troubled diva  
 

My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.

On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Peak of perfection" - the PDMG hits The English Garden magazine.

Older readers may remember that faintly hilarious photo-spread of our lovely cottage, which appeared in Period Living magazine a few years back. ("Will I be cooking lunch, or will I be cooking dinner?") Well, now it's the PDMG's turn to bask in the limelight, courtesy of a sumptuous six-page feature ("Peak of perfection") in the current edition of The English Garden magazine (available in your local newsagents for the next two or three weeks, hurry while stocks last).

This time round, the prose is a good deal less purple, and a good deal more factually accurate... until you get to "Mike And Kevin's Tips For Tiny Gardens" at the end of the piece, that is. Pruning is crucial! Mulch the beds! Keep the edges immaculate! Oh, it's pure Viz comic.

As for the photos - which were taken over two seasons, mostly at the crack of dawn - they couldn't show our humble plot in a more flattering light. It doesn't always look that good - but it's nice to know that very occasionally, it does.

The photo set was completed by a portrait of the happy couple themselves, enjoying a relaxing (and empty) cup of tea in the spring sunshine. (We got us best Wedgewood Queensware out, as the occasion demanded.) It's a pity that I'm squinting in the sunshine, but will you just LOOK at that healthy glow - achieved by our friend Shirl, who did a cracking job with the kitchen foil, just off camera. (K leaves NOTHING to chance.)

Just one minor quibble: did the magazine have to use the word "tiny" quite so often? We like to think we're "deceptively sizeable".

Stalkers please note: the PDMG will be open as part of our village's Gardens Open Day on Sunday June 21st. And you'll be most welcome.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ours Was A Nice House, Ours Was.

Nottingham latched onto the house boom long before most cities but was too cool for smiley T-shirts, as Mike Atkinson recalls...

For me, it all began at The Asylum, in the autumn of 1982. Tucked round the back of Woolworths on Stanford Street, the basement venue had previously been a gay club called Whispers – and as a hangover from those times, it continued to sell little brown bottles of amyl nitrate (“poppers”) from behind the bar. “Avoid direct contact with the nose”, said the label – and so, knowing no better, we would hold the bottles at chin height, making vague wafting motions and wondering why nothing was happening. Ah, such innocent times.

The Asylum wasn’t Nottingham’s first poser’s paradise – that honour would probably go to the Saturday “futurist” nights at Rock City – but it was perhaps the first club in town to adopt the ethos of London venues like The Mud Club and The Wag. The music didn’t change much from week to week, but we were happy with the familiarity of Blue Monday, Buffalo Gals, Planet Claire, The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed, Blancmange’s Feel Me and Lies by the Thompson Twins. A year later, as its allure began to dwindle, a new place opened up in the Lace Market: the legendary Garage, run by the Selectadisc crew.

Back in the day, the Garage’s clientele split right down the middle, mingling only in the ground floor bars. Upstairs was for the togged-up trendies; downstairs was for the crimped and buckled Goths. Our gang liked it better upstairs, where Graeme Park mixed style-pop with funkier stuff, gradually nudging the music policy towards the latter. By the middle of 1985, the conversion was complete, with the harder, tougher sounds of early Def Jam (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J) and Washington DC go-go now dominating Park’s dance floor. Twelve months later, Chicago house hit The Garage – and clubbing was never the same again.

Your entry was never guaranteed, though – for this was also the age of style fascism, led by the fashion pages of The Face, Blitz and i-D. “Dress up, dress down, dress sideways – but above all, dress”, ordered one of The Garage’s posters – and the door staff had been instructed accordingly. One Friday night, a group of us showed up in less than cutting-edge apparel, only to be turned away at the door. “But we’re interesting, creative, exotic people!”, I pleaded – not entirely seriously, but giving it a last-ditch shot none the less. “Oh, OK, you’d better come in then”, muttered the doorman, remembering his brief. A couple of months later, faced with the problem of sneaking in a mate-of-a-mate with a streaked mullet and stone-washed jeans, I tried the same line again, with equal success. It was like uncovering a magic password.

1988’s fabled Summer Of Love might have revolutionised the scene in London and Manchester, but the acid house explosion largely passed us by. Down at The Garage, now re-branded as the Kool Kat, Graeme Park continued to ride the entire spectrum of BPMs: half an hour of hip hop, half an hour of house, and back again. And it wasn’t druggy, either. The eccies didn’t make their empathy-inducing presence felt until the early Nineties, and so we continued to sulk in designer threads, sucking on bottles of Sol with wedges of lime stuck in the necks. Zhivagos in the Viccy Centre tried a one-off acid night, but it didn’t really work. The usual crowd turned up, aloof as ever, but obediently sticking their hands in the air because that was what you were supposed to do, right?

Meanwhile, James Baillie had opened The Barracuda on Hurts Yard, where Michael Murphy’s anything-goes “Queen Vic” nights became the stuff of legend. (Abba’s Dancing Queen, in a cool club? It felt radical at the time.) In the spring of 1988, Baillie and Murphy upgraded to Eden on Greyhound Street, and in late 1989 Ballie’s Venus – housed in the same venue as the old Asylum club – brought clubbers of my generation full circle. Next came the hazy hedonism of the Nineties – but that was a whole new chapter…

This interview can also be found in the current edition of LeftLion magazine.

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Interview: Graeme Park

This interview can also be found in the current edition of LeftLion magazine.

Two years ahead of the fabled 1988 Summer Of Love, The Garage on St Mary’s Gate became one of the first clubs – hell, perhaps even the first club - in the country to specialise in house music, (almost) all night long. And its introduction had nothing to do with smiley faces, bandanas, MDMA-drenched Ibizan epiphanies, or any of that distracting flim-flam – and everything to do with the knowledge and enthusiasm of one particular music obsessive.

From late 1983 until the end of the decade, Graeme Park was Nottingham’s most pioneering, most influential and best-loved club DJ, whose residency at The Garage took a generation of clubbers on a journey from early Eighties style-pop to late Eighties garage and techno, via electro, hip-hop, rare groove, DC go-go, Chicago jack tracks, and all points in between. And it all began in one little shop on Bridlesmith Gate…



If it wasn't for Selectadisc, I'd have never have been a DJ. I ended up in Nottingham more by luck than design, to be honest; I was playing in bands, signing on, and used to frequent Selectadisc: both stores, on Market Street and the smaller one on Bridlesmith Gate. Bridlesmith Gate is the one that I spent more time in; with the main shop, you used to walk past and be a bit frightened to go in. Apart from the fact that it was slightly more friendly, Bridlesmith Gate used to have the second hand department upstairs. In the singles department there was a guy called Mel, and then there was a guy called Jeff, downstairs in the albums part, and they were both very knowledgeable. And because I played in bands, like most 19 or 20-year olds who are really into music, I kind of knew my stuff. I used to buy what I thought were quite cool records, and what they thought were quite cool records.

One day when I was in there, they said, “Somebody’s ill, can you help out? It’s dead simple.” I knew it was dead simple, because I used to work at Saturday job at a record shop in Scotland. I ended up working there part-time. And when Mel left, I was in charge of upstairs, which was brilliant. That was about 1982, 1983. And the thing is, Brian Selby - the original owner - had his office was at Bridlesmith Gate. He’d often pop out to make a cup of tea, and ask what we were playing. So I got to know him really well.

Brian had a record label background - he used to have his own Northern Soul label. He was just really into music, you know? He dabbled with restaurants as well. He had some sort of diner called Zuckermans at the top of Hockley - at one point, he was kind of taking over the whole of the East Midlands.

I loved the fact that I was in charge of buying in the singles, because I had quite eclectic taste. I remember for example Madonna’s first single Holiday, which didn’t really do much. There was a great offer on it from the rep: buy one, get one free. I bought shitloads of them, because I knew it was going to be massive. But of course it wasn’t at first time round, and I got in trouble for buying so many. So by the time that it was a big record, Brian was dead pleased. We sold them all and made lots of money on them.

I also liked being in charge of buying in the second hand stuff. My eclectic collection owes a lot to the fact that people would come in, a bit down on their luck, and get rid of classic rock and pop albums. Stuff like The Doors, and Love, and all that late Sixties stuff that had gone out of fashion. I'd play them in the shop and go; “Wow, I actually get this band; I can understand why this is a classic album.” So I’d buy it for myself.

The other great thing about Market Street was that they had a massive stock of cut-outs, which used to be the name for cheap imports from Europe. Portuguese versions of British-released albums, with the corners cut off them; hence “cut-outs”. Brian could sell those for a lot less than the proper British releases. And people would go, “Well, you know what, for £4.99 you’re getting a cut-out and you’re paying £6.99 for the proper British version.” And they were just the same. Maybe the quality wasn’t as good.

Brian had access to all these warehouses that stocked all this stuff; Jim (Cooke, last manager of Selectadisc) and Brian used to drive around in this Transit van to get stock. One minute you’d be serving people in the shop, the next minute Brian would be running up the stairs. “Come on, we need you to help us unload the van.” You’d go downstairs, and he’d have got boxes and boxes of the new Big Country album that had just come out and was flying off the shelves.

I vividly remember the day that Brian walked in and said “Guess what, I’ve just bought: the Ad Lib club.” And I’m like, “You’ve bought the Ad Lib club? That seedy, dark place, where you can smell the weed coming out of it on reggae nights? Why have you bought the Ad Lib club?” He says, “Because I think Nottingham needs a really cool little club, just like the Wag Club in London. I think I could turn it into this cool club, where they play really cool music.” I said, “Brilliant, but what are you gonna do - close it and do it up?” “No no no. As of tonight” – because it was a Friday night or something – “I’m renaming it The Garage, and I want you all to come down". "So what about all the regulars?" “Well, they’re not getting in, it’s gonna be a new thing.”

"So who’s gonna be the DJ?" He goes, “Well, I thought tonight, opening night, you’re gonna do it.” And I’m like, “Whoa, hang on a minute - I’m not DJ-ing!” And he says, “Come on - one of the reasons you work here is that you know your stuff, and you play in bands, so it can’t be that hard to DJ.” I was like, “Well, I’m not convinced.” And then he pretty much said that if I didn’t agree to do it then I wouldn’t be working in Selectadisc. I'd only DJed once before. At school. For a laugh. My mate did a disco, and all he played was progressive rock - Deep Purple, Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rush, all that stuff. And nobody was liking it. So I went home, got all my new wave and punk records, and played them. Everyone loved it, but I didn’t think: oh, this DJ-ing lark’s great. I just did it because I knew that this guy was just not happening at the decks.

So there I was, at The Garage, upstairs in this room where the DJ box was behind the bar. Downstairs they had a guy called Martin Nesbitt (the one and only Reverend Car Bootleg - LL), who played gothic, punk, dark stuff. And upstairs there was me playing anything and everything. I was playing current stuff; there was a lot of really great dancey pop stuff around like Orange Juice, The Associates, and of course New Order, Talking Heads, Blondie, all that kind of stuff. And I was playing lots of old Motown, Atlantic and Stax, a bit of old disco, and it worked really well. This was around 1983, long before house music.

Before I knew it, I ended up working there Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I took to it like a duck to water. People were saying “Oh yeah, you’re really good”. They’d come in the shop and go “Ah, you’re the DJ at The Garage”. It was then that I decided that I was really gonna concentrate on it.

I soon realised that by being a DJ, three nights a week, I was getting 25 quid a night extra, so 75 quid a week. I didn’t have to split that money, because in a band you have to lug all your equipment in your rented van, set it up, do a soundcheck, take it all down, lug it in the van, take it back, and you were lucky to end up with a fiver. Then Brian opened a place in Leicester called The Fan Club, so I used to do a night over there as well. Obviously, working in Selectadisc meant I had access to all the new stuff that came out, while Martin played lots of reggae and things like Sisters Of Mercy and The Cult, which of course Selectadisc sold. So it kinda worked really well.

Round about that time, thanks to the shop, I was introduced to electro: Afrika Bambaataa and The Jonzun Crew and all the early Arthur Baker stuff. I’d play it in the shop, and think: this is great, this is fantastic. But Brian would say, “What's this stuff you’re playing? I don’t like it. I don’t think we should be selling it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is Arthur Baker; he’s working with New Order. Blue Monday, Confusion…massive records.” And Brian was like “I don’t mind you selling New Order, but I don’t think we should be selling this stuff. It’s too...”

Well, reading between the lines, he was saying it was too black. But I played it in The Garage, and it was just brilliant. And then in '85, all the early Def Jam stuff was coming in, but Brian wasn't keen on us stocking it. I had to keep working in the shop, and I wanted to play this stuff, but he wouldn’t let me buy it in. So in my lunch hour, I had to go to Arcade Records. And then came Roxanne Shanté, Big Daddy Kane, all the early hip hop stuff. Brian wasn’t keen on me playing it in the club, but obviously it was what people wanted. There were an element of people who were like, “When are you gonna play Once In A Lifetime?” and electro did piss some people off. But for every one person pissed off, you’d get three or four new people who were into what I was doing.

Then in 1986, all the early house stuff started coming in from Chicago and Detroit: J.M. Silk, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Derrick May, Rhythim Is Rhythim, all that stuff. And I thought: fuck me, this is incredible! I had to give up working at the record shop, because by then word had spread about what I was doing at The Garage and The Fan Club and I ended up doing nights in Sheffield and Birmingham. It was impossible to DJ and work in the record shop. But the record shop was still important to me, even though I had to pop down to Arcade to get the house/hip hop/dance stuff. I had – and still have – eclectic tastes, even though I’ve become known for mainly being a house DJ.

I still liked to listen to all kinds of music, and buy it. So I was still going into Selectadisc, where obviously I’d still get staff discount. Virtually all the records I played at the Hacienda came from Selectadisc; I was Djing in Manchester, and had moved to London, but I was still doing The Garage and I would always pop in to Selectadisc on Bridlesmith. In the late Eighties you still had bands like the Blow Monkeys, who I used to love - they embraced club culture and dance music: a poppy, rocky, indie-ish type band who were quite cool, but who had got the 12-inch mixes done. And let’s not forget New Order, who carried on working with club people and making 12-inch mixes.

Unlike many DJs, I haven’t got rid of my vinyl at all. There’s loads of crap that I’ve kept, that I may have to get rid of one day, but I’ve kept all of my vinyl. I’m 45 years old, I’ve been buying records since I was five or six, and the bulk of that collection is from Bridlesmith Gate. But the landscape's changed now; I lecture part time at a university in Wrexham, on a music production degree, my students are late teens, early twenties, and none of them buy physical product. But I’ve got a couple of mature students who are adamant that they have to buy the CDs. I said, well, what about bands, where do you all hang out, where do you all meet to get your music and stuff, and of course they all buy their music online, and they all make music on their own. They all just sit with their laptops, beavering away. Whereas at Selectadisc, people would go in there to buy something, get into a conversation, and end up being in a band. That stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. I suppose it’s all through Facebook, isn’t it?

I still go to Nottingham from time to time. I still do gigs, and my bank account is still in Nottingham. It was a big part of my life. In your early twenties, you’re working out what you’re going to do – and it was Brian Selby, Selectadisc, and The Garage that carved my path out. It was being a part of that whole thing: playing in bands, and all the parties, and playing the music that Selectadisc was selling… it was great, great times. And it was a great city then, as well.

See also:
Graeme Park at trustthedj.com.
Sleccy's vinyl countdown - my Guardian article on the closure of Selectadisc.
Graeme Park at The Garage, Nottingham 1988 - three completely fantastic hours of house and hip hop, recorded direct from the club's mixing desk.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Interview: Natalie Duncan.

(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. Natalie wasn't exactly the most forthcoming of interviewees - the words "blood" and "stone" spring to mind - but she's talented, and local, and I wish her well.)

I saw you supporting the Portico Quartet at the Malt Cross back in February, and really enjoyed your set. You had some technical problems, but despite that you still got a great reaction.

Yeah, the band didn’t turn up, because we couldn’t fit them all in [on the Malt Cross’s small mezzanine stage]. But I thought it went quite well. It was just me on my own, which was unusual. It is a nice stage – especially when I get to play on the piano, because I’m quite hidden then.

What’s your usual line-up on stage?

It’s me on piano, with Ben Martin on saxophone, Roger Jepson on cello, a flute player, bass and drums. I’ve just got a new bassist and drummer – it’s been about two weeks, I think – but we’ve already done two gigs, at the Jam Café and The Hub.

How often do you get to play out?

Recently I’ve had quite a few gigs, but normally I’d say a couple of times a month or so.

Have you done any out of town dates?

I did a couple in London, but that maybe a year ago now. There’s none coming up, but it is a priority. I’d like to do more out of town gigs, definitely.

How long ago was your [just released] debut EP recorded?

A few months ago. There are four tracks with the band, and then one with just me and piano. They’re all original compositions. The lead track is Joe, which I wrote quite a long time ago. It’s about a pimp, and it’s about prostitution. It’s quite a dark song.

I’m laughing, because my next question was going to be: are your songs based on personal experience?

That one wasn’t, definitely! Most of them are, but that one’s quite abstract.

When performing, are you baring your deepest, darkest soul to us – or do you adopt an onstage persona?

Most of it is me and my experience and my feelings, but there are one or two songs which I’ve made up. Just adopting a persona, like you say.

Do your songs come quickly to you, or do they take a long time to evolve?

Normally I go through periods of writing, so they do come quite quickly. I normally finish them within an hour or two.

Are you going through a creative phase at the moment?

I am, yeah. I’m writing quite a bit at the minute.

In terms of musical influences, who would you look to?

A band called Cocorosie, definitely. I love them. Aretha Franklin vocally, and also Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

What do you make of the local music scene in Nottingham?

It is brilliant: friendly and supportive, and everyone knows each other. I think that’s the only problem with it, because it doesn’t seem to expand as much as it could. It’s quite in its own little circle.

So is this something you’re doing primarily for fun, or are you looking to make a full time living from music?

I’m definitely looking to make a career out of it in the future. That would be my dream, I guess.

Natalie Duncan’s EP is out now on Farmyard Records. Natalie is currently working on her debut album. You can listen to her at myspace.com/betweenthekeys.

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Maxïmo Park – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday May 20.

Anyone expecting the originally advertised support act was in for a disappointment last night, as The Noisettes turned out to be missing from the bill – mysteriously so, as they are still listed as the support for the remainder of Maxïmo Park’s current tour. Their place was taken by Bombay Bicycle Club: a likeable teenage indie band, whose album is due out in early July. Singer Jack Steadman put in an intriguingly eccentric performance, his face contorted into the sort of cringing, apologetic grimace that you might pull if you had just offended your grandparents with an off-colour joke.

In stark contrast, Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith – as natty as ever in his trademark black trilby and a close-fitting maroon checked suit – radiated an ebullient, unshakeable confidence from the off, his energy levels never dipping for a single second of his hour and ten minutes on stage. Eyes bulging and arms akimbo, he spent much of the set perched on a raised area at the lip of the stage, allowing even the most tightly crushed punter at the back of the sold-out venue to enjoy a full performance.

For a band whose rabble-rousing, anthemic indie rock was always underpinned with thoughtful lyrics and a leftfield approach, Maxïmo’s latest album is a disappointingly safe and conventional affair, which sees them treading water artistically. Beefed up on stage, the new material worked well enough – particularly recent single The Kids Are Sick Again – but it paled in comparison to crowd favourites such as Graffiti (which opened the set) and Apply Some Pressure (the final encore). And by placing such an emphasis on getting the crowd to leap around and generally go mad, much of the band’s subtlety was lost along the way.

Maxïmo Park used to be a little bit arty, a little bit different. Nowadays, they seem happy to turn themselves into the Kaiser Chiefs. Given their talent and potential, you can’t help wondering whether they’re selling themselves short.

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Spex Fest – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Sunday May 17.

Starting at 5:30 in the afternoon and ending shortly after midnight, Nottingham’s inaugural Spex Fest offered an opportunity to sample six experimental indie bands – most of them American – in a well-chosen line-up which showcased the diversity of the current scene.

Following opening sets from Lovvers and Shitty Limits, Icy Demons (from Chicago) took to the stage at 7:45. Arguably the most technically accomplished live performers of the day, the band played a dazzlingly eclectic set, drawing on influences that ranged from jazzy prog-rock to funk and dub, all underpinned with a keenly rhythmic intensity. If you’ve been mourning the demise of Stereolab, then Icy Demons might just be the band for you.

Rainbow Arabia (from California) are a boy-girl duo who combine dance-derived electronica with Middle Eastern influences, overlain with obscure, echo-heavy vocals and pealing guitar lines. They took a while to hit their stride – but when they did, the effect was compelling.

Times New Viking (from Columbus, Ohio) took things back to raw, lo-fi basics, with a thrashy, brutal simplicity that stood in stark contrast to the previous two acts. Appealing enough in small doses, there was something a little too one-dimensional about their approach, which would have benefited from a sharper sense of dynamics.

Telepathe (from Brooklyn) were perhaps the strangest, most awkward and most challenging act of the day, blending girlish innocence with an unsettling sense of menace. Melissa Livaudais and the splendidly named Busy Gangnes stood sweetly behind their keyboards and percussion, singing mostly in unison with frail, emotionless, unschooled voices – while a booming, throbbing, deafening maelstrom of sound crashed around the room.

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