I started the day with an agonising dental appointment with my hygienist, the pain so unbearable it almost became enjoyable. I ended the evening watching Swans play in a tiny hall for two hours. Without wanting to labour the metaphor – the two experiences weren’t dissimilar.

Swans is a band I was convinced I was destined never to see. Last time they played Bristol I was heading the other way across the Atlantic. When they were scheduled to play Iceland Airwaves in 2012 they were stranded in New York (aptly) by a hurricane. I never saw them when they exploded into the UK in the late 80s – though a friend claimed he was literally felled by the sound-waves at one of their early gigs (although urban legends abounded at the time – my favourite being that EMP frequencies in their music induced mass bowel movements in the audience).

I thought I was prepared for the aural onslaught, but there is a difference being told someone is ‘the loudest band in the world’ and actually experiencing that barrage of sound. I’d heard stories of Boyd Rice’s NON making even Throbbing Gristle audiences leave in submission, but until you’ve actually experienced a band like Swans, you have no reference points – not even after a lifetime of gig-going.

The start is as low key as you’d expect from a band that is way above the usual crass theatrics of most concerts. They set up their own instruments then a few minutes later, after a building crescendo on a huge gong, they amble back on stage looking like the remnants of a ragged Confederate army who’ve wandered from some distant battle- field. The sound of gong and drum builds and builds but that still doesn’t do anything to prepare for the shock when the bass and guitars explode. It feels more like being hit by a wall of solid water than by sound – the brightly coloured foam earplugs sported by most of the audience as useful as a dingy in a Tsunami. The first track, Frankie M. is the closest we get to a tradition ‘song’ all evening. To describe the rest as just noise just doesn’t do it justice. The sound ebbs and flows, but is almost trance inducing with Gira as the hypnotic shaman, sometimes speaking in tongues (but with that tongue always firmly lodged in his cheek).

My thoughts drift – I have dark fantasies of seeing Swans on X-Factor; playing them full volume at a dinner party; watching them support Belle and Sebastian; taking a first date along to see them.

At one point Gira asks for the house lights to be turned on the audience – presumably to see our pain. He’d have looked onto a roomful of autistically nodding heads, with someone occasionally breaking out into a possessed, thrashing frenzied dance. He asks for his mike to be turned even higher, to tweak the pain.

The whole evening is closer to a dark evangelical gathering than a ‘rock’ gig. After two hours the set finishes to ecstatic cheering – a great release. The band smile and line up for a curtain call. Mutual respect between band and audience – we’ve been through something dark and special together, but we’ve come through it and survived – a catharsis for sure. My ears ring long into the night but the experience will live on long in the memory.

A Life In Band T-Shirts

November 19, 2013

Band t-shirts, once the hipster equivalent of the masonic handshake, have been shamefully debased in recent years. Airhead celebs sport ‘cool’ t-shirts chosen by their stylists – from Rachel wearing an MC5 t-shirt in Friends to the debacle of Harry Styles in an Unknown Pleasures t-shirt, band t-shirts are no longer the signifier of hipness they once were. Urban Outfitters has a lot to answer for – with their floor to ceiling collection of Joy Division/New Order and Sonic Youth t-shirts. My painfully cool 17 year old daughter recently had to explain to an equally uncool classmate who the band on the front of her t-shirt actually were (Primal Scream!).

In response to this defilement BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq has his annual Wear Your Old Band T-shirt to Work Day coming up this Friday – a great opportunity to flaunt your former/current hipness. Except I’ve realised I no-longer actually own any. How could this possibly have come to pass, when I spent most of my waking days (and many of my sleeping nights) with my favourite bands emblazoned across my chest.

It started with The Clash – a simple white number with the stencilled logo from the Complete Control cover emblazoned in red. I bought it mail order from an ad in Record Mirror.  I wore it until it fell apart. I had a Sid Vicious one around the same time,bought from an iron-on transfer stall in Newcastle’s Eldon Arcade. I have no idea what happened to that (this will become a common theme).

My first Joy Division t-shirt was made by my arty pal Paul who hand painted the band name in Germanic typeface onto an old cap sleeved tee. These Days (no pun intended) I wouldn’t be surprised to see ‘call me Dave’ Cameron in the ubiquitous Unknown Pleasure t-shirt. Back then to see someone in a JD tshirt was somewhat rarer – I still remember the mix of pride and awkward teen embarrassment when a ultra cool girl with an asymmetrical haircut stopped me to ask where I got my t-shirt from. Later I managed to buy a t-shirt printed with the Ideal For Living cover in Leeds but was always a bit wary of the Hitler Youth drummer boy image. I much preferred the  New Order t-shirt I wore for years with the photo of Barney playing his melodica.

A rare trip to London led me to a Carnaby Street and a Killing Joke Pope and Nazis shirt. A less glamourous day out in the god-sorsaken wasteland of Doncaster led me to an Iggy and the Stooges top. A trip to  Sheffield, of course, meant a Cabaret Voltaire Red Mecca t-shirt.

In later years I loved my New Order/A Certain Ratio/Happy Mondays t-shirt circa 1986. The last band shirt I remember buying was  Nick Cave Henry’s Dream when I was so blown away by a Brixton Academy gig. The mystery is, where they are now. Surely I didn’t give them away to a charity shop? I’ve kept every piece of vinyl, every cassette, every ticket stub, but have no idea what happened to any of those t-shirts.

Maybe I should nip down to Urban Outfitters after all. Then again,maybe not.Image

New Order played at Jodrell Bank this summer in front of a crowd of 15,000 people. A reliable source told me Bernard arrived by helicopter, despite the fact he only lives a couple of miles away. On Sunday evening Peter Hook played the Fleece in Bristol – a venue barely bigger than my front room. He made his entrance from behind the bar – I almost expected him to be pulling pints as well.

It’s difficult not to compare the two version of New Order currently plundering their past.  The other three play crowd pleasing greatest hits sets to stadium size audiences, while Hooky is taking the chronological route through the band’s substantial back catalogue. Having worked his way through Joy Division he’s now moved on to the first two New Order albums.

I was particularly looking forward to this set as it takes me full circle – I first saw New Order  live in 1983 after Movement but before Power, Corruption and Lies when the set was made up of songs from both albums. I remember a bad tempered, intense and very short set with, of course, no encore.

Tonight couldn’t have been more different. Hooky, though no less intense when performing, has an avuncular stage presence and is clearly loving playing these songs live again after all these years. He even provided the support – a rollercoaster set of some of the more ‘rockier’ Joy Division songs.  When he came on stage again after a short break he quipped ‘what did you think of the support band? They’ll never get on with a name like that’

The New Order part of the night started with the low key but forever haunting In a Lonely Place, followed by a storming Ceremony. Then, as if to show this was going to be a night for the purists, we were treated to Homage – a song from the Western Works demo that, Hooky told us, hadn’t been played live since Blackpool in 1981.

Movement followed -played in its entirety.  The album, much maligned by critics, fans and band members alike on its release, sounds much better live and performed by this tight band that Hooky has put together.  I could never understand why the album was so panned  -except that it wasn’t Joy Division. Dreams Never End, Doubts Even Here and The Him compare with anything in the New Order canon.  Having not listened to it for many years it was good to hear these songs again played with renewed vigour.

The band had a five minute break ‘ this is like running a bloody marathon’ quipped Hooky on returning, before launching into Mesh and Cries and Whispers (yes this really was for the completists) before Age of Consent had some members of the audience bouncing around in a way they probably hadn’t for years.  The momentum was then lost with We All Stand – and here’s my problem with playing an entire album – fillers that would never usually get an airing have to be endured. So while the jaunty Village and You Silent Face still sounded fresh , Ecstacy sounded like it always had – a few left over backing tapes spliced together. However – a small gripe – 586 still sounded like the proto house track that it was; Leave Me Alone was classic New Order melancholia and I’d completely forgotten about the brooding Ultraviolence .

The band left the stage to a backing track of Blue Monday – a knowing reference to the fact that this was the original intention of the moody buggers back in 1983, so they wouldn’t need to play an encore. But this is 30 years later and we were treated to a terrific version of Temptation that even had these old legs dancing, and the obligatory Blue Monday climaxed almost three hours of New Order history.  Newbies may have been a bit tested by the nature of the set, but old obsessions (and there were plenty of us there) were thankful that the heart and soul of this great band is still trawling his ass around the kind of venues where he started those years ago.

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Best of the year 2012

January 1, 2013

So we’ve made it into 2013 anyway. I really didn’t need the stockpile of provisions in the cellar and the end of the world playlist. Instead here’s my Best of 2012 playlist and what a cracker it is. Those of you taking notice will remember I had Of Mice and Men in my Best of 2011 list – so take note, someone here may go on to take the world by storm in 2013 . Thanks to Floss for continuing to introduce me to cool new stuff.

KNIFE PARTY – SLEAZE – in case you want to keep the New Year’s party going.

SIGUR ROS – REMBIHNUTUR – slowing things down a tad, another stunningly beautiful track from the ice-cool Icelanders. Valtari my not have been their best album, but still had more great tracks than most bands manage in a lifetime.

MATTHEW HALSALL – THE SUN IN SEPTEMBER – haunting minimalist jazz – reminds me of Bill Laswell’s Material.

ROB ST. JOHN – SARGASSO SEA – ‘alt-folk’, ‘new pastoral’ call is what you want, but just call it beautiful. The comparisons with Nick Drake are inevitable but that’s just lazy.  Deserves to be huge.

GRIMES – OBLIVION – close your eyes and she sounds Japanese. She isn’t. She’s from Canada.

PAUL WELLER – DRAGONFLY – i’ve never been part of the Weller can do no wrong brigade, but this really is very good. Astonishing even, when you consider the shitloads of money he could make if he reformed The Jam. Instead he carries on making great original music like this.

DIVINE FITS – THAT WOULD BE NICE – it is! Makes me want to be in Minneapolis too.

BOB MOULD – THE DESCENT – Another old guy  still makes good music shock. Maybe middle age won’t be so bad with Mssrs Mould and Weller still around.

LOW ROAR – FRIENDS MAKE GARBAGE (GOOD FRIENDS TAKE IT OUT) My discovery of 2012. His eponymous album is my favourite of the year by a mile. Stuffed with beautiful, beautiful songs it was difficult to pick a favourite, but this just shades it. If you can’t be bothered to listen to anything else on this list PLEASE PLEASE listen to this.

Worth mentioning in despatches – best cover version of the year  – St. Vincent’s scorching version of the Pop Group’s post punk classic She Is Beyond Good and Evil. I didn’t think this song could be covered but this rocks

I can’t be bothered to post the YouTube links – look the up yourselves. I promise it’s worth it.

 

 

I can’t remember when I first became obsessed with Iceland. I can probably trace it back to Magnus Magnusson and his Icelandic sagas; or maybe watching Graham Souness sythe into a poor Icelandic player on TV and deciding I’d support Iceland from then on. Certainly the album cover of the Bunnymen’s Porcupine had something to do with it. And the Sugarcubes (and Kukl before them).

Obsessed I am with this bleak, beautiful and bizarre island, so seeing Sigur Ros play in their homeland was going to be the apotheosis of my Iceland obsession. Their show was the climax of Airwaves, a unique festival that spans four days, features dozens of bands who play inpromptu gigs in cafes, bookshops, even banks. Punters buy a ticket that gives them access to all gigs (venue capacity permitting). Those without tickets can catch the plethora of free gigs going on around the city. As the junior anoraks were too young to attend (over 18s only) the we fell into the latter camp.

Using the amazing new concert venue Harpa as our base we managed to catch some great sets (and one terrible one from a hairy Led Zep wannabe). The highlight being Low Roar – a slim young man with a soaring voice and a set of beautiful, sorrowful songs. Imagine a young Leonard Cohen mixed with early Chris Isaak, looking like Johnny Depp and you’ll get somewhere near.   Buy his album, you’ll not regret it.

It’s a pity Sigur Ros didn’t choose Harpa, as it would have been a fitting setting to their superlative defying music. Instead they chose a sports hall that had all the ambience of an aircraft hanger. Only worse. With the whole population of Iceland except the ponies, and a fair smattering of Brits and Yanks crammed in as well. Then they made the audience wait an hour after the advertised start time, while making them endure a one note drone that Throbbing Gristle would have been proud of as a wind up. Even the adoring home crowd were having their patience tested. It’s a good job Icelanders are a polite lot (outside the gig had the most well organised, self policing queue I’d ever seen). If this’d been the UK, the cans of warm Tuborg (Tuborg! Does it still exist??) would have been flying stageward.

When they did finally ’emerge’ they played the first three songs behind a curtain which had trees projected onto it. Not a word uttered. I sorely wanted to shout ‘are you Pink Floyd?’ I’m not sure it was arrogance. I think they wanted to put on a ‘show’, but in such a truly awful venue it came over as cold and aloof.

A cheer went up when the curtain finally dropped, but the rest of the set was equally downbeat. Hoppipolla, was almost thrown away mid-set – a gesture, I’m sure, to the people who just know them for that one song (let’s face it, most other bands would climax their set every time with that awesome song if they had it in their armoury. Even bloody Chicane managed to make it sound OK). I’d seen Sigur Ros play a truly joyous set at  Bristol’s Colston hall a few years ago. One that featured crazy costumes, singalongs and tickertape. The atmosphere in Reykjavik was just too reverential, the set too monochrome.

It wasn’t the ecstatic end to the trip I’d hoped for, But it didn’t matter. I’d seen the Northern Lights; swam in the Blue Lagoon in a hurricane; seen moonscapes; snowscapes and crystal clear skies. I’ll be back next year.

A – Z of bands

September 6, 2012

A – Z of favourite bands is trending on Twitter, so sheep that I am, never able to back down from a list, here’s some. Not necessarily favourites (there are so many bands beginning with ‘s’) – just ones that sprung into my head. Would make an interesting festival line-up

A – Arcade Fire

B – Belle & Sebastian

C – Cocteau Twins

D – Durutti Column

E – Echo & The Bunnymen

F – The Fall

G – Gun Club

H – Human League

I – Interpol

J – Joy Division

K – Killing Joke

L – LCD Soundsystem

M – Misty In Roots

N – New Order

O -One Dove

P – Pavement

Q – Not Fucking Queen!

R – Ruts

S – Sonic Youth

T – Throbbing Gristle

U – Undertones

V – Velvet Underground

W – Wire

X – The XX

Y – Yargo

Z- Zounds – shit really but it was them or ZZ Top

Watching the two halves of New Order (well the 3/4 and 1/4) tear themselves apart has been painful for lifelong fans. And now with both factions touring, colours need to be nailed to masts. I’m firmly in the Hooky corner – seeing ‘New Order’ without his lo-slung bass dominating left of stage is something I just couldn’t stomach.

But I was still wary of what was billed as ‘a celebration of Joy Division’  fearing at worst a bad tribute act. I needn’t have worried. I always suspected that PH was closer to the spirit of Joy Division than the rest of New Order, and the passion displayed in tonight’s performance bore this out. There was none of Barney’s flippancy, screwed up lyrics,bum notes and drunken uncle at a wedding dancing. Hooky played it with heart and soul.

The set began (at a ridiculously early 8.20 – what is it with gigs these days) with a couple of Warsaw songs, moved up a gear with Glass and Digital then the band performed the whole of Unknown Pleasures in album track order. I got my first neck shivers of the night at the intro to Disorder. The ‘big’ tracks – New Dawn Fades; She’s Lost Control; Shadowplay were huge – the two battling bases were so loud on Shadowplay I thought I was going to have a nosebleed. Even the ‘down’ tracks on the album (the ones I usually skip on the ipod these less angst filled days) didn’t drag like I thought they might.

The band he’s put together are so tight – his son Jack is a dextrous bassist in his dad’s mould; the guitarist was awesome and the drumming was as crisp and powerful as Steve Morris’.  They made me realise how truly awesome New Order could have been live if they hadn’t pissed around (and they were mostly pissed) with half hour sets, bum notes, no encores and general ‘couldn’t give a toss attitude’.   Hooky and his band play these songs with passion, treating them with the respect they know they deserve and the reverence they know the audience holds them in.

The first encore raised the tempo and temperature with an anthemic Transmission; a pounding Isolation; a hypnotic Dead Souls and a beautiful version of Decades – with Hooky even taking up the melodica for the final haunting refrain. The final encore began with Warsaw – reminding us on Jubilee day that Joy Division started out as a punk band – before bringing old men to tears with Love Will Tear Us Apart. But that wasn’t the end. as if to remind us that the New Order legacy is also his legacy he finished the set with probably the best live version of Ceremony I’ve ever heard.

The night brought more joy to a room full of ageing men than a hooker in an old folk’s home.

Barney who?

The tenth anniversary of BBC 6 music brought to mind Clement Atlee’s famous comment after the 1945 Labour landslide – ‘we’re the masters now’.  Anyone who remembers the absolute dross that was most of Radio 1 in the 70’s and 80’s can’t help but feel smug satisfaction of the ‘I was right all along’ kind when they crunch their cornflakes to Can or Public Image or the Horrors.

6 Music isn’t an indie music station, it is just a station that plays great music. It has taken the eclecticism  of the Peel show as its blueprint, so you’ll hear Leadbelly alongside Echobelly; Nick Drake and Nick Cave; King Tubby and King Crimson; Robert Johnson and Anthony and the Johnsons; Captain Beefheart and Captain Sensible. Well maybe not much Captain Sensible.

It’s like we won the war. Broke the shackles of the Radio One Playlist, smashed Smashie and Nicey, crushed the Hairy Cornflake underfoot. It’s worth watching those reruns of TOTP 2 to remind yourself how excruciating the ‘superstar DJs’ had become – DLT, Noel Edmunds, Tony Blackburn and the truly bonkers Jimmy Saville. They may have been a breath of fresh air in the 60’s but by the mid 70’s they’d become stale, safe and irrelevant.   And the music they did play between the inane chatter, ‘jokes’ and oh so funny pranks was mostly dross. There’s been so much revisionist crap written about Abba and Queen, who dominated the airwaves, but punk happened as a reaction against them, not against prog rock, which you never heard on daytime radio.

It’s become a cliche to say that Peel was a beacon of light, but he truly was.  Other than the few nuts who could tune their shortwave radios to Radio Tirana or Radio Tehran, there was no alternative to the state control that was the British Broadcasting Company. Independent Radio was the same – as Strummer so eloquently put it in his tirade against Capital Radio “we got the hits to play, to keep you in your place all day’. Or as the Poison Girls said, ‘ state control and  rock and rock are run by clever men.

And I’m sure those clever men would love to shut down 6 Music – they tried last year. Thankfully it was saved and I can carry on bouncing round the kitchen to James or Primal Scream when I’m putting up the kids’ lunch boxes. DLT must be choking on his beard.

Best cover versions

January 29, 2012

Like me, the good people over at Louder Than War like their lists. They’ve just posted a great one – 20 Great Cover Versions. http://louderthanwar.com/blogs/20-great-cover-versions

I like this game so here’s some more, in no particular order.

  • A Certain Ratio – Shack Up
  • Stiff Little Fingers – Johnny Was
  • Psychic TV – Only Love Can Break Your Heart
  • Sex Pistols – No Fun
  • New Order – Turn the Heater On
  • This Mortal Coil – Song to the Siren
  • Siouxsie & the Banshees – Helter Skelter
  • Bow Wow Wow – Fools Rush In
  • John Cale – Hallelujah
  • Franz Ferdinand – All My Friends
  • Moby – Temptation
  • Nick Cave – Death Is Not the End
  • Nick Cave – The Carnival Is Over
  • Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus
  • Roland Howard & Lydia Lunch – Some Velvet Morning
  • The Fall – Victoria
  • Kirsty McColl – A New England

Guilty Pleasures No 1.

January 5, 2012

It started with a girl – it always did. She’d be about 16, I was about 6. She was different from all the other girls on the estate. A free spirit. Like Julie Christie in Billy Liar (only chubbier)

She was always with a boy. The boy always had an LP tucked under his arm. The cover had a photo of two guys, a short one wearing a scarf and a taller one with curly hair. The boy looked a bit like the taller one in the photo. He always wore a long raincoat and a scarf. He was from the posh estate and was called Timmy.

I needed that LP to impress the girl and to look like the boy. I wheedled and pleaded for it until my mum finally gave in and bought it for me. I played it endlessly on my sister’s red dansette, learning the words to every song, singing along to The Boxer, Cecilia and The Only Living Boy In New York. One of the men had the voice of an angel. So did my six year old self (lost it when my voice broke, unlike Artie – lucky bugger to be blessed with that voice).

The girl eventually went to university (not many did back then, especially from pre-fab council estates) and subliminally I must have associated the LP with a different world, one that was out there. Like the album cover of Freewheeling that my sister had in her record collection, it evoked possibilities.

In later years I was embarrassed by it. Hid it at the back of my record collection, somewhere south of Sex Gang Children. Then I recently saw the BBC4 documentary about the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water and the floodgates opened. I could appreciate the harmonies, the melodies and how it was born out of close friendship, love even, between two young men. How it came out of a more radical, less cynical and a more innocent time. How it still sounds great today.

There, it’s out. Now I feel better. And the girl? Well she lived on a kibbutz for a while, became a teacher, settled down and eventually married a man with money rather than a poet.  But I still remember the sixteen year old. I wonder if she does.