Grandad’s on the guest list.

It’s a strange age, 45.

Even up to a couple of years ago, taxi drivers would occasionally call me “young man”. (Usually at journey’s end, as I squiffily fumbled for change. They know what they’re doing, the little tarts.)

Last week, as I was heading into town for my lunchtime cob (local vernacular; means “bap”), some old boy blundered round a corner, rather too quickly. “Sorry, youth”, he muttered myopically, as our guts briefly barged. I can surf off such slip-ups for days.

But there again, see. On my way into the Bodega Social Club the other night, I was kindly spared the effort of walking all the way round the corner to the back of the roped off entrance walkway. As he chivalrously unhooked the front section of rope and beckoned me through, the smirking doorman bestowed this deadly rite of passage upon my stooped shoulders:

“Step this way, Grandad! You come on inside, and take the weight off your feet!”

“Grandad’s on the guest list”, I icily retorted – aiming for Imperious, but landing somewhere around Huffy. Yeah, that told him.

I always knew this would happen. Right from the age of 14, as my occasional dates with Uncle John Peel (“Britain’s Oldest Teenager!” I joked, in the letter I never wrote) became nightly, unbreakable ones, I knew I these were no mere passing generational fancies. No, these passions were for life. (For a fickle little madam, I can be surprisingly steadfast.)

The other night at the Foals gig, with 95% of the audience under the age of 23 and a significant proportion in their teens, I counted just two other middle-aged men, up on the balcony, away from the fray. “Let’s stand at the bar and look like we’re Industry!”, I muttered to Sarah as we wedged ourselves in, dizzy from the fug of Biactol, rotting trainers and two-week-old T-shirts.

I don’t attend such events to be Down Wid Da Yoot, to leech off their energy, or indeed to feel much in the way of collective connection. I go because, on a good night, I get to witness a certain freshness of spirit – an instinct, an attitude, an attack – which has yet to be dimmed by recognition, repetition, routine. By them, or by me.

And besides: I was 19 once, and it hasn’t really changed that much. (Just don’t tell them that. Best if they don’t know.)

That’s why 45 rocks. Halfway between 20 and 70, and close enough to feel you can touch it all.

Caught up in the middle, jumping through the riddle, Grandad’s on the guest list tonight!

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Stylus review of Kevin Ayers’ The Unfairground.

DAMN, that was hard work – and a reminder of why I gave up writing feature length album reviews for Stylus a long time ago. So DRAINING, darlings.

But some things simply have to be done, and promoting the new Ayers album to the indie intellectuals of America (even though it can only be ordered on import) was one of them. If it helps nudge the album a fraction closer to getting a proper distribution deal in the US, then the job will have been a good ‘un.

All that aside, the finished piece is as honest an assessment of the album as I was able to give it, grade inflation and all. (Update: link now corrected.)

(If I’d been reviewing The Unfairground in the first week of release, it would have earned a B. If I’d been reviewing it two weeks ago, it would have been a B+. But some things take time, and in any case I’m a firm supporter of the commercially unsustainable concept of only writing album reviews after you’ve lived with them for a couple of months. Which is why I don’t tend to write many album reviews!)

Status update.

I’m “between clients” this week, and hence engaged in little of overtly economic value. It’s at times like these that the office becomes more like a Day Centre than an actual office. (It gets you out and about; you can get yourself a nice cup of tea whenever you want; there are like-minded souls to chat with; and even the occasional piece of light occupational therapy, just to keep those brain cells ticking over.)

As someone whose default setting is an unspecified low-level anxiety and a vague sense of impending doom (which will somehow involve being “found out”, although I couldn’t tell you what for exactly), this comes as sweet relief indeed. Last Friday night, as my inner anxiety-butterfly did its usual fluttering about, in search of somewhere upon which to alight and tremble, I realised that for once, I had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT WHATSOEVER, EVERYTHING IN MY LIFE REALLY IS AS FINE AS CAN BE. Which was almost disconcerting, as if my security blanket (*) had been snatched away. (Yes, readers: I can even feel anxious about not feeling anxious. It’s a rare skill.)

(And in actual fact, I woke up at around 3:00 on Tuesday morning in a complete state, having just dreamt that I was in major trouble at work… for, um, typing “joy division” into my office manager’s Google. Bearing in mind that I never normally get nightmares – the worst that normally happens being a tedious, never-ending series of Public Transport Frustrations – this was clearly a case of my anxiety glands having to work the night shift.)

So, anyhow, I’m using the time to get through all manner of overdue items on my to-do list (once a certain Procrastination Quotient has been factored in, of course – why, I’m even catching up with long-ignored blogs – hello, everybody!) And the old freelance side of things gets ramped up a couple of notches in the process, of course, to the extent that I can be quite the Picky Madam: why, this very morning, I turned down a last-minute interview with the drummer from the Kaiser Chiefs, no less. (The reason being that I dislike the Kaiser Chief with a rare intensity, particularly that godawful “Ruby-Ruby-Ruby-RUBAY!” effort, which remains my most loathed song of 2007 to date.)

Life of Riley, basically. Which soon shall pass, obv. So I’m loving it while it lasts.

(Reader’s Voice: “So, does this mean a return to your earlier, funnier, me-me-me posts? We liked you when you did them!”)

(Author’s Voice: “I wouldn’t bet on it, Buster…”)

(*) Bad metaphor. Anxiety-butterflies don’t land on blankets; they land on… I dunno… toadstools or something? Sorry, I’m out of practise at this kind of thing. Anyone got any spare pop stars?

Never meet your heroes? Pshaw and phooey!

Not so very long ago, I compiled a list of “Twenty-Five Things I Want To Do Before I Die“, a list which included, in position #4, “Interview one of my heroes“.

What I had failed to do, of course, was list such heroes as I have. If truth be told, it wouldn’t have been a very long list, as I don’t really “do” hero-worship. And once made, the list would have been quickly whittled down still further: John Peel is departed, and Nelson Mandela isn’t much given to hiring PR agencies who liaise with regional print media, shall we say.

Nevertheless, and to my great surprise and deep satisfaction, the deed is done – and as it turned out, all I had to do was ask. But by crikey, it was strange timing, as only a few days after interviewing one of my sister’s heroes, I found myself on the phone with none other than the towering musical figure of my adolescence, Kevin Ayers.

I could write screeds about the experience: researching for it (by listening to the entire Ayers back catalogue, more or less in chronological order); preparing for it (my initial list of questions ran to over 2500 words, for crying out loud); stressing up over it (Ayers is a reluctant interviewee and his career has been a chequered one, with unhappy wilderness periods to navigate); actually conducting it (the poor line to Southern France causing me to hunch uncomfortably over the speaker-phone, trapped in a gawky parody of whispering in a lover’s ear, with the computer microphone as our pesky interloper); the strange dynamics of interviewing someone as a fan (rather than as someone who merely takes an interest); the equally strange dynamics of two nervous people (for very different reasons) having to construct a dialogue (with two very different approaches, as my extended gabble-fests covered for Ayers’ wary reticence); the initial post-interview euphoria swiftly yielding to excruciating self-doubt (greatly alleviated by the sweet de-brief e-mail from Ayers’ manager, which suggested that I hadn’t made quite such a gushing prat of myself after all); the subsequent transcription exercise (all 36 minutes’ worth, spread over several epic laptop-bashing sessions) slowly revealing an altogether different encounter to the one that my reflex paranoia told me I’d had…

…and finally the editing process, the key to which dawned on me late last Friday night, in an advanced state of refreshment: namely, that it needed to be a process of taking myself out of the conversation.

(Which, now that I came to think about it, is something that I’ve been doing with all of my freelance work, and hence forms a large part of the reason why I seem to have virtually stopped writing old-school me-me-me blog posts. For having focused so hard, for so long, on erasing myself, it feels rather retrograde to start painting myself back in again.)

OK, so Kevin may not have been the most voluble of interviewees – something that I was fully prepared for – but none the less, I found myself quite won over by his laidback, laconic charm, and ultimately grateful that he tolerated my nervous fanboy gabblings with such good grace and humour.

The Stylus interview can be found here, complete with a brief introduction to the man and his work.

If you’re interested in reading more or less the full transcript of our encounter (minus the worst excesses of the aforementioned fanboy gabblings), which gives much more of a sense of the conversational flow, then you can find it here.

See also:
Whatevershebringswesing: an excellent Yahoo discussion group (set up by my mate Dymbel‘s brother Percy The Ratcatcher), dedicated to all things Ayers (and Robert Wyatt, Syd Barrett, Kevin Coyne, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, etc etc.)
Kevin Ayers on Myspace, including a track from the new album and three classics from the back catalogue.
Kevin Ayers’ official website.
Why Are We Sleeping: a jaw-droppingly comprehensive online fanzine and archive.

Donny Osmond – Royal Concert Hall, Thursday October 18.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

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There comes a point in every teen idol’s career where the hits dry up and the fans drift away, leaving the former idol with some tough choices. It’s a testing time, and many – if not most – never quite recover. Donny Osmond, on the other hand, is one of the great survivors. As last night’s show demonstrated, he has evolved into a seasoned, natural performer who strikes just the right balance between unashamed nostalgia and age-appropriate maturity.

Anyone expecting a syrupy schlock-fest was in for a surprise, as Donny based much of the two-hour set around his most recent album, an intelligently selected array of classic 1970s covers. Highlights included the funky opener Will It Go Round In Circles, a polished How Long, and the astonishing show-stopper Sometimes When We Touch, whose impassioned sincerity held the audience spellbound. (1)

But of course, with most of the overwhelmingly female audience eager to roll back the years, those old teenybop hits had to be aired. Puppy Love was played for laughs (“just because we’re… pushing fifty!”) (2), One Bad Apple was preceded by a wicked Michael Jackson impersonation (3), and The Twelfth Of Never was seemingly selected from an onstage iPod.

The hysteria peaked when Donny left the stage, strode right through the stalls by perching on seat backs (4), and then emerged at the front of both upper tiers, singing all the while. Thirty-five years ago, he would have been torn to pieces. Judging by his relaxed smile, he no longer misses those days at all.

(Photo of Mister O serenading the circle by my darling sister.)


(1) I can see you frowning in disbelief from here, you know. But seriously, I mean it: D.O’s rendition of this particular song ranks as one of the most moving performances I have seen all year. There’s no way of knowing it, of course, but I suspect that he’s lived every word. During the earlier part of the show, we had been comparing Donny to Cliff Richard (5) – but here was where the two performers diverged. Cliff could never have sung this song in this way.

(2) “Every artist eventually gets a signature song. Frank Sinatra had My Way. Andy Williams has Moon River. And I get… Puppy Love.” [pulls “gee, thanks for that” face]

(3) …and an interesting piece of trivia: One Bad Apple had originally been written for the Jackson Five (who rejected it in favour of ABC), whereas Michael Jackson’s Ben was originally written for Donny Osmond, and rejected in favour of Puppy Love. (“But hey, I’d rather sing about a puppy than a rat…”)

(4) …steering a straight course right down the middle of the stalls, until he got to about two rows in front of us. At which point, he suddenly angled off and headed straight for my sister, who was obliged – obliged! – to grasp his hand and pull him across the gap between the seats. “I pulled Donny Osmond!”, she gasped. “You cannot imagine the number of strings I pulled in order to make that happen”, I joshed.

(5) Apart from a brief but worrying moment at the start of the second half, when D.O. re-appeared in a capacious blouson jacket with the collar turned up, the thick belt of his jeans spelling out DEMAND DEMOCRACY in big sparkly letters, performing his AOR-tinged 1988 comeback hit “Soldier of Love” in the sort of galumphing messianic style which evoked memories of David Hasselhoff at the Berlin Wall a year later, single-handedly saving the world from the Red Peril. But the moment passed quickly enough…

Hanging out with the Popular crowd.

It’s been a long time since I last plugged Tom Ewing’s splendid Popular blog, over at Freaky Trigger. The premise is a simple one…

The UK’s 1000+ Number One Hits since 1952, reviewed, in order, irregularly, for as long as I can bear to keep doing it. A history of pop in the shape of a chart.

…and now that the story has reached 1973/74, I have re-joined the fray in the comments box.

Here’s a Lazy Ass Sunday Afternoon Cheap Content Cut And Paste Job, containing selected excerpts from the many comments that I’ve made on the site during the past couple of months.


SLADE – “Skweeze Me Pleeze Me”

This is precisely the point at which Slade could have slid into reductionist self-parody, a trap which they sidestepped in the nick of time with My Friend Stan, but Skweeze Me Pleeze Me j-u-s-t gets away with repeating the wilfully dumb Mama/Noize stompalong formula for one last time, cheerfully giving us exactly what we wanted.

But there was always more to Slade than wilfully dumb stompalongs, as the singles leading up to, and away from, the central Mama/Jane/Noize/Skweeze run demonstrate, and I for one prefer the earlier and the later (Old New Borrowed Blue/Slade In Flame) material.

Speaking personally, Skweeze Me ruled a line in my own 11-year old life, being the last Number One before my parents announced their divorce – a bolt from the blue, which took immediate effect, and ensured that, like Slade, I could never be quite so all-embracingly dumb (”When a girl’s meaning yes she says no”, well REALLY!) and daft and uncomplicatedly gleeful again…


GARY GLITTER – “I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)”

Its appeal (or otherwise) is wholly centred around the personality of Mr. Glitter, and its only function is as a vehicle for that personality. If you bought into GG (as I most assuredly did at the time, aged 11), then you’d have bought into “Leader”.

When GG morphed into an overtly self-parodying pantomime act/Queen Mum style “national treasure” (early 1980s – late 1990s), so did “Leader” morph from flashy pop thrill to corny old showtune. And since his disgrace, all its remaining stock value has been wiped clean.

If Michael Jackson had been found guilty, then I reckon we’d still be enjoying “Billie Jean” with clear consciences – because its greatness transcends its creator, whereas “Leader” is shackled to it.


DONNY OSMOND – Young Love

“Young Love” is my favourite solo Donny hit. The pre-pubsecent songs were too strained and pleading for me, whereas Donny seems a lot more relaxed and at ease here, stretching back and enjoying the peak of his success. The clippety-cloppity Windy-Miller-style “ambling gait” is also a key factor.

Key memory: at the presenter’s suggestion, turning down the brightness control during the video clip on Top Of The Pops, so that only the waggling teeth remained.


WIZZARD – “Angel Fingers”

Yet to become a serious vinyl collector – that was still a few months way – “Angel Fingers” was a rare purchase, and sounded wonderful when played on the Bush mono gramophone with the smoked-effect perspex hood that my father bought me to cheer me up when my mother walked out on us to marry his best friend.

In the midst of such a desperately miserable year, the surging day-glo joyfulness of glam-pop was exactly what was needed to take me out of myself, and “Angel Fingers” took me further than any other single from that year. I played it incessantly and obsessively, luxuriating in its maximalist thrill, dancing with myself in the sanctuary of my room. (I had routines, and a video in my head.)

Sonically, it’s a fuller, tighter, more intricately worked upgrade on “See My Baby Jive”, with a scintillating pizzicato break and glorious french horns. Wood’s continuing Spector obsession eventually led me back to the original productions, but this was a case of the pastiche surpassing its source.


THE SIMON PARK ORCHESTRA – “Eye Level”

Matt Monro’s vocal version sticks in my memory for marking the only occasion, ever ever EVER, when my mother was moved to comment favourably on anything even vaguely resembling pop music. I remember her excitedly dashing from her kitchen into the sitting room of her new house, during one of our early visits, wiping her hands on a tea-towel as the song played on the radio, and exclaiming, with a rare glimpse of shining-eyed fervour, “I LOVE this song.”


DAVID CASSIDY – “Daydreamer”/”The Puppy Song”

Ah, Stewpot and Junior Choice – which was exhumed for an hour on Radio 2 yesterday morning (MOR-NINNG!) as part of the station’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and which I listened to with decidely mixed emotions (Stewpot himself failing to mask the essential bitter grumpiness of the Yesterday’s Man, which seems to be shared by so many former national radio DJs, but why did Two Little Boys reduce me to tears at the breakfast table?)

Looking back, they must have relied on a fairly tight central playlist, year in year out, as all of the songs I predicted got a least a partial airing: Sparky’s Magic Piano, Hello Muddah Hello Faddah, My Bruvver, Right Said Fred, The Ugly Bug Ball etc. And they must have hammered The Puppy Song at the time, hence allowing Dreamy David to hoover up the weeny-bopper market as well as the usual staring-vacantly-into-the-misty-middle-distance early-to-mid teens.

Dreamy David’s 2005 performance at the Nottingham Arena, where he headlined over David Essex, The Osmonds (sans Donny, avec Jimmy) and Les McKeown’s latest pick-up band, ranks as the most grotesquely creepy and disturbing performance I have ever witnessed. Literally hundreds of people walked out early, any lingering teenage dreams cruelly shattered (as an impromptu vox pop outside the venue confirmed).


SLADE – “Merry Xmas Everybody”

On a personal level, Christmas 1973 was our first since my parents’ divorce, and hence touched by an invisible sadness that no-one spoke about and everyone danced around, gamely trying to resuscitate the magic. (Plying my sister and myself with gifts being one of the key strategies; it was at about this point that the vinyl habit kicked off in earnest.) And so there was something immensely reassuring about “Merry Xmas Everybody”, which depicted the sort of fondly idealised holiday season which we dearly wanted to cling to – but with enough wry realism and unspun warmth for the exercise to ring true.

(Even if I couldn’t listen to the jokey line about Daddy catching Mummy kissing Santa Claus without briefly freezing in embarrassment. Most lyrics in most songs about infidelity, abdandonment or lost love in general had that effect on me.)


MUD – “Tiger Feet”

Well, this was first and foremost a party record – and in my case, I had a party to go with it. Having been featured on TOTP a couple of weeks ahead of its release date (hence the unusually high entry position, and a brief foretaste of marketing strategies to come), “Tiger Feet” was at Number One over the weekend of my 12th birthday, for which a DISCO!!! was held at home for all my and my sister’s friends and classmates. The good-looking trendy smoothie dude in the village acted as the DJ and brought over a twin turntable – my first exposure to such a wonderous device – and the nice lady from two doors down nipped out on the morning of the party and, to my rapturous delight, brought back a copy of “Tiger Feet” from the nearest record store (”Well, you can’t have a party without having the Number One, can you?”) All hyped up on Cresta, Coke and crisps, we all duly went happy-hardcore bonkers to it (along with “Dance With The Devil” and the comparatively sedate “My Coo Ca Choo” and “Roll Away The Stone”, as well as our next Number One – but, alas, no “Teenage Rampage”), the party climaxing with trendy smoothie dude playing it three times in a row. Dancefloor epiphany or wot!


SUZI QUATRO – “Devil Gate Drive”

The first half of 1974 marked my brief heterosexual phase, but my particular Dream Gal was foxy, busty, corseted and suspendered Dana Gillespie. Suzi Q was more like one of the lads to me, but the androgyny didn’t push any buttons – clearly I liked my women to be women (*embarrassed cough*).

I prefer “Devil Gate Drive” over “Can The Can”, which left me cold at the time. This one’s warmer, poppier, more of a party record. I do love the way she’s progressively coaxing and urging and commanding, and the way the track ends in a groaning sweaty call-and-response climactic mess (”Come ALIVE! Come ALIVE! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! WOOOO-urrgh!”)

With this, “Tiger Feet” and “Teenage Rampage” all in the Top 10 at the same time, this has to mark the zenith of Chinnichap, followed by a fairly swift decline (but let’s not forget Arrows’ “A Touch Too Much” a few months later, whose rampant sexiness must have been instrumental in steering me away from the bosomy charms of La Gillespie, and back onto my true path).

Filial pride also commands me to mention that my sister won a local “Stars In Their Eyes” competition last Christmas, performing this very song.

And finally, in the Misheard Lyrics department, I initially thought that Suzi Q was singing “down in Dimbleby, down in Dimbleby, down in Dimbleby Drive”. That’s Medium Wave for you…

The welcome return of Kevin Ayers.

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Long-time readers of this blog will already know of the special place in my heart that is reserved for the music of Kevin Ayers, whose work I have been consistently enjoying over the past 32 years – even though he hasn’t actually released any original new material for the past 15 of those years.

Until now, that is. The expression “stunning return to form” is possibly the most over-used and debased in all of popular music journalism (particularly with reference to every successive release by Prince since, ooh, Diamonds and Pearls or thereabouts), but Ayers’ sparkling new comeback album The Unfairground, if not exactly a “stunning” return (for “stunning” is not really his stock in trade), is certainly delightful, welcome, and wholly unexpected. Having lived with the album for nearly a month now, it is also, in my sober assessment, easily his best work since Yes, We Have No Mananas in 1976 – and that’s me being cautious.

What makes The Unfairground succeed where other latter-day releases have fallen short is this: for once, Ayers doesn’t sound as if he has let the hired hands walk all over him. As with the best of his 1970s solo work, he is once again surrounded by a gifted bunch of collaborators, who sound in tune with his ethos and both willing and able to do his songs the justice which they deserve. This sense of collaboration, commitment and sheer enjoyment permeates the whole album.

And what collaborators! Here we will find old friends such as Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) and the long-lost Bridget St. John working alongside younger admirers such as Euros Childs (whom I saw last night – see below), Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), Candie Payne, and members of Architecture In Helsinki, Ladybug Transistor, Of Montreal, Noonday Underground, Trashcan Sinatras and others.

Here’s a track from the new album (featuring Euros Childs, Norman Blake and Bridget St. John on backing vocals, along with the string section from the Tucson Philharmonia), which was sent to me by Kevin’s manager (Tim Shepard, who also drew the cover art pictured above) for the express purpose of making it available on this blog. Hope you like it.

Walk on Water – Kevin Ayers.
(Order The Unfairground from Amazon UK / Amazon US)