Sunday 29 June 2014

Memories of Glastonbury: 1995

Glastonbury’s 25th Anniversary, at the time its biggest ever. It was also to be my last. Once again it was hot, hot hot. I blagged a free ticket from a local trader who was taking solar-powered showers to the festival in return for a feature in the paper. Probably highly unethical and completely against my employer’s code of conduct, but needs must. I was offered a seat in a minibus with some of the local rugby players. They weren’t my usual crowd and I was a little wary of spending the weekend with them. As it turned out though, it was one of the most hilarious weekends I’ve ever had. Each morning we’d fetch cider from our stash in the minibus. We nearly got mugged on one such trip before the biggest, scariest member of our party, Dave, sent the dirty scabbers packing. It was Dave who also built a perimeter fence around our cluster of tents and patrolled it each night with a big stick over his shoulder, like a sentry guard outside Buckingham Palace. Anyone who dared to step into our territory soon had a burly rugby player wielding a big stick marching towards them shouting “Oi oi, get off my land.” 

Britpop was at its height in 1995, the line-up on the NME stage paid testament to this, though the Main Stage also hosted a few of the scene’s biggest names:

PJ Harvey
My only previous live encounter with PJ Harvey was at Reading in 1992, when PJ Harvey was the name of the whole band. By 1995, the band had split but Polly continued under the same moniker (it was her name, after all), and she was now on her third album, ‘To Bring You My Love’. And she was A-MAAAAAAAAAA-ZING! Resplendent in a fluorescent pink catsuit, with lashings of eye make-up and lipstick, her performance was confident, striking and not just a little bizarre. Only two oldies were aired, the rest was new material - so no safe hits set for Polly. ‘To Bring You My Love’ was an experimental record, reminiscent of some of Kate Bush’s finest work, and this came through on stage. You wonder in fact just how much Polly had studied Kate around this time. It was an unforgettable show.


Meet Ze Monsta [live] – PJ Harvey (from ‘Live At Glastonbury’ bootleg)

John Otway
The man who’s famous for not being famous. Although I had heard of John Otway, I had never heard any of his music. I decided to catch his set in the Acoustic Tent on the recommendation of one of my punk friends. I wasn’t disappointed; on the contrary, I was blown away. John Otway was no spring chicken (41), but he had more energy on that stage than pretty much anyone else I saw that weekend. He would perform forward rolls whilst playing guitar and not miss a single note! During Headbutt he would headbutt his mic – hard! And of course, there was also his famous take on House of the Rising Sun, with full audience participation. He’s still going strong (I'm seeing him in September, in fact) and every bit as good as he was in 1995. A movie has even been made about him!


House Of The Rising Sun [live] – John Otway (from ‘Greatest Hits’)

Nowt I can add to what’s already been written numerous times about this show. It was undoubtedly the show that turned Jarvis into a bonafide star, but it may never have been - Pulp only stepped in as last-minute replacements for the newly defunct Stone Roses. What a stroke of luck for band and audience alike. I was there, at the front, and it was a ‘wow’ moment. If Common People had given them a mainstream audience, it was this live performance that truly won the hearts and minds of everyone who saw it. They also debuted their next single, Sorted For E's And Whizz, which pretty much summed up the event and the time. That, more than anything, confirmed Pulp was the most relevant band around at that moment. A remarkable performance that more than deserves its place in Glastonbury folklore.


Sorted For E's And Whizz [live] – Pulp (from ‘Live At Glastonbury’ bootleg)

I liken Oasis at Glasto in ’95 to Nirvana at Reading in ’92 – there certainly are parallels there. Both had played the same respective festivals the previous year on the second stage halfway down the billing. In the 12 months that followed, each band became absolutely massive and were booked as Main Stage headliners. Both shows were hotly anticipated and much hyped. Both were also raved about afterwards with the words “legendary”, “historical” and “unforgettable” being bandied around like they were the only three adjectives in the English language. Yet, like with Nirvana at Reading ’92, I felt rather underwhelmed. Oasis weren’t bad – on the contrary, they were very good – but they were definitely outdone by PJ Harvey, Pulp and even John Otway in my book.


Supersonic [live] – Oasis (from ‘Live At Glastonbury’ bootleg)

Saturday 28 June 2014

Memories of Glastonbury: Johnny Cash

I’ve seen loads of bands at festivals. It’s a strange setting for a gig in my view, hardly intimate or easy for artists and audience to engage with each other. But from time to time, something pretty spectacular happens: Primal Scream (Glasto ’92), PJ Harvey (Glasto ’95), Public Enemy (Reading ’92). But one particular performance stands out for me, in that I don’t think of it as being part of a bigger event. It is as if it happened entirely separately to anything else that was going on, like a little bubble of time that existed for this one extraordinary hour before bursting and thrusting me back into reality once more.

It was Glastonbury 1994. An elderly musician had just released an album that was destined to be revered as the best of his entire career. That man was Johnny Cash. Having been cast aside by the Nashville fraternity and set to seed by record companies, Johnny Cash had barely existed as an artist for a decade or more before famed rap-rock producer Rick Rubin approached him to make a record. When ‘American Recordings’ saw the light of day, it captivated a whole new audience. It was just the Man in Black, an acoustic guitar, and Rubin at the helm. It revived his ailing career, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see Cash added to the bill for that summer’s Glasto.

A bit of a tradition of a ‘veterans slot’ was beginning to emerge. The previous two years had seen Tom Jones and Rolf Harris perform, but Johnny Cash didn’t seem to be regarded as much as a novelty as his predecessors. And rightly so as I’ve never experienced anything quite like Johnny Cash’s performance at Glastonbury ‘94, either before or since. It was possibly the most entrancing show I’ve ever witnessed, and that’s really something when you’re standing in a large field surrounded by thousands of strangers.

Those present that afternoon witnessed something extraordinary. We were all rapt in the company of a man our grandparents probably admired. After tearing through some classics with his band, Cash then played a few tracks from the new album completely solo – and this is when the real magic happened.

June Carter
This old man held the enormous audience in the palm of his hand. There was a respectful hush as he played, followed by an almost euphoric howl of approval as he finished each song. It really was spine-tingling stuff. Only the spontaneous “woo-woos” the crowd sang back at him during Let The Train Blow The Whistle broke the mood a little, but that’s far from being a criticism. On the contrary, it seemed to lighten things a little and Cash clearly loved it. All that was left for him to do was bring the band back onstage and round off with a few singalong favourites, including one or two with June Carter.

Johnny Cash’s performance at Glastonbury remains one of the most memorable and fondly talked-about festival shows of all time for good reason. When it was over, I was back. Cash had transported me into a little world of my own during that show, set apart from the rest of the festival. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments I’ve mentioned before, and it’s why this is the only festival performance I’ve dedicated a whole article to.


Let The Train Blow The Whistle [live] – Johnny Cash (live At Glastonbury 1994)

Jackson [live] – Johnny Cash & June Carter (live At Glastonbury 1994))

Friday 27 June 2014

Memories of Glastonbury: 1994

The year the Pyramid Stage burnt down just weeks before the festival. Fortunately a replacement was hastily constructed in time. For me, this was the year it started to become less about the big music stages and more about the ‘fringe’ areas; much exploration ensued. Even so, the big talking points took place on the Main Stage.

Peter Gabriel
The most elaborate and spectacular stage show I’ve ever seen anywhere. I may have remembered this inaccurately, but I seem to recall PG rising onto the stage through the floor! It would have been easy for him to play a straight set of hits with no theatrics – he’d have still gone down a storm – but instead, he rose to the occasion, employing many of the astonishing visuals he had used throughout the 'Secret World' tour over the previous 12 months. A brave move, for sure, but ultimately one that I’ll certainly never forget. A brilliant, brilliant performance.


Steam [live] – Peter Gabriel (from ‘Secret World Live’)

One of the big surprises of the festival. James appeared to be on a commercial downward slope following the success of Sit Down. ‘Laid’ had been a critical success but its more experimental nature led to lower sales figures than hoped. They bounced back with ‘Whiplash’ in 1997, but during the post-‘Laid’ lull, they produced a magical turn which made everyone realise just what an excellent band they always had been – and still were. “Thank you Glastonbury,” Tim Booth acknowledged. “We thought people didn’t love us anymore.” It’s hard not to love a band like James.


Laid [live] – James (live at Glastonbury 1994)

Rage Against The Machine
One of the most anticipated acts at the festival, sadly the most disappointing. My overriding memory of RAtM is the lengthy pauses between each song. At one point, I counted a gap of nearly two minutes of silence between songs. Oddly, some people point to RAtM as one of the festival’s all-time highlights. Each to their own, I suppose.


Bullet In Your Head [live] – Rage Against The Machine (live at Glastonbury 1994)

And then there was a certain Johnny Cash – but that’s deserving of a post in its own right, which you can read tomorrow.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Memories of Glastonbury: 1993

Another scorching weekend, both in terms of the weather and the music, though I don’t remember feeling quite as blown away by anything as I was the previous year. Maybe that led to me seeking more thrills away from the music the following years.

The Ukrainians
One of the strangest projects the Wedding Present ever did was the whole Ukrainian Peel Sessions thing. Even stranger is that it was actually pretty good. After being fired from the Weddoes, Pete Solowka formed the Ukrainians and my only live encounter with the band was in the Acoustic Tent at Glastonbury. They were good. Very good, in fact, romping through energetic versions of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, original material and a Smiths cover or two thrown in for good measure. Great fun.


Koroleva Ne Polerma – The Ukrainians (from ‘Pisni Is The Smiths’ EP)

Rolf Harris
I’m slightly hesitant to praise Rolf Harris given recent revelations [updated link]. At the time, Rolf was regarded as an entertainment legend. Most of us at Glastonbury that year grew up with Rolf on our TVs. We all knew what a wobbleboard was, we’d probably all owned a Stylophone at some point, and everyone could do a Rolf impersonation that usually included the phrase “Can you tell what it is yet?” Because of this, Rolf went down an absolute storm at Glastonbury, much to his own surprise. I interviewed him the following year for the North Devon Journal in which he told me he had never been more anxious than the moments before that Glasto appearance and felt genuinely overwhelmed by the reaction he received. I felt I was in the company of greatness and found him charming, eloquent and accommodating. No doubt various other adjectives will be used to describe the man from now on…


Stairway To Heaven [live] – Rolf Harris (Live on ‘The Word’)

Velvet Underground
An opportunity to see one of the most influential bands of all time reunited? Duly taken. Sadly, to say it was rather underwhelming would be an understatement. Perhaps if just one member of the band looked remotely interested it would have lightened the mood but for whatever reason, Lou, John, Stirling and Mo all appeared to want to be somewhere else. Mind, the reunion tour as a whole wasn’t exactly raved about by the press, and it all fell apart once Reed and Cale locked horns, not for the first time.


Venus In Furs [live] – Velvet Underground (from ‘Live MCMXCIII’)

The Kinks
If feeling let down by the Velvets wasn’t bad enough, finding myself cringing at the Kinks made me want to crawl back into my tent and cry for the rest of the weekend. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but Ray Davies is a hero of mine and I think I anticipated some otherworldly kind of performance from him. What I got was a middle-aged man who seemed like he was trying to emulate Freddie Mercury – and failing dismally. I almost succeeded in forgetting this show entirely, but sadly I can still recall some of the worst bits. Never mind, one listen to ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ and all is OK with the world once more.


Hatred (A Duet) [lve] – The Kinks (live on Jay Leno Show)

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Memories of Glastonbury: 1992

It’s the mother of all music festivals this week, and to mark the event I present a special daily offshoot of my memorable gigs series featuring the standout moments of the four Glastonburys I attended in the early 90s.

The 1992 festival was not just my debut Glastonbury, but my first ever festival – and what a way to start. Blistering sunshine throughout and some extraordinary live shows.

Primal Scream
If I had to name the best act I ever saw at Glastonbury, I would be really torn between two or three, but the Scream would be right up there. Their 1992 headline performance pretty much summed up the time and the scene. Indie kids and ravers mingled as one to witness what must rate as one of the most stunning live performances of all time. Surely no guitar-oriented indie-rock band could transform so suddenly and so effectively into a dancefloor-filling electronic act and slay a crossover audience of thousands in just a single festival show. But Primal Scream did it with ease, playing pretty much the whole of ‘Screamadelica’ and not much else. There were no calls for older material or fan faves – everyone got exactly what they wanted from the Scream that night and more besides. A seminal moment in the festival’s history in my book, and I was there. Mind well and truly blown!


Don’t Fight It, Feel It [live] – Primal Scream (live in Tokyo)

Blue Aeroplanes
I wandered through the field in a daze while Blue Aeroplanes played. I caught the end of their set which involved not just the band but what could well have been the entire backstage crew as well, each playing guitar. A wonderful wall of guitar sounds washed over the crowd in one of the best climaxes to a live show I’ve seen.


The Boy in The Bubble [live] - Blue Aeroplanes (from ‘Fruit (Live: 1983-1995’))

Youssou N’Dour 
I first saw Youssou doing an instore show at HMV’s flagship store in London’s Oxford Street. It was such an uplifting experience, it resulted in me spending more than £100 on CDs! That’s what you call a sales tactic. Three years later, he headlined Glastonbury on the final night. The atmosphere was perfect; the sun was going down at the end of a scorching summer’s day and Youssou ran through another energetic set, with his incredible voice at the front of it all. Then, to round it off, he brought on a special guest – none other than Peter Gabriel. I was astounded enough, but the guy in front of me was going into meltdown, so overwhelmed was he by his hero making a surprise appearance. “Oh my GOD! Oh wow! Oh… my… GOD!” Such is the power of music, and it is always a delight to witness the joy it brings.


The Lion (Gaiende) – Youssou N’Dour (from ‘The Lion’)

Lou Reed
I wandered through the field in a daze while Lou played (hmm, sound familiar?). I stopped to watch him for 10 minutes or so, during which he did a divine rendition of Satellite Of Love, a song which still reminds me of Glastonbury.


Satellite Of Love [live] - Lou Reed (from ‘Rock 'n' Roll Animal [2011 re-issue]’)

Tom Jones
Everyone hoped for a hits-laden set to wriggle our hips provocatively to. Instead we got a pub-band set of soul standards that most people (myself included) got pretty bored with pretty quickly. Even so, being the last day of the festival, I did hope no one threw their knickers at him - he never deserved that…


Hard To Handle [live] - Tom Jones (from ‘Live in Las Vegas’)

Saturday 21 June 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #9: Ágætis byrjun

In 1999, I was still an avid reader of NME, even if I often dismissed a lot of the writing as pretentious claptrap or bandwagon jumping. In one particular issue though, the Single of the Week was just too intriguing to ignore. It was for a song curiously entitled Svefn-g-englar by an Icelandic act called Sigur Rós, and was described by the reviewer as “so delicately beautiful, you feel as though you're trespassing by listening to something this intimate”[1]. To be honest, he had me at the first line when he mentioned Iceland.

I was fascinated by Iceland and its music, had been ever since I first heard the Sugarcubes a dozen years earlier. I knew nothing of this Sigur Rós band and had to check them out. No one stocked the single in Barnstaple so I had to order it; I only hoped it was worth the wait. 

It was; oh how it was!

Remember when I wrote about ‘Doolittle’ and I described the moment I heard its opening track Debaser for the first time? I called it a ‘jawdropper’; when words escape you and all you can do is wonder in awe at the magnificence of the sound, jaw hitting the floor in utter astonishment. Well, Svefn-g-englar sounded absolutely nothing like Debaser but my god did it have the same effect on me or what. For nine minutes (for ‘tis a long one) I was enraptured by the most spellbinding, hypnotic music I had ever heard. I could say nothing, I could do nothing – I just listened. In the words of the NME reviewer: “By the time it rumbles to a close, you realise you've been holding your breath in awe.” For once, I agreed with every word.

So I naturally bought the album. ‘Ágætis byrjun’ (trans. “A good beginning”) was the band’s second album but their first to be released outside of Iceland. It was everything I had hoped it to be. The thing about Sigur Rós in 1999 was that they sounded nothing like anything I’d ever heard in my life. I suppose, pointers to the likes of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Mogwai are valid, but to me this band was totally fresh, unique even. For an album that weighs in just a few seconds short of 72 minutes, ‘Ágætis byrjun’ is just so compelling, it ends far too quickly. Each song takes its time to get going – in one or two cases it never quite gets going at all – but the rewards are sumptuous. Take that single, for instance: delivered at the pace of a crippled snail, it begins with the minor-chord drone of an organ enlivened only by electronic ‘pings’ that distressingly sound like a failing heart monitor. It’s only when Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson starts singing that you realise how damn special this thing is. In terms of tempo and arrangement, it doesn’t shift much, but it holds you in a trance for more than you’re strictly comfortable with, and yet you’re glad you succumbed to its force.

Ágætis byrjun
The follow-up single Ný batterí (“New batteries”) starts to the eerie spluttering of a brass band which sounds reluctant to get things going. A few minutes in though, and we get pounding drums, loud guitars and a ribaldry from the brass players that seemed impossible to imagine earlier on. Starálfur (“Staring elf”) stands out as a particular highlight on an album of highlights, delicately weaving itself into the fabric of a luxurious, yet humbly understated garment, a subtle adornment that would be terribly missed if it weren’t there. And then there’s the majestic Viðrar vel til loftárása (“Good weather for an airstrike”) the 10-minute opus that first appeared as the b-side to Svefn-g-englar. For me this song is the centrepiece of the entire record, its wonderfully grandiose crescendo elevating it to heavenly status.

The thing is, even a record this good has its limitations. It’s no wonder Sigur Rós’ music has soundtracked many a movie, TV show or trailer – it sounds visual. So it’s little surprise that the two videos made for tracks on the album go way beyond the remit of the pop video; they are cinematic experiences that take the music to an entirely different level.

I remember during one sleepless night some months after ‘Ágætis byrjun’ came out I got out of bed, went downstairs and put the TV on. I have no idea what show was being broadcast, but on it was the video for Svefn-g-englar. It was, quite simply, breathtaking. Filmed against a bleak, desolate Icelandic landscape a troupe of Downs Syndrome teenagers acted out the “sleepwalking angels” of the title. I had another jawdropping moment right there, and I may have even shed a tear – truly one of the most beautiful and touching music videos of all time. The video for Viðrar vel til loftárása, depicting two boys kissing during a football match and the ensuing fallout that occurs, caused controversy but nevertheless was named Best Video at the Icelandic Music Awards. It too was a thing of great beauty and illustrated how Sigur Rós more than just made music, they made soundtracks.

from the video for Svefn-g-englar
Apparently the band’s label only expected to sell 1,500 copies of ‘Ágætis byrjun’. To date its sales figures are in the millions, Sigur Rós is one of the most highly revered bands in the world and they continue to make remarkable music. Not bad when you consider the record’s acclaim was built primarily on word-of-mouth.

Staff at Sigur Rós’ website describe ‘Ágætis byrjun’ thus: “rumbling, pings, tjúúúú, palindromic strings, bjargvættur, the coughing brass intro, bamm bamm bamm, the crescendo, the flute, the simplicity, and it fades out. Press play again.”[2] I don’t know what all that means, but it sounds perfect. 

[1] Full review reproduced here:

Friday 20 June 2014

The albums of R.E.M. ranked

Here's another thing I wrote some time ago with the intention of fitting it in somewhere amongst my story. Like Monday's rap piece, it never quite managed to fit in anywhere, so I just kept it to one side for a rainy day. Today is such a day (though as I'm scheduling it in advance I can't tell if it's a rainy day or not).

As you may have gathered over the past six months, R.E.M. have played a very significant part in my adult life. Here's my attempt at trying to rank their albums in order of awesomeness. Since I first wrote it, I've come back to it a few times; surprisingly I've never actually regraded or re-ranked anything.

So here is TheRobster's definitive guide to the albums of R.E.M. I've graded them out of 10, but bear in mind the gradings are relative; exceptionally high standards are expected for R.E.M. For instance, a 5 is below par for an R.E.M. record, but it’s probably equivalent to a 9 had anyone else made it. Except maybe Pixies...

1. Document (1987) 9.5
(from The College Years: Part Two posted 15 March 2014): 
The moment it started... the day R.E.M. entered my life and my very soul was changed forever. ‘Document’ was a revelation to me. To begin with I had never heard a voice like Stipe’s. By now out front and dominant, its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” he sings as the album’s opening lines, over a solid drumbeat and a repeated guitar note, all chiming and distorted. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Wow, truer words have never been spoken, or indeed sung. Those first 20 seconds of Finest Worksong woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were.
Over the years my fondness of ‘Document’ has not diminished; on the contrary it has grown and grown. I would easily name it in my top 5 albums of all-time purely on the music alone. In terms of what it means to me in respect of my whole life, the only other serious competitor would be the Pixies’ masterpiece ‘Doolittle’.

Finest Worksong - R.E.M. (from 'Document')

2. Murmur (1983) 9
To this day, regarded as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. And rightly so. A remarkable work for such a young band. Enough has been written about it already, just listen to it.

Sitting Still - R.E.M. (from 'Murmur')

3. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) 8.6
4. Green (1988) 8.5
5. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) 8.4
Very difficult to separate these. LRP just wins out because of its opening sequence of songs. 'Green' excites me to this day; Turn You Inside-Out, World Leader Pretend and Orange Crush truly represent R.E.M. at their absolute zenith. While 'Fables' is the band’s least favourite record, its southern storytelling, Byrds-esque guitar jangles and melodic vocals demonstrate American folk music at its very best and makes it one of my faves.

Begin The Begin - R.E.M. (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

Turn You Inside-Out - R.E.M. (from 'Green')

Life And How To Live It - R.E.M. (from 'Fables Of The Reconstruction')

6. Automatic For The People (1992) 8
I dunno, maybe I’m just bored with it. It is no doubt a phenomenal record, and any multi-platinum record that has a dirge like Drive as its opener is always going to be somewhat special. But it also has the embarrassing The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite on it, and I could really do without ever hearing Man On The Moon AGAIN! I’m in two minds with this album: is it worthy of being no. 6, or should it be lower? I’m far more likely to listen to 'Accelerate', 'Monster' or 'New Adventures' than AftP. Then I remember its sheer depth and the wonderfully emotive music and lyrics in songs like Try Not To Breathe, Nightswimming and Find The River, so on that basis, here it stays.

Try Not To Breathe - R.E.M. (from 'Automatic For The People')

7. Accelerate (2008) 7.9
8. Monster (1994) 7.8
9. New Adventures In Hi Fi (1996) 7.7

I love R.E.M. most when they rock out. These three do that. 'Accelerate' was a record they needed to make to reassure fans they still had it in them. It’s also short and to-the-point. 'New Adventures' by contrast was three or four tracks too long, but the fact most of it was recorded live gives it the edge their next three albums sadly lacked. Typically, while the critics unfairly derided 'Monster', I always unashamedly loved it, and still do.

Living Well Is The Best Revenge - R.E.M. (from 'Accelerate')

I Took Your Name - R.E.M. (from 'Monster')

Leave - R.E.M. (from 'New Adventures In Hi-Fi')

10. Out Of Time (1990) 7.6
Let down by its cringeworthy opener Radio Song and the horrible Shiny Happy People, a song even the band despises, OoT nonetheless contains some of R.E.M.’s finest moments. Forget the stupidly overplayed Losing My Religion, what about Low, Belong and my favourite R.E.M. song ever Country Feedback?

Belong - R.E.M. (from 'Out Of Time')

11. Reckoning (1984) 7.5
Putting this so far down my list may be deemed sacrilege, but I could never get into 'Reckoning' the way most die-hard fans could. I can’t explain why, there’s barely a bad song on it. Each to his own, I guess.

Camera - R.E.M. (from 'Reckoning')

12. Up (1998) 6.5
There was so much wrong with 'Up', I sometimes wonder why I defended it as much as I did. It was unfocused, lacked any real edge and was way too long. But the band had just lost their drummer, the guy who is generally accepted to have musically underpinned the band’s sound since their inception. This was, in many ways, an experimental record, and it does have plenty of high points. At My Most Beautiful remains a track Brian Wilson would probably kill to have made, while Hope, a homage to Krautrock icons like Kraftwerk and Neu!, is an unbridled triumph and a highlight of the band’s post-Bill Berry years (even if it does blatantly pinch its melody from Leonard Cohen).

Hope - R.E.M. (from 'Up')

13. Collapse Into Now (2011) 4
14. Reveal (2001) 2
15. Around The Sun (2004) 1
The game was up by 2011 and they knew it. From being one of the most critically revered acts of all time to a succession of poor reviews, there can only be one dignified outcome. Sadly, it came one album too late. 'Accelerate' would have been a great album to go out on. Instead, 'Collapse Into Now', a hotch-potch of mainly uptempo, but little-more-than-average songs, became R.E.M.’s swan song. Only its opener Discoverer raised its head above the mire enough to keep me interested. I still think it’s a really good song, actually.

The first time I heard 'Reveal', I felt so depressed. For a band to whom I had given the best part of 15 years of my life to put out something so drab and uninspired – I felt cheated, angry even. I hated the single Imitation Of Life. It sounded (and still does) like two completely different unfinished songs they welded together when they couldn’t be arsed to spend any more time on them. 'Reveal'’s one redeeming feature – the lovely I’ve Been High – wasn’t enough to save the band from my defection towards the far more exciting White Stripes. And then came 'Around The Sun', a record so resolutely awful, I can’t bear to even associate the name R.E.M. with it. It has no redeeming moments whatsoever. It sounds like a Travis record. The best record Travis ever made, mind, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Discoverer - R.E.M. (from 'Collapse Into Now')

I've Been High - R.E.M. (from 'Reveal')

Wanderlust - R.E.M. (from 'Around The Sun')

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #24

#24: Arcade Fire
Cardiff International Arena – 30th October 2007
Support: Clinic
Also in attendance: MrsRobster

The first time I became aware of Arcade Fire was their appearance on Jools Holland’s show in 2005. I was immediately struck by their energy. They looked like an awesome live act, but their songs sounded decent too. I bought their debut album ‘Funeral’ and became hooked. So when they descended on Cardiff a couple years later it was a no-brainer – I had to go.

Supporting was Clinic, a band I had seen twice before, each time as a support act. The first time was with Super Furry Animals, and I remember how sinister they looked dressed in their hospital theatre gowns and masks. The next time was with the Flaming Lips when they went down much better than I thought they would. This third time they were better still; Clinic can definitely confuse many onlookers, but are definitely worth persevering with. MrsRobster is a bit of a fan, so if that's not a recommendation I don't know what is! I only recall seeing one other act – Credit To The Nation – as many times as a support but never a headliner.

Even before Arcade Fire played a note, you had the feeling this was going to be some show. The stage was bedecked with instruments galore, a large video screen and various other visual adornments. When the band played, they set the place alight! The most striking member is undoubtedly Régine Chassagne. She started out playing drums, then switched to keyboards, then sang, played percussion, the accordian and even the hurdy-gurdy! Between all this, she constantly ran about the stage, engaging with the crowd and whipping up their enthusiasm. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, she was magnificent.

But Arcade Fire were nine-strong, and the other eight members were equally brilliant. Win Butler holds a commanding presence at the front of the stage (when Régine isn’t running around in all directions behind him), and Sarah Neufeld – violinist, keyboard player and vocalist – also displayed a vigour and verve which summed up what Arcade Fire were all about, in spite of her status as a ‘fringe member’.

Ultimately, the songs themselves were the stars of the show. Many of Arcade Fire’s finest moments have this habit of starting out in a rather understated manner before building up the most ferocious, uplifting climax. Black Mirror, the opening track from the band’s second album ‘Neon Bible’, is a perfect example of this, as is Rebellion (Lies) from ‘Funeral’. But other songs just go all out from the off, starting a mass arms-aloft singalong in good old stadium rock fashion – yes, we’re talking Wake Up here, of course, but Neighbourhood #3 (Lights Out) and No Cars Go also fit the bill. 

Both the spectacle and the sound of this Arcade Fire show still resonates with me. It was the last gig I came away from absolutely struck dumb. If there was just one minor quibble, it was when they played Intervention, my fave track from ‘Neon Bible’. That huge pipe organ sound on the record should have sounded absolutely MASSIVE in the live setting. Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to my expectation. But that aside, I do rate my Arcade Fire experience as one of my all-time top 5 live shows.

If You Could Read Your Mind – Clinic (from ‘Visitations’)

Rebellion (Lies) [live] – Arcade Fire (live on Letterman 2005)

Intervention [live] – Arcade Fire (live at Glastonbury 2007)

Wake Up [live] – Arcade Fire (live at the Reading Festival 2010)

Monday 16 June 2014

The fall of rap?

I wrote this piece a year or so ago, about the same time I was working on my Reading '92 article about Public Enemy. I had intended to use it before now, but could never quite find the right place for it.

What has hip hop become?  Looking at today’s generic blend of mass-produced, mainstream, so-called R&B ‘artists’ (I’ve used that word reluctantly), you’d think the likes of the Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash never happened. Kind of like if you look at Keane, the Kooks and Razorlight, with their soft, safe, commercial radio friendly muzak, you wonder if punk really achieved anything.

Rap is like the blues. It is an art born out of oppression, repression, desolation, isolation, injustice, and disaffection. Those affected created their own languages (the creoles and pidgins of the slaves stolen from Africa and held captive by the white man cannot be considered any different to the street slang that evolved in the ghettos of the USA) and used music to express their feelings. While the blues expressed sadness, rap was more about anger and disillusionment and concerned itself with social and political themes more than the more personal woes of blues. Of course, like a lot of things, the more popular it became, the more sanitised and anaemic its output. Where blues went from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, rap went from Grandmaster Flash to Vanilla Ice (evidence perhaps of the dumbing down influence of the white man…).

OK, maybe that’s not entirely fair. There are, if you look hard enough, plenty of gritty, rough-around-the-edges blues artists out there today. There are some hard-hitting, confrontational rappers out there too. Sadly, many of them remain underground, buried beneath the sludge that is celebrity, fame and immense wealth and the seemingly inevitable mediocrity that breeds. Rap music has historically been incredibly creative and experimental, fusing numerous genres from soul and jazz to rock and electronica. So why do today’s rap ‘superstars’ all sound exactly the same? Why is there a concerted effort to make everything fit a standard hit single formula? Why is everything saturated in vocal effects and awful screechy ‘oversinging’? It’s either that, or a rather pathetic, juvenile attempt at trying to sound all macho, controversial and offensive. Either way, it’s more about lucrative sponsorship deals and product endorsements than the music these days. Artistry is not even second to image, ego or notoriety.

Kanye West’s latest record 'Jeezy' at least tries to be different musically; it has some of the most exciting, challenging and original sounds I’ve ever heard. But he goes and screws it all up when he opens his mouth - the same tired, clichéd, expletive-strewn lyrics about bitches, dicks and all the other infantile nonsense you get in terrible mainstream rap music these days. The guy is clearly capable of so much more so what is he up to? (For the record, the music on 'Jeezy' is great, but Kanye is a total narcissistic prick and his lyrics suck.)

l-r: Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Senser
I never owned a lot of rap music, but what I did have spoke to me. Public Enemy, De La Soul, Run DMC, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Senser, Rage Against The Machine, Beastie Boys – not all strictly ‘hip hop’, but all used rap as a means of imparting a message about the issues that affected real people, while blending different styles of music and sounds to create something authentic and meaningful. That, to me, is what rap music is all about.  

Though of course, I’m a skinny-assed white boy, so what do I know?

The Message - Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five (from 'The Message')

Famous And Dandy (Like Amos 'n' Andy) - Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy (from 'Hipocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury')

2 3 Clear - Senser (from 'How To Do Battle')

Riotstarted - Public Enemy ft. Tom Morello & Henry Rollins (from 'The Evil Empire Of Everything')

Saturday 14 June 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #8: Horses

One of the greatest records ever released, no argument!

That's pretty much all that needs be written about 'Horses' as far as I'm concerned, I shouldn't have to justify it. If you've heard it, you'll know I'm right. If you've never heard it, I don't have time for you.

OK, look, it's not just me. It is pretty much universally accepted that 'Horses' represents a significant landmark in popular music. Patti Smith was at the helm of the big ship punk in New York when she released her debut album. She was already known as a poet and had slowly incorporated musical accompaniment into her act. By 1975, she had full band behind her.

It all starts with an ingenious interpretation of Van Morrison's Gloria into which she weaves her own lyrics and messages, including the immortal line "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." The songs on 'Horses' sound loose - the rudimentary, often improvisatory nature of the music coupled with Smith's free verse (at its very best on Land) and the sympathetic production of John Cale, himself once a member of one of the great influential art bands - yet it all makes perfect sense, gelling in ways it really shouldn't, especially on a debut record.

That 'Horses' has influenced the likes of Morrissey, Siouxsie Sioux, Courtney Love and Michael Stipe, and continues to be held up as one of the finest examples of modern music, even nearly 40 years after its release, really says everything that needs to be said. As for me, it thrills me to the core whenever I hear it. No one could make this record today; it opened doors into a new world, a world that would culturally destroy the one we were living in in the mid 1970s. But if it were to come out today, I don't think it would be held in any less regard, and we'd still be raving about it 40 years from now.

Well, I will be...

And here's a breathtaking live performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Friday 13 June 2014

This is (not really) the end, beautiful friends

Strange how our lives turn out, innit? Mine started somewhat ominously. Born out of wedlock to a young music-loving woman who worked for a newsagent and sang in a band. Unable to give me the kind of life she felt I deserved, she put me up for adoption whereupon I was taken in by two of the most wonderful, loving, caring and honest people that ever walked the Earth whose own musical tastes inspired and influenced my own. Years later, as a fanatical music-lover I would work for a newspaper and play in a band. Anyone believe in fate? Or is it merely coincidence?

In 43 years, I’ve come a long way, yet stayed the same. Whether my love of music came from my birth mother, or my mum and dad it matters not. I’ve carried it with me, for better or worse, and am showing no signs of letting it go just yet. While so, so many people my age have pretty much given up on music (in terms of discovering things that are new to them) and source their entertainment from dreadful commercial radio stations, I continually trawl the internet looking for that next record that will change my life – the next ‘Document’, the next ‘Doolittle’ – or the next band that will make my jaw hit the floor in sheer excitement and awe – the next White Stripes, perhaps. I’m not finished yet – there’s still so much to hear! How can anyone possibly declare that “music’s crap nowadays, it was so much better in the 50s/60s/70s/80s” (delete as appropriate)?

l-r: Frank Turner, Shonen Knife, Drenge, The Joy Formidable, John Otway

Just because you grow up, doesn’t mean you have to ‘grow up’. If I want to jump into a sweaty mosh pit, why the hell shouldn’t I? So far this year, I’ve seen Frank Turner, Shonen Knife and Drenge. The Joy Formidable and John Otway are lined up. It’s not nearly as many gigs as I used to go to back in my so-called heyday, and if I had the finances I’d go to a lot more, but it’s significantly more live music than most people ever bother to expose themselves to in their lifetime.

Does that make me a better person? Hmmm, maybe not, but I feel so much more enriched and fulfilled for those experiences. At least when I’m down in the dumps (which is quite often) and pissed off at what life has dealt me, I can look back on some of the stories I’ve told on this blog and tell myself: “You know what, my boy? You’ve actually had quite a lot of fun and some amazing experiences. Now stop moping and put some music on, you grumpy old bastard!”

And so we reach the end of my story. Don’t worry – it’s not the end of the blog, I’ve still got plenty to say. But over the past six months I’ve told you about the significant moments in my life and how music has played its part. And now? Well, music continues to pump through my veins as strongly as it did all those years ago when I discovered my mum’s ‘Music Explosion’ compilation album; when I got my first record player and Abba’s ‘Super Trouper’ for Christmas; when I painted a stripe across my face and jumped around to Adam And The Antswhen I attended my first gig; when I attended my first festival; when I had a job writing about music; when I played in a band; when the White Stripes changed everything; when I took my eldest daughter to her first ever gig – I still can’t stop myself being thrilled by music. The fire burns as bright as ever and long may it do so.

Now, do excuse me, there’s the new Boris album to listen to…

Quicksilver – Boris (from ‘Noise’)
End Credits – The Wedding Present (from ‘Valentina’)
Coming next:
My ongoing series of gigs, songs and albums will continue, and there's a special Glastonbury mini-series to come next week. But I still have a supply of topics to write about, some articles already written and a number of ideas in embryonic stages. While you’re still interested in reading, I’ll still post.