Monday, 31 March 2014

Pixies pt. 2: the post-Doolittle years

Having been swept off my feet by the powerful seduction technique of ‘Doolittle’, I embarked on a true affaire de coeur with Pixies. Of course, as in life, I was rather shy, and entered into the relationship with some trepidation. I bought the previous two Pixies albums ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Come On Pilgrim’ (conveniently compiled on a single CD), and learned them off by heart. When ‘Bossanova’ was released, I was there from day one, buying the vinyl LP with the limited edition lyrics book inside. I bought all their singles, put up posters on my bedroom wall and saw them in concert. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

It was a sad day when Pixies broke up (David Bowie once said the same thing, apparently[1]), but our relationship remained as strong as ever. That last album,1992’s ‘Trompe le Monde’, was easily their weakest work, yet still head and shoulders above pretty much everything else that came out that year, including all those grunge records they undoubtedly influenced[2].

Post-pixies, Black Francis became Frank Black and embarked upon a rather fluctuating solo career which failed to deliver on the promise of his Pixies days. He formed a new band, the Catholics, which featured Santiago on guitar, threw hard rock and country into the melting pot and garnered a little more acclaim (‘Dog In The Sand’ is actually the closest he got to a record of Pixies quality). Then he became Black Francis again and not only resurrected that terrifying scream, but also formed another band, Grand Duchy, with his wife, boasting a distinctly electronic edge.

Kim Deal, meanwhile fared better. During a Pixies hiatus after ‘Doolittle’, she formed the ‘supergroup’ The Breeders (with members of Throwing Muses, the Perfect Disaster and others).  After the split, this became her fulltime venture and the band’s second album ‘Last Splash’ remains one of the most revered records of the 90s.

And then of course there were the inevitable record company cash-ins: the best of album, the b-sides album, the unreleased demos album, the BBC sessions album, another best of album… Just keeping the legacy alive, eh?

Fast-forward to the summer of 2004, 12 years after Pixies broke up. After 8 years together (and two kids to the good), Mrs Robster and I finally decided to go legit and get married like grown-ups do. Well, in fairness, she had decided years before, it was me who had foolishly dragged his feet…

I had wondered whether I’d ever see the Pixies again. There had been rumours of a potential reunion for a number of years. And then…

“Legendary Pixies To Reunite For Tour” (MTV.com, 9 Sep 2003)



Although many of us refused to hold our breath at the prospect, the news was finally confirmed: they were back! A four-night residency at Brixton Academy was announced. I promptly bought the tickets and prepared myself for the most exciting summer of my life: getting hitched and seeing Pixies once more.

Except, for ‘summer’ read ‘week’. When I checked the dates, there were but three days between each big occasion; the Mrs and I would be honeymooning in the tropics of central London. In hindsight, maybe I was a little selfish. While we hadn’t made any plans to go anywhere post-wedding, I jumped straight in and announced: “We’re going to see the Pixies!” with very little consultation. Not that Mrs Robster wasn’t a bit of a fan herself; she once told me she would love to be able to scream like Black Francis, which I thought was a pretty cool thing for her to say. But travelling to the smoke to see my favourite band was probably not her idea of blissful married life.

And while she tolerated my exhilaration and anticipation of the big day (the gig, not the wedding…), I tried hard to keep a lid on things, to keep things in perspective. Strangely, I was more successful at that on the night itself. I resisted the urge I had to race down to the mosh-pit and relive my long-past teenage years, choosing instead to admire from further back the still wondrous sight of the four Pixies playing my favourite songs. They still had it though, whatever ‘it’ was, and a new generation of Pixies fans, who hadn’t been fortunate to catch them first time round, were now seen throwing themselves about to those same songs I had some 14 years before.

In spite of the rather ironic name given to the 2004 reunion – ‘The Sell-Out Tour’ – Pixies never sold out. They remained fiercely independent and for the next five years, toured lots but refused to release any new material that wasn’t right up there with their best work – only a single original song (Bam Thwok) and a cover of a Warren Zevon track for a tribute album emerged. But then, in the summer of 2013, they ‘did a Bowie’. From nowhere, a brand new song, Bagboy, appeared on their website. Boasting the classic Pixies sound, it took everyone by surprise, not least because only a couple weeks before the band announced Kim Deal had quit and it was widely assumed that Pixies were no more. Since then, 11 more new songs have seen the light of day through a series of EPs (which Mrs Robster in particular rates rather highly), and all 12 new songs will be released as the album ‘Indie Cindy’ next month. So it seems that, for the time being at least (and in spite of sacking their new bass player after just a few weeks), Pixies are here to stay. Hurrah!



My adoration of Pixies refuses to diminish. Other bands have come and gone, but Pixies remain a big part of my mind and soul, with my heart beating quietLOUDquiet and occasionally emitting a piercing caterwaul over a discordant guitar and a breathy backing vocal.



Soundtrack:


[1] "I felt very depressed the day I heard about the Pixies split.  What a waste... I could see them becoming huge." – David Bowie. Our Supreme Lord David covered the Pixies track Cactus on his ‘Heathen’ album in 2000.
[2] "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band - or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard." - Kurt Cobain discussing Smells Like Teen Spirit, Rolling Stone, Jan 1994

Saturday, 29 March 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #2: Doolittle

Music will always present you with a new ‘first’. Your first record, your first gig, your first slow dance; everyone has these. But there are a lot of less obvious ‘firsts’ that many never experience. How about your first jawdropper? The first time you heard something that literally made you stop in awe and think: “Holy crap! What the hell is this?” Sometimes these are bad, but I’ve been fortunate to have had two or three great jawdropping moments, and my first occurred when I was about 19.

The NME used to publish various charts. The most relevant to me at the time were the Indie charts, which only featured records released on independent labels. One particular week in 1990, the indie albums chart was dominated by one band, who held the top three slots.

That band was Pixies.

All I knew about Pixies at the time was they were American and I owned a 7” EP that was given away with an issue of Sounds featuring two of their tracks[1]. On seeing that chart, I knew I had to check this band out, so on a hunch, I nipped into my nearest record stockist[2]  and bought that number one album ‘Doolittle’.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this record would change my life!

Never in my life had I heard anything quite like ‘Doolittle’. Just the opening track gave me goosebumps, shivers and *whomp!* that first jawdropping moment. Debaser's first few seconds - Kim Deal’s simple bass intro – are innocent enough, but when Joey Santiago’s searing guitar kicks in, you know there’s no going back. But what really did it for me was Black Francis’ vocals. No restrained build up for him – oh no. It was a full on howl from the moment he opened his mouth.

“GOT ME A MOVIE, I WANT YOU TO KNOW,” he screams. “SLICIN’ UP EYEBALLS, I WANT YOU TO KNOW!”

The chorus took it to another level: “I am une CHIEN Andalucia!” repeated four times, with each ‘CHIEN’ accentuated by multi-tracked yells. I had absolutely no idea what the hell he was going on about[3] but I was now officially a Pixies fan. That song, to this day, turns me into a gibbering wreck. Whenever it comes on, just forget about even trying to talk to me for three minutes; I’m gone.

When Debaser ended, I remember simply muttering a dismayed “Fuck…” to myself.  But before I had the chance to pick my jaw off the floor, Tame began. If I thought the opener was intense, then this was just off the scale. Francis’ terrifying screams of “Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaame” throughout the song’s conclusion sounded like he was possessed. Forget Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’, Black Francis nailed the blood-curdling shriek in this moment.

There was respite – the unashamedly pop stylings of Here Comes Your Man gave one room to breathe, and Kim Deal’s spaghetti-western slow-burner Silver lent an eerie swampy sound to the proceedings. But overall, ‘Doolittle’ was the most intense thing I had ever heard.  

The thing is, ‘Doolittle’ covers so much ground in its 15 songs, you come out of it feeling exhausted, yet at barely 38 minutes in length it is somewhat brief. That’s not a criticism – on the contrary, it is exactly as long as it needs to be. There is no filler, and every single second of it exists because it needs to. It bristles with energy and tension throughout. The variety it offers is not so obvious on first listen, but it is rich with sounds, textures, rhythms and tempos. Check out, for example:

  - The twangy surf guitar on Wave of Mutilation
  - The warped reggae skank of Mr. Grieves;
  - The classy plucked strings and bowed cello on Monkey Gone to Heaven;
  - Dave Lovering’s seldom-heard baritone voice on La La Love You;
  - The band’s trademark quietLOUDquiet structure of the scorching closer Gouge Away.

‘Doolittle’ is, in my opinion, the closest thing to a perfect record I have ever heard/will ever hear. Very little has even come close to matching it. And it hasn’t dated. For a record released 25 years ago, it remains remarkably fresh. Perhaps it is because it was so far ahead of its time in 1989, time just hasn’t caught up with it yet. Or maybe so many artists and bands continue to be heavily influenced by it, it is as though ‘Doolittle’ is as relevant as anything released today. It’s certainly far better than 99.9% of things released today could ever dream of being. I want to die to this record.


Soundtrack:


[1] Demos of Rock-a-My Soul and Down to the Well which originally featured on the band’s demo ‘The Purple Tape’, but remained officially unreleased for a number of years.
[2] At the time, this was upstairs in the Tuck Shop in Torrington, which I have to say had a pretty decent selection and a top-notch ordering service.
[3] Surrealist movies, as it turns out.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The enigma of Kate


A change of plan for today's post...

At 9:30am GMT today, tickets go on sale for Kate Bush's first live shows for 35 (that's THIRTY-BLOODY-FIVE!) years.

Kate and I go back quite a number of years. I first became aware of her when Wow was riding high in the charts back in 1979. I remember mum hating it, taking the piss by wheeling her arms around like Kate did in the video. I thought it was rather quirky, but really didn't get it. The following year I saw her do Babooshka and Army Dreamers on Top of the Pops and still couldn't quite work out what the hell she was up to.

Then, in 1985, she released Running Up That Hill and that was my Kate Bush epiphany. I mean honestly - What. A. Friggin'. Record. I was 14 and still learning lots about music; Running Up That Hill sounded like nothing else on Earth. I rushed out and bought the 'Hounds of Love' album and became engrossed. If you've never heard it (you should be ashamed of yourself), it's in two defined sections. Side one has all the singles on, while side two is a 7-track concept piece entitled 'The Ninth Wave'. I had to work quite hard to get into the latter half of the album, but learned to appreciate Kate's artistry and uniqueness at a time when pop music was becoming insipid and uninspired.

Naturally, I went out and investigated her back catalogue, discovering 'Hounds Of Love''s even odder predecessor 'The Dreaming', what she herself referred to as her "I've gone mad" album. It is indeed difficult to listen to at first, its multitude of styles and moods come at you from all directions: the Irish folk of Night of the Swallow; the Aboriginal drone of the title track; the jauntiness of There Goes a Tenner. The production is claustrophobic and dense, and despite the relative success of lead single Sat In Your Lap (one of the strangest songs to ever grace the Top 20 - hurrah!), there really is very little that screams "smash hit!" at you. In fact it was Kate's least successful album, yet it's my fave (go figure). It's also a big favourite of Björk, which totally justifies my love for it!

And while we're on the subject of other artists who have been inspired by Ms Bush, here's a few more, just in case you need further convincing of her wonderfulness:

  - Tori Amos - the most obvious, of course.
  - Kate Nash - another really obvious one; even her name is similar!
  - Joanna Newsome - take one listen to her 'Have One On Me' album and tell me the spirit of early Kate Bush does not reside in Joanna Newsome!
  - Goldfrapp - in particular the very Kate-titled 'Seventh Tree' album.
  - Florence Welch, St. Vincent, Feist, PJ Harvey... oh I could go on and on...

Sadly, Kate only makes a new album once in a blue moon these days, but 2011's '50 Words For Snow' was well worth the wait. Again, eschewing any craving for a hit, Kate concentrated on making beautiful soundscapes around the theme of winter. The title track, featuring the bloody marvellous Stephen Fry, was one of my top highlights of that year.


Now 55 (and still looking fabulous), Kate Bush remains an enigma. If she has something to say, people tend to stop and listen, which is why I anticipate all 22 dates at the Hammersmith Apollo will sell out in minutes.

UPDATE: 15 minutes, in fact. That's all it took. And of course, eBay is awash with them now for £1,200+...


Soundtrack:

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #6, #7 & #8

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

#6: The White Stripes 

Anson Rooms, Bristol – 20th November 2001
Also in attendance: Mrs Robster, Matt the Hat

The year the White Stripes broke through. Having been introduced to them in the summer, I quickly became obsessed with Jack and Meg White, but it wasn’t until the autumn when I saw them live for the first and only time that I really understood what the fuss was about. They were immense. The sound they produced totally belied the sparseness of the stage setup – a basic drumkit, a couple of guitars, a Rhodes electric piano and some mics. Jack tore around the stage in a frenzy, blurting out deranged vocals in the style of a crazed blues singer with some hefty scores to settle. Meg somehow kept apace with her rudimentary drumming skills, like a female Ringo Starr only much prettier. No wonder there was such a media storm around them at the time. Truly mindblowing stuff. Eighteen months later they released Seven Nation Army and conquered the world.

(Matt the Hat, owner of a couple of second-hand record shops in North Devon, recorded the show and was kind enough to let me have a copy. Sadly, it has since gone walkabout, otherwise I'd have posted a track from it here.)

Soundtrack:

#7: The Levellers
The Lemon Grove, Exeter University - 14th October 1991

For whatever reason, I think the guy on the PA was feeling somewhat mischievous this night. After the support band had finished, he for some reason thought it would be a good idea to play ‘Straight Outta Compton’ by N.W.A. The entire album. Very loudly! Now, gangsta rap was never your average Levellers fan’s cup of tea, in spite of the shared sentiments in the lyrics of Fuck Tha Police. The longer the record played, the more restless the crowd became. Initially, I found it hilarious, but I did start to get a tad concerned as the audience became increasingly hostile towards the sound guy. So it was somewhat of a relief when the Levellers finally appeared on stage.



Soundtrack:

#8 Teenage Fanclub
The Lemon Grove, Exeter University - 28th January 1992

Enjoyable 'n' all, but nothing mindblowing from the Fannies. The night is most memorable for being the one and only time I ever crowd-surfed.  What a silly thing to do...

Soundtrack:

Monday, 24 March 2014

Mama

This post comes with a warning – This piece is possibly the most difficult and personal thing I've ever written. It contains possible tear-inducing sentimentality and very personal memories. Avoid if you are likely to blub like a big girl’s blouse.

Also, apologies to JC for posting this less than a week after he featured one of these records on the (new) vinyl villain just last week. This just happens to be the right time to publish this part of my story.

[UPDATE (Sep 2014): JC posted a very kind tribute to this blog back in July in which he replicated this article in full. I remain seriously touched by his gesture. See it here.]

I suppose if you want to blame anyone for kickstarting my interest in all things music it would probably be my mum. Personally, I could never thank her enough. It was her records that I first picked up and listened to and it was she who bought me many of my earliest singles as I started to develop my own taste. And while she may have hollered at me to “turn it down” on more than a few occasions, she never once even suggested that I might be spending a little too much time listening to records in my bedroom and that I should be out doing something more constructive.

My earliest memories of my mum’s musical influence on me I’ve already documented but perhaps my fondest memories, as well as one or two of the saddest, come much later on.

The weeks that followed my first gig, the Wedding Present at Exeter Uni in 1988, involved me playing Wedding Present records often and loudly. Every so often, mum would pass by the bedroom door and remark: “They played that one, didn’t they.” Apparently, she heard the last 20 minutes of the show from the car park while waiting for us to come out. Not only that – she took in every tune and could identify them weeks afterwards! Not bad for a Frankie Vaughan fan, I thought.


Mum was never shy to offer her opinion when she felt the need:

 “I think that record’s smashing.”
 “I like his voice.”
 “He’s a lovely looking chap.”

Those latter two were directed towards Tim Booth, enigmatic frontman of James, while the first statement was used to refer to the original version of their single Sit Down. (She was also known to remark “What a bleddy racket” about all sorts of things, but that’s another story!)

Sit Down was first released in 1989 when the band was in a sort of limbo state. They had been dropped by Sire records but not yet picked up by Fontana. The band released two singles on Rough Trade in this intervening period, the other being Come Home. Neither were hits at the time, but both were later re-released by Fontana and catapulted James to stardom.

I bought that original 12" of Sit Down. It contained the extended 8 minute version[1] with the lengthy instrumental ‘dub’ segment and it became one of my most played records. Because of this, it was inevitable that mum would become exposed to it at some point. When she was, she was immediately hooked.

Mum liked a good song, a proper song; a good strong melody, meaningful lyrics and no faffing about. Sit Down ticked all those boxes, plus in Tim Booth, it had a singer who could properly communicate the song. He’s one of those rare performers who sounds so perfectly genuine, even in his more obscure, arty moments. This wasn’t lost on mum. She was drawn to Tim Booth by his vocal expressions, the way he sang as much as what he sang.

Sit Down became our song and I always think of mum whenever I hear it, whatever version is played, and I smile because I’m reminded of how happy it made her feel.

  “Those who feel the breath of sadness
  Sit down next to me.” – ‘Sit Down’ by James

Another song that reminds me of mum, for entirely different reasons, is This Is How It Feels by Inspiral Carpets. Now there’s another band who knew how to write a decent tune, a prime example of a superb singles band (though their albums got progressively better; ‘Revenge Of The Goldfish’ is certainly worthy of a critical reappraisal). This Is How It Feels was released in 1990 as the lead single from the band’s debut album ‘Life’. The single and album versions had slightly different lyrics, but one particular line, present in both, still resonates with me and makes me think of mum.

In the 12-18 months leading up to that point, mum had started to become ill. There were no visible symptoms, but it started when she keeled over in the street for no apparent reason one afternoon. At the time she laughed it off as just clumsiness. Mum laughed all the time, and she was as stoical as the day is long. No fuss and nonsense for her, just laugh at your misfortunes and get on with it – that was her way.

But then, a week or two later, it happened again. Then again. That’s when she began thinking something was wrong. The next few months consisted of increasing visits to the family doctor, followed by misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis. Cancer was ruled out, multiple sclerosis was in, then out, until eventually we were told it was Motor Neurone Disease[2]. The problem was, none of us knew anything about MND, and even our GP admitted he had never seen a case of it himself. Often the unknowns are far worse than the knowns.

Looking back, it’s easy to reflect on how terrified mum must have been. She would, in all likelihood, have been told her condition was terminal, but the lack of information available in those pre-internet days would have only served to stoke the fear and worry she must have felt. I know pretty much for certain her biggest concern would have been her boys and what would happen to us when she wasn’t here.

Meanwhile I just carried on as normal. It was like some form of denial I suppose, but at the time I refused to let what was happening affect my life. I’ve torn myself up over this ever since, but accept the guilt I feel as deserved punishment for the way I acted in the face of this catastrophic event.

Amidst all of this however, the one abiding memory I have is something my mum said to me as she passed my bedroom one evening. I was, as usual, playing records. On this occasion it was This Is How it Feels. It’s not a happy song, rather it evokes the feelings of helplessness, despair and turmoil in the face of domestic trials such as unemployment and depression. Mum heard a line which particularly resonated with her:

  “Kids don’t know what’s wrong with mum
  She can’t say, they can’t see
  Putting it down to another bad day.” 

“That’s like us,” she said. “Kids don’t know what’s wrong with mum, putting it down to another bad day.”

That’s all she said, but it’s all she needed to say. She understood. She couldn’t fully explain what was happening, and she knew I had to cope with it in my own way. Her citing of this lyric showed her empathy, compassion and warmth along with her own regret that she didn’t feel she could really tell us how she felt. I’ve thought about that an awful lot in the intervening years. I still carry the guilt but gain some comfort from that one moment. Of course, it also showed how she knew music was the one way she could truly communicate with me.

Things didn’t improve. Mum’s condition got progressively worse. She became wheelchair-bound, unable to dress herself, feed herself or go to the toilet by herself. She even lost the ability to speak. Her dignity and pride gradually ebbed away along with her capability to control her own life. Even worse, her mind was intact. She was fully aware of everything and everyone, but was unable to do or say anything. And all the while I just carried on regardless.

She passed away in a hospital bed one evening. I wasn’t there. I think I was watching TV. Arthur, our closest family friend who had recently become engaged to mum, was at her side. But I wasn’t. That remains the single biggest regret of my life. I can never change it. I hate that so much.

All I can do now is remember with fondness the way mum connected with me through music. She would probably hate that I can’t forgive myself for how I behaved back then, but that’s the sort of person she was. “Let’s just put it down to another bad day,” she would be telling me now. “Come and sit down next to me.”


Soundtrack:



[1] Unofficially known as the ‘Lester Piggot version’ owing to the slightly bizarre reprise at the very end.
[2] For more info on MND, see http://www.mndassociation.org/ and http://www.brainandspine.org.uk/motor-neurone-disease

Saturday, 22 March 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #1: Kite

My series of '20 songs to take to my grave' is falling flat on its arse if the viewing stats are to be believed - but sod it, I'm going to pursue it nevertheless, partly because what was a list of 20 is now evolving into a list of 50... However, this weekend it takes a rest as a new (similar) series begins. Sometimes, a single song isn't enough. Sometimes only the whole album will do.


'Kite' was Kirsty MacColl's second album[1] and is, quite simply, one of the most perfect and beautiful recordings ever made. Her career up to this point had been sporadic at best. Her debut single, the wonderful They Don't Know (1979), was released during a distributors strike that meant it failed to reach the shops. Her debut album 'Desperate Character' came out in 1981 to good acclaim, and she enjoyed a couple hits along the way - the best known being There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Thinks He's Elvis and the Billy Bragg-penned A New England.  A scrapped second album, the collapse of her record label, chronic stage fright and legal wranglings resulted in her only being able to get session work for a few years, though this period did yield her collaboration with the Pogues on Fairytale of New York. By 1989, she was frustrated and world-weary but blessed with a wealth of material.

The songs on 'Kite' took on numerous themes, but nearly all were doused in wit and cynicism in equal measure. In Innocence we get the scorned woman confronting her errant ex. Kirsty's often turbulent relationship with the male of the species was a recurring theme in her work.

  Degeneration suits you now, I'm going home to cry
  You won't be seeing me again, but you'll always wonder why

There's the biting summation of Thatcher's Britain in Free World, a culture she described as "grab whatever you can and sod the little guy":

  I thought of you when they closed down the school
  And the hospital too

Morrissey once sang "Fame, fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain." Kirsty wrote 15 Minutes, my favourite song on the album:

  Then there's always the cash, selling yourself for some trash
  Smiling at people that you cannot stand, you're in demand
  Your 15 minutes starts now


Yet these gems were outshone by 'Kite''s big hit, the Kinks cover Days. Ray Davies' original reached number 12 in 1968 and marked a return to the upper reaches of the hit parade after a turbulent period for the band. Days was Kirsty's first solo hit for four years and, coincidentally, also peaked at #12. It was (along with the superb No Victims) perhaps one of the finest examples of her unique studio technique of vocal layering. Those swoonsome harmonies were created entirely by Kirsty who would sing a line, then move to a slightly different position and sing it again, then move a little more and sing it again, and so on until a choir of Kirsties was created. Oh that voice, it makes me want to simultaneously beam with delight and cry my little heart out at the sheer beauty it exudes.

'Kite' was Kirsty MacColl's masterpiece, yet typically it stalled at number 34 in the charts. It continued to sell steadily however and has been reissued several times. A recent version contained the Days b-side Still Life, arguably her finest three minutes[2]. It chokes me up whenever I hear it; how it never made the album first time around is surely one of life's great unsolved mysteries. Of course, all versions, save the original vinyl and cassette, included her cover of the Smiths' You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby which Johnny Marr himself admitted beats the original hands down.

There isn't a bad track on 'Kite'. Even what I consider to be the weaker tracks towards the end sparkle with enough wonderment and joy thanks to Kirsty's lyrics and golden voice. Accompanied by such luminaries as Marr, David Gilmour, Mel Gaynor and husband Steve Lillywhite, Kirsty MacColl made a record that was not only worth the 8-year wait since her previous effort, but even today stands out as a symbol of triumph over the adversity she had faced up to that point and would continue to fight right up to her tragic and premature end. 

Soundtrack:



[1] Although it was actually the third she recorded; there remains an unreleased record entitled 'Real'. Some tracks eventually saw the light of day on the brilliant box set 'From Croydon to Cuba: An Anthology'.
[2] Though Soho Square from 1993's 'Titanic Days' runs it pretty damn close.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The goth phase

My brief flirtation with goth was pretty much over by the time the 90s were upon us. I was what you might call a ‘closet goth’; I liked the scene, the music, the people and the fashion (or should that be anti-fashion?), but I rarely showed any outward signs of it other than wearing the mid-length black overcoat I bought from the local Army surplus shop.

I was kind of aware of goth by the time I was attending college (1987-88), with Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure the two bands that I had come into contact with. I didn’t necessarily know they were goth bands though, and there is an argument that both were far too eclectic to be labelled as such. The first ‘proper’ goth record I remember was the Sisters of Mercy’s epic This Corrosion, an absolute beast of a track. The 12” version weighed in at 9 minutes (the full-length album version was even longer) and boasted a choral section, deep growly vocals and trademark 80s goth production (which sadly makes it sound rather dated today). It’s only surpassed in the Sisters’ canon by Temple of Love, another monster which was always guaranteed to fill the floor with black at college dances. Every goth in sight would leap into the air as soon as the first chorus kicked in!

One of my college mates had a secret crush on a girl called Stella, who clearly modelled herself on Patricia Morrison of the Sisters of Mercy. Stella was your textbook goth – long black hair, plenty of dark make-up, long black dress, etc. The one thing that went against her was that she bought her clothes new, not from second-hand shops. This faux pas led to her being unfortunately tagged as ‘the plastic goth’.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for goth girls, always have. This is probably one of the reasons I became such a fan of All About Eve. Fronted by the divine Julianne Regan, All About Eve were kind of ‘goth-lite’, more a folk band with goth leanings. I bought the 12” of Wild Hearted Woman on a hunch from Woolworths in Bideford for 99p and was enchanted[1]. Julianne had the voice of an angel, and it was a really good song to boot. I ended up seeing them live twice, buying all their future releases as soon as they came out, and even paying obscene amounts of money for their very rare early singles from various second-hand shops.

I also saw the Mission and bought records by the Rose of Avalanche, the Cure and Joy Division. But that was about it in terms of my goth phase, such as it was. I never ventured into Fields of the Nephilim or Bauhaus territory, or stuck around long enough to embrace the next wave of goth, the significantly heavier and more aggressive tones of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. I never wore make-up or used patchouli oil. Neither have I ever read Anne Rice’s ‘Vampire Chronicles’, nor become an ardent aficionado of gothic horror movies.

I do, however, count myself as a huge fan of Nick Cave, and I also love Dead Can Dance and Killing Joke. I’ve read and enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems and often wear black. Oh, and I’ve seen Beetlejuice several times. Does that count?

Soundtrack:


[1] When I heard the album version of Wild Hearted Woman I was disappointed. I always felt (and still do) that the 12" version was so much better.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #5

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

#5: Bis 

The Cavern, Exeter – 1st June 1996
Also in attendance: The future Mrs Robster, Louse, Midget, Tim & Phil (I think) 


Probably one of the most hilarious nights I can remember, and it had little to do with the band. It was another hot and sweaty one at the Cavern, Bis were the main attraction having just had a hit with their single ‘Kandy Pop’. Mrs Robster and I were barely six months into our relationship, but she was already comfortable (ish) around my more, erm, charismatic friends. A good job too, if this evening was anything to go by.

Quite why everyone was so keen to see Bis remains a mystery; they were absolutely fucking awful. I thought the single was simply irritating (still do!) and saw the media frenzy surrounding them as a last desperate act to latch onto something new to throw onto the dying embers of the Britpop bonfire. The flames rarely flickered by this point, but Bis were hardly the gasoline to set them roaring once more. Mrs Robster was no more enamoured by the band than I was, but we went because I could gain free admission to the Cavern. That, and because a certain group of friends were going and they were always good fun to be around.

My memory betrays me now and again, so it is entirely possible one or two things I relay in this story may be inaccurate. For instance, I’m pretty certain that as well as Mrs Robster and I, also present were Midget, Tim, Phil and Louse[1]. However, it’s possible Strimmer[2] was there too, and that maybe Midget wasn’t. I stand to be corrected should any of those involved wish to put me right.

Tim had a van he used for work. He drove down to Exeter, I agreed to stay sober and drive back. The Cavern was packed – as expected – and Bis were just as terrible live as on record – also as expected. They all looked about 10 years old, especially singer Manda Rin who acted as if she’d had one too many glasses of orange pop before she went on stage. Louse, never one to exercise a great deal of restraint, heckled the band from early on. What really got him started was the guitarist yelling: “Yeeeah! Punk rock!” This was as punk as an episode of Play School[3] and Louse let rip.

“You’re not fuckin’ punk you fuckin’ wankers!”  And so on…

Following the show, Mrs Robster and I went back to the van just ahead of the others. Only Midget and Louse followed. Phil had gone walkabout, and Tim – well, it seemed Tim had become friendly with a couple of ladies. Midget and Louse had tried to tell him that, in their opinions, maybe he wasn’t quite their type. OK, so what they actually said was: “Tim, they’re lesbians, you’ve got no chance.” But Tim persevered, despite repeated warnings from the others.

Phil had said he was going to get something to eat at the end of the show. So the four of us got in the van and drove around looking for our absent compadre. We found him. For some unknown reason, we found Phil nonchalantly walking along the street pushing a shopping trolley. In the trolley was an upturned table that may or may not have come from the Cavern. I did wonder if I was hallucinating, it was truly one of the most bizarre, yet hilarious sights I’d ever seen. What probably made this even funnier was that it was Phil; I always expected to laugh when Phil was around.

Someone asked him: “What the hell have you got in the trolley?” Phil’s matter-of-fact reply was: “A table.” Well, ask a stupid question… Phil abandoned his booty and jumped in the van. I never did find out if he was successful in his quest for food, and the ‘table in a trolley’ haul was never explained.  

On our way out of Exeter, we caught one more sight of Tim, accompanied by his two new friends. We stopped and called for him to come with us (using various choice expressions to let him know he was wasting his time), but he insisted we drive on. He’d be fine; he’d catch a bus back in the morning and pick the van up from mine as arranged.

The following morning, I looked out my front window and Tim’s van was gone. He had indeed picked it up as the key I left in an agreed location was also gone. I didn’t see or hear from him for a few days. I did see Midget though, who couldn’t wait to tell me what had happened. As he told it, Tim got back to the girls’ place, whereupon they thanked him for walking them home and went inside – without him. Stranded 30-odd miles from home, Tim weighed up his options… and started walking. He made it back to Torrington around 7am, picked the van up and drove off. He claimed he’d walked all the way, but I’m still not sure. The next time I saw Tim, I asked him what went wrong. He didn’t seem that bothered, not on the surface at least.

“I reckon they were lesbians,” he surmised…

Soundtrack:


[1] Who’s who: Louse – tall, skinny punk who had a dog called Gish (yes, after the Smashing Pumpkins record). He and girlfriend Anna were travellers for a while and occasionally crashed at my place; Midget – one of the funniest people I ever knew. Another punk, Midge never failed to make me LOL and also introduced me to lots of great punk and grunge bands (Helmet, Screaming Trees, etc). Sadly no longer with us, Midget nevertheless left a big legacy in people’s hearts; Tim – the archetypal ‘gentle giant’, many people have a Tim story to tell; Phil – Big Phil was another brilliantly funny guy with a character as large as his physicality. He was rarely seen without a huge grin on his face. Even rarer was someone in Phil’s company not grinning along with him!
[2] Strimmer: Strim’s chat-up lines were notorious. “That’s a lovely blouse,” was one of his subtle efforts, while “What’s your favourite position then?” was among his most amusing.
[3] Play School (accessed 10 March 2014)

Monday, 17 March 2014

The lost art of record shopping

The thrill of buying records was only surpassed by the thrill of finding a record you’d been searching for for ages - and then buying it. The late 80s and early 90s were my peak record collecting years. I discovered second hand shops, mail order and record fairs. I spent small fortunes on records; I was a true vinyl junkie.

In Barnstaple, there was Second Spin where I picked up loads of old 7” singles by the likes of Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Sisters of Mercy. I also semi-regularly visited a couple of amazing shops in Exeter (all long gone now, and sadly even their names escape me) where I picked up some lovely booty. I remember paying a whopping £25 for the original 12” (not the re-issue) of In The Clouds by All About Eve on my 18th birthday, £15 for the re-issued 12" of Thru The Flowers by the Primitives, and similar, erm, shall we say ‘interesting’ prices for various R.E.M. singles including the So. Central Rain 12”, the double 7” of Wendell Gee, and an awesome transparent orange vinyl US 12” promo of Orange Crush.



Barnstaple Pannier Market was the surprise location for even more goodies. There was a guy there who specialised in bootlegs and it was from him that I started my (financially unhealthy) interest in R.E.M. live shows. He would actively seek them out and give me first refusal with no obligation to buy. Generally though, I was more than happy to pay the man, especially as he usually came up with really good quality stuff.


Thanks to the ads in the back of NME I started buying all kinds of goodies via mail-order. R.E.M. and the Wedding Present were my main targets, but there was a huge array of stuff I obtained this way. Coming home and finding a brown record-shaped cardboard package in the porch was just the greatest thing ever for me. I also remember with great fondness my first trip to Soho in London and wandering into Sister Ray, a place where I’d previously bought things by mail order. I think it may have been there that I made my prize discovery – not one, but two copies of the holy grail: All About Eve’s first single, the much sought-after and very rare D For Desire 12”.  I examined both carefully, made my choice and paid the man a princely £50 for the pleasure; still the most I’ve ever paid for a piece of black plastic. Worth it? At the time, yes. Every darn penny! However, if I even contemplated spending that amount of money on a single record nowadays, I’m pretty sure Mrs Robster would have something to say about it (and it would probably start with an ‘F’!)

Record fairs were also great fun, I’d spend a whole Saturday morning in Barnstaple’s Queens Hall rooting through box upon box, rack upon rack, pile upon pile of wonderful, wonderful vinyl, chatting to stall holders and having to decide what not to buy. And all this in addition to the several-times-a-week visits to all my local ‘normal’ record shops picking up limited edition picture discs, coloured vinyl, gatefold sleeves, bonus b-sides not available on any other format, poster packs, tacky badges, the 7”, the 12”, the remix 12” (where the tracks bore little, if any resemblance to the originals), the CD single, the collector’s CD single, the 3” CD single… the music industry thrived on suckers like me buying into every sneaky marketing ploy in the book.


Alas, those days are gone. There are various reasons. On a personal front, I ran out of money to buy all these desirable goodies, subsequently running up debts I couldn’t pay. Then I met the future Mrs Robster who put a kerb on my audacious spending in a bid to wean me off my habit and get me on the straight and narrow. She succeeded where many others had failed; a quite astonishing woman, she is. And then, of course, the internet came along.

I didn’t get into downloading for a while, preferring instead to stick with CDs. However, the convenience and space-saving nature of MP3s eventually convinced me and nowadays, with the odd exception, I am pretty much exclusively digital as far as my music purchasing is concerned. Sadly, I am probably one of the reasons record shops are on the critical list nowadays. It is far, far harder to tour these places in search of that elusive Ned’s Atomic Dustbin picture disc that escaped you in 1991 as, quite simply, ‘these places’ are few and far between. Those that remain cater for fairly niche markets in a bid to stay alive. I do miss those days of disposable income and equally disposable multi-format product. I suppose that’s what ‘growing up’ is all about. Such a shame my kids will never experience those same thrills I had.



Soundtrack:

Sunday, 16 March 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #5: Different Drum

As I've said plenty of times, I'm a sucker for a great tune, and today's song has one of the finest melodies ever written. I mean seriously: What. A. Tune! It's also one that has been covered numerous times and while I can't claim to have heard all of them (or even most of them), I've yet to hear a really bad one. That, to me, is also a sign of a great song - one that is very difficult to do poorly.

Interestingly, my least favourite version of Different Drum is the original. Penned by Mike Nesmith (the Monkee with the hat), it was first recorded by bluegrass band the Greenfriar Boys in 1966. The true potential of the song however, wasn't unlocked until the following year.

The original felt melancholic, and when folk band the Stone Poneys, fronted by a young Linda Ronstadt, initially played it, it took the Greenbriar Boys version as its foundation. However, a new arrangement was concocted in the studio by producer Nick Venet and a group of session musicians. Ronstadt, who admitted to finding the new arrangement confusing, turned in a blinding vocal nonetheless and the song became a huge hit. To this day, when people talk of Different Drum, it's often referred to as a Linda Ronstadt song; hers is regarded as the definitive version.

The song's writer Nesmith recorded his own version in 1972, but it failed to live up to the Stone Poneys rendition, preferring instead to adopt an acoustic folk-country vibe. Subsequently, it has been taken on by all and sundry: soul legend PP Arnold did a lush strings-drenched rendition, while country singer Skeeter Davis, punk supergroup Me Too & the Gimme Gimmes, ex-Replacements singer Paul Westerberg, indie slackers the Lemonheads and 80s pop icon-turned-freak Pete Burns all gave it a go too.

My favourite version though was released in 2006 by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. Their first album together, 'Under The Covers Vol. 1' was a collection of cover versions of songs from the 60s. The standouts for me were their takes on the Zombies' Care of Cell #44 and, of course, Different Drum.  The harmonies are fantastic and Susie's voice is one to rival Ronstadt's. This song shines so bright when it's done well, but Matthew and Susanna add a real sparkle to the shine with the vocal harmonies that were lacking in earlier versions.


Soundtrack:

Friday, 14 March 2014

The College Years: Part Two - Document

Nils Horley was a guy at college who was pretty much loved by everyone. The girls wanted to sleep with him, the boys secretly wanted to be him. Nils had charm, wit and humour in abundance. He also had his own place and, in the words of David Bowie, “boy, could he play guitar”.

Nils also loved sharing his passion for music with people. Whenever I popped round his flat there were records strewn about the place and there was always music playing. His tastes were typically varied, but he just loved awesome guitar playing. However, despite the steady diet of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zeppelin and Van Halen he fed me on each visit, it was a very different band that Nils introduced me to that had a profound effect on my life – and not just in a musical sense.

December 1987: A 16-year-old Robster was finding college a slightly strange experience. On the one hand, I was struggling to see much relevance of anything I was being taught in classes to what I wanted to do with my life. I was devoid of enthusiasm and inspiration in terms of my pending adult life. On the other hand, college was an incredible place for discovering music. Already I had become engrossed in a slew of artists that were completely new to me – The Wedding Present, New Order, the Soup Dragons, etc – and I wanted more, more, more. And I got it.

One Friday afternoon, Nils aroused my interest. “Ever heard any R.E.M.?” he asked. “Errr, no,” came the reluctant reply.  I so wanted to say yes and sound cool, but I couldn’t tell a lie. Not that Nils cared, he wasn’t the kind of guy to pass judgement on people. “Listen to this,” he said as he handed me a cassette. “I bought it for my brother for Christmas so can I have it back on Monday?”

And that’s the moment it started. Bye-bye old Rob, welcome to a new dawning. This was the day R.E.M. entered my life and my very soul was changed forever.


What Nils lent me was a copy of R.E.M.’s fifth album ‘Document’. What immediately struck me was the cover – a black and white photo of a guy constructing some kind of abstract sculpture out of what looked like a pile of junk – and while the title was prominent, the band’s name was tiny and blended in with a little triangular motif stating “R.E.M. NO. 5”.

Who was the guy on the cover?[1] Was he in the band?
[2] Why R.E.M. no. 5?[3] And what does R.E.M. stand for anyway?[4]

One of the attractions of the band, particularly in their early days, was the mystery they seemed to pervade, intentionally or otherwise. Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals, barely audible in places, asked plenty of questions to begin with. When you could make out his lyrics, there were further questions, like ‘what the hell is this guy on about?’ As they progressed and Stipe’s vocals became much higher in the mix, the mysterious nature of the band continued. Why did Stipe so rarely give interviews? He is the frontman and lyricist after all. And still no one knows what the hell he’s singing about!

The ‘Document’ artwork introduced me to this world. The music therein convinced me to stay and become a resident, for ‘Document’ was a revelation to me. To begin with I had never heard a voice like Stipe’s. By now out front and dominant, its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” he sings as the album’s opening lines, over a solid drumbeat and a repeated guitar note, all chiming and distorted. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Wow, truer words have never been spoken, or indeed sung. Those first 20 seconds of Finest Worksong woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were.

The journey home from college that day was like no other. ‘Document’ was my soundtrack not just for the bus ride, but most of that entire evening and throughout the weekend. I don’t think I played anything else. I made a copy of the tape so I could give Nils back his original on Monday, but not be without this phenomenal record afterwards.

The track that stood out immediately was The One I Love which sounded familiar, though I couldn’t place where I’d heard it. I had no idea it had become the band’s breakthrough US hit and had narrowly missed the top 40 over here, so therefore was all over radio. (I rarely listened to radio, most of it was shit.) Yet, in spite of its mainstream appeal (and its subsequent repeated success), it too just seemed a little odd and off-kilter. “This one goes out to the one I love,” seems an innocuous enough line in itself, but coupled with “A simple prop to occupy my time” it takes on an entirely different, far more sinister meaning. Stipe had vowed never to write a love song. In The One I Love, he had instead written the ultimate anti-love song, the story of someone who uses and abuses until the next object of his/her affections comes along (the penultimate line is “Another prop has occupied my time”). Even hearing it properly for the first time, this strange twist wasn’t lost on me. It stoked my curiosity even further.


(This is a good time to take a brief interlude and direct you to JC's recent piece on this same song over at the (new) vinyl villain...)


‘Document’ takes repeated listens to fully understand it, even if you are already somewhat familiar with R.E.M. It also helps if you have some knowledge of American politics (which I didn’t at the time). Over the years my fondness of it has not diminished; on the contrary it has grown and grown. I would easily name it in my top 5 albums of all-time purely on the music alone. In terms of what it means to me in respect of my whole life, the only other serious competitor would be the Pixies’ masterpiece ‘Doolittle
[5].‘Document’ was the first record I bought with that year’s Christmas money. It sounded even better on vinyl. Then, on returning to college in January, Nils passed me another cassette on loan – ‘Document’’s predecessor ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’, R.E.M.’S fourth album. An inspection of its sleeve offered more mysteries to be unravelled, particularly after listening to it: why only 10 songs listed when there are actually 12?[6] Why are they in the wrong order?[7] And where’s the apostrophe in Lifes?[8]

This album also rates very highly with me. Its opening quartet of songs is among the strongest of any record I’ve ever heard: Begin The Begin, These Days, Fall On Me and Cuyahoga just cannot be split and set apart from each other in my opinion. They belong together as one.

Within months a new album, ‘Green’, was on the shelves. This was the first R.E.M. album I bought on the day of release (unless you count the compilation ‘Eponymous’ which came out just a few weeks before) and marked the transition between the loud, garagey indie sound the band had forged on their previous two records and the melodic acoustic-driven folk songs that would follow and turn them into the biggest band in the world. It was a very exciting time to be an R.E.M. fan.

More than any act previously or since, R.E.M. captured my imagination, fired my enthusiasm and inspired me to seek out music of every conceivable mood and genre. They dominated the next 10 years of my life and even brought Mrs Robster and I together (another story).

I left college that summer enriched and hungry for education and exploration. The course? Meh, that was OK I suppose, but I didn’t get a huge amount from it. The social life? Ditto. No, my year in college was made and defined by the music I discovered and the people who helped me discover it. It was this that shaped my adult life more than any academia could ever have hoped to. And so it has continued to be.



Soundtrack:



[1] Michael Stipe, apparently.
[2] Yes.
[3] It was R.E.M.’s fifth album. But then you knew that already…
[4] Ah!  The classic question. Most people will tell you it’s Rapid Eye Movement, the stage of sleep where dreaming takes place. However, the band has neither confirmed nor denied this. According to guitarist Peter Buck: “We couldn't think of a name at first. I liked Twisted Kites. Then we thought maybe we should have a name that was real offensive, like Cans Of Piss. That was right up there at the top. Then we thought we didn't want to be called something that we couldn't tell our parents or have to mumble. R.E.M. just popped out of the dictionary one night. We needed something that wouldn't typecast us because, hell, we didn't know what we were gonna do. So R.E.M. was nice - it didn't lock us in to anything.”
[5] Oh, my beloved Pixies. My love affair with them will be told in a couple weeks...
[6] Underneath The Bunker and Superman were added at the last minute after the artwork had been completed. As the original 10 songs weighed in at a paltry 33 minutes, perhaps it was an attempt to make the record a more acceptable length. As usual with R.E.M., who knows?
[7] Another last-minute change, apparently.
[8] Not a typo, but one of numerous deliberate punctuation omissions. Buck once claimed that no good record has ever been made with an apostrophe in the title. As reluctant as I am to argue with the great man, I offer Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as my trump card...