Friday 31 March 2017

The Genius Of Half Man Half Biscuit #11 & #12

A double-bill this week. The series needs to end (for now) as I'm keen to do something else from next week, but it WILL be back at some point, so keep sending your contributions. This week you get another welcome contribution from Charity Chic, followed by my own choice. First up, here's CC:

A few years ago I attended a Fire Safety meeting with a number of colleagues from other parts of the organization who I was not familiar with.

The meeting started off seriously enough but soon descended into hilarity, something I suppose which should not be encouraged at meetings discussing such serious matters. The main source of hilarity seemed to be around the nominated fire wardens in the event of a fire alarm being required to put on high visibility jackets to identify themselves to colleagues and to the Fire Service.

Following the meeting, and in the spirit of the hilarity, I took in upon myself to forward my colleagues the lyrics to King Of Hi Vis. I got no responses. Clearly a step too far...

Thirty-plus years since their first record, Half Man Half Biscuit can still bring a smile to our faces, and even the occasional audible guffaw. They release a record every three years these days and their last album came out in 2014 so we're due one. My final choice is one of the band's more recent tunes, from 2011's '90 Bisodol (Crimond)'.

In Left Lyrics In The Practice Room, Nigel recites the words of "Chris from Future Doom", whose (supposedly) black metal band used the rehearsal space before the Biscuits.

  "'Cackling hag astride the broom
  What dread this upon the spume?'
  Hey Chris I understand your gloom
  But come on, rock up, you’re from Ilfracombe!"

Yeah, alright, so this tune edged it into the series based on its mention of a North Devon town (which at one time was nicknamed 'Little Liverpool' because of the peculiarly high number of Scousers who lived there!) But this song does illustrate the beauty of the Biscuits at their finest. Aside from the witty lyrics, there is actually a good tune in there. You probably will be humming this one. And where else will you find a song that nicks bits from Leadbelly and Black Sabbath? Answers on the back of a metal band's discarded lyrics...

I'd like to thank everyone who contributed to this series so far: JC, Walter, Webbie, Jez and CC. It has been fun. Let's do it again soon.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

The Devil's Music

The Mark Of The Devil by Pulp

An early Pulp b-side? Blimey, now we really are summoning the dark spirits. Released between Pulp's first and second albums, Dogs Are Everywhere contained five songs, including today's offering The Mark Of The Devil. All but the title track hinted at the darker sound they would adopt on 'Freaks' (which was actually their first full-length album following the mini-LP 'It'). With lyrics like: "Smiles left unfollowed start to haunt you / Chances that perished long ago / The devil is waiting in the bathroom with your worthless soul", it's safe to say Jarvis wasn't writing songs for the common people back in 1987.

Monday 27 March 2017

"I'd like to devour you..."

While researching my Compiled series, I was reminded of this absolute gem of a track. Cracker was formed by ex-members of Camper Van Beethoven. Their second album 'Kerosene Hat' took them to the cusp of being quite big but, alas, fame never came calling. Or maybe Cracker just made sure they weren't at home when it did. Who knows? Anyway, I was going to write about a compilation which featured this track, but realised that there weren't many other songs on there I actually liked that much.

Movie Star hit me the first time I heard it. Twenty-three years later, it still delights. It has bags of energy, barrels of wit and bundles of fun. Why it was never put out as a single is absolutely mystifying. It just missed out on my '50 songs to take to my grave' list and I could be convinced to reconsider one of my choices in order to make room for it. I used to jump around in my room an awful lot to this track back in the day.

Cracker are still going. Here they are playing a storming version of Movie Star at the legendary 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA. back in January.

Friday 24 March 2017

The Genius Of Half Man Half Biscuit #10

So there I was, looking at my schedule with the 10th and final instalment of this series all written up.  Then this dropped into my Inbox - a second contribution from the boy Webbie from Football And Music. Now I'm not going to pass up the offer of a free article, especially one penned by such an all round decent bloke and top blogger, so I decided to extend the series beyond my initial 10-part plan, especially as CC has also since contributed another piece as well.

So this week, not only do we get a very rare and obscure track by the Biscuits, but also the tale of one of Webbie's brushes with fame. Oh, he's such a name-dropper...

My next attempt to write about the genius of HMHB and one single track: the difficulty I’m sure that many other contributors have is selecting a Half Man Half Biscuit song that nobody else has chosen. I then decided to go for an (unreleased) Peel Session recording.

Let’s start with the title: Mars Ultras (You’ll Never Leave The Station) - a title which alludes to football but the tune isn’t about football or even contains any reference to that in the song. It goes on to name-drop some notable pop stars from the 80’s/90’s with Dave Stewart (Tourists/Eurythmics), George O’Dowd (Boy George - Culture Club), “the girl from Deacon Blue” (Lorraine McIntosh) and Sinitta.

(A crap celebrity spot for you - At the end of the 1980’s/beginning of the 90’s I found myself living and working in Henley-on-Thames.  Henley is well known for being the refuge for many in the light entertainment industry. It wasn’t a surprise to see Sandra Dickinson in Waitrose or Rodney Bewes in Pizza Express. But it was unexpected when spotting Dave Stewart in WH Smith. He was there with his Mam (I assumed, it was an older woman who accompanied him) and Mr Stewart went into the music department and bought himself the new Inspiral Carpets album on cassette. They must have been there for lunch, I then saw them drive off later in an open top car. Crap celeb spot finished, back to the song...)

I didn’t know of this HMHB tune at the time, otherwise I would have been singing it in my head.

  “Quick, run, hide
  Here comes Dave Stewart
  Walking up the drive
  With that look in his eye…”

I like how Nigel Blackwell goes on to wish Boy George all the best. Well actually…

  “George O’Dowd
  So glad you’re happy
  All fit and well
  After going through the hell
  Of being a pop star”

Nigel then throws in a side reference to George Formby (Oh Mr Woo), as well as a surrogate (Bill) Grundy. (I wonder who he had in mind?) and finishes the 2nd verse of the song with yet another name drop of Richard and Judy.

The ability to paint pictures with words is genius. Mr Blackwell does this with aplomb. At the end of the song as you will hear in the audio, John Peel wonders who was playing the power drill in the chorus. That’s right. A power drill. Genius.

I have to say, I also love Peely's Dave Stewart anecdote at the very end.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

The Devil's Music

Do you reckon it would be noisy in Hell? Is that the reason people refer to something being 'loud as Hell'? Pretty sure it would be, what with all that fire and wailing souls 'n' all. I also reckon our host down there might play a bit of Tad now and again. They were loud as Hell. One of Sub Pop's earliest signings, Tad would become hugely influential to the burgeoning grunge scene, even if they wouldn't go on to sell nearly as many records as their incumbents. Satan's Chainsaw appeared on 'God's Balls'. Not literally, you understand (the very thought of it makes every bloke wince...) - 'God's Balls' was the title of Tad's debut album from 1989. A Hellish racket, 'tis true - but a bleddy good one!

Monday 20 March 2017

Compiled #2

#2: CD88

1988. A very significant year for me. I've written quite a bit about this period in my life, but worth repeating is how much my taste in music evolved around this time. I left school in the summer of 1987 and went to college in the autumn. It was here a long and fruitful voyage of musical discovery began thanks to the people I met. One guy in particular, Simon Greetham, got me into indie music. If you're interested, you can read about that epiphany moment here.

Over the previous few years, a series of double-albums had been put out summarising the best records released on independent labels. The 'Indie Top 20' series, particularly the early ones, remain something of a treasure. But in 1988, the first five volumes were themselves summarised for CD release - yes, a compilation of compilations! Up to that point, these comps were available only on vinyl or cassette (oh, those were the days...). CD88 took a few songs from each of them, added a few more and voila, the perfect introduction to indie music for the teenage novice.

Ironically, I bought CD88 on vinyl. It was a record I returned to frequently over the next two or three years. The amount of music it helped me discover was phenomenal. I already knew a few of the songs and artists - The Wedding Present, the Soup Dragons, All About Eve and Half Man Half Biscuit - but this was the record that introduced me to Cardiacs, Danielle Dax, The Rose Of Avalanche, Wire, The Shamen and Pop Will Eat Itself. The latter two of these would go on to have major commercial success in the early 90s as indie music went dance, but it's fair to say that while the tracks contained on CD88 were transitional for the bands concerned, they sounded nothing like the songs they would go on to have hits with. The Poppies track in particular remains a longstanding fave of mine, and the version on 'CD88' is the 12" extended mix.

Of course, I'm not going to blether on about the Cardiacs track as any fool can see what Is This The Life means to me, a song that I will never, ever tire of. But CD88 was responsible for it entering my life in the first place. Danielle Dax was another name I had not heard before. Subsequent investigation revealed her to be a bit of an oddball in terms of her music. Some very strange, arty, perplexing stuff in her back catalogue, particularly her early solo work. The track on CD88, Cat-House, was a bit more straightforward and marked a point when her music became much more accessible. She was an artist I enjoyed investigating for a couple years - and by golly did I fancy her! - but nowadays the occasional blast of Cat-House is all I really need.

l-r: Pop Will Eat Itself; Danielle Dax; The Rose Of Avalanche; Wire
I kind of wanted to be a goth but without having to dye my hair black and wear make-up. The Fields of the Nephilim didn't really do it for me, at least not on the strength of the track on CD88. The Rose of Avalanche were different though. Velveteen now sounds incredibly dated, but to my fresh young ears in 1988 it seemed to tap into some dormant corner of my subconscious and made me want to wear second-hand black clothes and walk around gloomily, a silhouette in perpetual fog. OK, so This Corrosion by Sisters Of Mercy got there first, but Velveteen didn't have the bombast or obvious hit-single appeal.

And then came Wire. At the time, Wire were in their 'second-phase', having reformed in the mid-80s. Kidney Bingos was the first Wire track I ever heard and it undoubtedly appealed to my pop sensibilities. Over time, I became familiar with the band's early work which has remained the most influential, but listening to Wire's recent material, there's more of their late-80s sound in there than the stuff that everyone else seems to have mined. Kidney Bingos is still a song I enjoy, along with Eardrum Buzz which followed shortly after.

There were, of course, a few one-offs on CD88 too. I never ventured into the Chesterfields' catalogue beyond Ask Johnny Dee, despite it being such a great tune (as extolled further by Martin at New Amusements recently). Baby Turpentine was by far Crazyhead's best song, and Michelle Shocked, whose Fog Town intrigued me, briefly shone with her second album but later became a horrid right-wing nutjob. But one I still really love is this:

CD88 was huge for me, make no bones about it. I place it in my top 10 most influential records in my life. As a footnote though, having watched the vids to the Poppies, Danielle Dax and Wire tracks I can confirm the videos of this period were truly awful. Go on - I dare you to seek them out.

Friday 17 March 2017

The Genius of Half Man Half Biscuit #9

Here's the third and final offering from JC and one that gives us a different perspective of things regarding the pitfalls of cultural references.

An unexpected turn of events or circumstances many years later can bring a cringe factor to things.  This includes music. For instance, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty most likely squirm at how they invited the now disgraced Gary Glitter to be such a big part of The Timelords #1 hit Doctorin' The Tardis back in 1988 (or maybe Bill, ever the maverick and controversialist, actually revels in it and will claim he knew all along that Glitter was a dodgy fuck and his involvement in this massive but novelty single was evidence that the music and wider entertainment industry will forgive anything as long as it makes money).

But I wonder what the more down-to-earth and all-round decent bloke Nigel Blackwell thinks of the fact that he once name-checked Rod Hull in a lyric.  Of all the possible candidates to be the subject matter of a song questioning why so many good people die tragically young while others continued to be annoying presences on our televison screens, he couldn't have selected anyone worse.

The reason being, in 1999, some 12 years after Rod Hull Is Alive - Why? was released on the band's second LP 'Back Again In The DHSS', Rod Hull died in a freak and ghastly domestic accident; having climbed onto the roof of his home in an effort to improve the reception from his television aerial (not, I hasten to add, for a show he himself was part of) , he slipped and crashed down through an adjoining greenhouse, succumbing to his horrific injuries en route to hospital.  For HMHB, that joke wasn't and really couldn't be funny anymore.

It's a real shame for it remains a highly relevant song  that was never solely about Rod Hull but more a commentary on the nature of fame. It's also incredibly prophetic in that its dig at the British Royal Family is via an attack on Sarah Ferguson, the wife of the then second-in-line to the throne, who just a few years later would become best known for being photographed topless while sucking the toes of an American businessman.

If the song had instead been dedicated to any of a number of 80s entertainers who many years later have been unveiled as taking advantage of their position and power to sexually exploit others, we would be looking rather differently today at Rod Hull Is Alive - Why? and listening to it with glee everytime it comes on. It certainly, unlike other HMHB songs from the era, is impossible to sing along to when you know the backstory. It remains however, my guilty pleasure.

Cheers JC. Yet another great piece.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

The Devil's Music

Everyone knows Satan loves the blues, right? I mean, he owns Robert Johnson's soul after all. Jack Owens was born in 1904, learned to play music throughout his childhood but never turned professional. Instead, while his friend and peer Bukka White went on to become one of the world's most respected bluesmen, Owens sold bootleg liquor and ran a juke joint at weekends. He was never recorded until he was in his 60s and his first albums didn't come out until the early-70s. 'It Must Have Been The Devil' was the second of these and features Owens' regular collaborator Bud Spires on harmonica. The title track is a long 'un, clocking in at almost 10 minutes. But in Hell, who's counting...?

Monday 13 March 2017

Memories of 2017 gigs #2

Newport Centre - 10th March 2017
Support: C Duncan

I have to admit, I was feeling a bit lukewarm at the prospect of this show. I've followed Elbow since their first album and seen them become the biggest band in the country. However I've been left a little cold by some of their more recent records. It's felt a bit like they've been treading water rather than exploring new paths. Having said that, there have been some moments of brilliance. I hoped, rather than expected, that I'd get something that excited me.

I also hoped, as I often do at gigs, that the support band would grab my attention. Unfortunately, Glasgow's C Duncan didn't cut it. I wondered what colour would best represent his brand of indie-pop, but couldn't make my mind up between beige or magnolia. Whichever is the least interesting. I'd lost interest halfway through the second song. It's not that he was bad, just that his music sounded safe, inoffensive and sterile, and I couldn't remember any of the songs within 5 seconds of him finishing them.

Elbow do seem to light a place up though. Guy Garvey is just so likeable you can't help but want to love them. Their set included half the songs from their new album, their best since 'The Seldom Seen Kid' catapulted them firmly into the hearts of the mainstream audience. Of these, All Disco stood out, as it does on the album. Other major highlights were New York Morning which was truly  stunning, and The Birds which totally floored me.

Of course they gave an airing to One Day Like This, Elbow's Losing My Religion in that it's the song that made them, but also the one I'm sick of. There was a lengthy segment in the middle of it where Guy had the audience singing, and I think that's when I realised what the one problem was for me. The last time we saw Elbow was also at the Newport Centre just after 'The Seldom Seen Kid' came out and it all felt rather intimate. They were on the verge of becoming huge then but were still not quite mainstream enough for your average person to have heard of them. This time around, MrsRobster observed there was "a lot of arm waving." She's right, Guy does seem to have gone a bit stadium rock with the arm waving and the call & response with the audience a la Freddie Mercury. So he's playing to the crowd, and if any band deserves the success they have after slogging it out for years with little recognition it's Elbow. But I never had them down as a stadium rock band, and at times it felt like that's what they'd become. That intimacy they still had 8 years ago seemed lost.

That said, on closing with a massive Grounds For Divorce, another highlight, I felt glad I'd made the effort. Elbow may now be the nation's favourite band, but even though MrsRobster and I agree that we enjoyed them a little more the last time we saw them, that doesn't mean they get a thumbs down. They are still more than interesting enough to hold my attention and, as they proved a couple of times during the show, even wow me on occasion.

Friday 10 March 2017

The Genius of Half Man Half Biscuit #8

Walter has offered up another of his favourite Half Man Half Biscuit tunes this week. This one features on 2001's 'Editor's Recommendation' EP.

I decided to give New York Skiffle the chance to appear on your blog. Why this one? Because one of the reasons I love the Biscuits is how they play with different genres and their sarcastic humour. This song is based on a traditional by Lonnie Donegan. But Nigel Blackwell exchanges the chewing gum for heroin and tells a story about the weird, complacent and intellectual Warhol-scene. Brilliant verses like "Did you rob your brother's Giro" makes the Biscuits great.

Succinct but informative as always Walter. Good tune, too. Thanks mate.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Devil's Music

The Devil Comes Back To Georgia by Mark O'Connor & Friends

Utterly pointless in me featuring Charlie Daniels' classic Devil Went Down To Georgia. There cannot be a soul alive who doesn't know it. So instead, how about the sequel? That's right, in 1993, renowned violinist and music teacher Mark O'Connor released 'Heroes', an album of violin duets featuring some of his fiddle-playing heroes, including the likes of Stéphane Grappelli, L. Shankar and, of course, Charlie Daniels. Daniels wrote The Devil Comes Back To Georgia for the record, and to bring the whole thing to life, they roped in some friends. O'Connor plays Johnny's parts, Daniels plays the Devil's. Marty Stuart is Johnny's voice, Travis Tritt is the Devil's, and the whole tale is told by none other than Johnny Cash. As good as the original? Of course not, not even remotely close, but it's a bit of fun.

The video is corny with a capital C, though I reckon Mr Cash comes off relatively unscathed...

Monday 6 March 2017

Out to lunch

It's funny how sounds we associate from a certain time and place come back much later in new guises. Anything old will probably at some point return as new. That is perhaps more true in music as anything else. Many readers here will be able to recall with some fondness the sounds of the C86 jangle-pop era and the bands and labels that spawned them.

It's unlikely any of New Jersey's Lunch Ladies can remember those days, but they've certainly discovered that music and taken more than a modicum of inspiration. They're about to release their debut record, the 7-song 'Down On Sunset Strip', and it's clear to hear where they're coming from, musically at least.

What we get then is a potential soundtrack for your summer. With titles like Sunshine and Lazy, we get a bit of a hint, but the proof lies in the music itself. Lead single Love Is Overrated sparkles with languid chorus-laden guitars that reminds me of bands like Johnny Boy, Chorusgirl and, in places, Allo Darlin'. It could well be one of the singles of the year so far. I'm pretty sure fans of such labels as Elefant, Sarah and early Creation (Brian?) will get a kick out of Lunch Ladies.

'Down on Sunset Strip' by Lunch Ladies is out on 10 March 2017 on Good Eye Records.

Friday 3 March 2017

The Genius Of Half Man Half Biscuit #7

JC's back with another of his choice HMHB tunes. This week, it's an early one...

As much as I fell under the spell of HMHB's 1985 debut LP 'Back In The DHSS' I had a fear that any follow-up would prove to be near- unlistenable. While the main attraction of the first set of songs had been the lyrical mix of satirical humour, pathos, biting social commentary and clever digs at popular culture, much of its appeal lay in its basic and true punk rock nature with the musicians sounding as if they had only first picked up their instruments on the day of recording. But in all honesty, there's only so much of that anyone's ears can truly take.

So it was a real surprise and joy to see the band on the telly one evening delivering a solid and professional performance of two brand new songs on Whistle Test on BBC 2 in May 1986. I've since learned, via t'internet, that this remains just one of two appearances HMHB has ever made on telly and so it was a privilege not just to see it but record it to a VHS tape which I still have in a box somewhere.

The new record, 'Trumpton Riots EP' was duly bought on 12" vinyl the next day; it cost me £2.79 from the Virgin Megastore in Glasgow (the price label is still on the sleeve). It was on Probe Plus Records but was given a one-off catalogue number - TRUMP 1. Honestly!

All four of its songs remain among my all-time favourite HMHB efforts; the EP was re-released later with a new cat no. of TRUMPX 1 with a fifth, equally brilliant song added. All of them I'm sure will be part of this fantastic series at some point - indeed some may have already featured by the time this is shared with you - but I'm homing in on Side B, Track 1 - 1966 And All That.

To a Scottish football fan, the title was a brilliant piss-take of so many commentators fixation on England's World Cup triumph - little did I know that it was in fact cleverly paying homage to a satirical history book called '1066 and All That' published back in the 1930s. Musically and lyrically, it's a wonderful pastiche of the creepy love songs in a folk style that I associate with the sixties:

  "We sat and decided as the seasons collided
 That our love was fairly utopian
 If it wasn’t for my pills, my psychiatric bills
 And your unreliable Fallopian"

while the chorus goes on to name-check some of that same era's finest cult footballers such as Lev Yashin and Ferenc Puskas. Utter genius.

Oh and the kicker for me nowadays? The spoken outro gives a passing mention to George Farm, a legendary goalkeeper for Blackpool FC in the 1950s, but who in later life had two spells as manager of my own team, Raith Rovers FC. I'll take any excuse to give the Rovers a mention in a blog post...

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Welsh Wednesday (Slight Return)

Today is St. David's Day when it is compulsory in Wales for everyone to wear daffodils, eat cawl and play rugby. Or something like that. There will probably be some singing though - that is something the Welsh do rather well.

Back in 2011, on my old blog From Inside The Pod, I posted two St. David's Day podcasts featuring a selection of Welsh artists past and present. I thought I'd share these again, but rather than reproduce the whole articles, I reckon all you want to know is what's on them. So here they are, with tracklistings and artwork. For the record, this does not signify the imminent return of Welsh Wednesday.

Dydd Dewi Sant 2011 (cyfrol un)
(Happy St. David's Day 2011 (volume one))

1. Welsh Rugby Fans - Cwm Rhondda (aka: Bread Of Heaven)
2. Masters In France - Control (b-side of Mad Hatter 7", 2011)
3. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - Mow The Lawn (from 'Sleep/Holiday', 2003)
4. 9Bach - Gwydr Glas (trans: Blue Glass) (from '9Bach', 2009)
5. Future Of The Left - Wrigley Scott (from 'Curses', 2007)
6. Cate Le Bon - Digging Song (from 'Me Oh My', 2009)
7. Sybridion - Clywch! Clywch! (trans: Hear! Hear!) (from 'Simsalabim', 2007)
8. The Joy Formidable - Whirring [live] (from 'First You Have To Get Mad', 2009)
9. Cerys Matthews - Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (trans: Land Of My Fathers) (from 'Tir', 2010)

Dydd Dewi Sant 2011 (cyfrol dau)
(Happy St. David's Day 2011 (volume two))

1. 60 Foot Dolls - Stay (from 'The Big Three', 1996)
2. Super Furry Animals - Venus And Serena (from 'Phantom Power', 2003)
3. Dub War - Original Murder (from 'Dub Warning', 1994)
4. Badfinger - Rock Of All Ages (from 'Magic Christian Blues', 1970)
5. Goldie Lookin' Chain - By Any Means Necessary [pub rock remix] (original version from 'Asbo4Life', 2009)
6. Flyscreen - Choppersquad (from 'Girls Can't Make Gun Noises', 1998)
7. Manic Street Preachers - Prologue To History (b-side of If You Tolerate This..., 1998)
8. Euros Childs - Dawnsio Dros Y Môr (trans: Dancing Across The Sea) (from 'Chops', 2006)
9. The Darling Buds - Let's Go Round There (from 'Pop Said...', 1988)
10. Yr Alarm - Rocio Yn Ein Rhyddid (trans: Rocking In The Free World) (from 'Tân')
11. Morriston And Orpheus Male Voice Choir - Myfanwy (extract)