Soul Civil War

This feature originally appeared in Record Mirror, November 20th 1971. 

Soul Civil War!
…the feud that rages between North and South
Tony Cummings reports

The pop Press have suddenly wakened up to a situation that the specialist soul Press has been carrying on about for a long time now, that in the North clubs pack ’em in playing soul.

As explained in a previous ‘Echoes’, this doesn’t knock out all Southern soul fans, the media may think the North is heavily into soul but a cynicism has crept into many a Southern soul fan’s assessment of their boogalooing Northern counterparts –

‘So a few dedicated soul freaks worry, not without cause, about the deceitful impression given to the massed pop -buyers of what soul is. Oddly enough, the type was originated and is now perpetuated, not by the accursed media, but by a portion of soul fans’ (Record Mirror, 11th September 1971).

Do Northerners, or their self-confessed champions agree that their insistence on keeping the discotheques dancing to a never-ending thumpety thump Detroit beat is harming soul or that their liking for old stereotyped trivia has little to do with the passion, the beauty, or the involvement of soul? You must be joking! –

‘Record Mirror also carried an article relating to the “up-North soul scene” which, although somewhat ambiguously written, amounted to an attack on the Northern scene in general, condemning it for shallowness and lack of true soul depth! In short, the article was a scurrilous blasphemy and its tone of dogmatic pedantry and doctrinaire authoritarianism was truly in keeping with the times in which we live’ (Blues & Soul, 68).

When ‘Black Hits – No Soul’ appeared I expected, and got, a shoal of criticism. Much was irrelevant – all reviewing is of course a statement of personal opinion, such an obvious fact should not need clarification – but a little was well founded – well, it was a long time since I’d journeyed ‘up North’.

I knew the records played but possibly, just possibly, the music needed to be heard in the environment of a Northern club before the hidden depths of musical magic spilled out from the amplifiers blasting ‘In Orbit‘ or ‘Darkest Days‘. So I, Clive Richardson and Roy Stanton of Shout, Lou McDermott of the London Blues Society and Mike Booth of Record Centre, hired a coach, filled it with R&B fans and set forth to the Blackpool Mecca. And the friendly, soulful North?

‘I don’t care how far you’ve bloody well come, you can’t come in with long hair like that’.

The speaker was one Mr Pye, the tight-lipped, dinner-jacketed Manager of the Blackpool Mecca. Mr Pye showed an amazing determination to re-enforce the possible prejudice and derision felt by the coach load towards the Northern soul scene without anyone getting near a Ric-Tic rarity.

Mecca establishments have the ties and suits hang-up so restrictions were checked out earlier on the ‘phone – but hair length had mysteriously escaped mention. In an angry editorial in the latest Shout, Roy Stanton questions the morality of a situation where an establishment rejects long-hairs but turns a blind eye to pill pushers, who ‘despite their Edwardian outlook capitalise so obscenely on their younger generation’ and even hints at more sinister reasons for the snub. But the situation for Blackpool soul fans is less involved with such basic moral issues. To hear soul you must restrict your appearance to a carefully defined pattern and when entry is obtained, expect and get a similar restriction on the music played.

These restrictions were obvious to Mike Booth, the only one from the party who entered Mecca’s hallowed gates, though ‘You’re not with those London troublemakers?’ from the man at the door hardly spelt welcome. He was pleased that at least a few non-mid-period Detroit records were played, Paul Humphries and The Cool Aid Chemists and instrumental James Brown, and the deejay was a very nice guy, indeed he pleaded with the management in vain for the lifting of the hair-bar, but monotony could not be avoided as record after record was played with the arrangement, mood and style lifted exactly from the previous one.

Mike met the eccentrics that evening, a guy who has Ric Tic tattooed on his arm, guys who service the deejays with totally unknown mediocrity (do they realise what a come down it is to London fans when they eventually get hold of Mel Hueston’s ‘Searchin’‘ and find out how mundane it is?) and guys who dismiss every slow record as non-soulful. Mike’s confusion on coming back to the coach is understandable: “the Mecca was like being in a crowd of lunatics all telling you how mad you are.” The saddest part though of the North vs. South affair happened before the turning away of the multitude.

For several meandering columns Blues and Soul’s Dave Godin wrote with unbelievable optimism about how the Ric-Tic groovers are helping service the cause of soul. They are, in fact, damaging the cause of real soul and could conceivably eventually destroy it, as far as British releases go. After mountains of total irrelevancies (and pages still to come no doubt) about purist outlooks and ‘setting ourselves up’ (seen any good Dave Godin Seals Of Approval recently?) he ends with a plea for total soul unity –

‘It is unlikely in my opinion that soul music will ever be an overwhelming popular commodity in Britain, like say, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. so surely it is better to realise our minority position and not let the small differences of opinion that exist become magnified out of all proportion into gigantic issues? It’s a storm in a teacup. You like soul funky? Great. You like it up-tempo? Great. You like it heavy? Great. You like it teeny-bopperish? Great. You like it mean, moody and magnificent? Great. But remember, it’s soul music that you like’. (Blues & Soul, 70).

The obvious inference, of course, be glad that any soul hits. In fact, people who really care about rhythm and blues music seldom are as stupid as this and realise that good pop records are better than bad pop-soul records and that a succession of dancing-string irrelevancies ultimately harms the image of soul, and must affect what sort of black records get released in the UK.

Be joyful that the Tams and Al Green hit, they deserve to, not because they’re by black singers but because they’re good. Let’s hope ‘Barefootin’ in China Town‘ or ‘It Ain’t Necessary‘ never make the charts, their contribution to Northern dancers’ egos may be immense, but their contribution to soul is nil.

`How can you call “monotonously, insiduously ordinary” such in-demand records as ‘I Feel An Urge Coming On‘ by Joe Armstead, ‘Hit And Run‘ by Rose Battiste, ‘A Mighty Good Way‘ by Robert Banks, ‘It Ain’t Necessary‘ by Mamie Galore, ‘Little Queenie‘ by Bill Black’s Combo, ‘The Next In Line‘ by Hoagy Lands, ‘Feels Good‘ by Bobby Wilson or ‘Every Beat Of My Heart‘ by the Du-Ettes’. (Ian Levine, Blackpool, letter September ’71).

And in the twilight world of Northern soul rarities, records are dropped from clubs’ playlists once the audience get the record as well as the deejays.

You prove how ill-informed you are by imagining that “Chains Of Love” by Chuck Jackson, “What’s Wrong With Me Baby” by the Invitations and “I Got A Feeling” by Barbara Randolph are in-demand oldies. The first two lost their popularity over a year ago. The third lost its popularity 2½ years ago’. (Ian Levine).

And what of soul in the South? Is a distorted soul scene better than no scene at all? When soul ceased to have the right sort of image, London, and all points further South, dropped its soul clubs in favour of progressive pop. Now the only London haunts you can hear R&B blasting from a deejay’s sound system are few and far between.

In the West End there’s the Roaring Twenties, the Cue Club or further out obscurer places like the Railway, Harrow or Mr Bee’s, Peckham, but beautiful clubs though they undoubtedly are, the majority of their clientele want the black underground – reggae. If you want more than the occasional James Brown between the latest Jamaican pre-releases, London doesn’t have a soul discotheque … or does it?

Until a couple of weeks ago, what you had to do was come out of Mile End tube station, turn left, walk for a quarter of a mile and there’s a pub, the Fountain. Every Thursday, a deejay, Terry Davis, played the sort of records which persuaded soul fans to journey 10 or 15 or more miles to sit or stand, grabbing the sounds. There were hangups – no dancing; it’s a pub, so youngsters were kept out; and it wasn’t particularly large; but at least it showed that R&B fans do exist in London.

The non-dancing thing oddly proved the Fountain’s greatest advantage. What Terry loses in atmosphere he makes up for in not being restricted to a continual dance beat and played a much larger cross-section of what soul is, and should be made to appear. The Motown oldies, the Jerry-o’s and James Brown’s blasted forth but also Ralfi Pagan’s “Make It With You,” the Dramatics’ “What You See Is What You Get,” George Perkins’ “Crying In The Streets,” even, incredulously, the Showmen’s “It Will Stand” and Etta James’ “Roll With Me Henry.”

London badly needs some soul discotheques but at least there were Thursdays at the Fountain – until recently. Terry has been sacked, the management decided to turn Thursday’s over to semi-progressive schlock like the other nights. As they said, “We’ll get a bigger crowd with long-hair music.”

After ten years on Twitter, it’s time to call a halt.

Ten years ago today, I tweeted for the first time. News of the fledgling venture – then only a few months old, with just over 50,000 users – had reached my corner of blogland, and for a few days there was a small flurry of sign-ups, as we all took turns at answering the question we were being asked: not “What’s happening?”, nor its predecessor “What’s on your mind?”, but simply “What are you doing?”

For those first few months – before @replies, hashtags, retweets, automatically abbreviated URLs and integrated image hosting – we cleaved closely to the strictures of the question, and answered it mainly with present participles. It’s a creative project, we told ourselves: a series of pauses in the day, when we homed in on the here and now, and shared snippets of our realities. Tweets stood alone; conversations were largely frowned upon.

None of us foresaw what Twitter was to become. I had my first hunch when my partner K – who, rather to my dismay, had never bothered much with blogs – became fascinated with my timeline, stealing glimpses whenever he walked past the laptop. I couldn’t quite work out why, when blog posts had left him cold, tweets were drawing him in. But it was happening everywhere, with escalating rapidity, especially after people in the public eye started following the lead of early adopters such as Stephen Fry.

Gradually, the scope of the service expanded. Chatting became easier, and less irksome to onlookers. You could keep up with new blog posts, freed from the bother of feed readers – or you could micro-blog right here, with pics and links. You could commune with celebs. News stories might break here first. Via searches and hashtags, you could gauge responses to issues of the day. You could raise your profile, promote your work, build your brand. The whole world was here now. With minimal effort, you could stay informed, tracking the zeitgeist, swimming at the front of the slipstream.

Spambots were a nuisance, trolls a rarity. That soon switched around. Things started getting nasty. Outrage became a common currency. There were many casualties. But on we scrolled, as our reflective pauses and quick quips mutated into an ever-present dripfeed of hyperbole and hot takes.

Ten years on, the world’s a darker place. Some of us have been here before; the Thatcher-Reagan years felt like a tunnel from which we might never emerge, for instance. But then, there have always been two realities: the global, led by news stories, and the personal, informed by our immediate surroundings and experiences. The former has always had a bearing on the latter, of course – but it feels now as if the boundaries are blurring. By bleeding the two together so seamlessly and efficiently, Twitter is constantly thrusting harsh outer realities into delicate inner receptors.

This no longer feels healthy or useful. Twitter largely stopped being fun a long time ago; now, it feels like a drain on the collective well-being.

I’m dealing with it by re-compartmentalising. I’ll keep up with the news like I used to, at ring-fenced intervals. For the rest of the time, I’d rather be present in my own reality – which, to my great good fortune, happens to be a pleasant place to dwell. And I’d like to recover some of my lost attention span, too. Long reads. Books. Analogue media in general.

I can live with being second to breaking news. Hell, I can positively thrive without having whatever fuckwittery the fuckwits are spouting today repeatedly shoved under my face. I’ve seen enough Express/Mail screengrabs, Hopkins/Mensch smackdowns and Johnson/Trump GIFs for one lifetime, thanks all the same.

Besides which, ten years is long enough to be doing the same thing every day. Most of those formerly blogging early adopters moved on yonks ago, and my real-life friends are almost all on Facebook (which has its own multiple irritations, but compensates for them with companionship, conversation, and a “Hide All From…” option which I take constant glee in wielding). I no longer have stuff to pimp, or a profile to maintain.

I’ve been planning to do this for weeks. As the old saying goes, it feels like unchaining myself from a lunatic.

Adieu, Twitter. We’re done.

Randomising the record collection #28: Simple Minds – Promised You A Miracle

#8171 – Simple Minds – Promised You A Miracle
(12-inch single, 1982) (Discogs tracklisting)

28 simple minds

Aha, I thought, this will be an appropriately sardonic commentary upon our post-Brexit times; what fun I shall have, drawing lines from the past to the present! Far from it, though: this is an almost wholly optimistic love song, shot through with a sense of infinite possibility, which became a hit single at a time when pop itself was probing new possibilities.

Everywhere you looked in the first half of 1982, bands were vaulting from cult acclaim to overground appeal, without (yet?) fatally diluting their original sense of purpose. Just off the top of my head, The Associates, Japan, Echo and the Bunnymen and Bow Wow Wow spring to mind. There were, of course, many more.

(Something analogous happened in the mid-Nineties, too – although perhaps the borders were left too open for too long, without an effective points system to hang on where am I going with this shut up move on.)

Despite all the praise that was heaped upon them in the corners of the music press which held the most personal sway, Simple Minds were never one of “my” bands, and “Promised You A Miracle” was the only record of theirs which I ever went out and bought. Beyond 1985, I was done with them completely; they had become too broad-brush, too foghorny, too flag-wavy, too stadium. But the “Promised You A Miracle” of my memory was an airy, sprightly, shimmering thing, as much a part of the New Pop as, say, “Poison Arrow” or “Party Fears Two”.

Playing it again today, I can hear more of the band they became, and less of the band I thought they once were. The track strains for the sky, but it never quite breaks its earthly shackles. Perhaps the shackles are at their loosest in the final, repeat-and-vamp-to-fade passage of this extended version, as the band locks into a cyclical progression that can never resolve, while Jim Kerr ecstatically extemporises, leaving language behind.

The two instrumentals on the flip side, both produced by Steve Hillage, have worn pretty well – particularly the icy, magisterial synth-funk of “Theme From Great Cities”, which crossed over onto New York dance floors as electro was starting to emerge. (I know it better from “The Real Life” a juddering 1988/89 reworking by Freddy Bastone, a.k.a. Corporation Of One, who spliced it with a “Bohemian Rhapsody” vocal sample and placed it somewhere between freestyle house and early techno.) They offer a glimpse of an alternative future for Simple Minds, had the lure of arena-friendly big-statement-rock not proved so strong. Had they followed such a path, I might have walked with them further.

 

Randomising the record collection #27: The Gorillas – She’s My Gal

#584 – The Gorillas – She’s My Gal
(7-inch single, 1976) (Discogs tracklisting)

27 gorillas

I’ve got other, more important stuff to do today. No change there, then – but faced with a need to scale down my obsessive post-referendum news/social media fixation, I must conjure up a fresh displacement activity. And so, as “She’s My Gal” has been in my direct line of vision for the past three months, patiently stacked behind the office hi-fi, perhaps it’s finally time to dispatch it back to its rightful resting place around the corner, nestling between The Go-Go’s and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

In the autumn of 1976, impatient for the arrival of UK punk on record, I was casting around for the nearest substitutes. Six years ago, writing about Dr. Feelgood in The Guardian, I made mention of this transient phase.

For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to ­tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.

And so it was with The Gorillas, an equally rowdy product of the London pub-rock circuit, and this release for one of the UK’s first independent labels, Chiswick Records. Having already hoovered up as much as I could find from the Stiff label – Nick Lowe, Tyla Gang, Lew Lewis and, most crucially of all, The Damned – I was now turning my attention to their spiritual counterparts, and “She’s My Gal” duly became the second of five near-consecutive purchases from Chiswick (a run that was only broken by “Anarchy In The U.K.”).

As much a perpetuation of bovver-glam as a prefigurement of punk, the catchy swagger of “She’s My Gal” bridged my listening gap more ably than most. I shall place it back among the G’s with fondness.

Randomising the record collection #26: Elaine Hudson – No More The Fool

#644 – Elaine Hudson – No More The Fool
(7-inch single, 1990) (Discogs tracklisting)

26 elaine hudson

Elaine Hudson had made her mark in 1989, duetting with Sydney Youngblood on the title track of his successful debut album Feeling Free. Now it was Youngblood’s turn to return the favour, supplying incidental vocals on Hudson’s first single. Indeed, the whole Youngblood songwriting and production crew were pressed into Hudson’s service, with Youngblood himself taking a co-writing credit.

In its 12-inch incarnation, “No More The Fool” is an amiable, well-sung pop take on classic soul tropes, with pleasing piano and strings, that’s only marred by the inclusion of that Soul II Soul rhythm track, which had become ubiquitous around the turn of the Nineties.

In this respect, Team Youngblood – and producer Claus Zundel in particular – had previous form, drawing criticism for their heavy reliance on Jazzie B’s signature sound. Cocking a snook at the finger-waggers, they had even released a “Jazzy Who?” remix of “Feeling Free”, which committed further acts of plunder. And of course, there was Youngblood’s big hit “If Only I Could”, whose backing track is barely distinguishable from Raze’s “Break 4 Love”.

As shameless as these lifts might have been, at least they were competently executed. But with the 7″ remix of “No More The Fool” – which is the version I own, and you’ll search in vain to hear it online – the machinery jammed. Ditching the Soul II Soul rhythm, Zundel smothered the song with a generic James Brown breakbeat, mixing it so high that the rest of the track fades into murky near-inaudibility. Hudson’s vocals are so buried, that she might as well have been singing beneath six inches of soil, and Youngblood’s vocals are mixed so low that the ear struggles to make them out at all. In fact, the overall sound quality is so utterly, utterly terrible, that it beggars belief that this mix was ever cleared for release. Perhaps it sounded better on the CD single, but all I can hear is the thoughtless ruination of a otherwise pleasant song.

It bombed, of course – and by the end of the year, Hudson’s major label recording career was over. She now works as a wedding singer in Birmingham, Alabama. She looks happy, and I’m glad about that.

Randomising the record collection #25: Daryl Hall & John Oates – Family Man / One On One

#600 – Daryl Hall & John Oates – Family Man / One On One
(7-inch single, 1983) (Discogs tracklisting)

25 hall oates

Two days on from Tina Turner, we’re back with the Finnish DJ’s job lot. This copy is a good deal less battered than “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, with a level of surface noise that’s easier to tune out. “Family Man” is the clear A-side, but for this European release, it’s been bundled with its predecessor “One On One”: an equally big hit in the US, which did much less well over here.

In 1983, Hall and Oates were at the peak of their success. H2O, the album which housed both these tracks, was their eleventh release and their biggest seller; it also gave them their fifth US chart-topper, “Maneater”.

“Family Man”, the album’s sole cover, was released by Mike Oldfield in the spring of 1982, with vocals by Maggie “Moonlight Shadow” Reilly. Although Hall and Oates remain fairly faithful to Oldfield’s arrangement, they’ve taken liberties with the lyrics, adding lines to later verses that make its “hooker rebuffed” story less clear-cut. This time around, the hooker’s prospective client changes his mind too late: “he waited much too long, but by the time he got his courage up, she was gone.”

“One On One” is a gentler affair, more in the tradition of the duo’s blue-eyed soul style, with none of the A-side’s clenched rock bite. It’s a love song wrapped round a sporting metaphor, which talks of playing the game, setting the pace, taking time out and so on.

If I’m sounding neutral here, it’s because I’ve always been basically neutral towards Hall and Oates. Their earlier work – with the exception of the heavenly “She’s Gone” – was too mature for my teenage ears, and their Eighties hits – with the exception of the equally heavenly “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” – didn’t chime with my expectations of Eighties pop. That said, both tracks have worn well; history has been kind to this type of glossy AOR-pop, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear “Family Man” at retro nights for cool millennials.

So maybe it’s time for me to dig into those early albums – the first two produced by Arif Mardin, the third by Todd Rundgren – and close this gap in my knowledge.

Yeah, I’ll stick them on a playlist. That’s what I’ll do.

Randomising the record collection #24: Quincy Jones – Q’s Jook Joint

#2330 – Quincy Jones – Q’s Jook Joint
(CD, 1995) (Discogs tracklisting)

24 quincy jones

Six years after Back On The Block, an album which I loved and played a great deal, came its sequel: another journey through diverse styles of black music, both old and new, which was equally crammed with guest appearances from artists of all generations.

On the 92-second intro, Jones’s guest roster reaches surreal proportions; 29 voices are heard, ranging from Marlon Brando to Queen Latifah, Dizzy Gillespie to Bono. We get the picture; he’s a well-connected guy. The trouble with this approach, though, is that the names threaten to distract from the music. You end up forever checking the sleeve notes, just in case a historic collaboration (Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder!) passes you by.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, the album suffers from a certain amount of mid-Nineties fill-up-the-CD bloat; some tracks drag on too long, particularly the closing pair of “quiet storm” wind-downs, and some of the interludes could have been cut. The shiny, brittle, over-separated production also screams “Nineties CD” – you couldn’t ever imagine this on vinyl – but such were the times, and perhaps it’s unfair to slate a Nineties CD for sounding just like a Nineties CD.

There’s also the issue of Sequel Syndrome, and diminishing returns. Where Back On The Block dazzled you with its scope, Q’s Jook Joint sometimes feels too worthy, too cosy, too respectful, too respectable. That said, there are, of course, plenty of delightful moments. With a cast this strong, how could there not be?

I was reading only yesterday, in David Toop’s 1984 history of hip hop The Rap Attack, about the vocal freestyles that Eddie Jefferson created from jazz improvisations, and so was particularly struck by Brian McKnight’s fine update of Jefferson’s vocalese style on a reworking of James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood For Love”, complete with a sax solo from Moody himself. Later, I watched Phil Collins performing “If Leaving Me Is Easy” on a 1981 Top of the Pops, and found myself marvelling, quite despite myself, at the quality of the vocals, songwriting and arrangement. Collins guests here on Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” – backed by a large brass section, with great solos from Joshua Redman on sax and Jerry Hey on trumpet – and he acquits himself commendably, which is a big surprise. Elsewhere, there are enjoyable covers of The Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp”, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and Jones’s own “Stuff Like That”, the latter voiced by its composers Ashford & Simpson alongside Brandy, Ray Charles, Chaka Khan and The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson.

This must have been a massively demanding project logistically, but it’s also manifestly a labour of love, and you can feel that love shining all the way through. These are all people who Jones admires, from living legends to brand new talents, and no-one other than Jones could have brought them all together. Perhaps inevitably, the whole doesn’t exceed the sum of its parts – but you can only applaud its ambition and spirit.

Randomising the record collection #23: Tina Turner – What’s Love Got To Do With It

#1432 – Tina Turner – What’s Love Got To Do With It
(7-inch single, 1984) (Discogs tracklisting)

23 tina turner

For Christmas, K gave me a copy of Eilon Paz’s sumptuous coffee table book, Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting. Over the course of its 436 pages, a diverse array of record enthusiasts display and discuss their collections. In each case, you get the impression that every record has been lovingly curated, and that each collection can be viewed as a physical representation of its owner’s personality and passion.

As for my own equally vast and sprawling collection, I couldn’t begin to make the same sort of claim. It’s not so much lovingly curated, as haphazardly accumulated. There are duds galore: random punts, impulse buys, bargain-bin hoovering exercises, ephemeral fancies, over-hyped disappointments, artist loyalties that stretched too far. Too often, I’ll pull out a record or a CD, and think to myself: what the hell is that doing here?

And so it is with this battered copy of Tina Turner’s second comeback hit, which took her long-stalled career to new heights, turning her into a global superstar at the age of 44. What the hell is this doing here? I never cared for it much at the time, and I’ve never warmed much to it since.

“What’s Love Got To Do With It” snuck into my collection in the mid-Nineties, as part of a job lot. A Finnish friend had moved to the UK, and was purging dead weight. He’d worked as a DJ, playing the hits of the day in his home city’s bars and clubs. Feeling generous, I swept through his stack of seven-inchers with a wide net, filling in gaps and erring on the side of “well, it might be useful to have this in stock”.

You can see from the cover scan that this has been played out a lot, and you can hear it in the grooves, too; the crackle is considerable. That aside, the pressing’s a good one, surprising me with the punch it still packs. (I’d forgotten about that reggae-inflected bass, although it’s still more Men At Work than Marley.)

These days, “tastemaker singles” are an established part of the promotional process. Put something out on a small label over the autumn, just in time to reach the “Sound Of…” voters, then hit the market big time in the spring, with a more commercial offering. Looking back at the Tina Turner campaign, it’s tempting to see something similar at work. Charting in November 1983, her first comeback hit, “Let’s Stay Together”, carried the cachet of B.E.F./Heaven 17 (who had also produced her cover of “Ball Of Confusion” a year earlier, on their critically acclaimed but under-selling Music of Quality and Distinction). Then, having primed us with a “Tina gets cool again” move, Capitol wheeled out the big guns.

Producer and co-writer Terry Britten had a solid track record, having revitalised Cliff Richard’s career with “Devil Woman” and provided B.A. Robertson with a string of hits. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” had already been hawked around a few acts – Donna Summer, Phyllis Hyman, Bucks Fizz – but it must have felt like a natural fit for Turner’s style: battle-hardened and bruised, yet still flirty and sassy. Who else could sell a line as breathtakingly cynical as “what’s love but a second-hand emotion”, while still hoofing and vamping and making you think: ah, good old Tina, I’ll buy into that?

Well, that’s how I see it objectively – but in truth, Comeback Tina never moved me much. I hear showmanship, technique and personality by the bucketload, but I never get a true sense of soul. That rock edge to her voice? It’s the wrong sort of rock for me. I get the “what a gal, what a survivor, isn’t she great for her age” aspect, but I can get no further. Perhaps this song was given added autobiographical heft when it was chosen as the title of her 1993 biopic – but it hadn’t been written with Tina in mind, and the retro-fit came too late to convince me.

Instead, my abiding Turner memory is of gazing blankly at her, stadium-strutting on a Pepsi TV commercial with the sound turned down, while playing Laibach’s cover of Queen’s “One Vision” and drawing the sort of parallels that only Laibach could induce.

Randomising the record collection #22: The Sweet – Co-Co

#1335 – The Sweet – Co-Co
(7-inch single, 1971) (Discogs tracklisting)

22 sweet co-co

By most people’s yardsticks, it’s hardly a classic – quite the reverse, you might well say – but for nine year-old me, the UK singles chart of 1st-7th August 1971 marks the point where it all began.

It was the summer holidays, and I’d just been given my first transistor radio, a source of constant fascination. I mostly kept it tuned to Radio One, whose daytime playlist exactly mirrored the top of the charts. Within a week or so, I could recognise the biggest hits within seconds – and could quote you their chart positions, too.

T. Rex were spending their third week at Number One with “Get It On”, with its predecessor, Middle Of The Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”, still hanging around at Number Three. I preferred the latter: super-catchy, but with an undertone of melancholy (this was, after all, a song about an abandoned child). The New Seekers had climbed to Number Two with “Never Ending Song Of Love” – those swoonsome doo-doo-doos and ba-ba-baas! – and there were two lilting, easy-rolling folk-country songs at Six and Seven, by Lobo (“Me And You And A Dog Named Boo”) and New World (“Tom Tom Turnaround”). Atomic Rooster were at Four with “Devil’s Answer”, a song containing a word that I literally didn’t dare to speak out loud; even “Good Heavens” was considered too sweary for our family back then, and I wasn’t going to take any risks.

Songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, on the threshold of becoming major players, had two singles in the Top Ten. As well as “Tom Tom Turnaround” – the only single from this chart that I went out and bought, and indeed the first single that I ever bought – they had landed their second hit for The Sweet, two places above it.

“Co-Co” had everything I wanted from a pop song: a distinctive intro, well-turned verses which exploded into a massively hooky chorus, a sunny arrangement (those steel drums!), a high-pitched vocal that I could squeak along with, nonsense words (I was big on nonsense), bags of repetition, and a string of rising key changes could have carried on rising forever, well beyond the fade.

I really should have bought it instead of the New World, but it turned out that 45s cost more than I was expecting, and so my pocket money could only stretch to one of them. Panicking at the counter of Boots in Doncaster’s Arndale centre, I blurted out the first title I could think of. This too set a pattern; of the thousands of purchases I’ve made since, a dismaying proportion have been similarly ill-considered. (Hello, Nineties.)

A couple of years later, a copy of “Co-Co” turned up in our village, on a trestle table at a church fete, for mere pennies. I think my sister bought it; it’s her handwriting on the label, next to the original owner. Even then, it felt like a period piece; The Sweet had progressed from cod-calypso to full-on glam stomp, and so it paled in comparison to the might of “Blockbuster”, “Hell Raiser” and “Ballroom Blitz”.

Meanwhile, The Sweet pursued a parallel path on their self-penned B-sides, which they claimed represented their true worth as a serious hard rock band, as opposed to purveyors of manufactured pap. But in truth, the sub-Deep Purple-isms of “Done Me Wrong All Right” are nothing worth shouting about. They finally got their way in 1974, on their second album Sweet Fanny Adams, dropping the definite article and reducing Chinn and Chapman’s contributions to a mere two tracks. There will be more on that if the randomiser permits.

Randomising the record collection #21: Polar Bear – Held On The Tips Of Fingers

#2723 – Polar Bear – Held On The Tips Of Fingers
(CD, 2005) (Discogs tracklisting)

21 polar bear

Today, I’m giving myself the day off. There are two interconnected reasons for this: I’m somewhat viral (nothing too major, but enough to sap the strength and addle the brain), and I’m performing on stage tonight (and so am choosing to conserve what powers I have remaining, delicate am-dram hothouse flower that I am).

There’s also a third reason: this is a jazz album, and I’m no good at writing about jazz. I listen to it from time to time – more so in recent months, spurred on by my love for Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, my favourite album of 2015 – but I lack context and insight. And when I do listen, I don’t altogether listen fully, focusing largely on the overall groove and skimming over the intricacies of the playing. In particular, I struggle to make sense of jazz solos; the language they speak has always eluded me.

However, I wouldn’t want to let you down. And so, following a Facebook exchange yesterday, I have secured the services of a guest blogger for today’s write up. His name is John P, and he is one of my New Knaresborough Friends.

I first met John through my involvement with Knaresborough’s Frazer Theatre; he is our vice-chairman, and the founder/booker/promoter of our highly successful monthly comedy nights. We acted together in the 2014 panto, when my Dame memorably vanquished his villain with the aid of a Wonder Woman costume, an inflatable banana and a troupe of cardboard minions. John subsequently cast me as a psychotic, sado-masochistic dentist in his production of Little Shop of Horrors, which we performed last summer, thus helping me to overcome my lifelong aversion to Musical Theatre.

John is a geek of many colours. He is a comedy geek, a film geek, a tech geek, a sci-fi/fantasy geek, a gaming geek… but, as his guest post will make clear, he is absolutely not a jazz geek. We haven’t had many conversations about music, but I do know that he is firmly a child of the Nineties, who got awfully excited about last year’s Blur reunion.

Never one to couch his opinions in gentle language, John is also a serial dropper of Truth Bombs. These are my Top Three John P Truth Bombs to date. I cannot quibble with any of them.

1. “Mike, you need to stop talking about Nottingham all the time. You live in Knaresborough now.”

2. “To survive a visit to Mike and K’s house, you basically have to be Oliver Reed.”

3. “Mike, you know we all love you. But let’s face it, you’re really just a gateway drug to K.”

If I carry on much longer, my introduction will be longer than John’s guest post, which he wrote last night in a single take, as Polar Bear streamed on Spotify. So let me hand over to him now. John P, everyone!


Randomising Mike’s Record Collection – Held on the Tips of Fingers: Polar Bear

So, for reasons that seemed rational and amusing earlier in the day, I shall review a record plucked by fate from Mike’s collection. Perhaps somewhere in his vast hinterland is a copy of one of the late 90’s Shine compilations. That would have been nice. Or maybe an early pressing of An Awesome Wave by Alt-J. I would have been supremely comfortable with that. Instead, at nearly 10pm, I am about to start reviewing what can only be described, apparently, as a jazz album.

Oh, hubris…

Still, onwards.

1. Was Dreaming You Called You Disappeared I Slept

Hmm… starts with some random noise and a bit of sax. No discernible melody yet. Oh yes, it’s jazz.

Well, let’s see… It’s all very atonal, isn’t it? Some drums, but no particular rhythm. God, is this music? No, give it a chance.

Oh, it appears to have ended. That’s a short one. OK, perhaps this is just an intro song. Buck 65 likes intro songs, so it must be a good idea. Mind you, “Leftfielder” this ain’t.

Sense of dread building.

2. Beartown

Right, this is a bit more jaunty. The hand claps remind me of Emma Thompson’s semi-improvised show Thompson’s theme tune. Bum-bum-ba-ba-bum. Quite catchy that. Still, there seems to be a lot of nonsense going on over the sterling repetitive beat.

This reminds me of music appreciation class at school. Is it a valid appreciation of music to remember a time when you were appreciating music? I’m not sure Mr Western would approve.

I mean, this is better than the first track, but still, really not actually, y’know, any good. It was quite promising at first, but as these – Jesus! – nearly six minutes go by, I find myself quite cross. At least the first track promised brevity.

3. Fluffy (I Want You)

OK, back to the “starting with random noise” gambit are you? Fine. Let’s see how that works out for you.

Some of these phrases are actually enjoyable; they put me in mind of a Sixties cop-show. Then some fucker just randomly rings a bell in the background and they ruin it again.

Beginning to suspect that I don’t like jazz.

And on it goes. There doesn’t seem to be any progression. I wonder if they’re aiming for something? It just seems so random. Is that the point? It can’t be.

They’re repeating bits again, making me think it’s a proper song. It isn’t. It ends with random noise too.

4. To Touch the Red Brick

Ooh, good drums. Like that at the start. And the sax is behaving too. Come on guys, keep this up.

Now, this is a bit more like the stuff they play in Noble. I’m put in mind of drinking excellent cocktails in a secret speakeasy.

Come on guys, don’t fuck it up. Because you’re on the verge of fucking it up.

No, it’s back to something at least resembling a tune. Couldn’t hum it, but it’s there. This one’s alright so far.

Oh, it’s also very short. Well, fuck.

5. Held on the Tips of Fingers

The title track, so I imagine they were very happy with this one. Again.

Dangerously verging on melody. Would you describe it as “sultry”? I probably would.

Beginning to realise I only hear jazz in bars. Why do bars play jazz? Pondering this and not paying attention to the music. Perhaps the music has transported me to a place of introspection and wonder. Perhaps this song seems to meander without ever doing anything of note, good or bad. That seems more likely, to be perfectly honest.

Don’t hate this, but nor do I care about it. I can’t see why you’d ever choose to listen to it. Unless you are too stubborn to skip it. Which is the position I find myself in.

6. Argumentative

Ooh, a little bit of Latin flavour at the start there. Some slap bass, now that’s quite nice. Stop fucking about over at the back there – you stopped paying attention for a moment, didn’t you, and it all went shit.

Come on, I suspect you’re actually a pretty good band when you want to be. I think they just need a conductor. Perhaps all jazz is just musicians in desperate need of a man with a baton?

They’re getting along perfectly well and then go off on some tuneless digression. I get it’s free form, but I assumed you did that and then kept all the good bits. Was this album just recorded live in one take?

Really starting to suspect I don’t like jazz now.

7. The King of Aberdeen

A little bit haunting, interesting counterpoint, the first 20 seconds are nice. Well, as nice as it gets on here. This sounds more like they’ve at least discussed a vague idea of what they’re going to do before they hit “record”.

Oh, as I type that, it all seems to have ground to a halt. Just the bass noodling now over drums. This reminds me of every shit film I’ve ever watched late at night of Channel 4. Except The Transporter, but that’s got The Stath in it.

What was I saying? Oh yes. God, this drones on. Not enjoying this one. It’s just boring. Starting to eye the clock in the corner of my screen. I was expecting it to tell me it’s 2024. Apparently it’s not even half ten yet. Christ. I’ll go check the headlines and let you know if anything good happens.

Nope, it didn’t.

8. Your Eyes the Sea

More upbeat again – good, the last few have been dirges. But it seems the faster the beat goes, the less attention they pay to what each other are doing.

The drummer appears to have woken up from whatever stupor he was in. The drums have probably been the best part of the album so far.

Think about that.

“The drums have probably been the best part of the album so far.”

Christ. That’s a sentence I’ve written in the English language.

And now they’re shouting. Wordlessly, of course. More yelping, if anything. Stop that.

Sudden end. Nope, that wasn’t very good.

9. Life That Ends Too Soon

Unlike this album, which can’t end soon enough.

SHIT! They’re singing! What the actual fuck? Why is there singing on this? You can’t just have singing on the last track? Even Mogwai were big enough twats to do that. And Mogwai really are absolute twats. I mean, what the fuck were they doing supporting the Manic Street Preachers? Fuck me, that was the wrong choice. Mind you, it was in support of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, so who know what they were thinking. Not as bad as Lifeblood though.

Oh, I forgot about the album for a moment there. Thinking about an INFINITELY BETTER band.

The singing has stopped now. That was such a pleasant surprise, I almost started enjoying it. Almost.

Oh, is this a hidden track? The song ended, and now there’s a different song. Hidden tracks don’t really work on Spotify.  Remember when Ash released 1977 on CD and you could rewind past the start of track one to get to two hidden tracks? That was great. This isn’t. This is more annoying than anything else on the album. This is actually making my ears hurt.

Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! That’s the sound of this song. Not Whoop Whoop, which is the sound of the police. Or Vwoorp Vwoorp, which is the sound of the Tardis.

Another sudden end to the final track on the album. Most of them just stopped like that. I don’t really approve.

I did not care for this album. It was not, as far as I can determine, any good at all. Perhaps I have missed the point. I understand jazz is about the notes they didn’t play. I would have rather enjoyed it if they hadn’t played most, if not all, of these.

Randomising the record collection round-up: the first 20, ranked.

*****
1. Prince – Lovesexy (1988)
2. Prince and the Revolution – Kiss (1986)
3. Wayne G ft Stewart Who? – Twisted (1997)
4. Actress – R.I.P. (2012)
5. Royal House – Can You Party (1988)

****
6. Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue (2005)
7. Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007 (2007)
8. Mychael Danna /Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack) (2001)

***
9. R. Kelly ‎– Down Low (Nobody Has To Know) (1996)
10. Whycliffe – Rough Side (1991)
11. E.U. – Da Butt (1988)
12. Aivaras – Happy You (2002)
13. Can – Ege Bamyasi (1972)
14. Beck – Odelay (1996)
15. Michel’le – No More Lies (1990)

**
16. BASF C90 (no tracklisting) (1985)
17. Various Artists – Uncut Hard Drive: Uncut’s Pick Of The Hottest New Music (2003)
18. D-Influence – Prayer 4 Unity (1995)
19. 808 State – Bombadin (1994)

*
20. Eternal – So Good (CD1) (1994)

Randomising the record collection #20: BASF C90 (no tracklisting)

#9098 – BASF C90 (no tracklisting)

20 cassette 1

20 cassette 2

I have four cassettes in my collection with the inserts missing. They’ve been sitting there for years, keeping their mysteries sealed. I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to find on this C90, so this is really rather exciting. If you’re me.

Although I note with concern the inscription “PERRY COMO 40 GREATEST” on the second side, in my dear departed Dad’s handwriting, I also note with relief the application of Sellotape along the holes at the top edge of the tape. Younger readers – if I have any – may not know this, but you could protect a cassette from further recording by punching out these holes, thus preserving your priceless recording for posterity. Clearly, my dear departed Dad placed great value on his home-taped Como. But there was always a loophole, and that loophole’s name was Sellotape. Lay your tape over your holes, and bingo: re-recordability.

OK, so what have we got?

1. Don Henley – All She Wants To Do Is Dance

Oh dear. This is not a track I remember (so thank you, Shazam), and it’s not a track that I would have chosen to keep, either. Where did it come from? Was it taped from a friend?

“Forget about those pistol wavers” says an enigmatic Paul Gambaccini over the end of the track, just before it cuts off. Aha, so this was taped off the radio. There may be more Shazam moments ahead. I hope there are.

2. Simple Minds – Don’t You (Forget About Me)

We must be in 1985: the year when the wheels came off the wagon, bringing a golden era for chart pop to a dull and worthy end. In which case, pickings may be slim.

3. Animotion – Obsession

“And I’ve grown to have a strong feeling for it. You might call it a craving. A love. An obsession.”

That’s Gambo again, introducing the track. Simple Minds entered the UK charts in April, Animotion in May. Time-wise, we’re homing in.

“Up five places to nine”, Gambo later informs us. So this must be a recording of his weekly US singles chart countdown: broadcast by Radio One on Saturday afternoons, if I recall correctly.

4. DeBarge – Rhythm Of The Night

So far, these tracks all scream 1985 drabness. I don’t own any of them in any other format. Instead, they’re all the sort of thing that I would have dutifully unpaused my tape deck for, without ever falling for any of them too hard. An exercise in Keeping Up, basically. And, oh, I had to Keep Up.

5. Madonna – Crazy For You

“Madonna moves up one place in the American Top Ten, from Four to Three.”

OK, so we’re not going to be stuck with this chart countdown for the full 45 minutes. Forgotten nugget excavation may still lie ahead.

I know this song backwards, so I’ve amused myself by searching for the chart in the Billboard archive. Here it is, then: April 13th, 1985.

Hold up! That’s exactly seven days before the Saturday that I met K, my future partner. In that case, I might give this tape a title: The Week Before You Came. Because if this was what I’d been doing with my Saturday afternoons – hovering over pause buttons for Animotion and DeBarge – then I was in need of urgent rescue.

6. USA For Africa – We Are The World

I’m trying to remember when I gave K’s predecessor the heave-ho. (We only lasted a couple of months. It was all wrong from the off.) I have a distinct feeling that it was later this very evening, at the Sir John Borlase Warren pub in Nottingham’s Canning Circus.

This tape is taking on historic proportions.

And this track feels like it may never end.

“Until next week”, says Gambo, unwittingly prophetic.

7. Katrina and the Waves – Walking On Sunshine

This is the first song on the tape that I subsequently went out and bought. She was on the telly the other week, helping to judge this year’s UK Eurovision entries. Her microphone was up the spout, and it never got fixed. I felt for her, stuck in that eternal Eurovision loop.

8. Bronski Beat & Marc Almond – I Feel Love (medley)

I catch a snatch of Mike Read, introducing the track. I think we’re still in the same weekend in April; maybe this was the next show.

I’m picturing myself in my small rented room in Douglas Road, my University finals a couple of months away, without the faintest clue what I was going to do after graduating. They’ve been portraying this state of naive denial on the current series of Fresh Meat. It has struck a chord of recognition.

The tape blips momentarily in the pause between the end of “I Feel Love” and the start of “Johnny Remember Me”, its medley partner. Schoolboy error, Mike. Come on, you’ve been doing this long enough.

9. Bronski Beat – Close To The Edge

Shazam tells me this was the version that appeared on Bronski Beat’s patchy remix album Hundreds & Thousands, rather than the original version on the B-side of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. I had completely forgotten about this track. It’s decent enough. The arrangement is a bit Hi-NRG by rote, but my tolerance was always high for that sort of thing.

10. The Pogues – Repeal Of The Licensing Laws

This rollicking instrumental was on the B-side of “The Boys From The County Hell”, which I own – but this sounds like it could have been from a live session instead.

11. The Pogues – Streams Of Whiskey

…which the count-off and slight microphone distortion on this track confirms.

Are we going to get the full session, then? That would be nice.

12. Perry Como – Delaware

OH HOLY FUCK.

Is this the least witty novelty song ever written? Some of the puns, all derived from the names of US states, barely make sense. (“How did Wiscon sin, boy?” WISCON ISN’T EVEN AN ACTUAL NAME, GAH)

13. Perry Como – Moonglow

In fairness, my dear late Dad’s taste wasn’t always this excruciating. He liked The Carpenters, Bobbie Gentry, Carly Sim….

Oh wait, the tape has ended, cutting “Moonglow” short.

Praise be. And pray for me as I flip it over, to the side marked COMO.

14. Seconds Of Pleasure – Pull Me Up

“Pull me up, pull me up, pull me up, reach out and save me” – I couldn’t identify this track, which sounds like a cross between Carmel and The Creatures, with a sparse supper club feel and copious use of harmonica. Shazam and Google could tell me nothing. And then, thankfully, John Peel appears, giving me both artist and title.

15. Skipworth & Turner – Thinking About Your Love

The recording quality is suddenly much rougher. The track fades after less than a minute, as Kid Jensen’s voiceover reveals this as the Network Chart show. Reception issues, or had I swapped from the hi-fi to the ghetto blaster?

16. Mai Tai – History

Bargain basement Sister Sledgisms – and as such, very 1985 again. We are still in late April or early May. Was this still The Week Before He Came, or was I still doing this sort of thing during our early courtship?

17. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

Or was I back alone in my room, ostensibly for revision purposes, but letting the urge to Keep Up distract me yet again? It’s a wonder I got a 2:1, it really is. Ugh, this track.

“A big drop for U2” says Jensen. A quick bit of chart-hunting points this recording towards late May, a month into our blessed union. Oh dear.

18. New Order – The Perfect Kiss

There’s something haunting about the sound quality of this rough radio recording. It’s a type of sound that I don’t ever hear any more. It doesn’t altogether diminish the splendour of this splendid piece of work.

19. The Untouchables – Free Yourself

I thought they were a US ska band, but this is bar-room Blues Brothers  soul revue fare. Were Hepworth and Ellen bigging it up on Whistle Test? I bet they were.

20. Scritti Politti – The Word Girl

What bliss this is. I finally got to see Scritti four years ago. It was also the first time I saw Sleaford Mods, who were supporting them at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. After the show, I nervously approached Jason outside the venue, and bought a CD copy of Wank for a fiver, which he extracted from the pocket of his big coat. They’ve done all right for themselves, haven’t they?

21. Five Star – All Fall Down

The first time I came across Five Star, they were performing this, their debut hit, on Pebble Mill, a lunchtime TV show, in front of a clutch of nonplussed grans. Strewth, did I ever do any work?

22. Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease

By this stage, Depeche hits were getting a bit interchangeably Blah, were they not? “Master And Servant”, from autumn 1984, was the last that I bought. Then came “Blasphemous Rumours”, and I got off the bus.

23. The Style Council – Walls Come Tumbling Down

In which Weller got political again, and student lefties like me rejoiced. Since the collapse of the miners’ strike two months earlier, there hadn’t been much to rejoice about. I remember this closing a Whistle Test, and Andy Kershaw getting quite carried away.

24. Paul Hardcastle – 19

Shortly before meeting K, I went to London for the weekend, heard this everywhere, and returned to Nottingham impatient for its release. For a few weeks, this was THE tune. Then we all got sick of it. A prime example of what Grandmaster Flash used to call a “used groove”.

25. Perry Como – Days Of Wine And Roses

The surface noise is shocking. My dad didn’t treat his records with much respect. Perhaps it was left out at a party, and copped for a sticky slosh of Watneys.

26. Perry Como – Where Do I Begin

Not a patch on the Andy Williams version, the theme from Love Story, which Father used to play on 8-track cartridge in the car on the morning school run.

I’m channeling care homes.

27. Perry Como – Without A Song

A live recording, with the traditional smattering of applause after the titular opening line. This collection reached Number One in 1975, which means that Marcello Carlin has written about it at length on Then Play Long. Go and read him, he’ll tell you more than I ever could.

The tape ends here, with around 30 seconds of silence. It was unlike me to have skipped writing out the track listing. Perhaps I had intended to wipe over the rougher tracks on Side Two, before finalising the tape. But my recording-off-the-radio days were drawing to a close, and this might even be the last such tape that I worked on. As a single man, and as a student seeking displacement activity, I’d had plenty of time for these things. But as a partnered graduate entering paid employment, other priorities were taking over.

Randomising the record collection #19: Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007

#3362 – Various Artists – Folk Awards 2007
(3CD, 2007) (Discogs tracklisting)

19 folk awards 2007

As its cover explains – and as I can’t be arsed to paraphrase – this triple CD comprises “22 tracks featuring all of the nominated artists for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards plus a 6 track bonus CD featuring all the finalists for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards 2007“. This is the first of three such packages in my collection; I’ve also got the 2008 and 2010 editions, but skipped 2009. (I wish I hadn’t skipped 2009. I don’t like gaps.)

During the middle of the last decade, I rekindled an interest in contemporary British folk, which had lain dormant since the days of Steeleye Span and the odd track taped from John Peel. A new generation was coming through, with a keener sense of musicianship than their somewhat clod-hopping folk-rock forefathers, breathing new life into what had felt like a stale genre. John Spiers and Jon Boden’s 2003 album Bellow kickstarted me into paying attention, and by 2007 I was familiar enough with the scene to recognise a decent proportion of that year’s finalists.

I’m going to take this one track by track, pausing and blogging my way through. This may take some time.

1. Show Of Hands – Roots

Inspired by a remark from Labour minister Kim Howells, who had described his idea of hell as listening to “three Somerset folk singers in the local pub”, “Roots” was conceived as a polemic on the perceived eradication of English tradition within popular culture, and the need to maintain continuing links with that tradition. There’s certainly no doubting its ear-grabbing forcefulness – it’s all but impossible to listen to the track without giving the lyrics your full attention – but when it came to divining the band’s full intention, things became rather less straightforward.

And everyone stares at a great big screen: overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens. Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps. And we learn to be ashamed before we walk, of the way we look, and the way we talk. Without our stories or our songs, how will we know where we come from? I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack – it’s my flag too and I WANT IT BACK.

It felt to me, listening to “Roots” for the first time, that the song was sailing on the edge of dangerous waters – and so it didn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the BNP proceeded to make unauthorised use of the track in a campaign video. Appalled by this turn of events, Show Of Hands had the music removed – and to underline their position, they went on to join the Folk Against Fascism movement, which had sprung up as a response to further far-right attempts to co-opt British folk culture.

When I saw Show Of Hands perform in 2008, I was struck by their incorporation of Indian raga elements in some numbers, and relieved by the cultural open-mindedness which this suggested. “Roots” closed the show. I scanned the bellowing crowd, and saw nothing to cause further concern.

So, OK then. It’s a rousing tune, I’ll give them that. But I still can’t quell a certain queasiness.

2. Karine Polwart – Daisy

“…don’t give them all you can. Why don’t you keep a few more cards in your hand? I know you’ll only say a thing you believe to be true, but there are people in this world who don’t think like you do.

You have to wonder if there was any significance in the sequencing here. A gentle reproach? You could read it that way.

3. Spiers and Boden – The Old Lancashire Hornpipe / The 3rd. Beekeeper

I always liked their jigs and reels the most. Sprightly and fresh.

4. Kris Drever – Green Grows The Laurel

Sporting a tune that The Guardian’s Robin Denselow would almost inevitably describe as “sturdy” – it’s been his adjective of choice for many a decade – this is a soft lament for a lover turned untrue.

5. Shona Kipling & Damien O’Kane Flighty Girls / 7/8 Tune / Ferret-Panting

Kipling’s burbling accordion is paired with the strumming of Kate Rusby’s husband, to pleasingly frisky effect.

6. Julie Fowlis – Biodh an Deoch Seo ‘n Làimh Mo Rùin

Performed in Scottish Gaelic by a singer from the Outer Hebrides, whose star rose considerably further as the decade progressed. This is taken from the album which preceded Cuilidh, her widely acclaimed breakthrough. It’s sweet enough, but I prefer Fowlis when she’s full-on fallumping. (That’s not an actual word, but it’s how K and I always describe her. Onomatopoeia, I think you’ll find.)

7. Martin Simpson – Love Henry

A merry Appalachian murder tale, much covered, and here consciously re-Anglicised by Simpson – which doesn’t altogether explain the bouzouki, but there you go.

8. Swarb’s Lazarus – The Brilliancy Medley and The Cherokee Shuffle

Having first performed it on Fairport Covention’s Nine (1973), champion fiddler Dave Swarbrick revisits the medley, in the company of another Fairport exile. It’s a live recording, which captures Swarbrick’s dervish brilliance in full flow.

9. Nancy Kerr & James Fagan – Locks And Bolts

Nancy Kerr guested with Martin Simpson, two tracks earlier. Now Simpson returns the favour, for a traditional tale of distressed damsel rescue. Inevitably, blood flows.

10. Salsa Celtica – Grey Gallito (The Grey Cockerel)

Guest vocalist Eliza Carthy does a fine job on this surprisingly effective Cuban-style arrangement of a trad tune, in which a premature cock sends Willy fleeing his lover’s chamber too soon. Arf, cock. Arf, Willy.

11. John Tams & Barry Coope – Vulcan / Steelos

Recorded live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the medley opens with a thickly accented dialogue between Lucifer and Vulcan, as the former warns the latter of a new threat to the Sheffield coal industry: “I’ve signed up another demon and it’s ‘im you’ll come to fear.” The demon’s name? “Maggie sez his name’s MacGregor. It wont be t’last you’ll hear of ‘im.” This segues into a work song in commemoration of Sheffield’s equally ill-starred steel industry, unaccompanied save for handclaps.

12. Bellowhead – London Town

We’ve now reached the second disc. Here, Spiers and Boden return as members of Bellowhead, for a superbly arranged tale of guilt-free robbery from an equally thieving “lady of the night”. I was grinning along until I got to the pay-off: “Come all young men and listen to me, if you meet a pretty girl then use her free.” That’s not very nice, is it?

13. Tim Van Eyken – Barleycorn

Although “John Barleycorn” is a folk standard, I’ve never knowingly heard it before, which I guess is what happens when you ignore a genre for three decades. Apparently this version uses a different melody and chord structure, drawing praise for the way the music recontextualises the story (a resurrection parable, using the metaphor of harvesting barley for ale). A most effective piece of work. I’m not sure that I need another version now.

14. Waterson:Carthy – Jack Frost

We’ve just finished watching the recent TV adaptation of War And Peace, so this song serves as an instant reminder of how Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow was defeated: not by an army, but by the Russian winter. That said, the specific reference to Napoleon has been removed from this update of Mike Waterson’s 1970 composition, here voiced by Eliza Carthy (her second appearance on this collection) and accompanied by Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and, once again, Tim Van Eyken. The mood is appropriately bleak, Eliza’s fiddle swirling in the wintry mist.

15. John McCusker – Stella’s Welcome To Kamloops / The Kings Of Innishboffin / Sean Maguire’s

I first heard this Scottish fiddle virtuoso at the home of a blogging compatriot from the good old days. Maybe this was one of the pieces I heard. Stirring stuff, right up my street.

16. Nic Jones – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me

A Seventies live solo recording, unreleased until 2006, by an artist who was obliged to stop performing in 1982 following a serious road accident. I was given a copy of Penguin Eggs, his fifth and final album, for my fiftieth birthday. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and so is this: sung with a light chuckle, and immaculately picked. We’ll return to this song later.

17. Seth Lakeman – The Colliers

Lakeman’s surprise nomination for the 2005 Mercury Prize did much to popularise folk’s new breed, and Freedom Fields, the album from which this track is taken, sold well enough to graze the Top 40. It hasn’t worn well; there’s a pop sheen to the production which flattens the arrangement, and the “hold your fire” refrain grates from the outset. Its inclusion spoils what had been a great run.

18. Chris Thile – Wayside (Back In Time)

It comes as a bit of a jolt to hear bluegrass, and the thin, buried vocals and muddy production don’t serve Gillian Welch’s song well. A couple of rambunctious instrumental breaks hint at skills that are probably expressed best elsewhere.

19. Vin Garbutt – Punjabi Girl

“Her eyes were bright and black as night, like jet on Whitby shore. Her cheek possessed a patina no tulip ever bore. Her loveliness and Eastern dress placed others in the shade, but never yet did I regret the choice of this dark maid.”

Everything about this makes me cringe. Let’s move swiftly on.

20. Martha Tilston – Artificial

A trapped office worker’s lament, let down by some trite rhymes. Not for me.

21. The Devil’s Interval – Silver Dagger

An unaccompanied three-part rendition of an old folk ballad, best known in its Joan Baez version. Stately and foreboding.

22. Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor

And so the maestros conclude the second disc, which is only right and proper. A splendidly gory ballad, climaxing with a triple tragedy at a wedding, performed straight and unadorned by Carthy and Swarbrick. Everything is in service of the song – and when the song’s this strong, that’s often all you need.

23. Ewen & Megan Henderson – Banks Of The Allan Water / The Furze Bush / Donegal Barn Dance
24. David Delarre – Roundabout
25. Ryan Young – Catharsis / Humours Of Tulla / Mitten’s Breakdown
26. Last Orders – O’Keefe’s / Unknown / Campdown Races
27. Ruth Notman & Bryony Bainbridge – Billy Don’t You Weep For Me
28. Wilber – Vestapol

Finally, a quick whizz through the bonus disc, featuring the six Young Folk Awards finalists, all performing live at what must have been the same event. The duetting Henderson fiddlers do a proficient job, although a little more lack of caution might have served them better. Delarre’s solo guitar technique is impressive, and I’m surprised we haven’t heard more of him. Ryan Young, a solo fiddler, must have been very young when this dazzling display was recorded; really, this is quite superb. Last Orders, an instrumental four-piece from the north east of England, were the eventual winners; their playing is spirited and uplifting. Notman – the only finalist whose name I recognise – and Bainbridge cover the Nic Jones song from the second disc,  Notman singing and strumming while Bainbridge’s fiddle offers a delightfully inventive counterpoint throughout. 15 year-old Wilber, another solo guitarist, covers Stefan Grossman adeptly, but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the four earlier performers.

I wasn’t expecting much from this disc, but its highlights far outstrip some of the material from some of the more established acts.

And we’re done. This was a slog at times, but ultimately it was rewarding to give each track full attention; too often, I let folk music waft by on a weekend morning, and it deserves more than scented candle status. (All those deaths!)

That said, I’m hoping for a 7-inch single tomorrow. Stuff to do, people!

Randomising the record collection #18: Aivaras – Happy You

#4107 – Aivaras – Happy You
(CD single, 2002) (Discogs tracklisting)

18 aivaras

“Watching the sunrise, beautiful red skies, hoping this day will never end…”

My memory of “Happy You” is forever anchored to a specific place and time: a taxi ride at dawn through the streets of Tallinn, complete with spectacular red sky, returning to my hotel from a long night out that had begun with the 2002 final of the Eurovision Song Contest. How apt it seemed to my booze-addled brain.

This, the Lithuanian entry, was the last of 24 songs to be performed on the night. A late place in the draw usually guarantees a decent result, but the hapless Aivaras finished in 23rd place, much to our surprise. Here’s what I had to say about it on Troubled Diva at the time.

Well, we liked this one, even if nobody watching at home did. There is no clearer illustration of the difference between the forgiving nature of the amplified vocal sound in the echoey hall, and the merciless nature of the microphoned sound coming through Europe’s television screens. In the hall, we merrily dance and sing along to one of our favourite little ditties. Across Europe, a hundred million viewers clasp their hands to their ears in horror. Hey, how were we to know that Aivaras could barely hit a note? Or maybe we were just seduced by all that gorgeous Lithuanian knitwear. Yes, that was probably it.

I can’t make any great claims for “Happy You”. Its appeal is mostly context-specific, of course – but even fourteen years later, its winsome good cheer takes me to a happy place. As for the rest of this promo CD, given to me in Tallinn by a friend with press accreditation, “Honey” is a pleasant enough companion piece, while “Rock Me, Lithuania” is best forgotten about – particularly its rock-based, needlessly extended “Oldies” version.

The fate of poorly performing Eurovision finalists is not always a happy one, as I discovered when reading Tim Moore’s unexpectedly poignant Nul Points, in which the author tracks down some of the contest’s zero-scoring performers. Thankfully, Aivaras emerged from the fiasco unscathed, completing a philosophy doctorate in 2005, and taking up a position as Senior Fellow at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. I guess that’s taking the “philosophical in defeat” concept to its logical endpoint. Good for him.

Randomising the record collection #17: Eternal – So Good (CD1)

#4689 – Eternal – So Good (CD1)
(CD single, 1994) (Discogs tracklisting)

17 eternal so good

Listen to the Tree Men Full On Mix.

Some days are easier than others. Having just spent 25 minutes listening to four consecutive remixes of the same song, I barely even want to think about them further. But rules is rules, so here goes.

This is the first of two CD singles bearing the title “So Good”, neither of which carries the original version of the song which became Eternal’s fourth UK hit. As was standard practice at the time, the second CD single was released a week later, to increase and prolong sales. It’s trailed on the inside of CD1, complete with track listings, this allowing Eternal fans to salivate over the prospect of buying the West End Dope Jam mix all over again – for yes, exactly the same remix appears on both versions, in a remarkably shoddy act of shortchanging.

Canny Eternal fans who might have considered skipping CD1 entirely, and saving their pennies for CD2’s altogether better deal – the remixed radio version of “So Good”, plus two previously unreleased songs – were further wooed by CD1’s inclusion of “3 free prints”, but it’s likely that many would have snapped it up without examining the small print, ending up with four unwanted extended manglings of the song which they thought they were buying in the first place. Ah, the Nineties music industry.

To compound the cruelty, CD1 opens with the worst mangling of all – the Tree Men Full On Mix – which ditches the song entirely, salvaging a single line from a single member of the band (“so good, so good, oh baby”) and looping it incessantly. Instrumentation is reduced to a synth brass line and an organ figure, similarly looped. There’s a wholly new rhythm track, which strips out the light, sweet R&B syncopation in favour of a bog standard commercial dance template – and worst of all, there’s a jarring sampled shriek that runs literally all the way through the track, for the thick end of seven minutes. It’s an appalling piece of half-arsed hackwork. And yet it’s the lead track of the entire two-CD package. Go figure.

The same organ figure resurfaces on the West End Big Organ Mix, which reintroduces the vocal and plonks it over a tolerably serviceable handbag house arrangement. It’s a pale shadow of West End and Sybil’s cover of Harold Melvin’s “The Love I Lost” from the previous year, but it will just about do.

The West End Dope Jam mix cleaves more closely to the original, with a slower tempo, a more R&B-slanted feel… and, aargh, that bloody sampled shriek again. Finally, the Joe And Pain Remix inserts snatches of Maze’s classic “Joy And Pain”, which do nothing to lift the song; in fact, the whole thing is a bit of a muddled, indistinct mess.

“Original version of So Good available on the album Always & Forever“, the inside insert helpfully informs us. You can almost see them smirking at suckers like me, who sleepwalked their way to the tills at HMV without conducting due diligence.

I didn’t buy CD2. Meanwhile, “So Good” peaked at 13 on its second week, making it the first Eternal single to miss the Top Ten. The group’s chart fortunes swiftly bounced back, and they continued to have Top Ten hits for the next three years. I even bought a couple of them. I hope they were better deals than this.

Randomising the record collection #16: Royal House – Can You Party

#8148 – Royal House – Can You Party
(12-inch single, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

16 royal house

It’s the autumn of 1981, and I’m 19 years old. I’ve taken my first tentative steps towards coming out; a few close university friends have been told, all of them sworn to secrecy. But viewed wholly from the outside, the gay world looks alienating and terrifying. I cannot imagine that it holds a place for me.

None the less, I need to know more. I’ve spotted copies of Gay News on sale in a city centre newsagents. It’s time that I bought one.

My heart is pounding with fear. What happens if I run into someone I know, on my way back from the shop? I can’t let them see what I’ve bought. I need to hide it for the journey back.

I hit on a solution. First, I’ll buy an album. Then, I’ll slip the newspaper inside the sleeve. That way, even if someone asks what’s in my bag, I can just slide out the record cover.

The trouble is, I can’t think of anything that I want to buy right now. I’m in Revolver, flicking through the racks in a state of nervous agitation, trying to find something worthy of purchase.

Oh, this will do. It’s a double album, and I only half want it, but it’s the best that I can find.

Jacksons-liveThe Jacksons Live! opens with drum rolls, applause, a fanfare. The music stops, and a Jackson brother hollers to the crowd, thrice over, drawing louder cheers each time.

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

It’s the autumn of 1988, and I’m 26 years old. I’ve been on the gay scene for six years, and I’ve been partnered for three and a half. Every Thursday night, I’m the DJ at Fever, a mixed alternative club night “for lesbians, gay men and their friends”. My friend Mark promotes it and runs the door. According to the wry strapline on our flyers, we’re “An Equal Opportunities Dancefloor”.

House music is nothing new in Nottingham; thanks to Graeme Park at The Garage, we’ve been dancing to it since the summer of 1986. Up until this spring, dancefloors to the south of us have been a bit sniffy about it, but now they’ve caught up. The fabled 1988 “summer of love” passed us by – we just carried on as before – but the big house tunes in Nottingham are now the big house tunes everywhere.

Most weeks, I compile a Fever chart, based on dancefloor reaction. They’re handwritten – we don’t yet have PCs – and I keep them in my Filofax. My current Number One – it spends around three weeks at the top – is the latest track from Todd Terry, who releases tracks under different names.

On this one, he calls himself Royal House. It’s basically a re-jigged version of the previous Royal House 12-inch, “Party People”. Both are based around the same tiny snatch of one of the very first big house tunes at The Garage: Marshall Jefferson’s “The House Music Anthem”, also known as “Move Your Body”. On “Party People”, this annoyed me; I just wanted the original riff to continue in full. But on the more forceful “Can You Party”, the elements snap into place.

This time around, there are more vocal samples. Some of them are already well-worn; Todd Terry is a bit of a hack in some respects, but he’s having his moment, and the tracks work on the floor. So, there’s Malcolm X (“too black… too strong”), and there’s another slice of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice…

…and there it is again, already familiar to my dancers thanks to The Original Concept, Simon Harris and Bomb The Bass, but did anyone else recognise it from that seven year-old live album?

“CAN YOU FEEL IT!”

From timorous closet case, wrestling with internalised homophobia, to co-founder of what we were almost certain was the first mixed alternative gay night outside London, Terry’s Jacksons sample bookended my journey.

Randomising the record collection #15: Prince – Lovesexy

#2900 – Prince – Lovesexy
(CD, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

15 prince lovesexy

For the second time in three days, my randomiser has given me Prince – and also for the second time in three days, it has given me an officially documented (oh yes!) year-end favourite. There’s the confirmation, in the Filofax in the breakfast room dresser: Lovesexy topped my Best of 1988 list, beating off competition from Tracy Chapman, Pet Shop Boys, Michelle Shocked and Trio Bulgarka.

I’ve sometimes wondered about that choice. Didn’t I love Parade and Sign Of The Times more? Was Lovesexy really their equal, or was I just surfing the back end of my Prince-can-do-no-wrong fanboy wave, before Graffiti Bridge sent me crashing into the rocks? Or perhaps I had been overly influenced by the glories of the Lovesexy tour, which I caught twice – most memorably at Wembley Arena, still one of the greatest shows I have ever witnessed.

This morning, played on the CD bought many years later rather than the LP bought at the time, it sounded utterly magnificent, my top pick of the random choices to date. I was expecting at least a few fillers; not so. It peaked early with “Alphabet St.”, the best Prince party jam of all, and then peaked again with the sublime “Anna Stesia” (at the end of the LP’s first side) and the ridiculously infectious “Dance On” (at the start of Side Two).

On “Dance On”, the drumming alone floored me. I checked to see who was playing. Sheila E, surely? Like almost everything else on the record (apart from the opener “Eye No”, a full band piece), it was the man himself. Writing about Lovesexy on Then Play Long, which discusses every UK Number One album from July 1956 to April 1990, my longtime blogging compatriot Marcello Carlin suggests that its “skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm […] must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass“. I am minded to agree.

Unlike yesterday’s Odelay, whose inventiveness rarely seemed to serve a purpose much beyond demonstrating the artist’s cleverness, the inventiveness of Lovesexy – and oh, there are so many fresh ideas on display here – is always pressed into serving the song, heightening the emotions and quickening the pulse.

Yes, there’s rather a lot of God here – people have called it Prince’s gospel album – but even though I don’t really do God, I can’t help being struck by the passion that is being expressed. This is his truth, and he has chosen the height of his fame to deliver it. It cost him sales – well, that and the lack of potential hit singles, and that cover art – but perhaps staying at Number One wasn’t his goal anymore. (Although in fact, Lovesexy became his first chart-topping album in the UK.)

I was expecting to be slightly underwhelmed, and instead I got to enjoy 45 minutes of brilliance. A morning well spent, then.

Randomising the record collection #14: Beck – Odelay

#1909 – Beck – Odelay
(CD, 1996) (Discogs tracklisting)

14 beck odelay

People of my age will have become familiar with the standard cycle of retro-ism: the music of ten years ago seems stale, the music of twenty years ago feels cool, the music of thirty or more years ago has become classic. In particular, the “two decades old = cool” aesthetic has long made itself apparent in the pop music of two decades later. Thus there were Fifties influences running through Seventies pop, from T. Rex to Darts. There were Sixties influences running through Eighties pop, from the mod revival to Marc Almond & Gene Pitney. There were Seventies influences running through Nineties pop, from Erasure’s ABBA EP to French filter house. And there were Eighties influences running through Noughties pop, from electroclash to La Roux.

But here’s the thing: I’m not seeing a repetition of this cycle in the current decade. Sure, there’s dash of Eurodance here and a sprinkling of shoegaze there, but the whole notion of Nineties Cool hasn’t really taken root. (Or maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch. But I think not, eh readers?)

All of which is by way of a long preamble (yep, stalling for time again!) to Odelay: a record from exactly twenty years ago, which still feels as stale to me now as it would have done in 2006. At the time, its magpie approach to genre-plundering, while not exactly new (hello Coldcut!), did still sound ground-breaking. By playfully splicing previously disconnected styles of music together – from hip hop to garage rock via blues, soul, country, grunge and lounge – he created something that sounded absolutely like Now, just as Prince did ten years before with yesterday’s “Kiss”. But that was then, and this is now, and Beck’s Now still feels stuck in Then. Are you still following this?

So I listen to Odelay, and I catch myself thinking: this is what a Silicon Valley startup millionaire would play in the car, to remind himself of when he first felt “edgy”. And I think that’s because the passing of time has somehow neutered the record’s original boldness. Sure, this often happens, but it has happened to Beck in a more specific way – because after two intervening decades in which tribal genre barriers have collapsed, we now live in a world where anything can be spliced (or at least playlisted) with anything, quite free of friction. This has robbed Odelay of its capacity to startle. And once that’s gone, what do we have left? A whimsical collection of mildly surreal ditties about nothing much, that’s what.

To be fair to Beck, he addressed this lack-of-substance problem in subsequent releases, accruing the sort of songwriting gravitas that eventually led him to Morning Phase, 2014’s critically acclaimed comeback.  Morning Phase wasn’t for me, though – and to be fair to Odelay, there are still plenty of pleasurable moments along the way: a deftly dropped sample, a cute tune, a groove that gels.

Perhaps it needs longer to hibernate. Perhaps “Odelay-esque” is still a journalistic cliché waiting to happen. Perhaps.

Randomising the record collection #13: Prince and the Revolution – Kiss

#1068 – Prince and the Revolution – Kiss
(7-inch single, 1986) (Discogs tracklisting)

13 prince kiss

(Video link)

And so the randomiser deals me a classic: my favourite single of 1986 (I still have the piece of paper which tells me so), and a song which has never been far away since.

I haven’t played “Kiss” on 7-inch for a long time, and there’s a smidge of audible wear – but that’s to be expected, given the number of turntables which the record graced during my DJ years. For right through until 1989, when the regular DJ-ing tailed off, it was always a failsafe choice, guaranteed to sustain or revive any dancefloor. Even today, as the song entered its closing moments, I felt a small “get ready with the next track” twinge. I guess the format must have been the trigger.

Like many at the time, I’d been thrown by the psychedelic curveball of Around The World In A Day, Prince’s 1985 follow-up to his mega-successful Purple Rain soundtrack. It felt out of step with what was going on – which was ultimately to its credit, and the album has worn extremely well – but I didn’t pay it much attention, other than forming a vague hunch that Prince might be sliding towards irrelevance.

So when “Kiss” dropped, it dropped with a big, bracing SLAP, a shimmering, dazzling BANG and an almighty WALLOP, slicing straight through the over-processed cod-sophistication of 1986 pop and instantly taking ownership of the Here and the Now. Taut, lean and urgent, sexy, funny and fresh, it felt for its first few weeks like the only song that mattered. We heard it everywhere, and yet we never tired of it. Unlike so many instant-appeal, saturation-coverage hits, it never ended up feeling played-out.

(Meanwhile, on the flip side, “♥ or $” jammed around a simple chant, and faded while the band were still cooking up a storm. A well-chosen companion piece.)

Parade swiftly followed, and didn’t disappoint. The second imperial phase commenced, scaling further heights a year later. I doubt I ever DJ-ed a Prince-free set, and I doubt I’ve ever seen a “Kiss”-free Prince show since (and I’ve seen him many times). There’s never a time when it feels wrong to play “Kiss”. It sits above and beyond, teasing and twirling towards eternity in its own, unique space.

Randomising the record collection #12: Can – Ege Bamyasi

#9272 – Can – Ege Bamyasi
(CD, 1972) (Discogs tracklisting)

12- can ege

An old friend, who loves Can in a way that I seem unable to (we’ll come back to this later, I’m stalling for time), went to see them in 1973. Arriving at the venue early, he wandered into the dressing room, which had no security, and fell into conversation with the person nearest to his own age. It took him a while to get round to asking what connection this person had with the band. “Oh, I’m the singer”, was the casual reply. Later that year, Damo Suzuki – for it was he – left the band (for good) and the music industry (for ten years).

In 2002, just as Can’s classic albums were finally being added to the established rock canon, I went to see Damo Suzuki at a small venue in Nottingham, playing his first gig outside London in fifteen years. On stage for well in excess of two hours, his five-song set swung between transcendence and tedium. Towards the end of the show, while the band chundered on, he came down from the stage and hugged each audience member individually. “It was a lovely, big, warm, sincere, proper hug – if a little moist (especially in the hair department)“, I blogged.

A couple of years later, Can’s fourth album was remastered and re-released in the short-lived SACD format. K doesn’t buy many CDs – well, he hardly needs to – but he snapped this one up, mainly for in-car purposes. He still plays it in the car to this day. It’s one of those albums – like King Crimson’s Red, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans – which he keeps mostly to himself.

I’ve listened to Ege Bamyasi four times since its number came up on Friday, with steadily increasing degrees of concentration and frustration. Why the frustration? OK, perhaps it’s time to level with you; I’ve never had much of an ear for Krautrock. In theory, the genre represents a perfect triangulation of elements that should, by rights, be bang up my Straße. (Plus, fuck it, I studied German for four years at university; how much more context does a man need?) In practice, I rarely progress beyond polite appreciation, with a particular leaning towards the more metronomic, proto-dance end of the genre.

Ege Bamyasi doesn’t exactly have metronomic moments, but it does sport some tracks where the band establishes a steady, loping groove. I like these tracks best of all, particularly the two singles: “Vitamin C” and “Spoon”, the latter a Top Ten smash hit in Germany. But elsewhere, where the band spins off into far-out freak-outs, while Suzuki unintelligibly mumbles and/or squawks, I’m lost. Thus “Soup”, the longest track, parts company with me at the five-minute mark. I’d have chopped the tape there and then.

In his liner notes, David Stubbs gives me further cause for concern. “Guitarist […] Michael Karoli later complained that the sessions were frustrated by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s playing chess obsessively day in, day out. He stated that completing recording became a frantic process, with some tracks having to be recorded practically in real time and the single “Spoon” added to make up for a shortfall in material.” Stubbs does goes on to counterbalance this with fulsome praise for the band’s “process of collective telekinesis”, but it’s an observation which I can’t quite get past.

So I’m handing this one back to K, and sticking henceforth with “I Want More”, the band’s sole UK hit from 1976. In fact, I’ll almost certainly be playing “I Want More” this coming Saturday, when I’ll be DJ-ing at a new monthly gig night, just up the road. There may be other Krautrock picks, too; it’s going to be that kind of night. But they won’t be coming from Ege Bamyasi.