Tuesday, 6 May 2014

'The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld' - The Orb (1991)

“What were the skies like when you were young?”

“Are next door mowing their lawn?”
“No, Grandad - that sound’s on the record.”
“Oh. Who is it?”
“The Orb.”

“What’s that dripping noise? Has nan left a tap on?”
“It’s on the record, Grandad.”

“Is that a plane? Or is this still The Orb?”
“No, that’s a plane. But the spaceship you’re about to hear taking off is The Orb.”

My grandparents and I loved those early Orb albums - my Grandad quickly acclimatised to the layers of samples woven in to each track. They were the soundtrack to our Sunday lunch. And our afternoon Scrabble games in my post-college unemployed years. Perhaps not the audience or the environment Dr Alex Paterson had in mind for his visionary ambient experimentations. 

They are also great albums to put on while writing. Which I remembered today while tapping away at the day job. And for an hour I was transported. Off to the Ultraworld. Via my grandparents’ dining-room table.  

Further reading: 'U.F. Orb (1992)'

Sunday, 4 May 2014

'Automatic' - The Jesus And Mary Chain (1989)

“Catch me getting it wrong from the start.”

“Happy 4th anniversary, Michael!” Oh, thanks for remembering. “And congrats on your 200th post.” Wow, have you been counting? Thanks again. “Anything special planned? Perhaps you could finally tell us why you chose May 4th to start writing this blog. Is it to do with Star Wars?” No, you’ll be surprised to learn that it isn’t to do with Star Wars. But tradition dictates that I write about a Mary Chain record on each anniversary. “Yeah, but no-one is actually that concerned about your self-imposed traditions, Michael. And besides, you missed last year.” Ok…

In 1989, May 4th was a Thursday. Which meant it was a school day for me. But far more importantly, it was also the day tickets went on sale for The Cure’s Prayer Tour - with three nights at Wembley to support the launch of ‘Disintegration’. These days of course, every seat would be snapped up in nanoseconds online by a horde of merciless tout-bots. But back then you could suffer through double geography, art and industrial studies, and still be in with a chance of getting good tickets when you rung the box office number that night. The only concern was whether your dad would be home with the credit card and how you were going to pay him back.

Naturally resigned to going to the show alone (my default Goth setting), I hadn’t paid much thought to asking along the one person in the world that I would most like to join me. So I surprised myself by doing just that as the bell rang for the end of lunch in the Sixth Form common room. That person was Toni, of course. (Or not ‘of course’ if you’ve just joined us for this Episode 200 extravaganza. In which case, you may want to pop over to the Origin story. It involves snowballs. We’ll meet you back here.) In a flash, there was a wonderfully excited ‘yes’. The rest was lost in a giddy haze. 

It was a small moment, 25 years ago. And I’ve long since lost touch with Toni. But May 4th is infused with that memory of her. And always brings a smile. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Tower Of Strength' - The Mission (1987)

“And you’re true to me,
And still I need more”

If you were looking for me on a Saturday night in 1987/88, the best place to start would have been The Astoria. Formerly on Charing Cross Road. Now dust on the wind. (Oh, how very poetic. Wayne Hussey would surely approve.) And much missed.

Not my pic. Happy to remove if anyone wants to claim it.

Snake-dancing to All About Eve. Moshing to The Wonder Stuff. Choking on dry ice to The Nephilim. So very many formative gig experiences happened for me within its dark-to-the eye and tacky-to-the-touch walls. Most always in the company of my cousins or my friend Chris. We’d go back to school the following Monday laden with tales of taking an elbow to the face from a zealous stage-diver during ‘Too Many Castles In The Sky’ by Rose of Avalanche, while our classmates talked about a great pair of Hi-Tecs they’d bought in Farnborough. Could never understand why others didn’t want to share our world. “Hey, I got elbowed in the face. You don’t see the great joy of life in that? No?” 

Let’s avoid making a list. But if we were making a list, and it was called ‘Bands I Saw Most Often At The Astoria’, then straddling the misty peak like a gothic colossus would be (you guessed it) The Mission. They seemed to be the house band in those years. Even when they weren’t actually on the bill, various band members would pop up on stage for other people’s shows. And every time I saw them was a petal-strewn delight.       

My final visit to The Astoria was for Kate Nash, Soko and Noah & The Whale. In 2008. There had been almost a twenty-year gap. But nothing had seemingly changed. Those walls were as dark and tacky as ever. Except, I noticed for the first time there was a balcony. It must have always been there, but us teenage goths had no time for balconies. Now none of it remains. Pushed aside to become an underground station entrance when they finally finish rebuilding Tottenham Court Road. Unlike all the ‘80s bands I saw there that have since come back together, this is one icon that unfortunately we won’t get to see reform.   

Oh, yes - those beloved multi-formats.
Here's the limited 12-inch Bombay Mix.

With insert and sticker.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

'Rat Rapping' - Roland Rat Superstar (1983)

“With a penthouse suite, swimming pool,
Pretty young guinea-pigs playing it cool.”

The Stones. The Who. The Bermuda Dimensions. A classic rock lineage. “Woah! Back it up! The Who?” Yes, the Who. Roger Daltrey. My Generation. “No, no…. the BERMUDA Who?” Oh, sorry. The Bermuda Dimensions. Otherwise known as TBD. (No-one ever called us that, but let’s shorten the name now or we’ll be here all day). Yes, my second band. Well, not mine, as such. The second band I was in with my cousins, Grant and Matthew. (New readers can catch up on the adventures of our first band right here.) 

You haven’t heard of TBD? Pfft! Where you you in 1983? (Oh, really… well that explains it then. Anyway…) No, I’m not sure about the name either looking back at it. There were three of us. We had read some stuff about the Bermuda Triangle. 3D was on a second go-round at the cinemas. So, you can see where we were coming from at least.

With cousin Matt on vocals, cousin Grant on keyboards and myself on rhythm guitar, we could best be defined as a ‘bedroom band’. Or even better defined as ‘the spare bedroom of my grandparents’ band’. There was no touring the pubs and the clubs of the UK for us. Mainly as we were only 12 years old. Our arena was the C90 cassette. And our sound was… well… kind of diluted rocky, poppy, shambolic noodling. Our influences were Dexys, ABC, Adam Ant, and the Human League. And we sounded spectacularly like none of them. Even when we were doing countless cover versions of their songs.   

It was another of our bands mainly inflicted on close family, and occasionally friends. But we did have one celebrity fan. Oh, yes. (Wait for it.) Roland Rat! "What?"

Taking a cue from the cheeky self-promotion and enigmatic marketing of ZZT Records (Frankie, Art of Noise, Propaganda), much of our time which would have been best utilised rehearsing, was spent creating an image around TBD. Extravagant cover art and lyric books. Tour posters for tours that were never going to happen. And, of course, a fan club. For one flat fee of 10 pence  (bargain!) you got monthly newsletters, badges, album discounts (yes, ha ha), and loads of other stuff which most probably soon found a bin. 

Our school friends all humoured us by signing up. (And my dad quickly lost his humour when he discovered how much printer ink I was using up for just 10p a fan.) But we knew what we really needed was a celebrity endorsement. And celebrities didn’t come much bigger at that time than Roland Rat. So I popped him a letter in the post offering free membership. And this came back…

Success! Of sorts. But, well, you know the ending to this. You've never heard of TBD. You won’t find our name in any Halls of Fame. Roland Rat didn’t help boost cassette sales in my school playground. Within a year we had gone our separate ways. But not for long. For about six weeks, in fact. As by the next half-term we were re-energised and our third band awaited. One that actually played a show. Kind of. But more of that in another post. (Hey - you only had to wait four years for this follow up.)   

Saturday, 8 February 2014

‘You’re The One That I Want’ – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (1978)

“I got chills… 
They’re multiplying.”

Imagine a time when singles came without picture sleeves. “Woah! Singles! Pictures! Sleeves! Slow down, please.” Ok, first imagine a time when people actually bought singles. Let’s call it 1978. And now imagine them without picture sleeves. Yes, those were miserable times. All your favourite three minute vinyl wonders would be housed in cheap uniform paper sleeves. It’s almost like the global-multi-mega-conglomerate record labels didn’t care. As if these potent pop treasures were all thoroughly disposable.

But I cared. I wasn't having all my singles dressed so shabbily. So, I got to work with a copy of Look-in magazine, kitchen scissors and sticky tape to create my own picture sleeves. With debatable results…  

Oh, yes. It’s pretty clear to see the fledgling art director struggling to soar free within me at aged seven, I think we can all agree. Though whether this is an actual improvement on the plain sleeve provided is something I’ll leave for you to decide for yourself.

My love of sleeve design flourished further with the advent of recordable tapes. There was no way I was letting all those C90s stack up on my shelves with just the handwritten labels showing. Uh-uh. So I’d root through the music papers for suitable sleeves. Which, as this was my Indie/Goth era, most usually meant stark black and white images of abandoned buildings. As we can see…

Probably should have thought about adding titles to the covers. Save me having to remember them all.  The 4AD/Factory fan in me wouldn't allow for that though.

A missed career opportunity, methinks.   

Friday, 7 February 2014

'Ant Rap' - Adam And The Ants (1981)

“All things lively must be used.”

Going to the dentist after school. Nothing worse. “Slight over-exaggeration perhaps, Michael?” Nope. You’ve already had to endure hours of double Science, orienteering (is that really a thing outside school?) in the driving rain, and an assembly about the dangers of climbing electrical pylons. And now you have to be picked up straight from end-of-day registration to go get your annual dental check-up. Which means you’re going to miss Danger Mouse, Dramarama and Blue Peter - and today they’re making a TARDIS out of a shoe box. And it will never be repeated as no-one has bothered inventing video recorders or the Internet yet. Argh!       

Oh, and guess what? To prolong the torture, you’ll be kept waiting in the stuffy, windowless dentist’s reception room for an age. (An ‘age’ being more than three minutes in any young kid’s mind, of course.) And the TV in there is always broken, so no chance of seeing that TARDIS get built. Instead you can listen to the intermittent sound of drills and screaming. While watching a goldfish being victimised by a toddler throwing faux-Lego bricks in its tank. 

So far, all pretty much the norm. But today, on this late Tuesday afternoon in the early ‘80s, a new dimension of horror awaits. Oh, yes. For today I’m not (finally) being called to the dentist’s room. Today I’m being led down a new corridor. To a new door. That opens up to reveal giant steps down in to a darkened basement (you didn’t expect it to be a well-lit basement, did you?). This can’t be right. Hey, stop shoving. Ok, I’m going. Down. Down.

What’s this? Why is Worzel Gummidge here? This is most odd. And somewhat terrifying. Why is my dentist secreting a life-sized model of Jon Pertwee dressed as ITV’s Saturday evening scarecrow superstar? And can we put some proper lights on instead of this weird red glow?

To this day, I do not know the link between good dental hygiene and that chamber of fear. Was this some UK-wide Government initiative or the machinations of a lone dental practitioner with a love for anthropomorphic farm-based characters? Was tatty old Worzel meant to represent a state of decay that would shock you in to brushing your teeth more? Or was he meant to be a welcoming face for children? I would have gone for Metal Mickey instead. 

I do know that I spent half an hour scared witless while chewing some tablets that turned my mouth red. And that Worzel came back to haunt my sleep that night. And the night after. And, to be honest, he’ll probably be coming back tonight after this.   

Thursday, 6 February 2014

'Which Smiths Record Cover Are You?'

Michael, if this was a proper blog, you’d have one of those link-baiting personality tests everyone loves so much.” You’re right. Again. That’s why I love you so. Let’s get to it…  

Just answer the three simple questions below to discover which Smiths album sleeve you are...

Do you have a favourite colour? (I don’t want to know the actual colour - it will have a negligible impact on the end result, believe me.) 

Have you ever watched a television show? (You have? Excellent. This is going well, isn’t it?)

Something random about fruit. Erm… Do you believe in bananas?     

Ok, that’s it. And I’ve decided that you are… 

Yep, ‘The World Won’t Listen.’

Make of that what you will. It could mean you’re terribly introverted. Or then again, perhaps incredibly extroverted. Who am I to say? Try doing it again if you’d like another album. You won’t actually get one, but it will reconfirm your first choice. 

Back to our regular programming tomorrow. Probably.  

Thursday, 30 January 2014

'Old Man' - Neil Young (1972)

“Old man, take a look at my life,
I’m a lot like you.
I need someone to love me the whole day through.
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true.”

Never grow old. That’s what my Grandad used to tell me. Usually while he was contorting his aching limbs in to the cupboard under the stairs to find some fuse wire or an old tobacco box full of screws. Yes, I offered to help. But as I’m sure you know, grandparents keep everything in special places that only they can find and are impossible to describe, so there’s no point trying to look for them.

Growing old though is something I’ve always relished. I felt like an octogenarian when I was just fifteen. Possibly as I was keen to escape my teenage years. But mostly because living with my grandparents was so enjoyable. I was eager to get to their age.

This was foolish, of course. Never wish your time away. My Grandad told me that too. But following his advice to never grow old will require inventing some kind of Marvel-style super serum that may well be beyond me. I need to hang out in more labs with evil geniuses. In the meantime, I’ll stay young the best way I know how... by being open to new ideas, experiences and adventures. And keeping limber by climbing in and out of hall cupboards.

Footnote: This was one of my Grandad’s favourite songs. He would have been 93 today. Written by Neil Young for the caretaker of his Californian ranch, Louis Avila. Neil will tell you more (in a wonderful early performance, from the BBC archives)...

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

'Stay' - Low (2013)

“I threw my hands in the air,
And said, ‘Show me something.’”

Just can’t listen to cover versions of songs I love. Have I mentioned this before? It’s usually easily avoided. There’s not many bands looking to do covers of Fields Of The Nephilim after all. But every so often I’ll be taken unawares and trapped. Watching a film perhaps. All going well. Yes, it looks like she remembers him from when they last met in that book shop in Paris seven years ago. When suddenly there’s a harpsichord version of The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’. No. Please. No. 

But if it’s a band I love doing a cover of a song I don’t know, then I’m most usually always smitten. As is the case here with Duluth slowcore favourites Low. They could cover any song and I’d swoon. For this special split single they’ve chosen Rihanna’s ‘Stay’. I’ve haven’t heard the original. (Yes, I’m sure it was a huge hit and what planet have I been living on?) Is it good? No, I’m not going to listen to it. Am sure it will pop up in my life at some point. For today, it’s Low's glorious version that is playing on repeat.

Have popped it below for you - though I’d encourage you to track it down at all good local independent retailers (and global online stores) if you like the sound of it (proceeds go to charity and all that). “But, Michael, we can’t listen to cover versions of Rihanna songs we already love.” Oh, now you’re just being difficult.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

'Down Under' - Men At Work (1982)

“He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

Late Sunday afternoons at the turn of the ‘80s. 5 to 7pm. Fingers poised over the Play and Record buttons of my tape recorder. Which is pressed up against the single speaker of my AM radio. (We’re still a few years away from built-in stereo systems in my house.) All set for ‘the nation’s favourite countdown’ with Tony Blackburn on Radio One. 

There I would be week in, week out. Systematically killing music by home taping all my favourite Top 40 songs. In mono. Over a distorted speaker. With Tony Blackburn speaking over all the intros and outros. And my Mum calling me down for dinner half-way through whatever was number one that week.  

By my side would be my trusty Star Wars A4 notebook. Where I would jot down each chart act, song and position. Highlighting new entries. And indicating what was going up and what was going down. And by how many places. In different inks. All ready to be cross-referenced across weeks and months and years. An invaluable activity, I think you’d agree - and not at all related to my OCD.

As my musical tastes transformed in my teens (see every other post on this blog), I outgrew this weekly chart show ritual. And I went from the constant childhood excitement you get from liking almost every song in the chart, to the rare gothic thrill you’d get from hearing any of your bands getting played on the radio at all. And then I discovered the John Peel Show. But that’s for another post on another day. (Ooh, it’s like a cliffhanger. Except not quite.)   

Saturday, 25 January 2014

'Temptation' - New Order (1982)

“Up, down, turn around,
Please don’t let me hit the ground. 
Tonight I think I’ll walk alone,
I’ll find my soul as I go home.”

Songs about walking home alone. Those are my favourite songs. (He says, with the right to change his mind at any time, so don’t hold me to it.) See also The Smiths’ ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ (“Though I walk home alone, my faith in love is still devout”) and The Wedding Present’s ‘My Favourite Dress’ (“A long walk home in the pouring rain, I fell asleep when you never came”).

Can’t get enough of them. 'Now That’s What I Call Some Good Songs About Walking Home Alone.’ I’d buy that album. (Are you listening record companies?)  

Of course, this is because I’ve spent far too much time traipsing around on my lonesome. Let’s just say it’s through choice and there’s a certain romanticism to it. (Except it’s not always. And for ‘romanticism’ read ‘bitter sting of rejection’.)

New Order’s ‘Temptation’ remains one of the most perfect songs to me. And marries my favourite theme of long walks home alone, with my second favourite theme of not being able to remember the colour of people’s eyes (“Oh, you’ve got green eyes; oh, you’ve got blue eyes; oh, you’ve got grey eyes”). It’s another of those songs that seems to capture one Saturday evening in March 1989 quite perfectly. The answer was she had grey eyes. Well, kind of more silver, but let’s not ruin my memory of the song.

Classic enigmatic Peter Saville cover.
With the band's name nowhere to be found. 

P.S. If you like your indie frontmen in white shorts, you'll love this performance from the archives...

Friday, 24 January 2014

'Inside Llewyn Davis' - Soundtrack (2013)

"Sure as a bird flying high above,
Life ain't worth living without the one you love.
Fare thee well, my honey,
Fare thee well."

“Michael, we’ve done an audit of your blog and found it significantly lacking in ‘of the moment’ content. That’s where the clicks are these days. So let’s not write about another obscure imported Clan of Xymox b-side and focus on something a bit more current, please.”

Don’t worry - I’m right on it. Look, it’s the 'Inside Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack. In all good cinemas today. If you live in the UK. Other folk got it earlier. And the soundtrack actually came out about two months ago. And most all the songs on it are ‘60s folk covers. Arrrgh! This isn’t ‘of the moment’ at all. Still, it’s all you’re getting today. And it is the most wonderful soundtrack - my favourite from last year.

There’s a glorious ebb and flow to this set of songs (curated by T Bone Burnett) - from the plaintive pleas of ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ to the playful passion of ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’. (I can see you’re enjoying the alliteration there.) It made me pick up my guitar and want to learn them all. Except I’m not that good at finger-picking. It’s such a powerful soundtrack in fact, that it will knock down all your belief systems. “Er, really?” Oh, yes. I believed I would never (ever) buy a Justin Timberlake song. It proved me wrong.

If you're heading out to see the film this weekend (which is another Coen brothers gem, so please do), I’d pick the soundtrack up first so you can harmonise along with Carey Mulligan on ‘Five Hundred Miles’. Don’t worry about the startled looks of anyone around you in the cinema. In fact, they should do sing-along screenings. What a great idea. You heard it here first. Possibly. Can’t be sure - I don’t know everything else you’ve been reading. Let’s say that the majority of you heard it here first. Yes? 

Monday, 20 January 2014

'Happy When It Rains' - The Jesus & Mary Chain (1987)

Oh, you’re still here. Good, good. I was hoping you would be. What’s that? Oh, let’s not stop for questions. Let's call it the lost year. Here we go…  

"And we lived our lives in black."

Hmm… why can’t I see Chewbacca’s face clearly? I’ve seen this film 56 times and I’m sure everyone’s favourite walking carpet was never such a fuzzy blur as this. Fuzzy, yes - he’s a Wookie after all. But never a blur. 

This was the moment I realised I’d be needing glasses. Which as a child in the early '80s meant big, thick, plastic, tortoise shell NHS specs. The humiliation! I mean, they hardly complemented my fixed brace and Paddington Bear-style duffle coat. But it meant I could watch Star Wars again in all its low-res, slightly chewed, VHS glory - which was the most important thing in my life at that time (oh, how nothing changes). And in about a year’s time a certain Steven Patrick Morrissey was about to make my glasses very fashionable indeed - though not really in my corner of the playground where the Kids from Fame were the prime role models.

Despite the nascent thrills of actually being able to see things again, my 20/20 vision was pretty short-lived. Bewitched by the screeching Siren call of the Mary Chain, my de rigueur floppy indie fridge was to quickly obscure all before it and Chewbacca once again became a fuzzy blur in my life for the next decade. As did most of my classmates - which explains why I never recognise any of them at reunions (the comic effect of this would work better if you believe for a fleeting moment that I’m the sort of person that actually goes to class reunions). And road signs - which most probably contributed to my failed driving test.    

Me. And fringe. Circa 1988.

Of course, no such fringe issues exist today. Ah, the dangers of backcombing.