Friday, December 31, 2010

Annual Round-up 2010

And so, with no fanfare whatsoever, the 5th annual ItP end-of-year shindig. Well, if all the newspapers are doing it, why can't we?

Most low-key comeback
The Human League released their first single in 9 years a few weeks ago. On the venerable Wall of Sound label, no less. And no one noticed. Can someone please get them a new PR company?

See ya later, alligators
Bobby Farrell, Alexander McQueen, Arthur Penn, Corey Haim, Dennis Hopper, Dino de Laurentis, Norman Wisdom, Gary Coleman, J.D. Salinger, Lena Horne, Lionel Jeffries, Lynn Redgrave, Ronnie James Dio, Solomon Burke, Tony Curtis, Tom Bosley, Teddy Pendergrass, Teena Marie, James Pickles (above), Captain Beefheart, Malcolm McLaren, Blake Edwards, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Sutherland

Best album
Last Christmas, I treated my family (read: myself) to a premium subscription to Spotify. I justified this £10 a month outlay on the basis that it would be a good way of introducing us to new music, allowing us to listen to new artists before we plunked down our cash for the CDs. Well, on that score it was an unqualified failure, as our CD purchase rate has plummeted spectacularly. There are various reasons for this, and I'll return to them at greater length in future posts, but one of them is that Spotify is just so damn good, and I'm willing to trade the degraded sound quality for the convenience of being able to listen to pretty much whatever the hell I want, whenever I want, whether at home or on the move. One downside of having this smorgasmord of digital music at my fingertips is that I can now rarely listen to a whole track before cueing up the next. And as for sitting through whole albums, well, you can pretty much forget that, so short has my attention span become.

The above notwithstanding, I have heard some brilliant albums this year, though not necessarily all at one sitting, and all of them on Spotify. The fact that many of these were on smaller labels, and might have otherwise gone unheard, just shows the reach and breadth of the service. Among those I've enjoyed, some of which I've already pointed out on this blog, are Oriol 's Night & Day on Mike Paradinas' Planet Mu label (it's amazing how cutting edge glitchtronica can sound like Shakatak), New Chain by Small Black on Jagjaguwar, OMD's History of Modern, Sleigh Bells' Treats, The Archandroid by Janelle Monae, Gorillaz' Plastic Beach and The Waves by Tamaryn. However, the most consistently brilliant, the one where every note seems considered and where there is absolutely no superfluous filler, has to be Vampire Weekend's sophomore effort, Contra. Released very nearly one year ago at the start of 2010, it's remained a firm favourite in the Irk household in no small part due to its sheer stylistic audacity, essaying the highlife-inflected throwdowns of their debut long player, creating minimal electronic noodlings backed by plainitive, keening vocals, and going for full-on guitar wigouts (notably on Cousins- good video too, courtesy of Hammer & Tongs). Bravo. More please.

Best single
Really? Is there really such a thing any more? The continued existence of Reggie Yates' Chart Show on Sundays between 5 and 7 may give the illusion that this is so. But who's kidding who here? All we have now are songs. They may exist as ones and zeroes, they may find physical form in plastic (the above mentioned Vampire Weekend have a track from Contra [entitled Run] on constant radio rotation at the moment, but as far as I can tell, there's no accompanying CD or vinyl release- who at the radio station decides to suddenly play this? And why?), they may or may not have a specific promotional push behind them (Let It Be certainly didn't when it scraped into the top 40 in November), everything is up for grabs. Any track recorded at any time since Edison is pretty much eligible for chart entry, and every track is only a Facebook campaign away from hitting the no. 1 spot. So what makes a single in 2010? Search me, guv.

At this point you're probably expecting me to say that the best single this year is thus The Ink Spots' Whispering Grass or some such. No, I'm not going to be that cute. I will stick to 2010. And there have been some genuinely good singles that really were released on CD, vinyl, etc. including Tinie Tempah's Pass Out, OK Go's White Knuckles, Infinity Guitars by Sleigh Bells and Magnetic Man's I Need Air. But the track I've listened to most this year, and by some measure the best, is Small Black's Panthers. Like New Order produced by Kevin Shields (ah, if only...), it feels like a warm bath full of codeine, shimmering, malevolent and beautiful.

"Hang on," you're saying. "This was an album track. How did you come to the conclusion that this was a single?" Well, pace Max in Pinter's The Homecoming, "I decided it was".

Most unedifying spectacle
Probably this.

Best gig
Slim pickings this year, but I have to say that Grandmaster Flash at Glasgow's Sub Club in November far exceeded my expectations. He held a small but fervent crowd in the palm of his hand for over 90 minutes, cajoling, haranguing, teasing... While there were one or two longeurs, and while he showed an unexpected penchant for playing the thuggish 90s hip-hop (M.O.P., Wu-Tang Clan) I'd have expected him to despise, this was a (grand)masterly performance, and a poke in the eye to those who claim that DJing is merely playing other people's records. One highlight was a 10 minute section where David Bowie's Let's Dance segued into Smells Like Teen Spirit and then Blur's Song 2. The assembled hordes (80% male, it must be said) went absolutely mental, Adidas trainers aloft as they crowd-dived and pogoed. The other highlight was when the music stopped after 85 minutes and Flash promised the crowd "one more tune" as an encore. Without missing a beat, one wag shouted "Whigfield!" Gotta love those Glaswegian audiences.

Worst article in the history of mankind
Despite a late surge by this Daily Mail classic, the category was swept by an article in Grazia (20th Dec 2010, p. 75) that made me want to throw my Louboutins at the wall. I have a love/hate relationship with Grazia. I love to hate it, despite my reading it every week to see exactly how high boots should be next season (a subject in which I have a deep and genuine interest).

Unfortunately the article in question doesn't appear to be online, so you'll have to bear with me. Entitled I Used To Love Christmas- But This Year It's Cancelled, it promised to explain how Bibi Lynch (who hell she?- Ed) was the festive season's biggest fan- until her parents died. Initially I was sympathetic, imagining a horrible Christmas Day inferno in 2008 or 2009, possibly involving some cheap fairy lights, that led to the author's disillusion with Yuletide. A bit like a real-life Gremlins. But no. Bear with. As I read the article, Lynch explained that she lost one parent (no mention of the circumstances) in July 1988. The other died in October 2008. OK, there's possibly an article buried somewhere here (though the author is hardly unique in having both her parents die on her), but this wasn't it. What on earth did any of this have to do with Christmas? I'm still none the wiser, but I know Polly Filler-style journalism when I see it.

Quickest TV turnaround from "Yay" TO "Yawn"
Otherwise known as the Ugly Betty trophy, this hotly-contested category was won this year by Glee. That got pretty old pretty quickly, didn't it? I lapped up the first three or four episodes, and was especially won over by Jane Lynch, who had impressed me as Laurie Bohner in A Mighty Wind. I quickly realised, though, that the show had essentially the same plot week after week. Mad Men may move at a relatively glacial pace, but at least characters progress. All Glee's characters did really, though, was to learn a new routine each week, all hung around the MacGuffin of another character's pregnancy. How many rounds were there before the club managed to reach the fabled "regionals", incidentally? Not even Lynch's character's acid wit was enough to prevent me from changing the channel eventually. And besides, for a show supposedly (and loudly-trumpeted as being) about the triumph of the "losers", these were particularly photogenic losers. Only in the La-la land that is Hollywood can an actress as gorgeous as Lea Michele be cast as "the ugly one".

Best book
A few to pick from, including Just My Type, a history and exploration of typography (no, really, it's a page-turner). However, James Nice's excellent Shadowplayers was my book of the year. Another book I'm reading, John Peel's Olivetti Chronicles (from 2008), claims that "pop music in its very nature... resists scholarship. There have been... many attempts at scholarly pop books but most have been either outrageous hagiographies or absurd displays of pomposity." It's a shame he didn't live long enough to read Shadowplayers. A definitive biography of Factory Records, scholarly but entirely accessible, meticulous but not dry, it showcased Nice's research skills as well as his trademark subtle humour, and it wasn't a fawning hagiography either. Buy it.

New year resolution
I will finish off those unfinished posts from September and October. Sometime before December 2011. Promise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arto Noise

I was amazed to hear a brief snatch of (what I thought was) the downtown New York post no-wave supergroup Arto Lindsay and the Ambitious Lovers on BBC TV last week. I was even more astonished that it happened on BBC2 0n the Strictly spin-off It Takes Two. (And, by the by, how lovely is Claudia Winkleman?) Sadly, when I checked back on the iPlayer later, it turned out my ears were deceiving me. The short snatch of what I thought was The Ambitious Lovers' Let's Be Adult was, in fact, Groove Armada's Song 4 Mutya (thanks, Google), a song with which I was previously unfamiliar. It's pretty good, though, if a little more brazen than Let's Be Adult, and, to their credit, Groove Armada do acknowledge sampling The Ambitious Lovers in the single's small print.

No matter. This brief sample was like a musical madeleine, and I was soon transported back to New York circa 1984 (strange, as the closest I'd got to New York in 1984 was Liverpool docks). The Ambitious Lovers were a fantastic group, combining the skronk of Lindsay's first group, DNA, with his native Brazilian guitar tones, and with the clattering DMX and brittle synth noise of NYC loft spaces. Much of their ambition and scope can be ascribed to the Swiss-born composer Peter Scherer, who, like Lindsay, has an enviable address book (between them, they've worked with Laurie Anderson, Melvin Gibbs, John Zorn, Seigen Ono, Anton Fier, Bill Frisell, David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, Hal Wilner, in fact le tout New York).

Through three stellar albums (Lust, Envy and Greed, all on Spotify) and a succession of major labels, the group flirted with mainstream success (see below, for example), but never quite cracked the big time. Instead they now console themselves with providing film soundtracks and undertaking collaborations, it seems. They were probably a bit too brittle and angular for chart stardom, but you have to Admit It, they made a pretty great sound for 6-odd years, and they still sound great today as far as I'm concerned. I've attached a download if you want to investigate further.

Download Let's Be Adult by the Ambitious Lovers (mp3) (deleted Dec 11)

Friday, December 24, 2010


A Christmas 2010 playlist, courtesy of Spotify. Mel Torme, Basement 5, Flaming Lips and Spike Jones, among others.

Our 5th annual round-up and the Ambitious Lovers coming up next week. Excelsior!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Waves

Opening up a wormhole right back to 1991, it's Tamaryn. Yes, it's as if shoegazing never went away. But when the sound is this great, who's complaining? Not me.

BBC Review of The Waves

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jamie Principle

This is great too. Despite them having a Spinal Tap-esque level of misfortune with their drummers, !!! are totally doing it for me.

Billy Liars

A great blog.

Journey Man

I was at a talking shop yesterday-- work-related-- and the word "journey" came up in almost every speech.

It's also spouted by every contestant on the X Factor, The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing and I'm a Celebrity. Which begs a lot of questions. One is: how did a word that started in reality-TV culture come to define business practice? And when?

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly: am I the only person left in Britain that isn't on a journey?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Old Nick

Nick Cave in Hove speed camera crash. Surely that has to be the title of a Half Man Half Biscuit song rather than an earnest news story?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Twin Hype

Really liking this right now. Reminds me of something from 1974. Not sure what, but something.

Lynch Mob

Ever since seeing Eraserhead on TV at a tender age, I've been following (and often enjoying) the work of David Lynch. Actually, my fascination pre-dates even my first viewing of his films-- just seeing the box of the Eraserhead VHS was creepily seductive. In recent years, however, his experiments with digital video have left me a little cold. Inland Empire, for example, has sat on my shelves, unwatched, for over two years. So, I was a little hesitant about seeing The Air Is On Fire, a solo Lynch retrospective, recently. But I took the plunge, and I'm glad I did. Much of his artwork (paintings, noise machines, sculptures, manipulated photos) displayed the requisite eerieness even as they rehashed familiar themes and tropes. But the room full of doodles on napkins, matchbooks and scraps of paper, collated over 25 years, was a real insight into the guy's mind, and the cinema showing a continuous three-hour compilation of shorts was revelatory. The Grandmother, in particular, holds up really well as a pre-cursor of many Lynch obsessions, and was better than I remembered from my first viewing 20 years ago.

Spookily, having seen the show on Saturday, I turned on the radio on a snowy day in Scotland two days later to hear that Lynch has just released two (!) singles. Though his interest in sound is obvious (cf. his production of Julee Cruise's Into The Night, as well as his curating and production of Industrial Symphony no.1 and his collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti and Alan Splet) this is his first foray into music as a solo performer (he did a little vocal take on the Dark Night of the Soul project earlier this year). The first, Good Day Today, is fairly weak, like an Underworld out-take. However, the other one, I Know, is not bad. Nice Vaughn Oliver artwork too, but don't give up the day job(s), David.

Here's a little Playstation ad I found, directed by Lynch.

And, as we mentioned Angelo Badalamenti, how about some Blue Velvet soundtrack to download?

Download Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch (Julee Cruise version) mp3

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thin Stuff

Le Corps Mince de Francoise. It really trips off the tongue doesn't it? Their new single Gandhi is out tomorrow. Happy Mondays meets MIA, you say? Well, I can't disagree, but it's kinda pleasant nonetheless.

There's also an Andy Weatherall remix available. Do you remember when every single had to have an Andy Weatherall remix? It was compulsory, if I remember correctly. Relive those days below.

Wagnerian Tragedy

Now that Wagner has left the X-Factor (I don't watch it- it's strictly Strictly in our house) can he please get back to designing frocks? Whaddya mean, you don't follow me? Surely you've noticed that Wagner is really rag-trade barmpot John Galliano after a heavy night?


Friday, November 19, 2010

Greatest Hits

This is surely what the internet was invented for. Thanks, Tim Berners-Lee. An ongoing archive of every issue of Smash Hits.

Especially striking is how much the magazine focused on music from across the spectrum, at least in its early days, and didn't just focus on chart fodder (despite its name). See this issue, for example. Monochrome Set, the Mo-dettes, Lee Dorsey, The Passions, Alternative TV...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Carry Bag Man

Another ace blog to peruse if you ever tire of my intermittent posting rate: Bagging Area. Which comedian recently suggested that "Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area" should become our national motto? I can't remember. Anyhoo, take a look: good posts, well written, deftly-chosen mp3s. That's Bagging Area, incidentally, not Irk The Purists, obv.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

God-damn. Why did he have to become so crappy circa 1987?

The article that led me to this incredible clip was this excellent appraisal of Dirty Mind some 30 years after its release.

Could It Be Magic?

A quick mention for a wonderful blog I've been greatly enjoying for the past week or so: the strangely-entitled (and misspelled, surely?) Know Your Conjurer. A man after my own heart, and with similarly wide-ranging tastes, its author has recently posted about Lee Dorsey, Guided by Voices, This Heat and Ween, so you can get an idea of where he's coming from right there. Despite my jealousy at its author creating more blogposts in a month than I can usually manage in a year, I thoroughly commend it to the house.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Small Wonder

God damn, even as the record industry collapses, there are some fantastic songs being made. Maybe these two things are connected. Anyway, here's another goodie, this time by Small Black (presumably Small Black are not Santiago Durango and Dave Riley [hmmm....too obscure, I think- US punk ed.]).

It's on the ridiculously-monikered Jagjaguwar Records. More info here.

Court, Can I Get A Witness

The papers here have been getting into a froth over the last few days over a firearms officer from Scotland Yard giving evidence at an enquiry into a shooting and (allegedly) covertly inserting song titles into his statement, rather in the manner of certain football pundits of recent memory. "Fair enough," I thought, outraged, upon first hearing about this on a radio news bulletin (in no way pre-judging the case, no siree). "It's one thing to play silly buggers on Match of the Day, where there's little at stake except for John Motson's wig falling off. It's quite another to do it in a court of law during an enquiry into a death. Throw the book at him."

But now I've read the reports rather than hearing just the outline of the case on the wireless. And I have to say, I'd be prepared to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, if you read the coverage (e.g. this report from The Independent), he either had an extremely broad musical taste (Donna Summer, The Membranes, XTC, As Tall as Lions (who hell they?-ed), film soundtracks) or this is a huge coincidence. Furthermore, those self-same reports claim that not only was the officer inserting song titles into his evidence, he was inserting snatches of lyrics (Enough is Enough isn't actually the name of the Summer/Streisand collab- it's entitled No More Tears), and words which merely hinted at the titles of songs (the phrase "self-preservation" supposedly standing in for the title of the tune [Get a Bloomin' Move On] which concludes The Italian Job). Oh really? And as for extracting individual words and common phrases from the officer's evidence ("faith", "daylight", "line of fire", point of no return") and inferring that these must be references to songs by George Michael, Coldplay, Journey and Duran Duran respectively- well, puh-leeze.

I'm not saying he definitely didn't do it. The references to popular music are so tenuous and vague that presumably it's only because someone in the Yard couldn't keep stumm that the case has come to light (I simply can't imagine that anyone looked at his evidence and suddenly said "Wait a minute! These are all song titles!"). But really: the connections between what he said and the intent that he is alleged to have had are so threadbare that even the most half-witted defence lawyer could drive a coach and horses through the allegations if there is ever an internal investigation. In other words, whether he did or didn't do it, this is hardly a watertight case.

Don't believe me? Here's the opening paragraph of the lead story in the Independent at time of writing:

A new wave of strike action across the public sector began last night with massive disruption to the London Underground, as 11,000 staff began another 24-hour walkout that will affect millions of commuters. A Bonfire Night strike for firefighters also looms on Friday, as no progress was made during talks with brigade officials yesterday, according to sources close to the discussions. Tensions rose when two demonstrators were injured during the latest round of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), after they were hit by vehicles trying to break the picket line.

Now lets take a look at the song titles those sneaky sub-editors have smuggled in, eh?

"New Wave": clearly a reference to the song of the same name by Common on his 2002 album Electric Circus. "Strike": obviously the 1984 single by The Enemy Within (Adrian Sherwood & Keith LeBlanc) in support of the miners. "Last Night": The Strokes, natch. "24": Emmy the Great. "Millions": probably a reference to the Tortoise track Millions Now Living Will Never Die. "Yesterday": a little-known tune penned by one P. McCartney. "Fire": The Ohio Players. "Union": The Black Eyed Peas. "Hit": The Sugarcubes.

The defence rests, your honour.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Marble Index

Typical. You wait 30 years for some Young Marble Giants copyists, then two come along at once. The first was, of course, The XX (tipped for the Mercury back in December by yours truly) though, apparently, they're just XX now. The second is LA's Warpaint; their new single Undertow is below. Download it for free. No, I'm not on their payroll.

Of course, many of you will be saying "Young Marble Who?" If so, you can hear the real thing, straight outta Cardiff, below.

Download Young Marble Giants Wurlitzer Jukebox mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)

Buy Young Marble Giants Cds

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rock the Bells

Enjoy this before The Kills' lawyers injunct it. It's absolutely fantastic, possibly the best single of the last five years. Shades of The Sweet, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Shangri-Las. And it's under three minutes. What more do you want?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Selfish kunt

The best thing I saw at the Festival this year by a country mile (pun intended) was the none-more-radio-unfriendly Kunt and the Gang.

Who hell they? Well, for a start, it's actually a he, rather than a they. Like a Viz version of Ray Allen and Lord Charles, his gang consists entirely of a puppet (Little Kunt). Oh, and his mobile phone, which, plugged in to the PA of the pub he performed in, was his sole musical accompaniment. Emerson, Lake and Palmer used to travel across the country with their equipment in three separate articulated trucks. Now artists can fit their entire backing into their pocket. That's progress.

In visual terms, the stage show won't be giving Muse any sleepless nights, the budget stretching no further than some upturned beer crates. Kunt himself, though, is incredibly charismatic, two parts Green Gartside to three parts Ben Dover with a bit of Paul Simonon thrown in (his gold tooth apparently being something of a "babe-magnet", according to the man himself). There was earnest debate (between my friends at least) before the show started as to the distance between the character of "Kunt" and his creator. In other words, how much of an act is Kunt and the Gang? My wife was convinced that this was a university-trained actor playing a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed troubadour, a sort of filthy Paul Calf/Steve Coogan. She even thought his carefully-coiffed blond locks were a wig. I'm pretty certain they're not, and that the distance between the creator and the character is extremely small. In other words, that this really is a guy from Essex who loves Countdown, masturbation and the minutiae of the female body. Which isn't to dismiss him, as we'll see.

If you zoom over to the man's MySpace page, you'll see among his influences The Macc Lads and the Silicon Teens. This is telling. Like the Silicon Teens (who were, for those of you that might not know, a nom de disque of Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records), Kunt is from Basildon, and like the Teens and their labelmates Depeche Mode (in their early years, at least), his musical stock-in-trade is jaunty, seemingly-simple but naggingly-catchy synth melodies. Unlike his Mute forbears though, he eschews the boy-meets-girl lyrics of early synthpop, and presents something slightly more earthy for the listener's pleasure. And if you couldn't surmise the tone of his repertoire from his name, the songs' titles (including Chips or Tits, I'm Gonna Lick You Out and Feminine Itch- and these are three of the tamer titles) may just tip you off.

I'm not going to try and claim this is subversive art or that Kunt and the Gang is actually a cultural provocateur on a par with Bill Drummond or Malcolm McLaren. What he is, though, if you're not a po-faced bore, is a bloody good night out. Sure these're just smutty songs and banter, at heart. But there's a lyrical dexterity that separates Kunt's material from, say, the aforementioned Macc Lads; in fact it's closer to Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit than to other rude musicians. In Dee (The Oldest Groupie), for example, he succinctly points up the age and experience of the song's purported subject and shows off an admirable grasp of popular culture (as well as a terrific sense of metre) in just 12 short lines:

She showed me pictures of her threesomes/I couldn't believe my eyes/She'd been rogered by Rodgers & Hammerstein/And skied with Morecambe & Wise/She'd been spit-roasted by Chas & Dave/And felched by Blazin' Squad/She got a facial when the lead singer/From Showaddywaddy lost his wad/From Adam Ant to Zucchero/They'd all been up her snitch/She'd pulled a train on Dave Dee/Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch!
The other thing that saves him from charges of blatant misogyny and the sort of macho nonsense espoused by most R-rated comedians is his inclusive view of sexuality. The Macc Lads, for example, would never have entertained writing a song like I Sucked Off A Bloke or penned a verse about fantasising over a transsexual, as Kunt does in Wank Fantasy (both below).

All in all, a first-class night out. You want a sample? OK, you can download a track below.

Download Dee (The Oldest Groupie) mp3 by Kunt & the Gang (deleted Jan 2011)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Strange Daze

For a couple of years in the mid-2000s there was a comedian on the circuit called Gary LeStrange. Actually, that's not strictly true. The character was called Gary LeStrange. His creator was called Waen Shepherd. Gary's/Waen's schtick was pretty good; LeStrange was supposedly a New Romantic/early electronic artist singing comedy songs about topics such as alienation and ennui. The character was fairly well-observed, the mannerisms and foibles of the likes of Gary Numan, Simon LeBon and Steve Strange were punctured mercilessly and, for the most part, accurately, in all respects save one. And that's that many of Gary's comedy songs of alienation and ennui were sung through a vocoder.

As some pointed out at the time of Gary's purple period, this wasn't really accurate. Because, although vocoders and talkboxes were used in electronic music in the late 70s and early 80s, they were the preserve of either Germans (Kraftwerk etc.), American R&B acts (notably Zapp) and rock acts like Peter Frampton and, later, Neil Young. They were, almost without exception, never used by the sort of acts that Gary LeStrange was celebrating/lampooning. Instead, acts like Soft Cell and The Human League gained much of their effect precisely because of the contrast between hard electronics and the frailties of the (Northern) male voice.

I was reminded of this when I watched LCD Soundsystem's recent performance on Later.
James Murphy's straining voice and demeanour exactly replicate the awkwardness of early British electronic music. And in my book, that's a compliment. I'm sure the effect is entirely deliberate. See if you agree below.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Minds Matter

Simple Minds. There, I've said it. Nowadays, something of a dirty word (two dirty words, strictly speaking) in musical circles, but at one time one of the hippest names to drop and (and bear in mind they're not usually the same thing) a fantastic group too. Where did it all go wrong?

Like their near-namesakes Simply Red (whom I felt compelled to defend in 2006), Simple Minds are today associated with bloat, excess, bombast and creative inertia. But 28 years ago, they were in the middle of a creative roll, having just released what's generally regarded as their high-water mark, New Gold Dream. You can see something of the band in their pomp on The Tube at I love this clip for so many reasons: Muriel Gray's unforced enthusiasm rather than her then-standard detached ennui; their raggedness for the first 30 seconds before it all falls into place; Mick McNeil's incredible keyboard-playing; Burchill and Forbes trading looks and licks; the sight of a slim, hungry-looking, Jim Kerr, before the pies were consumed. The latter had clearly learned his stagecraft from Howard Devoto, Simple Minds having supported Magazine two years previously.

That the early Minds looked to Europe, and European modernism in particular, was apparent in their song titles (In Trance As Mission; Kant-Kino; Constantinople Line), their lyrical references to Brian Eno and their sleeve artwork. Their choice of producers too hinted at their ambitions; in choosing Gong's Steve Hillage to helm the faders for Sons & Fascination (and its companion piece Sister Feelings Call), the band were clearly signalling their aesthetic intentions, namely incantatory, introspective, psychedelic. The sonic similarities with their later output can be discerned, but there's less abandon in the music, it's more tightly regulated and controlled, widescreen but not stadium-sized. Referenced to America are ambivalent and distanced rather than celebratory (cf The American). There's never a better sign of a band's lack of ego than an instrumental track (it's telling that instrumentals were a large part of the band's repertoire for their early albums but were largely abandoned in later years), and Theme For Great Cities is one of the great instrumental tracks (and a godsend for multiple Euro-trance acts) in recorded music. Check it below. It has one of the great bass parts too, as you can see in the second vid (there's at least three guys doing this on YouTube).

The icy Euro thing started to thaw slightly for the next album, and the sans-serif fonts and straight lines that characterised the album artwork for Empires & Dance and Sons & Fascination gave way to a more medieval, more romantic look for 1982's New Gold Dream. The psychedelic aspects were also more pronounced, despite the change of producer from Steve Hillage to Peter Walsh, but the dreamy synthscapes, meandering basslines and trippy lyrics are still recognisably European, restrained and undemonstrative, nowhere better exemplified than on Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel (below). The band hadn't gone all U2 on us at this point (actually, come to that, U2 hadn't gone all U2 yet, either).

So far, so uncontroversial. That Simple Minds were a fantastic band until 1983 or so seems to be a tacit understanding among fans of post-punk. Simon Reynolds wouldn't argue. Neither would James Nice (in fact, he called Sons and Fascination and New Gold Dream "stone classics"). The general consensus seems to be that the rot set in with the next album, 1984's Sparkle In The Rain. Yes, the dreaminess seemed to disappear, as did the ambiguity. The previously meandering basslines became, in the main, monolithic (compare the metronomic Waterfront, for example, with the earlier Glittering Prize), the drums were pushed way up in the mix, and the band already seemed to have one eye on America and the garantuan success they'd soon achieve with the Keith Forsey-penned Don't You Forget About Me (and the subsequent album Once Upon A Time). But here's the thing. I really still like Sparkle In The Rain, and I see this as the band's last creative gasp before they were fully subsumed into the mainstream.

How so? Well, they hadn't fully embraced the US yet (their reference points are still Natassia Kinski, Eumir Deodata and Michelangelo, Martin Luther rather than Martin Luther King), they hadn't abandoned instrumentals (e.g. Shake Off The Ghosts, the elegaic last track on the album, which later metamorphosed into A Brass Band in Africa Chimes, a dubby instrumental b-side), and in choosing Steve Lillywhite to produce the whole shebang (rather than the likes of Bob Clearmountain who would steer them through their subsequent album), Kerr and co. were still keeping their feet firmly rooted in the European tradition, even as they were looking towards the stadium-sized vistas that were opening up for them in the American heartlands. Hell, even the cover art for Sparkle In The Rain, another Malcolm Garrett-designed confection of hard-lined heraldry and Teutonic pageantry, was a clear signal that the band's aesthetic senses hadn't been completely dulled, even if the music was becoming slightly more upfront and more obvious.

For all the bombast heard on songs like Waterfront and Book of Brilliant Things, though, there's a quietness and a stillness at the heart of the album, heard best on songs like "C" Moon Cry Like A Baby, East at Easter, their cover of Lou Reed's Street Hassle and the aforementioned Shake Off The Ghosts. For me, at least, there's enough of the old Simple Minds on Sparkle In The Rain to make it a worthwhile listen, with some parts that are truly excellent. The single Up On The Catwalk is probably the song that best exemplifies the crossroads at which the band found themselves in 1984. The drums hint at the stadium rock that they fully embraced after this album, but the spiky guitar parts, the keyboards and, in particular, the elliptical lyrics, all speak of a band that was still in touch with the feelings and sensibilities that produced their best work in the years 1980 to 1983. Listen for yourself just below.

Download Simple Minds Up On The Catwalk (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Monae for nothing*

One of the bit players in the below-mentioned documentary, Biggie and Tupac, is the odious and ridiculously-monikered P Diddy, aka Sean "Puffy" Combs. Regular readers may have surmised my low opinion of this idiot from previous posts; those just joining us can probably infer it from the previous sentence. Why the dislike, you may ask? Well it isn't (just) personal, though by all accounts his personality leaves much to be desired. If anything, it's that he's brought so little to the table, artistically, and yet claimed so much, critically and commercially. While judicious sampling and appropriation are the lifeblood of hip-hop, the best use it sparingly and wittily, to complement, or contrast with the material it rubs up against. Diddy, on the other hand, like a bull in a china shop, simply licences entire (already popular) tunes (e.g. Every Breath You Take, Kashmir), adds little or nothing, and keeps most of the money. Exhibit B: his dorkish assertion (in 2002, no less!) that his record label "invented the remix". Oh really? Try telling that to Tom Moulton. In 1975. Or King Tubby, in the 1960s. Exhibit C: take a look at his album Press Play and the associated single sleeve above, then note how the typography and photography style of both is lifted lock, stock and barrel from Playgroup's LP of some 5 years earlier. The guy clearly doesn't have an original thought in his head. And yet, he's the one with the jet-ski. Where's the justice?

It therefore pains me to have to say that the most recent release on his usually execrable Bad Boy Records label is an out-and-out winner. That it also displays much of the verve and imagination of the artists that Diddy, Kanye, and the blowhards that recorded for Death Row have largely displaced (i.e. showmen like Ram Ell Zee and Afrika Bamabaataa) is telling. Janelle Monae (for it is she) has looked beyond the tired tropes of "The Street" and turned her eyes skywards, and the result is compelling and at times quite audacious. A concept album (a phrase which usually induces suspicion, not least in hip-hop where a "concept album" is often sub-par material linked by weak and unfunny "skits"), Archandroid is reportedly based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and while I occasionally lost the conceptual thread that supposedly links the work to the film that served as its inspiration, there's no doubt that Lang's masterpiece has spurred Monae to vault far ahead of her contemporaries. The film, which up until now had only given rise to a mediocre re-interpretation by Queen, has inspired her to create a dazzling melange that takes in R&B, rap, pastoral folk and psych rock, and features a guest appearance by Georgia art-rockers Of Montreal, the latter telling you all you need to know about Monae's expansive and inclusive worldview. As others have pointed out, she displays the ambition and range that Prince did in his heyday. High praise indeed. Anyway, it's well worth a listen (the tracks Sir Greendown, 57821, and Mushrooms & Roses are particularly good), as is its predecessor Metropolis: The Chase Suite, supposedly the first part of this ongoing "suite" . They're both on Spotify and available to buy (links below). BTW, I have two Spotify unlimited free invites (i.e. not the 20-hour a month ones) to give away; if anyone can make use of them, let me know in the comments and I'll pass 'em on.

Listen to Archandroid on Spotify

Buy Archandroid by Janelle Monae

*I was going to title this post Monae, Manet, Tipyy-Tippy Day-Day, but realised that this was too wilfully obscure, even by my standards. Any Irk The Purists Seinfeld fans out there?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cosmic thing

I recently caught the (8 year old) Nick Broomfield doc Biggie and Tupac and while Broomfield employed his trademark schtick throughout the film (i.e. saying very little so that his interviewees fill the void and inadvertently say more than they planned; acting slightly dumber than he really is, to the same end; and filming at all times rather than setting up shots, again in the hopes of catching interviewees off-guard), his conclusion that the obnoxious Suge Knight of Death Row Records was behind the killing of the equally obnoxious Tupac Shakur overlooks one obvious and fundamental flaw-- if Knight had indeed ordered the hit on his major cash cow, why was he stupid enough to place himself alongside his intended victim in a car in Las Vegas?

The entire unsavoury business stands in marked contrast to the conditions that gave birth to hip hop some 18 years earlier. While it’s an old story, told often, it’s worth remembering that the genre was initially a way for impoverished New Yorkers to transcend the mundane and petty realities of gang activity, and offered a form of escapism. Science-fiction, video game and comic imagery abounded, and hip-hop took its aesthetic cues from the earlier cosmic templates laid down by George Clinton—just think of Afrika Bambaataa’s cosmic shaman outfits, Newcleus’s interplanetary jams, and the Jonzun Crew’s spacey beats.

Perhaps the most out-there figure in early hip-hop was Rammelzee (aka Ramm Ell Zee), who has recently passed away (peacefully, through ilness) at the age of 49. A maverick figure, with his permanently-attached ski-goggles and Transformers-via-Oxfam garb, he existed on the fringes of avant-garde hip hop for over 25 years and left behind a small but perfectly-formed body of work. His early graffiti work led to a friendship (or rivalry) with Jean-Michel Basquiat who produced (and provided the artwork for) Ramm’s first foray into vinyl, the hallucinatory and unsettling Beat Bop with the mysterious K-Rob. Later occasional work with Bill Laswell and the Death Comet Crew (featuring Ike Yard’s Stuart Argabright, who went on to produce Rammellzee’s debut solo album, some 21 years after Beat Bop) kept Ramm's reputation alive, but the sporadic nature of his recorded output and his insistence on cleaving to his own personal iconography of letterforms, cosmological signs, quantum mechanics and, frankly, utter gibberish, served to keep him a marginal figure in a hip-hop mainstream more interested in Cristal, bling and bitches. A shame really, as footage of his work (below) shows that in a parallel universe, hip hop could have developed further along this path rather than the one its protaganists chose to take, and been more about ideas and Philip K. Dick than about materialism and dick with a small d.

Download Hisstory by Material and Ramm Ell Zee (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)

Ramm Ell Zee personal site

A definitive interview by The Wire

Obituary from LA Times

The Sound of Husik

Here at Irk The Purists Towers, we've had some success in flushing out our heroes (and heroines) that are currently languishing in the "Where Are They Now?" files. For instance, Todd Levin stuck his head above the parapet in response to this post. And Fiona Russell Powell got in touch as a result of this, and on subsequently meeting La Powell, I can happily report that she's as vivacious and waspish as ever.

So, let's try for third time lucky: Beaumont Hannant, where are you? I'll confess, I know very little about Mr. Hannant, save for what I can glean from and the like. But I also know that for about 18 to 24 months around 1995 he was one of the names to drop, and was as ubiquitous a remixer, producer and svengali as William Orbit. In fact, the comparison with William Orbit is entirely appropriate, because just as Orbit had his stable of collaborators, so did Hannant. In particular, Lida Husik occupied a similar position for Beaumont Hannant as Caroline Lavelle or Laurie Mayer (no, not this one) did for Orbit. He produced and remixed a number of records for her (more info on him and Husik here), and formed one half of production duo Outcast. But since 2000 or so, pretty much nothing. Where did he disappear to? What's he up to? I wish I knew, and I wish he'd get back to music because I used to love pretty much everything he did.

To jog memories (sort of like an audio Crimewatch), here's a couple of tracks featuring Hannant's skills, the first a bone-crunching, clang-heavy Bjork remix from 1996 or so, the second a rather lush Lida Husik track that Hannant produced for her album Faith In Space and which was remixed by one Mark Tibenham. Enjoy. And please remember: don't have nightmares, do sleep well.

Download Bjork Hyperballad (Over The Edge mix) mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)

Download Lida Husik The Planet's On (Syzygy) mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alternative TV

If I haven't been posting recently, it's in part because I've just spent ten days lazing on a beach without internet access, and partly because I've been engrossed in Cherry Red TV.

"Whassat" you say? Well, if you can overlook the ultra low-budget production, it's a great offshoot of the label that spawned it, and a terrific and candid look behind-the-scenes of the music biz. And, in fact, the production values are entirely appropriate, given Cherry Red's precarious and seemingly haphazard business methods over 30-odd years.
Highlights include interviews with small (mostly Cherry Red-affiliated, admittedly) label heads, such as Ann-Marie and David of Survival Records (aptly named, the label went from curating early electro from the likes of Tik and Tok and Drinking Electricity to, bizarrely, Celt folksters Capercaillie in more recent years), and Mike Alway talking about his label, El. Cherry Red label head Iain McNay also gets an hour to talk about, naturally, Cherry Red, but the channel is generous enough to feature anecdotes and business advice from like-minded individuals not connected with Cherry Red, including Nude's Saul Galpern, Bella Union's Simon Raymonde and the late Charlie Gillett of Oval.
The artist interviews are equally enlightening (and similarly cheaply-made); Cherry Red mainstays Louis Philippe, Bid (of The Monochrome Set) and Momus get to discuss their art, naturally, but so do Bridget St. John, John Otway, Alvin Stardust, Benjamin Zephaniah and Martin Newell. This eclectic mix is extended further by the inclusion of Brion Gysin and William Burrough's Final Academy Documents. Take a look and you'll see why I only manage a few blog posts a month...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Free bird

Holy crud. Martin Rev finally makes it onto Letterman, in the company of MIA (below) for a live performance of the Suicide-driven Born Free. Unusually, Paul Shaffer declined to accompany the performance.

Is it too much to ask for Glenn Branca on Craig Ferguson? Or Z'Ev on Jay Leno?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Silence is Golden

The sound of silence: as brought to you by Spotify.

The Sound of Silence playlist

n.b. these are all actual songs in Spotify. The Roots' Phrenology has 4 such tracks!?!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Khan Do

If you're quick (i.e. before Sunday evening 27th June), you can catch the ever-obliging Dave Pearce interviewing Morgan Khan, ex- (and now current) MD of StreetSounds, which, with its policy of compiling the best import 12 inches on to a single album retailing at a fiver every few months, played a huge part in widening tastes back in the day. That it also led to the demise of compilations on labels like K-Tel and Ronco is incidental. It's terrific stuff, and reminds you of what a central part these two played in the development of the electro, soul, R&B and "urban" (i.e. record company-speak for "black") music scenes in Britain. In fact, why hasn't Morgan Khan been knighted yet?

Dave himself comes in for some stick from scene purists, but ever since his show "Fresh Start To The Week" on Radio London, he's consistently championed new and emerging dance music. And he's on It Takes A Nation of Millions. So there. This article redresses the balance somewhat.

Monday, June 07, 2010

World cup willies

In James Nice's new book Shadowplayers (highly recommended BTW), the author, in writing about EnglandNewOrder's World In Motion, suggests it was the best football-related song since The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme. One could infer from reading this sentence that the list of football songs is long and glorious. In fact, the two mentioned above are, as far as I'm concerned, pretty much the only ones worth mentioning, with Colourbox's 1986 effort just edging out New Order's. Before we get to Colourbox, though, let's remind ourselves of some of the efforts against which these two can be measured.

Lonnie Donegan's World Cup Willie was an early attempt at the form, but while Donegan's place in the rock and roll annals is assured (and Rock Island Line still sounds wonderful), this was pretty woeful fare with none of the merit of his work from the previous decade. In truth, Donegan was, at this point in his career, seen as deeply square and unfashionable, and from 1966 to 1986, England (and, for that matter, Scottish) World Cup songs, both official and unofficial would be similarly toe-curling, and would bear scant resemblance to what the majority of fans were actually listening to when not on the terraces.

By far the worst are those on which the teams themselves performed, with England's 1970 effort Back Home, and the 1974 monstrosity Scotland, Scotland among the worst offenders. Rod Stewart's Ole, Ola from 1978 at least had the merit of aping something you might conceivably hear in the host country (i.e. Argentina), but 1982's This Time by the England World Cup squad was a return to the turgid, leaden terrace sing-along that was the English FA's default setting for soccer songs. To whom, exactly, were these meant to appeal? Time and again, the songs deemed acceptable by the various footballing organisations were throwbacks to the 1950s, a time before teenagers, before Cliff, before Elvis.

That's not to say that when football did try to "get with it" musically, the results were any better. It's probably best to pass quickly over songs by footballers (but that weren't football-related), which were, without exception, execrable. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you exhibits A and B, Kevin Keegan's Head Over Heels and Waddle and Hoddle's Diamond Lights.

By 1986, then, something had to change. Stephanie Lawrence's official World Cup theme Special Kind of Hero was written by Rick Wakeman, and while I have to doff my cap to Rick Wakeman, (a particularly skilled and amusing raconteur and a pretty good keyboardist to boot), only a cloth-eared ninny would think that commissioning a song in 1986 by Wakeman was going to capture the zeitgeist. Step up then, 4AD stalwarts Colourbox who, completely uninvited, gave us The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme. Note the clever title. This wasn't The Official World Cup Theme by Colourbox; sadly, as we've already mentioned, Special Kind of Hero was the official song. Instead, this was the Official Colourbox World Cup Theme, i.e. the official theme within the confines of their world. The song manages to capture both the spirit of the times (clattering, programmed instruments and an indie dancefloor sensibility- think Age of Chance, World Domination Enterprises, Tackhead) and the spirit of the tournament at the same time. I'm very surprised we don't hear it more often on BBC or ITV sports shows, as, to my mind, it's a perfect song to use as a musical bed for a montage of goals, dives, fouls and penalties.

New Order's effort four years later, is, rightly, remembered as a football/music high point (though these things are relative: it's actually a New Order low point when compared to, e.g., Cries and Whispers, Age of Consent or Love Vigilantes, but football songs being so uniformly poor, it easily bests all others in the genre). However, while it's not quite up there with World In Motion, we shouldn't overlook Pop Will Eat Itself's unofficial Italia '90 anthem, Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina. It wasn't enough to spur England to victory, but it's a smart song and actually more subversive than New Order's, though not as easy to sing while munching on a meat pie and sipping a Bovril. It also features future soundtrack composer Clint Mansell and references Jeff Koons' ex-wife, so it's worth a look.

Since then, we've been subsumed by the unremitting dreck of, among others, Del Amitri's dirge-like Don't Come Home Too Soon from 1998 (a realistic assessment of Scotland's chances, some would say) and England United, by the unholy quartet of Space, Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Colour Scene, and the Spice Girls (no, I don't remember it either). This year, the floodgates have well and truly opened, and along with James Corden and Dizzee Rascal's opus, we've been subjected to abysmal stuff from Stan Boardman, Terry Venables, Clint Boon and Gideon Conn and (Jesus, how the mighty are fallen) Rik Mayall. All (except Corden's) rely on cliches of Englishness, cleave to the idea of a nation that reached its zenith (musically and sportingly) in 1966, and sound little different in tone and form from World Cup Willie. All of which makes Colourbox's sublime, unofficial anthem seem even more urgent and appropriate even 24 years after it was made. I'd like to think that if the FA had commissioned an update by the group for this year's World Cup (or better still, simply re-released it, officially sanctioned), it would spur our team of donkeys on to, ooh, at least the quarter-finals. As it stands, if England's performance in South Africa reflects the quality of the music that's been composed to spur them on this year, they'll probably crash out before the knockout stage.

Download The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme by Colourbox (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Auntie Matter

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the news that the BBC’s 6Music may close at the end of next year has abated somewhat , but the awards last week for Adam & Joe’s and Jarvis Cocker’s shows have brought the station’s mooted demise into sharp focus once more. Coincidentally, the station’s defenders have another 5 days or so to register their protests with the BBC. If you feel so inclined, you can do so here.

The BBC has been a curious anomaly since the introduction of independent broadcasting in 1954, and never more so than now, when broadcasting is becoming ever-more fragmented, catering to niche audiences on lower and lower budgets. What, now, is the BBC’s role? Is it to compete with the large independent broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Capital etc. ) and imitate their output (talent shows, reality shows, shock docs), thereby satisfying the viewing and listening desires of the majority of the licence payers? Or is it to offer an alternative to the mainstream, thereby leading to accusations of obscurantism and elitism? How can it continue to square the circle between being, in effect, a state broadcaster and yet remaining editorially and politically independent? And can its funding mechanism (effectively a compulsory tax on television ownership) be justified in an age when many liberal democracies are seeking to move services out of the public sector and into private hands where, the arguments runs, they will be better administrated, more efficient and less of a burden on taxpayers?

The latter question, at least, was answered for me when I watched an episode of Michael Moore’s TV Nation in the mid-90s on BBC2. In an early segment of the show, Moore ridiculed the BBC’s antiquated funding mechanism, and conducted a vox-pop on a suburban American high street to ask whether the interviewees were aware that one had to pay a licence fee to own a television in the UK. Naturally, said interviewees were aghast at the thought of state encroachment on what they saw as a fundamental right, i.e. the right to slob out in front of the goggle box. They couldn’t believe it, and said so quite forcefully. Later in the same show, Moore broadcast a documentary piece about the then-current Detroit newspaper strike, and mentioned in an aside that this segment had had to be cut from the US edition of the programme, as the network on which it was being shown had business ties with the newspaper. At no point, needless to say, did Moore join the dots between these two disparate stories, and realise that the reason why he could make reference to the strike on the BBC is precisely because of the fact that it’s not owned by private interests. The BBC's role, in this instance, was thrown into sharp relief. Because it's (largely) free of vested commercial interests, it can be (and often is) a haven for the uncommercial and the marginalised. Which brings us back to the matter in hand.

The whole debacle surrounding the proposed closure of 6Music (and, lest we forget, the BBC Asian Network) is, of course, at least partly political, being widely viewed as a sop to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press (and, by implication, an incoming Tory government) over such issues as Sachsgate and various phone-in anomalies. These papers (and the party they support) are naturally opposed to the state, and this distaste for anything that smacks of socialism can be seen in the bogeymen that regularly feature in their pages: social workers, progressive education, Labour-run councils... To the likes of the Daily Mail, the BBC is of a piece with these organisations, taking a lot of money from the public to do a job that could be done far more efficiently and successfully by the private sector.

Bizarrely, the BBC has colluded in this deception, citing (as part of its justification for closing 6Music) the notion that the station is encroaching on commercial radio’s audiences. I’ll address the specific folly of that statement in a moment, but for now, can we please bury the broader canard that public=bad, private=good? Even the Labour party had to adopt this Thatcherite mantra over the last 13 years in order to get (and stay in) power. And despite all the events of the last two years, Labour were still fundamentally committed to devolving power away from the state and towards the private sector: cf. the Private Finance Initiatives, the continuing privatisation of utilities and transport, the selling off of state assets to private investors... All this despite the catastrophic failures of, for example, the selling off of HMRC to Mapely, National Express walking away from its obligations running the Edinburgh to London line, the disaster area that is Capita, the banking crisis... I could go on, but if you ever get Private Eye, I probably don’t need to. And as for the accounting con-trick that is PFI... I’ve visited any number of PFI secondary schools, and they’re all, without exception, crap: lowest-common denominator architecture built of the cheapest generic building materials, all in the name of maximising profit. Who cares if the implicit message to pupils is “we don’t care about you or your education. We’re just going to give you the minimum we can legally get away with”? And yet we (or least our politicians and press) are still wedded to the idea that public ownership is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

To return, then, to the specifics of the proposed closure of 6Music: one reason proposed for its closure is the BBC’s mission to provide quality and distinctiveness*. You could argue that this is precisely the BBC’s raison d’etre, i.e. that it should be distinctive from commercial offerings and shouldn’t feel the need to compete. Another reason given is the financial one: that the relatively small audience that 6 enjoys is expensive when worked out on a per capita basis (its small audience, as the report handily obfuscates, is of course due in large part to its transmission method, i.e. via the web and DAB radios only, not the FM radios most of us have at home or in the car). Yet, strangely, the BBC seems to argue against itself on both the commercial and qualitative fronts when it proposes to migrate many of 6 Music’s shows to Radio 2. To quote Thompson in the report that the BBC commissioned on the station:

The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.

In other words, Thompson thinks that the best way for the BBC to 'maintain quality and distinctiveness' is to take a high quality and distinctive (but relatively low in listenership) radio station and merge it into lower quality and less distinctive siblings, and therefore make the latter less popular. Christ, even I’m confused. As for the argument that 6Music is somehow eating into the commercial market (and that, by implication, Heart FM is just itching to play Parliament, Bogshed, Arvo Part and Burial rather than heavy-rotation Simply Red, Whitney and Boyzone), that particular fallacy is demolished rather effectively by Steve Orchard of Quidem:

Commercial radio can never replicate 6 Music’s cultural value – it’s not viable for us to do so. The commercial landscape has featured many fine rock music stations that have never made any real money – over time we water them down and gently shepherd them back towards the traditional commercial heartland. We will gain nothing from this closure yet the music industry will lose much.

It all rather seems that the closure is a fait accompli, and that Thompson is throwing around excuses full of public service buzzwords to obfuscate his real reasons for closing the station, i.e. to provide a sacrificial lamb to the incoming administration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of the Beeb alone. Unfortunately for him, its small listenership is not taking this lying down, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. If you were on the fence up until now, and I haven’t managed to appeal to your head thus far, it’s time to appeal to your heart. Just go to the 6Music webpage ( and take a look at the track listings for any random show by Don Letts, Gideon Coe, Marc Riley, Craig Charles, Adam Buxton, Bruce Dickinson, Guy Garvey, Stuart Maconie, Tom Robinson or Jarvis Cocker, and ask yourself where you might hear diverse playlists like these on commercial radio. And ask yourself whether the station is worth saving.

Finally, if you’re still not convinced whose side to take, just watch Mark Thompson’s humourless response to Adam Buxton’s offer of a fight here..

And enjoy this mash-up of the Thick of It, Jeremy Paxman and “Thommo”:

And then, finally, ask yourself, "Am I really going to side with this guy Thompson?" If the answer's no, for any reason, please address your concerns to the BBC Trust here.

*"The BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Moon rocks

I’ve just finished a fantastic book, Moon Dust by Andrew Smith. I’m a total sucker for any (non-fiction) accounts of the Space Race, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff has, until now, remained the one by which all others should be judged. However I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Smith’s tome (published in 2005) just edges out Wolfe’s earlier account. This is slightly unfair, as we’re not quite comparing like with like: The Right Stuff confines itself to the study of the origins of NASA and the early Mercury programme, where ex-pilots like Al Shepard, John Glenn and Gus Grissom became, essentially, “Spam-in-a-can”, slightly more evolved versions of Laika or Able & Baker, for the first orbital earth flights. Smith’s book, on the other hand, looks at the Apollo missions, and specifically the twelve men that walked on the moon, nine of whom are still alive.

Still, Smith’s book just trumps Wolfe’s, to my mind, because as well as outlining the facts and sketching in the characters of the astronauts, the author also considers wider questions of what it meant to travel to the moon, to the individuals concerned but moreover to mankind as a whole. Of course, for most astronauts, their Apollo flight and landing was an early peak in their lives, one that would be impossible to surpass in the decades that followed it. All coped in different ways, but patterns recur. Many went through divorces not long afterwards. Buzz Aldrin succumbed to alcoholism. Neil Armstrong became a virtual recluse. Others, such as Charlie Duke, found religion. Alan Bean turned to art, painting moonscapes over and over again to try and recapture the feelings that he experienced on the lunar surface. Edgar Mitchell turned into a UFO nut. Along the way, there are some revealing vignettes: tales of NASA’s bureaucracy and parsimony abound, never more so than in the story of Aldrin’s framed expenses receipt, with deductions:

PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018
FROM: Houston, Texas
TO: Cape
Kennedy, Fla.
Pacific Ocean

That these men, who put their lives on the line time and again (and who, lest we forget, were totally uninsurable) were little more than glorified civil servants on relatively meagre wages goes some way to explaining why David Scott and the crew of Apollo 15 sought to profit from Stampgate.

The book’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. Smith has a terrific deftness of style, always finding the right metaphor or simile. As a former rock journalist, he’s good at leavening the heavier stuff with moments of bathetic relief. He manages to include elements of his personal odyssey too (as a child of the 60s who can remember the events around the moon landings, he’s able to also address the question of what the space race meant to him, and how profoundly it affected his life and relationships) without ever interrupting the main thrust of the narrative. And he includes one terrific, and spot-on, passage about the nature of modern celebrity and our relationship with celebrities. It’s occasioned by the author’s presence at a dinner in Nevada, ostensibly honouring many of the Apollo moonwalkers, including Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong who are all there in person, and upon which space-fans and autograph hunters have converged: Armstrong becomes uncomfortable and leaves the auditorium, later to be found staring at the slot machines in the casino.

“Old fashioned fame was acquired., but celebrity is bestowed: it only exists in
relationship with the audience-jury we supply and comprise. Thus, we’re
the arbiters. They owe us. We voted them in and we can vote them
out, more immediately and effectively, in fact, than the politicians who
themselves look and behave more like celebrities every day (perhaps in an effort
to revive our waning interest in their show). Of course, Neil Armstrong is
not a celebrity in the strict sense; because he did something to earn his status
his fame has a hinterland, but the boundaries between the two conditions have
become so confused that we no longer recognise this distinction. So you’d
better sign the autograph, sucker. You’re lucky I even ask.
A widely
reported study in the UK found that people who earn over £35,000 a year feel
more deprived than those who earn less, because they feel licensed to compare
their lives to the more fabulous existence of their democratically appointed
celebrities, and they wonder when their turn’s coming. Is it possible that
our adulation of the famous is no more than a Trojan horse for our own
disappointment and anger? Is this what Armstrong runs from?

Most of all though, Smith’s book boils down to one question- “What was it like to stand on the moon?” On the face of it, this is the most banal and meaningless of questions, on a par with asking a losing X-Factor contestant “How do you feel right now?” Neil Armstrong assiduously avoids the question, and the sort of people that might ask it. Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, Smith reveals, had a stock response to deflect the questioner: “Super! Really enjoyed it!” But at its heart is a real desire to engage with the question of meaning and intent behind the space race. Why exactly did we—i.e. they—i.e. the Americans—travel quarter of a million miles into space? To beat the Soviets? To invent Teflon? Was it political? Scientific? Capitalist PR? And what does that say about us as a species? Are we emboldened by it? Diminished? Ultimately, the effort to get to the moon raises more questions than answers, but whatever it was about (and Smith has a few suppositions), Moon Dust is an engaging, thoughtful and reflective meditation on the subject, mixing three parts of hard-headed science to one part psychology, one part psychedelia, and one part childish wonder.

Smith’s book, while it (of necessity) concentrates on the American half of the space race, gives due credit to Russian pioneers, too, in particular Yuri Gagarin. I knew about Gagarin’s status as the first man of space. I wasn’t aware that he died aged 34 during a routine flight, and that conspiracy theorists posit that he was deliberately killed in the aftermath of a botched, fatal attempt to send one of his compatriots into space (a story that’s too long to repeat here, but which you can find on pp. 129-30).

Gagarin had a profound effect on another boy, but slightly earlier and thousands of miles from Smith (who grew up in California). That boy was Dave Formula, born Dave Tomlinson in Whalley Range, Manchester. Gagarin actually visited Manchester in the early sixties and Formula was there (he can actually be seen in one of the photos taken during the visit). Now, some 50 years later, and after a long career that takes in 60s R&B band St. Louis Union, 70s post-punk nihilists Magazine and 80s proto-New Romantics Visage, it's inspired Formula's debut solo album. Featuring turns from old Magazine hands including Howard Devoto and Barry Adamson, as well as Robert Wyatt and Clint Boon, it’s a concept album of sorts, entitled Satellite Sweetheart, and it documents the romance and optimism of the early years of the space race. The track Elvis In Space captures something of the rock-star status accorded the cosmonauts (and, to this day, to the Apollo astronauts), and it’s presented here for your delectation.

Download Elvis in Space by Dave Formula (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

And, for some light relief, see when Buzz Aldrin met Ali G....