Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Men From Uncle

You don't need me to tell you that Manchester's huge musical legacy (Take That, the Ting Tings and some lesser-known groups such as the Happy Mondays, the Smiths and New Order) has cast something of a pall over the city's creativity in recent years.  And while I'd happily accede to the notion that Peter Hook has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants in his hometown, even I can sometimes get a bit tired of the endless recycling of the city's glory days.

Of course, there is genuine new activity going on if you look hard enough.  Some of the brightest lights are Dutch Uncles.  I loved their last LP, Cadenza, and the new one sounds like it will be even better if the lead single, Fester, is anything to go by.  Sounding like a cross between the late, lamented Clor and 70s Canterbury scene bands, they'll appeal to anyone that likes skewed pop and difficult time signatures.  Check them out below.

Source of the Nile

Another reason I've been away from the blogging is the immense amount of reading I've been getting in, including Dave Simpson's The Fall(en),  Matt Thorne's new biography of Prince, Lindsay Reade's book about her life with Tony Wilson and the excellent history of Rough Trade by Neil Taylor.   I've just finished Bruno Tonioli's autobiog, but we'll draw a discreet veil over that.  I've also been making my way through Alex James' new book.  It's always difficult to warm to autobiographies of people (stars or otherwise) who are writing about how great their life is.  This is less of a problem when the stories start at the beginning of the protagonist's life, because at least there's usually a rags-to-riches story arc, and tales of adversity and determination that provide narrative impetus.  It's a problem, though, when the protagonist starts off rich and successful, and then proceeds to relate how they got even more rich, successful, contented etc.  I reckon this is why Chris Evans' first book sold so well, and his second (detailing his imperial phase) sold poorly.  Despite the same potential pitfalls bedevilling James' second book (in precis: rich rock star buys multi-acre farm with model wife and children), he's such a great prose stylist I'm prepared to give him a pass.

By far the most gripping recent read, though, was Nile Rodgers' autobiog, and I'm a bit miffed that I missed two recent opportunities to see the man himself talking up close and personal in my hometown (see below).  The first half of the book, describing his childhood and early adulthood, is jaw-dropping.  Born to two heroin-addicted, but nevertheless largely functional parents in an on-off relationship, with a grandmother who was probably impregnated by her own father (thus making her son also her brother...yechhh), young Nile was shuttled between family homes on both coasts of the USA, often flying as a solo passenger at the tender age of nine.  There's lots more along these lines, and I highly recommend that you read it for yourself, but his first 21 years are so astonishing that you can see why he skipped over studio sessions with the likes of The Thompson Twins and the B-52s.  In fact, despite his work with an A to Z of the rock glitterati, he only dwells at any length on two of the records he was involved with outside of Chic, namely Let's Dance and Like A Virgin.

Which means we're deprived of the story of his collaboration with Scritti Politti, which has always intrigued me, and about which I've always wanted to find out more.  There's very little info out there, however, and it certainly doesn't merit a mention in the book.  As far as I can make out, near the end of Green Gartside's first dalliance with Rough Trade circa 1982, Green was itching to move beyond the scratchy agit-prop, slightly distanced, ersatz funk and soul of Songs To Remember and actually engage directly with the R&B business.  The ever-obliging Geoff Travis, anxious to hold on to his protege, paid for the group to enter the studio with Rodgers, and by all accounts two songs emerged, an early version of Small Talk, and a song called L Is For Lover.  And while it may initially seem strange that the brown rice-eating, sandal-wearing militant lefties at Rough Trade were buying into the seemingly-superficial and excessive world of Studio 54, it should be remembered that Robert Wyatt had already covered Chic's At Last I Am Free, and as Travis admits in Taylor's book "We loved Chic at Rough Trade, and we were all pleased when Robert's the thumbs-up from the Chic camp."  Suffice it to say, though, that the results of the sessions never saw the light of day (if anyone can point me towards any mp3s that may have emerged over the past few years, i'd be eternally grateful), and Green moved on to Virgin, where he worked with Arif Mardin, Miles Davis, Roger Troutman, yada yada yada.

And there the story ends.  Except for one thing.  A few years later, Al Jarreau recorded an LP with Rodgers (again, this doesn't merit a mention in Niles' book).  The LP and its title track (also released as a single), are called "L is For Lover".  The song is credited in the publishing notes to Gamson/Gartside, and it's fantastic.  Better than Prozac, it should be prescribed to anyone with symptoms of depression.  It makes me long for a full collaboration between Rodgers and Gartside.  And yes, I last mentioned Scritti Politti only a few posts back.  So I've never gotten over my teenage crush.  So sue me.

What choo talkin' bout, Willis?

If I haven't been posting much recently, it's in part thanks to Homeland, Gary Tank Commander, Jewish Mum of The Year, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat and Strictly Come Dancing. Apologies.

I've also veen listening to quite a lot of Wesley Willis. Who hell he, you ask? I first came across Wesley in a (great) bar, where I was accosted by an imposing African-American with an unkempt appearance and a pair of expensive headphones permanently affixed to his ears. I was instructed to say "Rah" and headbutt him. Being a timid, skinny white boy, I duly complied.  Wesley then went back to his highly-detailed drawing of the Chicago skyline, done in fine-tip ballpoint. He drew from memory, I learned later.  I also learned that the permanent bruising on his forehead was result of the constant headbutts. The other patrons of the bar put me straight about Wes: that he was a gentle giant, despite his threatening demeanour. That he could be seen out most nights, in various bars, drawing and listening to music. That he was a troubled schizophrenic. And that he had had the sort of abusive and dysfunctional childhood that would make Angela's Ashes seem like Breakfast At Tiffany's.

I also learned that as well as being an avid music consumer, Wesley was also a performer, and that his band The Wesley Willis Fiasco could be seen performing regularly around the city. Intrigued, I tracked down a couple of his (self-released) CDs. As the first track played, I immediately recognised the primal, rudimentary, riff-driven groove mined by the likes of Suicide, Gene Vincent and others. Then the second track kicked in, and it was eerily similar to the first. Then the third kicked in and...well, you get the picture. Most Wesley Willis songs follow a template.  They usually describe going to see a band, often one with strong college radio / rawk leanings (Urge Overkill, Stabbing Westward, Boss Hog), though Wesley does have diverse tastes, ranging from Lonnie Brooks to Eazy-E.   The gig usually takes place at a medium-sized venue such as the Metro/Double Door/Lounge Ax. The crowd roars like a lion. The band whips a caribou's/hyena's/camel's ass. The band's name is repeated a number of times over the chorus. Then Wesley signs off with "Rock Over London, Rock On Chicago" and an advertising slogan such as "Sprint- Be There Now" or "Raid- Kills Bugs Dead".  Not all songs follow this template (there are some darker ones seemingly influenced by the demons in his head that took him on "Spooky Disharmonious Hell Rides" rather than "Harmony Joy Rides") but almost all cleave to the same template musically, if not lyrically. The tempo may shift up or down a few notches, there may be an octave or key change, but the same chord progressions on the same Casio keyboard persist.

Wesley's self-released efforts soon drew the attention of slightly bigger players in the music industry, such as Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles, and Rick Rubin's American Recordings (and it's nice to think that some of the Johnny Cash money found its way to Wesley), and he began to attract a following of sorts in other parts of the USA, though he remains largely unknown outside the States. Whether this attention was wholly because of his music, and how much because of morbid, freak-show-esque curiosity is hard to say, but because the personality and music were so closely entwined, it would be difficult to separate the two anyway. I certainly don't get the impression that Wesley was exploited any more than other artists in the biz (i.e. he was exploited a lot, but little of this was as a result of his size, appearance or schizophrenia).  According to Wikipedia, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff has written that Willis' "[P]eriodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show." Conversely, guitarist Scott Anthony, who actually toured with Willis in 1998, and therefore may be better placed to gauge the crowd's reaction, said "It's not frat boys coming to his shows and making fun of him; it's punk rock kids who appreciate that he sings stuff people are thinking."  So clearly, the jury's still out. None of which should prevent you from enjoying the man's inane but highly pleasurable output.

Wesley succumbed to leukemia in 2003, but he's not forgotten.  You can get a glimpse of his personality (and for once the overused adjective "larger-than-life" is apt) and hear a bit of his oeuvre below.