Sometimes i wake up early in the morning, to play my con-con-congo…

As it has been a quiet week, I have seized the opportunity to dive headlong into the Exciting New Sound that the kids are calling “funky house”. It’s a little confusing, as the term has been around since the late 1990s – but this stuff is far removed from the shiny-shirted, disco-sampling (and fairly clapped out) genre that periodically surfaces on Hed Kandi compilations. And goodness me, I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!

The music sounds to me like an update on the UK garage sound of 1999/2000 – but with a more propulsive edge to the rhythms, and a percussive feel that bears some comparison to soca. Some of it is quite song-based and girly, while at the other edge of the spectrum the feel is dirtier, rawer, and distinctly butcher. Predictably, it’s the girly, song-based stuff which grabs me most of all – most notably the genre’s cheesiest offering to date, “Bongo Jam” by Crazy Cousinz ft. Calista, which I have been playing five or six times a day. This SO has to be a massive hit single.

Indeed, Crazy Cousinz are quite the production team du jour – as evidenced by their gorgeous remix of Paleface ft. Kyla’s “Do You Mind”, which just grows and grows. Both of these tunes can be found on a handy 26-minute mix from DJ Cable, which serves as an ideal introduction to the genre. To this end, I’d also recommend Tim Finney’s impeccably learned overview of the scene, as blogged at Idolator three months ago.

All of this funkiness has led me to investigating the current playlist at BBC 1Xtra, which reveals an absolute wealth of riches, signalling to me (and better late than never) that so-called “urban” music is currently enjoying a significant upswing, after a couple of years of stagnation. YouTube links for virtually the entire playlist can be found here. I particularly recommend Jazmine Sullivan’s raw, yearning, reggae-tinged “Need U Bad”, Perempay’s sultry, smoking “In The Air”, the floaty, piano-housey “Falling Again” from Wookie ft Ny, and the more classically soulful “LoveLost” from the long-lost Shola Ama. Ooh, you’ll have hours of fun!

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Now, that’s what I call a Major Blogging Project…

Respect is due to the remarkable Marcello Carlin, for embarking on a marathon project that will see him review every UK Number One album from 1956 to the present day. Meanwhile, his wife Lena has started reviewing all the singles which reached Number Two (but no higher) on the British charts. Good luck to them both, and I’ll be following both projects avidly over the coming weeks/months/years/decades.

Priorities.

Along with three randoms from The Other Much Larger Company In The Building, I got trapped in the lift this morning. Tenth floor. Doors not-quite closed; gap of maybe a finger’s width.

Random #1 (short, female) tried to open the doors and failed. As did Random #2 (slim, male).

There’s a reason why I don’t entangle myself with practical things, and I wasn’t about to put it to the test. Assuming a managerial role, I suggested ringing security, using the number displayed above the lift buttons. Random #2 got on the case. Good man.

In large office blocks such as ours, safety procedures have to be precisely defined, and strictly adhered to. In this case, Stage Number One of the “Employees Trapped In Lift” scenario turned out to be…

…taking the first and last names of each employee, checking for correct spellings where necessary.

Well, it would be awful if they cocked up the headstones. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

At this point, the previously silent Random #3 (burly, male) stepped forward, casually prised the doors open, and calmly stepped out.

It was either that or give his name out. You can only push a bloke so far.

“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” – thoughts left elsewhere.

(I first parked these thoughts in the comments box at Freaky Trigger’s Popular, where you’ll find me hanging out on an increasingly regular basis. What follows is an amalgamated and slightly tidied-up version.)

hitmefront

In a way, that wonderful Barney Bubbles pic sleeve is the first clue: that the ground is fundamentally shifting, that certain key characteristics of chart pop are mutating, and that a whole new vista of as yet untapped possibilities are opening up. For just as we prepare to bid farewell to those cheerfully corny NUMMER EINS TIP-TOP SUPER-HIT IN GROSSBRITANNIEN! import sleeves at the top of each entry, so we prepare to welcome – for better and for worse – an altogether more visual, more design-led, more themed approach to the pop single.

Forget the false dawn of “Rat Trap”; for me, the success of “Rhythm Stick” was a sign that Our Side were indeed taking over. As such, it marked a clear staging post, heralding the true start of not only my all-time favourite year for pop, but also the start of a whole new Golden Age, both for pop in general (unquestionably matching the glories of 1964-67 and 1972-74), and for me personally. For from this point on, and for several years to come, I felt that that much of the best pop was capable of precisely representing me – my generation, my outlook, my emotions, my concerns – and that I was a fully-fledged member of its natural constituency.

Simultaneously with this glorious upswing in the charts – an upswing which had been heavily hinted at during 1978, and which was now starting to bear full fruit – a similarly major upswing started to take place in my personal life. Simply put, I began to get my shit together: gaining confidence, making friends, having adventures, “re-inventing” myself, as I dubbed it then and still view it now. 1979 was a year of fun, friendship, excitement and experimentation; of major milestones; of massive changes. I started the year as a nervous, fearful, virtually friendless, deeply immature 16-year old schoolboy; I ended it on the threshold of stepping out into the real world, beyond the cloistered confines of my Cambridge boarding school, making independent choices, earning a real wage, tearing up the past and beginning an unguesssable new chapter.

A month or so earlier, with “Rhythm Stick” still climbing the charts, I saw Ian and the Blockheads in North London (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, was it?), supported by Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, Humphrey Ocean & the Hardy Annuals, and a surrealist puppet show. Discounting various school bands, it was only my third gig – and coming after the disappointments of the first two (including being stuck behind a concrete pillar in the back corner of Earls Court for Bowie’s Stage tour, an experience which put me off arena gigs for the next decade), the Blockheads’ magnificent two and a half hour set came as a revelation. To this day, and even allowing for the novelty of the experience at the time, I have rarely heard any band play so wonderfully well together (drummer Charley Charles particularly standing out in my memory). And what excitement – again rarely matched since – to hear my favourite single in the charts being played while it was still actually in the charts!

It was partially the knowledge of Dury’s declining health that coaxed me into seeing him and the Blockheads a second time, towards the end of the 1990s – and what a show that was, with the irrepressible Norman Watt-Roy vying with Ian as the true star.

I must also get around to revisiting Dury’s 1979 Do It Yourself album. It didn’t contain any singles – which although admirable, failed to prolong its shelf life – and despite wonderful tracks such as “Sink My Boats”, there couldn’t help but be a sense of general anti-climax after the glories of New Boots. Undaunted, the band bounced back with “Reasons To Be Cheerful”: the first ever rap hit anywhere, and given Chaz Jankel’s musical connections, presumably made in the knowledge of the newly emergent genre…?

hitmeback

However, I’m still struggling to articulate what it is about “Hit Me” that affects me so much as a piece of music, rather than for what it represents in the wider context of chart pop. And I think it’s primarily to do with what I perceive as the almost dream-like quality of its opening, dominant piano/bass-led riff, coupled with the almost mythical travelogue of the verses. For me, the chorus is where “everybody else” is invited in for a chirpy, cheeky Cockney singalong, as if that was what the song was all about – but for me it’s almost a smokescreen, an entryist device which allows the rest of the track to exist. And it’s within the restlessly undulating contours of the rest of the track that I reside as a listener, shifting over periodically to admit the chorus’s house-guests.

Dream-like? Un-equipped to play vinyl in my school study, I had this on one side of a home-made C90, which I used to play over and over again as I drifted off to sleep, inventing videos that eventually turned into dreams. And so there’s something here which touches that half-asleep/half-awake state of consciousness, in a way that still cuts deep – allowing me to visualise the music almost as a physical space, which part of me still inhabits. (If that doesn’t sound too pretentious.)

Postscript: I had experienced a similar effect with Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” a few months earlier, albeit as a one-off moment. The first time I heard the track was on FM radio one morning, as I emerged from sleep into wakefulness, and so the sparse, haunting oddness of the arrangement – the syn-drums, the rising and falling string shimmers – first took root in my sub-consciousness as I dreamt. I woke up with the strangest sense of wonder at what I literally perceived as its other-worldly quality, and it’s a sense of wonder that I’ve never quite lost over the years.

HELP HELP HELP I am trapped inside a gay wedding and can only get out by WRITING about it CURSES CURSES.

I appear to have been stuck on the top deck of a LOVE BUS for the past, er, five days. Albeit in a hot pink-n-grey suit, with nice hair, being surreptitiously ogled at by a thoeretical maximum of ONE red-eyed formerly-attitude boy.

It is time to write myself down OFF THE BUS, and into the nice neighbourhood bar/café/restaurant, a couple of blocks east of Clapham Common, which J and M have themed to perfection with all manner of creatively distressed foliage, miniature nosegays stuffed into objéts trouvées from their personal collection, hand-calligraphed name cards etc etc. J works in top-end catering; M organises A-list fund-raisers for the arts; and so frankly, I would have expected nothing less. This is What They Do, and so they have plied their crafts with characteristic dexterity, i.e. not by going totally overboard and foofing everything up to buggery and beyond, but instead by retaining that most crucial of elements: Informal Homespun Charm.

The seating plan is a work of socially engineered genius. I have been placed with a former punk rocker from Edinburgh (with whom I swiftly bond over The Slits, The Pop Group and John Cooper Clarke), a former acid houser (ditto re. Ten City, and ohmigod he was at the SECOND EVER Shoom in late 87, these things IMPRESS ME), a feisty mum (off the leash and on the lash), and a couple of shaven-headed habitués of the Two Brewers. Slightly further down the table, K has been similarly garlanded with diversity.

The vibe is classic reception, with a gay twist. There is a Top Table, heading up the U-shape of the room; there is a big fancy f**k-off cake to cut on camera; and there are speeches. M’s brother and J’s brother represent the families; her from the auction house that I went to Duckie with (does anyone still remember the string of beads that emerged from the lady’s hoo-hah?) represents the friends; and both M and J make speeches of their own (M even eliciting demure blushes from me and K, by name-checking us for being there from the beginning).

J concludes his speech by reciting “something I heard on Radio Four the other week”. To the surprise and delight of both myself and the former punk rocker from Edinburgh, it turns out to be a John Cooper Clarke classic.

I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
Breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina (*)
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
Let me be your coffee pot… (read more)

(*)“What, like some sort of clapped out old banger?”, I quipped, many hours later.

The tables are cleared, the evening guests arrive (oh, it’s still Friday, yay for post-work early doors), the DJ sets up, and I shift my base of operations to the capacious street-facing verandah, where I loosely remain for the next five hours or so. A clubland celebrity shows up for a while, and I catch myself doing that silly smiling-in-delighted-recognition thing, before remembering that we don’t actually know each other and I’m effectively just gurning at a stranger.

Gratifyingly, the hired DJ’s playlist overlaps significantly with my own unused (BUT THAT’S ALL RIGHT NO REALLY HONESTLY IT IS) Ultimate Civil Partnership Party 2008 triple mix. Dancing ensues, heroically undimmed by the running Battle Of The Volume Knob that takes place between the DJ and the head barman as the evening progresses. “Valerie” and the new Madonna go down well, as does “I Love To Love” and “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head“. Being placed directly between the bar and the verandah, the wooden dancefloor gets a regular soaking as drinkers and dancers collide, but it all adds atmosphere dunnit…

Eleven thirty would have been a sensible time to call it a night, but some of us aren’t feeling sensible. Back to the hotel until the bar shuts – then somehow four of us end up in a hired mini-cab, travelling all the way to the top of the common: a two minute journey for which muggins here is stiffed for ten quid. (And then the driver has the gall to give me his bloody BUSINESS CARD, like I’m THIS GULLIBLE on a REGULAR BASIS.)

We’re just going where we’re told, by the quite bogglingly drunk American lady who assures us that we’ll love this place, she used to work here, she knows everybody, we won’t have to pay, yadda yadda yadda.

The tiny thrill of swishing past the velvet rope while lesser souls beg and plead on the pavement is dissipated within seconds, as we force our way through the near-solid throng of TOTAL AND UTTER F**KING W@NKERS within, in search of a mythical Quiet Spot near the bar. Grim, hatchet-faced, sharp elbowed, hideously dressed sub-sub-sub-Z-list wannabes predominate, all thinking they’re f**king IT for gaining admittance to this vile, deafening, funky-house-from-hell-hole.

All of two minutes later, we are joined by a couple of other reception stragglers from the hotel, who have done the sensible thing and walked up. There is an unspoken collective resolve to make the best of the situation – why, I even have a little dance – but K’s nerve cracks halfway down his bottled beer, and suddenly I’m pulling him back through the w@nker-cluster before the panic attack has a chance to kick in.

We’re halfway back to the hotel when J calls. He’s not ready for bed yet, and do we fancy a quick one at the Brewers?

Salvaged at the, ooh let’s see, thirteenth hour, the night rolls on.

More of that civil partnership ceremony, then. (Part 2, if you’re counting.)

Now, where was I?

Ah yes. On Clapham Common, looking hot in a suit (comparatively), being distantly ogled at by an attitude boy (arguably), while waiting to board a be-ribboned Routemaster. Hell, I’ve been in worse places on a Friday lunchtime…

Since being de-commissioned, it would seem that your classic Routemaster has already become something of a head-turner. Oh, the looks we got! And toots too, if you please! It can’t just have been the suits…

Upon arrival in Brixton, our designated Head of Party led us briskly round the corner from Lambeth Town Hall, and right up to the side of The Fridge: a crumbling former theatre turned nightclub, which used to host the legendary Love Muscle on Saturday nights. What, were J and M to be hitched by top 1990s hostess “Mama” Yvette on the main stage (“Oh my God I caaaan’t belieeeeve it…”), amidst a bevy of galumphing, funkless strippers (“Ooh, look at thaaaat one…”), to the strains of “Santa Maria” and “He’s On The Phone“? No, it was just our Head of Party on homing pigeon auto-pilot, leading us into the wrong entrance. About turn, back around the corner…

…and into the ante-chamber, where champagne, canapes and grooms awaited us, M’s electric blue patent leather shoes even extracting the best from the municipal turquoise carpet. He always did have a good eye for tricky detail.

Taking our seats in the council chamber, the strains of Grace Jones piping us in, we were tickled to find ourselves faced with individual voting consoles.

“If you know of any just cause or impediment…”

“…please press the red button now.”

It’s the joke which had to be made.

Vows were recited and rings were exchanged: M taking possession of J’s late father’s wedding ring, with the full blessing of J’s family. (I nearly lost it completely at this point.) More music: Harry Connick Junior during the signing, and Pink Martini as we filed out for photos on the stairs. Back aboard THE LOVE BUS, and off to…

That civil partnership ceremony, then. (Part 1)

I was going to leave this one more day – but since K is downstairs watching some potentially grisly programme about Pooches In Peril (as it could be professionally necessary for him to have an opinion about it tomorrow), I find myself back upstairs in the study, glass of chilled Chiroubles to my right, Ian Dury’s 1979 Do It Yourself album downloading in the background, with forty-five minutes or so to bash something out on the subject of last Friday’s civil partnership ceremony.


It was fascinating to compare our friends J & M’s approach to the day – basically a full-scale gay wedding, attended by a full compliment of relatives/friends/colleagues, followed by a sit-down meal, speeches and an evening party – with our own brutally pared-down approach from two years ago. After all, there once was a time when I might have scoffed at what I perceived as an awkward aping of an institution which, as far as I was concerned, the hetties were welcome to keep. (Residual internalised homophobia? Yeah, maybe in part. Who knows. Bit complicated. Let’s not.)

Faced with the reality – two old and dear friends, pledging themselves publicly to the people closest to them, with utter sincerity and no small measure of emotion – all lingering trace elements of doubt melted away for good. Why, even the hard-bitten attitude boys in the corner were bawling their eyes out in the council chamber of Lambeth Town Hall, along with the mothers and cousins and nieces – and even the nice woman who got up to read the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, whose sharp, convulsed sobs somehow fell in line with the metre, further accentuating the poet’s message.

Had we done the right thing ourselves, K and I wondered, briefly. Oh, but remember: we weren’t to know about the tectonic shifts that were to engulf us within a month of our ceremony (or rather the witnessed signing of a form, followed by a quick drink, a meal for ten and a week in the Maldives), as the sudden loss of K’s beautiful sister re-mapped his entire relationship with his family. Something which J and M have each come to know only too well for themselves over the past couple of years, as similar forced re-mapping exercises have brought them closer than ever to their own clans.

So, yes: maybe if it were now, we’d be more inclined towards the traditionally ceremonial. But there’s no “if” in life, as my dear old Granny used to say, approvingly quoting my late cousin Millicent, sage of the family.


We had begun the wedding weekend the night before at J and M’s place in Clapham: blinging it up on Cristal and Tiffanys cupcakes, just the four of us. K and I had been there right from the start, you see: offering the boys a bed for the weekend, the night after they copped off in some London bar and decided to elope for a couple of days, leaving respective ill-matched short-term boyfriends behind as they hopped on a train to the East Midlands. Exactly ten years ago next weekend, in fact.

“We feel like we’ve been with you every step of the way”, I wrote on the card. “Except for the having sex with each other bit, and the moving in together bit, and the having jobs in London bit…”

The following morning was spent at leisure at the Windmill on Clapham Common, where a discounted block booking had been arranged: lingering over a crap breakfast (the only slight downside to an otherwise spot-on stay), re-ironing the shirts, twiddling around with accessories – and in my case, experimenting with a hair dryer after a long lay-off. (Major revelation. Blow dries give sheen, body and bounce, and I’d do well to remember it now that the cut is a little longer.)

Stepping out of the room – bouffed coiff, lenses in for once, booted and suited in that hot Paul Smith number with the dusky pink chalk stripe that I bought in Manchester for the funeral – I felt more attractive than I had done in months. Over by the specially hired Routemaster, waiting on the Common with the tasteful white ribbon, I could swear that one of the attitude boys was surreptitiously eyeing me. From a distance, at least. Forty-six, still look hot in a suit, not bad!