Archive for Music

Musical navel-gazing

Nostalgia really ain’t what it used to be. Nowadays all those childhood passions can’t just stay as fond recollections: it’s hard to resist revisiting them online. And then when you do, you’ll no doubt find they’re terrible.

So it was with trepidation that I fired up YouTube to see what I now thought of my musical firsts.

First single I owned

Roland Rat’s electro chart smash, a-hand-me-down from my older sister when she’d progressed onto Wham!, was the first record I owned. As quick cash-ins of TV fads go, this stands the test of time far better than I expected. The ‘rapping’ is undeniably ropey, but the lyrics are cheeky enough to look beyond that. Kudos for the pastiche of graffiti and body bopping – an under-rated early UK hip hop gem.

First single I bought

The first seven-inch single I actually shelled out for, it seems, was this joyless cover, where Kirsty Macoll hovers slightly closer to the right notes than Billy Bragg had managed. I was clearly a rather earnest seven-year-old when I plucked this from the display of chart hits on the wall of WH Smith in Skipton. followed closely in later months by other purchases of fun-free records from bands like Tears For Fears, Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue. Like the stereotypical middle-aged salesman trapped in a wimpy kid’s body.

First album I bought

I progressed to the technological wonder of cassettes aged 10 and loved Neneh Cherry’s album Raw Like Sushi so much I was still wearing it out during my first years at secondary school. Buffalo Stance still sounds undeniably ace, though the rest of the album seems very dated. At this time I shared my bedroom with a troubled older foster kid called Chris who was into David Bowie, Dead Kennedys and various 70s punk hangovers. I hated the aggressive noise coming from his record player; in turn he despised the hooks and the synths bleeding out of my Walkman’s foam headphones on the bottom bunk. If only someone could have been made to swap albums until we understood each other’s tastes.

First gig I went to

Despite the threat of detention for sneaking out of school at lunch time, I saved my dinner money as often as I could for more pressing concerns – buying CDs from Mix Music. But my maiden gig was not until I was 14, when I hopped on a coach to see L7 and Faith No More in Sheffield Arena. Once my gig-going cherry had been taken, and my ears stopped ringing a few weeks on, I was heading off to see ropey indie, hip hop, punk and metal bands in Leeds and Bradford most weeks. I don’t recall rating L7 particularly highly at the time but their big single at the time is still a riot of snottiness.

First gig I reviewed

The highlight of my school week as a geeky, music-obsessed teenager was undoubtedly Thursday, when the weekly music newspapers came out and I read them from cover to cover until most of the ink had rubbed off onto my hands and face. So it seems fitting that the first proper article I ever had published was in Melody Maker: a very short, fawning review of the then much-hyped Lo Fidelity Allstars. 15 years on, I like the crescendo of this single but the voice of the singer really grates.


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In the studio with avant garde band Stranger Son of WB

Stranger Son of WB are a music group based in Manchester and centred around Gareth Smith. These are just about the only facts we can cling to: everything else – their genre, their line-up, even the instruments they play – is more fluid than Oliver Reed’s diet.

If you asked me to describe SSOWB, I’d propably avoid the question by mumbling something about Captain Beefheart bumping into Can in a lift in a Hulme high-rise, in the manner of those extended metaphors so beloved by music journalists. If you want to list some relevant adjectives, try challenging, abrasive and occasionally ingenious, but not simple or static.

Gareth’s ‘anything goes’ spirit led to me being invited down to their studio. The mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to add my singing voice to part of a track he and his current crop of musicians were recording for their new album. Given that I’m worse than Viv Nicholson at holding onto notes, it was reassuring that I’d be just one of seven singers on the song, and that we were just tackling a simple, breathy refrain.

Rehearsal lasted all of 20 seconds and then the tapes started rolling. We cooed for three minutes, during which time I tried to keep as far away from the microphones as possible to stop my drone ruining it, and rattled off three takes. Nothing will be wasted as every run-through we recorded will be used by layering them on top of each other.

During the third and final stint I managed to prop up my film camera in the corner to record some footage. The result is essentially five minutes of ‘aaah’ notes with various badly-framed singers swaying in out of shot. However, I thought I’d upload the resulting video as it gives a rough idea of the recording process.

Who knows what it will sound like when the rest of the song’s elements have been grafted on? Well, probably nothing like this, the Spotify link for their last album Einstein’s Getaway, but we wouldn’t expect anything less.

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Travels and travails on tour

Stewing in a van for nine days may not seem like everyone’s idea of a relaxing break from the suffocating grind of work, but I readily accepted the offer nevertheless. Fortunately this was no ordinary trip; rather a chance to visit six cities across Germany and Switzerland with three intelligent, talented and generally hygienic friends on the final spurt of their band’s lengthy European tour.

OK, there were some strings attached. I’d have to read maps, help lug equipment, sell merchandise, police the sound engineers, make apologetic calls and tap my watch at interviewers who overrun. My creaking recollections of A-level German and smartphone with roaming internet access might come in handy as well.

In return for my efforts as one part tour manager to two parts errand boy, I’d wangle a chance to revisit Hamburg, Berlin and Munich and see Zurich, St Gallen and Lausanne for the first time for free, with adequate-to-good hotels, a never-ending supply of premum lagers and two square meals a day all part of the deal.

So it was that I scooped some doorstep-thick novels into a holdall and jumped on the tour bus with LoneLady, or Julie as she’s known off-stage, her drummer Andrew and keyboardist Gareth straight after work on my birthday. First stop the gateway to continental Europe: Hull.

Hull to Rotterdam ferry

Hull to Rotterdam ferry

More to follow.

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We need to talk about Kevin (Rowland)

This is the most exciting cultural event in years for me: visionary pop band leader Kevin Rowland, of the Dexys Midnight Runners, is coming to Manchester to discuss his life and work in front of an audience at the Green Room.

Kevin Rowland promo image

The talk, hosted by DJ and author Dave Haslam, will take place 30 years and a few weeks since his debut Manchester performance with the Dexys at the Polytechnic, but despite the years that have passed, don’t expect a back-slapping nostalgia trip. I’m convinced Kevin’s vision will be as pure and necessary as ever.

I’ve seen him just once before, in Manchester seven years ago – and of course as any aficionado knows, Seven Years Is Too Long – when a reformed, reshaped version of the Dexys played the Academy on the band’s first tour since 1986.

At that time, my love affair with the Dexys had barely moved beyond first base. True, I already adored their first album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, but only appreciated patches of its successor Too-Rye-Ay, and hadn’t warmed to their final Don’t Stand Me Down record yet.

Perhaps I should be forgiven – when they split up I was nine years old, and Dexys were only really known for wedding favourite Come On Eileen, their dungarees spell and the Jocky Wilson background on their Top Of The Tops appearance for Jackie Wilson Said.

I was working on the Manchester Evening News website at the time of the show, and the task of reviewing it for the paper landed on me, an occasion that happened only when nobody higher up the food chain was interested.

Thank heavens I did get to go for this was a genuinely life-changing experience. Reading back my review, I did get some observations right, like so:

Rowland’s spellbinding physical performance reached its peak during a 15-minute version of This Is What She’s Like, as he slumped to his knees, splayed out his arms, furrowed his brow and let loose one final rebel yell.

But because I had yet to allow Don’t Stand Me Down to properly grab me, I described its contents as ‘haphazard’ and didn’t understand the surreal, spoken word interludes which peppered the set and which are integral parts of the record.

Only in later years have I learned to properly appreciate Dexys and the gig remains as vivid as ever, perhaps even improving the more I recall it. I’ve upgraded it from the 4 out of 5 rating I awarded it at the time to the 5 out of 5 it clearly deserved as it’s unfeasible for any performance to top it.

Since then, their albums have rarely been far from my CD player, iPod or Spotify playlist. And I account for a significant proportion of the plays their videos have notched up on YouTube.

Analyse the Dexys (note no apostrophe) and you’ll find they’ve covered every detail needed for the perfect pop gang.

Like The Style Council and The Housemartins, they made music as they had something different and intelligent to say. They could romanticise greasy spoon cafes one minute and promote polemical Irish playwrights the next. They’d take a considered left-of-centre political stance without succumbing to the populism of Billy Bragg or Tom Robinson.

There’s also the obsession with soul music, heavily referencing Geno Washington and Jimmy Ruffin in song and covering Chuck Wood, Otis Redding and The Drifters.

And you have to admire Kevin’s defiance to never stand still, or make two albums that sound the same, or to compromise on his vision, even if it meant losing trusted band members and never speaking to the music press again (he’d pay for full-page adverts expounding his views rather than do interviews.)

Best of all there’s that gang vibe, going against the fashion grain with their clothing, with former hairdresser Kevin dressing his band as New York dockers, 18th Century sailors, casuals, monks, Celtic gypsies, and Ivy League graduates, forever in search of ‘lost looks’.

I’ve not yet touched on the majesty of the music, but surely these 700 words of fawning praise is enough to make you want to buy a ticket and hear Kevin Rowland self-analyse and prosthelytise.

Here’s the Green Room’s lowdown of the event here:

Part one of a series new to the greenroom, and a unique opportunity to get up close and personal as DJ/writer Dave Haslam interviews iconic musicians, discussing their life and work. The ‘Close Up’ guest on March 11th is the former Dexy’s Midnight Runner frontman Kevin Rowland.

Kevin Rowland, lead singer and front-man of Dexy’s Midnight Runners the New Wave and Northern Soul band that achieved major success in the early-mid 1980’s.

Dexy’s entire approach was radical. Self-styling themselves as a team – more like robbers than a pop group – the dole queue-spawned band met in caffs and planned their strategies. Signing to EMI, the band thought the royalties were too low and stole their own master tapes until the label relented.

In recent years Rowland has regrouped the band of his youth and took them on tour – released a new Dexy’s single, the confessional Manhood, which shows Rowland’s gift for memorable songwriting is undiminished and a best-of album.

Close Up With… Kevin Rowland, interviewed by Dave Haslam, Thu 11th March, 8pm, £9, £6 concessions.

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