Wednesday 30 April 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #13

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

#13: Chumbawamba
Bierkeller, Bristol – 8th June 1992
Support: Shudder to Think, Sweet Thangs

I joined the good ship Chumba the night I saw them live for the very first time; the night I climbed onstage and danced with them; the night I finally found my edge.

I’ve actually seen Chumbawamba more times than any other band. Well, any band that’s ‘well-known’, anyway. It all started in 1992, nearly 10 years after they’d formed, at the Bristol Bierkeller. One of the local bands I followed, Torrington’s very own Sweet Thangs, had landed an opening slot and I tagged along to support the Thangs in what I (wrongly) believed was a step toward their inevitable domination of the global music scene.

I knew little about Chumbawamba other than the press’ depiction of them as anarchist troublemakers who shouldn’t be taken terribly seriously. A mate had played me some tracks from their third album ‘Slap!’ a week or two before the show and I was instantly taken by how they sounded completely unlike how I expected. This was no polemic-ranting hardcore punk band, this lot had tunes. Like, proper pop songs. Their lyrics, however, provided a fascinating counterpoint: the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; surviving Auschwitz; the left-wing militant journalist Ulrike Meinhof; and the story of a police dog turning on one of its handlers. This wasn’t the overly-serious anarcho-punk of Crass and Subhumans - this was fun; this was anarcho-punk you could dance to.

But you can’t claim to have experienced Chumbawamba until you’ve experienced Chumbawamba live, and that night I witnessed a show I had never before seen the likes of. Eight people, six of them vocalists taking turns to sing lead, tight four-part vocal harmonies, a multitude of costume changes, and lots and lots of dancing. This wasn’t so much a band as a theatrical troupe with bonafide characters: Alice Nutter as fag-smoking, whiskey-swigging, Northern Soul-dancing nun; Danbert Nobacon as naked man with umbrella.  

I was, quite simply, blown away. I knew hardly any of the songs, but I didn’t stop moving from the moment they began. In fact, being in the crowd wasn’t enough and I joined a handful of similarly enthused souls and rushed the stage where we were warmly received and permitted to remain for the rest of the show.

And so it began – my interest in radical thought and free-thinking ideologies had been sparked by nothing more sinister than pop music. When it came to a Chumbawamba concert, anarchy had never been more fun!


Monday 28 April 2014

Infuences #4: Higgz

As the store’s singles buyer at Our Price, one of the things I used to do was review a few of the week’s new releases and pin them up on the info board. These reviews caught the eye of a guy who would become another big influence on me – Richard Higgins, a.k.a. Higgz. Higgz approached me in the store one day and told me how he liked the way I wrote and would I consider doing some work with him on a fanzine project he was planning. Thus began my interest in critical music writing.

Higgz (circled): naked, arse & all.
Click to enlarge
I didn’t know who Higgz was, but Steve did. Higgz had been part of the North Devon music ‘scene’ for years, managing the Cult Maniax being his most prominent role. He can be seen – naked – lurking in the background on the sleeve of the Cult Maniax single ‘The Amazing Adventures Of Johnny The Duck And The Bath Time Blues’. When I met him, he was managing Sweet Thangs, a band featuring former Cult Maniax frontman Big Al and drummer Mildu. Everyone, it seemed, had a Higgz story and over the next few years I acquired a few of my own.

Higgz was often hilarious, sometimes serious and occasionally rather morose. For this reason, there were those who never quite knew how to take him. True, he could come across as if he was completely stoned out of his box when the truth was he probably hadn’t so much as seen a spliff all day. Other times he could be off his head and you’d get more sense from him than at any other time in his life. Most people however loved Higgz, he was rarely less than entertaining.  

We had a lot of fun working on the fanzine, which we dubbed ‘The Vibrant Alternative’. We did a preview of the 1993 Glastonbury Festival which involved visiting Worthy Farm and drinking tea with none other than Michael Eavis himself in his kitchen. Look – that’s us with the great man in the pic below! An enormous privilege and a life’s highlight for me, it has to be said. We also interviewed Back to the Planet, Blaggers ITA and Chumbwamba. The fanzine didn’t make it to print alas, (our budget lost to gigs, cider and other *ahem* expenses), but the work we both put into it inspired a desire in me to really give a shit, to express my passion and enthusiasm for music and to strive to get myself heard.

The Vibrant Alternative invades Worthy Farm, 1993
l-r: The Robster, Stevie Irie (artist & reggae correspondent),
Michael Eavis & Higgz

I became involved in the local North Devon music ‘scene’ through Higgz who introduced me to Torrington’s three biggest bands – the Sweet Thangs, Naked i (formerly Jive Turkey) and Electric Orange. From there I subsequently forged a route into journalism. Higgz had helped me to discover a talent I never realised I had. On the strength of the work I did for ‘The Vibrant Alternative’, I managed to land the role as writer of the local paper’s music pages (full story of that venture to follow). With my qualifications (or lack of them) there is no way I could have even dreamt of getting that opportunity without Higgz’s belief in me.

Higgz also introduced me to a lot of really good music. He had stacks of old punk singles which I used to educate myself. With his connections in ‘the biz’, people were always sending him records or tapes too so he frequently had something different to listen to. So bands like Dub War, Blaggers ITA and the Rhythmites I heard first via Higgz.

Higgz, like Steve Beardsley, reckoned I reminded him a lot of himself when he was younger. Compliment or otherwise, I’m still more than OK with the comparison.


Saturday 26 April 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #4: The Queen Is Dead

It’s almost pointless to write gushing words of praise about ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as it’s all been said so many times before. But as tempting as it is to just post a pic of the album sleeve and a couple of tracks and let the music do the talking, I felt I should make a bit of an effort.

As previously documented, my initiation into Smiths fandom came rather late – so late in fact, they split before I had chance to appreciate them fully. So I had to work backwards from ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ and discover the delights retrospectively. When I found ‘The Queen Is Dead’, I wondered just how it had eluded me, for it was one of the most remarkable records I had ever heard. I picked up a near-mint vinyl copy in Second Spin, Barnstaple’s premier second-hand shop. A mere fiver, it was. Probably the best £5 I ever spent.

Quite simply, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ must be remembered, for the benefit of future generations, as one of pop music’s greatest achievements. It is one of those rarest of items – an album without a single weak song. It sashays from the incisive polemic of the title track, to the glorious stick-your-job resignation letter that is Frankly Mr Shankly. It mopes solemnly yet triumphantly through the plaintive laments of I Know It’s Over and Never Had No One Ever, before cheekily cavorting through a smart-arsed riposte to Morrissey’s critics in Cemetry Gates.

But more than anything, it was side two that really did the business for me. I mean, any record that can boast this sequence of songs just cannot be ignored:

Bigmouth Strikes Again
The Boy with the Thorn in His Side 
Vicar in a Tutu 
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out 
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others

Boisterousness, defiance, hilarity and the utterly, utterly gorgeous follow one another seamlessly before the quirky, seemingly out of place[1] sign-off nips in cheekily, signalling the climax of what was at the time, and remains today, a benchmark for all recordings that followed. Unlike some of the albums I’ve featured in this series (and others to come), there is no back story that adds to the endearing worth of this record. There are no myths; there were no bust-ups or disputes; the recording sessions went smoothly and everyone was happy with the outcome. ‘The Queen Is Dead’ stands tall purely on its musical value, nothing else. Oh, and Morrissey’s lyrics are jointly among his most cutting and hilarious:

   “So I broke into the Palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner.
   She said: ‘I know you and you cannot sing’,
   I said: ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.’” – The Queen is Dead

   “Frankly Mr. Shankly since you ask
   You are a flatulent pain in the ass.” – Frankly Mr. Shankly

   “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said 
   I'd like to smash every tooth in your head.” – Bigmouth Strikes Again

   “As Rose collects the money in the canister
   Who comes sliding down the banister?
   The Vicar in a tutu, he’s not strange
   He just likes to live his life this way.” – Vicar In A Tutu

The very fact ‘The Queen Is Dead’ is almost universally accepted as one of the greatest albums of all time is testament to its quality. It was a huge influence on Britpop nearly a decade later, and it continues to draw plaudits as its 30th anniversary draws ever closer. I see no reason for that to change.

[1] I always felt that Some Girls… really does not belong here. Anyone else would have had There Is A Light… as the closer. But then, maybe that’s the point. The Smiths never were “anyone else”. They clearly knew something we didn’t as, on reflection, it just kind of works.

Friday 25 April 2014

Fantasy setlist 1990-1994

Warning: This article comes with a Geek Factor of 10. Most people will read this and laugh uproariously before deciding that I was (am?) really, really sad! 

To paraphrase Johnny Rotten: “But I don’t caaaaaaaaaaaaaaare!”

Confession time again. OK, so what music-mad adolescent lad hasn’t jumped around his/her room, stereo blaring, air-guitar being heroically played as if s/he was headlining the last ever live concert on Earth? I had real guitars rather than the air variety but I still imagined I was right there! I had a ‘setlist’ of records that I would play whilst standing on the imaginary stage in my bedroom, with an imaginary band in front of thousands of adoring imaginary fans.

For the record, I could neither sing nor play guitar to any real standard, which is why my only stint in a proper band didn’t last long or end terribly well (more on that to come). But in my bedroom – I was a rock GOD! The setlist varied over time, but I remember all these were in there at some time:

Buffalo Tom – Velvet Roof
I have always wanted to be in a band that played this song and could really do it justice. Whether I could jump around to it now like I did 20-odd years ago is another matter, but it would be difficult to resist. Read more here.

Cud – Through The Roof*
The Wedding Present – My Favourite Dress*
The Weddoes were always going to feature, and Cud were very much on my radar at the time.

Kim or Tanya?
Belly – Slow Dog
The Heart Throbs – Blood From A Stone*
Veruca Salt – Seether
The Breeders – Cannonball (read more here)
Drugstore – Speaker 12
Of course, my fantasy band had a female member who sang lead vocals on these. I imagined her as either a Kim Deal or a Tanya Donelly, depending on my mood. Or even a cross between the two - now that would be one serious rock chick!

Sugar – Fortune Teller
‘Copper Blue’ is an album I could listen to for the rest of my life and still get off on its monstrous riffs and melodies. I think I probably went for this track for its energy and power, although there are probably heavier songs on the album.

R.E.M. – West Of The Fields
Not an obvious choice, admittedly. No idea why I chose this one over anything else they did, although I may have at some point had Disturbance at the Heron House (from ‘Document’) in there as well.

Kerosene – Worthless
I’d actually completely forgotten about this record until I was writing this article. For some unknown reason, the 12” sleeve just popped into my head and I suddenly remembered what a good record it was.

Pale Saints – Sight Of You
Smashing Pumpkins – Rhinocerous
Cardiacs – Is This The Life
These alternated as the set closers or encores. Great songs to finish on.

Twenty-plus years on, there isn’t a single song here that I don’t still love. 

So imagine you were in my fantasy arena-filling rock band… oh to hell with it – stadium-filling rock band. What song (pre-1994) would you insist was in the set? And would you prefer Kim or Tanya? (I realise this might seem a rather gratuitous way of inviting comments, but it's been so bloody quiet around here lately, I need to find out if anyone is actually still reading this stuff!)


* I actually could play (and, to some extent, sing) these!

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #12

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

#12: Feeder
The Sailor’s Arms, Newquay – 30th July 1996
Also in attendance: Steve B

Spontaneity is the spice of life. Sometimes things can get just too organised, planned to the point of tedium. Every so often you just have to act on impulse. By the summer of ’96, my time as a budding journo was drawing to a close – my disillusionment reached its peak and I quit without having another job to go to. I spent most of my time either in the pub or hanging out with the future Mrs Robster, both very worthwhile occupations in my book.

However, one Tuesday afternoon there was a knock at the door. It was Steve, my old buddy from Our Price. At the time, if I remember, he and his wife were experiencing a temporary hiatus from each other, which meant he was free to do pretty much what he wanted, when he wanted. Just like me. On this occasion he was looking for some company on a trip down to Cornwall.

“Feeder are playing Newquay tonight,” he announced. “Fancy coming?”

Now I never really got into Feeder, but Steve had been following them since one of their earliest gigs in Barnstaple the previous year. Now this is a few years before they had that massive hit with Buck Rogers. They were also a lot heavier at this point, too. Anyway, Steve had become friends with the band and only had to give their manager a call to get himself on the guest list for any of their shows. That was the case here, so with no cost involved and nothing much else to do, I jumped at the chance.

Steve was great company, he always had an anecdote of some sort and his taste in music was eclectic but awesome. No wonder we got on so well – we were so alike!

In spite of the spontaneous nature of our trip, we had a loose plan:
  1. Get to Newquay.
  2. Find a campsite.
  3. Grab a couple of beers before the show. 
  4. Go to the show.
  5. Back to the tent, sleep, go home in the morning.
Simple. Well, therein lies the problem with making plans. They don’t always work out. The first part was simple enough. Steve was driving, the tank was full, we knew the way. Getting to Newquay was not the problem. They started when we arrived.

You’d think finding a campsite at one of the UK’s most popular coastal tourist destinations would be easy, right? Well yeah, it is actually. There’s loads of ‘em. But if you’re two blokes? Different story. For some reason, campsite owners in Newquay in 1996 didn’t like two blokes turning up looking for a pitch. Why? Who knows. Maybe they thought we were going to get extraordinarily drunk and lairy. Perhaps they feared we might indulge in ‘unnatural erotic persuits’ and they didn’t want any of that behaviour around those parts. Whatever, they were wrong on both counts. We just wanted a place to kip. After three or four unsuccessful attempts, one kind person allowed us into their field.

“Just find a quiet spot and keep yourselves to yourselves,” she advised us.

OK, so points one and two of our plan were ticked. Number three quickly followed. Getting a pint or two in Newquay is one of the easiest things you can do, there’s no shortage of places to try.

Which brings us to number four, and the reason we were in Newquay in the first place – to see a Feeder concert. This is where our best laid plans went awry…

The Sailor’s Arms is a nightclub, even though it sounds like it should be a pub. Like many nightclubs during the summer months in a popular holiday destination, it was pretty busy. So busy in fact, by the time we got there, a lengthy queue had formed. No worries, we were on the guest list so our entry was guaranteed. Up we strolled to the burly doorman.  

“We’re on the guest list.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yeah, Grant from Feeder put us on the guest list, the name’s Steve Beardsley.”
“There’s NO guest list. There’s a queue.”

And that was it. We soon realised, mainly by the look on the bruiser’s face, that we weren’t going to get in, even if we did queue. Of course, you know exactly how bouncers work: had we been two attractive young ladies with legs up to our armpits and skirts shorter than a belt, there would have been a ‘guest list’ and our names would have been on it. As it was – back to the pub for us.

However, we returned a couple hours later. There was now no queue and the door staff were nowhere to be seen. But the show was over. Nonetheless we went inside to find Feeder packing up. Grant was pleased to see Steve and thanked us for making the trip. Steve then explained that we missed the show and why.

“Yeah, the bouncers have been total wankers tonight,” Grant conceded.

Not the actual caravan we stayed in
(or the field)
But that wasn’t the end of it. To compensate for our wasted journey, the band invited Steve and I back to where they were staying for an after show drink. We, of course, accepted. What you have to remember is that, at this point, Feeder had only released a couple of singles on a small indie label. There was no record deal to speak of. They were on a budget. A very tight one. No expensive hotel rooms for them, oh no. Post-gig accommodation for Feeder that night was… a caravan. Not a posh one, just a normal caravan. In a field. Two or three miles from town. I can’t remember how we got there, but owing to the proximity of the place I don’t think taxis were involved. We were also joined by a third party, coincidentally another guy from our neck of the woods who I had seen at gigs before. Shamefully, I cannot remember his name for the life of me now. Nice chap though.

At Feeder’s caravan, they brought out the rider - a crate of Hooch and a couple of bottles of tequila. We drank Hooch and tequila, we listened to music (the band was rather fond of the first Ocean Colour Scene album, I seem to recall) and we smoked a couple of joints. We had a right laugh. The result of the booze I drank that night is that I really don’t remember a great deal about it, suffice to say that at some ungodly hour of the night (make that early morning), Steve and I trekked back to the campsite. We were miles away but the fresh air did us good and by the time we reached the tent, we had sobered up a little. But we were knackered. Too tired to engage in any drunken, unruly or immoral behaviour even if we wanted to. We slept until morning and left Newquay with a great story.

When Feeder hit the big time and were selling out arenas the length and breadth of the country, I told people “I drank tequila with those guys in a caravan in Cornwall.” I’m not sure they ever believed me. Now that I live in the band’s hometown of Newport, there’s probably a number of people round here who hung out with Feeder whilst swigging tequila and listening to Ocean Colour Scene, so it’s not such an impressive story. I still tell it regardless…


Monday 21 April 2014

Tales from a VW camper van

In the summer of 1992, I did what had to be done. I needed a vehicle, but wanted something fun, something that characterised the person I was at that time. It was an easy choice – I bought a 1971 (K registration) Type 2 Volkswagen Transporter, hereby referred to as ‘VW camper’. It was orange and white, and while not perfect – they rarely are – it was in decent nick and certainly good enough to go to festivals in[1].

Not my camper, but it looked almost exactly like this...
Initially, Wayne and I owned 50% each though I eventually bought his share. We loved it, and it summed up who we were; it was bright, quirky and full of character. It was even the same age as us. The first thing we did was fit a stereo! It was now ready for our first Glastonbury.

Driving an old VW camper is not easy to begin with, it’s like learning to drive all over again. For starters, in addition to all the other rules of the road, VW camper drivers must also learn to acknowledge fellow VW camper drivers as they pass. Not to do so is considered the height of bad manners. It was also handy to get to know other camper owners. The first one I knew of was local punk Big Al, but it wasn’t long before I swapped camper stories with numerous other owners I inevitably encountered.

It was a great vehicle for getting you noticed and it instantly raised my cool status to previously unknown heights! Despite this and my love of the vehicle, it had plenty of downsides. It was expensive to run and maintain. My local garage hadn’t a clue what to do with it; on one occasion the mechanic asked me where the engine was! The gearbox on it was a bitch – first gear was to be avoided whenever possible as it was so difficult to find. Sometimes though you had to use it; the bloody thing didn’t do hills at all well and any decent incline would result in changing down to first and crawling up, a steadily increasing tailback forming behind us. Oh, and it had a leaky roof too!

It also made me a target. I had at least two stereos stolen from it, but thieving scumbags were the least of my worries. The biggest bastards of all were Devon & Cornwall Police. One of my aunts always maintained that our local police force was nothing more than “hangers for the spare uniforms”, and she wasn’t far wrong. The one thing they did do was pester people like me with long hair and a camper van; I was considered subversive. I was stopped for no good reason by police on several occasions. I’d often see them snooping around my van at night when it was parked up, even on private property. They seemed obsessed. Yet when I reported the theft of my stereos, the stock reply was: “I’m sorry sir, but there’s not a lot we can do.” Criminal behaviour? Not interested. Long-haired VW camper drivers innocently going about their day-to-day business? Seek them out, they’re a threat to civilised society. 

I’ve never had a criminal record, never been arrested, cautioned or so much as spoken to by a copper about my behaviour. My disdain for the police stems from their attitude and utter contempt towards certain groups of people like myself during this time. Twenty-plus years on, my opinion remains unchanged; I wouldn’t trust a police officer any more than I would trust the smack dealers on the estate up the road. 

There were plenty of positive tales to tell as well though. I was able to help out some friends in a band called Electric Orange who had landed a support slot with Back to the Planet, only for their van to break down before they left town! They called on me in desperation; I was only to happy to save the day. I (or rather the van) was also the saviour one night in Exeter. A party of about 13 of us travelled down in two vans to see Pop Will Eat Itself at the Uni. As was the post-gig ritual, a quick journey into the city centre was made to catch KFC before they closed. I made it, but the driver of the other van took a wrong turn and ended up in front of a police car. He was pulled over, breathalysed and arrested – he was over the limit. His six passengers were stranded, unless they legged it to KFC and caught me before I left.  They did. This meant in addition to myself and my five passengers, I now had another six people to squeeze into my old van.

The journey home was hilarious, but my poor old camper had never worked so hard. The worst part is that ‘home’ (Torrington) was on a hill. My vintage camper, laden with a dozen bodies in varying states of inebriation, was tested to its limit. I cranked it into first and gave it everything. It was a long, slow crawl but we made it without anyone having to get out and walk up! Another triumph.

Sadly, within 18 months of buying it, my camper fell into disuse through lack of funds. I had no money to tax or insure it. I eventually sold it for less than it was worth; I felt sad. For all the grief that knackered old van had given me, I was gutted when I finally had to get rid of it. I loved it and loathed it in equal measures, but even to this day I can’t help but raise a smile whenever I think about it.


[1] As already noted in my Reading Festival posts here and here.
[2] Chosen more for the band’s name than anything else. While I never took skinheads bowling, I certainly took a number of punks to gigs…

Saturday 19 April 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #3: The La's

Promising scally upstarts form band, play gigs, get record deal and release debut single that finds favour with everyone's favourite misanthrope Morrissey. So far, so good. But from that point, things go a little awry...

The La's[1] have become the stuff of legend. Look at their discography and you can see why - just the one album but at least half a dozen compilations! How? It's partly because that sole album was, and still is, one of the best British albums of all time. Yet its story is complex and bizarre to the point where truth and fiction have become ridiculously blurred. For instance, among the stories that surrounds the La's self-titled debut is the tale that frontman Lee Mavers refused to work with a particular authentic 60s mixing desk as it didn't have genuine 60s dust on it! That one's a myth, apparently but such was Mavers' obsession with the band's sound that they never completed a full recording session with the same producer. John Porter, John Leckie, Mike Hedges and Steve Lillywhite all took the helm at some point or other, all were deemed unsatisfactory by the perfectionist Mavers. Another 'story' is that Mavers directed the band to play really badly for Lillywhite so that the sessions and the material they yielded would be scrapped.

It was only when the band's label put their foot down, frustrated at the money they had spent with nothing to show for it, that an album was cobbled together by Lillywhite. Mavers fumed, the rest of the band weren't terribly chuffed either.

You'd think then, under these circumstances, that the resulting record would be a piecemeal collection of unfinished songs, informal studio jams and some general fannying about. Instead, 'The La's' was a triumph. It could have been one of the great sixties records had it come out 20-odd years earlier. Released as it was in the autumn of 1990, it fell between the beginning-of-the-end of the baggy era, and the hinterland that bred the Britpop explosion a few years later.  A bit like the period in the mid-late 60s between the peak of psychedelia and the advent of the mod movement.

It was a record that sounded so out of time and of its time all at the same time. Feelin' felt like a retread of the Beatles' I Feel Fine; Liberty Ship and Doledrum sounded like Captain Beefheart with a Bo Diddley groove; Failure had early Kinks written all over it, while Freedom Song could easily have been written by Ray Davies circa '66-'67; and the closer Looking Glass basked in the autumnal sunshine following the Summer of Love, building steady to the angry explosive coda signalling the death knell for peace and the hippy ideal.

Of course, the record is primarily remembered for its smash hit single There She Goes, which sadly tends to overshadow the rest of the work. While it cannot be denied what a wonderful song it is, it has become, somewhat irritatingly, the focal point of everything the La's were. But what exactly were they? The myth of the La's outlived the band by many years, and even today the stories surrounding them are told as often as the music is remembered. Mavers reformed the La's some years ago and occasionally plays gigs, but the fabled second album has never materialised. Again, numerous theories abound: it exists but Mavers has never released it; only demos were recorded; no recordings of any of the songs exist... The only man who knows for sure isn't talking. It all adds to the mystery, but this mystery continues to sell the re-issues, compilations and box sets and anything else the money-men can package together and call 'product'. Incidentally, tracks from those other abandoned debut album sessions have appeared on aforementioned re-issues, box sets etc; by-and large, they're nothing to get excited about.

But far from just leaving us a single album, the La's do have a legacy. While they themselves were heavily influenced by the Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley and others, they in turn became massive influences on the likes of Oasis, the Coral, the Zutons, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty among many others. Not bad for a one-off.

There's not a single track on this album that I skip. In spite of the numerous flaws the band perceives it to have, I personally think it it remains the most perfect imperfect record released in the 90s. Oh, and another reason I like it so much is because Mrs Robster and I shared an *ahem* intimate moment while we played it early in our relationship. But that's a story we're keeping to ourselves...

[1] If you're a grammar geek like myself, you could be forgiven for being irked at the seemingly erroneous use of the apostrophe in the band's name. But actually to their credit it's spot on! In Liverpool, 'la' is a common term for a male friend or relative, as in 'lad' with the d dropped. For instance: "Alright la, gerrus an ale in, nice one." (trans. "Hello old chap, would you be so kind as to buy me a beer please? Thank you so much.") Therefore, The La's is basically The Lads with the apostrophe correctly replacing the d. Here endeth the English lesson.

Friday 18 April 2014

Influences #3: Steve

Of all my colleagues at Our Price, my closest bond was with Steve Beardsley. Steve was pretty much instrumental in broadening my musical tastes of the time beyond the narrow remit of indie bands and so-called ‘alternative rock’. As much as Steve loved to rock – the Ramones and Killing Joke were among his most favourite bands – he was fired up on wildly different, diverse genres. He was a huge fan of the KLF in their many guises, he adored Neil Young’s country phase as much as his hard-rock stuff, and even rap music was on the agenda. I remember one evening as we closed the store and the last customer was gone, we locked the doors and Steve commandeered the CD deck.
He stuck NWA’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ on, turned the volume up to 11 and the place shook as the beats pummelled our eardrums.

  “Comin’ straight outta Compton
  Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
  In a band called Niggers With Attitude…”

Bemused passers-by, who could probably have heard this from the far end of the street, gawped at the empty store with some of the best WTF? expressions on their faces that I’ve ever seen. It was Steve who lent me the first two Public Enemy records after they’d blown me to smithereens at the 1992 Reading Festival.

Steve fed my appetite for discovery, latching on to my enthusiasm, even telling me how he saw a lot of himself in me. That’s either a huge self-deprecation of himself, or a supermassive compliment towards me. Of course, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. He despised Chumbawamba, and regarded the great David Gedge as his nemesis. I never forgave him for that latter one especially!

He also never understood my liking of All About Eve. Then one night, years later (in fact I’d moved to Wales by this point), I get a late-night phone call out of the blue. It was Steve. He’d been drinking.

“Listen to this,” he bellowed over the din of loud music, loud music that after a few seconds I recognised as All About Eve performing In The Clouds. Steve was at some all-day concert which was being headlined by the recently reformed folk-goths. I thought it was hilarious and it was obvious Steve saw the irony of being at an All About Eve show after years of winding me up about them.

Steve and I remained good friends for some time. We continued to compile wildly eclectic mix tapes for each other, along with comprehensive (and frequently hilarious) sleeve notes spanning numerous sheets of A4 paper (yes, really!). They were works of art. Like others before him, Steve eventually stopped getting in touch and I haven’t heard from him in 10 years. Apparently he’s into skateboarding now, which means he never really properly grew up. Still a top bloke, then!


Wednesday 16 April 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #11

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

The Reading Festival 1992
Little John’s Farm, Reading – 28th–30th August, 1992
Also in attendance: Wayne, Andy G, Stu, Clive & Steve P

Part two (In case you missed it, Part One is here.)
When it was time to get up, Wayne, Andy and I decided to wander off site to get some brekkie in town and let the others get themselves sorted. Truth be told, me and my soft, country boy ways, I really wanted some clean dry clothes that morning, but there were none. All the bags saved from the tent overnight were soaked through. They had been inadvertently chucked on top of the other bags in the van and soaked them through too!

I went about the rest of the weekend in a daze. Tired, and wet, and still reeling from the previous evening’s assault on my senses, it all seemed rather surreal. The Sunday started with a stroll to a takeaway just offsite and the chance to use a proper toilet. But the site itself was a quagmire. Once we assessed the damage, we realised how lightly we had gotten off. The two Scottish lads who were pitched near us lost pretty much everything. Their tent was destroyed. (I seem to recall we invited them to spend the final night in the van with the rest of us, but can’t remember if they accepted.) That final day resembled to a ‘T’ the media’s clichéd depiction of music festivals. It rained incessantly, there was no escape from mud. The Session Tent – a huge marquee like a circus tent which hosted the festival’s ‘second stage’ – had lost its roof in the storm and half the bands scheduled that day were cancelled! But, perhaps more bizarrely than anything, everyone had a smile on their face.

I reached the main stage on that Sunday just as John Peel introduced Björn Again, the world’s most famous Abba tribute band. Yes, really.[1] For 40 minutes, everyone there sang every single word to every single song. We were knee deep in mud and all everyone was talking about was Nirvana, but here we were bellowing Abba classics at the top of our voices. This was years before it became supposedly cool to love Abba again (you know, before people who had long forgotten about them flocked to see the godawful cheese-fest that was Mamma Mia and subsequently declared Abba as the greatest group ever or such like.) This was the closest you could get to seeing Abba live, and we were cold, wet, muddy and waiting for the noisy rock bands to come on. Maybe it was ironic; or maybe it was recognition that Abba actually were one of the greatest groups ever. Most likely it was a bit of both. Either way, Björn Again really rekindled the festival spirit and when they finished, several thousand soggy people were grinning like idiots. This was all swiftly followed by the ever-reliable Peelie spinning Nine To Five by Sheena Easton…

Of course, where there is mud and an inebriated festival crowd, there will be mud fights. Some of the battles will be amongst the audience members. Watching someone on the main stage (I forget who exactly), I suddenly saw a section of the crowd disperse and a big pool of mud was revealed. In the middle of it, writhing and wrestling, were two complete nutters (male, female… it was impossible to tell), covered head to toe and trying to grab random onlookers to join them as they wallowed (hence the crowd dispersal). It was later that evening, as I relayed these events to the boys back at the van that Stu piped up: “Yep, that was me and Clive! You saw us? Aw man, if I’d seen you, we’d have definitely dragged you in too!”

Inevitably though, some of the mud was always going to be hurled towards the stage. It seemed to start with L7. For the uninitiated, L7 were four female grunge-punks who weren’t exactly backwards at coming forwards. I loved that whole Riot Grrrl movement they found themselves part of, in spite of the fact that, being male, it really shouldn’t have appealed to me.  Bands like L7, Babes In Toyland and Bikini Kill were all about female empowerment and sticking a big one up to the male chauvinist-dominated music industry, media and rock music consumer. But I admired that, modern man that I was. Not in a patronising way either, women always offered something different to the male perspective in rock music and these bands were exactly that – different.

Earlier that year, L7 performed their hit Pretend We’re Dead live on trashy late night TV show The Word. As the band thrashed the final chords of the song and proceeded to trash the set, the cameras caught singer Donita Sparks with her jeans around her ankles and her bits in full view on national TV; it was enough to leave even host Terry Christian speechless! (See it here, in full gruesome detail...[2]) Now, being pelted with mud during a frustrating set at Reading, Ms Sparks took things one step further. Rather than simply telling the offending audience members where they could stick their mud, she simply rummaged around in her pants, removed a blood-stained female sanitary product from inside herself and lobbed it into the crowd, yelling: “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Cue another rapid crowd dispersal…

The mud-flinging continued for a while (predictably it reached a peak during Mudhoney’s set!) before things began to settle down as the time for Nirvana drew nigh. Sadly, I hadn’t quite gotten into Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds by that point, so couldn’t appreciate the majesty that adorned the stage as the sky darkened, but I was there as Kurt Cobain was pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair while wearing a blonde wig and hospital gown (a sardonic swipe at the rumours of his and Courtney’s health in the media), and the legendary headline slot kicked into life and what would become a significant moment in rock music history began to unfold.

That history would have it that this was Nirvana’s defining moment; that this really was the world’s greatest band at the time at their absolute zenith. It is believed by many that this was one of the greatest rock shows of all time. Yet I was rather underwhelmed. Sure, I remember it and yes, it was a pretty good show. The band was on form and Kurt seemed surprisingly cheerful and boyish, quite charming in fact. Yet I wasn’t blown away. I left the Reading Festival in 1992 with loads of great memories and stories, but while everyone else spoke of being there as Nirvana ripped the place up, I recall how on the previous night Public Enemy absolutely destroyed me.

That PE show made me feel like I’d been assaulted, physically beaten by a gang of politically-aware African-American freedom fighters wielding the most powerful weapons in existence – passion, words and FUCKING IMMENSE BEATS.


[1] As odd as it may seem, the reason Björn Again played at all is because Kurt Cobain insisted on it as a condition of Nirvana headlining. Or so the story goes.
[2] The You Tube clip is labelled 1993. It's wrong, it was definitely 1992. Honestly!

Monday 14 April 2014

Remembering Our Price

When I left college, jobs were scarce. Perennial underachiever that I was, I ended up joining the YTS. The Youth Training Scheme was a typical government initiative to get school leavers to take a very, very low-paid job funded out of social security. The benefits? The government gets people off the ‘official’ unemployment figures; employers get extremely cheap labour in exchange for ‘training’ their new recruits; the poor suckers who ended up in these schemes get paid little more than they would have on benefits, but at least get experience of the job market and potentially land a ‘proper job’ at the end of it. The same old idea has been endlessly recycled and repackaged since then by successive governments. It’s been given numerous names and titles, but let’s face it, there’s been no real improvement after all these years and it serves only to place a shallow veil over the real problems of youth unemployment.

My placement was at a small, independent music shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. In fairness, my time at Barnstaple Music Centre, under the tutelage of Roland and Pearl (two perfect names for music shop owners![1]) probably did do me quite a lot of good. After a year on the YTS, Roland and Pearl gave me a full-time job with proper wages (although being a very small independent retailer, this was far from big money, but it was a darn sight more than the YTS) and I was delighted. Within six months however, I was laid off. Financial pressures meant they couldn’t keep me on. It was a blow.

I soon learnt that Our Price, the biggest record store chain in the country, was to open a branch in Barnstaple. This was it – my chance to land a dream job. Let’s face it – we all want to work in a record shop. What could be better than standing around listening to all the music you ever wanted to hear all day, eh? That’s what everyone who never worked in a record shop would ask. Let me tell you, retail is bloody hard work, very low paid and ridiculously underappreciated. I’d already learned this in Barnstaple Music Centre. What’s more, you can’t listen to everything you ever wanted. You’d get the sack pretty bloody quickly if you played Crass or Bolt Thrower during opening hours!

I applied and got a job at the newly opened shop, slap bang in the middle of Barnstaple High Street. So there I was, the 19-year-old me, obsessed with music and with a chronic addiction to buying records, working in Our Price. I really was as happy as a pig in shit.

Some great fun was had. The thing with working in retail is, in spite of the god-awful wages, there is rarely a dull moment. A great deal of the most memorable stuff tends to come from customers. My mum, who worked in a succession of shops during her short life, always used to tell me: “There’s nort so queer as folk.” She was spot on (as always). 

You see, the public are cunts. The public regards the poor retail assistant on shitty wages and, more than likely these days, an oppressive zero-hour contract, as the lowest of the low. Yet, it is the poor retail assistant who must always remain polite, cheerful and helpful while some moron insists on acting like a complete prick towards them. Mrs Robster encounters numerous members of the public that fit this description every shift. She gets a kick at being ‘over-nice’ and smiling ironically at them while secretly inflicting severe pain on them in as inhuman way possible in her head!

Let’s face it, the one thing the public loves more than anything is to moan and criticise in the direction of a shop assistant. Yes, in Our Price there was no shortage of people consistently moaning about the “so-called music” we played in-store. The thing is, we had a policy in our branch where each morning had a different genre as its theme. Mondays was always new releases, but Tuesdays was classical, Wednesdays was rootsy stuff like folk and country, etc. The ‘moaners’ were notably absent during these times and only chose – and yes, it was always a choice – to come into the shop when something they didn’t like was playing.

My favourite was the little old lady who came in most Tuesdays (market day) just after midday. More often than not she would buy a cassette of classical music. Included in the transaction would be a disparaging critique of the “rubbish” or “noise” that was being aired in the shop at the time. We would explain to her that from 9 to midday on a Tuesday we were non-stop classical all the way, so if she came in a little earlier she might enjoy it. Then one week, she actually did make it in a little earlier. We were playing some Debussy or Dvořák, I think. When she reached the counter, I made a point of asking her if she liked the music we were playing that morning. She didn’t. In her usual grumpy way, she informed me that, basically, if it wasn’t Mozart, it wasn’t worth a jot!

Then there was the time short-lived teenage indie-pop band EMF were riding high in the charts with Unbelievable. Now this was at a time when the singles market was dying on its arse.[2] The multiple format marketing ploy was keeping the single alive, though the traditional 7” record was almost completely dead. The top selling format was the bloody cassette single for chrissakes - that’s how bad it was! Anyway, EMF released Unbelievable and it was all over the radio. Their keyboard player, Derry Brownson, was from nearby Instow, so there was extra interest in our neck of the woods as North Devon had never been a hotbed of celebrity. The single sold steadily that first week, nothing remarkable, but then the indie shops in town were selling it much cheaper than us thanks to the freebies they received from the label reps.[3] This is why we rarely stocked large amounts of singles – it was the one area where we could never compete with the independents. Sadly, this could not be explained to Derry’s parents, who during the record’s rapid rise up the charts, paid us repeated visits to check our stock levels and make a point of telling us each time, rather curtly, to get more in!

I took great delight in ordering things in that the manager was convinced wouldn’t sell, then watching it fly off the shelves. One such record was Chumbawamba’s fourth album ‘Shhh!’ We were sent a single copy on the day of release which I bought myself. I then placed an order for another half dozen. Pete, the store manager, wasn’t happy.

“Trust me,” I said. “If there are any left at the end of the month I’ll buy them myself.”

Of course, I knew Chumba had a bit of a following locally and gigs were being lined up for them in the area. When the six CDs arrived, I found a space at the end of the chart wall for them and waited. Less than a week later, they’d gone and another order was placed! That album ticked over nicely for a couple of years, a real cult record in North Devon.

Our Price was also where I experienced, for the very first time, the delights of the caramel doughnut. It was Darren, the store's resident Kylie fan, who introduced me to this delight on returning from one of our semi-regular ‘bun runs’ from the bakery opposite.  

“They didn’t have any éclairs so I got you one of these,” he announced.  I’ve never looked back.

Sadly it was also during my time at Our Price that my mum passed away and, perhaps understandably, my mood and attitude changed from that moment. I started to become frustrated at what I saw as an increasingly oppressive regime following the company being taken over by WH Smith. The final straw was being wrongly accused of stealing a measly £10 from the takings after I’d cashed-up one day. I’d recently lost my mum and thanks to her was OK for cash. The last thing I needed was someone else’s stinking tenner, but Terry, the snooty WH Smith security guy, seemed to have a suspect list of one. He had no proof whatsoever so couldn’t pursue it, but the damage was done as far as I was concerned. I slept on it for a few days and couldn’t get the incident out of my mind. I quit under a cloud, unhappy, bitter and frustrated at my treatment and life in general. I entered a new phase in my life which I now call ‘my hedonistic years’.

Our Price itself bit the dust in 2004 after multiple buy-outs and constant mismanagement. Are they missed? Hmm, maybe, maybe not. Are we better off having had them in the first place? Well, for me, that’s a definite yes!


[1] For non-musicians: Roland is a famous keyboards manufacturer; Pearl is one of the top brands for drums and percussion. Roland, the shop co-owner, played piano. Pearl, the other co-owner, did not play drums, though I love to imagine her doing so…
[2] A shame as there were some outstanding singles around during this period. I recently heard Dee-Lite’s Groove Is In The Heart for the first time in years and it reminded me of Our Price. What a good track that was.
[3] The superb book ‘Last Shop Standing’ by Graham Jones details the whole ritual of hyping records into the charts using numerous less-than-honourable techniques by sales reps. There’s also an excellent documentary and website inspired by the book. More info here.

Saturday 12 April 2014

50 songs to take to my grave - #7: Crystalline

I loved the Sugarcubes. It was Simon Greetham who introduced me to them (along with various other indie bands) back when I was 16 and in my only full year at college. Birthday was, and still is, a moment of total wonder and delight, and their debut album was awash with oddness and intrigue, yet the songs just glistened with fun and energy.

I never quite felt the same way about Björk's solo material. I suppose the problem I had was that she went all electronic and dancey and I've never been into that sort of stuff. Every so often she'd do something that would grab my attention, but nowt that made me feel as excited as I did when I first heard Birthday.

At least, not until a couple years ago when Crystalline came out.

I can't be sure where I first heard it, but I think it might have been on the radio (BBC 6 Music, of course). It all seemed rather understated, but then Björk has always been a master at that - less is more. The first four minutes are driven by the rhythmic tones of a Gameleste, one of several instruments Björk had made specially for her - a modified celesta made to not only sound like gamelan instruments, but to also enable it to be played remotely via an iPad! And it is this clever combination of minimalism and electronic wizardry that ultimately lured me in. Björk sings of crystals growing in nature, personifying the process by metaphorically relating a similar process in the growth of human relationships. The whole thing teases with plenty of little bleeps and beats dropping in subtly without ever really taking off, but the fizzing anticipation does eventually give way to one of the most unexpected climaxes of any song I've ever heard.

From nowhere, we are ambushed by a rambunctious rabble of drum & bass beats that blast us into the middle of Björk's little cosmos at hyperspeed. They shouldn't be there, they don't belong there - but by god they sure as hell are going to be heard, and no one's getting out of here without their senses being brutally assaulted. To put it bluntly - it's fucking nuts!

It is an example of Björk's genius - proving that safety first isn't an option when you can arouse such stirrings in your audience by throwing the unexpected - and downright wrong - at them instead. Crystalline - and its parent album 'Biophilia' - is also a rare example of electronic music that excites me. It has an energy that awakens those parts of me that shut down when I hear electronics dominant in a song. But then it's Björk, so anything's possible.