like early Adam And The Ants without the whips and leather. What was genuinely inspiring to hear from Kid (still can't quite resolve that name with my 50-something fellow passenger) is that their longevity and popularity has earned them a real respect from fellow bands young and old. They now headline punk festivals all over the world and  have a seriously devoted fanbase. Lemmy's a fan apparently.

Kid had been in L.A. writing and recording new stuff with his brother Pete Dee and singer Monkey who both live there now. Kid has remained true to the band's hometown of Ipswich and was returning there to wife and kids. "We're still popular because we're still the same - I mean, no offence, right (he points at my shaven head) but we've all kept this (pointing at his own) and Monkey still looks the same in his make up. But when I get home, I'm not Kid anymore, I'm Michael Davison, just out walking the dogs..."

And so we sat there, two fellas of a certain ago talking about music and enjoying the inflight hospitality. Kid seemed remarkably adept at persuading the initially reluctant staff to keep us refreshed, something he put down to the 35 years of punk rock international travel he's had.  It struck me that like The Adicts, Devo could in theory have gone on without pause given that their image was about costume and disguise too.

The reformed Devo in the noughties. Older, wiser..

And that's all pop music is isn't it? Just dressing up and making up songs. Some artists use  their own life experiences like Benjamin Clementine, others dress up and sing about imaginary events people or invented worlds like Motörhead, The Adicts or Devo. Jerry from Devo was at Kent State University when State troopers opened fire on students protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. His friend Allison Krause was one of those killed and he witnessed it. The trauma part inspired Devo. 

Let's hope the events in Paris last weekend go on to inspire something positive.

Monday, 2 November 2015

10 Reasons Why Rock Music Might Be Dead

This could be what a new fan of rock music looks like. But who is it?

Last week found me sitting in a ubiquitous coffee chain in Central London talking to the Saul Galpern ahead of him guesting on the podcast. Saul was on to discuss the Mercury Prize and as we went through the nominees it was clear that there wasn't much in the way of guitar music represented. Saul was telling me about a recent conversation he'd had with the son of a singer from quite a famous band and how this young fella - himself a huge fan of music - uttered the immortal words, "rock is dead."

So while I don't necessarily agree with him, here are some reasons why he might be right. As my seven-year-old daughter would say, "Just putting' it out there."

Rankin took this picture. I'm undecided as to whether it does the album justice.

1) The Mercury Prize
There are only three Mercury music prize nominations which you could describe as guitar rock  but while each has its own merits, are any of them really taking the genre forward? In fact has rock been redefined by anyone since, say The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys or The Libertines. Wolf Alice have got some tunes and good vocalist but there's something relentlessly ordinary about them.  I'm fond of Slaves, but it's a concoction which most people over 30 will be very familiar with. One disclaimer to this point might be that I am relentless old so I am clearly not the target audience. As Saul wisely said, if he was 15, he would never have heard Buzzcocks or The Fall so Slaves would be a clarion call. The third nomination is my favourite of the entire Mercury shortlist: Gaz Coombs' Matador. Arguably Coomb's has never wanted to break rock's mould but with this album he has definitely swerved off Supergrass Boulevard into something more interesting. Perhaps he could keep rock alive for a bit longer.

Sleaford Mods in their state of the art recording studio
2) Sleaford Mods
One band who are getting championed  as doing something interesting and showing genuine passion are Sleaford Mods. But these guys are almost old enough to remember punk rock the first time around. As a boy, singer Jason Williamson was a huge Jam fan, which led to his disillusionment with recent Weller output. As well as this, the audience at Sleaford Mods shows would appear to comprise of ladies and gentleman of a similar age to the band who have - like me, I admit - found angry kindred spirits in the band. Great, yes. Keeping rock alive by inspiring young kids? Not sure.

3) Archivisation
Dylan's label started this back in the 90s with the Bootleg Series, which is now on its 12th volume with The Cutting Edge, a trawl through the outtakes of his 1960s big hair period featuring, I kid you not, 20 versions of Like A Rolling Stone. Again, the old fellas like me, especially the ones who like packaging (again: me) will be adding this on their lists for Santa, but it's more nails in the coffin for the plan to convince 'the kids' that rock is about exciting, rebellious new things. Oh, and there's another Beatles package for Christmas too.

4) Bedroom Strumming
Bands are expensive. To keep going with no art school grants or any of the other financial support networks that used to exist (in the UK at least ) in the past is hard. Who pays Paying for rehearsals, equipment, petrol for gigs and all the other stuff you need to do to keep a band going? Clearly it's the greatest fun in the world playing in a room with other musicians but wouldn't it be quicker and cheaper to do it in a bedroom with computers and shit? Well, ask Ed Sheeran, Laura Marling, Villagers. And these are just names I'm plucking from the forefront of my brain. These days it's easier to cite solo artists or duos than bands. This doesn't necessarily make for less effective music - the previous three artists are at the forefront of my mind because I like them - but are they rock? I think the answer is no.

Sheeran archived.

5) It's Everywhere
How good do your favourite records sound after you've been starved of them? I remember coming back from holidays when I would only have so much room for CDs and experiencing the physical pleasure of satiating myself on missed music. Now we can take everything everywhere. And if that wasn't enough we're also exposed to it in shopping malls, hold music while your call is being valued, in taxis, and while we wait for planes to take off. Even when you're on a flight there is no escapge from Classic Rock - which now means Ride, apparently.

Virgin Atlantic's current choices of All Time Greats.
Incidentally, I just found a copy of There's a Riot for one dollar. Result!

6) Books Books! BOOKS!.
First sign of something being over is when it gets its own shelf of books. Books on Rock used to be tucked away in a corner of Waterstones. Recently in Foyles in London I was confronted with the sight of three bowing shelves full of rock minutiae. And still they keep coming. Peter Dogget has just written another 720 words about 125 years of pop music. Like so much modern art, I suspect the main achievement here is really to say I Have More Time Than You.

7) Brand extension.
My brother now has a pair of Motörhead headphones. Why not? The Motörhead logo is arguably the finest part of their legacy; it should be on more products. Extra Mature Motörhead cheddar, anyone? I'd buy that. Iron Maiden have just marketed their own beer Trooper which looks like this:

You can buy Clash notebooks, Sex Pistols iPhone cases, Rammstein steel lunch boxes and... well, I don't need to list them all here. You know what I'm talking about - and don't get me wrong, I am tempted. My favourite purchase is the punk rock coaster set:

8) Heydays
Think about classical music. Or Jazz. Every music genre has its heyday. Yes, classical is still immensely popular. But here the clue is in the name. Those going to a classical concert will more than likely be listening to music written hundreds of years ago. Just like those of us going to see Iggy Pop. As for Jazz, it's been a heritage industry for all of our lifetimes and is still going. Yes, practitioners still write new jazz music but it's the great artists and albums which attract young fans. Having just seen the movie Amy, it was clear that Winehouse was not queuing up to listen to Courtney Pine or John Schofield, she wanted Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday. So perhaps Rock will soon just be another canon of work which new artists interpret. But will anyone be reinterpreting Catfish And The Bottlemen in 50 years?

9) Reforming reforming.
Recently I saw a bunch of posters on a wall in a market in Bristol. For a moment I thought it was a collectors stall with lots of original posters from the late 70s: The Rezillos, The Ruts, The Cockney Rejects. Then it became apparent that these were freshly produced posters for artists who were on tour and playing at a nearby venue. It's now hard to pick a band from this period who haven't reformed. The original artists reinterpreting their old work. Can't see the kids queuing up for it.

10)  The ruddy music!
I'm desperate for a new innovative band to come along like The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes or The White Stripes. But they all emerged over 10 years ago. Yes, I am old and jaded and possibly not worth trying to engage with new music, and I know that it's the same for every music fan to chase the thrill of discovery first felt when they heard that band or that record for the first time. But I'm open-eared and I know lots of people male and female just like me who have not given up looking for new acts which excite them.  Please someone direct us to them!

So is it dead? I think I'm with Pete Townshend.

Oh yes, that new rock fan up at the top of the page. That's my daughter Maddy. She likes Rockaway Beach by the Ramones and Bad Blood by Taylor Swift. On vinyl of course.