Friday 28 February 2014

This Is Pop!

“What do you call that noise
That you put on?”
    ~ ‘This Is Pop’ by XTC

I have, from time to time, been considered as a bit of a music snob. I resent that. I don’t generally snub or criticise entire genres. I may well feel negative towards numerous aspects of certain genres, but there’s usually something in every genre that I will quite like or admire. My history with Abba is one of the reasons why I simply cannot dismiss pure pop entirely. It’s also why, even as I discovered rock, metal, indie and numerous other guitar-oriented fields, I still never completely left my pop roots behind.

Madonna is a classic example of a pop artist who resonated with me, and to a certain extent still does. I fell for her, like many others, when Like A Virgin became a huge hit. She looked dead cool and a lot of fun. Madonna was/is more than just a singer; she was/is a performer. In many ways, Madonna rewrote the script in terms of how pop music should be done. She never compromised and while she often sexualised herself, she never seemingly allowed herself to be manipulated by others. 

Her early works really should be considered among the elite of everything that happened in 80s pop. That first self-titled record has some incredible tunes on it – Borderline still makes me tingle – and this trend continued through 'Like A Virgin' and 'True Blue'. But by the time 'Like A Prayer' came out, Madonna was not only established as the queen of pop, but as one of the most colourful and controversial stars on the planet. In a way, the furore over the video for Like A Prayer and her increasing self-imposed sexualisation overshadowed Madonna’s remarkable talent as a performer. 'Like A Prayer' remains one of my favourite albums of all time, its title track in particular being her first real work of genius.

I lost touch with Madonna for a while following 'Like A Prayer', but reconnected with her on the release of the 'Ray Of Light' album, her collaboration with producer William Orbit. It, too, rates very highly on my list of all time fave records.  Since then my interest has been mainly one of curiosity. Madonna still provokes, knowing which buttons can be pressed to get tongues wagging. Yet, she never comes across as desperate (unlike the non-stop publicity-seeking antics of Lady Gaga who, quite frankly, has long passed the desperation stage and is now well ensconced in the realms of the pathetic). Of course, this too is up for discussion, but I’d rather hear what Madonna has to say than pretty much any aspiring young wannabe who just happens to be the current flavour of the month. I wonder if Gaga will ever get an entire monologue written about her in the way Tarantino did for Madonna in 'Reservoir Dogs'?
[1] Don’t hold your breath, little monsters…

Madonna obviously stands out in the kingdom of pop as much for being Madonna than her music. It was always about the music for me though, which is why, into my teens, I still bought a decent amount of pure pop records. The Pet Shop Boys occupied a small space in my collection, as did Erasure and Depeche Mode. All three were ‘OK to like’ among the cooler echelons of the music press. Pet Shop Boys songs were not just throwaway pieces of pop trash, they had substance. Lyrically they were often cutting, witty or insightful which, when married to a damn fine tune – of which there were many – resulted in songs that transcended the majority of other chart fodder at the time. Erasure and Depeche Mode were signed to the uber-cool indie label Mute, whose roster also included Nick Cave, Wire, Fad Gadget and German industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten. I remember buying a lovely (but very limited) marbled-vinyl 12” remix of an Erasure single one lunch hour at college. On examining it in the student common room, a cool kid asked me if I collected Mute records. “No,” was my uncool, naïve reply. “I just like the song.”  “You should,” he concluded. “They’re very collectable.”

‘Collecting’ records wasn’t a concept that I was wholly familiar with. Sure, I had bought some collectable items over the years – gatefold sleeves, coloured vinyl, picture discs – but mainly for the novelty value rather than the monetary value. I couldn’t quite understand the point of buying records because they were on a particular label. But with hindsight, picking up some more of those 80s Mute rarities could have proven to be a worthwhile venture. Mute wasn’t the only collectable label at the time. There were also the likes of 4AD and Factory, the former of which boasted Throwing Muses and Pixies in its impressive roster, while the latter had Joy Division and New Order.

It was when I was 16 and part way into becoming a fully-fledged ‘indie-kid’ that I somewhat belatedly got into New Order. I heard True Faith and became immediately hooked (pun intended)
[2]. It’s one of those tracks that moves me tremendously, in a truly emotional sense. There’s just something about it that gives me a sort of lovesick pang in my stomach and makes my hairs stand up on end. It also has one of my favourite ever sleeves.

Factory Records, like 4AD, was as revered for its artwork as for its music[3]. Its emphasis was on the visual with a particularly minimal stance (unlike the literary nature of the extensive sleevenotes of ZTT releases, as I discovered through Frankie Goes To Hollywood). The golden leaf image on True Faith was the work of Peter Saville, Factory’s in-house designer[4] and has been revived in numerous forms and colour schemes on New Order releases since. It struck me as another example of ‘the perfect package’ – the outside and the inside combining style and substance in harmony (another pun[5]).

But in the end, it’s all comes back to music. Pop doesn’t get any poppier than Saint Etienne. But while New Order had the highly artistic sleeve art and Madonna had her highly-publicised confrontational elements, Saint Etienne’s main appeal is their music. True, they have a pretty female singer who many would argue adds to the appeal, but like the Pet Shop Boys, Saint Etienne clearly realise all you really need are good songs and everything else will follow. Having said that, there is something about their moodiness which sets them aside of the rest. When I say moodiness, I don't mean miserable; Sarah Cracknells' sweet and blissfully light vocals can put a smile on even the grumpiest old git's face. There is a definite air about them, though.

Take their second album,
'So Tough', for instance. The opening "ooohs" on Mario's Café lead into a glorious stream of observations - the people, actions and conversations in a London caff. Dull? Not likely – it’s a slice of real life. Musically, it's still relevant because a lot of it was quite retro at the time of release; You're In A Bad Way is like an understated Phil Spector-esque girl group minus the wall-of-sound, while Conchita Martinez mixes Italian house piano with a sample of Rush's Spirit Of Radio.

But Saint Etienne's strength is obviously the single. From their debut, a sublime cover of Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart to the present day, Messrs Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have always been able to knock out a decent tune. The singles album 'Too Young To Die', which compiles songs from 1990 to 1995, is a delightful example of this. For me, the highlight is Hobart Paving. Boasting a string section and a beautifully mournful French horn (both absent from the original 'So Tough' album version), it is the best example of Sarah Cracknell's captivating, almost hypnotic voice. It is a song I listen to even when I'm not in the mood for something light.

It's well worth mentioning songs like Avenue, an entrancing and rather offbeat seven-minute opus which demonstrates a slightly more adventurous side to the group. Then there's Join Our Club, which celebrated the rave and grunge movements of the early 90s and the feelings of belonging they brought with them.

More recently, Saint Etienne’s latest album
'Words & Music' is pretty much all about “how music affects your life… believing in music, living your life by its rules.”[6] For this alone, it has become one of my favourite records of the past few years.

Pop music is nothing to be ashamed of. When it’s done properly – Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Saint Etienne, etc – it takes on an entirely new aesthetic and validates its status as an art form that can stand up to serious critical appraisal, regardless of its reasons for existing.


[1] The classic ‘Like A Virgin’ monologue: (checked 7/10/13)
[2] Not going to explain it – I shouldn’t have to!
[3] The book Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album (ISBN 978-0500286364) is very highly recommended
[4] 4AD had Vaughan Oliver, ZTT had AJ Barrett (pics) and Paul Morley (words)
[5] ‘Substance’ being the title of the compilation album that ‘True Faith’ immediately preceded.
[6] (accessed 16 October 2013)

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #2

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

#2: My Bloody Valentine
Exeter University Great Hall – 3rd December 1991
Support: Silverfish
Also in attendance: Paul & Kev

In 2013, David Bowie made the greatest comeback in music history – by secretly releasing a single on iTunes on his birthday after 10 silent years with no build up, no hype, no fuss. Just doing it and having people find out gave ‘Our Dave who art in Manhattan’ as much publicity as any artist could ever have wished for. An act of genius, frankly.

A couple months later, another surprise comeback occurred. A similar method – a secret album release on the internet – was employed by My Bloody Valentine for ‘MBV’, their first record in 22 years, twice as long as Bowie’s absence. There was similar swooning, fawning and awestruck delight among hipsters, journos and 40-something former shoegazers around the world at the event.

But while I was still in raptures over Lord David’s return, I couldn’t have been more indifferent about the second coming of Kevin Shields and his cacophonous miserablists. While Bowie sounded fresh, exciting and more importantly relevant, My Bloody Valentine simply sounded like they’d rehashed the same record they went out on in 1991. It was, to be blunt, bloody terrible.

But then to be fair, I’d never had a great relationship with MBV. For in 1991, I caught them on the ‘Loveless’ tour, promoting what would be their last album for more than two decades. They remain the only headline act I’ve ever walked out on, and they’ve never been surpassed as the worst band I’ve ever seen.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t fussed about seeing them anyway. I only went because Silverfish were supporting, and I was offered a lift to Exeter if I snapped up a spare ticket someone had. So I ended up going with Paul and Kev, two guys I knew from school/college well enough to loosely refer to them as ‘mates’ even if we weren’t like ‘proper mates’. 

What was immediately obvious was that this was not a sellout. Exeter Uni had two main live music venues – the Lemon Grove and the Great Hall.  This show was at the latter and was the larger of the venues by some margin.  There were more people here than the Lemon Grove could accommodate, but it wasn’t full by any means. Most of those in attendance didn’t seem to bother with Silverfish – more fool them; that was who I was there to see. Silverfish came across surprisingly well considering the size of the venue. They really were best suited to smaller places (like the Cavern where I saw them the following year), but even in a two-thirds empty Great Hall they pulled it off.

Perhaps it was that they were loud enough, scuzzy enough, rough enough, or a combination of all three that allowed them to overcome the challenges of playing in a space like that. Maybe they were just a friggin’ brilliant band. Whatever, I loved Silverfish, though I think most people there that night hadn’t much of a clue what was going on. While I lurched like a lunatic to the strains of Dolly Parton, TFA (Total Fucking Asshole) and Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal, pretty much everyone else kept a wide berth. If they weren’t familiar with Silverfish before that night, it’s likely they were pretty freaked out as much by the maniacal snarling of crazy frontwoman Lesley Rankine as the disconcerting, juddering rhythms and dirty, distorted guitars that defined the band’s sound. That’s usually why people don’t get on with Silverfish, at least when I play them some.

Silverfish played one of the best support slots I’ve ever witnessed. So maybe My Bloody Valentine were disadvantaged further by that. That said, no band has ever had the effect on me that MBV did. I did want to see what the appeal was; I wanted to like them, or at the very least appreciate what they did. I had bought their recent ‘Tremolo’ EP which contained the track To Here Knows When which I thought was OK, but little more than that. I hoped the band would come to life in a live setting.

Sadly, all I heard was noise, a thick blanket of sound with no discernable melody or direction. There just didn’t seem to be a point. And it was while I waited for any indication that there just might be a point that it happened – I dozed off. Yes, I fell asleep at a My Bloody Valentine show. WTF? Don’t ask me how it happened or how long I was out for, but the band obviously failed to hold my attention and off I went. It had never happened before and it has never happened since. When I awoke, everything seemed rather hazy. The band was still making a right racket on stage, but there seemed to be a lot more space to move around in. It was as if half the audience had left. I decided some refreshment was in order so moseyed off downstairs for a pint. I clearly wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea. My initial hunch that there were fewer people watching the band when I woke up than before my slumber proved to be correct – the bar was doing a roaring trade. Why? Overhearing some of the other former audience members explained things somewhat. “Boring”, “shite”, “awful” were just a few words that were used to describe what was going on upstairs. I felt heartened that I was not alone, that plenty of others shared my less-than-flattering view of My Bloody Valentine and sought solace in beer.

You could argue that Silverfish didn’t have much of a crowd either. Except they were the support band, of course. My Bloody Valentine were the main draw, the band people paid money to see. They were hugely acclaimed and becoming increasingly influential. Kevin Shields was (and still is to some) revered as being some kind of other-worldly creature on whom the future of music depended. Or something. But no one (that I could hear) was slagging off Silverfish.

Paul and Kev loved it however and couldn’t understand why so many defected to the foyer and the bar. Each to their own. For me, Silverfish stole the show and 22 years on, I’d still rather slap ‘Fat Axl’ on at a ridiculously high volume than endure the tortuous tones of ‘MBV’.


Monday 24 February 2014

Relaxing with Frankie

As I hurtled into my teenage years, my enthusiasm for music continued to grow unabated. I was still heavily influenced by the charts at the time so anything ‘new’ was usually discovered on a Sunday evening via Radio One, or through Smash Hits, the essential weekly for the budding pop fanatic. Adam Ant’s solo career declined even faster than his fame in the Ants grew.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with his second post-Ants album and was waiting for the next sensation to happen.  

Frankie Goes To Hollywood is a prime example of hugely effective, imaginative marketing. So rarely is such a concept accompanied by such bloody good, and highly original music. Everyone knows Relax and the story that goes with it.  Funny how it received radio airplay during the tail-end of 1983 and even got the band on Top Of The Pops and still the powers that be at the Beeb didn’t know/care about the lyrical content. It only got banned in January 1984 once Radio One DJ Mike Read took exception to the bondage imagery on the sleeve in a hilarious on-air rant.

That’s when Frankie Fever took off. As is often the norm, banning a record from the airwaves achieves one result – it sells by the bucket-load. Censorship – it really works! Relax was number one within two weeks, stayed there for five and became one of the biggest selling UK singles of all time. The controversy was clearly deliberate. The British have traditionally been rather prudish when it comes to the subject of sex, and anything sexual that’s ‘out of the norm’ was treated with derision. Relax was a record that was outrageously overt – its lyrics included the lines:

Relax, don’t do it
When you want to suck to it
Relax, don’t do it
When you want to come

However you want to dress it up, the sexual overtones could not be hidden. This in itself would have been enough to get the conservative moralists twitching, but add to it the more-than-suggestive sleeve and the less-than-subtle video and suddenly we have outrage! As if that wasn’t enough, two of the band members were *shock-horror* gay! So it’s about gay sex! To some, everything that could be wrong with popular music was encapsulated in this one single. To us more enlightened souls, it was revolutionary.

I wasn’t even 13 yet though, so much of the sexual stuff actually went over my head. I didn’t even see the sleeve for a while. I bought
Relax on 7” a few weeks into its chart reign and by then it was mainly appearing on store shelves in a plain black sleeve, its cover art deemed unsuitable for display. I just loved the sound of it. It had a real dynamism to it, and it had sounds I simply hadn’t heard before. It was clearly leaning towards the dancefloors of nightclubs, but it had enough of a rock feel to set it apart from the rest of the unimaginative electro-pop that was out there.

Throughout 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood became a phenomenon. Their next single, Two Tribes, was MASSIVE! It was somewhat heavier than its predecessor and it subject matter - the Cold War - couldn't have been more appropriate, being as we were at the mercy of bonkers world leaders feeding fear and paranoia to its collective masses. Two Tribes entered the chart at number one and stayed there for a whopping 9 weeks.
Relax remained in the chart throughout and rather than drop out as most records did, it actually climbed all the way back up to number 2, giving the band the top two slots on the singles charts for a couple of weeks.

Trends were being broken, none more so than the release of Frankie’s debut album ‘Welcome To the Pleasuredome’ which, of course, I rushed out and bought right away. It was a double album for starters – usually the preserve of prog-rock bores and heavy metal live albums, not pop pioneers. Perhaps more unusual for a mainstream pop record, it contained yet more obscene artwork and gratuitous references to sex throughout its extensive pseudo-intellectual sleevenotes. The first record contained just four songs – a 15-minute version of the title track, plus remixes of the two singles and a cover of the Edwin Starr classic War. Side three featured a sequence of cover versions, and the whole thing was interspersed with various odd little soundbites and soliloquies, including Chris Barrie[1] impersonating Prince Charles and Ronald Reagan. It was all rather odd, yet hugely compelling, and mightily impressive.

For me, it also forged a connection to some of the cooler kids at school. Being a Frankie fan and owning their album meant you could engage in conversation with some of the kids we might refer to today as ‘hipsters’[2], though of course we were just 13/14 at the time. The likes of Phillip Jones and Owen Lodge were in my form, but while I knew them well enough to talk to, it wasn’t until Frankie came along that I could be taken even semi-seriously by them. FGTH was my initial gateway into ‘cool’.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, like so many, had a rather short shelf life. Just three years later they were history, but I bought pretty much any record by the band that I could track down. There were multiple 12-inch remixes, special 7-inch mixes, anything in fact to capitalise on the time they had. Of course, it was ZTT, the label they were signed to, that was responsible for much of this cynical, exploitative marketing, but to me it was great. Frankie Goes To Hollywood was the most interesting thing I had come across to date. Looking and listening back, I still think what they and the people behind them did was just brilliant. The music still stands up today, and the whole Frankie concept - the multi-format records, the obscene artwork, the circumlocutory sleevenotes, the fashion, the controversy - everything about it was, and still is absurd, but groundbreaking and utterly wonderful at the same time.  It wasn’t just about the music, it was the complete package. You didn’t just buy a FGTH record, you bought into the whole ideal that pop music is art, a statement, a manifesto even. Let’s face it, if you didn’t have a ‘Frankie Say…’ t-shirt in the mid-80s, who were you?


[1] Chris Barrie: later known to many as Rimmer in Red Dwarf.
[2] 'Hipsters’ are awful though, aren’t they.  Phil and Owen weren’t like that, even if they did have a tendency to disappear up their own backsides from time to time.  They never tried to be cool and intellectual like today’s hipsters (with their skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses (that don't always have lenses in them!), sculpted haircuts and godawful beards), they just seemed to be naturally cool. I could be completely wrong about this however; maybe they did try really hard and I just didn’t notice because I simply wasn't cool enough, or in fact, at all.

Saturday 22 February 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #2: Another Girl, Another Planet

There's little I can say about this song that hasn't already been written a hundred times over already.  But here goes anyway...

I was rather late with Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones.  I first heard it when working in Our Price in the early 90s.  It appeared on the 'Sound of the Suburbs' compilation which we had been playing in-store quite a lot.  One or two of my colleagues raved about it being one of the greatest songs ever written - a bold claim indeed - but it wasn't until I really sat down and listened to it properly that I actually 'got it'.

Its positioning on 'Sound of the Suburbs' was nothing short of genius. As Pete Shelley's sustained 'wiiiiiiiiiiiith' at the end of Ever Fallen In Love faded into silence, the muted, chugging guitar that opened Another Girl snuck in.  A teasing bass pokes its head round the door to say hi, while a mischievous lead guitar fails to stifle a giggle as it prepares to unleash merry hell in the next 10 seconds. And those rumbling drums creeping in almost unnoticed... Has a more perfect intro ever existed? And it's not over. That soaring lead guitar, meandering its way ever upwards, while its roguish siblings, now including a cheeky organ, combine to form a surprisingly simple yet ridiculously effective backing track. On 50 seconds, the final piece of the jigsaw, Peter Perrett's whimsical, yet almost weary vocal.

Over the course of three all-too-short minutes, we learn about the true beauty, exhilaration and sheer wonder of pop music. Yeah, we can argue until the cows come home about whether the lyrics relate a "blasé, weary take on love and romance"[1] or whether they're about Perrett's relationship with heroin (as I chose to interpret them in a university assessment essay I wrote a few years ago on the poetic nature of language. I couldn't resist it.) The truth is though, whatever the words mean, the music is, as far as I'm concerned, perfect. I have listened to this song hundreds of times and each time it brings me close to tears. Just as Teenage Kicks made John Peel emotional, so Another Girl, Another Planet does to me. Interestingly, by coincidence or otherwise, on 'Sound of the Suburbs', it is immediately followed by the Undertones anthem, which makes it absolutely perfectly placed[2].

It's a shame The Only Ones are remembered for only one song, and to many it's nothing more than "that song in the phone advert" (which sums up how far our society has fallen, if you ask me). If you're unfamiliar with any of their other works, I recommend Lovers of Today and Me and My Shadow.  But don't go expecting another Another Girl.  It is unique, it will never be bettered.

Yes - it is the greatest rock song ever written.

[1] Wikipedia:,_Another_Planet (accessed 15 Feb 2014)
[2] Arguably the greatest compilation sequence ever? 3. Ever Fallen in Love by Buzzcocks; 4. Another Girl by Only Ones; 5. Teenage Kicks by Undertones; and 6. Echo Beach by Martha & the Muffins.  It surely doesn't get much better than that!

Friday 21 February 2014

Influences #2: Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill was 83 when he passed away at the very end of 2005.  He had been ill for some time.  Like me, Bill was a music lover and I've long considered him to be an influence on me.

When I was between the ages of 10 and 14, I would go and stay with Aunt Dot[1] and Uncle Bill in Plymouth for a week each summer. I always remember Bill had a chair in the corner of the front room right next to his hi-fi and extensive collection of vinyl LPs. I would regularly go through the records and select some for him to play. He'd play me some of his favourite songs and we would often talk about them.

When I went shopping with Aunt Dot during the week, I would always buy records and Uncle Bill and I would often sit down together and play some of them.  Our tastes may have been radically different (he preferred easy listening stuff, particularly if played on an organ or accordion, while my preference was pop), but we respected each other's interest in the medium and learnt from each other.  I do remember he had quite a large number of those old Top Of The Pops albums that were really popular in the 70s. You know the ones – they always had a sexy hipster girl on the cover and consisted of recent hits performed by a studio house band and session musicians as opposed to the original artists. I've never been sure why he had so many of the records in this series.  I'm sure, knowing Uncle Bill, it really wasn't anything to do with the lovely young ladies on the sleeves, but you never know - I sometimes like to think it was.

When I attended his funeral, I recalled fondly much of the time I spent in Plymouth with Aunt Dot and Uncle Bill.  The wake was at his and Aunt Dot's house which was pretty much exactly as I remember it being 20 years before.  Entering the front room, the first thing I did was check out Bill's corner. The hi-fi was newer and the vinyl seemed to have been replaced by CDs, but it was still unmistakably Uncle Bill's domain.

The times I spent with Uncle Bill showed me that ultimately ages, periods and genres don’t matter.  Put two music fans together, whatever their tastes, and they’ll enjoy each others company for hours at a time, for years on end. The song that reminds me most of Uncle Bill is 'Hey Jude'.  We played the Beatles 1967-1970 compilation (aka, the Blue Album) that I had bought.  Uncle Bill commented particularly on 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' and 'Hey Jude', two of his favourites.  It's the latter I took to most and so it remains.

There is no doubt in my mind that, as well as my mum and dad and my cousin John, Uncle Bill played a major part in my music obsession. He fed and nurtured my enthusiasm at an early age and made me realise that there is so much out there you will never hear unless you make an effort to find it. 


[1] Aunt Dot sadly passed in summer 2013, also at the age of 83, the last of her generation of Bakers (which included her two brothers George and my dad David, and her sister Margaret).

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #1

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

During the early nineties, I took in more live bands than I care to think about. A lot of them I’ve forgotten, many I remember only vaguely. There are those however that, for one reason or another, have stuck vividly in my mind. You really cannot explain the sheer rush you get from being blown away by a live band. It’s better than drugs and (occasionally) sex! The disappointment of a less-than-satisfactory performance from one of your favourite bands however is akin to the breakup of a relationship, something you think at the time you’ll never get over. 

It’s not all about the music or performance either.  All kinds of stories can emanate from a gig which make it particularly memorable. Like Lesley Rankine, vocalist of manic hardcore outfit Silverfish, unwittingly crushing my fingers under her Doc Martens; having a beer with Carter USM’s super-sized manager Jon Beast; or getting utterly wankered in a caravan with Feeder.

Every Wednesday (if I remember) I shall try to document a show that remains particularly memorable for one reason or another. A few more may be mentioned in other articles. The fact I can remember as many gigs as I do speaks volumes; there have been plenty of highs and a few lows. Occasionally I’ll forget I’ve even seen a band. For instance, until I started researching this series, I would have sworn I’d never seen Stereolab live, when it turns out they supported R.E.M. in 1999. Mrs Robster and I were down at the front too. Obviously their rendition of Death Disco on the night was well below par.

Or is it better to be remembered for being shite than not to be remembered at all? Hmm, maybe I should ask My Bloody Valentine…

And so, here it is - starting with my very first gig:

#1: The Wedding Present
Great Hall, Exeter University – 5th October, 1988
Support: The Heart Throbs
Also in attendance: Wayne - my best mate

You never forget your first. Your first gig, that is. Mine was a relatively obscure indie band from Yorkshire that a much cooler friend of mine at college introduced me to. The Weddoes were ‘between albums’ when I lost my live band virginity to them. Their debut ‘George Best’ had made a reasonable dent in the consciousness of NME readers and Peel listeners alike and major labels were taking an interest. As it was, I had recently bought the non-album single Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm and was awaiting the follow-up Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? when they descended on Devon.

My best buddy Wayne and I decided to buy tickets, but not being able to drive yet, would have to work out a way to get there later. A minor detail! Wayne had beaten me to the first gig experience by a few months, when he went with his cousins to see Wet Wet Wet in Plymouth. I wonder if he’d admit to it nowadays; by the time of the Weddoes show, he was already showing signs of denial.

Somehow I managed to convince my mum to take us. Living, as we did, 30-odd miles away from the venue – an hour-long drive on largely rural B roads – it was a nice gesture from her to say yes without hesitation. Wayne’s mum Val was taken along for the ride; they would have a girl’s night out in Exeter as Wayne and I mixed it with students older, smarter and considerably cooler than us. 

Mum and Val dropped us off outside and drove off into town. Wayne and I joined the queue and patiently waited in line with the cooler kids. The next hour or so is hazy, partly because it was so long ago – more than 25 years in fact – and partly because I couldn’t really take it all in. I do, however, remember sitting in the foyer with Wayne and noticing Weddoes frontman David Gedge standing just to my left. Wayne and I argued briefly over whether it really was him or not – he didn’t think so, but I was pretty sure[1]. I also remember where I stood as the support band came on. Facing the stage, I was pretty near the front by the speaker stack on the right. Perhaps not the best idea for a gig newbie like myself.

As I remember it, the opening band the Heart Throbs were a decent band. Well, they must have been because I became an immediate fan, buying some of their early singles and all three of their subsequent albums. They were fronted by the bleach-blonde Carlotti sisters Rose and Rachel, sisters of Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas. Like a number of bands of the time – the Primitives, the Darling Buds, Transvision Vamp – the blonde girls out front were the focus of the group, the male members remained largely anonymous.

The Weddoes were a blast, of course. They tore through most of the songs from ‘George Best’, added a healthy splash of old faves, and even played one or two new ones including a song called Kennedy which, a year or so later, would become their debut major label single and their first ever Top 40 hit.

Throughout the show, I had been forced further back the crowd, from front right to halfway back to the left. That didn’t matter though. From there I could take more in without being blasted by the speakers or getting a wayward elbow smashing into my nose. Surveying the scene – a crowd of sweaty moshers, Mr Gedge bent over his furiously-strummed semi-acoustic in his trademark way, the reaction when the band finally launched into A Million Miles after the crowd had been shouting for it all night – a huge grin fixed itself to my face and stayed there for days. I was hooked, and over the coming years I would see hundreds – yes, hundreds – of bands at various places around the country. I would even see the Wedding Present on another four occasions (to date)[2].

So, technically, the Heart Throbs were the first band I saw live[3]. Officially though, it was Gedge & co. that took my virginity. If you’re reading David – you were great.  How was it for you?  


[1] I was right, as Wayne himself admitted following the show. To this day, Gedge mingles with his audience before and after each show.
[2] On the ‘Bizarro’ tour a year later in Bristol; on the ‘Bizarro’ 21st Anniversary tour in 2010 in Cardiff; on the ‘Seamonsters’ 21st Anniversary/’Valentina’ tour in 2012 in Cardiff again; and briefly, the tail-end of an in-store show at the Plymouth Virgin Megastore in 1996, after which David Gedge himself commented on my well-worn Bizarro t-shirt.
[3] Even this isn’t technically true if you include the resident holiday camp bands I saw as a kid, and those that always seemed to play at family parties and weddings etc. But, for obvious reasons, they don’t count!

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Influences #1: Cousin John

My voyage of music discovery wasn’t entirely self-navigated. I was ably assisted by a number of co-pilots whose input proved invaluable in reaching my current destination. None more so than my cousin John, a guy who owned one of the most extraordinary record collections I’ve ever known.

I used to love visiting Auntie Margaret and Uncle Stuart; I’d call in regularly on my way home from school and never once felt intrusive or unwelcome.  In addition to their unconditional warmth and sincerity, the other big attraction for me was John’s records.  It was through this horde of vinyl that I discovered some of the biggest and most influential names in music – the Beatles, Queen, Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin – John had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of rock music which to a burgeoning music buff like myself, was a gold mine, a kind of exotic array of mysterious curios. 

And they were everywhere.  The front room had row upon row of records lined up on the floor in no particular order (that I could make out), while upstairs in the attic bedroom was an endless stream of singles and albums that lit up an otherwise dark and rather dingy area – the perfect environment for listening to rock & roll.  It was there I discovered John’s collection of early Queen singles.  To this day, he remains the only person I’ve ever met to have owned an original 7” of ‘Keep yourself Alive’, Queen’s debut single from 1973.  Wikipedia notes the single “was largely ignored upon its release and failed to chart,”[1] so it seems even more unlikely that it should turn up in a sleepy market town in deepest darkest Devon. Yet I’ve not only seen the proof, I held it in my very hands, took it home and played it on my record player!

Yes, John was an absolute music nut like myself, and he took great delight in nurturing his younger cousin’s curiosity and fascination with rock music. I remember him playing me Led Zeppelin’s ‘In Through The Out Door’, Kiss’ live double album ‘Alive II’, singles by the Cars, KC and the Sunshine Band, John Lennon. I remember coming across the word ‘Motown’ for the first time when a compilation album in one of the piles caught my eye. The B-52s debut was another intriguing and hugely influential find – I’d never come across that sort of skewed quirkiness before. But the very best thing of all was that John had no qualms whatsoever about lending me records. There were times I would leave the house with a carrier bag crammed so full of LPs and singles, my arms felt like they were about to fall off by the time I got home.

John and his record collection were my keys to the world of rock music. Guitars were the only real way forward for the young Robster, and I’ve never looked back.

John’s still buying music. Much of his old collection is gone sadly, but these days he scours charity shops and car boot sales in search of obscure and undiscovered gems. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is – classical oddities, film scores, long-forgotten crooners of the 60s and 70s – it’s music he’s after, because music still clearly means a hell of a lot to him.

I owe John a great debt, he inspired me greatly in my formative years and I still listen to a lot of the stuff I discovered thanks to his generosity and patience.

And while his rendition of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ on the karaoke is totally rockin’, you really haven’t seen anything until you’ve witnessed John in skin-tight leopard-print trousers belting out ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ – ‘tis truly a sight to behold. Rod Stewart? Pah! Give me John any day!


Sunday 16 February 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #1: Velvet Roof

You can't control what happens when you die, but I sure as hell want one last pop at it. I shall be leaving a playlist for my funeral/wake and will insist of my loved ones that it is played. Loudly. Whether anyone sticks around to hear it or not!

My weekend posts for the foreseeable will feature one of those to make the list (as it stands at the moment).  Starting off is a track I've loved since I heard that scratchy guitar intro for the very first time some 22 years ago: Velvet Roof by Buffalo Tom.

Some records take a while to creep up on you. Some records immediately slap you in the face screaming "I'm so fucking great! You must love me!" I'm a sucker for a good, catchy single. The first time I heard 'Velvet Roof' by Buffalo Tom, I loved it. It was probably its sheer energy and unashamed "jumpaboutability" (a new word I've just invented! Use it lots!!!)

I knew about Buffalo Tom through a friend who was a good few years younger than me, but who had incredibly good taste. (He was into Nirvana long before 99.9% of people who have ever claimed to be Nirvana fans had even heard of them.) When 'Velvet Roof' came out I was still working for Our Price (RIP), but preferred to buy my singles from the local indie stores (even after staff discount, Our Price was still more expensive!). I picked up the 12" from Sound 'n' Vision in Barnstaple for a couple of quid.  Turned out to be one of the best buys I ever made.  It's staccato guitar intro was (is) fitful yet infuriatingly addictive, a repeated A-chord punctuated by a couple of suspended notes around it. By the time the rest of the band sparked up four bars in, I was already away on a runaway three-and-a-bit minute ride into indie heaven.  

A startlingly simple lyric ("Here she comes across the street/But I'm already there downstairs to meet with her") sends the song into irresistible singalong mode, and from that point in, I still can't stop myself. And then, just when you think it can't get any better, in strides the harmonica solo! Whenever I hear this song, I want to be in Buffalo Tom as they (we) play it live! It remains one of my favourite tracks of all-time and when it is played at my funeral, I expect you all to jump around on my grave to it.


Friday 14 February 2014

The first record conundrum

“Oh wow, that’s way cooler than mine.”

That’s the typical response I get from people when they ask me what the first record I ever bought was.  The answer?  ‘Union City Blue’ by Blondie.  A great tune indeed for a mere child of 8, and not one that can be matched by many when they were that age.

But I have a secret to tell.  I’ve never revealed this to anyone before, not even Mrs Robster who knows pretty much everything about me.  Here goes:

The truth about the first record I ever bought myself, in person, is… I actually don’t remember what my first record was.  It’s a horrifying thing to admit, a music fan who can’t remember his first record.  The thing is, I was surrounded by so much music and other people’s records – mum’s, dad’s, John’s, Uncle Bill’s – and always had records bought for me that the first time I actually went into a shop and bought a record for myself has kind of been lost.  It should have been a defining moment in my life, but I just cannot for the life of me recall it.

The more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems that ‘Union City Blue’ was actually my first record purchase.  Oh I had it, that’s true.  But at the age of 8, it’s more plausible that I saw the video on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop[1] and asked my mum or one of my aunts[2] to get it for me the next time they went to Barnstaple.

So if it wasn’t Blondie, what was it?  What was the first record I ever bought?  My memory is far from what it used to be, and sadly for one reason or another I no longer have the vast majority of records I used to have so it’s not a case of just digging them out and having a look.  There are, however, a few possibilities:

Blondie – Union City Blue (1979)
OK, so let’s start with the ‘urban legend’, the record I’ve convinced everyone (including myself to a certain extent) was my first.  It wasn’t the first record I owned, though again I can’t put my finger on what was.  It came out around the same time as ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ by Queen, but I distinctly remember getting that from Uncle George and Aunt Phyllis for Christmas, so that’s not a contender.  What counts against ‘Union City Blue’ being my first is the year.  In late 1979, which is when it came out, I was just 8-years-old.  While I was really into music, my first love was football, in particular the mighty Reds, Liverpool Football Club.  I was therefore almost certainly going to be kicking a ball around the backyard on a Saturday afternoon rather than traipsing around boring shops with my mum[3].  If I wanted a record, I’d ask her if she could buy it for me, and if I was lucky she’d oblige.

It’s not a record I remember personally buying either, so I’m reluctantly coming round to the idea that this idea of ‘Union City Blue’ being my debut purchase may actually be a myth.

Adam & The Ants – Antmusic (1980)
This one is more realistic.  Coming a year after ‘Union City Blue’, ‘Antmusic’ heralded a new dawn for me.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Adam Ant would, over the next 12 months, become my new musical hero.  There is something nagging at me that strongly suggests this was my first purchase, though I’m not sure why.  I was hugely proud of this single; it became one of my most played and I still have it to this day, crackles ‘n’ all.  I think I can even recall being in Woolworth’s and picking it up off the display, though whether I personally took it to the till and paid for it I can’t say.  Either way, this is a pretty strong contender and probably on a par with Blondie in the ‘cool first records’ stakes.

I’d like to think if it’s not Blondie, then ‘Antmusic’ was my first, mainly because of what most of the alternatives are.  I do believe that this track’s parent album ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ was the first album I bought (the first album I owned was Abba’s ‘Super Trouper’, but I was given that for Christmas from mum and dad along with my first record player).

The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)
Tenpole Tudor – Wunderbar (1981)
Another two records it’s more than OK to admit to owning, particularly ‘Ghost Town’.  I think I did buy this one myself, but not sure I can say the same for the Tenpole Tudor one.  My first record player – which I was gifted the previous Christmas – was what triggered my record-buying habit.  It started small-scale, but I thought I could handle it.  Inevitably though I craved more and more and over the years it just spiralled out of control…  1981 was a year I bought more than a few records.  I would stay with my Aunt Dot and Uncle Bill in Plymouth for a week during the summer when I was a kid.  I recall buying Aneka’s ‘Japanese Boy’ that year and it being a song Aunt Dot particularly enjoyed.  I was 10 - surely I can be forgiven?!

1981 also saw some truly terrible records, ‘The Birdie Song’ by the Tweets was one I remember.  Did I buy it?  Not telling….  I did buy ‘One of Us’ by Abba though.  Still one of the most tear-jerking songs ever written and undoubtedly one of their best.

Bow Wow Wow – I Want Candy (1982)
Now I definitely, without any doubt whatsoever, bought this one myself. It was my first limited edition – a one-sided etched 7” purchased from Woolworth’s in Barnstaple.   The cover depicted Annabella Lwin lying on a leopard-print blanket wearing very little indeed! Enticing, certainly, but pretty sure it wasn’t my first record as by 1982 I was becoming a fairly hardcore record buyer. Every spare penny I had in Christmas, birthday or pocket money I saved to buy records. Still, a decent purchase nonetheless.

So having done some research, I kind of drew the conclusion that maybe ‘Union City Blue’ was not my first record at all, but it was more likely ‘Antmusic’ which is still OK.  Failing that, it was probably ‘Ghost Town’.  Not a bad list, I think you’ll agree.


Something was bugging me.  It’s hazy, but I seem to remember there once being a record shop in Torrington Square, where Ian Baker (no relation) subsequently had a barber shop for years.  I also seem to very vaguely recall going in there with my mum after school one day and leaving with a 7” single.  And that single was…

Well, once again I don’t remember for sure, but it would have been either of these:

Olivia Newton-John – Hopelessly Devoted To You (1978)
John Travolta – Sandy (1978)
Yes, Grease fever had gripped the nation and pretty much everything released as a single from its soundtrack topped the charts.  I had both these records, but can’t say which one I had first, or which one I may or may not have bought in that mysterious former record shop.  In those days, singles stayed on catalogue for years so it was probably still possible to buy pretty much any decent-sized hit of the previous decade or so.  Therefore I may not have even bought either of them when they were in the charts, it may have been months later.  The important thing though is that I was present at the purchase of at least one of them.  Whether I paid for them is another matter – in 1978 I was just 7 so it is unlikely.

And this is where we need to define exactly what the qualifying criteria is. So…

* First record I remember being present at the purchase of, whether or not I actually paid for it which I probably didn’t: Olivia or John;
* First record I remember picking off a shop’s racks that I might have subsequently bought myself: ‘Antmusic’;
* First record I have a vague recollection of buying myself, even though there is a degree of uncertainty over who actually made the transaction: ‘Ghost Town’;
* First record I know for certain I bought myself, where I bought it, when I bought it, how much it cost – everything: ‘I Want Candy’;
* What I will say to people who ask me ‘what was the first record you ever bought’: ‘Union City Blue’ because it remains the coolest of the lot.

You be the judge.


[1] Saturday morning kid’s TV show presented by Noel Edmonds:
[2] One aunt in particular, Joan (my mum’s older sister), picked up records for me.  She’s always loved music.  It was a Saturday morning ritual that my nan and at least one of mum’s sisters would drop by on a Saturday morning after going to town.  They’d gossip and drink tea in the kitchen while I watched Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore or Tiswas.  Whenever music was played on one of those shows, Auntie Joan would often leave the kitchen and take a peek at who was playing.  It really wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out she bought ‘Union City Blue’ for me.
[3] This was years before shops opened on a Sunday.  We still had half-day opening on Wednesdays!.