Saturday 31 May 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #6: Bizarro

It's a return to the unashamedly 'indie' for this post, and you don't get much more indie than the Wedding Present. You'll already know of my affection for Mr Gedge and whichever intrepid cohorts happen to be playing with him this week. While most fans would opt for the band's seminal third album 'Seamonsters' from 1991, its predecessor, 1989's 'Bizarro' just edges it for me. Yeah, controversial I know.

It was an interesting time for the Weddoes; their debut album 'George Best' had been very well received, the band was picking up lots of favourable press, and two non-album singles had just missed the Top 40. Then the unthinkable happened - the Wedding Present signed to a major label. Who would have thought it? Yet looking back on it now it seemed to make sense. David Gedge never did anything he didn't feel was right, and as it turned out, the RCA deal really was a good decision. Typically, the first release on the label was a compilation of Ukrainian folk songs the band had recorded for John Peel, but later that year the barnstorming single Kennedy emerged, and nothing could have announced the return of the Weddoes-proper than that track. It gave them their first Top 40 hit and, let's face it, Kennedy definitely rates as one of the best singles of the 80s. It also ushered in a major label debut that to this day I delight in playing.

While 'Bizarro' was hardly a dramatic change of direction for the band, it certainly bore a number of marked differences and developments compared with 'George Best'. Sure the trademarks were all in place: Gedge's thrashy, jangly guitar bursts with dour Yorkshire drawl over the top; lyrics telling tales of love, lust, jealousy, revenge, guilt and resentment. However, the sound was altogether meatier and fuller, the songs sounded more fully formed and for the first time, tracks extended beyond the 5-minute mark.

There were some top tunes too. As well as the introductory single, there was No and Granadaland, two songs in which Gedge really lets rip at a girlfriend; Bewitched which could stand as a somewhat experimental moment in the early Weddoes canon (and also one of my favourite tracks on the album); and the sprawling monster that is Take Me!, nine-plus minutes of classic Gedge culminating in an extended Velvet Underground-esque rhythm guitar wig-out.

David Gedge on the 'Bizarro'
21st Anniversary tour.
Oh yes, he's still got it!
'Bizarro' was far from the 'sell out' many fans had feared and to me it still stands taller than everything else they did. In 2010 I saw them play the album live, beginning to end, on its 21st Anniversary tour in Cardiff. It took me back to the time I saw them on the original 'Bizarro' tour in Bristol. 

I never did quite get into 'Seamonsters' the way I should have, though it has grown on me a lot over time (I also went to their Cardiff show on the 21st Anniversary tour for that album in 2012!) Strange really as I really loved the re-recording of 'Bizarro''s opener Brassneck they did with Steve Albini which hinted at what was to come.

I think the secret lay in the songs. 'Seamonsters' was quite heavy going in places whereas everything I initially loved about the Wedding Present was present and correct on 'Bizarro' plus more besides. It's probably why I still come back to it 25 years on.

Friday 30 May 2014

Garage days revisited

The White Stripes fused blues and country music with something altogether louder, trashier and wilder to create their wonderful noise. Again, they were looking back in time.

Garage rock began to grow in the early 60s in North America, taking some influence from surf guitar bands and pioneering rock 'n' roller Link Wray, the daddy of the power chord. The sound of these early 'alternative' acts was very devil-may-care, amateurish and free. Shouted or screamed vocals, distorted guitars and loud, fast backbeats were the dominating characteristics, and it is little wonder why few of these bands ever crossed over into the mainstream. There were, however, one or two that did infiltrate the charts and the songs that did are regarded as classics today - the Kingmen's Louie Louie for instance has been covered more times than I care to mention. In fact, their version wasn't the original, but it's by far the most famous. Since then, everyone from Otis Redding and the Beach Boys to Motorhead and Black Flag have given it the once over.

Then there's the ridiculous Surfing Bird (much beloved of Peter Griffin), a massive hit for the Trashmen in 1963. It was effectively a mash-up of two similar songs by R&B band the Rivingtons, and has itself also been done to death by the likes of the Ramones, the Cramps and Silverchair.

But my favourite band of this early era is undoubtedly the Sonics. They were one of many that didn't have a chart hit, yet they became massively influential. Often cited as one of the biggest inspirations for punk and alternative rock, the Sonics released three albums before breaking up in 1968. Their debut, 'Here Are The Sonics!!!' from 1965 is an astonishing piece of work. Though many of the songs are covers of rock 'n' roll classics and contemporary hits, the way the Sonics approached them was unique at the time. Take Do You Love Me? for instance, originally a hit for the Contours in 1962 in the States, and a number one in the UK for the Tremelos the following year. The Sonics played it faster, harder and louder - the drums sound like machine gun fire in places, while singer Gerry Roslie screams like a banshee. No one played Do You Love Me? like the Sonics. What makes it even more remarkable is that the entire album was recorded to two track with just a single mic for the entire drumkit.

Their later records sounded more polished and produced - they described their third and final album 'Introducing The Sonics' as "the worst garbage" - but it is clear when listening to tracks like Maintaining My Cool that they continue to inspire new bands even today. If you're a fan of the Strypes, listen to this:

Us Brits got in on the act too, introducing audiences on this side of the Atlantic to this new uncouth, rabble-rousing sound.

Meanwhile, the godfather of punk, a certain Mr Iggy Pop was taking garage rock by the scruff of the neck and giving it a damn good beating, drawing blood and sweat by the pint as he did so. The Stooges, along with MC5, added an even heavier and increasingly raucous element to the proceedings, throwing outrageous live performances into the bargain as well. The term 'punk rock' was coined and garage rock made way for a music and fashion revolution, both in the States and the UK, with Iggy revered by both sets of audiences.

A garage rock revival during the 80s and 90s passed by without much notice outside of the underground, but what is evident is how the garage rock ethic continued to inspire bands to form and develop a sound. Even R.E.M. in their early days sounded not unlike the Sonics, as evidenced here (from one of the earliest known recordings of the band from 1980):

Once the White Stripes broke through in 2001, a plethora of up-and-coming garage bands seemed to follow, all boasting their own styles and attitudes, but all clearly influenced by those early movers and shakers in the 60s. The Von Bondies were mates of Jack White and supported the White Stripes on tour. Their debut album 'Lack Of Communication' was one of the best to come out of this new garage revival; the dynamic between the male and female members was the key to their sound. Their later two albums were better produced and more pop-oriented which is why, for me, the debut wins out every time. It's also a fave of Mrs Robster. They were a bloody good live act too.

l-r: The Von Bondies, The Kills, The Bellrays, The Hives and The Strypes
And so it continued: the Black Keys, the awesome Bellrays, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Detroit Cobras also burst from the US scene, but it extended globally. The Datsuns from New Zealand, the Hives from Sweden, and the London-based Anglo-American duo The Kills (the female half of whom would later form a band with a certain chap called White...) The Kills in particular would become a band who the wife and I continued to follow as they dabbled in different styles while remaining true to their DIY garage rock ethic.

We come full-circle. I mentioned at the top how one of those originators of garage rock, the Sonics, continue to inspire young bands of today like new Irish wonderkids (and I really do mean 'kids') the Strypes. Here's the proof, if any were needed, that rock 'n' roll will never die. It just comes around in cycles to thrill us all over again.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #19

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

#19: Lush
The Cavern, Exeter – 25th March 1996

I used to judge just how good a night I’d had either by how many bruises I’d acquired in the mosh pit, or by how wet I was after a show. I had long gotten into the habit of taking a dry t-shirt to wear on the drive home from a hot, sweaty gig. If I left a gig dripping with sweat, it was a good one. By that reckoning then, this show is right up there among the best. It still rates as probably the hottest, sweatiest and downright wettest gig I’ve ever had the fortune to be at.

There were two main reasons it was so hot and sweaty. Firstly it was at the Cavern in Exeter, possibly my favourite venue EVER, which is small, dingy and, as its name suggests, underground. Even a moderately attended show was on the warm side. Which brings us to the second reason – it was totally rammed, more so than I think was strictly legit.

Emma Anderson at The Cavern
(pic: TheRobster)
By 1996, Lush were relative veterans of the indie scene. They formed in ’87, released their first record in ’89 and were generally regarded as a decent, if unspectacular, shoegaze band. I latched onto them pretty early on, buying their debut ‘Scar’ EP on account of it being on the 4AD label and having a nice sleeve! I ended up buying everything they ever released but always failed to catch them live. Until, that is, they hit Exeter with a bang on what would sadly turn out to be their last tour.

Having chugged along admirably for a number of years, Lush finally crashed into the mainstream in January 1996 at the height of Britpop with Single Girl, a song which saw them take a new pop-oriented direction with more prominent vocals and louder, sharper guitars. A second bonafide hit single – Ladykillers – and a Top 10 album followed. They did Top Of The Pops. Lush had finally arrived – they were too big for the Cavern, surely. It wouldn’t have been the first time a band booked to play a tiny place like that would have rescheduled to a larger venue. For whatever reason though, on this occasion, they didn’t. Hence the Cavern gig sold out faster than a fridge of half-price fudge cakes outside a Slimming World class.

Luckily, I was ‘in’ with the Cavern’s owners, mainly because I was still working at the North Devon Journal and listed all their events in my weekly Gig Guide. So a quick phone call and I was on the guest list in return for a review in the following week’s column. This was very probably the best deal I ever made. Hardcore Lush fans crammed in with the Britpop acolytes and it soon became impossible to move. I had made it right down to the front which was the best place to be, partly because the Cavern’s stage was so low and there were no barriers between stage and audience. It also meant I had an unobstructed view of the divine Miki Berenyi.

Miki Berenyi at The Cavern *swoon*
(pic: TheRobster)
Ah, Miki Berenyi (pronounced Be-ren-ee – a silent ‘y’) – the half-Japanese, half-Hungarian singer with the scarlet hair and a simply stunning smile – how I went weak at the knees when she arrived on stage. She looked absolutely gorgeous, even better in real life than in photos. It’s no secret I was head over heels in love with Miki, and here she was, just a few feet from me. I was smitten, for sure.

What followed was a raucous hour of guitar-pop and crazy moshing, generating so much heat and moisture, it started to drip from the ceiling! Yes, really - the audience’s combined sweat dripping onto our heads. I’d never seen this happen before and haven’t since.  

The set? A mix of the current Britpop-tinged album, including 'the hits', and plenty of older tunes - Sweetness And Light, always one of my faves, being particularly outstanding. Being there on ‘business’ as much as pleasure (of course!), I took a few photos and captured one of the best pics I ever shot. Needless to say it was one of Miki, and it took pride of place on my wall for a number of years.

The heat and the moisture from the walls and ceilings meant I emerged from the Cavern absolutely soaked. I wrung my t-shirt out after the show; it was as if I had been stood in a violent rainstorm for an hour, except this had been way more fun.

The tragic circumstances that ended Lush as a band a few months later[1] puts a bit of a dampener on my memories of this show. Lush were a good band who were really starting to get somewhere after years of under recognition. As a live act, this show exhibited just how energetic and engaging they were and I’m left wondering just how big Lush could have been if things had worked out differently.


[1] Drummer Chris Acland committed suicide in October 1996. The band split soon after, feeling unable to continue without him.

Monday 26 May 2014

True blues

The White Stripes certainly have a lot to answer for. Thanks to them, I woke up to the delights of the blues, yet another genre of music for me to indulge myself in. It’s not that I ever disliked the blues before, more that it never really drew me in. My first proper encounters with blues music came in my mid-teens. As well as finding out Fleetwood Mac were once an awesome blues band, my college mate Nils Horley would play loads of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King in his bedsit when I called round to visit.

For a while I thought I really liked blues, but only Jimi and Zep stuck with me and I became largely disinterested in the rest of it over time. The White Stripes really awakened my senses, as I’ve already explained and one of the things that I became fascinated in was the origins of the music they played. While the blues I had been exposed to seemed rather corporate and to a large extent sanitised, the White Stripes showed me how raw and emotional the blues could be – and as I found out, that was exactly how it was meant to be.

Shortly after moving to Wales, I guy who worked in the same aisle as me in the large, soulless open-plan office we occupied would lend me lots of blues CDs which allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for the genre. I found myself enjoying the early pre-WW2 artists in particular, although the electric pioneers in the post-war years also intrigued me. I began to explore and discover some wonderful music, and my journey into the blues continues to this day.

A starting point really has to be Robert Johnson. I suppose you could call Johnson the ultimate bluesman. An itinerant musician with an eye for the ladies (not just an eye, as it turned out…), his life is steeped in legend. The old tale of ‘selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for being able to play guitar’ is probably the most told story in rock and roll folklore. His subsequent mysterious death, seemingly of poisoning, likely administered by a jealous husband, at the age of 27 has become the template for the rock and roll death[1]. In just two studio sessions (in November 1936 and June 1937) he accrued a small collection of recordings – just the 29 songs – yet remains arguably the singular most influential figure in rock & roll before the 1950s.

Every single one of Johnson's songs has been covered multiple times across many spectrums of popular music. Only last year Nick Cave mentioned him in the lyrics to Higgs Boson Blues (from his remarkable and brilliant album ‘Push The Sky Away’), a song which incidentally also refers to Miley Cyrus both as herself and Hannah Montana!

  I came upon a crossroad, the night was hot and black
  I see Robert Johnson with a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back
  Lookin' for a tune
  Well here comes Lucifer with his canon law
  And a hundred black babies runnin' from his genocidal jaw
  He got the real killer groove
  Robert Johnson and the devil man, don't know who's gonna rip off who

Cave in fact is most certainly one of many great products of Robert Johnson’s legacy. He’s rooted in the blues both musically and, in terms of dark imagery and storytelling, lyrically too. But even before Johnson there were successful blues musicians making a living from their music. One of the most notable was Blind Lemon Jefferson, who became one of the very first successful solo recording artists. Jefferson employed a unique playing style coupled with his distinctive high-pitched voice. He recorded in the region of 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929 and reportedly earned enough money to buy a car and employ chauffeurs. The good old blues myths and legends pervade in Jefferson’s story too though, particularly around his death. Like Johnson, there is the ‘jealous husband poisoning’ theory, also one of him being mugged. The most likely is a heart attack[2], though of course, this isn’t quite as good a fable as your typical rock and roll death.

While we’re talking about distinctive performers, we really should consider Son House, who I think was perhaps the biggest influence on a certain Jack White. Son House was a former preacher and his vocal style often mirrored the frenzied passion of his sermons, not unlike the one adopted by White at his furious best. He had also developed a completely unique slide-guitar technique. Originally active in the 30s and 40s, Son House was rediscovered in the 60s and spent ten years touring and recording, including a remarkable Peel Session, despite increasing bouts of illness. He retired in 1974 from ill health and died of cancer in 1988 aged 86. Son House’s influence is undisputed; he is reputed to have taught Robert Johnson, while everyone from Gary Moore to Depeche Mode has covered or reinterpreted his music.

As the blues evolved, new stars and influential characters emerged. Among the most remarkable were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Waters in particular is regarded as possibly the biggest influence on modern blues, especially in the UK with artists like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton among his biggest fans as well as Angus Young of AC/DC. I also adore Muddy Waters. His voice warms me, his style relaxes me; I even like the look of the guy! He looked charming, humourous and self-assured. One of my favourite recordings of all time (to feature in a forthcoming 20 Songs… post) is a live take of Got My Mojo Workin’ which Muddy performed with an all-star backing band featuring Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf.

Now there’s another name that cannot be overlooked by even the most casual of blues listeners. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another of those unique performers who became a massive influence on future musicians. As well as the Stones who were huge fans, PJ Harvey has cited the Wolfman as an inspiration, claiming that his single Back Door Man “terrified” her as a child. Once again, the legend and mystique that grew up around these characters adds to the appeal for me. I love the romance and charm of these stories as well as the music itself.

Such a tradition continued with the likes of Captain Beefheart – the story of the recording of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is every bit as bizarre as the selling one’s soul at the crossroads tale – and Seasick Steve with his yarns of leaving home at 15, living a nomadic existence and being ripped off by a music store owner who sold him a guitar with just 3 strings on it. Then of course the White Stripes’ brother-sister myth… it’s like the blues of the early 20th Century just refuses to die.

And now? Well, the mad, bad and dangerous sound of Left Lane Cruiser keeps blues alive with a smile on its face, while Hell's Kitchen from Switzerland (of all places) add an interesting experimental twist on the genre that the purists may baulk at, but that I find intriguing. Even now, a hundred years on, it just keeps on keeping on with new faces, new stories and new tunes – but the same old blues.

[1] Since Johnson, significant members of the so-called ’27 Club’ include: Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Alan Wilson (Canned Heat), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron McKernon (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (Stooges), Pete Ham (Badfinger), Chris Bell (Big Star), Pete DeFreitas (Echo & The Bunnymen), Kurt Cobain, Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Richie Edwards (Manic Street Preachers)*, Jeremy Ward (The Mars Volta) and Amy Winehouse.
* Went missing aged 27, presumed dead.
[2] Depending on the version you believe most, he may have died during a blizzard, or after being attacked by a dog.

Saturday 24 May 2014

50 songs to take to my grave #10: Wichita Lineman

I'll keep this short. Some songs don't need a lot said about them, they just make the point so well on their own. Wichita Lineman is such a song. Described as the first existential country song, it was conceived during a car journey in Oklahoma by writer Jimmy Webb after spotting a telephone lineman up a pole in the middle of nowhere. Webb saw it as "the loneliest job in the world".

Recorded first by Glen Campbell, the plaintive lyrics combined with a beguiling arrangement and melody to form probably the best country song of all time, and arguably one of the greatest songs of any genre of all time. So many versions have been done of it since, but Campbell's remains the best by far.

Friday 23 May 2014

Country boy

“So what kind of music do you usually have here?”
“Oh we got both kinds – country and western.”
~ from ‘The Blues Brothers’

One of my dad's fave records
My dad was a big country and western fan. Even as a child the music of Jim Reeves, Billie Jo Spears and Tammy Wynette were more than familiar to me. Billie’s ’57 Chevrolet and Tammy’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E were particular faves, and let’s be honest here, both ladies were among the finest female voices of their genre. Various family parties and gatherings would ensure all the old classics got an airing: Blanket On The Ground, Crystal Chandeliers, Wichita Lineman (and what a song that is!) – yep, it’s fair to say I received a fair old grounding in country standards of the 60s and 70s. Yet it remained, for many years, a genre I explored no further.

It’s probably fair to say country and western music has never been cool. It’s probably also fair to say that it wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking genre either. I mean, the Grand Ol’ Opry was hardly a haven for hipsters, innovators or experimentalists, was it? For me, it had very little to interest or excite me, so my knowledge of country music beyond the aforementioned classics, was to say the least limited.

Cash! 'Nuff said.
But then I saw Johnny Cash at Glastonbury in 1994[1]. It was a turning point. Thing is, although I hadn’t experienced much of Johnny Cash’s music as a child (other than his novelty hit A Boy Named Sue), I had, as a music fan, purchased a second-hand copy of the ‘Live At San Quentin’ LP a couple years before that legendary Glastonbury appearance. But what I saw that afternoon made me not only an instant Johnny Cash fan, but also slightly curious about country music in general. I had, of course, come across various rock artists dabbling in country music over the years – R.E.M., the Byrds, Neil Young - but had otherwise all-but ignored the genre.

OK, so it’s not so easy to label Johnny Cash as purely a country singer. There is a strong argument to say he was way more rock than country. He started out with a musical style more reminiscent of rockabilly, evident in the ‘boom-chicka-boom’ rhythm he pioneered in the 50s. He was, of course, a quarter of the so-called ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ – along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and some bloke called Elvis something… - which formed Sun Records’ early roster. And how many Cash recordings contain the dreaded pedal-steel guitar? Er, very few as it happens.

Slowly, over the years (thanks in part to the White Stripes) I’ve explored country music more and more. I’ve waded through Cash’s extraordinarily vast back catalogue; encountered the likes of the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Emmylou Harris; and found myself drawn to many old and new bluegrass acts such as Allison Krauss, Bill Monroe, Blanche, etc. By the way, what happened to Blanche? Two excellent albums then nothing since 2007. Shame.

Sometimes, something comes totally from left-field and bowls you over. When I first heard First Aid Kit’s Emmylou, it was one of those moments the tears started welling up. (To be honest, I have one of those moments every time I hear it!) If you didn’t know better, you would think it’s a 70s country classic sung by one of the legendary Nashville-based female superstars of the era. So when you realise it’s actually two teenage sisters from Sweden in 2012 it adds another level of wonderment. I mean – those voices! Those harmonies! These girls understand American folk and country music and right now are one of my absolute favourite acts, and Emmylou is not only one of my fave tunes of the past few years, but my daughter's too. It shows how far country music has reached over the years and how many generations it continues to inspire.

First Aid Kit
I have to say I can’t stand the modern stars of so-called country music who just sound like corporate American rock/pop stars and look like they’ve just walked off the set of American Idol (which of course, some of them have). I mean, who decided Taylor Swift was ‘country’, for goodness sake? Even Kings of Leon are more country than any of that awful lot.

While I in no way consider myself to be even remotely knowledgeable about country music, I do like to think I am a part-time student in the field. I find myself gradually understanding it, making the links to the blues, rhythm and blues and traditional American folk music. The fact I’ve managed to write an article of this length on the subject is something of an achievement, but aficionados would no doubt sneer at my lack of obsession and in-depth comprehension of ‘their’ music.

But for the record, it goes without saying that Dolly Parton is an absolute bonafide genius through and through. Man, that woman can play.


[1] A story to be told in a future post.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #18

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

A change of plan. I’ve delayed my intended tale of a sweaty Lush gig in 1996 as I just had to tell you about a show I attended only last week…

#18: Shonen Knife
Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff – 15th May 2014
Support: Small Gang, Former Utopia
Also in attendance: Colin

There are many great unsolved mysteries in life:
- Where do Big Brother contestants actually come from? Do they grow them in laboratories or something?
- Why does the word "lisp" have an s in it?
- And how the hell can it be that so many people have still never heard of Shonen Knife?

It is to my eternal shame that it has taken until 2014 for me to actually see Shonen Knife in concert. Wayne saw them at the Reading Festival back in 1992 and couldn’t stop telling people how amazing they were. Since then I have sporadically encountered them and dipped into their catalogue without really paying them the attention they deserved. But the legend prevailed – whenever their name came up, their reputation as a live band would usually get a mention. 

The Shonen Knife legend was strong indeed. Kurt Cobain was, apparently, “transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert” when he attended a Shonen Knife gig. John Peel started playing their records before they had even played a show outside of Japan. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore was responsible for taking them to the US for the first time. With fans like that, it’s little wonder word spread quickly and their reputation grew.

So earlier this year, when I saw they were coming to Cardiff, I took my chance and bought tickets. Turns out it was a damn good decision. While on record Shonen Knife can sound a little lightweight in places, rather twee and poppy in others, live they undoubtedly ROCK! The Ramones-esque punk-pop they are renowned for is intertwined with slow, dark riffs a la Black Sabbath, hardcore punk, 60s girl group vocals and riffs that any rock band would kill for.

Their set was neatly split into two halves; the first half featured recent songs, many of which feature on their new album ‘Overdrive’. A triptych of such tracks played back-to-back summed up the Shonen Knife experience: bassist Ritsuko sang a song about noodles (Ramen Rock), drummer Emi sang about green tea (in, erm, Green Tea), and legendary frontwoman Naoko sang about living life Like A Cat. What’s not to love?

Later on, they delved into the archive and gave an airing to classics like Twist Barbie, Riding On The Rocket and the utterly bonkers Cobra vs. Mongoose. Throughout, the well-rehearsed and choreographed stage show proved why Shonen Knife are regarded as highly as they are. The identical, self-designed costumes; the simulated headbanging; the twirling arms with devil’s horn fingers held aloft; the huge grins... if nothing else, Shonen Knife are great to watch.

They encored with a version of Blitzkrieg Bop that even Johnny, Joey et al would have been proud of before exiting the stage for good leaving me in that sadly rare state of wanting more; I would gladly have stood there and watched Shonen Knife all bloody night. After a pretty shitty and heavy week, this was a real tonic. The only disappointment was the size of the crowd – the venue was only half full. This pretty much sums up the state of the world; what a happier place it would be if everyone had a bit of Shonen Knife in their lives.

The word ‘trailblazers’ is often rightly used to describe Shonen Knife. Nearly every female rock and punk band of the last 20-odd years owes them a significant debt, yet Shonen Knife remain unique and distinctive. Seriously, if you’ve never seen them, make it your mission to do so before you die.


Monday 19 May 2014

The coolest rock & roll band on Earth

Music and fashion are inextricably linked; indeed, one will often influence or inform the other. Fashions come and go, and many will return again and again. In 1967, for instance, we had the Summer of Love. Twenty-two years later, we experienced the Second Summer of Love. Tie-dye, Paisley and baggy/flared jeans were de rigeur. Of course, it’s rarely just about the music and the clothes, there is often a whole culture (or counterculture) that evolves, as evidenced with both summers of love.

The point is, just because something happened once upon a time, it doesn’t mean its time has gone. More often than not, it just rests awhile and waits for its time to come again. It amuses me how the hipsters of 2014 all rave about all these amazing original new bands they’re into, yet aren’t aware that the Human League released Being Boiled in 1978 and most of what happened in electronic music in the 80s, and the current electropop crop of Hot Chip, Metronomy, et al can point back directly to that brilliant single. Yes kids, we had computers and keyboards to make music with in the 80s you know. We did it before you. And Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd and Can did it before us… Check out the work of Clara Rockmore who, along with Louis Theremin, pioneered electronic music in the 1920s and 30s!

Anyway, in 2001, we were about ready for something new. And when I say something new, I mean something that had its roots in something old. The festering corpse of Britpop had now putrefied and the slew of turgid acts that followed in its wake had, one-by-one limped away with their tails between their legs almost immediately. The popular music scene at the dawn of the 21st century was, in short, flagging, stale and increasingly insipid. It needed re-energising in a big way.

Cue the White Stripes.

Seemingly from nowhere, two saviours, dressed in red and white, appeared, tore up the rule book and dragged pop music kicking and screaming into the new millennium by, ironically, referring back to the early years of the last one.

If Jack and Meg White had only existed in photographs, they would still have been the coolest fucking rock and roll band of the last, ooh, at least three decades. Talk about photogenic – they were a photographer’s wet dream; two good looking young people with a natural, idiosyncratic style and seemingly up for anything. How could anyone seeing pictures of the pair of them not instantly fall in love?

The fact they also played the most fitful, primal, searing music we’d heard since punk broke made them one of the most exciting prospects we’d ever had. What the White Stripes did that was so clever, so unique, so damn special, was to not try and make anything thing they did sound clever, unique or special. Their secret was to keep everything as simple and stripped back as possible, and to display genuine, heartfelt emotion while doing it. No one could ever accuse Jack White of not giving a shit.

OK, so maybe there were one or two contrivances here and there. There was the legend that Jack and Meg were brother and sister, which held true for a while until the rotten spoilsport that is ‘the media’ discovered they were married from 1996-2000. This could be aligned however with the tradition of the blues, itself steeped in legend and storytelling (Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads being the most famous). Jack and Meg’s ‘sibling relationship’ could be seen as merely an extension of this tradition. Then there was the aesthetic image of them always dressed in red and white (and later on, black as well). Jack has implied this was based on the yellow and black uniform and tools he used as an upholsterer pre-White Stripes, when he felt like he was living in a cartoon world.

To me though, the White Stripes felt like the most natural, honest and goddam exciting act I’d come across since I discovered R.E.M. more than a decade before. I could do nothing but grin when I heard their version of Hotel Yorba played on an acoustic guitar and a cardboard box (recorded live in Detroit’s Hotel Yorba, no less). No pretensions, no fancy production – just simple, honest and fun.

And it is that very f-word that sums up what the White Stripes were to me from the very first moment I heard them to the day they broke up – Fun! 

They’d first been mentioned to me by local second-hand record shop owner Matt the Hat (not his real name, but he always wore a top hat, so that’s how he became known). On his advice I bought ‘White Blood Cells’, the band’s third album, and instantly fell in love with it. This was exactly what I needed when I was in danger of becoming a Coldplay fan. I naturally went out and bought their first two records, though at the time they were only available as imports, not released in the UK for another year or two. No matter, I sensed the money I invested in this band was going to be well worth it. I was soooo right. It seemed everything they turned their hands to turned to gold: old blues standards (St. James Infirmary, Death Letter), restrained, acoustic numbers (Sugar Never Tasted So Good, We’re Going To Be Friends), little bursts of country-folk (I’m Bound to Pack It Up, Hotel Yorba, and their wonderful cover of Jolene) and short, crazy thrash-a-thons (Fell In Love With A Girl, Let’s Build A Home, Broken Bricks) – whatever it was, they could do no wrong. They were also a phenomenal live band and I am grateful I managed to catch them at one of the most memorable gigs I ever attended.

The one thing I never expected the White Stripes to be though was a global sensation. It’s one thing making the 9-o’clock News and causing a tabloid frenzy when it’s a slow news week, but to have a string of number one albums, to have one of your songs sung by sports fans in stadiums around the world and – the ultimate accolade – appearing on the Simpsons is altogether something else. Somehow, Jack and Meg captured the imagination of millions with nowt more than a simple drum kit, a couple of guitars and a whole lotta screamin’. 

The second half of their career – from 2003’s album ‘Elephant’ onwards – saw the White Stripes become one of the biggest bands in the world, putting out some of the most thrilling and intriguing music the 20th Century never heard. First came the world-dominating single Seven Nation Army which fooled us all into thinking they’d betrayed us all by using a *shock-horror* bass! It wasn’t of course, just a funky new effect Jack found for his guitar. This was followed by all manner of styles and sounds that seduced and teased, delighted and enticed, intrigued and amazed. The blues was always highly evident, but they also gave us Mariachi (Conquest), gentle Velvet Underground-esque ballads (In The Cold Cold Night), even charming but hilarious ditties like It’s True That We Love One Another and Rag And Bone, to this day one of my favourite tracks of theirs, purely for the fact that even at the peak of their powers they refused to be taken too seriously.

And that in essence remains the eternally endearing quality of the White Stripes. For all the plaudits, the awards, the number ones, the celebrity fans, the undeniable influence they continue to have on rock & roll – in spite of all this the White Stripes were, at their very core, just a whole lot of fun, and isn’t that all we really want from pop music at the end of the day?

But that’s not all. Through the White Stripes, my interest in blues and country music grew to previously unknown proportions, while I also enthusiastically explored the wonderful world of 60s American garage bands like the Sonics, the Trashmen and the Stooges. There’s no doubt the White Stripes enriched my musical life in the decade they were together, and I rate them along with R.E.M. and Pixies in terms of sheer inspiration.


Saturday 17 May 2014

50 songs to take to my grave #9: A Design For Life

Sometimes I wonder why there isn’t a little more love in the world for the Manic Street Preachers. Even here in their south-east Wales homeland they seem to polarise opinion. When I told friends last year I was seeing the Manics in October, there was general indifference – no one really cared less. “Are they still going?” asked one of them who I would have expected to know better. Even Colin, one of my current gig buddies, can take or leave them. MrsRobster, as I’ve already stated, can’t bear them. Yet at that show at the Newport Centre, there was an overwhelming feeling of love and adoration for them, not terribly dissimilar to the vibe at the Morrissey show I attended a few years back. So why do so many people have this couldn’t-care-less attitude about one of Wales’ – Britain’s – very best acts?

Then I remember that at one point, I didn’t like them either. In fact, I hated them passionately. Firstly, I just didn’t get the hype. Why were these jumped up brats, smothered in make-up and emulating the likes of New York Dolls, Guns ‘n’ Roses and second-rate Sex Pistols tribute bands getting so much exposure? And how could any right-minded person like any band that espoused such nonsense as hoping Michael Stipe died of AIDS?

What turned me was seeing them at Knebworth in 1996 supporting Oasis. Now that’s really not the sort of event you would expect to have you perceptions and opinions challenged, but there was something about their performance that really sent shivers down my spine. I was a convert. Maybe it was the sheer defiance in playing to such a vast crowd so soon after personal tragedy (Richie Edwards had disappeared only the year before),combined with the huge anthems that transpired on the ‘Everything Must Go’ album. It was that record that began my transformation from loather to lover. My good friend Lisa had insisted I listen to it and lent me the CD. The two tracks that I just couldn’t shake off were Australia and A Design For Life. As much as I didn’t want to admit defeat, I eventually had to concede that this band wasn’t that bad. The more I played it, the more I liked it. That Knebworth show, and in particular their rendition of A Design For Life, sealed the deal.

Nowadays, I class myself as a Manics fan, and A Design For Life rates as one of my very most favourite songs. It is an anthem in every sense. Aside from its big, rousing arrangement, it tackles the issues surrounding class, particularly the disparity between the working classes and the privileged upper classes. It’s a rallying cry for the downtrodden masses with a helluva tune to boot. In the right setting, it can bring tears to my eyes. When I saw them at their Newport show last year, they closed their set with it and yes, I fought back those tears as every single person present (except MrsRobster) hollered every single word with as much gusto as a home crowd at the Millennium Stadium sing Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on match day.

In fact, if Wales ever needed a new national anthem, A Design For Life would surely have to be considered.

Friday 16 May 2014

Rock 'n' roll star???

For a short while, I was in a band myself. I’ve never been much of a musician, though had I stuck at it, I could have been a half-decent piano player. When I was growing up, our next door neighbour was a retired music teacher who gave me free lessons. I stopped going when I was 15 using the excuse of school work and exam pressure. A year or two later, I bought my first guitar. I was much better at piano than I have ever been at guitar, but I wanted to rock. I wanted to be Angus Young or Jimi Hendrix, not Elton John or Billy Joel.

I taught myself, but always struggled beyond the simplest elements of rhythm guitar. I tried to avoid playing anything that involved F or B-flat chords, and lead riffs were way off my scale.

Having never failed to impress others with my total lack of guitar-playing ability, I nonetheless joined Shrug sometime in 1996 (I think). Shrug was a four-piece indie band that specialised in upbeat pop songs influenced strongly by the Smiths, the Wedding Present, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. I already knew a couple of guys in the band – drummer Stu and I had ‘done’ Reading together in 1992 and were now flat-sharing; while bassist Penfold had previously been in a death metal band who I had written about during my time at the local rag. I got to know Jim and Gary, Shrug’s founding members, one evening over a pint when they approached me to ask if I would consider becoming their manager. My knowledge and enthusiasm, along with my contacts list, were ideal attributes for them. I liked them too and heard enough in their songs to believe we could work together.

Shrug: Stu, Penfold, Gary; Jim (front)
What they really wanted was to play a decent music venue rather than the pubs and function rooms they were used to. My first mission – to get them a show at Exeter’s Cavern Club – was accomplished within a matter of a couple of weeks; a support slot with Flyscreen, a band hailing from Newport, the south Wales town that would become my home some years later. South Wales, Newport in particular, was on the crest of a wave in terms of musical coolness at the time. ‘Cool Cymru’ was the music press’ preferred label; bands like Flyscreen, 60 Foot Dolls, Dub War and Feeder all received regular features in the media, and the legendary TJ’s was regarded as one of the ‘must play’ venues on the circuit. So as expected, the Cavern was very busy; Shrug played to their biggest audience to date, a great time was had by all and I won several kudos points from the band and their followers.

My job as manager continued for a few more months before a bombshell was dropped – Gary was leaving owing to family commitments. This was a disaster. Gigs were on the horizon, and I had booked studio time. Where could we find a guitarist to step in at short notice, preferably one who knew all the songs? In spite of my inability to play much more than half a dozen chords, and having never played with a band, or in front of an audience, I agreed to step in on a temporary basis until a replacement could be found. A replacement was never found and I remained Shrug’s lead guitarist for 18 months, to this date one of rock’s biggest jokes!

Shrug v2.0
That's me crouching, with Stu, Penfold & Jim
Gary had agreed to see out the upcoming shows which was a relief, until… one evening, Jim turned up to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Rugby injury. He couldn’t play guitar. Gig at the weekend. Trouble! My debut with the band was going to be much sooner than I had anticipated. The show was at The Globe, one of our local pubs in front of a home crowd who knew the band. So, they might be rather forgiving. On the other hand, they might not, and I’d never live it down.

You learn fast when you’re in a band. I certainly learnt the set in double-quick time, even how to play Fs and B-flats. I also learnt another thing on the night – I can’t drink and play. Even a couple of pints for Dutch courage proved excessive. My fingers were all over the place, and at one point I couldn’t remember whether I should be playing F-C-Am or C-Am-F. An exasperated cry of “C! Play a fucking C!” from Jim soon put me right. To be fair, it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. The audience cut us some slack owing to the circumstances, but I was left with little doubt that there was some work to be done. There was also no doubt I was the least musically competent member. What I did have however was boundless enthusiasm and loads of ideas. 

TheRobster rehearses his
mandolin part in the studio
during the 'Hubris' sessions.
Fuckin' poser...
During my time in Shrug, the band’s sound evolved to become more complex and adventurous. Our venture into the studio (my first, the band’s fourth) was a real education. Even though the other guys had recorded before, this time we worked with someone different in a completely digital studio. Alex Duncan, the studio owner, producer and engineer, was open to all our ideas and totally indulged us. We made a half-decent demo entitled ‘Hubris which also included a cheesy Europop remix Alex did for us for a bit of fun, and a funky new logo designed by MrsRobster's stepdad (see top of page).

Our live show also became tighter and tighter, and we weren’t afraid to try new things. My highlight was my debut show back at the Cavern. It’s a tiny place, dark and dingy, but perfect for live music. Each band always got a good soundcheck and the audience always gave you a chance, drifting away from the bar for at least a couple of songs to check you out. I loved playing there, and that was the night I realised playing on stage in front of an appreciative audience was actually way better than being in the audience. I felt almost god-like. Seriously, when you walk onto a stage with a guitar in front of people, they jump about like mad things and you play one of the best damn shows you’ll ever play, very little can beat it, you’re on another level entirely. Plus, I can also genuinely say that I have played on the same stage as Muse, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay. Just not at the same time…

By contrast, my final gig with Shrug was horrible. There were already tensions and I had been considering my future with the band prior to that night, but the final straw was right back where it began: the Globe in Torrington. It sticks in my head for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind going into it. TheMadster was just a few months old, MrsRobster was ill with a mystery liver complaint and family stresses were mounting up. In the band, I had never seen eye-to-eye with Penfold. As much as I liked the guy, I felt he had very little respect for me as a member of the band and our bickering at rehearsals had intensified week on week. I also knew we weren’t up to much as a band. There were egos where egos had no right to be (we were still playing pubs, for chrissakes!), our material was stagnating and our general enthusiasm was waning. I was a simmering pot before we played. And then something happened which made me boil over.

Shrug live at the Globe.
Just look at the determination on that guitarist's face!
As gigs go, it wasn’t wonderful. Sure, we were playing in front of friends who would have loved us even if we decided to play a set of free-form jazz on makeshift instruments made from kitchen utensils. But it just wasn’t great, something was lacking. We had rehearsed a little ‘surprise’ for the audience. For a laugh, we decided to throw in a cover of I Will Survive. Up to that point in the set, I was (unusually) the only one who hadn’t yet made a mistake. Stu had missed a beat at some point and even Penf hit a bum note. But these things happen right? You just carry on and hope no one noticed; luckily no one did. So I hit the opening chords of I Will Survive as Jim sang: “First I was afraid, I was petrified…”. The audience chuckled and cheered at our little joke and all seemed well. But then, at the point the whole band joined in, Jim pulled up and stopped us in our tracks. He turned to me and yelled: “Will you fucking tune your guitar up, it sounds awful!” I hit a chord. It sounded perfect. I hit another. Spot on. Jim strummed one. Shit. He was out of tune, not me. Everyone noticed. That’s when I lost it. On top of all the other friction in the band, the assumption that if someone screwed up it was more than likely me, and I should be shouted down in front of the audience – I mean that’s bad enough. But it wasn’t me who screwed up. I knew at that moment, this would be my last gig with Shrug. I reluctantly played on, quietly seething, but I longed for the end. As the last song ended, I threw my guitar down and strode out of the Globe. I felt humiliated and let down, yet justified in my anger. I wandered through the streets for a bit to cool off before heading home.

The next day, I went to help pick the gear up from the Globe. Other than the expected “where did you get to last night” questions, Stu huffily informed me that I “owe some people an apology”. What for? What about my apology? I picked up my stuff and never looked back. I let the guys know I had quit a day or two later and that was that. My brief flirtation with rock & roll glory was over.

With hindsight, quitting was definitely the right thing to do even if I really did miss playing with the guys. What was a mistake was the way I left. Hell yes I was pissed off, but that was as much my problem as anyone else’s. And while it wasn’t fisticuffs at dawn Liam and Noel style, it was rather petulant. What I think left a bitter taste in their mouths was the article I published on the band’s website (yes, we had a website in 1998!) which revealed ‘The Truth’ about being in Shrug and why I left. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but they seemed to take offence. Some years later, I found a backup copy of the site on an old disk and re-read that piece. I understood then why the boys were a bit miffed; it wasn't written terribly well and I came across as a bit of a twat with an axe to grind. Sometimes when you detach yourself from a situation and look at it from someone else's perspective, you really do see things differently. 

Shrug during the good times
If I could turn the clock back, perhaps I would have done things differently. Although we remained friends, I got the impression they held what happened against me. Truth be told I never felt I really fitted in with them, but after I quit I sensed some resentment towards me. I never bothered to ask for sure. Shame really as we had some good times.

Shrug continued as a trio for a little while but eventually called it a day. I put my guitars away and have barely touched them since. In fact, I sold most of my gear when I moved to Wales, keeping only my beaten up old acoustic and my prized mandolin. Both deserve to be played properly, but probably never will.

  • The Decision Was Mine - Shrug (from ‘Hubris’)[1] - will re-up by request.
  • Buttman - Shrug (from ‘Hubris’)[2] - will re-up by request.
  • Factory Gates - Shrug (from the Fluid Emissions compilation ‘Junior 2’)[3] - will re-up by request.

[1] One of Shrug's best songs, even if it does sound very Smiths-esque. But then Jim was a Morrissey obsessive. I play lead guitar and mandolin on this track.
[2] One of my faves on 'Hubris'. We actually didn't intend to include this one, we just laid down the basic track one afternoon as it was a brand new song we wanted to practice. For some reason, we kept coming back to it, adding bits until we thought 'you know, this doesn't sound too bad'. The lo-fi intro was my idea right at the end of the production stage and it works really well I reckon. Buttman also features my finest ever guitar solo. Yeah, it's pretty bloody rough, but it was the best damn solo I ever played!
[3] Shrug's signature tune. I don't play on this, it was the last track recorded with Gary a year or so before we recorded 'Hubris'. Live, we played it faster and louder and it never failed to get people going. In fact, such was the song's appeal, several other local bands used to cover it! Had Shrug ever recorded a decent version of it (I don't rate this take of it at all), Jim in particular could have made quite a few bucks in royalties. I remember him getting quite pissed off when the Beautiful South released Don't Marry Her as he felt it had an almost identical chord sequence. He had a point...